Tuesday, December 25, 2012

2012 Safari Trip - Ramblings

Getting Ready

This is one of the very few trips that I get stressed out about packing the right things for the trip.  Since we are doing the Kilimanjaro climb as well as for the safari, I had to pack for my daughters to do a successful climb and to make sure that I don't forget anything or pack more than needed.  My daughters do not hike much (specially winter hiking) so I don't have a lot of winter clothing needed for the trek.  I was reaching out to my buddies from the ASHA climbing group for down jackets, mittens, etc.  I had collected all of the things that are listed in the checklist for the climb given by the tour operator.  My worries were about packing the right stuff needed for the trek and not having the right stuff (e.g. shoes, jackets) being an excuse for not summiting.  Also, our schedule was so tight, there's no time to buy anything in Arusha if I missed any (we reached Arusha @2 pm and started the climb the next day @8 am).  I was little worried about the hydration pack and limited number of water bottles that we had, I had only one Camel pack 3.0L and 2 one liter water bottles.   Considering the trekking time on the last day of 12+ hrs, I decided to get a few more bottles and another camel pack so that each one of us will have at least 3.0L of water on the summit day.  I bought these at the night before leaving.

Diamox Dilemma

The Sunday before the flight while packing the medicines I noticed that the Diamox (altitude medicine) prescribed for my kids was 4 times stronger than what was prescribed for me.  Which made wonder whether my doctor was correct or my daughter's doctor was correct.  Looking at the web and some more research, figured out that the prescription for my daughters were overdone, so called their clinic to talk to the doctor.  When the doctor returned the call, the doctor on the call mentioned that it's recommended to have about 250 mg to 1000 mg a day so the doctor prescribed 1000 mg/day for my kids.  Told him what I had found on line and recommendation from my other climbing buddies and asked to reduced the dosage.  So he sent the prescription to Rite Aid for 500 mg/day (250 mg twice a day).  Didn't want to argue with him and decided to give only half of 250 mg pill for each time.  The pharmacist at the Rite Aid, Debby, was very kind to cancel my previous prescription and to issue the new prescription on time (which by the way saved about $150).

The other things were that my yellow fever card had a wrong date of birth filled out by the travel clinic and quality of our rain jackets.  I had given the card to the clinic to take care of the date of birth issue and borrowed a different rain jacket from a friend.  These small things added to the list of other small things and made my life stressful however well I planed ;-)


Placed a plastic garbage bag inside the backpack for water proofing and packed the things that I needed for the Kili trek separately from the safari.  Having a bunch of gloves, jackets and winter stuff filled up the backpack quickly.  Bought some chocolate candies to give out to the kids in Africa but decided not to take them: one lack of space and the second thing is that Shabina didn't want to give them unhealthy food.  There's no reason for me to pack everything in the garbage bag at that point, I could have waited 'til the day before the climb day.  Because I had to take out everything to show the guide what I was taking.  

I was hoping that I could check-in only the bag that I packed with creams and liquids but British Airways doesn't allow the  backpacks as hand luggage, so I had to check in all of the backpacks.  I always try not to check-in the backpacks because I don't trust the airlines to deliver the bags on time and I don't want to be waiting for the bags instead of continuing with the journey.  Given the current condition, to have peace of mind, I decided to check in the bags only 'til London instead of to Nairobi and decided to store them in the airport before visiting my friend.

Stopover in London

Going to Croydon to meet one of my close friends is the highlight of this trip, more excited to see her family than climbing Kili.  Last time I saw Nandhini and Suresh was 25 years ago before they got married and after 25 years I briefly talked to her before leaving Seattle.  "No distance of place or lapse of time can lessen the friendship of those who are thoroughly persuaded of each other's worth."


Landed in London on time and moved a bunch of heavy stuff from the backpacks to one pack to leave with the storage locker area.  Didn't want to spend a lot of money storing the bags in the locker and didn't mind carrying lighter bags.  By the time, I left the bag in the locker area to leave for the shuttle to catch the bus to Croydon, where my friend lives, it's 1pm.  Confused about which shuttle to take because all of them looked like regular metro buses.  I was told that there's no need to buy ticket to go where we needed to go and we needed to take the regular metros to our stop to get another bus.  This is completely different from what we do to the tourists at USA by asking them to pay for luggage carts at the airport and nothing free once you land in USA ;-)  Don't understand how we are inconsiderate to the person landing at the international terminal expecting them to have US dollars to pay for the luggage carts where these are free in most of the airports (even in the developing countries) ;-(  


When we got down at the East Croydon bus stop, I could spot her standing about 75 feet away without any difficulty while I find it difficult to recognize my co-workers after a couple of year not seeing them ;-).  It is amazing how you start where you left off with the friends however long after even if there is no communications, we were talking about the things that happened in our lives.  My daughters were getting along well with her younger son (Sid).  We were teasing and joking around with him 'til his brother Kaushik joined and started teasing Kaushik.  After enjoying fresh dosas and sambar vada for the evening snack, the memory lane discussions continued while Sharada/Shabina went to take a nap.  I was very glad to stop over in London and meet with her family, and it made my list of people that I wanted to meet this year complete, the other friends who I wanted to meet were Kasi and Murugan from Guindy College.

We went to pick up Suresh, from the train station around 7 pm and it's been raining/cold like Seattle.  Suresh and I were discussing about who's where in our College of Engineering Guindy friends and shared how different characters ended up in different places.  It's sad to hear about couple of our friends who are no longer with us and these are the guys whom you would think that they'd live longer.  Decided to go to bed around 11 pm and planed to wake at 5 am to catch the 6 am bus to the airport.

Leaving London

The security check at the London was very quick and efficient, and we couldn't take our backpacks as hand luggage so checked them in and prayed that they would make it to Nairobi in the same flight.  The security at the London airport was pretty smooth but they took away my (sealed) cough syrup because it was more than 120ml which the US security allowed me to carry..;-(  I was planning to use that as sleeping medicine but now gone.  


Nairobi Arrival

The immigration at the Nairobi airport was pretty quick and efficient.  Since we already arranged for cab pickup from Comfort Hotel, there's no hassle in getting to the hotel on time for good night sleep.  The only thing that I was worried about was that the luggage not making on time knowing of the British Airlines track record.  But luckily, we had our luggage waiting and checked in to the hotel before 11 pm.  

Comfort Inn Hotel - Nairobi

The road from the airport to the city was very good and there's no hotels any where closer to the airport.  As we got closer to the city, the roads were narrower and at that time there's not much traffic on the road.  We felt very safe riding from the airport to the hotel.  The hotel is located in center of the town in a busy area and the area was lively even at 11 pm.  There's a security guard at the entrance of the hotel with metal detector and I was not sure whether the metal detector worked or not.  I thought that being someone at the entrance and allowing only the guests into the hotel was good enough for me.  We have requested for the triple size bedroom for our stay but all of the rooms with the 3 beds were sold out, so the receptionist, Synthia, gave us an apartment style room which was really nice.  Synthia was very helpful with getting the room as well as advising about getting the shuttle the next day morning.  

The room was clean and spacious.  Since the hotel was in the center of the city, there's a lot of road noise early in the morning.  Anyway, we had to get ready by 730 AM to catch our shuttle, the road noise helped us get out of the bed quickly to enjoy the breakfast at the hotel more relaxingly.  Packed a few bottles of water and juice for the shuttle ride.


The Rainbow shuttle driver came over to the hotel to get us around 730 AM and the 18 seat shuttle van (not really a bus) was just 2 minutes away from the hotel.  The driver told us that the shuttle van is operated by Basecamp Tanzania too.  All of our luggage were secured on the top of the van and we were able to get comfortable seats at the front of the van.  Having our luggage on the top of the van covered with tarp was good and realized that there is no reason carry the bag around the immigration counters ;-)  It looks like most of the shuttles leave from that area and a bunch of vendors selling some souvenirs.  The vendors were not harassing anyone and they were pretty easy to deal with.  I wish that I bought a few Kenyan stuff there but didn't want to change my dollar bills. 

Nairobi to Arusha

The road from Nairobi to Arusha was really good and no issues of pot holes or construction or any bad section.  While deciding how much money to take for the trip, I completely forgot about the money that I needed to take for the Kenyan and Tanzanian visa.  Luckily, the dollars that I had with me for tips to the guide/porters helped to cover the cost of the visa after some trouble with the agent at the entry at Tanzania.  
The USA citizens can only get multiple entry visas and they cost $100 per person.  The immigration agent at Tanzania entry point was asking for new dollar bills that were printed after year 2006 to issue the visa.  But all I had was older bills and they don't accept  either travelers checks or Tanzanian Shillings.  After discussing among themselves for a few minutes, he accepted the money and delivered the visa.    The overall immigration and crossing border was smooth and took less than 15 minutes.  We were looking for the view of Kilimanjaro but there's was no sight of it because of the clouds but we could see Mt. Meru.  The overall trip from Nairobi to Arusha took about 5 hours and we had to wait in the bus stop for some other car to drop us in the hotel.  After an hour, we were dropped in the Ilboru Safari Lodge for our stay before the climb.

Departure Plan

Arusha to Home Plan

I was using British Airlines Avios points, free companion ticket to fly for this trip and I could not get the mileage ticket for the third ticket.  So Shabina and I were using the Avios points to fly to Nairobi and return from Dar Es Salaam while for my elder daughter, Sharada, I bought the round trip ticket from Seattle to Nairobi, so on our return trip, we were flying separately.  This was done to save to money and I had figured out that travelling from Arusha to Nairobi airport during the daytime and alone shouldn't be a problem.  But I got harassed and advised by a whole bunch of people (who care for us) how I was allowing a girl to travel alone from Tanzania to Nairobi alone.  My response to them was if she could vote to elect the president for the most powerful country in the world, she must be responsible & capable to travel alone ;-)  

Why Shuttle To Nairobi

After researching about the air tickets from Arusha/Kilimanjaro to Nairobi and flight reliability, I decided to book the shuttle to Nairobi for Sharada.  The logic was that even if the shuttle breaks down, she'll be able to reach the airport on time to catch her flight on time (there's about 5 hour allowance between the estimated shuttle arrival time and flight check in time).  But I couldn't say the same about the flight reliability and the shuttle trip is not bad at all.  Guessing that there'd be other travelers, thought it would be safe.  Also, got the Tanzanian SIM card for her phone to keep us updated at main points, e.g. immigration points, arriving at the airport, etc.  The decision to make her to take the shuttle was one of the smart decisions and I realized it when we (Shabina and I) tried to reach Dar Es Salaam with the Fly540 flight. 

Plan for Dar

Most of the shuttles to Dar Es Salaam take more than 8 hours, they leave Arusha in the morning 8 am reaches Dar Es Salaam after 5 pm, so I decided to take my chances with the flight.  So bought the tickets using the online travel agency Vayama in the Fly540 airlines to fly from Kilimanjaro to Dar Es Salaam.  Couple of times before I left for Tanzania, I got emails from Vayama advising me about schedule changes stating the flight leaves a couple of hours earlier.  The plan was to take the 2 pm flight from Kilimanjaro and arrive Dar Es Salaam at 4 pm to meet the family friend of ours, and go for shopping there.

Departure From Arusha

Lake Manyara to Arusha

We were initially planning to go for the morning drive to the Lake Manyara from our camp but given up the idea because of the vehicle condition as well as the confusion created by the tour operator.    Our jeep was having starter problem, needed manual push for the vehicle to start and the guide didn't know that we paid for the morning drive.  We had already been to the Lake Manyara the previous day and also I didn't' want to get delayed going to the airport, so it worked in our favor and asked the tour operator to pay back the park fees.  Since we left our camp around 8 am and reached the Basecamp Tanzania offices to meet with Achmed around 1015 am.  Briefly gave him our feedback about the safari and collected $100 for the park fee, we left to collect the bags from the hotel.  Achmed asked me not to worry about Sharada's trip to the airport in the shuttle and he advised that the shuttle driver would come to pick her up from the hotel.  During the mid-day, the traffic was pretty bad in the city but nothing compared to the way people drive in India ;-), drivers were still following the rules.

Hotel Confusion

I was assuming that the shuttle driver would come to pick up Sharada at the Ilboru Safari Lodge and when the driver was taking a different side road, asked him where he was going.  He mentioned that he's going to a different hotel and indicated that the shuttle would come there to pick Sharada up.  Then I had to remind him about the need to pick up the left luggage from the Ilboru Safari Lodge.  Turning around, getting around the traffic to go to the Ilboru Safari Lodge and going back to the Oasis Lodge from where the shuttle would pick Sharada up, added additional 30 minutes.  Gave the cell phone to Sharada and asked her to call our family friend, Partha, in Dar Es Salaam from the major points.  Sharada was confident that she could manage to get to Seattle without any problem.

Fly540 Nightmare

We were getting nervous about reaching the Kilimanjaro airport on time to catch our flight to Dar Es Salaam.  The drive from Arusha to the Kilimanjaro airport took little more than an hour and we reached the Kilimanjaro airport around 1230 pm.  When we entered the airport, the security checked our passport/tickets and told us that some one will come to talk to us about our flight.   Initially, I thought that the flight was delayed, but when I checked the departure screen there's no sign of Fly540 flight at all, more than that there's no counter or sign of Fly540 airline.  I totally freaked out and started running around asking about the flight, and no one seems to have an idea about it.
There's a family of seven from Sweden was also booked in the same flight, wondering what to do.  After asking around a few more people and Precision Air representatives, we found out that the FastJet is a sister company of Fly540 and they may be able to help us.  But their office was closed and there's no sign of anybody at the airport.  The security personal pitied me after seeing me running around in and out of the airport, and gave the phone number for the FastJet local contact.  When I called the FastJet person, after checking the confirmation number for my flight, answered that the confirmation number is not for his flight and he would be in the airport within 45 minutes to resolve any of the issues (when he said that, the time was 130pm).  While waiting for the FastJet person to show up at the airport, the Swedish and I were exploring different possibilities to get to Dar Es Salaam.  

Options To Reach Dar

The options that we had were: 
  • Arrange a charter flight (cost is $5000)
  • Buy new tickets from Precision Air to get to Dar (cost is $218/person) 
  • Book a private taxi to go to Dar (cost is $500).  
There were few guys trying to arrange for the charter for us and for the Swedish family that we refused.  There were only 3 seats available in the Precision Air flight @8 pm and all other flights were full per the Precision Air agent.  After waiting until 245 pm, after calling the FastJet agent a number of times, he finally answered that he'd be in the airport within 15 minutes.  After 3 pm, the Swedish family lost hope and arranged a private taxi to go to Dar Es Salaam.  They didn't have any space to accommodate two of us and also, I didn't want to take the risk of traveling at night in a private taxi.  While waiting for the FastJet person, called my tour operator to see whether he could do anything, he replied a few minutes later saying that on Saturdays all of the travel agencies will close at noon so he couldn't help.  

Cash is King

I was ready to buy the tickets in the Precision Air but they were not ready to accept either credit card or travelers checks, and only accepting cash.  To make things worse, the only ATM machine in the Kilimanjaro airport was not working and the money changer in the airport was ready to pay only 75% of the dollar value for my travelers checks.  Even if I en-cashed all my travelers checks, I wouldn't have enough cash to pay for my ticket.  I was ready to kick somebody's butt at that point, it's 4 pm and there's no sign of the FastJet person. 

Waiting Game

I was getting really worried how I was going to reach Dar Es Salaam to catch my flight at 9 am the next day morning.  I wanted to give a chance to the FastJet person to arrive before 5pm and if not, ready to take the taxi to go to Dar.   I was thinking that there's not much difference traveling at 11 pm or 1 am in the private taxi and it would be of the same risk.  Shabina was sitting inside the airport wondering what the heck was going on and I briefly told her that I was waiting for someone to get tickets for the next flight (to avoid unnecessary questions from her as well as worrying her).  Partha updated me of Sharada's safe crossing of the Kenyan immigration and advised me to get a new ticket to come to Dar Es Salaam.

Unorganized and Slow FastJet

Finally, the FastJet person showed up around 415 pm and there were two other families waiting for him to take care of.  Except me, every one was going to Zanzibar and you can understand the frustration from everyone of us.  This FastJet agent was totally unorganized and working off from a piece of paper with our names.  He was trying to take care of a family of four from Holland before me, but unfortunately he had only three people's name in the sheet he had and telling the family that he could get the tickets only for three.  After talking to the FastJet agent for some time, the Danish guy lost his cool and started shouted at the agent.  The agent asked the Danish family to wait in his office, asked us and the other couple to follow him to the airport to see whether he could put us in the 5 pm flight to Dar Es Salaam via Zanzibar.  

After some wheeling dealings with the Precision Air agent, he was able to get the tickets to the couple as well as to us.  But when I looked at my ticket, it was to Zanzibar.  When I showed him the ticket, he was rushing us the Precision Air office outside the airport to see whether it could be changed to Dar Es Salaam but it was too late because the flight gates were closed.  For some reason, he was confident that he could get us to Dar Es Salaam and advising me to be calm.  When I told him that there're 3 seats available in the Precision Air flight to Dar Es Salaam at 8 pm, he went to the Precision Air office got us the tickets to Dar Es Salaam.  I was so relieved to see the boarding pass and called Partha to let him know of our delayed arrival to Dar Es Salaam.  Partha told me that Sharada had arrived at the Nairobi airport and waiting to check in while we were still stuck at Kilimanjaro...;-)

Brief Stay in Dar

Overnight in Dar Es Salaam

The Precision Air flight, that's supposed to be full, was just more than half full and in the one hour flight they served dinner/drinks.  By the time we collected our bags and came out of the airport it was 930 pm.  Met our friend Partha and decided to go for an Indian dinner because they're no shops open for do any shopping and we were craving to eat some Indian food.  Partha took us to Patel Samaj, which is an outdoor dinning place that could accommodate more than 500 people.  It was really good having Indian food after so long and this is the first in my life I missed eating Indian food ;-)  After that we reached Partha's apartment in the city, as in the case of any developing country, the city's growth was unplanned growth.  There're lot of nice apartment complexes but no parking facilities, so we spent some time searching for a parking space at 1130 pm.

Partha has been living Dar Es Salaam for more 15 years and whatever I heard from him, the life in Dar Es Salaam is as safe as any other big city, as long as you use your common sense, you will be fine.  Partha woke up early to make South Indian breakfast for us (Pongal with coffee) and after enjoying the breakfast we left for the airport around 630 am.  Checking in the British Airlines flight was pretty smooth, the security at the airport was decent and there's an additional tax of $100 if you had bought your ticket after certain date, which we didn't have to pay.  

Outof Africa

Brief Stay in London

I bidded for the hotel near Heathrow and got a room in Millennium hotels in Slough for $45, which is not bad.  But it took us more than an hour to reach the hotel by bus.  I should have waited to bid for a room closer to the airport.  Found a nice pub (Three Tuns) that serve Indian food.  By far, it is the best Indian food we have eaten outside India and the combination of Guinness & spicy curry is awesome.

Turbulent Flight

Since we have checked in all of our bags to Seattle, there's nothing much to carry and the trip back to the airport was smooth.  The public transit system in London is one of the best and we didn't have much trouble using the service except the confusion about which side of the road we need to wait ;-)  The flight back home got into pretty bad turbulence near Greenland (just a couple of hours before reaching Seattle) and it lasted for about 45 minutes.  The drunken monk (Gunny) was having fun while there was crying lady at the back and a kid throwing up big time in the next seat but it was totally scary;-)  It was so bumpy that the flight was shaking like anything.  As soon as I landed in the Seattle, I had to go to the toilet to throw-up.

Final Thoughts

 It's a good experience for Sharada to travel by herself from Arusha to Nairobi and a great lesson for me to reconfirm the flights before leaving home.   Even though, we got into a bad situation a number of times during this trip, we managed to come out unscathed.  If I had to do it all over again, I would cut down the safari time to only 5 days and would spend a day or two in Dar Es Salaam.

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