The following are questions my wife and I wrestled with while planning our safari to Tanzania or that were asked upon our return. I will not be telling you to take your camera, binoculars, insect repellent and sunscreen. If you need that level of advice, you may want to skip the safari.
1. How do I pick a tour operator? Should I take a group tour? This is your most important decision. Pick the wrong tour operator and you could end up bumping around in an old minibus, staying in poor hotels, and not seeing everything you should.
Go online to get an idea of what's available, but don’t make your decision based on which website is the nicest. Use a travel agent experienced in Tanzania, talk to someone who’s been there, read guide books, and look for personal reviews like this one.
Our choice came down to going through a New York City-based travel agent or using an operator based in Arusha that was recommended in a recent guide book and who responded to emails. We went through the travel agent and are confident we made the right choice. Our Toyota Landcruiser was clean and new and we always saw other vehicles from the same operator in all the parks we visited. We never saw any vehicle from my internet alternative. Of course, quantity of vehicles is not a guarantee of tour quality, but it’s probably a good indicator.
Our tour operator was Roy Safaris and this is the only company I can personally recommend. I’m sure there are other good operators. Two companies we encountered that seemed to have numerous and well-maintained vehicles were Leopard Tours and Tropical Trails.
A word about group versus individual tours. Our 3-member family was very comfortable in our 6-seat Landcruiser. But we saw other vehicles containing 6 or 8 people that looked crowded and uncomfortable. Plan your own individual safari if you can. In a group, you may meet some nice people from Buffalo, but is that why you’re going?
2. What about Hotels? If you pick a good tour operator, you can be confident they will recommend lodges with which you will be satisfied. But you can also read reviews and visit lodge websites to get an idea of what you might like. Not everyone wants to stay in the 4-star overgrown lodge where most of the tour groups go. Perhaps you’d like to try a tent. If you have preferences, communicate them to your travel agent or tour company and ask their advice.
3. Long or Short? I wondered about this one a lot. Should I take short or long-sleeve shirts and shorts or long pants? I concluded I should take both kinds of shirts and primarily long pants. You may like to live in shorts. This is fine; you will just look more like a tourist. Tanzanian men mostly wear long pants. My wife and daughter wore mainly slacks as well. The appropriateness of the short or long-sleeved shirt seemed to depend on the weather.
4. What about bugs? I’m sure this answer depends on the time of year and the places you visit. As for me, I saw only one mosquito on our whole trip. Once we had a fly in our room(!). In the Serengeti, small non-biting flies were bothersome around mid-day, but they did not stay with the safari vehicle once we got moving and put on some bug spray. There was one incident where we were buzzed by a gigantic (OK, maybe 1.5 inch) beetle in the bar area, but the bartender came along and scooped him up in his hand and took him outside. Talk about bravery in the face of a wild animal!
5. Can we eat the food and drink the water? You will undoubtedly come to Tanzania with thoughts like: "I can’t eat a salad" and "I can’t have any drink with ice cubes". Well, we soon decided to eat the salads and only one family member missed a half-day trip due to an upset stomach – something that could happen anywhere. Most cold drinks were just chilled. And bottled water was readily available at meals, in our rooms, and in the Landcruiser.
That being said, I’m sure it depends on the quality of the restaurant and lodge. And nowhere would I drink water from the faucet at a lodge or even wet my toothbrush with it. I speak from the experience of another trip to Tanzania many years ago.
6. Should we get our visa before the trip or upon arrival? With some trepidation, I listened to the travel agent and decided to get our visas upon arrival at Kilimanjaro Airport. It went smoothly. Yes, we had to get in line, but so did everyone else who had visas and still needed to have their passports inspected. Just be sure to have the necessary U.S. dollars to pay for your visa and have it in new $50 bills. (Apparently, other bills are more likely to be counterfeit, at least in Tanzanian eyes.)
7. What about money matters in general? U.S. dollars and Tanzanian shillings can be used interchangeably in most circumstances (although not at par). The major exception is getting that visa at the airport.
So arrive with a good supply of U.S. currency, including small bills and $50 bills for the visa. All bills should, if available, be the new style with colors and larger images. Many banks in Arusha and even in Karatu have ATMs at which Tanzanian shillings can be obtained. Currency exchange offices exist and most lodges accept credit cards.
But travelers’ checks are almost useless. After our first lodge refused to accept them and Barclay’s Bank would not cash them, we were lucky our second lodge was willing to cash some for us.
8. What about gifts and tips? Restaurant workers and luggage carriers never seemed to me to be angling for a tip, but they were always happy to receive one. One of the best pre-trip investments I made was to buy a large supply of Obama campaign buttons. Occasionally I’d slip one into a waiter’s hand and he would not look at it right away. Thirty seconds later he’d come back saying "OBAMA! OH, THANK YOU!" If your politics will not allow you to hand out Obama buttons, then money will do fine.
DO NOT hand out candy, pens, pencils or any other gifts to children along the road or on the street. Your safari company will most likely advise you against this practice. Most of the children we passed would wave to us, but almost always with palms facing us, not outstretched for a handout. This is a good thing. If you want to bring gifts, visit a school or orphanage and give them to the headmaster.
9. Do people speak English? Everyone you encounter at a lodge, park office, or souvenir shop will probably speak English. And you will soon pick up the few words every tourist knows: Jambo! (Hello), Habari? (How are you? Literally, how’s the news?), Nzuri (Good -- as an answer to Habari?), and Asante sana (Thank you very much). If you take the time, as I did, to try to learn more than the basics, you will be glad you did. They’ll appreciate your effort to learn the language of their country and you’ll find yourself in more conversations with them (even if in English)
10. Weren’t you afraid of the animals? Did you get robbed? What were the tribes like? Isn’t Tanzania a very poor country? Why did you choose Tanzania? Some of these questions came from highly educated individuals and others indicate that the knowledge of Africa possessed by many Americans comes from old Tarzan movies.
The answer to the first two questions is "no" (except maybe for the giant beetle). The other questions and similar ones we received generally reflect the fact that people just want to know what Tanzania is like.
For me, Tanzania is a special country. It tries to live in peace with its neighbors and its people live in harmony with each other. Just like Americans, they complain a bit about their government and taxes and they have elections – similar to those we have in Chicago or Florida. And they try to protect wildlife and the environment.
Yes, Tanzania is a very poor country, but not one characterized by great disparities between rich and poor. Since independence, Tanzania has sought to develop as one people, together. If Tanzania is the first third world country you visit, you will notice the poverty, poor roads and dilapidated houses and buildings. If you have visited other underdeveloped countries, you will notice that people generally seem happy, that they appear to be hard working, and that, at least around Arusha, large-scale slums containing the worst living conditions do not exist. And if you take the time to know the people, you will find they are among the warmest and friendliest people anywhere.