Not since our Around-the-World trip in 2002 has so much planning and so much anticipation gone in to a holiday. So why is this one so special? Several years ago my very good friend Lyn said to me that one day she wanted me to help her arrange an African safari. Well, that 'one day' finally arrived.
I really want Lyn and Chris to have an extra special safari experience, as this is their very first safari, first time in sub-Saharan Africa, first time in the Southern Hemisphere and first long-haul holiday. It is also their first experience of a tailor made private tour.
So how can we make it special?
Enter Calabash African Adventures:
Why Tanzania and why Calabash?
There are an almost infinite number of tour operators who will design a bespoke African safari, so why have I chosen Calabash? I first became aware of them some years ago when they replied to question a in the Tanzania Forum on Virtual Tourist at the time I was researching a safari. I contacted them for a quote and they came back to me with an itinerary that fitted my plans and a price well within my budget. The safari, taking in all four of the northern parks in Tanzania, was amazing, and Calabash more than lived up to our expectations in every way.
That was 2007. Compared with other safari destinations in Africa (we have been lucky enough to have been on a number of safaris to a number of different parks in a number of different countries over a number of years), we have found Northern Tanzania to be far superior, in particular as far as the wilderness experience goes. So we went back in 2011. And in 2014. And now we are taking our fourth Tanzanian safari – all arranged by Calabash of course.
A safari in Tanzania is far from a cheap holiday, with the cost of accommodation in the wilderness starting at around £100 per person per night, and prices exceeding £1000 per person for sleeping in a (luxury) tent not being unusual (as you can see from the screen print below from one of the big safari operators).
In an attempt to maximise our hard earned holiday savings, Tillya (of Calabash Adventures) suggested travelling at the end of the 'Green Season' when prices are lower, the grass is greener and there are fewer people. The only problem is, of course, this time of year is called the 'Green Season' for a reason... it may rain. A lot.
We have been closely monitoring the weather forecasts, and keeping fingers crossed that at least the heavy rains will have finished by the time we arrive. Having taken safaris in Africa previously in the Green Season and not been particularly hampered by the rain, we are hoping that it won't be too much of a dampener (pun intended) this time either. At least it should make for some atmospheric scenery shots. Watch this space!
Many an enjoyable evening has been spent during the planning stage of this trip, with African food and wine, while discussing itineraries, photography and packing.
Other aspects of the preparations, however, have not been quite so pleasurable.
A number of immunisations – as well as malaria prophylaxis - is required for all four of us, although David and I thankfully had the benefit of some of the vaccinations still being valid from previous trips. We spent an entertaining afternoon at Nomad Travel Clinic in Park Street in Bristol, being advised on all things travel-health related by a delightful nurse called Helen, who shared our slightly warped sense of humour.
Although theoretically Tanzania requires you to produce a Yellow fever immunisation certificate if you are arriving from an infected country (in our case Kenya), we have travelled to the country three times in the past via Nairobi and never been asked for the certificate. I have heard, however, about travellers who have been stopped, fined ($300) and immunised on the spot, so it is not worth taking the risk. Not that we would ever consider opting out of any recommended vaccinations.
Both Kenya and Tanzania require travellers to obtain a visa before entering the country. Kenya no longer issue visa on arrival, but their website is easy and user friendly. Or so I thought - David and I applied for an online visa last year when we visited Lake Turkana. As the two of us already have an account, it was just a matter of completing the personal details, information about this trip and any previous visits; and attach our itinerary, flight tickets, photograph and scanned copy of our passports.
There are several agencies on line who will offer to arrange your visa for you - for a fee of course. While we sometimes use their services for some of the more obscure countries we visit, for Kenya (or Tanzania) this really isn't necessary. The money we saved will go towards a drink or five in Africa.
For visits up to 72 hours, you are entitled to enter on a transit visa, providing you are continuing to another East African country; and the issue of our Transit Visa was instant. Success.
So... I try to do the same for Lyn and Chris, setting them up with a Kenyan evisa account using their own existing email addresses. So far so good. A message pops up on my screen saying that an email has been sent with a link which they need to click on to confirm the address. No problem, I ring Lyn and let her know to look out for it. No email received their end. We wait half an hour. They still have no email. We try using a different email address for Lyn. Still no email from Kenyan High Commission. What to do now? I am guessing a firewall on their Sky account has stopped the emails reaching them, so it is time to put my thinking cap on. As a last resort, I try creating a new Outlook account for each of them on my PC, and this actually works! I receive the necessary link, carry out the confirmation 'click' and we're in business! Lyn and Chris also have Kenyan Visas! The applications have only taken me five-and-a-half hours! And that's just the Kenya ones!
To obtain a Tanzanian visa, we need to download applications from their website, send off with the passports to their High Commission in London. No big deal, and in 2014 (our last visit to Tanzania), the passports took just over a week to come back, although the website only actually suggests to allow 3 working days for the process. Or at least it did last time I looked, a couple of months ago.
So imagine my horror when I casually glance at it now, and find that a new message has suddenly appeared: Apply 4-6 weeks prior to your departure date! Eeeek! Our trip is just over four weeks away, so I guess we ought to get a move-on with those!
With the fee paid in cash to the Tanzanian High Commission's bank account, David takes the forms, bank receipt and passports to the post office on Saturday morning and send them off registered delivery. To our surprise, we get them back on the following Wednesday! So much for the 4-6 weeks and the mad panic, they didn't even take four days!
We are now good to go! Almost.
Paying the balance of the holiday
It's just a few minor issues to tie up now, such as paying the balance of the safari to Calabash Adventures. Priced in US dollars, the cost of the ground arrangements in Africa is dependent on the exchange rate, which is not particularly good at the moment. On our previous safaris organised by Calabash, we have paid the deposit by bank transfer, then the balance by cash on arrival. We do not really want to do that this time, for a couple of reasons – the amount is considerably more than it has been on previous occasions (longer and more involved trip, as well as being for four people rather than just two of course), and we are spending a couple of nights in Nairobi before arriving in Tanzania, so we don't really want to carry that amount of cash with us.
To cut a long story short, I gave David the task of searching for alternative ways of paying the bill, and he came up trumps in the form of a company called Currencies Direct, which seemed to offer the best rate. We have always transferred money through our regular bank in the past to pay for ground arrangements abroad, but the lower exchange rate through the bank, plus bank fees made a difference of nearly £300 more that of Currencies Direct. That is an awful lot of of rums for me, and whisky for Lyn (never mind beer for the boys).
The process was simple. David opened an account, they checked him out to ensure he was a bona fida customer, and we were in business. After a couple of 'due diligence' compliance checks, the money was transferred to Calabash's account in Arusha. Simple, cheap, efficient. Now looking forward to a cocktail or five with the saved money!
So, the countdown has begun, with each day marked off the calendar. Of course, in this electronic age, it is all done on the phone!
So, what's left to do?
Ordering foreign currency
Getting our nails done. Mine are a nice turquoise, while Lyn has decided to blend in with the natives. Or not. I hope it doesn't scare the animals. David and Chris have decided to leave theirs au naturel.
And of course...
While keeping clothing and toiletries to a minimum is easy, travelling light is impossible for a photographer. It is not just the cameras and lenses; tripods and window clamps; batteries and chargers; flash guns and accessories, plus numerous memory cards that takes up space of course - it's all the other stuff too. OK, so I admit I am a gadget freak, but I do enjoy playing around creatively with filters, intervalometers, motion sensors and such like. The only item from this photo that I won't be taking is the high-viz vest. Not a good idea in the bush - we are trying to attract the animals, not scare them!
It's strange really. I can't wait to go, can't wait to be there, see the sights, smell the air, taste the food and just drink in the atmosphere. And take lots of photographs, of course.
Yet, I don't want to go. I want to stop time right now as the excitement I feel at this moment is electrifying. It's tangible, it's giving me such a delirious high. I want to feel this intoxicated on excitement forever...
And then it's those "what if it doesn't live up to the expectations?" feelings. Perhaps it is better to just have the buzz of the anticipation than the real thing...
Then I give myself a virtual slap and a good talking to: "These are the most blatant First World Problems Grete! Stop overthinking it and just appreciate that you are in a position to be able to do this. Go forth and enjoy!"
As we're off to fulfil our Out-of-Africa fantasy and make extraordinary and life-long memories for ourselves and our good friends, I will just leave you with this poster we bought in Kenya on our very first safari in 1986 - if you study it carefully you will see so many scenarios epitomising African safaris.