Up in the Air

On the morning of July 9th, I had the opportunity to do something I’ve wanted to do for years – go on a hot air balloon ride! I had paid a premium by booking in advance to guarantee a spot on the balloon, as I had been told the balloon rides often sell out. The high price ended up being worth every penny, as this was one of the best experiences of my life! I also found out that the operator of the balloon rides pays a fee to a conservation fund for the Serengeti National Park, which also helped to justify the cost of the ride.

I had known that I was going to have to leave early in the morning, as the itinerary described a “sunrise ballon ride,” but what I didn’t realize was that we would have to leave at 4:30 AM! I was the only person from my travel group who signed up to do the ballon ride. One person in my group had already done a balloon ride over Maasai Mara in Kenya and said that it was “disappointing, especially for the cost,” but I tried not to let this cloud my outlook. There were four other people staying at my lodge who were also doing the balloon ride – a couple from South Dakota who had just summited Mt Kilimanjaro and a couple of middle-aged guy friends (one from Louisiana and one from Texas) who had just finished a hunting safari. A rep from the balloon company drove us to the launch point for the balloons in the Seronera part of the Serengeti, about an hour’s drive from our lodge. We picked up a lady who was also doing the balloon ride at a semi-permanent campsite along the way.

Being that we had an hour-long car ride, we had some time to talk amongst ourselves. I would have been just fine staring out the window like a zombie, as I had not yet consumed any caffeine, but the Southerners (being the friendly people that they are) started up a conversation. The couple from South Dakota had a good time on Mt Kilimanjaro. It took them 6 days to summit and one day to descend. They said there was a big entourage of porters for the people in their group, and that the porters carry heavy loads (55 pounds) on their necks but only make one or two dollars a day. It was sad to hear that they make such little money for such grueling work, but good to hear that everyone tipped them generously. The two Southern guys kept talking about the animals they killed on their hunting trip. They talked about how they ate the animals, how they were having the heads mounted and sent home for decoration, and how they were having a zebra made into a rug. I think we were all a bit disgusted, but we were trying to be polite and just listen at the same time. There was no point in starting an argument with strangers before what was to be a fun event, after all.

After we arrived at the launch site, our balloon pilot gave us instructions for getting into the basket and for take-off and landing. The balloon basket had four compartments on either side of the middle compartment, which was for the pilot and his equipment. Each compartment fit two people, so there were 16 passengers per balloon. Our pilot assigned each of us a compartment. While he was doing so, the guy from Texas started to walk away. The pilot told him to come back, to which he said “No!” Everyone, including the crew inflating the balloons, thought this was hysterical. Apparently this big, Texan hunter was terrified of the take-off. Eventually the pilot was able to convince him to go, and we all proceeded to get in the basket. This was kind of an awkward process. The basket starts on its back, and everyone climbs in and waits for take-off looking up at the sky. Eventually the balloon takes flight, and the basket rights itself so everyone is sitting up straight. Luckily I was in one of the compartments closest to the ground, meaning I didn’t have to climb to one of the top compartments. Supposedly this is easier than climbing in with the basket upright, because apparently the wind can cause the basket to move around making it difficult to jump in. Once we were in the air, we could stand up and move around within our compartments. It was pretty snug with two people in each compartment, so we couldn’t move too much. Our pilot rotated the balloon around several times so that we all had a good viewing experience, which was nice.

Our balloon was the third of four balloons to lift off. All of the pilots had walkie-talkies and would tell each other when there was an animal spotting so that we would all be able to see it. The balloons were even outfitted with GPS devices, which I was surprised to see. Our pilot was a bit of a comedian. Someone asked him how many balloon rides he does a week, and he told us that this was his first one.

Less than a minute into the ride, we saw some elephants walking along. Shortly after that, we saw a pride of lions running across the field! That was an amazing sight to take in, especially from above, since it is somewhat rare to see lions do much beside sleeping. One of the lions stopped as we passed over and stared at our basket. I felt like she was looking right at me! A bit after that, we saw lots of hippos lazing around in the water. Then we came across another pride of lions all snuggling together in the grass. The ride lasted a little over a hour, during which we also saw a cheetah (I was too slow to take a picture), gazelles, giraffes, hyenas, warthogs, reedbucks, and vultures. It was truly amazing to get a bird’s eye view of all these animals going about their daily business and to see the sun rise over the Serengeti. It is definitely one of the most memorable experiences of my life!

We had a smooth landing and then were driven to another clearing where one of the pilots told us the story of the origin of hot air ballooning, and we had a champagne toast. It was a bit surreal standing in the middle of the Serengeti, drinking champagne, when we had just seen 20 lions! Sure, we couldn’t see any animals from where we were standing, but the thought of being some animal’s breakfast was definitely in the back of my mind! It was interesting learning about the history of hot air ballooning, which I previously knew nothing about. Apparently it started in France in the 18th century by two brothers whose father owned a paper manufacturing company. The brothers were burning some of the paper one day and wondered if flight was possible based on whatever force was lifting the embers from the fire into the air. After successfully giving flight to some experimental balloon devices, they decided to send some animals up in a balloon to test whether living beings could still breathe in the upper atmosphere. Once this step was completed, the brothers made larger balloons and sent people into the air. Supposedly the farmers whose property the balloons landed on were afraid the balloons and their passengers were some kind of ill-intentioned, supernatural force. Because of this, the brothers would give these people bottles of champagne (which, at the time, could only be obtained through the king and were stamped with the royal seal), so as to let everyone know that they were real human beings, not demons or aliens. This is why it is a tradition for hot air balloonists to have a champagne toast upon landing.

After a couple of glasses of bubbly, we were driven to another clearing in the Serengeti where we were served a full English breakfast. Again, it was surreal to be enjoying a leisurely breakfast in the middle of the Serengeti! I ended up sitting at the end of a table with a group of young Australians who were doing the camping version of my trip. They were a lot of fun to hang out with, perhaps because we were consuming the majority of the champagne! I had about six more glasses before we ran out of champagne. I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but I was lucky to not feel any adverse effects from all the champagne. I don’t think it would be fun to deal with that while riding around bumpy roads in a hot car for the rest of the day!

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Entering the Serengeti

The terrain had changed from ravines full of lush vegetation to a dry, dusty, hot savannah by the time we arrived at the entrance to the Serengeti.  The name Serengeti is derived from a Maasai word meaning “endless plains.” It is therefore easy to see how the Serengeti got its name, as you can look in any direction for many miles without seeing a border.  This place is far vaster in person than I could have ever imagined!

After entering the park, we immediately saw several large herds of gazelles grazing among the grass.  We ate boxed lunches at a rest stop, where it became clear that one of the travelers was experiencing a bad case of food poisoning from the day before.  She eventually felt well enough to continue on the drive, but would unfortunately be fairly ill for the rest of the trip.  A short while into our drive, we saw a lioness napping beneath a tree.  Our guide told us that lions sleep for most of the day (around 20 hours!), saving their energy for hunting.  

Our guide pointed out the kopjes (prehistoric rock formations) to us.  Apparently these kopjes were the inspiration for the movie The Lion King.  They are used by some animals as a safe haven from grass fires and used by lions and cheetahs as a place to hide their cubs.  Lions also use the kopjes as a vantage point for hunting.  Kopjes are the exclusive home to the rock hyrax.  

One of the highlights of this drive was getting an up-close look at a pair of impala play-fighting.  Shortly after that, we saw a herd of elephants having lunch.  Nearby was a herd of hippopotamuses, who, according to our guide, had adapted to living out of the water.  Apparently this happens in some localized areas, and those hippos live longer than their water-dwelling counterparts.  

Shortly before our lodge, we had to cross a narrow, dilapidated bridge that was marked “Danger for Trucks” with a makeshift sign.  As we were crossing the bridge, someone pointed out a hippo in the water below.  The driver stopped so people could take pictures.  The entire time, I had visions of the bridge crumbling under the weight of our vehicle, and us falling into the water and being attacked by the hippo.  Thankfully, the bridge was stronger than it appeared, and we made it across safely.  

We arrived at the lodge around 5:30 PM and checked in.  This lodge was even more impressive than the last.  It is located at the edge of the park.  In addition to being well staffed and decorated, the view of the Serengeti from my room was incredible.  The porter who brought my bags to my room told me to be sure to close the sliding door on the balcony, or monkeys and baboons would come in my room!  I went out on the balcony to take some pictures of the zebra and saw a little dik-dik running around beneath the balcony.  I then saw a vervet monkey on the next balcony and took some pictures of him.  I was reviewing the pictures on my camera, when the next thing I knew, the monkey had jumped over to my balcony and was sitting right next to me!  I quickly ran inside my room and shut the sliding door.  I wasn’t in the mood to test out my rabies vaccine!

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Long Drive to the Serengeti

On the morning of July 8th, we set out for the long drive to the Serengeti. The vast majority of the ride would be along bumpy dirt roads, which give rise to the term “African massage” for the feeling you get when riding along these roads. Our first stop was at the gate of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) where our driver got a permit for us to enter. Our guide had told us to make sure to close all of the windows during this pit stop, because the baboons are known to jump in the windows and take food, among other things.

For now, we were just passing through the NCA on the way to the Serengeti, but we would return in a few days for a safari in the Ngorongoro Crater. The NCA is home to tens of thousands of Maasai people whom we saw herding their cattle and goats. We also had a few giraffe sightings. The first tower of giraffes we saw this day was up on a hill, and we could see a couple of them involved in a low intensity necking session. I had never seen this behavior before. Our guide told us that the males do this to establish dominance.

Before we reached the entrance to the Serengeti, one of the travelers said he had to go to the bathroom and couldn’t wait. Our guide very reluctantly let him out of the car, and he ran behind some bushes on the other side of the road. While he was taking care of business, our guide told us about a similar situation on a previous trip where where the traveler ran back to the car with his pants around his ankles, yelling that he had seen a lion! This made all of us a bit worried but, fortunately, our fellow traveler made it back to the car unscathed.
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Lake Manyara

Out of everyone in our group, I was probably the most excited for our first game drive. Everyone else had been traveling through various parts of Africa for weeks and had already gone on several game drives. I think that is the reason why they were so much better at spotting the animals than I was at first. Everyone else was genuinely excited for me, the safari rookie. Any time there was a sighting, they would say, “Make sure Jennifer can see!” or “Jennifer, come over here so you can get a better look!”

On our game drive, we saw blue monkeys, baboons, warthogs, wildebeest, buffalos, zebras, giraffes, pelicans, and many other birds. Lake Manyara is famous for flamingos and lions that sleep in trees. We could see massive numbers of flamingoes on the lake through binoculars, but they were too far away to be able to get good photos of, and we didn’t see any lions sleeping in trees. Despite that, I was happy with my first game drive. It is truly awesome to see all of these animals up close in their natural habitat. Near the end of the game drive, close to sunset, we were able to get out of our vehicle (a Toyota Land Cruiser with a pop-top roof) and take some photos. It was a seemingly innocuous part of the park with only birds and zebras around, but I was still surprised we were allowed to do this. This park does have lions, after all!

Immediately after finishing our game drive, we drove to our hotel, the Lake Manyara Serena Safari Lodge. It is located atop the escarpment overlooking Lake Manyara, but we would have to wait until morning to enjoy the view, as it was dark when we arrived. The rooms are located in two-story conical thatched bungalows and are beautifully decorated. While I was closing the curtains, a gecko jumped out onto the wall next to me. It startled me so much that I jumped! I had read that it is common to see them in hotel rooms, but that didn’t make me feel any better! I was contemplating my options before coming to the realization that the only thing to do was to just let it be. I looked away for a minute, and then it was gone. Luckily, I never saw it again!

Our group had a lovely four-course dinner al fresco at the lodge. I told everyone about the gecko in my room, but apparently that is also a common occurrence in Australia, so nobody else thought anything of it. The next morning, we all had breakfast in the same spot before the long, bumpy drive to the Serengeti.

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A Walk Into Town

The morning of July 7th, I was in the midst of getting dressed when there was a knock at the door. It was three of the members of my tour group, all Australians. Apparently, they had gotten my room number from reception and wanted to introduce themselves. They invited me to join them for breakfast. During breakfast, one of them suggested that we walk into town and look around since we had a few hours until we were due to depart from the hotel. I had originally planned on just having a leisurely morning at the hotel, but I figured I should go with them just so I could see what Arusha is like since I had arrived at night and spent most of yesterday catching up on sleep.

It was a short walk to the center of town where we were immediately approached by several young men trying to sell us various items. I had expected this to happen based on things I had read beforehand. We kept telling them we weren’t going to buy anything, and eventually all but two of them left us. The two that remained showed us around town. Even though we knew they were expecting us to give them money, they were extremely friendly and no one else bothered us because they were with us. On one hand, it is kind of annoying to not be able to explore the town on your own without being accosted for money, but it is also understandable since many of these people live in abject poverty and don’t have any employment opportunities.

The two locals asked us what our names were. After I told them that my name is Jennifer, one of them kept saying, “Jennifer Lopez, hakuna matata!” We took some pictures by the Clock Tower, which they told us marks the halfway point between Cairo and Cape Town, marking the middle of the old British Empire in Africa. After that, we went to the Natural History Museum which is housed inside an old German building from the 1900s. Once we were finished looking in the museum, we had to go back to the hotel to pack our bags and meet our tour guide. Before leaving the two locals, I bought a painting from one of them. The young man I bought it from used to be a porter on Mt Kilimanjaro but is no longer able to physically do that, and is now an aspiring artist. I had read in my guidebooks beforehand that you are expected to bargain on the price when buying something here. I really don’t enjoy the process of bargaining (especially with someone who is living in poverty), but I was able to bargain the price down from $50 to $25.

All in all, the town was exactly what I had pictured: legions of daladalas (old vans used as a form of local transportation) crammed with people zipping around, well-worn buildings, ladies walking along the streets while balancing enormous baskets or trays of bananas on their heads as if they were natural extensions of their bodies, and a lot of locals milling around with seemingly no where to go.

We walked back to the hotel where, after packing and checking out, we met our guide named Walter, driver named Isaya, and remaining two traveling companions (both Australian). They had all just driven down from Nairobi together, where the other two travelers had just finished a Kenyan safari. We had a group meeting outside near the hotel pool before leaving for lunch in town. Funnily enough, we ran into the guy I bought the painting from after our lunch stop. We had a brief chat with him and then departed for our first game drive in Lake Manyara!

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(Almost) Halfway Around the World!

I departed for Tanzania the afternoon of July 4th with mixed emotions. On one hand, I was overwhelmingly excited to be visiting Africa (the last time I travelled to a continent for the first time was over 12 years ago) and to be going on safari and a hot air balloon ride (yay for crossing things off the bucket list). On the other hand, I was dreading the long journey (nearly an entire day of travel) and nervous about everything going smoothly (making my connection in Amsterdam, getting my visa, and getting to the hotel safely).

The first leg of the flight to Amsterdam was about 10 hours. I watched a couple of movies and tried to get some sleep, but the little sleep I managed was of pretty poor quality. Luckily, the seat next to me was empty, so I could at least be comfortable in my sleep deprivation! We arrived in Amsterdam about 10 minutes early, which was good because I only had a 2 hour layover and I had to work out a problem with my seating assignment. I had paid to upgrade my seat but my boarding pass showed a seating assignment that was much worse than my original seat. It was kind of annoying that I had to get this issue corrected, but the KLM service desk was very friendly and efficient, a far cry from my experience with United in Chicago earlier this year.

It was about 9 hours from Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro. I watched a couple of movies, but this time I managed to get a few hours of solid sleep. We arrived around 7:40 PM. It was already dark outside at this point, so I couldn’t see much out the window upon arrival. I was expecting to deplane through a jetway, but was kind of surprised when we walked down a flight of stairs and to the arrivals section of the airport. It was basically like a huge jet pulling up right next to a building the size of your local grocery store in complete darkness with seemingly no fence or boundary around the airport.

There were signs directing you where to go if you needed a visa or if you already had one. This is where upgrading to a seat near the front of the plane really paid off. I had decided to just get a visa on arrival rather than do it by mail at home, so being one of the first off the plane ensured I would be near the front of the visa line which I had read beforehand could be long and slow. If I had booked this trip farther in advance, I would have probably gotten the visa by mail but I was nervous about getting my passport back in time. In reality, it didn’t seem like much of an advantage to have gotten the visa beforehand. There was a lady in the line near me whose friend was in the line of people who already had visas and they got through the immigration process at the same time.

There were actually three lines I had to go through. The first, and slowest one, was for submitting your completed visa application form and fee ($100). The second line was where you got the visa stamp and some handwritten notes in your passport. The third line is where you had your fingerprints taken electronically. While I was waiting in line, I tried to look around to see if I could find the person driving me to the hotel. I was told that there would be someone to meet me with my name on a sign in the arrivals area. I saw one guy, who I think was an airport employee, walking around with a sign for another tour group and asked him if he had seen anyone from my tour group. He said they would be right outside the exit of the airport. Upon hearing this, the man behind me in line said to me, “Yeah, there will be hundreds of them all waiting right outside the door. DO NOT GO WITH ANYONE UNLESS THEY HAVE YOUR NAME ON A SIGN. DO NOT LET ANYONE TAKE YOUR BAG. They will all want to give you a ride.” This made me a little nervous. Apparently this guy was a teacher who had been to Tanzania “many, many times” and was about to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro for the second time. Presumably, he was Canadian judging from his slight accent and the extremely upbeat conversation he had with his daughter on his cell phone. I think Canadians are the only English-speaking people who could possibly be that chipper after a 9 hour flight, but correct me if I am wrong. In my head, I was thinking, if there is a situation that could make a Canadian mistrust someone, it must be bad!

I got my bag and proceeded through customs and to the exit. Customs here is like in Europe where pretty much everyone just walks through the side that indicates you do not have anything to declare, not like in the US where everyone is questioned. Fortunately I was able to spot my driver, Lawrence, right away. It was about a 50 minute drive from the airport to the hotel. I was the only passenger because everyone else would be arriving the next day. I was a little nervous about the ride because I had heard that driving here is pretty dangerous and that people here drive by intuition, not by rules of the road. Lawrence was a really safe driver, and the roads from the airport were in good condition, so I was able to relax on the way to the hotel. There isn’t any street lighting here, but I could see the silhouettes of many people walking alongside the road in the darkness. It was a little eerie, but I suppose that people aren’t all going to stay at home just because the sun has set. Tanzania is really close to the equator, so the sun sets earlier and faster here than at home, currently around 6:30 PM. I could also see bunches of acacia trees and fields of maize illuminated by the headlights of oncoming cars and the outline of Mt Meru against the night sky.

Lawrence spoke English very well, so he would tell me little bits of information here and there. He also taught me a few phrases in Swahili. I wasn’t sure what to expect regarding the quality of the first hotel (Kibo Palace). The hotel looked nice on its web site, but got mixed reviews on Trip Advisor, and looked downright sketchy in the Google reviews. Lawrence said it is a very nice hotel, and fortunately, he was right. It’s not the Ritz, but it is much nicer than many of the hotels I have stayed in before. After checking in, I barely had enough energy to do a little unpacking and to wash up before my head hit the pillow!

Final Night in Ireland

Friday night was my final night (for now) in Ireland. Our group went to a pub in Dublin called The Merry Ploughboy. We had a three course dinner and then saw performances by the Merry Ploughboys, an Irish music group, and traditional Irish dancers. The band played a couple of my favorites, including “Whiskey in the Jar” and “Galway Girl.” It was great craic, as they say.

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