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!