Independent travel in the North

Goran writes:

Route travelled: Arusha (for Mt Meru, Kilimanjaro, Safari (Lake Manyara, Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Arusha NP) and Mto wa Mbu)- Moshi-Mambo-Mtae-Lushoto-Dar es Salaam-Zanzibar

Places visited: Arusha, Mount Meru, Lake Duluti, Kilimanjaro NP, Moshi, Usumbara mountains (Mambo, Mtae and Lushoto), Dar es Salaam, Lake Manyara NP, Serengeti NP, Ngorongoro, Mto Wa Mbu, Arusha NP, Zanzibar

 

NB: some practical info may be outdated as the report is more than a year old.

 

Travel period: Feb 2014

Exchange rate: USD1=TZS1600

 

 

No idea how useful this post is going to be to proper proper independent travellers. Visiting attractions inside national parks in Tanzania attracts astronomical costs – these come in form of park fees coupled with tour operators’ organisational charges. Still can’t make my mind up whether the costs of safaris or climbing Kilimanjaro could ever be justified for being this high – one thing though, these won’t turn into a disappointment and may even rank as your top travelling experiences. There are places that could be visited totally independently and these are as impressive in their own way: Usumbara mountains and Zanzibar; Usumbara has to be the best kept secret of Eastern Africa and the beauty of Zanzibar’s coastline and beaches has to be seen to be believed.

 

 

Visa

 

Pain-free VOA available at DAR and KIA; otherwise at TZ embassy in your country, also pain free but you’d need to provide a photo with your application form.

 

People

Enjoyed the hospitality and kindness of Tanzanians throughout the country. People were nice and friendly even in areas where some hassle can be experienced by those touting for tour operators (or touting for themselves).

Safety

Felt safe everywhere in daylight hours; I made no attempt to walk after dark in Arusha, Moshi or Dar other than a block or two away from my accommodation and even that was done if streets were well lit. Not sure if attacks on foreigners are increasing, but I know the attacks on tourist (mugging and robbery) happened before and after I visited these three urban areas.

Corruption

Tanzania mainland was OK; Zanzibar has to be the corruption capital of East Africa. Uniformed officials are the usual (worst) offenders.

 

Getting to Tanzania by air

Quite a few airlines now fly to Kilimanjaro International Airport; convenient for those planning safari or mountaineering. KIA is in the middle of nowhere though and it is around USD50 to get to Arusha. Another option is to check the schedule of Impala Hotel shuttle bus. Or there is a shuttle picking up Precision Air passengers. These shuttle buses have to be cheaper than taxi. I heard that some people walk 4-5km to reach the junction on the Arusha-Moshi highway; my advice is not to attempt this for many reasons, both health as well as safety could be compromised by attempting this walk.

 

Arriving to Dar es Salaam is an option too and then connecting with local airlines. Or connecting with buses or trains; or ferries to Zanzibar.

 

Around Tanzania by air

 

We used Precision Air for three flights and there were no major issues with them. On time twice, once delayed for a couple of hours due to torrential downpours in Arusha.

 

Getting to Tanzania overland from neighboring countries

 

Kenya: easy; Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi: possible. I got bored with so many options where this or that depended in TZ (like whether you’re travelling through a national park which invites a surcharge on the top of the bus fare) so I decided to fly from Kigali, Rwanda to Kilimanjaro International.

 

 

Ground transportation

 

 

Bus

I think the quality of the service was similar to Uganda and buses were bigger and more comfortable than in Rwanda or Burundi. There was no overcrowding on big buses. Main highways plagued with roadworks.

 

Mini bus (matatu)

Cheap and useful for short distances, but very overcrowded and stop wherever there are passengers to be collected or dropped off.

 

Moto taxi (boda boda)

Didn’t have a chance to use them as much as in Uganda and Rwanda. Used them in Arusha occasionally and in Usumbara mountains. No helmet provided.

 

Taxi

 

Used one from KIA to Arusha and from Dar city center to Dar airport. The first one had the price fixed and the other one was pre-booked with the hotel. Don’t know how cheap or expensive taxis are in TZ to be honest.

Road safety, conditions and signposting

Many major highways were ridden with roadworks on the mainland. Zanzibar roads were ridden with police posts – a “coffee money (tips)” post as the locals call them. Saw no major accidents or crazy driving and signposting seemed adequate.

 

Money

There were plenty of ATMs in urban areas dispensing TZ shillings. No problem with using USD cash to pay for services either.

 

Costs:

 

Accommodation, food, drinks and public transportation outside of NPs are not an issue and neither it is hiring guides or bikes in Usumbara mountains. Costs of travelling independently in Zanzibar are significantly higher than those on mainland TZ. Safari and climbing Kilimanjaro are expensive.

 

Accommodation

No nasty surprises with accommodation in Tanzania, but do check your room before paying. Budget accommodation harder to come across in Zanzibar.

 

Food and drink

Lots of cheap eateries everywhere; family run establishments were the best value for money, but the variety of dishes on menu available would almost always be 2-3 – usually what the family eats on the day. The breakfast experience could be good for those not seeking to indulge on meat first thing in the morning. Tea and coffee available everywhere – much better when it comes to coffee availability compared to Uganda or Rwanda.

 

Annoyances

 

Touts in Arusha and Moshi. Also, it’s very hard to choose a reliable tour operator. I thought of going for those recommended by other independent travellers (including those recommended here on LPTT), but this could be misleading – if someone was good for you it won’t necessarily mean that they’d be good for me. The sheer choice of registered TO with TZ tourist board is mind-boggling. This coupled with the unregistered ones makes it very hard to make the right choice. Also, bureaucracy and completing paperwork in some NP parks is so slow, but not as slow as the rangers they assign to you – Arusha NP for the Mount Meru climb in particular.

 

Overcharging

Nobody attempted to overcharge in the restaurants – the bill was corresponding to prices on the menu. I was paying what Tanzanians were paying on public transport. I found that overcharging in general was not a problem like in some neighboring countries.

 

Language

English widely spoken in urban areas, but Swahili definitely useful especially in countryside. Learning a few phrases like polite greetings exhanges will win friends in Tanzania. Also, I found Swahili to be a very beautiful language and very easy to read and pronounce.

 

 

Travel literature

 

Bradt Guide to Northern Tanzania is great; well written and very helpful with no major inaccuracies. And the maps were fairly useful too.

 

Organising safari

 

I provisionally booked my safari well in advance. Wrote to five TOs and three came back to me straight away, never heard from the other two. Two out of three gave up on me when I asked for modifications of their advertised itineraries. The final itinerary was ok, did lots of correspondence but got there in the end. Went for companies recommended by two friends of mine and went for three companies recommended by some members of LPTT. I did my final negotiations and paid once I arrived in Arusha some two months later. Also, I heard some horror stories of safari’s starting late in the day, too much time wasted for breakfasts, make up etc. I got the TO to confirm I won’t be having such issues and instead will start game rides at the crack of the dawn and have a longer afternoon break. The deal was honoured.

 

One thing I noticed is that others’ recommendations and positive experiences aren’t always true indication that you’ll be enjoying the services provided by the same TO. Things change quickly with those and the turnaround of staff organised by TOs is phenomenal in many cases. Generally, you’ll be seen more as a milking cow than a paying guest and I often felt that people employed in tourism industry in Arusha simply do not care to leave good impressions and hope that their clients may one day recommend services to others interested in e.g. safari – no, they’re often obsessed with one thing on their mind: how to get the most out you there and then. This was disappointing. I’d definitely won’t be recommending my Kilimanjaro/Mt Meru TO; more about the safari TO below.   I still don’t know if the fierce competition is to be blamed or a very decent buck to be made out of tourists – probably both. One thing I noticed too was that no mountain guide nor driver nor safari guide/driver nor porter nor cook that we had (we had 8 different people acting in these roles) was full time employed by the TOs we used; their primary job was usually something totally unrelated to the tourism industry. Maybe they treat their safari jobs as a source of their secondary income and as such this is an opportunity to try to make out of a tourist as much as possible.

 

 

Travelling with kids

My brother and my 11 years old niece joined me for two weeks in Tanzania. The kid enjoyed our safari, Mto Wa Mbu Maasai experience and Zanzibar. She was living the dream. I was left with impression that Tanzanians love welcoming kids as visitors to their country.

There was absolutely no problem on travelling around with a child, on the contrary, people were happy to see one on a visit to their country – Maasai were super happy to see that someone finally decided to bring a child on a cultural visit to their village.

Travelling with a child this old, or younger, attracts some discounts if you can fit the child in your tented accommodation or into one room at the lounge. Travelling with more than one child when they need their own room/tent would mean that there would be a very few discounts, if any.

 

Tipping

They never seemed to be happy with the party of one even if you leave the recommended percentage of your total price; it’s not only me who noticed this – more the merrier and it makes sense. I had an impression that cooks and porters get paid very little which makes you wonder where the money you pay go.

What follows is my personal account of experiences travelling through parts of Northern Tanzania and Zanzibar with practical information that hopefully some may find useful. It also includes recommendation on things I’d do differently if I’m to repeat the experience.

NB: some practical info may be outdated as I visited the country some 18 months before this travel report was written. I haven’t done any research on prices now and I don’t know what % should be added to prices I quoted in TZS. USD is now some 13% higher in value compared to 18 months ago.

 

 

Kigali, Rwanda – Arusha

I got bored with so many confusing options on how to cross overland from Rwanda to Tanzania; so many things to worry about on the way to Arusha after crossing the RW/TZ border. The other option of crossing the border from Burundi to Tanzania was out of question as there were no useful LPTT’s posts on this topic; my travel literature LP pdf file on Burundi was a waste of money; and the visa for Burundi was valid only for three days. One thing: some useful posts sprang up recently on how to cross from Burundi into Tanzania; those who want to explore this option should have a look at Burundi’s branch.

I flew with Rwandair from Kigali directly to Kilimanjaro International. I made this booking a couple of months in advance and wanted to bring the departure date forward. Got surprised to find out that Rwandair allows one change of date free of charge.

Kigali to KIA was a fantastic flight! Get the left hand side window seat so you could see eastern Rwandan Lakes, Lake Victoria, then flatlands of Serengeti, the most fantastic views of Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano cone, more lakes, Ngorongoro Crater, then you fly above the Arusha town very close to Mount Meru and you get to see Arusha NP too with its lakes and crater before you land in the middle of nowhere. Kilimanjaro wasn’t visible when I flew.

 

Arusha

This place is not too small, but it’s not a megalopolis either. There’s little to see but it’s not ugly; liked the pink façade socialist housing. It’s a nice place to base yourself and explore around and try to organise your safari, Mt Meru or Kilimanajo climbs. Felt safe in daylight, but not after dark. I stayed at Kitunda Guesthouse, shared facilities and it was fine. Bit noisy. Dinners always in the eatery opposite and never paid more than 4k including one soft drink. Breakfast always at the coffee place down the road to the right upon exiting the guesthouse (close to junction with the main asphalted road).

It says in Bradt guide that Monje Guesthouse enforces rigorously anti flycatcher policy. This might have been the case once upon a time, but now they welcome services provided by the aggressive touts. On the top of that they tried to sell the Mount Meru climbing package at the cost of USD900; this went down to USD600 after one question only: why so expensive? Still, I didn’t want to go with them to Mt Meru.

 

Swimming pool at Impala Hotel for 10k. This hotel has its own KIA shuttle, no idea about the costs.

Coffee at Café Africa in the city center is good.

Internet Cafe in Kanisa St won’t allow wifi connection; wifi connection at Internet Prosperous on Colonel Middleton Road possible for 2k p/h; Internet cafe on Stadium Road next to the supermarket 1k p/h but won’t allow wifi connection.

The worst aspect of Arusha was the endless touting – you cannot walk more than five minutes before being intercepted by someone trying to befriend you in order to sell safari. This could be far from a good nature negotiations, chancing it or trying luck; the tout may turn aggressive knowing that you don’t have your safari sorted and refusing to listen to his proposal. I saw them going crazy with foreigners shouting and using abusive language when turned down. Best to avoid entering into any conversation whilst on foot sightseeing Arusha.

I’ve organised my safari and Mount Meru and Kilimanjaro climbs in advance and all I had to do was to negotiate fine details and pay. I wasn’t overly happy with my guide and organisation with the climbs, see below about this. Safari itself was great and would recommend to certain extent the TO we used. Feel welcome to PM as there are some aspects of this TO, both positive and negative, that I don’t want to make public.

 

Mount Meru

Climbing Mount Meru was fantastic when it comes to the trek itself and the views. Some use it as a warm up to their Kilimanjaro climb but others climb Mount Meru only. The climb is great for its magnificent views: views of Arusha NP, mountain itself with its beautiful crater floor and volcanic cones, as well as views of Kilimanjaro. We had 3/3 days of great unobstructed views of everything so consult your guide book on best times to visit. I would rate this climb as more exciting than climbing Kilimanjaro.

Warning re the views: views of Mt Meru and Arusha NP are almost always guaranteed, but views of Kilimanjaro from Mt Meru are hit and miss: Kilimanjaro was visible on 3/3 days when I climbed Mt Meru, but the whole of Kilimanjaro was shrouded in cloud on 6/6 days when I was in the region on the second occasion.

Possible, in theory at least, to organise the trip independently, but you’ll be still heavily dependent on taxis to arrive at and depart from Arusha NP. Worst of all, you’ll be very dependent on the NP rangers which have to be the worst, the laziest, the most inefficient and the most corrupt compared to some 15+ NPs and natural reserves I’ve visited in four countries on this East African trip. More about this below.

Possible to organise the Mt Meru climb (semi) independently. It works out as maybe USD100-150 cheaper than going through the modestly priced TO in Arusha. You would need to organise the drop off at and pick up from Momella Gate. You’d need to take all your food with you, and this is fine if you’re going on a three day trip. You’d be able to leave what you don’t need for safekeeping at various points (lodges) on the trek. No need to bother with hot water bottles as everyone trekking with a guide/porters will donate some hot water for whatever you need it; don’t forget your teabags/instant coffee sachets and a plastic mug. Benefits of organising the trek independently are the reduced cost obviously and you’re not dependent of the guide. The biggest disadvantage of doing this trek independently is, in my opinion, the fact that you’re so dependent on park rangers to guide you firstly on Day 1 then on the night of climbing the summit, see the moan below. Also, I’d go for three days as those who went for four days felt they didn’t get the best value for their money; there was no real benefit of being there for the fourth day other than spending one extra day on the mountain. See below on what happened on the fourth day with those who paid for this extra day.

 

Skip to the next section if you don’t want to read me moaning about the experiences with park rangers and services provided by my guides.

 

  1. The most unfortunate aspect of climbing Mount Meru was the service provided by the NP rangers. You need the services of the Arusha NP rangers regardless if you’re climbing independently or with a guide. You’re depending on Arusha NP rangers for all sort of things: issuing permits, checking you out and accompanying whilst trekking. Having them around at Mt Meru’s lower slopes is understandable as you’re being guarded against buffalos. These could be dangerous animals especially when isolated or lost in the forest by being separated from the herd. But it’s what’s happening on the upper slopes that annoys in particular. The following affects all Mt Meru climbers.

 

Firstly, it took ages to check in. Everyone was there by 10am and we started ‘climbing’ at 1pm, far too hot to start the climb. We took the longer 11km route which follows the main road towards the first camp. And it took almost 5 hours to complete this hike. We only had three stops: the fig tree, a small waterfall and somewhere else. The pole pole attitude was driving me and some other hikers crazy. This distance could have been covered by not more than hiking for 3 hours including a couple of stops, but it took twice that long. Yes, there are faster and slower hikers everywhere and the guides or rangers elsewhere would divide the hikers into two or even more groups and let everyone hike at their own desired pace. Here we had to stick in this group of 30+ with the lazy ranger in front and the useless one at the back. Never mind.

 

The night of the summit ascent: us who had guides mercifully needed no rangers’ help, but the independent trekkers did. They drove them crazy and some missed the sunrise. Others, those in Africa for the first climb of their trip and acclimatising for the Kili climb, missed the sunrise big time, but this was not the rangers’ fault; it was just them being slow. Fine.

 

Then drama and embarrassment on the way down. It was only 5 of us who paid for the three days trek out of the 30+ group and this meant descending from the summit to the park entrance gate in a day. Others who paid for four nights stayed at the Camp 1 used for Day 1 when going up. The five of us were gently reminded that our NP fee includes the X amount of USDs that covers for an emergency rescue. OK… And that would mean the 4×4 would be sent to pick us up from the park entrance to where we were, that was the Camp 1. The guide explained this was a regular practice as some people feel tired and there’s help at hand. We first thought, OK if this is how it works, but then they asked us to fill in forms and state pulled muscles or sprained ankle injury for the record so they can send the emergency vehicle – and this came from the rangers. We had a little chat and decided that we don’t want to have anything to do with this. They got upset and assigned one very unhappy ranger to escort us down to the entrance gate. We just couldn’t believe they’re doing this just because they didn’t want to walk some odd 8km downhill!

 

One more thing if you’re thinking of organising the trek to Mt Meru ‘independently’. The 4 day trippers paid fees for 4 days in the park and they hoped they’d be allowed to visit some other attractions within the park on the fourth day considering that the descent from Camp 1 to the entrance gate would take no more than three hours via the shortest route. They asked for a vehicle to be arranged so they can see Momela Lakes and views from the mini Ngorongoro crater, but this was denied and they were kicked out of the park as soon as they reached the park gate.

 

My guide was not that bad. He was always on time and pretty much organised and efficient and he was genuinely concerned that I have everything I needed to wear on the mountain. It was annoying though to hear him going on about drinking water, doing this and not doing that and it was him who was setting a wrong example by not doing anything we were told to do. It was like he was the one who was the experienced in everything and we were treated as we had no clue how to behave on high altitude mountains. The worst thing was the pole pole up the mountain, far too pole pole for our liking; but it was ‘catch me if you can’ down the mountain. Also, it came as a shock when he pulled out the book written sometimes in the last century on who to tip and by how much to tip on mountain hikes.

 

Lake Duluti

This was a liberating experience as no guide nor ranger is required to visit the lake. The lake is nice and if patient there is surprisingly a lot of wildlife to be encountered.

Two options to reach Lake Duluti from Arusha: 1. Bus to Moshi from Col. Middleton Rd for 2.5k then get off at Duluti; 2. Dala dala towards Duluti for TZS500 from the upper section of Col. Middleton Rd. In both cases, get off at the village of Tengura at Serena Lodge signpost (signpost is on the left, can’t miss it). Or ask the driver/conductor to be dropped off at this signpost.

Once at the signpost follow the different signpost to the Forest Reserve Office some 10 mins from the main road. It’s also possible to reach the lake from just before you enter Tenguru, but there’s nothing to direct you to the lake from this junction.

It’s 20k for self-guided walk which was great; I was left alone for the first time in Tanzania. It’s 50k for the guided walk and it’s maybe 35k p/h for canoeing on the lake.

It takes maybe 1.5hrs to circumnavigate the lake on foot and you can spot many birds, some monkeys, butterflies and monitor lizards. The trek ends at Duluti Club, ask locals to direct you to the main road; they’ll indicate the shortest route. No worries if you end up somewhere different on the main road to where you were dropped off. Just flag down any packed dala dala Arusha bound. Feel free to refuse the ride if too packed, eg there’s no seat available, just wait for 2mins and another dala dala can be flagged down. There’s Resha’s eatery opposite the petrol station where you may end up on the main road waiting for your dala dala. The food is good, don’t let the exterior architecture put you off.

 

Kilimanjaro

Climbed the Marangu route and I have a mixed feelings about it. Climbing Kilimanjaro features great expectations, but also all sorts of anxieties. It’s an amazing sense of achievement if you manage to make it to Uhuru and probably you’ll have a story to tell. Climbing this route comes at a cost though.

Firstly, the Marangu route is overcrowded. Secondly, it’s too short, i.e. the ascent is far too fast resulting in a phenomenal drop out. Thirdly, the views are repetitive, but guides swear this route and one other are the most exciting routes when it comes to views; you only get a sensation that you are actually climbing Kilimanjaro on the day before summiting, that is, when you finally get to see its snow covered peaks.

This is how it went for me, a day by day account:

Day 1: picking up supplies on the way from Arusha to Moshi as well as picking up the cook and porters. Arriving at the Marangu gate around noon. Then the usual bureaucracy when it comes to permits issuing; it takes ages. We finally started the trek around 2pm. Trekking through the high altitude rainforest was OK, but very repetitive. Sleep with hordes of others at Camp 1. Far too busy.

Day 2: It was so busy that some disgusting trekkers found it convenient to using shower rooms as a toilet in the morning. Camp 1 was packed. The trek on Day 2 was another monotonous hike; now you loose forest and trek through moorlands. Some very nice flowers though and later, towards Camp 2, lobelias. I think accommodation and facilities at Camp 2 were slightly better, but this place was heaving with us going up; there were also people from the day before who were staying an extra day to acclimatise; and others on their way down.

Day 3: finally some changes in landscapes as we entered the alpine desert where two volcanic caps were clearly visible: Kibo resembling a fat symmetrical cone with its peak severed off and the other beautiful rugged one resembling a peak of mountains like Alps, Andes or Himalayas. Camp 3 underneath Kibo was the worst; it was very cold inside and many people started feeling the effects of altitude sickness.

Day 4: the summiting attempt may begin at any time between 11pm and 2am; this depends how the guides see you fit. The goal is to reach Gillman Point (Kibo’s rim) before dawn so you can conquer the final 200m attitude by hiking for 1.5-2hrs in relative daylight. See bellow about our experiences on Day 4.

The hike from Camp 3 up to Gillman Point is slow and the drop out rate due to altitude sickness is phenomenal. The big groups get all human resources mobilised at this stage including the porters so these can take down the sick climber one by one so the main guide can remain with the rest of the group. I was impresses that all guides that I met on that night were taking seriously the altitude sickness problem and were able to recognise the symptoms well before any serious damage to health has been done. Those with the altitude sickness symptoms were ordered to go back to the camp and the porter has been assigned to escort them back. Those who made it to Gillman Point and felt fine shouldn’t have too many difficulties covering the final 1.5-2 hours trek to Uhuru; that is in ideal weather conditions. See bellow to what happened to us upon reaching Gillman Point.

Hopefully you reach Stella Point and then Uhuru is just a short distance away. Feeling great and excited and maybe even emotional upon reaching the summit; you stay there as little as possible for the pic to be taken before being nagged by your guide that you must go down asap. Then back to Gillman Point, but now it can be difficult to descent Kibo’s slope in case of snow cover. Your waterproof trousers come handy as you use them to slide down instead of walking that carries a risk of falling or breaking a limb or worse. They’ll let you rest for 30mins or so at Camp 3 before being asked to continue to Camp 2. I and few others refused to have only this little break and we went to sleep for two hours. Climbing down to Camp 2 was easy after what you had to go through the night before. And there’s so much oxygen, you can really feel the difference.

Day 5: an easy descent to the Marangu gate via Camp 1; we were at the gate around noon, but if trekking with a group then you could end up at the gate as late as 5pm.

What follows is my personal account of what really happened on Day 4; problems with the guide; park visiting bureaucracy, costs and value for money; and how I’d do things differently if I was ever to climb Kilimanjaro again.

Skip to next section if you catch yourself yawning.

Marangu Route, Day 4, 7th Feb 2014: Three of us were selected by our guides as fit to start climbing the slopes of Kibu at the latest possible slot which was the 2am one. Great, I was well accustomed to altitude by climbing in Rwenzoris, Virungas and Mt Meru before climbing Kilimanjaro. The other guys were on Mt Kenya and Mt Meru before this. None of us experienced any difficulties and we were always the quickest and first to arrive at every stage of climbing Kilimanjaro. Good stuff.

So we started our ascent at 2am. It was snowing outside, a light snow. And it wasn’t too cold considering the altitude. We went up zig zagging the slope of Kibo and started overtaking other climbers. The amount of people dropping out was astonishing; you could really tell those people were not well. The snow showers intensified, but there was nothing to be worried about; the protective clothing we had was of a good quality. We arrived before everyone else (overtook all others) at Gillman Point 5700m altitude, at around 6am and this is when the drama starts.

As soon as we reached Gillman Point (the rim of the crater) the snow shower turned into a blizzard. The snow felt on my face as someone was throwing a dozen of needles per second at high speed. I took my glove off so I can pull the bottle of water from my rucksack and the skin cracked around my finger nails from cold and I saw droplets of blood forming. The worst thing was that I couldn’t warm up my hand for the next 15 minutes or so. The wind become stronger and we were walking through some 30cm of snow. Everything was frozen: hair sticking out under the hood, our rucksacks and our shoes. We were walking very slowly and making some progress. Then the wind turned really really strong that we had to walk sideways and occasionally duck down in order not to fall or even be blown off. The wind was so strong that we had difficulties breathing. This happened some half way between Gillman Point and Uhuru.

This meant that those minute amounts of oxygen available up there were difficult to get absorbed by our lungs and what follows was something I don’t ever want to experience again. I felt dizzy and very slow. I was unable to talk properly; it took me ages to understand what someone is saying and probably twice as long to respond; and I really wanted to sleep. It was so bad that at one point I thought I was going to die. Later I spoke to some other people who made it that far and they told me they had the same feeling and I know now these are the symptoms of High Altitude Cerebral Edema. Or it just could have been hypoxia. I’ll never find out.

We were only 30mins away from Uhuru when the wind suddenly weakened and it stopped snowing. I was just keeping my eye on these two fellow climbers and kept encouraged by their progress; they were some 20-30m away in front of me. I thought: it they can make it so can I. The girl was so week and close to collapsing so the guide and her friend had to hold her so she stays upright and on her feet. If at any point these two guys turned back and said they want to go back, then I’d admit defeat and turned back with them.

We finally reached Uhuru but I don’t think any of us felt we achieved something amazing at that time. I remember their guide congratulated me, but all I managed to reply was something along: mmmmh. My guide took my camera and I posed for pics with the Uhuru sign behind me. He kept pointing the camera at me holding it and it was taking ages to take a pic. I finally managed to utter something asking like if everything was ok, but my oxygen starved brain took some time to understand the reply. The guide was saying that the camera was video recording and he was unable to take a pic. This accidental video recording with me taking ages to respond is probably my most precious souvenir from my travels. And another 20secs video I took when the lull in weather happened when I recorded the 360 degrees panorama at Uhuru; not because of landscapes, but because of my breathing that sounded shaky and mournful; not loud but quiet and strange. This sounds like an adventure now, but it didn’t feel like that up there. I just had one thought on my mind at that time: just get me off this mountain. The blizzard returned on or way to Gillman Point and by the time we reached it we were so week.

We met only a handful of other people heading toward Uhuru on our way back to Gillman Point, but at that time we couldn’t care less where the others were. Then we discovered that only the first nine people from the Marangu route who reached Gillman Point that morning made it to Uhuru; the guides decided not to proceed with others after the bad blizzard kicked in. And the whole of the Machame route was forced back some 700m before reaching Stella Point. This means that only nine people made it that day out of 250+ on the Marangu route and whatever the figure was for the Machame route. We only realised how lucky we were the following evening when we were able to calm down and partially recover from the night before.

Anyway, the wind weakened once we were back on the slopes of Kibo and it was possible to breathe again. But now there was a new challenge: it snowed so much that it was almost impossible to walk back using Kibo’s zig zag path. Instead we were sliding down using our waterproof trousers for sledges. We were told we have 30 mins rest at Camp 3 before we head to Camp 2, but we told the guides we needed to sleep and we had a two hour nap; these two hours rejuvenated our bodies.   No problems with going back to Camp 2.

 

Issues with my guide:

I had the same guide for both Mt Meru and Kilimanjaro. I should have really booked these two climbs separately just in case I wasn’t happy with the first climb so I can try someone different for the second. Well, it made sense at the time to pay everything together, but that was a mistake.

My guide had the easiest job on the mountain as I’m a very low maintenance client demanding nothing extra and, what they usually appreciate, is the speed and efficiency we do the climb. I don’t complain about the food, I don’t demand semi skimmed milk and flat lattes with cinnamon flavouring. And I felt they appreciated that.

What I really wanted from my guide was to do his side of the deal and provide guidance and not to be a hypocrite. Going up had to be pole pole, but going down was again ‘catch me if you can’. It was annoying having to listen to ‘do this, do that and drink water’ when he wouldn’t do this nor that and neither would carry a bottle of water let alone drink any. Fine.

The worst bit was that I felt abandoned and totally betrayed once in the snow blizzard when we passed Gillman Point. I didn’t know what was happening with me at that stage, but again it was pole pole up to Uhuru. Then he put such a pressure on me to go back as quickly as possible even though I never felt weaker in my life. I understood he wanted us out of there in case the blizzard came back. But on Kibo’s slope towards the Camp 3 he got so impatient that he went 500m ahead of me; the weather conditions were fine at the slope. Then he said that 30 mins is what I should be getting at the camp to rest. Our reply was that we need to sleep and that he should get us in two hours. We told the guides that they’re free to go to Camp2 as we don’t need their help to get there; we were just so weak that we needed to sleep and that’s what we did in the end. He behaved nicely after he realised I was so angry with him. He did, however, found it necessary to mention how the porters and the cook should be tipped by quoting some travel literature. I ignored him and gave him on the last day 10% of my cost in TZS in front of everyone so he could distribute the tips however he likes it.

The only thing I was grateful to my guide was his advice about what to wear up there and how to dress properly. And the rest of his services I want to forget; really lost desire to have a guided trek ever again.

 

Park visiting bureaucracy, costs and value for money

Climbing Kilimanjaro is expensive and almost exclusively reserved to visitors coming from the developed world. The costs correspond to demand which, judging by climbing Marangu Route, is insatiable. Luckily you don’t have to do anything with the rangers on this hike, but the bureaucracy when it comes to permit issuing is there and it’s boring. Yes, the amazing sense of achievement is there and now I think no money can buy that feeling, but the quality of service and facilities are poor value for money. This is my opinion only, but it’s shared by many who I met on Marangu Route.

Things I’d do differently if I’m to climb Kilimanjaro again

Firstly I’d get a reputable and responsible tour operator, but the problem is how to find one among the scores of those registered with TZ tourist board. As with safaris, the recommendations posted on this forum can be misleading as I may have a completely different experience with your recommended tour operator. For example, TO may change the guide and have someone terrible as a cook. And how do you go around the prices for climbing Kilimanjaro when this can range from something like USD1200 to maybe USD2000 pp, or even couple of times more than this when booked abroad? The logic of paying more in order to get a better services doesn’t apply when climbing Kilimanjaro. This is a good post to have a look before start searching for a TO:

https://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forums/africa/tanzania/tips-on-climbing-kilimanjaro-on-a-budget-and-responsible-tourism?page=1#post_21242153

Then I’d definitely do some prior acclimatisation as I did on this trip; it really helped. I’d choose Machame route over Marangu even though I don’t feel comfortable sleeping in tents at high altitude – this is how Marangu Route with people in their hundreds is off-putting. Finally, I’d carry the oxygen bottle but would only use it if necessary before climbing the last few hundred meters of altitude. That is, if I could go as far to Gillman Point or Stella Point. I don’t think this is cheating if you need it only at this altitude. It would be pity to give up because of, e.g. difficulties of breathing due to horrible weather as it happened to us up there.

 

That’s it re Kilimanjaro.

 

Moshi

An ordinary town with an extraordinary backdrop! Hope Kilimanjaro reveals itself for the duration of your stay in Moshi. (Un)safe just as Arusha. Kilimajnaro Backpackers charges 16.5k p/n; hot water and wifi available.

 

Usumbara Mountains

This was the most pleasant surprise in Tanzania. The mountains are beautiful with roads passing through some breathtaking landscapes and lovely villages. Plenty of activities such as hiking, biking, cultural visits and more are all available to arrange inexpensively, yes, you read it right, inexpensively!, in Lushoto. This is because Usumbara Mountains are not, well, not yet, designated as a national park and the usual NP fees don’t apply to the region.

Possible to get to Lushoto directly from Dar as well as from Arusha and Moshi. Possible to get on a direct bus from Arusha/Moshi all the way to Mtae village via Lushoto and Mambo. Yes, this is possible despite to what your guide book may say. The road from Lukozi to Mtae is bad in sections and you may want to explore alternative ways of getting back.

I travelled from Moshi on Fasaha express service (Chakito Long Way is their agent at Moshi’s bus station) to Mambo via Lushoto on Mtae bound bus. Forgot to note how much it was, but I don’t think it was more than 20k. Fasaha bus departs Arusha at 6.3am and picks up passengers in Moshi at 7.30am. Then on boda boda from the Mambo junction to Mambo Cliff Inn.

It’s worth staying at Mambo Cliff Inn for views as well as for the cost. However, the food service was the slowest in Tanzania even when you preorder. They also had issues with running water when I was there. I had a word with the owner, Mr Ndege – who happens to be the manager at a far posher Mambo Viewpoint 10 mins uphill – and he assured me that things will improve in Mambo Cliff Inn. I used Mambo Cliff Inn to sleep and eat only but had to go to to Mambo Viewpoint for arranging hikes, accessing the web or charging my phone battery. Mr Ndege can inexpensively arrange the day hikes as well as provide information on transportation in the region.

See this on what to do in Usumbara mountains:

https://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forums/africa/tanzania/walking-in-usambaras?page=1#post_21419593

I arranged boda boda back with my Mambo/Mtae guide to Lukozi when I was done with Usambaras in order to avoid bad section of the road. We went via Mamboleo and Manolo so I got to see some new landscapes and the ride was fantastic. Really beautiful scenery. More to this, the villagers in this region are so not used to seeing mzungus and they literally froze and stopped doing whatever they did upon laying their eyes on me. The boda boda driver found this amusing and laughed so much that at one point I thought he was gonna wet himself.

Stayed for the night in Lushoto, but I found it uninspiring after what I experienced around Mambo and Mtae.

It’s possible to get a ticket in advance for the bus ride to Dar, but you’d need to go to the junction on the main road and get one. The junction is maybe a couple kms away from Lushoto city centre; 1-2k on boda boda from Lushoto city center.

The bus ride to Dar was 15k on Shambala Express departing 7.30am; it departed 8.45am actually. It took maybe 8 hours because we spent almost 3 hours sitting in traffic on the immediate approach to Dar due to roadworks in many sections of the main highway.

 

Dar es Salaam

I had to go there to pick up my brother and my niece. There was really not much which would keep me sightseeing for more than a couple of hours. We had an hour long taxi tour for USD15 and walked only around the fish market which was the most interesting sight in Dar. Taxi to the airport was an additional USD20.

Dar’s bus station is at least 8km from Kariakoo/city centre; taxi asked for 25k, but boda boda will do it for 8k.

 

 

Safari

See above on how I organised safari and safari with kids.

We did Lake Manyara, Serengeti, Ngorongoro and Arusha NP. If we were again to spend 4-5 days in this part of Tanzania then we’d swap Lake Manyara for some extra time in Serengeti. Arusha NP was amazing and we were surprised to find out that only a handful of visitors make an effort to visit this park. One thing I’d do differently would be not to stay in Arusha NP but in Arusha city on the way from Ngorongoro then get as early as possible to Arusha NP the next day. My ideal 5 day safari would be:

Day 1: drive all the way to Serengeti, overnight in Serengeti

Day 2: Serengeti, Serengeti overnight

Day 3: Serengeti, Serengeti to Ngorongoro, overnight in Ngorongoro

Day 4: Ngorongoro, Ngorongoro-Mto Wa Mbu ; Mto Wa Mbu cultural visit with Mto Wa Mbu Cultural Tourism Programme then overnight in Arusha city

Day 5: Arusha NP for a half day or for the whole day: Momela Lakes and the crater visit are great. Be at the gates as soon as the park opens in the morning and share the park with almost nobody. Ask the driver to take you to the Kilimanjaro lookout(s) which are located along the ‘main road’ to camp Day 1 on Mt Meru climb; this is in case you’re for the whole day in Arusha NP and of course, providing Kilimanjaro unhides itself from the shroud of clouds on the day you’re visiting.

We stayed in all sorts of accommodations: tent, tented accommodation (tent with beds inside) and lodges. The Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge was SO not me holidaying around and it was full of well off Europeans enjoying luxury and being snobbish; I stayed there because of my niece. However, it’s worth staying at this lodge for views from your room (last/first light of the day). I’d definitely stay in tented accommodation only if I was to repeat my safari experience. Nothing wrong staying in tents for those on tight budget.

One thing I thought of as a clear rip off was the Balloon Safari. Yes, the experience must be great especially if you’re there at sunrise on a clear sky day, but USD500 (plus some more money for whatever fees they thought off) for an hour in hot air balloon was expensive. They take pride (and justify the price) for offering Out of Africa experience after the balloon ride which includes Champagne breakfast under the acacia tree served on China with silverware and the service staff as in the colonial days. Which all sounded a bit perverse to me. I asked them to quote their price just for the balloon ride and asked if there would be any child discount. I received negative answer to both questions and decided not to pay that much money as I was genuinely only interested in the hot air balloon experience.

We loved the Mto Wa Mbu Maasai cultural experience organised by Mto wa Mbu Cultural Tourism Programme; my niece was really excited with what she experienced on the hour long visit.

 

 

Zanzibar

We based ourselves in Stone Town and hired a car with the driver to visit various parts of the island. We also had a day tour to Prison Island snorkelling off the coast of Bowe and spending the rest of that day on the sand bank. If doing the day excursion make sure you ask in advance for the sun shade to be provided. The excursion was excellent at the cost of USD35 p/p and we got this organised through Sena Tours.

Taxi from the airport to Stone Town is USD10; Kiponda Guesthouse was USD75 p/n (family room with four beds), otherwise USD30 p/p p/n for other rooms. Kiponda Guesthouse was superbly located with good breakfast and it was very clean.

Walking tour o Stone Town was USD10 and it included some entrance fees; very interesting 2.5 hours around Stone Town. You can get a free map of Stone Town at the Tourist Information Office at Portuguese Fort.

Green Garden restaurant was excellent, but good luck finding it.

Our driver charged USD100 p/d and this included all waiting times; this was organised through Kiponda Guesthouse.

We didn’t regret basing ourselves in Stone Town, on the contrary, we loved it. I’d definitely hire a car next time from the airport as driving around the island seemed very easy. There are permanent police posts around demanding ‘coffee money’ from locals, but mzungus seem to be exempted from this extortion. Another nice place to maybe relocate after Stone Town would be Kendwa beach in the far north of the island. The beaches are beautiful in the north and swimming is not affected by tides as in the east of the island. We didn’t like beaches in the east to be honest; one long stretch of sand turning into mud plains at low tides. The Rock restaurant has to be seen to be believed at high tides; the location, ambience, water and the colours of the sea will make this an unforgettable experience. The food is expensive as in a good restaurant in Western Europe though.

One thing impossible to miss was corruption in Zanzibar. Those in authority seemed to be the worst offenders. The airport staff too asks for tips. And things go missing at the airport from bags with pockets that can’t be locked.

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