Getting There was Half the Battle!

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Alright, so now you’ve been properly introduced to Team Cantrailia, I might as well go back slightly in time, and cover off the journey to get to Africa. As the title implies, making our way to the snows of Kilimanjaro would prove to be the longest journey I’ve ever taken for a vacation. New Zealand seems a relative cakewalk in comparison. Just imagine for a moment being in transit for over 40 hours! Not a really fun endeavour, but a necessary evil. Part of the problem was that we were flying into Nairobi, Kenya, but would be based in Arusha, Tanzania. The two, while seeming to be relatively close on a map, are in fact a long way apart. But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself here. Settle into a comfy chair, and let me regale you with the story of flying the friendly skies and bouncing our way through Africa. To put you in the mood, here is a set of pictures from the trip over. After that, click back and read my tale.

When we first started looking into this trip, we had found a few cheap flights that would have taken us right to Kilimanjaro Airport, pretty close to Arusha, for a decent price. However, after hemming and hawing, we ended up having to book a flight to Nairobi instead, adding some distance to the trip, but lowering the price. Our actual routing was Ottawa -> Montreal -> Zurich -> Mombasa -> Nairobi. And you all know how much I love sleeping in moving vehicles. That’s right, poor ole ActiveSteve could only manage to really squeeze in an ActiveNap in the Zurich airport on our 6 hour layover. All in all, the flights weren’t all that bad, although the in-seat entertainment systems were old school, with no movies ‘on demand’ but rather on a schedule. I still managed to watch quite a few, and the food was pretty decent, so that was nice.

The first legs from Ottawa to Zurich were basically overnight, so there wasn’t much to see. Luckily, the next segment was in daylight, so I got to snap a few good shots of the alps, as well as marvel at the massive shifting sands of the Sahara desert which we flew over. By the time we actually landed in Kenya though, it was night time once again. We had a brief layover in Mombasa, a coastal city in Kenya. It was quite unbearably hot and muggy, but luckily, heading back inland to Nairobi dried the air out a bit, and brought temperatures back to a manageable level. When we finally landed in Nairobi, it was after midnight local time. The customs procedures were pretty easy to breeze through, and we had soon met with our local driver taking us to a hotel. We finally got to sleep around 1am, but had to be up by about 6am in order to eat some breakfast and be on our ‘shuttle’ to Arusha with the rest of our group.

This is where we first got to do a bit of meet and greet. As we were waiting in the lobby, Deb from Australia first introduced herself to us (after she had mistakenly paid twice for her room ;-), and soon after that, the other 4 in our group made their way over, and we soon found out that we were the core group of our trip. Good start, and we all chatted together while waiting for the ‘shuttle’. By now, you’ll note I used quotes to describe our transport. Whereas we sort of thought we’d have semi-private transport, we were instead put into a 20 or so person van, which ended up stopping multiple times to pick up locals and another tour company group before finally heading onto the open ‘road’.

Note again the quotes here, as the road from Nairobi to Arusha is an interesting study in road sciences. Most of the way was bumpy dirt road, with many ‘deviations’ and detours to keep us on our toes. Although the distance was only around 250km, it ended up taking us over 8 hours to make the trip! This included only a single stop at a tourist shop and the border crossing between Kenya and Tanzania. At the tourist shop, I of course had no Kenyan money, but Deb was kind enough to offer us some cash for a snack should we want it. As Vivien Leigh said in A Streetcar Named Desire… “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” It was a small gesture, but in terms of how long this ride was becoming, it was very nice. This ride was becoming absolute madness. Here we were looking forward to Day 1 of our trip, but it was totally spent in transit again 🙁

Once in Arusha, we had to change to yet another shuttle to take us from the depot to our actual lodge for the night, which was located on a crazy road up in the hills around Arusha, in the foothills of Mount Meru. However, before heading there, I asked our driver to take us somewhere to change our Yankee bucks into Tanzanian shillings. While they are happy to take USD everywhere, the price is literally 30% or so more expensive, so we opted instead to put all our money into local currency. Now, given that the exchange rate was around 1300 shillings per USD, we all felt like millionaires after converting our money, after all, we each had hundreds of thousands of shillings in our pockets (try stuffing that into a wallet and folding it!). With that out of the way, we completed the final part of our trip to Arusha.

Tired, thirsty, and dusty, we finally arrived to our home base. All in all, it was a pretty impressive little lodge (with surprisingly good cooking). It had Internet, a gift shop, a big fresh water pool, a bar, restaurant, and reasonable rooms and beds (with awesome mosquito nets!). On arrival, staff were on hand and waiting to carry our bags to our rooms and eager to help us out. The African people in general everywhere we were had a very genuine friendliness to them. That was nice. Language was occasionally an issue, but politeness was the norm.

By now, I’d also taken charge of suggesting to everyone we should first settle in, then meet poolside for a dip, before adjourning to the restaurant / bar for an early meal. Oh yeah, did I mention that no one had told us we’d be on the road for 8 hours? As a result, we hadn’t eaten all day, so hunger was definitely an issue. Although by that point, I was more interested in cooling off with a dip and a beer 🙂 After a quick unpacking and luggage check, I made my way to the pool, where most of the group did eventually pay a visit to (although not everyone braved the chilly waters). Regardless, it certainly made me feel much better. Off for a quick shower, then to the bar.

There is nothing quite like the first beer after a long journey, is there? I opted not to go straight to the ‘Kilimanjaro Ale’, as I didn’t think I deserved it yet. Instead, I tried out a Tusker Ale. Delicious. Although tempted to drink the night away and get to know everyone even better, we all took it pretty easy that night. After all, the next morning we’d [finally] be starting our adventure in earnest. We were to be picked up early in our Safari vehicle to make our way to Arusha National Park and the incomparable Ngorongoro crater. However, I’ll save that for another post. Wouldn’t want to spoil you with too many stories at once 🙂

Final thoughts on the first day in Africa? Hmmm, well, they have a long way to go in the roads department, but are working on it. From what we saw, it appears as though China is sinking quite a bit of money into pushing through improvements. Secondly, it was amazing to see in all the little towns how many people are on foot and on bicycle (yay!), as well as the fact that every 3rd storefront seemed to be a bar (but for locals only). Also, good travel mates go a long way to making a trip bearable, and even in those first 8 hours, bonds were being made that would sustain us throughout the trip.

Stay tuned for the next chapter in this story….

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