Author: John D.
Date of Trip: September 2006
Ten of us just returned from a combination diving/safari trip in Kenya and Tanzania. We dove the Pemba Island area north of Zanzibar on the Kisawani, a small (65 foot) live-aboard, operating out of the Pemba Fishing Lodge in Shimoni, Kenya. The diving was exceptional and the safari all you could ask for.
The trip started out less than enjoyable as our plane from San Antonio was held on the runway for over an hour due to bad weather in Houston. Upon arrival, we found out that our British Airways flight had been canceled ten hours earlier. They not only failed to tell us, they let us get boarding passes online just that morning. The canceled flight resulted in us being shunted on another British Airways flight and a later flight on Continental. As last minute add-ons, this meant middle seats all the way. When we arrived at Gatwick Airport (London) we had to board a bus to Heathrow Airport (London). Even though we were on the same airline, we had to take our bags with us. Of course, this meant processing British customs and immigration.
The ride to Heathrow was reasonable, but since we had come in on a flight hours earlier than scheduled we had over eight hours to kill. British Airways will not let you check in sooner than three hours before the flight. Rather than wander around the airport pushing our large bags carrying diving gear, photography equipment and safari clothing, we checked into the Hilton at the airport. Expensive, but we needed a shower and somewhere to rest before the flight that evening. The three individuals that were coming over later on the Continental flight would do their waiting in Houston. We returned to the airport three hours before departure to find out that you were only allowed a very small carry-on. Smaller than a computer case. That meant checking our carry-on bag and stuffing everything we could into our pockets.
The flight to Nairobi was uneventful and after immigration we collected our bags and walked to the domestic terminal. We were informed the flight was canceled and that we would be on a later flight (much later) to Mombasa. We also learned since we came in on British Airways we would have to pay overweight charges ($56 to $98) per person on our Kenya Airways flight. We wandered around the airport and found a small restaurant that was open. Food was adequate and cheap so we sat at the table until time for our flight.
The flight to Mombasa was just over an hour and we were met at the airport by the representatives of the Pemba Fishing Lodge (the first part of the trip that had gone according to plan). They transferred us to the lodge at Shimoni, and we sat there for several hours while they prepared the boat for our arrival. They did arrange for us to get a shower (probably more for their comfort than ours as we had been traveling a long time in the same clothes) and some tea.
We boarded the Kisawani about midnight and departed for Pemba Island. The boat holds ten people in four small rooms and one large one. The large room has an ensuite bath and the other rooms share two lavatories and showers. No problem as that is what most live-aboards were like in the 80’s. We did encounter some problems. The boat only produced 14 gallons of fresh water an hour, and they were already short so we had to limit ourselves to one real shower a day. We actually ran out of water one day and were restricted to using water for drinking only for 18 hours. The air conditioner in some of the rooms had a broken fan system so they were quite warm (they did fix that during the trip). Heck, we were here to dive; what were a few inconveniences.
We got up the next day at about 6:30 AM, a feat after being awake so long and traveling through several time zones. Breakfast was fresh fruit, toast butter, jam, peanut butter and Marmite (the British answer to Australian marmalite), and an excellent home-made cereal. Breakfast was the same every morning until the last day when we actually got an egg with sausage and bacon (unfortunately, the British version).
Diving equipment was stored on the back deck (very small) and diving was from two zodiacs (six in one and four in the other). There was a small basket for each two people (my partner and I seemed to always lose ours so they had one on the zodiac to hold cameras). There was a wash tub for wetsuits (cleaned occasionally) and one little plastic tub for cameras. If you had a small digital still camera and slave strobe it would fit in the tub. If you have a video system with any type of lights, forget about it. If they would get a large plastic garbage can for the wetsuits, they could use the large tub for cameras. Any arrangement other than the existing one would be an improvement. The zodiac motors occasionally failed to start, but the skipper was always able to eventually fix whatever was wrong.
The diving was fantastic. You could tell very few people had ever been around here and the sea life was abundant. We saw turtles, schools of fish, lionfish, rays, and nudibranchs on every dive. Spanish Dancers were regularly sighted on every night dive. None of us found anything to complain about as far as the diving was concerned. The crew was also excellent. They would do whatever it took to get you the dive you wanted. The cook on the boat was a treasure and the food presented was enjoyed by all. We had a great deal of fresh fish of every variety during the week.
The week passed swiftly, and we found ourselves back at the Pemba Lodge for dinner. We would sleep on the boat that night and depart at 5 AM for the Mombassa Airport for our flight to Kilimanjaro. The airline had strict weight limits so the Lodge agreed to deliver all our bags in Nairobi for $20 a person. Really cheap when you consider the distance to Nairobi and the weight of our diving gear. We began the trip to Mombassa with one of the vehicles refusing to start. The other van towed it down this old dirt road at high speed until, after numerous tries, it did start. Then we were off.
At Mombassa everything went smoothly. We processed in, checked our bags and waited for the flight. The flight on the small plane was about an hour, and we all stared at Mount Kilimanjaro (that fantastic peak of Hemingway fame) as we made our final approach to the airport. Much of the glacier has melted away in recent years, but it still looks majestic.
We were met at the airport by Mussa and Rehmtula, our guides and protectors for the next week. They packed us into two land rovers, and we headed for Arusha the gateway to the Serengeti. We were to spend the first day touring the Tarangire National Park. We saw uncountable zebras and wildebeests, elephants, giraffes, waterbucks, dic-dics, four cheetahs, ten lions and a herd of cape buffalo, not counting birds and other critters. That night we stayed at the tent lodge. These are not just tents, but excellent accommodations with showers and bathrooms. There were no outlets in the tents so we charged our camera batteries at the bar in the main lodge. Dinner was excellent (buffet style as were all the meals on the trip) and so was breakfast the next morning. Five of us opted for an early morning game drive and left right after sunrise (all parks are closed to traffic from sunset to sunrise each day) to see what was wandering around. We encountered large herds of zebras and wildebeests on the move. Our sojourn was cut short when the clutch went out on the land rover.
We limped back to the lodge. Since the clutch could not be fixed they decided to drive it in one gear back toward Arusha. The company would meet us with a new vehicle at the intersection going to Ngorongoro Crater. After changing vehicles, we were again on our way.
We had to stop at the entrance to Ngorongoro, as we were traversing the crater on our way to the Serengeti Plains. We all needed the restrooms, but failed to close all the windows in the vehicle. When we came out a baboon was just escaping with a bag of potato chips I had purchased earlier. He sat there contentedly eating one chip after the other until they were gone. He absolutely refused to share with any of the other baboons or us.
We began the long climb up the hill to the crater rim. After stopping there a few minutes to enjoy the view we began our descent toward the Serengeti. This was a bone-jarring, bladder-busting ride through clouds of dust raised from the road. No vehicle could take this type of punishment at high speed, and ours was no exception. The right front shock went out, requiring a temporary (30 or 40 second) repair before continuing.
We eventually allowed the other vehicle to continue on as we bounced along at a slower (but no less bumpy) speed. The slow speed did allow us to see a lot of animals, including two male lions that were lying in the road and refused to budge. Our guide said he had never seen that before. It was after dark when we arrived at the Sopa Serengeti Lodge. We got to the dining room just before they shut down, ate dinner, and then went to our rooms. The lodge is luxurious and comfortable but hot water is unavailable from 9 PM until 6 AM. That meant getting a shower as soon as we could. A trowel would have been more use at getting all the dust off, but the hot water felt fantastic.
We awoke the next morning to coffee being delivered to the room. We went out on the balcony watching the sun light up the unending plains before us, and could see two hot air balloons off on the horizon. Hot air balloon is the way to travel, but only does a small portion of the total area.
After a leisurely breakfast, we went back on the road. Our guides had traveled to the closest Masai village and got parts to fix the shock (it would last the rest of the day). We then headed across the plain toward Lake Victoria. We stayed that night at the Lobo Wilderness Lodge. It is actually built into a cliff with the trees coming up through portions of the dining room. This is the oldest lodge in the Serengeti (over 40 years old) and somewhat dated. The area is on the main wildebeest migration route, and is always full. Dinner was in shifts. I asked for the early shift as I told them that we were used to eating earlier in the USA than they were in Europe.
The sunrise was awe inspiring and after breakfast we were on our way. The shock lasted about 20 miles. They would meet us at the Ngorongoro Crater road with a new vehicle. We got to the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge (late as usual) which is located at 7800 feet above sea level. It was cool, and the view was stupendous. The lodge is total luxury from the rooms to the dining area. The next day we would be in the crater.
After breakfast we entered the crater. The morning mist was just starting to clear off. One of our first sightings was three lions (one male and two females) lying by the road next to their fresh kill, a wildebeest. It had been partially eaten, and the lions were resting between feasts.
The day only got better from there with hippos, lions, hyenas, and even three black rhinos. By the end of the day we were ready to leave. The week had allowed us to see every animal available in the three parks. As we climbed the hill it began to mist and then rain; as even the sky was sorry our trip was ending. It rained all that night so the next day we encountered mud in place of the dust.
We were on our way to the Masai Village Lodge for our last night. A pristine lodge located in the heart of Masai country. For the first time we arrived somewhere early in the day. That left time for a hike to the local waterfall. Most wanted to rest, but four of us followed our two Masai guides on the walk to the falls. The Masai use old tires (preferably motorcycle) for footwear. Our guide must had been on motorcycle ones as he turned the hike into a recreation of the Bataan Death March. When we finally got to the falls after a 50 minute forced march, we had to rest a few moments before we had the strength to pick up our cameras and take some pictures. The Masai were not even sweating. The walk back was much slower as I think the guides suspected we were fading fast.
When we got back to the rooms we had a shower and then went to dinner. An excellent South African wine was available (as it was at all the resorts) so we sat there drinking as the sun went down and we waited for dinner to be prepared.
That night the Masai put on a traditional dance exhibition for us. And after the show was over we all went to our rooms. The next day would be driving to Arusha, and then on to Nairobi for our flight home.
Our bags were waiting at Nairobi as promised. After a few more minor delays (British Airways said their system would not allow them to check the baggage through to San Antonio) we were on our way. The trip home was long, but not as tiring or irritating as the trip over. We did have one final inconvenience as we all had at least one bag missing when we collected our baggage in San Antonio. The missing bags were delivered the next night and the trip was then officially over.
Would I do it again? Yes, and I will, but not on British Airways. It will take me a year or two to prepare but the diving is world class and the animals will not be around forever. The vast plains covered with wildlife are a sight you will never forget. It is sad to think that one day it will all be gone.