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ghost town

December tends to be a quiet month as far as work is concerned. A week after we returned from our Tanzania trip, Kenya celebrated its most important holiday, Jamhuri Day, which marks both Kenya’s independence from Great Britain on Dec 12, 1963 and the establishment of Kenya’s first republic on the same date the following year (jamhuri means republic in Kiswahili). After Jamhuri Day, Nairobi becomes a bit of a ghost town, as Kenyans flock to the beach to enjoy the beautiful weather that follows the end of November’s short rains. As most of them do not return to work until after the New Year, a lot of Embassy staff take leave in December as well.

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next paradise

Our arrival in Zanzibar was greeted with rain and gloomy skies – an ominous way to start a beach holiday. As we drove through the flooded streets of several small settlements, we cursed for the nth time the fact that our vacation coincided with Tanzania’s rainy season. Fortunately, the eastern coast of Zanzibar, where we were staying, is shielded from the weather patterns that afflict much of the rest of the island. By the time we reached Pwani Mchangani, which literally translates to the sandy coast, we had left the rain behind and had nothing but perfect blue skies overhead. A week on the beach with cloudless skies and 32°C weather was just what we needed after our rain-soaked Kili climb.

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we are waswahili

Upon our arrival in Zanzibar, we were immediately accosted by a dozen eager taxi drivers, all of whom seemed to belong to one taxi company. The taxi stand had a list of set rates that mirrored the inflated resort prices, with the crucial distinction that the taxi drivers were willing to negotiate. One of the first things our Swahili teacher taught us was the vocabulary for bargaining, and we dare say we did her proud, negotiating the price down by almost 30%. Interestingly, our hotel had sent its own shuttle to pick us up despite the fact that we did not want to make use of the hotel’s transport services. Even more interestingly, the shuttle operators refused to negotiate, seemingly content to go back empty-handed rather than deviate from the hotel’s established rate.

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no more cowbell

While neighboring Kenya has its fair share of red tape, Tanzania takes the cake for senseless bureaucratic inefficiency. On Kilimanjaro, for example, we had to sign in with our permit number at every camp on the mountain – even the one at Mweka where we had not stayed – and list not just who we were and where we were from, but also how much we had paid for the tour. On safari, it took at least half an hour at each park gate to pay our entrance fees even when there were no other visitors in sight. At Ngorongoro, we actually watched our guide run back and forth three times from the permit issuing office to the permit inspection office that was right next door, and after everything was deemed in order he still had to brandish the permit twice more to enable us to descend into the crater.

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the great crater


After two days in the Serengeti, we moved on to the Ngorongoro Crater, the largest crater in the world. We had thought that the animal sightings would be much better there because the crater is a natural enclosure. We were wrong. Evidently, up to 20% or more of the wildebeest and half the zebra populations vacate Ngorongoro in the wet season. In addition, there are no impala, topi, giraffe, or crocodile populations there. Read more

Serengeti scarcity

The Serengeti derives its name from the Maasai language Maa and means “endless plains.” It spans some 12,000 sq miles and hosts the largest mammal migration in the world. From August to October, approximately 2 million herbivores, primarily wildebeest but also zebra and plains game, travel from the northern hills of the Maasai Mara towards the southern plains of the Serengeti, swimming across the Mara river in pursuit of greener pastures. After giving birth to roughly 500,000 calves between February and April, the wildebeest recross the river, returning to the Mara in July-August.

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Zara empire

Most companies that guide Kilimanjaro also offer safari trips to Tanzania’s major game parks. Because we booked the trip last minute once D’s vacation was approved, we had little time to explore our options. On the recommendation of friends who had just climbed Kili this summer, we went with Zara Tours.

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the long way down

If the way up was tough, the descent from Kilimanjaro proved to be pure torture. We did not linger long at the summit. D took some pictures and called his dad. He tried to phone S’s parents too, but by then his brain was too numb with the cold to dial the numbers properly. Knowing full well that we had a long day of hiking ahead of us, we raced down the mountain, arriving at base camp a little after 8am. Having just spent eight hours climbing in lieu of sleeping, it was hard to resist our tent, which beckoned with the seductive warmth of our sleeping bags. But resist we did. Without changing, we packed our gear, had breakfast, and hit the trail again around 9:30.

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summit day

As we lay in our tent listening to the steady patter of frozen rain, even D’s optimism began to flag. The previous night, the weather did not clear up until almost nightfall, so D refused to be concerned when the rain that began falling upon our arrival at base camp turned to sleet, and later to hail. Some form of frozen precipitation continued to fall throughout the day, however, so we stayed in our tent, drinking way more water than we needed to in order to stay hydrated, and making frequent bathroom trips to break up the tedium as a result.

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inhospitable mountain

Spending six days camping on Kilimanjaro affords one quite a different perspective than the climbs we had previously done in the Andes, where one can take a vehicle almost all the way up to base camp and descend the very next day after summitting at night. One feels a sense of communion with the mountain, becomes acquainted with its temperament – Kilimanjaro is a particularly moody mountain in the middle of November – and learns to appreciate its forbidding beauty in a way that is impossible to attain during the course of just one night.

Barranco wall, which we had to scale at the start of our fourth day.

Barranco wall, which we had to scale at the start of our fourth day.

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