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Sunday, 08 January 2012 14:19

All wrong and so right: choosing a safari company

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Before beginning safari, I had to choose a safari company. And it felt all wrong from the moment he approached me, the young guy in the yellow shirt. I had just come out of the gate of Roy's Safaris, a company highly recommended by the Lonely Planet, albeit in the latest edition which was now more than three years old. I had been happy to find that Roy's was just a short walk from Le Jacaranda Hotel where I had checked in for the night. I had flown in from Dar that morning and the afternoon was quickly disappearing. My hope to start a five day safari through Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti the following day required efficiency and a little luck, especially since I was looking for a reasonably-sized group safari so I wouldn't pay full freight for a solo one. In addition to the price difference, the thought of being individually catered to by a guide and cook for several days straight seemed a bit unsettling.

So I was rather disappointed when the possibility of Roy's proximity translating into an efficient booking dimmed within a few short moments. The very professional woman behind the very professional desk in the very professional office inside the very professional gated compound told me they no longer did group tours. In fact, she said, very few companies do them any more. She would, however, be happy to discuss a four day safari through Ngorongoro and the Serengeti for approximately $1,800.

This was not welcome news. I was aiming for something close to $200 per day. This was more than twice that and I would be paying $450 per day for the very thing I didn't want. But the very professional woman behind the very professional desk had told me group tours went the way of the dinosaur and, with Lonely Planet a bit outdated, this might be my best and only option. I asked if I could think about it. She said, of course, but I would need to decide by 3:30 pm.

It was 2 pm.

When I stepped out onto the street, the young guy approached me and started chatting me up. It was the same series of questions that all of the young guys on the street start with before they look to swindle you. What's your name? Where are you from? How long have you been in Tanzania? Are you looking to go on safari?

Then comes the pitch. Usually it's the sale of a painting or a t-shirt or a trinket of some kind for a few bucks. This was a safari - and it was to be more than a few bucks. A five day safari, to be specific, as part of a group which would leave tomorrow. The company was Sunset Safaris. He said he could call his boss, if I was interested. His boss would come in a car. He would take me to the office. He would provide more details. No commitment, mind you. Just discussing options.

I was more than a little skeptical. Sunset Safaris wasn't in Lonely Planet and the possibility of becoming a cautionary tale of the tourist who got swindled out of several hundred dollars by a guy who approached him on the street seemed far too likely. But it seemed worth the long shot I was being presented, at least to have a conversation, no matter how stereotypically suspect it all seemed. So I said yes and his boss came.

Godfrey arrived in his car, got out to shake my hand and offered me a ride back to his office. I wanted a few questions answered before I hopped in. What was the price for five days? $1,000. What was the itinerary? A day in Tarangire National Park, a day in Lake Manyara National Park, a travel day to Serengeti after an overnight on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater, a day in Serengeti, a day at Ngorongoro, and back to Arusha. What was included in the price? Everything. Nothing out of pocket except any alcohol or extra water beyond the 1.5 liters provided each day and tips for the guides. All park fees were included in the price. How many people were on the tour already and who were they? Just two other people at this point, both working locally for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha. There might be more but it was unlikely given the lateness of the day. There would be no more than five in the group. What sort of vehicle would we use? A Land Rover. They had Land Cruiser's, too, which would be a more comfortable ride but with the rainy season the Land Rover would be more reliable in getting through muddy stretches. Can I see the vehicle? Yes. I will ask the driver to bring it now.

Sunset Safaris

I was warming to the possibility. While the company wasn't in Lonely Planet, not every tour company would be. I met the young guy on the street but they have an office they could take me to. And nearly everything Lonely Planet warned against was addressed in Godfrey's answers. So I went.

The office was modest at best but the additional information Godfrey shared about the trip continued to reassure. He put it in writing in a tentative contract. The vehicle arrived. There was nothing obviously wrong with it. The notion of sharing a five person tour with only two others seemed ideal, especially since those two others were locally-based U.N. workers who would presumably have had time and contacts to adequately scout options. Plus, the thought of chatting with them about the workings of the International Criminal Court in Arusha seemed nearly as compelling as the safari itself.

Everything seemed in order. And after working out some financial issues since they didn't take credit cards, I signed the contract, gave Godfrey my $260 US deposit and was dropped off at my hotel with instructions to be ready at 8:30 am the next morning.

As I made my way back to my room, I thought: This could be fantastic or utterly and completely horrible. Fortunately, even in spite of last minute changes that would await me the next morning, what could have been all wrong ended up being so right.

View a selection of photos from the safari in the Under African Skies gallery. View all Under African Skies photos on Flickr or just the shots from Tarangire National Park, Lake Manyara National Park, Serengeti National Park, or the Ngorongoro Crater.