This is part 5 of my annual trip series. Jake and I began our annual trips in 2016, deciding to take an international trip once per calendar year to a new country. In early 2020 (before either of us had heard of COVID-19), we decided to tackle a handful of countries in Africa because I had been traveling the continent solo while freelancing. We had no idea that international travel would shut down for months in mid-March 2020. We feel lucky to have achieved Year 5 given the circumstances!
To review, here are the five trips we had done up to this point as well as the sixth scheduled trip that is coming up in just a couple of days. This blog will discuss Year 5, which missed the onset of the pandemic by about a week.
Year 5 (2020): Africa (South Africa, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania)
Year 5 Background
We decided that we’d hit Africa sometime in late 2019…not long after we’d finished up with Year 4 given how difficult it had been to fit that trip in. I knew that I would continue traveling to Africa while working remotely after the new year. I wanted to see as many countries on the continent as possible. It seemed a natural progression for our annual trips. I had never been to Africa except for Morocco. Jake had been to both Morocco (for pleasure) and Nigeria (for work). So, it seemed fitting that we should see some more of the continent and experience a safari together. Jake actually ended up gifting me this safari experience for Christmas. It was just a matter of putting it on the calendar.
I’ll lay out this itinerary clearly for you because, if you ask Jake about it, he’ll tell you that he was in Africa for a “month.” That just isn’t the case. I’m sure he’ll be rolling his eyes as he reads this. Good — it’s the truth. You’ll notice that we visited five countries for our fifth year: South Africa, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Tanzania. After the struggle that was Year 4, we were looking for a way to ramp up our itinerary.
February 19-20: Jake departs from the U.S. and flies into Cape Town.
February 21: Jake sightsees in Cape Town including Table Mountain, Robben Island, and V&A Waterfront.
February 22: Jake sightsees in Cape Town including District 6, Great Gatsby, and Seitz Museum.
February 23: Jake does a Cape Peninsula tour which includes a ferry ride to see seals, Cape Lighthouse, Cape of Good Hope, and penguins. Kelsey returns to Durban from an existing tour and meets up with Jake as he flies in from Cape Town.
February 24: We do a 12-hour day trip to Lesotho from Durban to see the Sani Pass and the highest pub in Africa
February 25: We fly from Durban to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, and we see Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwe side. We transfer from Zimbabwe to Livingstone, Zambia to stay overnight. We grab drinks on the Zambezi with dinner at our hotel.
February 26: We see Victoria Falls from the Zambia side and then fly to Livingstone. We go out to dinner in Johannesburg and spend lots of money on cab fare.
February 27: We fly from Johannesburg to Zanzibar and stay at Hotel Protea Mbweni Ruins. We go to dinner at 6 Degrees South and sample African beers.
February 28: We visit Prison Island and go snorkeling. We go to dinner at The Rock and have a mishap with the transfer we’ve arranged.
February 29: We swim with dolphins in Zanzibar, and Jake gets his own private island to make him the most relaxed he’s ever been.
March 1: We had a leisurely breakfast in Zanzibar before going to Arusha for a safari. The domestic terminal in Zanzibar is absolutely tiny with no Wi-Fi. We stayed at a small hotel called Jovas and walked to get groceries as well as local currency before the start of our safari the next day. We got dinner at George’s Tavern.
March 2: On this day, we got picked up at 6 AM to drive to the Serengeti. It was primarily a transit day with a small game drive. We met the rest of our group on this day. Our safari trip had 6 people total (two Norwegians, two Swedes, and us) as well as two guides (Francis and Toomba).
March 3: We did a game drive on the Serengeti before getting stuck for 7 hours where we didn’t see a single animal the entire time. We ended up camping in the same spot.
March 4: We traveled back from the Serengeti to Kilimanjaro. I handled the negotiations while Jake flew RwandAir.com through Kigali.
When I look back on Year 5, there are so many moments that come to my mind. Perhaps the most of any annual trip. This could have something to do with the length of the trip (a whole two weeks!) or the fact that it was my last real travel experience before I returned home on March 16 after the COVID-19 pandemic had been announced. While I spent about 10 days in Nairobi, Kenya and a few days in Entebbe, Uganda before heading back to the U.S., these were my last few treasured memories of international travel before masks, tests, and vaccines were widely demanded in airports.
Here are some of the most memorable moments during our Year 5 Africa adventure.
The weather was swelting in Tanzania, and there was no air conditioning in the small Zanzibar airport. Jake and I waited to go through immigration and customs where U.S. citizens paid $100 for their visas (compared to most countries at $50). I stood carrying my carry-on side travel backpack that was probably around 20 kg or 45 pounds at that point. The constant standing, high temperatures, and conservative clothing were beginning to get to me.
We had finally made it to the window, and the immigration officers were processing our information when I felt an all-too-familiar buzzing in my ears. My vision was slowly getting cloudier. I knew what was going to happen if I ignored it any longer, and I knew it couldn’t happen. The news about the coronavirus had just started to break. If I fainted, it wouldn’t have been disastrous.
I turned to Jake and said in a murmur, “I think I’m going to faint.”
His face tightened, and he knew in an instant exactly what I had. It would be terrible if I were to fall over right now. Hitting the floor would mean we would be pulled aside — into a room, behind closed doors — and questioned about our health status. With the way the pandemic was going, we could never make it to our destination.
He instinctively grabbed my upper arm tightly. “What do you need?”
I needed to sit down — honestly lay down — but I knew that would attract attention. I eventually took off my backpack and just kind of crouched down. Trying to look as though I was getting something out of my bag — trying to look natural while the process finished up.
While I continued to feel poorly all throughout the process, even with copious amounts of water, I was at least functional. Jake ended up carrying my bag out of immigration and customs and to the shuttle we’d booked to take us to our hotel. With hotel AC, snacks, and more water, I began to feel better.
The rest of our time in Zanzibar was about as relaxing as it could have been. As Jake reminisces, “On February 29th, 2020, at 1:31 PM GMT+3, I was the most relaxed that I’ve ever been on a sandbar off the coast of Tanzania. I swam with dolphins in the morning, snorkeled with great visibility around noon, and just finished a late-lunch barbecue of lobster, calamari, and squid. It was not an exorbitant day. It was just another day in Zanzibar.”
For his birthday, which was at the beginning of February, I had surprised him with a tour to swim with wild dolphins. I’d found an ethical company called Colors of Zanzibar that would take us out to find wild dolphins. On principle, I’m anti-zoo and anti-Sea World. I’ll never swim with dolphins in an artificial habitat, so finding an ethical experience in the wild was essential for me to ever do it.
They knew the waters of Zanzibar well enough and took us out to find dolphins in the early hours of the morning. (I think we left the hotel at 4:30ish!) They wouldn’t get too close or scare the dolphins with the boat’s engine. We weren’t chasing them down by any means. Instead, they’d get us close enough to jump in, and then we could swim near the dolphins while keeping an appropriate distance.
After jumping off the small boat several times to see dolphins, we were exhausted and satisfied. Having booked the tour, I knew some of what was on the itinerary, but I was so focused on the dolphins I hadn’t really bothered to look closely at what else was planned. After we got back in, we were taken to a second snorkeling location that was the best snorkeling I’d ever done in my life.
We then visited a sandbar off the coast of Tanzania for lunch. The sandbar disappears every day, so our boat had brought everything we need, including a grill, table, tent, and all our food. As I hadn’t tracked with the rest of the day’s schedule, I hadn’t realized we’d be getting a full home-cooked lunch.
Naturally, I wasn’t upset about this, but I had never asked about what was on the menu. Jake is a far less picky eater than I am, but there’s one thing in the world that he doesn’t eat, and it’s because he gets sick each time he eats it: fish. When we asked our tour guides what we were eating, they answered “seafood.”
Oh no…not the best news for Jake’s birthday excursion.
Jake seemed unphased though, and he didn’t need to be. We weren’t served fresh fish, we were served lobster, calamari, and squid with some local bread. One of the freshest meals I’ve had in my life.
Jake’s reflections on that moment demonstrate that he truly was unphased
“So, there we were, swimming with dolphins and snorkeling in crystal clear waters like nothing. Eating western delicacies – lobster, calamari – that are as common as hamburgers and hotdogs on the sandbank of pongwe (pon-gum-e) in Zanzibar. There were not many other people around, and we were a world away from the hustle and bustle of corporate life in the US. I now feel that I can be ready to go back when the time comes. The final days in Africa will be filled with safari and then I’ll have a last hurrah with my family in Arizona on their spring break. After that, I know there is a world of good options for the future, and it is up to me – and only me – to make them great.”
His mind was busy pondering his past 3 years in a busy corporate job that he had just stepped back from a couple of months ago. During his time in Africa, he was in the process of making a big switch between jobs; although, COVID was soon to interrupt these plans, and he would have a more extended “first retirement.”
In just a couple of days’ time, we would go from sleeping in the comfortable Hotel Protea Mbweni Ruins to camping on the safari. If you know anything about it, you know that I’m absolutely — without a doubt — not a camper.
I’m not sorry that I camped on the Serengeti in Africa though. Just the fact that I can check that off my bucket list is incredible. That said, I think if (when) I go back, I’ll vote for the glamping approach. There’s one moment that Jake and I laugh about to this day.
We were camping with facilities. There were bathrooms and showers at our campsite. They weren’t incredible, but they were there. This wasn’t my first rodeo with camping in Africa. I had done it only about 10 days prior in Kruger National Park in South Africa, and I learned that one of the things I detested most about the whole experience was the bathroom. You tended to go to bed when the sun went down and that meant I would wake up needing to relieve myself with a vengeance at around 4 or 5 AM.
Nothing could be more inconvenient than needing to get out of your tent at 4 or 5 AM on the Serengeti. You could feel the chill in the air. You could hear the animals around you. You knew it was best to stay in your tent.
One of the nights we were on the Serengeti, I woke up to Jake heading out for what could only be a late-night bathroom break. I quickly perked my head up and said, “I’m coming with you.”
It wasn’t a matter of discussion. I, too, needed to go with a dull ache in my bladder, but I hadn’t been about to go alone. It was just too inconvenient. Now that Jake was going, I would have an escort. Perfect.
I saw him pause and sigh. I knew the exasperated face he was making in the dark as only a sister could. He hadn’t been about to go all the way to the bathrooms, and now I was necessitating it.
He waited while I put on my shoes giving me only slight side-eye.
“Have a sister, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.”
This wasn’t the only time I was a typical younger sister on the Serengeti. During this time, we were traveling with four other people. There were two couples and then us (brother and sister). So, the breakdown was a perfect split of 3 men and 3 women. When our car got stuck in the mud because the driver decided it was a good idea to go off-roading, someone eventually needed to get out and push.
Oh no…not the feminism leaving my body when it was time to push the car. But I wasn’t alone. The other women in the car were equally determined to stay in their seats while the men got out. There is one particular photo that Jake took while he was sweating and pushing. And there I was, having the time of my life from inside the car.
Once again, “Have a sister they said. It’ll be fun, they said.”
A Year 5 Anecdote: Wheeling and Dealing in Tanzania
Unfortunately, Jake and the other men weren’t able to get the car out of the mud. It wasn’t really their fault. The driver had really gotten it stuck by off-roading, and it was off-season (rainy season) on the Serengeti. So, I suppose this is the downside of going when it was cheap.
We spent no less than 7 hours stuck in this same spot while we were supposed to be on a game drive. You can imagine our disappointment. For as much as we paid for a safari experience, we hadn’t gotten much of it. My personal list of complaints included poor driving (specifically unnecessary off-roading), poor communication, lack of food, and unfulfilled elements of the itinerary which had been advertised as selling points.
I sent this message to the head of the company, who we’ll call Howard, before we returned to Arusha.
“Yesterday, we got stuck 3 times in mud on the Serengeti. The first time, 3 of the men in our car helped to push us free after about 30 mins. The second time, we spent 7 hours (from 11:30 to 18:30) stuck in deep mud in long grass. Our driver tried several times unsuccessfully to remove us from the mud. Several people in our vehicle helped to try to push us from the mud. And we ultimately waited for help for 6+ of those hours. Often, the help was unable to reach us. When help finally arrived around 17:30, the vehicle was freed of the mud after half an hour only to be stuck a third time not even 5 minutes later off-road. We then had to abandon the vehicle and ride back with the other company who came to help us. We arrived back at the wrong camp more than 12 hours after we left it. We were supposed to go to the Ngorongoro Simba campsite and instead stayed again at the Seronera campsite. We were told that the Ngorongoro Simba campsite would have both hot water and Wi-Fi which the Seronera campsite did not. We not only missed out on game drive time but meals (brunch) and more comfortable accommodations. Our guide also attempted to recover the car last night and was unsuccessful. We were unsure whether we’d be able to leave on time this morning and were unable because we didn’t have a car. One had to come from Arusha. This morning, we didn’t leave until past 9 and will now only have 2 hours if that in the crater with the stress of returning for flights. Half of our vehicle (my brother and two other individuals) have 19:00 flights out of Kilimanjaro.”
Altogether, you can see our experience was far from perfect. We missed out on our scheduled itinerary and ended up rushing back for flights for half our group — Jake included. Everyone was unhappy, and this dissatisfaction resulted in my sitting down with Howard back in Arusha.
Jake was on his way to the airport at this point to catch a flight with very little time to spare.
Howard made it clear that he was willing to compensate in some form. By the end of our discussion and after some prep with Jake, I knew that my demands would look something like this:
- A cash refund of $500 (around 50% of what was paid)
- Jake must make his flight, and if not, his flight would be rebooked, and his hotel would be paid for on behalf of the company
- The safari company would cover my expenses to the bus station across town the next day where I would board a bus to Nairobi
- Dinner that night on the safari company
This conversation went back and forth several times. During this time, the Swedish couple (who we were on Safari with) were also negotiating for a refund on their way to the airport with Jake. Jake was texting me. The head of the company was calling the driver, and we were both playing are cards based on what other factors we knew.
Eventually, I locked in my demands. Howard was willing to pay. We both knew how detrimental a poor review to his company (hence the reason I haven’t mentioned the name) would be with an upcoming busy season. He’d rather forfeit some profit than have the story spread with the company’s name attached.
While our experience wasn’t ideal, he made it right in the end. He knew that what we experience was an issue, and he addressed this head-on.
Still, as soon as we’d made the deal and the cash refund had changed hands, he was on the phone as fast as lightning tell the driver on the other side the deal we had made.
From his side, Jake said the driver went into turbo mode, determined to get him there on time so they wouldn’t have to compensate him for a new flight and hotel. Howard reassured me he would make it. And he did make it — barely.
Jake said that he was almost out of luck until a very important person — whether a diplomat, businessman, or just someone with status on the airline — came up right behind Jake as the check-in desk was about to close. He was told point-blank, “If he hadn’t been there, you wouldn’t have been allowed through.”
And those are just some of my highlights from Africa. After spending around 3,500 words on just Year 5, I’m determined to revisit some of the other African experiences that I had in the months leading up to the pandemic in early 2020.
Until then, come back next week for Year 6 when we head to Belize for my first international trip in about 18 months.