After five drivers, four vehicles, and two days, we could finally say we had been on an African safari in Tanzania. It was supposed to be a “three-hour tour” of sorts – basically a half-day excursion from our friends’ home in Moshi to Lake Manyara National Park, home to the usual safari wildlife, including the rare and elusive tree-climbing lion. But there would be no lions that day (not anyone’s fault in particular) and a string of mishaps as long as the Nile (basically our fault).
There was Mr. No-Show driver at 5 a.m. the first day, and Mr. Rip-Off-The-Tourists about a half-hour later. On day 2, we had Mr. Don’t-Listen-So-Good driving the Toyota Wobbly Wheel (Stall-Out Edition), Mr. Replacement Driver who couldn’t take us all the way home, and Mr. Replacement Driver No. 2 in the Toyota Blowout (Rubber Inner-Tube Edition).
It’s a really funny story, and if we had a couple hours and some Kilimanjaro Lager, I’d give you the full version.
Five cars. Four drivers. Two days. One safari.
I say this was basically our fault because we didn’t do sufficient homework before setting out. During and after the safari debacle, the most common phrases coming out of our mouths were, “Next time, we’ll…” So, here’s my Top 10 “Next time, we’ll…” List (Safari From Hell Edition):
1. You get what you pay for. Go with a major tour operator, and check references. (resist the urge to do business with a friend or acquaintance who is giving you a really good price. It’s better to pay a little more and have a good experience.)
2. Try to meet your driver the day before so that you can assess his English skills and capability. If you meet several drivers and find a driver you like, make sure you get the one about whom you’re confident. Clearly state your expectations to the driver and your guide before you leave for the safari. Avoid scenarios involving several drivers if possible by planning ahead.
3. Inspect the car when you meet your driver. Major tour operators should ensure an operable vehicle. There should be some contractual obligation on the part of the tour operator to provide a vehicle that is not only comfortable, but safe. Take a swing around the block if necessary, and if you’re unsure about anything, demand another car. Simply put, a bad vehicle will ruin your safari.
4. Make sure someone in the car (if not the driver) speaks both English and the predominate trade language in the country. If it’s Kenya or Tanzania, Swahili. If it’s Burkina Faso, French. And make sure your translator understands the expectations you communicated to the driver and is ready to back you up if a problem arises.
5. Arrange to pay after the Safari, and negotiate a contingency payment should anything go wrong. If the tour operator guarantees quality, then this shouldn’t be a problem. If they demand money in advance to pay for gas, then you’re probably not dealing with a major tour operator. (see No. 1)
6. Have a flexible schedule so that you can say “no” and go a different day if things don’t look right. Don’t get pigeon-holed into taking an expensive or low-quality safari. For most westerners, safaris are a rarity, if not once-in-a-lifetime. Make sure it’s special by giving yourself enough time and having a couple possible days to go.
7. Don’t let the driver rush you. The less driving he does, the less fuel he burns, yielding the greatest profit. And he’ll want to get home early, if possible. You paid for a whole day, so make sure you get it if you want it. Your chances of seeing rare and beautiful wildlife are also greater if you can occasionally kill the engine and wait it out for a few minutes. Keep in mind the driver is working for you.
8. Get advice about which park is best from sources outside the tour business. Tour operators will try to convince you that the best park is the one that will make them the most profit (because it is smaller, closer, etc.), while other tourists or people with no connection to the safari industry are more likely to tell you the truth.
9. Remember that animals in parks are still wild, so no tour operator can guarantee that you’ll see the specific rare beast you’ve been dreaming about.
10. Relax. You’re in Africa. If everything goes like it is supposed to, it’ll be surprising, so don’t get bent out of shape when it doesn’t.
One of Matador’s newest contributors, Steve Holt is a freelance writer living in Boston, eager to explore the world and tell its story.