Saturday, December 8, 2012

Review: Rift Valley Explorer group tour by Exodus - WYJ

Please note that the following is pretty much a review of an organized tour I went on, and not the kind of blog posting I usually bring. While I try to keep it entertaining and interesting, it's probably of most interest to those of you planning on going on a safari in East Africa.

The tour was called "East Africa Safari" with tour code AQW when I participated on it. Following the publication of this review, the tour was renamed "Rift Valley Explorer" with tour code WYJ, but it is the exact same tour.

My photos from the trip.

Click map to go to zoom-able version
GPS trail for the East Africa Safari

East Africa had long been a large, gaping hole on my travel CV. For no particular reason, really.

I usually pick my destinations through whichever flight or deal is the best whenever I have a month of free time to kill. The countries of East Africa are very poor. Kenya is number 152 and Tanzania is number 158 out of 180 on the World Bank's list of purchasing power per capita. A Norwegian has 30-35 times the purchasing power of an East African. Still, being a secure tourist in those countries can be very expensive, so going there had just never been the most attractive option.

This time, however, my time off coincided with the best time for going to East Africa. In August and September you can watch The Great Migration, basically hundreds of thousands of animals walking more or less together from Tanzania to Kenya in search of fresh grass. It's spectacular, and I wanted to see it.
The Great Crowded Migration it its peak

You have to think in a special way when going to East Africa. Reading the web sites of hotels, you soon discover that they do not emphasize their swimming pools or their proximity to the city centre. Instead, they proudly present their high security level and tall walls with barbed-wire on top, preferably far away from where locals may roam. Getting around by local transportation can be an adventure, but more than elsewhere you must be prepared for long waits and the possibility of your trip ending up in a coffin.

Given this, and the fact that East Africa can offer some of the greatest wildlife experiences on the planet, it's not surprising that a huge number of tour companies have popped up to offer their services in the region.
Cape Buffaloes, almost as scary as going on a tour full of strangers

Many options are undeniably very expensive. Others seem to be only a little bit expensive. It can be done independently, but I had company and we were on a fairly tight schedule, so we decided to join a tour that fit our dates, the 1,750 Euro, almost two-week East Africa Safari by Exodus. We figured there is just no way anyone can completely mess up experiencing wildlife on the scale of The Great Migration.

Here's how it went...

Once upon a time in Africa

Walking safari sighting
 Having spent a few days on a farm outside Nairobi, enjoying the chance to walk around freely in the wild with little chance of encountering man-eaters or man-tramplers, we were picked up from a posh hotel in the city a couple of hours late. We were delayed because about half our group came straight off a flight that was late from England. Taking people away from their afternoon tea in London and putting them straight onto a safari in Africa is pretty crazy on its own, but I guess it's good for people who are REALLY strapped for time. To us it just meant that our day would be really busy. Regaining two lost hours is nearly impossible on the tight schedule Exodus runs.

The trip started out the worst way possible. After half an hour in Nairobi rush hour traffic (it's a fairly permanent thing), the truck stopped at a Bonjour petrol station, and our tour leader, Julius Leteele, told us that now would be a good time to stock up on snacks and water. So we did.

The whole thing felt like an ambush. The groups was defenseless, most being very tired and having just gotten off a plane and changed money into a new currency of unfamiliar value. The guys at the register effortlessly scammed us. No one watched our pale and bony European asses. "One bottle of water and a packet of biscuits? That's... Let's see... Two thousand schillings!" No receipts were given, but most of us paid well above what we would have paid for similar items back in Europe. By the time we left the shop, the two clerks had made a fortune and probably got on the phone straight away to buy themselves new mansions in the highlands where they could now go and live happily ever after.

Lake Naivasha forest

We continued the drive into the Great Rift Valley and set up camp by Lake Naivasha, at Crayfish Camp. Julius taught us how to pitch our tents without poking out too many eyeballs, and then we were off to the only bit of walking safari on this trip. It was nice enough visit to a forest near Crater Lake, although it hardly classified as a walk on the wild side. Still, we saw lots of antilope, some buffaloes and a good-sized group of giraffes. It was a pleasant and gentle introduction to African wildlife for anyone new to it.

It was dark before we were back at the camp, stopping off at the shore of the lake for two minutes to barely make out the shape of a hippo head or two in the dark water. The cook had done his best to prepare food catering to a British sense of taste. Unfortunately, he was quite good at it, so we had to suffer through proper, old-fashioned English cuisine for the rest of the trip.

On the morning of day 2 I braved the really cold air and enjoyed a quick, hot and rustic shower, before we had a long English Breakfast and got on the road. Three hours in the truck, a change to Land Cruisers in Narok and then another two hours on a fairly bumpy road brought us to the Sekenani gate of the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

We were to spend two nights at the Mountain Rock Mara Springs Camp, where we had the most comfortable time of the entire journey. Instead of pitching our tents again, we slept in a "permanent camp", house-like tents with en-suite bathroom. There was an afternoon game drive of 3,5 hours and a good meal. We didn't bring a cook here, so it was NOT British style, hooray! Day 3 was spent on an excellent ten hour game drive conducted by a professional local guide, taking us through the park all the way to the Tanzanian border and the river Mara and back.

Maasai Mara scenery

Day 4 wasn't too exciting, as all we did was to backtrack to Lake Naivasha and then continue to Lake Nakuru, altogether 340 kilometres of road watching. Little or no information was given about anything we saw on our way, so I'm not sure if there was something I should have noticed. Upon arrival we were offered a "farm walk", which turned out to be a worker showing us a field of cows and an old barn. A workers collective, Kenana Knitters is based there, but they had all left work for the day by the time we made it there.

Day 5 was another full day game drive (5,5 hours), but this time we were unfortunately doing it in our truck, and we didn't enter the park until around nine o'clock, when the sun was high in the sky and most animals had retreated to the shade deep in the bush. Through what must have been some divine intervention, we still managed to find three lions in a tree right away. The rest of it was also okay, although our guide kept falling asleep, and the one rhino I managed to spot turned out to be a rock. Just as well, really. As it turned out, due to a break in the time/space continuum, it could take up to a full minute from the moment we shouted out for the truck to stop for some animal watching until the message would actually reach our driver. If there still was something to see outside our truck by then, it was sheer luck.

Day 6, probably the least interesting day of the trip, was a 416 kilometer drive through western Kenya into Tanzania. It was a straight-through thing with no stopping to pay the glorious landscape of the tea plantations along the road. Why not? Because visits to tea plantations must be booked a month in advance, according to our guide. I suppose that's how long it takes for a Kenyan tea plantation to clean up the scene enough to give the impression that it looks like a decent place to work. I don't see why Exodus couldn't have booked a visit, though. Most of the people on the bus had booked their trip several months ago. Especially since the brochure puts it this way: "Our long drive today allows plenty of time to appreciate the superb scenery". Right, just not while being stationary.

Tea Country!

So we just kept on driving and driving. The bladders of everyone onboard performed well, so there were no catastrophes. Apparently, in Kenya one is only allowed to take pee breaks at insanely overpriced curio shops which take a long time to find.

Having read and heard so much about it, I was really looking forward to seeing Lake Victoria. I was a bit disappointed to discover that we would only actually see it for about half an hour, as we arrived just before sunset. The next morning we were not going for a game drive at all, so all of a sudden it was important that we got up before sunrise to get back on the road. The only ones who were up before us this day were the mosquitoes. Lots of mosquitoes.

I spent my time by Lake Victoria wisely, I think, sneaking into a wedding on the beach.

Day 7 was another long drive, but this one was better than the previous day. We spent much of the day driving through the Serengeti National Park, and there were many animals around. The highlight was camping at a most basic, unfenced site in the middle of the park, where we could listen to the magical sounds of the nocturnal animals busy at work. Except our guide kept warning us about the dangers of wild animals, to the degree that half the group didn't dare go to sleep inside their tents, and instead spent the night drinking wine and keeping the noise level so high that all animals kept a good and safe distance to our camp.

The beginning of Day 8 was okay, as we went on a morning game drive. It was a LATE morning game drive, because before we could go to see the animals in one of the most amazing wilderness parks in the world, we had to spend more than an hour having breakfast and pulling down our camp. We shared the camp with another group who left their tents to be taken down later and immediately got out on their drive before sunrise, and that made it feel particularly wrong doing chores in the dawn and feasting on another horrible English breakfast instead of being out there with the animals.

The camp in Serengeti

So, our time in Serengeti was effectively limited to a three hour morning drive. Fortunately we were heading for even greater things. A ferocious rainstorm set in, and our driver decided to push through it as quickly as possible.

The road disagreed, and did its bumpiest. For four hours we speedily pushed through towards the rim of the Ngorongoro crater, our truck falling more and more apart all the time. Windows started liberating themselves from the rest of the vehicle and new and exciting metallic sounds began to dominate the soundscape inside the vehicle. Nothing could stop us! Not yet, anyway.

Again we arrived at the campsite just as darkness fell, so we never got to see the glorious view of the Ngorongoro Crater at sunset from the rim. Instead, we again pitched our tents, had semi-warm showers and watched or helped Anglofood being prepared from unspeakable ingredients.

Day 9 was an excellent day again. We ditched our truck, driver and guide, and got a real safari instead, seated in Land Cruisers. The hours at the Ngorongoro Crater were stunning, starting as we descended through dense fog and mist hanging on the rim, to an increasingly sunny plateau inside the crater. The place is truly like a lost world, where both the innocence and the brutality of Nature herself keeps coming right at you from all angles.

Morning in the Ngorongoro Crater

Clearly, Exodus had only paid for the half-day thing, so we were rushed out of the crater just in time for the twelve o'clock deadline. Our truck had been fixed with duct tape and string, so we picked it up again and started driving towards Arusha. On our way we passed Lake Manyara, described in the tour itinerary this way: "We continue our journey through beautiful country, where there is a great view over Lake Manyara, often tinted pink around the edges from large numbers of flamingos". We enjoyed that view for a full half second in a sharp bend on the road through the windows of the truck. I can't say I treasure that memory.

We stopped at the Maserani Snake Park Camping for the night. It's a safe place with no locals at all around. The exception is a rather sad-looking display of fairly local live snakes, birds and monkeys. The showers there were hot, or at least offered a rich experience of electrical shocks.

Day 10 was spent getting back to Kenya, to get to the last national park on our trip; Amboseli. Our truck broke down completely, still upset from the battering it had received in the Serengeti a couple of days earlier. It was the best thing that happened that day. As we had to wait for a plan B to emerge, there was nothing sheltering us from the curious locals who could now enjoy the view of miserable foreigners. Oh, how quickly the roles can change on the scene of life! Anyway, some of us went over to them and enjoyed a couple of hours of entertaining conversation and mimics with them. Eventually a bus from the national park arrived to bring us to our camp. No safari that day.

This is Amboseli!

That was okay, because the last full day of our tour was spent on a game drive in Amboseli, seeing mainly the numerous and large elephants the park is so famous for. I quite enjoyed it. I also enjoyed the camp site, although it was the most basic one on the trip. The facilities were two showers and two toilets a long walk away from where we pitched our tents. The only items for sale in the area were water and beer, sold straight from a portable non-electric cooler in a tent-like construction nearby. We received the usual safety brief telling us not to leave the immediate proximity of the camp, or else. The amusing bit was that while all other camps in the area seemed to be located behind two or three layers of tall, electrical fences, all that kept the animals away from us were thorny branches that had been gathered and piled up around us. To minimize our protection, we used those very branches as firewood throughout the evening.

Finally we spent a full day driving back to Nairobi. To be precise, we spent most of the day driving IN Nairobi. The worst bit was spending 2 hours and 45 minutes on just under 7 kilometres of insanely slow and crowded traffic. We could of course have walked it much faster, but it's likely that we would have become victims of a wide range of crimes on our way. Including all the waiting at the police station that would necessarily follow, we probably would not have saved much time.

Nairobi traffic jam

So there you have it.

Did I have a good time in East Africa? Yes, definitely! I came for the animals, and I got lots of animals.

Was I happy with the way the Exodus conducted the trip? Not. At. All.

Upon returning to Norway, I contacted Exodus and basically asked them about the discrepancies between how they present their tours and how they actually operate them. They did respond promptly and politely, and they seemed to be honestly concerned regarding several of the issues I brought up. They were even nice enough to offer me a small compensation, "as a gesture of goodwill". (That was not my goal, I just wanted some answers, so I turned it down.)

That said, I got the feeling that their actual response is that this trip, the East Africa Safari (code AQW), is only sold as an Exodus tour, but it's actually run by a local operator who is free to conduct the tour the way they deem best. As long as choices are made to ensure that no one gets in harm's way, that is of course a good thing. However, as I have discovered, it may lead to much frustration in groups where some people are experienced travelers and others are the opposite, yet the same restrictions, cautions and schedules are applied to everyone.

If you know how to travel, you will always have a better experience on your own than on a mixed group like this. Sometimes joining a tour is still just the most practical or sometimes only way to go where you'd like to. If you pick a tour at the lower end of the price range, like the one described here, be prepared to spend much time around sunset and sunrise doing chores instead of exploring and taking photos. Going on a pricier tour will leave you with more time on your own. There's also the option of not booking ahead, but instead just go to Nairobi and Arusha and book your tour from there. You will get "better" (as in more comfortable lodging, better food and at a slower pace) tours there at the same or even lower rates than what I paid for the Exodus trip.

These are the main issues I had with the tour:

Morning procedures
Early morning is the best time for watching wildlife. You get up, you have a cup of hot tea or chocolate, and then you go out to see the animals before the sun rises and makes them go sleep in the shade. We wasted most of our mornings on eating and doing chores instead.

Safari guiding
While our guide was fairly good at identifying the animals we saw, he was not at all enthusiastic about it and only sparingly offered any information about the wildlife. As I was having exciting wildlife experiences, he managed to fall asleep and not participate in the animal spotting at all.
Meet Julius!
 I can understand him being tired, he told us that he had been on another tour lasting up until the day before we started out, and the day after we were dropped off in Nairobi he was off again on a trip to Uganda. I put the blame for this on Exodus. The weariness and lack of enthusiasm from a guide can easily infect the people on the trip.

Exodus do offer special tours for photographers, but this wasn't one of them. Still, our driver and our guide were really bad at positioning the vehicle for optimal photographies. If that's important for you, you probably want to seek out a different trip.

Fear mongering regarding the animals
I've already mentioned the lack of quality information regarding the wildlife. The one thing we had more than enough of, however, were statements about how dangerous the animals are. I've been on many safaris, and I have never heard such exaggerated warnings from the tour guide about what we should absolutely not do, because then this or that animal would come and hurt or kill us.

That's just not fair on the animals.
Mostly harmless

Fear mongering regarding the people
We were repeatedly warned against the risk of thieves and stone throwers. I've traveled quite a bit in Africa, and I think I know what dangers encounters with the locals can involve, and it's nowhere near as bad as what we were told on this trip. The result? Most of the people on our tour talked only to the others on the truck. I feel they missed out. We were rarely given opportunities to interact with Africans, instead we were encouraged to stay in the camp and never leave the vicinity of the truck.

That's just not fair on the people.
Definitely harmless

Mismatch between itinerary and reality
I read the itinerary with optimistic eyes, so my hopes were crushed a few times. Most of the optional activities were just impossible to find enough time for.

Financial guiding
Exodus emphasizes that they aim to operate in a responsible manner. In my opinion, that should include informing their clients about roughly how much they should spend on various items, instead of just dropping people off into hoards of people out only to maximize money drainage from tourists. At least on this tour there was none of that. Quite the opposite happened, actually. We were invariably advised to shop at places that were much more expensive than neighbouring shops.

Closing time

In the end, however, I did get to see lots of great stuff on this trip. Although I just know it could have been even better, I won't grumble more about than I have done now. Thank you for bearing with me.

I'd love to read your experience from this or similar tours, so go ahead and make your comments below!

Happy trails! #8D)
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