The flight was a fresh change, plenty of room and air conditioning. There was free booze and Karen was excited bout the prospect of tasting wine again, as it had generally been far too expensive since leaving South Africa. Unfortunately the red or white liquid they served up would hardly have classified as wine, it was pretty terrible and Kaz couldn't even bring herself to finish the glass.
Strangely our flight flew directly over Arusha and continued another 1/2hr south to pick up passengers in Dar Es Salaam before returning to Arusha. It didn't bother us too much, it was relaxing and the scenery was great from above. We passed the active volcano of Ol Donyo Lengai and could clearly see the black ash and smoke being spewed into the air. As we took off from Dar Es Salaam we passed over the Zanzibar archipelago, the tropical waters teasing and tempting us. We had been dreaming of getting back to the coast and couldn't wait to be on a beach lazing in the sun, and as we stared out the window at the coral cays below, I'm sure I heard Karen mutter under her breath in her best Arnie voice -"I'll be back".
There were plenty of spare seats on the flight, so Kaz and I quizzed the flight attendants on what side we would need to be seated to get a clear view of Mt Kilimanjaro as we landed at the aptly named Kilimanjaro International Airport. We swapped sides as instructed, strapped in and stared, camera at the ready. Everyone can recall a picture of Kili in their mind, its snow-capped peak and perfect conical volcano shape, and we wanted one for our album, after all we'd had plans to conquer it in a couple of weeks time. As we approached, the seatbelt sign illuminated and it became obvious our trolly dollies had sent us on a bum-steer. We were now on the wrong damn side of the plane.We rolled our eyes, it really was typical of African directions, you have to always take them with a grain of salt, which in fact negated the purpose of getting directions in the first place. Whereas back home when you ask for directions, if people don't know they will say they don't know, and even sometimes when they do know but couldn't be bothered they say they don't know, but here in Africa they'll confidently point you in a direction, even if they have no clue whatsoever. Perhaps this is why I often now just push ahead with a hunch, follow my nose so to speak, something that inevitably leads to an argument and Karen telling me "I told you so".
Getting back to the landing. It turned out it didn't really matter. A dry wind had whipped up a thick dust cloud that hovered in the lower atmosphere obscuring any view of the mountain. At best a vague silhouette of the base was visible.
We collected our gear and were waved through customs despite going through the "something to declare" side, a bit like when travelling in Europe and in stark contrast to the Customs Nazis back home.
The small airport was typically located in the middle of nowhere, 40km each way from Moshi, the base for Kili climbs, and Arusha the safari capital. We needed to get to Arusha and ravenous cab drivers, hungry for the tourist dollar were queued up to take the loan mzungus without pre-arranged transport. Others filed into their safari transfer vehicles as Karen and I were besieged with cabbies waving their "official" licences and offering their services, at a discount, for a laughable $50. Some white folk fresh off the boat may fall for this, but we knew it was ridiculous. We had hoped for some sort of public transport, a bit optimistic I know and our second option was to hitch with a hotel or safari transfer. The transfers had all cleared off pretty quickly, but we approached one guy ushering a family into his 4x4 but he had been specifically sent to collect them and told us they were full. The cabbies were still swarming round, but we tried not to look desperate and let them get a sniff of blood. Soon 50 bucks became 40, 40 then 30 and reluctantly and finally $20. We thought this was a price closer to the mark, and as we tried to squeeze the last of his profit margin for trying to take us for a ride in the first place, a man from the 4x4 wandered over and offered us a free ride. He had seen us haggling, most probably felt sorry for the stingy clueless backpackers, and came to our aid. "C'mon jump in with us, they'll just rip you off otherwise" and so we did.
The family of 4 were of Indian descent, Mum and Dad lived in Kampala, and Son and Wife were successful folk from Wembley, London. He was a doctor who had grown up in East Africa and could speak about a dozen languages, and her a studying psychologist. I always wonder whether people like her are analysing your every word, evaluating and categorising you in their minds……………. so I kept pretty quiet for most of the trip. The family were very friendly and hospitable, and even offered us a lunchpack each that had been prepared for them. We were a little scrappy looking, but perhaps they thought we needed a good feed. They dropped us at their swish hotel in Arusha and we thanked them for their generosity and offered some payment, which they of course refused. Again we had been taken in by some strangers and shown generosity that we had not at all expected. Perhaps it was a bit of traveller camaraderie, although locals had often shared their hospitality with us aswell - either way I hoped Karen and I, could and would offer the same generosity throughout our travels and beyond.
Arusha was a pleasant enough place, leafy and green on the outer parts and compared with most cities we had visited, seemingly quite livable. Its layout though, with two totally separate town centres irritated me, like other towns of similar arrangement I thought it was a little daft. The old town centred round the bustling market and was dusty, unattractive and typically African. The new town, slightly more salubrious and expensive.
We jumped in a cheap cab to take us to an equally cheap hotel in the old centre, the cabbie and his mate in the front seat quickly summing us up and what we were here for. Being a tourist centre and safari capital, we always expected the people here to be fairly well connected with one tour group or another, and within the 3 minute journey across town we had a safari tour operator offering a free ride to their office for a no strings attached chat. We had heard of the company and were going to go see them, amongst others reputable operators the following day anyway, but with the day getting on we figured it would be good to knock one over that afternoon, and so accepted the offer.
We found a hotel and dumped our bags before being escorted to the tour office. It was a well resourced office, there were plenty of positive words in the comments book. The manager sat us down, talked with us and proposed we join a tour leaving the following day. It was a little quick for us, we wanted to shop around a bit, compare what people had to offer and besides we had a few things to do. He knew that with so many tour companies around, if we left that office he would only have an even chance that we would come back, and so laid his best price on the table. The price was good, we knew that, it was far lower than what we had been quoted out of Mwanza, but we still wanted to check the credibility of the company. The tourist office was closed and the safari was leaving the following morning, we needed to make a decision immediately and when a group of travellers strolled into the office having just completed their own safari with nothing but praise for the operator, we took a gamble and signed up with Shidolya. It was quick, it was cheap and we had bought ourselves and extra day or two on Zanzibar, we only hoped the safari would be money well spent.
We dined that night at a cheap local restaurant recommended by Shidolya, and there we met an Israeli couple who had had a similar experience the same afternoon. We got talking with them and soon discovered that Rakefet and Jonathon had been recommended the same restaurant by Shidolya and would be joining us on safari the following day. Both couples had been told that we would take the last two seats in the vehicle, and hence the price reduction. It was becoming increasingly apparent that this was just a sales pitch. We were effectively being told what we needed to hear, not that we didn't suspect that anyway, I think all these operators have a little used car salesman in them, but I don't really mind as long as they deliver on the final product.
We bedded down that night, glad to have met the friendly couple that would be joining us, but a little apprehensive about what exactly we had purchased for $1000.