Friday, April 20, 2007

1 February: Prologue

“I had a farm in Africa…”

So begins Karen von Blixen in the film Out of Africa (and presumably the book that inspired the movie, although I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t read it yet). Never in a million years did I imagine that I’d be going on a two-week safari to Kenya and Tanzania while living in Germany, at the tender age of 31!

We started planning this trip about eight months ago. MIL had talked about the four of us (me, DH, MIL, FIL) going to Africa for several years, but when Germany came up, we had to postpone our plans. Finally last summer MIL talked us into it; after all, the airfare would be cheaper for us coming from Germany than it would be from Michigan. MIL’s travel agent in California recommended a company called Micato. I was skeptical at first, not holding a lot of trust in travel agents, but after some research on the internet I realized that MIL had probably found the best safari company on the planet. Micato has been voted the best safari company for the past four years by Travel & Leisure Magazine, and the only “complaint” I could find was that they cost too much. People say you can organize your own safari for far less money, but that sort of defeats the purpose of a stress-free, worry-free trip, doesn’t it? None of us had any interest in taking chances on our first safari. Next we had to choose between Micato’s tours in South and East Africa. Of course our highest priority was wildlife viewing, taking price into consideration as well, so after looking over all of the itineraries in Micato’s gorgeous full-color brochure, we ended up selecting their most popular trip, the Stanley Wing Safari, which is a two-week tour through Kenya and Tanzania, hitting five of East Africa’s most famous parks and reserves: Amboseli, Tarangire, Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti, and Masai Mara. (Micato’s trips to South Africa sound wonderful, but they spend as much time in cities and vineyards as they do in the game parks.)

Back in October 2006 DH and I purchased our tickets to Nairobi on British Airways (via London, where we would meet up with MIL and FIL), which cost about $2,000. We didn’t do much else to prepare for the trip until December, at which point we started worrying about all of our immunizations. I had gotten most of mine out of the way when I was in Michigan in December, but DH had to get all of his done here in Germany. He got his first round of shots in December and then we both went back to the doctor in January for our second Hepatitis A&B shots. Then DH had to go to the Gesundheitsamt (health department) to get his Yellow Fever vaccination. One day after work we took the U-Bahn downtown and got off at the Schwabstraße stop, thinking it would be a short walk. Let’s just say the street was a bit longer than it had appeared in my quick perusal of the map. We ended up walking about a mile and would never have found the place if I hadn’t happened to glance up at one point and saw a tiny sign on the wall over my head that said “Gesundheitsamt.” We walked in, followed the signs to the travel clinic (easy to find once we found the word “Reise”), and told them what we were there for. DH filled out some paperwork and got his shot from a friendly male doctor who spoke in English. Mission accomplished!

The other major hassle was getting our Kenyan and Tanzanian travel visas. In the U.S., Micato recommends that you use a visa service. I called them and was thrilled to learn that they have offices in Germany. I corresponded with the Berlin office and they emailed me all of the forms we needed. Unfortunately getting visas means parting with your passports for a short time, so we had to wait until we got back from our Christmas trip to Rome to take care of this, which meant we had a window of about one month to get everything taken care of. I sent in all of the paperwork along with our passports via overnight mail right after the first of the year, requesting their most expedited service. It took about two weeks to process all four visas, and finally on January 23rd we got our passports back in the mail. I must say, I was extremely relieved when that envelope arrived.

The only other thing we had to worry about was, of course, packing. The list Micato provides is pretty vague and not very practical, but I got a great packing list from LyndaS on the Fodor’s internet forum who went on the same safari last summer. She answered all sorts of critical questions, like whether the hotels have hairdryers and which plug adaptors we needed, and her packing list was invaluable!

We received our Micato duffel bags a few weeks before the trip (ours were delayed because they were accidentally sent to California first), along with our detailed itinerary and complimentary Micato flashlights and luggage tags. The bags are made of dark green, heavy-duty cordura with a big Micato logo on them. Everyone says it is a good idea to use these bags because then the tour operators know exactly which bags to pick up and it decreases the chance of your bag being lost or left behind. Unfortunately, the bags themselves weigh a whopping 8 pounds, which cuts significantly into our 33-pound weight limit. They are also huge – if you were to fill your bag to the top, you would far exceed the weight restriction! Fortunately we are pretty good at packing light and were well within the limit, with several pounds to spare for souvenirs. I even decided to take my full-size tripod at the last minute because I had so much room. In the end, all of the time and effort that went into the packing list paid off: we used just about everything we brought and didn’t miss anything crucial. (Except I couldn't find my rubber clothesline and never found a replacement in Germany.)

Now, on with the story!

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