Friday, January 16, 2015

The Safari from Hell

Ever since we made veiled references on social media to what a disaster it was, we've had a lot of requests for the story of the December Serengeti safari that we took with our friend Paula. I'll try to keep it short and sweet, but here it is for posterity.

We'd planned a 3 day safari just before Christmas because our friend Paula was visiting from the US and she requested to see some animals and visit Olduvai Gorge. Since Olduvai is located in between Serengeti and Ngorongoro parks we decided to plan a visit to both parks, starting in Serengeti heading east on day one, continuing east into the Crater on day two, then turning around and heading back west through Serengeti on day three, stopping at the Gorge and by late afternoon arriving at our car, which we left at Ndabaka Gate on the western entrance to the park. We used a guy named Richard, who owns a company called "Pumzika* **, and who came recommended by some friends after they used him for a few one-day safaris. He's cheaper than the larger companies and we were trying to keep the cost minimal since we're trying to do this on a missioner's stipend.

Before setting out on the first day, innocent of the disasters that lay ahead.

The first day was mostly perfect.  We saw some good animal viewing, the highlight being a huge cluster of elephants, probably upwards of 500-600, as far as the eye can see. Hard to believe these beauties are being killed at such a fast rate that they'll probably be mostly gone in 10 years.

Huge sighting of elephants.

We camped in Serengeti that night to the sounds of hyenas and lions close to our campsite and ate breakfast that morning while watching the birds and hyrax scavenge for breakfast.

Breakfast on day 2. Ready to head into Ngorongoro Crater for more animal views! Hint, that didn't happen.

On the road for less than 2 hours our car (#1) broke down. Completely stopped. Dead. And Richard couldn't get it started again. So we flagged down some other safari-goers and after a few failed attempts, finally hitched a ride (car #2) with some nice French visitors who left us at the Naabi Gate, which is the corridor between Serengeti and the Crater. Richard blew it off as no biggie, I'll have a driver bring in another car and come get you at the gate in about 3 hours, he said. Mindless to the long wait ahead, we left our bags in his car, grabbing only our valuables, and went to Naabi. Six hours later Richard pulls up in another (#3) car, amidst pouring rain. By this time we were wet, cold, cranky, and tired. We'd wasted a whole day sitting at a rest stop with very little shelter from the cold rain and nothing to entertain ourselves. Oh, but wait! Car #3 had a flat tire. So the cook/assistant got out in the torrential downpour and changed the tire. Seven hours after having arrived, we pull out of Naabi Gate.

By this time it's close to sunset and our prearranged campsite is several hours' drive away. We explain to Richard that we are cold and wet and we suspected the camp equipment was also wet since they had to open the back door and take things out in the rain to change the tire. We requested a closer place to stay the night (this was a promise he had made when booking the trip--if there was too much rain we could stay at a guest house). Richard informs us that this isn't possible and starts the drive. We protest and get a little heated saying that it's not a choice, we are the customers and we're saying we're not driving to our campsite. Find a place closer. At this point Richard stops talking and just drives so we assume (haha, right?) that he's heard our demands and will do what we want.

Yeah, of course that didn't happen. So this resulted in us driving 3 hours on dark, foggy, windy roads up Ngorongoro Crater. There's no way to capture the danger in doing this, only to say that we all thought that would be the end of us. It was so hard to see the road through the fog that the cook got out of the car at least two times to shine a flashlight on the road to ensure we were not going off a ravine (good thing he did that because we WERE headed in that direction! Another couple feet and we wouldn't gone off the mountain.). Oh, and don't forget, this is a WILD GAME PARK so there are dangerous animals along the way. Needless to say, by the time we got to the campsite we were a bit heated. We got in a big fight with Richard, who only would say that we encountered a problem together and it was our responsibility to overcome the problem together. He admitted no fault in putting our lives in danger by driving at night or abandoning us all day at Naabi. When told that he must refund our money he said that you incur risks on such an "adventure" and that he wouldn't return any money to us. Well, let's just say that some choice words were said and Richard, although he probably still doesn't understand what he did wrong, at least agreed to discuss a refund, later.

We calmed down and warmed up by the roaring fire at the campsite, ate a small dinner, and went to bed agreeing that we wanted an early start tomorrow, our last day, so we could at least see some of the Crater and still get to our car at a reasonable hour.

The view of the Crater in the early AM from our campsite.

After eating an early breakfast we come out of the mess hall to discover that Richard's car (#3) was being PUSHED by another safari car, trying to jump start it. Completely in disbelief, we vow to ourselves that we were by no means getting into that car again. Even if he gets it started, there's no way it'll survive the steep twists and turns to get into the Crater. No, better hire another company so at least we aren't stranded for our last day. I tell Richard we're abandoning ship and ask if he knows of any other company we can hire in the area. He tells me there are no companies in this area, an obvious lie because this is a popular destination site. Fine. We don't need him.

Paula and I devise a plan of action and I start going around to any safari driver left at camp asking if they know of any company in the area that we can hire to take us into Ngorongoro Crater for the morning and then drive us back to the western gate of Serengeti by evening. We get a few numbers and start calling, even speaking to the security guard at the campsite. By this time, Richard drives up; the car is started and he's asking us to get in. Haha, no way, my friend. He admits defeat and gives us our bags, which we just put on the side of the road. (At this point an elephant enters the campsite just a few hundred yards from us. I suppose he was just waiting for it to quiet down?)

After lots of negotiations on price, we finally agree with a guy to drive us into the Crater, do 2 hours of game viewing and then out into Serengeti where we will either meet Richard, if he can get his car fixed, or this driver (car #4) will take us back to our car at the western gate. You must understand that we are now paying another company to do something that the first company was already paid to do. And, we don't have much negotiating power so we can't get the price down very low.

We head out and have 2 very nice hours of viewing, in which time we spot not one but THREE rhinos! That's unheard of. And they were relatively close. All the rhinos we've seen up to this point have been from quite a distance so our moods started to pick up. That is, until the driver of car #4 tells us that he's charging us $50 to go into the town of Karatu to go to the ATM because cash is his only method of payment. That's in addition to what we had already agreed on as the price of everything. Yes, he's basically extorting us. We're pissed but we agree amongst each other that we'll subtract this $50 from the total fee at the end of the day. We also agree that we'll pay him for the game drive up front, but we're not going to pay him for the trip into Serengeti until we reach our final destination safe and sound. We've had too many letdowns on this trip so far. As I hand over the money for the morning, I tell him we'll pay the rest when we reach our final destination and he's really pissed. We get into a fight but I hold firm. Fine, we head to Karatu gate entering into the rim of the Crater starting to head back on our way to Serengeti.

When we arrive at the Karatu Gate driver of car #4 informs us that his tire is broken and he can't go into the park. He's leaving us, he says, and we'll have to find another driver. Yup, we are now further than we were ever supposed to be, out more money than we had ever expected to spend, and still with no driver.

Stranded at Karatu Gate and trying to cool down from our anger and frustration.

So now we start trying to hitch again with any safari-goers going that direction, but the problem is that we are on the eastern gate of the Crater, which means that people are entering into the Crater today and Serengeti tomorrow. It would be next to impossible to find someone who is going straight to Serengeti today, let alone someone who would have room for us. We even contemplates catching a bus because there are public buses that go that route, but it's 2 days before Christmas (Chris's birthday!) and they are all full. We finally find a park worker who has a Land Rover and is willing to take us (for a fee, of course) to our destination. We haggle again about price and settle on a still astronomical fee to take us through the rim of the Crater, into Serengeti, and to the middle where Richard has "fixed" his car (spoiler) and is awaiting us. But wait, this guy has to run into town first. He'll be back for us in 1/2 an hour.

Over an hour later he comes back to get us. It's now after 3:00 PM and we are headed into the Crater gates. Incidentally 3:00 is the hour that the gates are supposed to close to incoming traffic. We're racing against the clock because 6:00 is when the gates close to outgoing traffic and 8:00 is when they close the roads to all traffic in the parks. Calls are being made and exceptions are being asked on our behalf. Is this going to cost us more money? We have no idea what lies ahead. But we're moving, so okay, there's at least that.

And that's when it happens. The car. Car #5! RUNS OUT OF GAS! FIVE MINUTES AFTER PICKING US UP! I couldn't even make this up!

We're never getting home. Stuck on the side of the road with no gas!? Is this really happening!?

"No worries," the driver says in English after I yelled out, "ARE YOU F@*%ING KIDDING ME! WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO US?" To his credit he did have an extra canister of gas in the back. But after what we'd been through!? We weren't prepared for this. Oh, and while we were filling up on the side of the road, car #4 goes whizzing past us up the hill with a car load of people. BEEP BEEP and wave. Yup, we just realized we'd been duped. Ugh. This place.

At this point I think I can fast forward through the story just as the driver of car #5 did when he drove 110 kilometers an hour (almost 70 miles an hour) through dirt and rock roads of the no-man's-land between Ngorongoro and Serengeti. We speed to a stop at our old haunt the Naabi Gate, arriving around 5:00 PM. Dangerous, but good timing! Except that Richard, who "paid" for us to get into the Serengeti, didn't leave enough money for the entrance fee, and it takes an hour of negotiating by our driver to get us through. At 6:00 we get through the gate and, as the sun is setting over the beautiful Serengeti plains. We meet up with Richard at 7:00 PM and the sun is now set. We load into his car, which overpoweringly smells of exhaust and proceed to drive at a snails pace toward the Western Gate and our car. That's when we realize he never fixed his car. It's just barely running. Let me say that again. It's dark. We're in a safari park. Again. In a broken car. Again. The SAME broken car. With dangerous wild animals around us. But what choice do we have? So we go.

We limp along, on the way seeing night-elephants, a porcupine (they only come out at dark), a hippo on dry land. I mean, how many people in the world can say they drive through the Serengeti at dark? Oh wait, I think there's a reason for that. And in the back of my mind I keep coming to the thought that if this car doesn't make it, there's no one on the road until morning because traffic is shut down after 8:00 PM. That's when I pray a Rosary for our safe arrival at our car. 

We do indeed arrive at Ndabaka Gate and our car safe and sound at 10:00 PM on our 3rd day. At which point Richard is basically like, "Okay, drive the 2+ hours back to Mwanza even though it's essentially the middle of the night." No way, Jose. So we have yet another fight with him, telling him that it's his responsibility to not only refund us money but to also put us up in a hotel for the night. Somehow we come to an agreement and we drive (he rides in my car, me driving!) to a guesthouse where he puts us up for the night, agreeing to refund us just less than half of the money we paid him if we give him 3 weeks to get the money together. We agree because we think it's not going to get any better than this. But we assure him that we WILL sue him if he doesn't come up with the money.

Last week was three weeks since our trip. You wanna know the status of our refund? He says "his mother died over Christmas" and he needs a few more weeks to get the money together. Any bets on whether we'll have any refunded money in our bank account come April when we leave this country? My bets are on no.

UPDATE: If you wanna know whether we got our refund or not, check it out here.

*I have no qualms mentioning this guy by name and with his company because I definitely do NOT recommend him and want the whole world to know it.

**Pumzika, ironically, means rest is Swahili. Definitely NOT aptly named for our trip!


Erica said...

That is awful. And probably is a good analogy for your time in Africa. :(

Waldie said...

Oh, Erica, this makes me sad that you said it's like an analogy for our time here. Yes, we've had struggles over the past 3+ years, but in no way does the frustrations in this experience encapsulate our time here. I do love Tanzania, even with it's ups and downs.

Waldie said...
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