By JP Bennett, for the Redoubt Reporter
By 30-day increments, my temporary contract in Tuntutuliak, a Yup’ik village near the Bering Sea, had been extended to encompass nearly all of this past winter. On a particularly brutally cold and windy evening in March, I had been scheming some delayed gratification for enduring months of no running water and temperatures hovering near minus 30, when an email from my Australian friends, David and Julie Maddock-Jones, suggested that I join them for an African safari.
I had met the Aussie couple when David came to Kenai and Mountain View Elementary School on a teacher exchange in 1994. Since then, we’ve shared some adventures on the planet, including time on Badu Island in the Torres Straits and in Chang Mai, Thailand. In the instant it took to read the message, living in a remote village had a specific purpose.
My travel plans usually are sketchy, at best. I do have a general sense of what I want to see and do, but I prefer to be spontaneous and let adventure unfold as opportunity and discovery allow. With this particular journey, a bit more preparation was required.
My friends had already winnowed possible safari adventures down to three options. Two choices were with companies that would provide transportation to and within various parks, as well as arrange all of the permits needed. The third option was to rent a Land Rover and travel independently.
All three of us eschew guided tours, but the price of renting a vehicle and arranging for places to stay as we traveled about proved expensive and daunting. Instead, we opted to book with Absolute Africa (www.absoluteafrica.com), an outfit that combines small-group travel and self-sufficiency.
We are to cook our own group meals and pitch tents every night. The company will provide transportation and secure all needed permits. Absolute Africa offered a variety of routes and we opted for a trek that included a chance to see mountain gorillas in a sanctuary straddling the border of Rwanda and Uganda.
With apologies to the Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu, this journey of (several) thousand miles began with making a list. I quickly had three categories: travel logistics, things to accomplish at home, and items to pack. With less than a week left before I leave, the to-dos still remain in the double digits.
To get to Nairobi, the cheapest option is to fly from New York City and route through Istanbul. I discovered that I could extend the time between flights for no extra charge, so I booked my return from Kenya with an extra month in Turkey. I’ve since arranged for a hotel my first two nights in Istanbul. The rest I’ll just figure out.
I arbitrarily decided to give myself more post-safari time in Africa. Those extra days weren’t unscheduled for long. A friend wondered if I was going to climb Kilimanjaro since I was going to be in the region. Well, why not?
My list became considerably longer, as Kilimanjaro’s 19,300-foot elevation, while not technical, demands attention to detail. A local acquaintance did the climb in February and encountered torrentially rainy days on the approach and minus 15-degree temperatures with deep snow near the summit. While the rest of my time is to be in warm and dry conditions, I now have to pack gear and clothing for the cold and wet.
Tanzania law requires that one hire a guide and porters for Kilimanjaro, so I began sorting through the 2 million-plus hits that my Internet query presented. Once again, Absolute Africa provided a trip that met my needs and budget and it was easy to coordinate the safari portion with the climb.
A local friend who had lived in Tanzania in the 1990s advised that if I could summit Kilimanjaro near a full moon as she did, it would add to the majesty of the accomplishment. Sure enough, by scheduling the climb near the end of my time in Africa, I would have that opportunity. While I had hoped to recover on the beaches of Zanzibar afterwards, I now have a fortnight of free time in and around Kigali after the safari instead. Another Soldotna friend and her husband, both former students who had recently been living and working there, provided lots of ideas of things to do and see in Rwanda.
Although it is nearly 500 miles between Kigali and Moshi, the closest big town to Kilimanjaro, every source I consulted recommended flying between the cities, as land transportation in that part of the world is not reliable. Kenya Airways is online and I was able to reserve my flight just hours after I had added it to my list.
There’s now only one more task remaining in this category. The airline rescheduled my return from Istanbul and it now arrives in New York City an hour after my connecting flight to Anchorage departs.
Oh, and as long as I need to pass through New York City on the way to Africa, I’ve added nearly a week of time there as I’ll visit with two of my best friends from high school who live and work in the city.
Prior to departure
To keep from being rejected at the Kenyan border, I needed to get immunized for yellow fever. My doctor recommended that I obtain anti-malaria medication and diamox to ward off altitude sickness, as well as shots for meningitis and Hepatitis B. He wrote a script for dealing with possible intestinal problems and for extra epinephrine pens, as I have an allergy to wasp stings. I travel a lot, so had already been immunized for most other common tropical diseases.
Back in the day, one needed to carry cash money, especially in developing countries, as travelers’ checks are difficult to exchange where there are no banks. I’ll have to pay for my visas at each border, and many incidental expenses require U.S. dollars, so I’ll need to have a stash of bills of various denominations, as the ATMs there only issue local currency.
I’ve arranged with my credit union for a separate debit card with access to just one new account that I’ve automatically scheduled to be modestly replenished every week from my savings. The theory being that if the card falls into unauthorized hands, my financial loss would be limited.
Items to pack
I prefer to travel light and can manage to pack for three months of warm-weather destinations in a single carry-on backpack, however, I’ll need an extra bag to accommodate the extra gear needed for Kilimanjaro and salmon for my New York friends.
An iPad has become essential. Even in darkest Africa, there are now Wi-Fi connections in cities and some villages. Aside from being able to access email and such, I’ve uploaded guide and reading books, as well as Swahili and Turkish language apps. My pack is a few pounds lighter than it would otherwise be.
With this sentence, I now get to check another item off of the to-do list. OK, what’s next?
Next up, safari: Kenya-Uganda-Rwanda.
JP Bennett is a freelance writer living in Soldotna. He can be reached at email@example.com.