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“Rwanda bewitched us, Tanzania amazed us”

Jay-Palexa_Volcanoes-NP_Rwanda

Our holiday to Rwanda and Tanzania was our best travel experience ever

Jonny,

Our holiday to Rwanda and Tanzania was our best travel experience ever, bar none. Rwanda bewitched us, Tanzania amazed us, and it all went off without a hitch.

Thanks to the pre-trip documentation that you provided, we had been able to procure the proper visa and vaccinations to ensure smooth border crossings. We had a bit of trepidation about the perceived lack of booking confirmation documentation, but, as you promised, our ground handlers promptly and warmly greeted us at each transition. We soon got into the safari spirit of appreciating Africa time and simply asking around when we had any concerns.

The flight from Heathrow to Nairobi on Kenya Airways was nice and uneventful and on time. The changeover to connect to Kigali (via Bujumbura – we learned quickly that airplanes (especially in the bush) were much like buses: a few stops along the way to “drop and pick”) was only slightly delayed, but no worries about missing connections.

Signage at Kigali led to some confusion as to whether a Rwanda entrance fee was required, but we were informed that the fee was only applicable on exit, as your documentation had indicated.

We cleared Rwandan passport control and found Lucian, our driver, smiling and waiting for us. The vehicle was immaculate and the bottled water welcomed after such a long set of flights. The 100 km of road from Kigali to Musanze was unexpectedly modern and smooth. People walking on the sides of the road everywhere, wonderfully and colourfully dressed, always carrying something. Not many other vehicles on the road other than those similar to ours hauling Western tourists. Some delivery trucks, nary a personal vehicle.

The countryside was enchanting. Fields, fields, fields on every square metre of land. Beautiful hills and mountains and valleys. Houses and mud huts and bicycles and everything completely spotless. I saw more litter on our street this morning than we did in all of rural Rwanda.

After a couple of hours (and waving at hundreds of little ones yelling “hello!”) we arrived at the car park for the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge. Yes, the schlep to the lodge from the car park is steep, but you arrive to an amazing view, hot towels (a custom we took to immediately), and refreshing drinks. Our cabin was spacious and being warmed by a fresh wood fire (and a nice touch of two little carved gorillas waiting on our bed as a gift).

Governors Camp does a great job with Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge. Dave, our fill-in manager, was attentive and crazy knowledgeable about the lodge, excursions, and wildlife. He even took us on a “bird walk” one morning when we didn’t have another trek scheduled. On the days we did have treks (gorillas, golden monkeys), we were outfitted and provisioned appropriately. It was massively helpful to be able to rely on the Sabyinyo to provide gaiters and gloves and ponchos for the gorilla trek, otherwise we would have had to pack these one-use items ourselves. This saved us loads of space and weight. Same goes for the laundry services at the Sabyinyo (and at the Lamai Serengeti).

The food was very good here, both in quality and variety. (The bread at all of the places we stayed was super tasty.) Coffee and tea (and hot milk…another custom we quickly adopted) was available throughout the day. We enjoyed being able to sit at a private table (rather than being forced into a social seating).

We loved returning to our room and being greeted with refreshed fire and hot water bottles in our bed. The nights got chilly as Sabyinyo is at ~2500 meters elevation. Plenty of hot water during the advertised times, and we adjusted easily to the no/low-electricity periods.

Lucian was always prompt and courteous getting us to and from our excursions, and he seemed well prepared with our permits and registrations. The gorilla trek process was controlled chaos as the organizers handled the daily demands of 80 expectant Westerners having differing desires. The trek itself was no more exertion than some of the walking we have done in Britain, and to first come upon the clearing where the gorillas were day-resting was breathtaking. Our visit with the Ugende gorilla family occurred at much closer proximity than the seven meter buffer we were instructed to maintain, but all was calm and respectful and truly awesome.

Feedback: Whilst we were provided with loose tipping guidelines in our travel documentation, there seemed to be much uncertainty amongst our fellow trekkers (and travellers and managers we spoke with at the lodges) about exactly how much to tip and when. I had tried to get some clarification via the internet beforehand, but there was a bit of discrepancy. We ended up doing the following: $10 to each of our two guides and $20 given to the group of three or four trackers (to be split up). We did each hire a porter for $10 each. Anyway, it turned out fine, but we had wanted to be sure we were getting it right; more clear and coordinated guidelines would help here, if possible.

If the gorillas were majestic, then the golden monkeys the next day were just plain fun. Not nearly as much of a hike, and it was a blast to see the little guys just frolicking.

We had a final night at Sabyinyo and then left the next day in the afternoon to spend the night at the Serena Hotel in Kigali. The hotel was of very high standard and served us well during our short stay. We managed a bit of a walkabout around the Rwandan capital…quite a difference to the rural scenes we had just experienced, but completely safe and non-threatening.

After a few hours of sleep, we awoke at 3:30 am to be able to catch a ride with Lucian at 4:00 am (punctual, as ever) to be ready for our 6:00 am flight from Kigali.

We arrived at Kogatende (our first dirt airstrip) and sorted through the myriad drivers until we connected with Emmanuel from Lamai Serengeti Lodge. After seeing a leopard and some lions on the way to the lodge, we were greeted by fill-in mangers Kristen and Mark (and hot towels…and drinks!). Hardly possible, we thought, but the set-up at the Lamai Serengeti somehow trumped the Sabyinyo. The vista from the lodge and our “hut” refused to be ignored.

We spent three days wading through wildebeest, having lovely packed “bush breakfast” with giraffes and elephants, and marvelling at the diversity and abundance within the park.

The buffet-style lunches allowed for a bit more self-regulation and was welcomed. We enjoyed drinks around the fireplace before wonderful dinners each night (again, with a private dining optioned – much preferred for us). If I had to pick, I’d say the food here was the best out of all the places.

Feedback: Taking you up on the private vehicle suggestion was one of the best decisions we made – thank you very much for that. Whatever the extra cost, the relaxed flexibility was well worth it. I tend to get a bit motion sick if I have to sit in a bumpy car. Being able to stand up and pop out the top the whole time made a world of difference. +1 for the Toyota Land Rovers with the out-the-top option.

Off reluctantly to our next leg. (Loved just being able to hop onto the small aircraft at the airstrips.) Flew over Ngorongoro Crater and landed at Lake Manyara. Here we were met by Silvan who proceeded to take us through Lake Manyara National Park before heading up to the crater before the 6.00 pm gate closing. We were again thrilled to have a private stand-up Toyota Land Cruiser – much needed once inside Ngorongoro Park.

After a long and dusty and bumpy ride, Silvan got us checked into the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge. It is no secret that the Sopa is not on the same level as the Sabyinyo or the Lamai Serengeti, but we knew that coming into it, so we were pleased as the Sopa served its purpose.

Good call staying on the east side of the crater as we were awake and down on the crater floor before most everyone else, it seemed. Silvan proved to be a very kind and funny and knowledgeable guide, and we really appreciated his insight (and driving skills). He made sure we saw everything we wanted to see (and some things we didn’t even know we had wanted to see!) and was very patient with our requests and questions. Man of the match.

Our stay at Ngorongoro was brief as we bounced and jostled back down the mountain, through some wonderful Tanzanian landscape, and into Lake Manyara airport in plenty of time to catch the first of three planes to Nairobi. We sort of followed the crowd through most checkpoints, had a bit of an expected delay getting our transit visas at Nairobi Wilson airport (but we had been well-informed by our travel documentation and itinerary about the process, so we were prepared for it), and were finally greeted by a representative from Palacina Hotel.

We were checked-in promptly and were able to print out our boarding passes upon arrival. We were glad to have the oasis to relax in as the prospect of spending the day in Jomo Kenyatta International was not very appealing, so we appreciate your suggestion of the day room and dinner at the Palacina. We were driven to the airport in plenty of time to clear security and grind through our overnight flight to Heathrow.
We could not have done this – from beginning to end of the entire process – without your infinite patience and spot-on guidance. We cannot thank you enough for arranging what has been (so far!) the trip of our lifetimes. We will be happy to highly recommend Zambezi to anyone looking to travel in Africa.

Very best regards, JP and Tracy A.

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