East Africa trip
Oct-Nov 2016, Kenya & Tanzania
I hate organized tours with a passion, I always prefer independence when travelling. While planning a trip to Kenya and Tanzania, my first option would be to rent a car and drive through the national parks.
I was really surprised that the majority on TripAdvisor were really trying to convince everyone that it is not a good idea. Indeed, I have seen only 2 other self-driving tourists while being in these countries. Most of the people were lazily sitting in organized safari jeeps, restricted to only looking left or right. Locals call us, white tourists, Mzungu, and it doesn't sound very nice.
Don't believe anyone who tells you that self-driving in Kenya and Tanzania is somehow more difficult than in other countries. It was fairly easy, and very adventurous! It is so much more fun to meet local people, much more rewarding to spot the animals by yourself, cook your own food in the bush, and be completely flexible with your itinerary!
We hired a Toyota Hilux double cab for 4 adults and a child from 4x4 Kenya. We were met at the airport in Nairobi at 3am, on our arrival, and did all the paperwork on the place, to be free to go to our hotel. They didn't charge extra for a child seat, nor for the border crossing papers, which is very nice. The car had everything we needed for a bush trip: tents (one on the roof), mattresses, sleeping bags, kitchen stuff, gas stove, led lamps, Garmin GPS, even a fridge! And few things can beat a cold beer in the mid-day heat of African savannah!
The car was not new, having 150 000 km, but proved to be very reliable on the many tough roads we have driven. Don't get me wrong - there is a lot of asphalt in both countries, but the most exciting stuff is as always off the beaten path. So, gravel roads, sand tracks and even some unintended off-road driving was part of the game. Surprisingly, we didn't get a single tire puncture, while we had it 3 times in Namibia on our previous African adventure. The biggest problem on the road is the dust - you just cannot imagine how much of it you will encounter, we even had some minor problems with stuck rear windows because of it.
We crossed the border at Isebania/Sirari and returned through Tarakea/Oloitokitok. Immigration and visas on arrival are quite straightforward. No photos were needed and single entry visas are also valid for re-entry within East Africa, which saves you some money. Yellow fever certificates were checked. There was a problem with Kenyan customs on the first crossing, but George, the owner of 4x4 Kenya, sorted it out on the phone with the customs official. If you use the Tarakea border, please also note that the Kenyan side is not 24h, and the guards wanted a bribe to call the immigration official after 6pm.
I have also read many reports about corrupt policemen at road checkpoints. In really, most of whom we met were friendly and not corrupt. There was only one incident with a Tanzanian policeman between Arusha and Moshi insisting that were were speeding, while we were not. Filming him with a GoPro immediately resolved the situation.
As for the Tanzanian national parks - there are no restrictions of driving a Kenyan vehicle there. You will pay a bit more ($40 vs $10) for the entry, but this is a small difference compared to entry fees per person and camping. The national parks are really expensive, so while self-driving you can also spend more time outside, where some of the animals can be seen for free, and visiting the local villages, which are no less interesting. The entry fees are valid for 24h until you exit, so usually it is a good idea to camp within the park and see e.g. lions with the prey early in the morning. Beware that if you want to overstay in the park, you need to extend the permit in the park's headquarters before it expires, otherwise they will add a 50% penalty on top of the extra days. It happened to us in Serengeti, and wasn't a pleasant experience.
We were not required to hire a guide a single time, not even in Ngorongoro, despite their official rules. Nor the guide was actually needed - you can find lots of animals yourself and sometimes you can ask other local drivers for tips, e.g. which interesting animal they have seen and where. Also you can follow other guided cars - those have VHF radios and let each other know if they spot something interesting. Usually, they are very friendly and willing to share this information.
Also, ask for tips in the morning at public campsites. Btw, we never had problems with availability of space in public campsites, and some of them, e.g. Nyani in Serengeti and Simba-A in Ngorongoro even have kitchens, where you can order decent food.
More on Ngorongoro: it has a complicated prepayment system, while in all other parks you can pay by credit card or USD cash, if network is down. If you go to Ngorongoro from the east, you can visit the office in either Arusha or Karatu, get a bill and pay it at a local bank. Note that even for a transit of Ngorongoro either way you need to pay the fees. We were coming from the west, and there is not Ngorongoro office anywhere, so we arrived at the Naabi Hill gate from Serengeti without the prepayment. They told is that we still could prepay at a bank in Tarime or Musoma, but it is difficult to know the right amount, because the fee structure is rather complicated and they also add 18% tax to all the listed fees (this is not done in Kenya). We were refused a payment in cash at the gate, but we're given a stamped paper with our info and were allowed through the gate to pay at the park HQ near the Simba campsites. Note that Naabi Hill gate is shared between Serengeti and Ngorongoro and can be quite crowded in the mid-day. The payment is required before you can camp or enter the crater, but when we arrived at the HQ, it was already closed. Fortunately, we met an official who took a deposit from us and written a paper that we are allowed to pay the next day, which we did in cash.
For sleeping, we camped only within the parks. We tried camping in a random place to the west of Serengeti, but in the dark a chief of local village came and told us that there may be "bad people" walking around at night and advised to camp inside of a village. Most of the nights outside of parks we actually stayed in local hotels or guesthouses. They usually cost below $10 per room payable in shillings and many have even hot showers (with electric heater). They are really easy to find in all larger towns and are a big money-saver compared to camping in the parks! Eating also is possible in local restaurants, with large meals costing $1-$3.
Finding decent supermarkets for your bush supplies can be a problem outside of larger cities. In most cases, a "supermarket" is a small local shop with very few supplies. Rice and drinking water are easy to find, but sausages, cheese, canned food, etc are virtually non-existent, buy more of these in advance. Local butchers are widely available, but we didn't risk buying from them. Local bars are also ubiquitous, where you can buy beers. You can recognize them seeing a cashier sitting in a cage. However, in most of them you need to exchange full bottles for empty ones, so we sometimes had to pour our beer into plastic bottles or just drink the beer at the place.
Another good tip for the bush: while you are in any park and want to buy a beer, the easiest way is to go to any lodge and pay a Mzungu price (e.g. $5 per bottle), but all of the lodges have a beer shop for the staff, where you can buy the same for $1-$2 (in shillings). Look for signs saying "staff camp" or similar or just ask some of the employees. They may hesitate at first whether you are allowed to buy from there, but still are willing to show the place, and not a single time we were refused to buy some beer there. The same goes for snacks, and in Masai Mara Serena Lodge we even ate a good dinner in a staff restaurant for a 10% of Mzungu price :-)
Anyway, in many cases I felt sorry for the packaged tourists being driven around as bags of potatoes. I think their experience was really different and less authentic from what we got. Doing an independent trip in East Africa is easy, adventurous and highly recommended!