Having finally made my way to Tanzania and recovered from my jetlag and two sleepless flights, it was now time for me to drive to the Kilimanjaro International Airport to pick up my team of four residents and one medical student who were arriving this morning on the same flight I had taken days before. I had been in touch with them back home to alert them all to the frustrating issue with the COVID test needing to be done within 72 hours of arrival and the timing of getting it tested. It proved to be an issue for one of them, necessitating having a rapid PCR done at the airport for a rather princely sum, though it was all taken in stride and just another reminder of how the pandemic has affected our lives. Thankfully, the five of them were all able to travel on the same flights, making it far easier for me having to make only a single trip to the airport and having a vehicle large enough for all of them and their luggage was equally important.
I got there shortly after their arrival, but still managed having to wait well over an hour given the many hoops that are now necessary for entry into the country with the pandemic. After leaving the plane, you must first check in to receive your COVID rapid antigen test (which cost only a very reasonable $10) that surely seems superfluous given the requirement for a PCR within 72 hours of arrival and not departure. After that, you must then go through immigration with your online visa paperwork so your passport can be stamped. Once you’re through immigration, then you get your bags, or not, as has happened to us a number of times over the years. Once you have your bags, it is then through customs which requires your bags to go through X-ray to make sure that you’re not bringing in any items that you should have been charged a customs tax for. This is typically a crucial point for me as I am often shuttling supplies for FAME, though the residents were only bringing their own gear which would be permitted without questioning or any further discussion.
The entire group finally emerged from the arrivals hall which is always a hectic scene of almost exclusively safari drivers waiting to pick up their clients, either holding signs with their names high aloft above their heads or against their chest if they’ve been lucky enough to secure one of the front spots and readily visible to exiting passengers. It’s always fun to watch as they exit looking for their names, something I recall quite vividly from my very first visit here in 2009. Meeting your guide and loading your bags into your Land Cruiser or Land Rover is the very first experience you have before heading off into the bush and experiencing this amazing continent and it is a very formative moment.
After their 24+ hours of flights, they all appeared to have weathered the travel well and were excited to get on the road, though not until I got a picture of the group, their first of many that I would get over the next month. We were soon on our way to Leonard and Pendo’s for a short visit and breakfast, something that has become a tradition for our visits here. They have always been insistent on providing a meal or accommodations for the residents on their arrival as their way of giving something back for the work we’re doing. I have tried time and time again to reimburse them for their troubles and they have refused me every time, simply insisting that they were just doing their part and would think of doing nothing less. That’s the way it is here as the Tanzanians so appreciate the fact that you traveled such a distance to help them because it’s something that you want to do, not something that you have to do. Little do they know, though I’ve told them time and again before, but what we get out of the experience far exceeds anything that we’re providing and is something that gives us some meaning to our lives. That is what it’s all about and why we continue to return year after year.
Breakfast was a wonderful spread of small roasted potatoes, chicken sausage, small pancakes, pineapple, watermelon, fresh watermelon juice and Pendo’s amazing African tea or chai masala, which is a wonderful cacophony of spices including cardamom, ginger, and everything nice. I have attempted this tea at home, but have never been able to perfect it and always dream of my return just for the tea (as well as most everything else I eat here). My Land Rover, named Turtle, had needed a few last minute services performed and so Leonard had taken it, but it was much needed downtime at the house with several of the residents closing their eyes on the couch prior to our departure.
We were finally all packed and had Turtle back from the shop, ready to say our goodbyes to everyone and finally make our way to FAME. With the new bypass, we were thankfully able to avoid driving through Arusha, which was once a sleepy, sprawling town with only one stoplight that has now become a massive tangle of traffic from the moment the sun rises and is worth avoiding at all costs. A quick trip to town during any of the daylight hours is no longer a possibility. The bypass, on the other hand, is not really heavily used and, as a result, we were able to scoot out of town and be on our way heading west in no time. As I’ve mentioned many times, the drive from Arusha to Karatu takes one from the green slopes of Mt. Meru through more arid lands that are occupied primarily by the Maasai and their many boma, eventually arriving to the Great Rift Valley and Lake Manyara. Here is the village of Mto wa Mbu, or Mosquito River, that sits at the entrance to Lake Manyara National Park, the site in the 1930s of Ernest Hemmingway’s hunting trip for rhinos that unfortunately no longer exist from over hunting. From here, we wind up the escarpment of the rift valley that ascends over 2000 feet to the Ngorongoro Highlands, famous for its coffee plantations and the many luxury lodges for those safari goers so inclined.
Each time I travel here, I am reminded of just how truly lucky I am to have found this place. Even during the current dry season, traveling out of the valley and up onto the escarpment with its vibrant and lush vegetation makes one realize just diverse the ecology is here. As we reach the highest point of our drive, at Rhotia, its valley below of fertile fields stretch before us and high on the opposite side sits our destination, Karatutown, where FAME has existed since 2008 and I have been coming since 2009.
Karatu is frontier town, the final stop on the tarmac, or paved road, before the gate to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the Crater, and the Serengeti. If one is planning to get to the Serengeti, you must travel through Karatu unless, of course, you’ve chosen to fly between location, which, in my mind, defeats the entire purpose on traveling to this amazing country. At one point, there had been plans to build a paved highway across the entire Serengeti to allow trucking to make the journey more easily at the expense of the wildlife there including the potential disruption of the wildebeest and their great migration. Thankfully, environmentalists rose to the occasion and blocked the continuation of the project which fizzled out without much fanfare.
I’m sure that traveling up the FAME road must have been incredibly exciting for the neuro team and they were probably also wondering what to expect at the end of this incredibly bumpy and dusty road. FAME is about three kilometers out of town and up a few hills, but you reach it, you know that you are home and have arrived. It is a place of great goodness and the nearby coffee plantation by the name of Shangri-La seems to say it all. The smiling faces and shouts of “Karibu” from all who see us driving through the gate and up to the administration building are all that it takes to wipe away any stress or troubles that you’ve brought with you to this wonderful place. We met up with Prosper, our volunteer coordinator, who gave the team their tour of FAME, then headed off to the Raynes House, our home for the next month. If the expression “Life is Good” ever had a more appropriate place to use, I can’t think of it.