A place where you can “sleep with the fishes.” Where you literally sleep with fishes darting all around you. Except, if you’re like me, you won’t be “sleeping with fishes” at all because the whole experience of watching fish swim around your room all night while lying in bed makes sleep completely impossible.
I’m talking about the underwater room on Pemba Island, one of the islands that make up Zanzibar right off the coast of Tanzania.
Let me start by telling you a bit about Pemba Island. It is lush and green. It is surrounded by impossibly clear aqua waters, teaming with coral and fish. Pemba is also the leading producer of cloves, according to Brittanica.com.
Pemba is very, very off-the-beaten path. According to one tourism source, Pemba’s sister island, Zanzibar has 150 hotels. Pemba has just seven (including a couple that may be more B&B style lodging)
It is very remote – you can take a small plane from Dar Salaam on the mainland to tiny Karume airport in Pemba’s main town of Chake-Chake. Then you’ll need a driver to take you on the hour-and-a-half drive through Ngezi Forest Reserve and up to the Manta Resort on the far northern part of the island.
Along the way, you’ll pass by thatched huts, the only other traffic on the road is the insistent mosquito-like drone of a scooter or two.
Manta Resort is pretty remote. You won’t be venturing out to any neighboring villages to grab a drink or dine in an area restaurant. There aren’t any. Nor are there any TVs, telephones, gym. Wi-fi is only really available at the lobby/reception area and it is spotty at best. I pretty much gave up on checking email or Instagram after the first afternoon.
The accommodations are spartan – small, private stucco villas with open bathrooms and no air conditioning but stunning ocean views. It’s an all-inclusive setup and there is no menu. You’re server (or “fundi”) gives you two options at each meal and you pick one. But it’s all very fresh and healthy, and there’s almost always a fish option.
The entire vibe at Manta Resort is unpretentious, laid back and friendly. It’s clear that the resort is community-focused and gives back in many ways – jobs, schooling, fishing and coral conservation. Their foundation, the Kwwanini Foundation, has several initiatives aimed at sustainable economic development with an eye towards preserving what makes the island unique.
But what really makes Manta Resort unique and is, quite honestly, the main draw is its’ underwater room.
Oh, hello there. I realize I left you all on a bit of a cliffhanger. Not about the Mad Pooper. I mean, we’re all waiting for bated breath on that one, but alas, I’m not sure we’ll ever really find out who she is or why she does what she did. And the Colorado police want us all to just flush it and forget it.
No, I left you hanging over our visit to the St. Regis Maldives. Which, honestly, is not a bad place to just hang. And, because really, that’s kind of all there is to do there is…..hang.
Let me tell you a little something about the Maldives, which is sometimes pronounced “Maldiiives” with a long “i” (if you are American) and sometimes pronounced “Maldeeeves” with a long and pronounced “e” (if you are British). Somehow along the way, XFE and I had taken to pronouncing it the British way. That’s fine, too. Nobody at the very fine and expensive St. Regis Maldeeeeves ever corrected us while they were taking our credit card information. No harm. No foul. Or “foal,” however you want to pronounce it.
Anyway, about the Maldives.
Here are 5 things to know about the Maldives.
They are incredibly remote. – The Maldives – all 1,000 coral islands that make up the tiny 26 ring-shaped atolls of this adorable little tropical paradise – are just floating along in the middle of the Indian Ocean, far, far from just about anywhere. This island nation is just under 9,000 miles (or 19 hours by plane) from our home base of Washington, D.C.
Sri Lanka is probably the closest gateway country to the Maldives at just 642 miles away (it’s a one-and-a-half hour flight from Colombo to the Maldives largest city, Male).
So it’s got that whole Robinson-family-shipwrecked-far-from-civilization vibe to it, which, I’ve got to say, freaked me out a tiny bit.
They are unbelievably beautiful. — Lonely Planet calls it “nature’s sunken garden” and XFE commented that being there was “like living above an aquarium.” The water is an impossible clear, light aqua blue that literally makes your eyes hurt and the sand on the beaches was so soft and white it reminded us of the sand you find in those fancy stamped ashtrays in Las Vegas.
The reefs we explored – both around the St. Regis property itself and during a day of exploring other reefs by private boat – were exceptional. Crystal clear waters teaming with all kinds of sea life and underwater cliffs covered in coral that just went on forever. The reefs were so exceptional, in fact, that we didn’t even go scuba diving. We felt we could see everything we wanted to see just snorkeling, including sharks, octopus, rays, turtles, and all the colorful small fish you can possible imagine.
They are amazingly expensive. – I already spoke a little bit about the room prices at the St. Regis, which we were lucky enough to not have to pay. But those multiple dollar signs pop up in all the other stuff, too.
Hey, you know what grows in coral? Nothing. Not a damn thing. The lack of arable land makes agriculture a no-go, which is why just about every food item (besides fish, and in particular, tuna) has to be brought in. And it’s also why everything in the Maldives (at least in my resort-laden experience) was incredibly expensive (think: $45 burgers, $36 margherita pizza).
(Disclaimer: Apparently, there are a few things that can be grown in the Maldives – hello, coconuts — but even this website notes it’s mostly grown in homestead gardens, not enough to consider marketable. And if these Maldives farmers did sell them, I’m sure they’d be really, really expensive.)
They seriously rely on tourism. — The overall population of all 26 atolls is just over 425,000 and pretty much everybody is involved in the tourism industry. More than 1.2 million tourists visited the Maldives in in 2016, shacking up in one of the 126 resorts located on the atolls. Local laws require a certain percentage of the staff to be Maldives citizens (I think it was something like 51%) so it’s safe to say that the vast majority of Maldivians are somehow involved in travel and tourism.
So these guys are total pros—very service oriented, always smiling, very professional. The staff at the St. Regis was top notch all the way. Even when there were glitches (and yes, there were a couple), they bent over backwards to fix things, no questions asked. In fact, if anything, managers and servers wanted to dwell on those glitches: we were asked about and apologized to for service snafus by multiple people throughout the staff multiple times, which sometimes bordered on uncomfortable.
They are all about relaxation. – I don’t want to say there’s nothing to do in the Maldives, because there probably are lots of things to do, if you are not a pasty-delicate-white flower who burns when she even sees a picture of a sun.
And certainly the St. Regis had all kinds of different buildings with a ton of different activities (a gorgeous round library stocked with books, magazines and even Kindles for guest use, another building fully stocked with games—everything from video game areas to ping-pong and foosball tables, a yoga studio with those hanging ribbons ala Pink, a cooking kitchen designed for kids, a ridiculously cool, futuristic-looking spa). They have a movie night on the beach (I think it was on Thursdays) and a very cool DJ spinning at the Whale Bar every night.
But most of the times we went in those buildings, they were entirely empty. We strolled by the movie night and it was playing to empty bean bags. When we went to the Whale Bar for after dinner drinks, it was usually just us, the staff and the very cool DJ.
Maybe it was the time of year. Who knows? We’d been to resorts on an island before, but this was entirely different. This was an island resort – not a resort on an island. It often felt (other than at breakfast time) that we were the only people in the entire place, which again, made me a wee bit angsty.
The one thing that felt slightly odd to me is that every day felt identical. They were all beautiful picture-perfect days. The sun was always shining, the sky was always blue, it was always warm and humid — there seemed no variation to the days at all. I think that could make someone go crazy. You don’t even have the weather to talk about!
In my next post, I’ll talk a bit more about the St. Regis specifically and our overwater bungalow.
As mentioned previously, my main man for life, XFE and I went to Sri Lanka for my birthday trip earlier this year, which was culturally enriching yet also challenging (for all the reasons I’ve gone over in previous posts). Which, since this wasn’t exactly our first Southeast Asian rodeo, we kind of figured it might be. And even though we had set aside a few days for some beach time in Sri Lanka, we knew we might want to go seriously luxe out somewhere else.
So, we put our little heads together and thought: “What was the most luxurious, most customer-centric island-retreat-type Starwood property we’ve ever stayed at?” It was actually a no-brainer – The St. Regis Bali. Not only were they very generous with the suite upgrade (an amazing little house with private pool) but the staff were just phenomenal. We could not have been treated better. We booked our room for a weeklong stay, fully confident that we’d have a similar experience again and went on planning the rest of our trip.
About a month before our trip, we got an email from the St. Regis Bali. XFE opened it, thinking that maybe it was the concierge wanting to see if we needed anything special or (even better) informing us of a suite upgrade. But no. The hotel was informing us that the Government of Bali had rented the whole place out so we could not stay there (nor could anybody else), but the St. Regis would be happy to put us up at any other hotel in Bali (including the W in Seminyak, which we’ve stayed at and really enjoyed).
I gotta admit: My spoilt butt was a little bit crushed. Sure, I liked Bali and maybe would even want to return there at some point in the future because, heck, it’s Bali! But the main reason we were going at this particular time was for that amazing St. Regis experience. I wasn’t even thinking about how we were going to Bali again….I was thinking about how we were going to the St. Regis Bali again.
Plus, how rude! Do they not remember that we stayed at the St. Regis back in 2014, literally a month after a very high-profile murder had been committed there? But did we cancel our reservation or bail? No. No we did not. We just looked around for clues and made sure all the heavy vases and fruit bowls were gathered up and stored in the butler’s pantry.
(Side note: My favorite headline for a TripAdvisor review ever “Everything is perfect, until the murder happened.”)
But then I realized just how awful it must be for the hotel to have to move and re-accommodate all those people, including wedding parties and people on their honeymoon. All because the late-to-the-party Balinese government couldn’t book a conference in advance.
While I shrugged and tried let go of my dreams of kite-flying on the beach, champagne sabering and releasing baby sea turtles back into the sea, XFE got creative and offered up an alternative suggestion that neither one of us thought the fine people at Starwood/the St. Regis would EVER take us up on.
That trip-planning-genius-of-a-man kindly suggested to the fine people at the St. Regis that they book us a room using our Starwood loyalty points (ie: with us only paying taxes, basically) at the newly-opened, super luxurious St. Regis in the Maldives. Oh, and he wanted an overwater, sunset bungalow, pleaseandthankyou.
Now, just for comparison, rooms at the St. Regis Bali (looking at March dates, since that was the time of year we were looking at) run about $469 to $2,092 per night – definitely a chunk of change and nothing to sneeze at. The lagoon villa (with private pool) we stayed in in 2014 currently retails for around $1,200 a night.
Meanwhile, rooms at the St. Regis Maldives in March START at $2,580 and go up to $4,500 for a family villa. The sunset water villa (with private pool) that we ended up slumming it in for the week retails for $3,500 a night.
We thought they would laugh in his face. We thought they’d say, “Ummmm, yeah, nice try. Now, may I direct your attention back to the list of luxury Balinese properties we’ve offered up to you, including a Bulgari and a Four Seasons? Surely one of those would do, no?”
But no. The exceptionally fine people at the St. Regis Bali just said, “Sure. We can make that happen. We’ll talk to the property and make sure they can accommodate your request.” And then THEY DID. Which is just another reason to add to the list of why the St. Regis Bali is amazing and wonderful and all of the great things. All of them.
We had to change our flights from Sri Lanka, obviously. And book and pay for the prop plane to take us to from the Velana International Airport in Maldives to Vommuli, which was $645 roundtrip per person for a 45-minute flight to and from the resort, and yikes, that’s a lot of money but still.
And that’s how we accidentally, unintentionally, and maybe undeservedly got to go to Maldives. THE MALDIVES. Without even planning to. All because of those conference-planning slackers, aka the Government of Bali.
So here’s a basic outline of our first day (2 days) getting to/and/around Sri Lanka.
A 14-hour flight from D.C. to Seoul on Korean Air First Class.
A 6-hour layover at the Seoul Airport.
An 8-hour flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Land at 3:15 a.m. and meet our driver, Tillie.
Drive about 3.5 hours in the darkness (and occassional rain) to Dambulla Cave Temples, dodging school children, dogs, tuk tuks, roadside stalls with open fires, etc. all along the way.
Climb 350 very steep, very slippery and uneven stone stairs in oppressive heat and humidity to see said Cave Temples. (no air conditioning, obviously)
Spend $2 to recover in the small but well done (and, more importantly…air conditioned) Cave Temple Museum
Drive 15 minutes or so to Signature Amaya Kandalama and collapse.
Honestly, Signature Amaya Kandalama could have been a roach hotel and I would not have given a flying Fig Newton. I probably still would have declared it the most luxurious and wonderful accommodations ever known to man.
Luckily, it was not a roach hotel. Not at all. It’s pretty upscale for Sri Lanka. It actually reminded me of some of the resorts we’ve stayed at in other tropical locales. In fact, the Sri Lanka National Cricket team was staying there the same time as us (they apparently had a match in Dambulla).
A little background: the Sri Lanka Railway was originally known as the Ceylon Government Railways when it opened in 1858, and was built to “transport coffee from the Hill Country to the coastal port of Colombo, then when the coffee crop was wiped out by disease, the embryonic crops of tea that Sri Lanka is now famed for were transported to the coast for exportation.”
There are three main rail lines in Sri Lanka, according to Lonely Planet, and they are used by both government and privately-run rail services (I believe there are like, 2 private companies).
We took the government-run red train from Nanu Oya (for Nuwara Eliya) to Ella, through some of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful hills and valleys. It’s a trip that, while it’s only 60 kilometers, will take you about 3-4 hours (plus an hour delay on arrival, in our case.)
Hey. Let’s talk about driving. Specifically, driving in Sri Lanka. Or as it should more accurately be called, defying death every single breath.
I live just a short metro ride away from downtown D.C. in a very lovely, historic neighborhood with all the restaurants and shopping my little heart desires located just blocks from my doorstep. Literally, there I live two blocks from both a Trader Joe’s and a larger, conventional grocery store. I work from home, but when I did work in an office every day, I took the metro, which is an 8-minute walk from my house.
These days, when I have an appointment or something that necessitates I go into D.C., I usually metro or take Uber. Which is all just to point out that 1) I’m used to putting my life in the hands of transportation strangers, and 2) my driving skills have certainly not been tested in quite a while and are probably not honed into a fine laser beam of awesomeness, so I’m not judging any Sri Lankan drivers skills or finesse.
But, I will point out, we’ve been to lots of countries where there are few (if any) traffic signals and whole families zip around piled up on mopeds, slipping in and out of traffic like they’re being carried along a fast-moving river current. And while these road encounters were sometimes heart stopping, nothing prepared me for the calamity and chaos of Sri Lanka’s roads.
First of all, “roads” is a pretty generous term. Sri Lanka does not have the best road system. It’s pretty limited and seems to rely mostly on old cart tracks, some of which have been paved, a bit. Sri Lanka’s first major highway, the 80-mile E01, opened in 2011. For comparison, Smithsonian.com notes, the U.S. interstate system is 46,876 miles long.
But mostly, while in Sri Lanka, drivers like ours (Thilani, aka Tilly from SL Driver Tours) must navigate narrow, two-lane highways crowded with cars, trucks, buses, “collective” buses (private for-profit buses that compete with the city buses), “gypsy” buses (vans with people hanging on to the sides, the tops, the back), tuk tuks, mopeds, motorcycles and bicycles.
There are no traffic lights or signals (except in very big cities like Colombo or Kandy) and there appear to be no traffic rules whatsoever. People are honking and passing and overtaking nonstop.
By the way, these roads have no shoulders to pull over to or use for passing, so people use the middle of the road to pass, resulting in a head-on game of chicken as vehicles bear down from the opposite direction.
The sides of the road, meanwhile, are packed with stray dogs, food stalls with open fires, makeshift vegetable and fruit stands, and people walking (there are no sidewalks), including children walking to school as early as 4:30 a.m., when it’s still dark out. Overhead lights are few and dim, making for especially dangerous driving conditions at night. The first note in my trip notebook is “Driving is pretty intense.”
Tilly told us that four people die every day from road accidents in Sri Lanka, but actually, the number might be higher than that. In 2015, more than 2,700 people were killed in road-related incidents. Luckily, we didn’t see any accidents during our 10-day stay, but that’s probably due only to the skill of our excellent driver, Tilly.
On paper, Sri Lanka was a no brainer for us—our logical next vacation destination. It has a lot of the things we gravitate towards as travelers—we like South/Southeast Asia (admittedly, one of us a bit more than the other). We love the spicy food in this area of the world, with the focus on fresh fish and vegetables. We like learning about a new country’s history, architecture, and culture. Sri Lanka presented us with plenty to see and do, the weather was warm (which always means there’s a good excuse to spend the afternoon by a pool with a cold local beer). And it’s very, very affordable.
Sri Lanka is very much trying to put its recent violent past behind it, but devoting so many resources to fighting a civil war has definitely left the country a bit behind the eight ball as far as development goes. It is very, very poor and people are struggling. They’re relying on tourism to help economically and, from a marketing standpoint at least, it appears to be working.
All during our year of planning, we kept hearing about other people who were going or had just been to Sri Lanka. I don’t know if it was because it was finally on our radar or if it had just reached the popularity tipping point, but all of a sudden, it seemed like Sri Lanka was more sought after than a hot cheerleader at prom (or, a Harvard acceptance letter. Shoutout to ya, Priscilla Samey). Bloomberg added Sri Lanka to its list of 20 places to go in 2017, Huffington Post said it was the one country you should go to in 2017, and even that travel authority Vogue declared it a “destination that stimulates all the senses.”
The Lay of the Land
Sri Lanka is certainly diverse in terms of geography. This former Portuguese/Dutch/British colony—aka Ceylon—has beautiful beaches to the south (packed with foreigners, we noticed). The cooler, hilly mid-part of the country is much cooler and is incredibly lush, green and misty, and packed with tea fields/plantations (full of visiting tourists and smacking of British colonialism still). The northern, historic Golden Triangle area has caves and crumbling temple cities and all the accompanying tourists turning bright pink under the scorching sun.
Sri Lanka is also quite the hikers’ paradise and everywhere we went—from the mountaintop cave temples at Sigiriya Rock Fortress and Dambulla to Adam’s Peak and Horton Plains Park near Ella, there were opportunities to slip and slide over some dangerous trails—if you could stand the heat and oppressive humidity (we could not).
Instead, we drove. Or, more accurately, we rode in the backseat while our driver Tillie ferried us around the country for 10 days. During that time, we saw wild elephants lumbering along the side of the road (there are over 2,000 wild elephants in Sri Lanka). We drank from king coconuts, including one we purchased for 400 rupees from a man on the side of the road with his teeth stained red from chewing betel leaves, mixed with tobacco, and areca nut. We rode a very old train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella. We spent a confusing and sweaty morning wandering around the old Dutch fort town of Galle–confusing because nothing, even churches, appeared to be open that day, and yet we almost got swept up in some sort of parade of some sorts. We talked to giggling school children who wanted to practice their English at the otherwise disappointing Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy. And we ate. And ate. And ate.
As Vogue noted, Sri Lanka does stimulate all the senses. But the biggest “sense” it stimulated in me was a sense of déjà vu and maybe, even, just the slightest bit of a letdown, which, I know, sounds maybe a bit harsh.
What’s the Problem, Poe?
As we’ve previously encountered in other countries in Southeast Asia (I’m looking at you, Bali. And Thailand), there’s this major confusion over what tourists want, with a heavy reliance on tourist traps, whether it’s “turtle hatcheries” that house a collection of sad, little cement enclosures too small for the turtles living in them, or the “tsunami photo museums” which had neither photos (they were faded color print-outs from the Internet) nor were organized in anything resembling a museum.
Then there were all the tourist traps we just said, “no” to: wooden mask carvers, the multiple spice farms, the elephant sanctuaries, the moonstone mines, the stilt fishermen—all of which are (generally) staged, and less focused on education/more focused on accepting donations/taking photos in exchange for donations.
This reliance on tourist traps in a depressed economy is completely understandable. It is a very, very poor country. The people are struggling and are trying to find ways to get by—and increasingly, that seems to be relying on tourism. The saddest bit is the clustering and proliferation of one particular type of tourist trap. Instead of one spice farm or turtle hatchery, there would be like, 20 of them, all identical and all lined up right next to each other.
In the end, it all just comes off as feeling very exploitative – on both sides. I hate saying, “no thank you,” repeatedly. I feel defensive and like I have to keep pushing people away who really need the money and why don’t I just go to the damn moonstone mine and buy some damn moonstones even if I don’t want or need them?
Or, when we do cave in and visit one of these places, I end up feeling like it wasn’t a great experience and like I didn’t really learn anything. I feel self-conscious, looking at these sad, little makeshift tourist traps and expecting more. I feel like I missed the disclaimer that screams “all this place is supposed to do is elicit enough sympathy to make you reach into your pockets and throw some money at your guilt.”
So that was my struggle with Sri Lanka. And with travel and tourism in general. I know there are countries out there that need it, that are counting on it, and that want us to come and visit and spend our money. So go. Go see places, even if they might make you uncomfortable, even if they might make you sad or confused. Go and see if you can spot a wild elephant, slowly weaving its way in and out of the trees along the side of the road on a cool morning in the middle of Sri Lanka.
My 45th birthday was a couple of months ago, so I’ve had some time to really think about this.
Be born. Done, easy, check.
(OK, this one is going to take a while.) Find a life partner as fabulous as XFE. Took me about, ummmm, 34 years and a couple of failed attempts.
Agree to let this fabulous, XFE-like life partner plan your birthday trip every single year.
Show up and go along.
Drink champagne (thoughtfully purchased by said life partner) in a plunge pool at your private beachside villa in Sri Lanka while watching the sea turtles ride the waves (*stuff that actually happened).
So we went to Sri Lanka in March. And the Maldives. Yes. The Maldives. Yeah. It was awesome. It’s the MALDIVES. Of course it was awesome.
But first, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a very interesting place. It wasn’t really on my radar. I knew that it was close to India (geographically) and I’ve never really had much desire to go to India, so yeah. Sri Lanka wasn’t on my bucket list.
I also knew—vaguely—that there had been a recent civil war there and I knew that one of the warring factions were known as the Tamil Tigers. But that’s it. I mean, it’s not like this stuff is covered on the news very much. If I hadn’t read an article about that “Paper Planes” song back in the day, I wouldn’t have even known the name Tamil Tigers, let alone details about the civil war.
So, I did what any good history nerd would do. I read a book–“Elephant Complex” by John Gimlette. A very good book which I can’t recommend highly enough, even if you aren’t planning to go to Sri Lanka. It’s just good, good stories.
Here’s the deal (in a very simplistic nutshell): The Tamil Tigers were (are?) a group of separatists who wanted to (still do?) carve out part of Sri Lanka as a separate, independent state–a homeland for ethnic Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, to protect them from discrimination in the hands of the ethnic Sinhalese majority, which is mainly Buddhist. The war started in 1983 and (technically) ended in 2009. It was, as modern, ethnic wars go, horrible. A conservative estimate is that around 100,000 people died.
Make no mistake, the Tamil Tigers were/are basically terrorists. They used suicide bombers and targeted internationals for maximum impact/headlines. But the discrimination and hate perpetuated upon the Tamils that brought them to that state was also really, really bad. And, of course, we have the British to blame (Kidding. Sort of. The seeds of the war were tied to colonialism and favoritism of one caste over the other.) As usual, nobody’s a saint and there are no winners when it comes to civil war.
So that’s some recent, not-so-cheerful history for you. Bet you didn’t see that coming from the headline, amiright? Tomorrow, I’ll talk a bit more about the country’s current conditions, why you should go, and how we decided to go there.
No, not I packed for essentially three weeks of travel (although, that would be my first question and the answer is: not that much). It’s not even whether we ever got bored of seeing many of the same animals day after day (answer: nope, not at all).
The question is: which African safari destination did we like better? Tanzania or South Africa?
The answer is a bit complicated. Actually, it’s not that complicated for me. It’s just that it’s a different answer than my travel-companion-for-life, XFE, and it always feels a tiny bit awkward when we don’t necessarily agree. Especially as he is the one who does most of the travel planning. It makes me feel like I’m being slightly ungrateful of all his hard work or something.
Anyway, XFE liked the Serengeti (Tanzania) slightly better. I preferred Sabi Sands (South Africa). Which is just fine. I don’t think either destination is going to pack up their tents and call it a day based on our meager little preferences. And guess what? Neither of them suck. Like, at all. So don’t worry. No bad decisions here.
Look, the Serengeti is beautiful. Vast grass plains that go on forever and ever. Little purple and white “tissue” flowers signaling the approaching of spring. Rocky outcroppings that allow animals to hide in plain sight. Completely empty savannas with just a single tree providing shade for a couple of leopard brothers. The viewing is plentiful and easy.
And, as far as sheer numbers of animals, you cannot beat the Serengeti. You don’t just see one lion, you see a whole pride of them, scattered out in a dry river bank, nursing their babies and snoozing and washing themselves and just generally being cats. The Serengeti has the Great Migration, and herds and herds of wildebeest participating in a truly awe-inspiring, bucket-list experience. We saw plenty of everything, especially the Big 5. (But between the two destinations, we saw the Big 7 – that’s the Big 5 plus cheetah and African wild dog).
We also saw plenty of death, which bummed me out and contributed to my personal preference for Sabi Sands.
But actually, for me, it comes down to the focus on conservation, which varies greatly between the Serengeti (a vast, open public park) and Sabi Sands (a private reserve set in the midst of a public park).
In Sabi Sands, the drivers and guides know the animals—they know who their parents were, they’ve given them names, they have whole identity kits on each of them and they have spent years acclimating the animals to their human sounds. They approach new or unknown animals very cautiously and respectfully, so as not to scare them.
The guides in Sabi Sands also coordinate over the radio so that there aren’t too many vehicles converging on an animal at once—a vehicle will drive up, spend a few minutes viewing the animal and then back out. And they only drive off the established trails when they’re chasing a Big 5 animal.
The Serengeti is a bit more casual, much more Wild West, if you will. And the guides there are a lot more focused on making sure you (the paying and tipping customer) get your NatGeo-worthy photo, rather than the comfort of the animals. For example, when we rolled up on some sleeping lions one day, our guide began clapping his hands to get the lion to wake up and look up, so we could get a better picture. We assured him that that was not at all necessary and to just let the lion be.
In addition, there are a lot more vehicles around in the Serengeti, including all sorts of private guides from outside the park. So there’s no coordination amongst them. The day we finally found black rhinos still makes me cringe, as about half a dozen (at least) trucks encircled the two rhinos. Even though most everyone kept their distance (to some extent), I still felt like we were pinning them in and they really had nowhere to go (they were trying to retreat back into the bush and trees along the river bank behind the trucks–including ours).
The guides in the Serengeti also do not know the names or lineage of the animals, and in fact, when I asked about the name of our first lion sighting, I got a bit of a strange look. And they definitely drive off the trails quite a bit, in pursuit of any animal. And I do mean pursuit. A couple of times it felt (to my sensitive soul, at least) like we were chasing animals, which I did not like.
There are a few other things: I much preferred the guides in Sabi Sands. They were knowledgeable and excited every day. Both locations are a little difficult to get to, but Tanzania was definitely more difficult. I also liked the safari style of Sabi Sands–morning game drive, break in the afternoon, evening game drive. There were no nighttime game drives in Tanzania, so it was an all-day safari drive. Although, eating breakfast and lunch out in the wild in the Serengeti was amazing in its own right.
But for me, it ultimately comes down to the entirely different focus—animals first or clients first. Neither is wrong, but I definitely preferred one approach over the other.
There are no plush velvet banquettes. No artisanal craft cocktails. No happy hour specials or hipster DJ pushing play on an iPod.
But the bathroom at the airstrip in Kogatende is hands down the most happening. most popular spot in the entire Serengeti.
Now listen: I’m from Texas. Clearly I have no issue with peeing out in the bushes. Not at all. But I also understand that some people prefer even a modicum of plumbing and privacy. So it’s easy to see why this otherwise unassuming cinder block/tin roofed building was everyone’s favorite watering hole while we all were on our respective game drives.
And like the wild animals we observed navigating the ponds and watering holes across the Serengeti, there was a ritual to the gatherings.
Our particular gaggle of genus: homo touristus would swing by the Kogatende “watering hole” at least twice a day, and invariably, we’d see dozens of other safari jeeps and vehicles parked in rows on the hard-packed reddish dirt parking lot.
A safari vehicle pulls up. Now, watch carefully as the white female inhabitants dash quickly out of the car and hotfoot their way up to the building! Notice they carry with them a supplemental item: why its….its…toilet paper! And a wise decision as well, since there’s a 99% probability that neither of these two stalls will not be outfitted with that particular nicety.
Wait….our female is pausing….she’s shirked back and is wrinkling her nose now. Oh dear! Apparently, despite the best efforts of the erstwhile male bathroom attendant lurking about, our female homo touristus is a bit suspicious about this particular watering hole. It appears she is not a fan of the large dual septic tanks flanking the building and filling the air with one of the many aromas unique to the Serengeti. Whatever will she do?
Meanwhile, back at the safari vehicle, the male homo touristus are loitering about, seemingly unsure of whether they need to partake of this particular watering hole, or just wait to hang out near some trees. They decide to pull a beer from the cooler while they make up their minds. As with all male species, these male homo touristus know they have other options and are quite lucky in that regard.
Ok, so right now we’re also getting a not-so-rare glimpse into Kogatende watering hole life as the homo safarium guiduses slowly abandon their vehicles and charges to gather in clusters with others of their species. Notice how they are laughing and chattering away. There’s no rush here at this robust watering hole. There’s plenty of time for everyone to partake in both the amenities and the social bonding rituals available.
Now, back to our female homo touristus. After a bit of a dance, she has finally, tentatively made her way into the bathroom vestibule. She appears to be investigating her two stall options quite carefully….perhaps she’s comparing their flushability merits, or perhaps ascertaining the presence of a toilet seat. We can’t really be certain, but we can be sure that she will likely be disappointed on both counts.
Holding her nose and picking the lesser of two evils, she dives into a stall to heed the call of nature. Mere seconds later, our female bursts out of the stall, helps herself to several pumps of watermelon hand soap, and engages in an extended round of hand washing under the cold and weak tap. This is a rigorous grooming ritual, indeed!
Slapping her hands back and forth over her shorts, our triumphant female struts out of the Kogatende watering hole and makes her way back to the vehicle to share all the details of her latest bathroom escapade with the other, uninterested inhabitants of her vehicle.