Good Ebola Travel Policy

Good Ebola Travel Policy

campdinnerAfrican travel companies are rethinking their ebola policy, putting their money where their mouth is, and offering unconditional refunds.

Embracing science and the history of past ebola outbreaks, companies mostly so far in East Africa are advising customers that deposits will be refunded without penalty if WHO declares an outbreak in an area in which they operate.

WHO’s designation, “outbreak,” differs from isolated cases of the sort experienced in Dallas and New York. An “outbreak” is multiple confirmed cases in separated, multiple areas. There is no history or other evidence suggesting that isolated cases lead to outbreaks.

Among the first this weekend to change their policy was Great Plains Conservation, which operates three luxury camps in Botswana and three in Kenya.

“Many of our guests are really worried about Ebola. One can’t really blame them given the media hysteria surrounding the story. We believe this will sort itself out in time as the world mobilizes to tackle this head on,” Jacqui Usher explains as the lead-in for the policy change.

The Great Plains policy will refund all monies held – no questions asked – if an ebola outbreak occurs in Kenya or Botswana.

Moreover, Great Plains has now announced that even if there is no outbreak, customers can get all their money back within 16 weeks of arrival. Most African camps require an up-front, nonrefundable 15-20% at the time of booking.

And within those 16 weeks should a customer grow weary of coming, Great Plains will roll any monies held for the customer to new booking dates up to a year in advance.

This is the gold standard of sensible ebola policy. This is spot-on reasoning, bold marketing and honest communication with consumers. No legalize or other lengthy pontificating qualify this extraordinary situation we currently find ourselves in: a hollow fear of something that will simply not happen.

Yesterday in Mwanza, Tanzania, the blood tests of a man who had died suspiciously of symptoms identical to ebola tested negative for the virus.

The possibility, though, that the man had ebola had spread like wildfire through this large Tanzania city on Lake Victoria last week. Health care workers responded in force, a public health campaign was initiated, associates of the man were quarantined and even if the man had tested positive, the spread of the disease would have been stopped in its tracks.

The Mwanza response is what is lacking in West Africa, and the reason that the disease is still spreading there.

Great Plains may be the gold standard and the first company to play it straight with consumers, but it has been resoundingly joined by others:

“Gamewatchers Safaris understands travelers’ sensitivities about planning a holiday almost anywhere in the world during an Ebola outbreak,” Jake Grieves-Cook, former head of the Kenyan Tourist Organization and now owner/operator of Kenya’s Gamewatchers Safaris explains in the lead-in to his new policy, which is similar to Great Plains’.

Great Plains and Gamewatchers were among the very first, but by no means the only companies to announce revised changes, yesterday. It’s going to be very difficult, now, for any African travel company to sit on its hind and not join this sensible movement.

And the result? Consumers will be assured that the African travel companies really believe what science and medical experts have been saying all along:

Ebola is hard to get, and relatively simple to stop spreading except in very unique areas like the three countries in West Africa just ravaged by generations of war.

Bad Ebola Cancellation Policy

Bad Ebola Cancellation Policy

badvacationThings are calmly down, slides in travel are reversing, and African tour companies are once again shooting themselves in the foot.

In the last ten days a wave of African travel companies have issued new cancellation policies addressing a perceived fear by potential travelers of ebola, which does absolutely nothing except increase fears.

As far as I can tell it began with one of southern Africa’s most reputable and larger companies, Wilderness Safaris.

Wilderness is a holdover from archaic marketing days and still doesn’t sell directly to the consumer, so it sent a rather petulant email to agents worldwide that began by deriding the notion that ebola in West Africa could effect holidays as far away as East and southern Africa.

But then sighing through the internet, the company issued a new policy that said it would cover any difference in lost cancellation fees from nonrefundable payments not refunded by the travelers own insurance company.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? It didn’t take long for a whole bunch of companies throughout the continent to follow suit.

It’s meaningless – at least for Americans – and in my opinion is totally counterproductive.

First, why it’s meaningless:

Read the revised policy’s fine print. (1) WHO must declare an “outbreak” in the country in which the safari is scheduled. (2) The traveler must then apply first to his own travel insurance company for refunds of monies on deposit. (3) Whatever the insurance company doesn’t cover, this widely adopted policy will not refund cash but rather a credit for future travel, which is limited by time and other conditions depending upon the specific company.

(1) There is currently much more ebola in the United States then in any sub-Saharan country. WHO has not declared an “outbreak” of ebola in the United States. That is a strategic-specific term that precedes an actual “epidemic” and it requires multiple cases in multiple locations. So to begin with, a single case say in a game park in South Africa will not trigger this policy.

(2) I’m not completely knowledgeable about the travel insurance available to other than Americans, but in the United States there is not a single travel insurance company that covers a travelers’ decision to abort their trip because of ebola or any other public health emergency. In the U.S. normal travel insurance provides benefits strictly for accidents and other health conditions befalling the traveler him/herself.

(A few very expensive policies cover terrorism, and consumers can spend an enormous amount of money for “cancel for any reason” but for most travelers these rare policies are prohibitively expensive.)

In other words, normal travel insurance bought in the U.S. will not provide benefits for a public health emergency in the country scheduled to be visited.

Refunds of part of your deposited trip, and not others, essentially mute out the first refund: Few Americans traveling to Africa will deposit on a trip there without also buying their air fare. There is no indication whatever that any airline will issue any refund for a travelers’ decision to cancel because of a public health emergency.

(3) As most established travel agents and operators worldwide know, most local African companies are quite liberal in extending nonrefundable date-specific services for almost any reason. In other words, most travelers are able to reschedule their previously deposited trip to a later date with no penalty for any reason, much less ebola.

For Americans, then, there is absolutely no benefit whatever from the newly expressed policies.

Most American consumers are a bit more savvy than Africans believe their geography quotient may be. I think most consumers will see this for what it is: a marketing gimmick. Gimmicks don’t help sales.

Consumers who consider the policy more substantial than a gimmick will actually be further deterred: Creating policies that on their surface seem beneficial to the potential traveler only if an outbreak actually occurs suggests that company is conceding that an outbreak is possible.

When the risk is nil. Consider that several of the last ebola outbreaks occurred in Uganda, a popular East African safari country. It never turned into an epidemic, and Uganda’s health-care system countrywide is below average compared to most other sub-Saharan countries.

Consumers – especially in America where two of its largest cities now have had locally developed ebola (Dallas and New York) – are recognizing however slowly that sub-Saharan Africa is actually less risky to visit than the Cowboys’ new stadium or the Statue of Liberty.

African travel companies have always been a little bit behind the times. This stupid policy does nothing but reignite irrational fears.

Ebola’s Surprising Effect

Ebola’s Surprising Effect

thisisnttexasThis ebola epidemic has a surprising effect: Americans are wondering if Africans have it better.

Most Americans’ live styles are much better than their counterparts in Africa, but what about the change from year to year? Americans believe they aren’t getting better. Africans by a wide margin believe they are. Both are right.

It’s only a matter of time before Africans feel they are better off than Americans.

Nigeria and South Africa both had ebola patients come to them from the infected areas. One Nigerian ebola patient infected one of the hospital care givers in Nigeria. Both the patient and the care giver were cured. In South Africa no transmission to health care workers occurred. Both South African and Nigeria are today “ebola-free.”

Texas isn’t.

So why is the American future pessimistic compared to the African future, and why is ebola being better contained – outside the three-country infected area – in Africa than America?

I’ve got one answer: school field trips.

School field trips in Kenya are on a massive increase; trips in the U.S. way down.

According to Education Next, “Museums across the country report a steep drop in school tours… A survey by the American Association of School Administrators found that more than half of schools eliminated planned field trips in 2010–11.”

For example, the Field Museum in Chicago has lost a third of its annual school visitors, as has the Cincinnati arts organizations.

I’ve got another answer: declining infrastructure.

The title of the Council on Foreign Relation’s new report on American infrastructure, “Road to Nowhere,” says it all.

Infrastructure is booming throughout Africa. I can’t believe my eyes when I’m absent from Nairobi for more than a couple months: another highway, another factory, another rail line…

Here’s another answer: American protection of human rights is on the decline. While human rights is still on the whole better in America than in Africa, America is getting worse while some parts of developed Africa like South Africa are getting better.

The Human Rights Risk Atlas for 2014 lists America at 139 of 197 countries, or a “medium risk” of human rights abuse.

It’s possible to go on and on down the list of what governments are supposed to do: build roads, educate children, protect human rights. By so many metrics, even the simple metric of stopping the spread of ebola in a hospital, America isn’t doing so well.

While much of Africa is getting better.

But this should come as no surprise. Social investment in education, infrastructure, even the money we spend on courts and judges, is shrinking.

I once thought it impossible that in my life time any African country could achieve some kind of significant metric that bettered America.

I’m not so sure, anymore.

Too Many Bugs in Africa?

Too Many Bugs in Africa?

BlackFliesSo you’re worried about too many bugs in Africa? Try walking my dog.

First timers to Africa always worry about bugs. Yes, we do have bugs in Africa and here’s an estimate as to how many and the worst ones:

TSE-TSE FLY
Tse-tse flies are the only bugs that will make you flinch. They bite, like horse flies. My worst encounter was in the Omo in Ethiopia, but few people go there.

Over my normal safari routes, the worst places are hot forests, like Tarangire National Park in Tanzania. But not everywhere in Tarangire, just in a few places, and only in the daylight and only when it’s hot.

In a worst case scenario you might count 17 to 23 tse-tse flies in your car on a game drive for about 20 minutes.

FLIES
Normal everyday house flies. The only time we ever have them is when we’re among the great herds, just as you might among cattle in the west. For the same reasons.

Flies are bothersome, but they don’t bite most people, only bad people. And the spectacle of being among the great herds is so enthralling that no one remembers there were flies.

In a worst case scenario you might count 38 or 39 flies on your car (usually on the outside) when you’re among the herds.

MOSQUITOES
Mosquitoes are bad but you can’t feel them in Africa because the bad variety carrying malaria is half-size. You don’t even know when it bites you because it doesn’t leave a mark or welt and doesn’t itch.

They only come out at night and are easily repelled by DEET.

In a worst case scenario you get malaria but you’ll never be able to count them because you can’t see them. Probably … 2.

BLACK FLIES IN JO DAVIESS COUNTY
Flipping back out of Africa to my home in North America, I estimated this afternoon on my 45-minute walk through the forest with my dog that we encountered 1,247,610 or 620 black flies.

Here’s how I determined that number:

In a 2 cubic meter area that is more or less the walking area my dog and I create as we go through the forest I estimate there are 200-300 black flies. Black flies exist primarily at 5’1″ above the ground, which is where my nose is.

They also swirl at around 5’7″ which is where my balding head would be if not covered by a hat.

So extrapolating an average of 250 flies per cubic meter, I figured we walked about 2.5 kilometers and multiply that twice for the cubic area and you get around 1.25 to the minus 1 million.

Jo Daviess County is 1,603,000,000 square meters large. Top that up to 2 meters high and you have a container that can hold about 75 trillion black flies.

That’s where I walk my dog. Remedies? People say Absorbine Junior or Vanilla Senior. Frankly I think you’d need a commercial size vacuum cleaner mounted on your head to do anything at all.

So don’t ask me about bugs in Africa.

What I See in the Future of Safaris

What I See in the Future of Safaris

Photographer Acahaya
Photographer Acahaya
Africa is a dynamic place: sometimes even violent but always rapidly changing. The end of my two months there gives me fresh perspectives on how best to travel to this amazing continent.

Although I spend about 4-5 months annually in sub-Saharan Africa, the single two-month stretch at the beginning of the year gives me the most holistic perspective.

Basic recommendations I’ve had for years are unchanged:

For the first-timer principally interested in game viewing, East Africa is where to go, hands down. But once you visit the spectacle of East Africa, don’t miss southern Africa! It’s radically different but just as awesome.

For the first-timer whose interests are much broader than just game viewing, southern Africa is the place to begin.

The decline in lion populations is significant and noticeable on a safari to either area. Only a few years ago a ten-day safari to East Africa saw well over 100 lion; a similar trip to southern Africa usually found about twenty. Today, it’s half that in both places.

But the rest of the animals, with some interesting exceptions like topi, are on the increase. And this includes elephant which if all you do is read conservation organization flyers you’d think otherwise. In fact I believe the “elephant problem” is quite simply that there are too many of them.

The great migration in East Africa just gets better and better. In fact it’s improving so much and so quickly I’m getting worried. I wonder if we’re reaching some carrying threshold where the numbers might suddenly tank.

Global warming has significantly effected safari travel. As elsewhere in the world, seasons are now exaggerated: The wet seasons are wetter with much flooding. The dry seasons are drier with devastating droughts. The hot and cold seasons are much hotter and much colder.

To me this means the end of the first wet season (which is also usually one of the hot seasons) is the best time to go, because the exaggerations are minimized. For East Africa this means March and April. For southern Africa this means February and March.

But take this recommendation cautiously: Global warming is happening so fast that I can see this changing even year to year. And the fact remains that an outstanding safari can be done at any time of the year if properly designed.

Prices in southern Africa are increasing. Prices in East Africa are moderating. The demand in southern Africa is on the increase, but tourism in East Africa is decreasing.

I think this has to do with the fact that southern Africa is more stable. For a trip of a similar caliber and level of accommodations, a southern African trip is now about a quarter more expensive than an East African one.

With regards to specific countries, not much as changed except for Kenya. I’ll be returning to Nairobi in about a month to confirm what I have to predict, now.

I believe Kenya is ready, again, to safeguard tourists. It’s been four years since EWT actively promoted Kenya or since I’ve taken by own guided trips, there.

But there has been very significant positive change from a tourist point of view there recently. You may think this crazy if all you do is read the headlines: small grenade and other bombing attacks are actually on a slight increase in and around Nairobi.

But those attacks are directed exclusively at the Somali community, and the attacks of the last five years on tourists were different and have subsided.

Since the Westgate Mall attack last September and the Nairobi airport fire the month before I haven’t been able to find a single, however slight or botched attempt, directed at tourists in Kenya. And it’s not completely certain that tourists figured very much in the calculus of either of those attacks.

The fact there haven’t been any tourist kidnapings or violent robberies or lodge or camp attacks is a significant change from just a few years ago.

Those attacks were by common criminals given free reign when police and other local security personnel were pulled from many tourists areas to aid in the Somali war effort. And in the case of the specific tourist kidnapings around Lamu, those were by Somali terrorists when the October, 2011, war began.

That war is over. (Though the occupation by Kenyan troops continues, which is why the attacks are directed against Somali Kenyans who live mostly in and around Nairobi and on the coast.)

Police and regional security personnel have returned home. Normal policing has started, again, and improved. In fact I worry that the new security procedures put in place by the current government are too draconian. Be that as it may, it means tourists will be safer.

I now see Kenya very much as I saw Britain during the IRA wars. I remember, for example, visiting my daughter in the mid 1990s when she was studying at Oxford.

My subway went dark and out for three hours after the IRA bombed London’s Piccadilly Line. Nobody was hurt as the object of the IRA in those days wasn’t to kill civilians but to make a point.

Today in Kenya the object of the terrorists is to hurt Kenyan civilians of Somali descent. But the exclusion of harming outsiders seems similar to the situation in London 20 years ago.

I will be the first to reverse course if things turn south in Kenya. But there are so many unique attractions in Kenya that when tourist security arrives at the level I believe it has, today, it would be terrible to miss them.

As Kenya improves I grow increasingly vigilant of Tanzania.

Tanzania is wrestling with a new and very contentious constitution, the same issue which spiraled Kenya into unrest in 2007. The most recent attack specifically against tourists was in Zanzibar, so I’m recommending against travel there.

Right now Tanzania excluding Zanzibar remains one of the most secure places for an African holiday. But I’m watching it carefully as the future does not seem as bright as Kenya’s.

Uganda is out. The country now prosecuting its first gay trial is increasingly overseen by a madman. Not yet as bad as Amin, I can see Museveni becoming as bad in just a few years.

Rwanda is an authoritarian state, horrible for its citizens and absolutely as safe for tourists as China today or Russia during the Cold War. And I’m watching The Congo carefully. Things are getting better, there.

Virtually all of southern Africa except Zimbabwe is as secure for the tourist as a visit to most South American countries. Even the security situation for visitors in Madagascar is improving.

As I said, Africa is a dynamic and sometimes violent place. It’s always been so, and it will remain so for some time. Travel to Africa has never been, and isn’t today, a Caribbean cruise.

But I think it’s slowly getting safer. And it remains more exciting than ever. Read my many previous blogs about my just ended safaris and I hope you’ll understand why I think so!

The wild is not just unpredictable, it’s always spiritually rejuvenating. That doesn’t normally characterize a Caribbean cruise!

On Safari: What It Meant

On Safari: What It Meant

safaricomingtoacloseMy Cape/Botswana safari this year tracked nearly exactly my experience for the last eight years running: fabulous Cape touring then moderate though diverse game with several truly exciting experiences, ending at VicFalls.

I really don’t think Cape Town needs much promotion. It’s my second favorite city in the world, absolutely gorgeous, and the historical, cultural and wilderness opportunities I think are unmatched except perhaps by San Francisco.

So if like most Americans your Cape Town experience is augmented by a game viewing experience, that’s what you analyze and compare.

Eastern South Africa (Kruger) is fine for game viewing, but Botswana is much better. Not necessarily for the quantity or variety of game, but for the exceptional scenery and geography, and for the exclusivity.
elelindstrom
Twice in the last four years I’ve watched a wild dog hunt, and that’s breath-taking. Four of the last five years I’ve seen wild dogs. Wild dogs is becoming Botswana’s signature attraction. (By the way, it may also be Kruger’s. There are now a reported 500 dog in Kruger.)

We saw two lion kills, both of buffalo. And really most uniquely of all, our two days in the Okavango Delta and three days in the Pans represented game viewing experiences that simply have no comparisons elsewhere in Africa.

Those of us in the safari business are loathe to compare one area with another, or even compare the same area in different seasons. But I realize this is an important consideration for the consumer, particularly the first-time consumer.

In addition to the extraordinary experience on two separate game drives of two different wild dog families, the week-plus game viewing safari included a dozen lion; hundreds-plus elephant, Cape buffalo and impala; dozens-plus giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, springbok, mongoose, hippo, kudu, lechwe, baboon; and multiple sightings of hyaena, warthog, reedbuck and sassaby.

- Bill Banzhaf
– Bill Banzhaf

We all also saw a wild, reintroduced white rhino.

Certain of us also saw crocodile, sitatunga, monitor lizard, bat-eared fox and eland.

There were some very special sightings as well: Gorgeous, almost super zebra that were red-maned and beige-and-red tailed. With two exceptions, the dozens of times we saw elephant they were all male.

We watched for some time two inter-acting and very large impala families, an extremely curious situation that led some of us to wonder if it were a single super family exchanging harem masters.

The first lion kill was an extraordinary scene. Somehow the three harassed lionesses with a single vulnerable cub successfully hid their buffalo kill from the rest of the world (except us) keeping vultures, hyaena and competing lions away.

- Bill Banzhaf
– Bill Banzhaf
The weather was perfect for northerners racing from a terrible winter. The hottest days, perhaps touching 90F were in Moremi, where there were also the coldest nights (likely in the lower 50s). But the majority of the days didn’t exceed the mid 80s or sink below the mid 60s. Skies were mostly crystal clear with enough dust for absolutely breath-taking sunsets.

(Note: I actually prefer about a month earlier, when the game viewing is even better. But the temperatures are 5-10 degrees hotter. The dramatic afternoon thunderstorms at that time I consider a real plus.)

- Bill Melville
– Bill Melville

The two extraordinary days in The Delta, with minimal game viewing, gave us the unique experience of a desert in flood and all the beautiful water plants and marsh birds of a special part of the world, of exceptional species like the painted frog, and with opportunities for fishing.

The Pans (Makgadikgadi and Nxai, among many other smaller ones) are equally unique. These are salt pans formed over centuries of heavy water run-off followed by rapid evaporation. So during the rains they are the heart of Botswana’s game viewing, attracting hundreds and thousands of animals.

But year-round the scenery which they define is hard to explain and its stark beauty hard to exaggerate. There is, indeed, a monotony to “starkness” but when properly absorbed it’s spiritual.

Far fewer animals are seen on a Botswana experience than East Africa, although about the same number of species. But the quantity of wildlife in East Africa is so much greater.

When compared with a game viewing experience of similar length in East Africa, this was much more relaxed. Perhaps only half as much time was actually spent game viewing as we would do in East Africa, although the activities were more varied than the vehicle game viewing that dominates an East African experience.

But that needn’t be the case for everyone. East African participants can easily exclude themselves from some game viewing to benefit from the down time that is normally written into a Botswana experience. And enthusiasts in Botswana can with some effort increase their activity time.

On a Botswana safari there is much less interaction with the local people (outside of the staff, of course), in part because there are so few people in the country to begin with. There is virtually no city or town experience of any kind. It is strictly bush.

- Steve Farrand
– Steve Farrand
You fly from camp to camp in Botswana, never drive (with rare and usually down-market exceptions). Most of the time you’re driving from place to place in East Africa, through populated countryside, towns or villages.

But though you fly much more in Botswana than East Africa, the planes in Botswana are much inferior to those in East Africa. That’s a criticism I’ve been leveling at Botswana for years: their planes are configured much too small for the average traveler.

In East Africa your driver/guides meet you at the airport and remain with you until you leave. In Botswana you pick up a new set of driver/guides at each camp.

There are more upmarket accommodations in Botswana (though a good number in East Africa, too) and they are generally better (and more expensive): that usually means larger rooms with more furniture that is also more comfortable. Bathrooms are usually more modern and spacious in Botswana than East Africa. Electricity and wifi is usually more available and reliable in Botswana than East Africa.

The staff and food in both areas is professional and varied, but expect generally better local guides in Botswana than East Africa. On the other hand, guides are very specialized in Botswana, experts in small regions and usually not as familiar with the culture, overall wilderness and current affairs as your guide will be in East Africa.

- Brad Heck
– Brad Heck

Exclusiveness is more likely in Botswana than East Africa. On our safari of 8 days we encountered vehicles other than our own and those of the camp only three times and then very briefly. In Ngorongoro Crater on virtually any day of the year, you’re likely to encounter dozens of other vehicles, sometimes all competing for the best position at the lion kill.

Now having said that, I hasten to add that personally I feel very sensitive about this and usually conduct an East African safari where half or more of the time there are none but my own vehicles. But in a few important places like the crater, that’s impossible to arrange.

Botswana’s scenery is wonderful if mystic. But East Africa’s scenery is more grand and dramatic, from highlands to volcanoes to the expansive plains of the Serengeti.

So the comparison is made but flawed: for your first safari go to East Africa. But once Africa’s taken over your soul, you’ll have to visit Botswana, too!

- Steve Taylor
– Steve Taylor
And, oh by the way, what a wonderful group of travelers I had this time! Remarkably special for me, and something I’ll always remember!

As my two months guiding in Africa comes to an end I’m of course very anxious to get home. But it’s hard to leave the African wilderness.

As a friend and good client, Steve Farrand, said to me, today:

Africa resets your soul. No matter where you’ve been in Africa or where you find yourself next, it’s a spa for the heart and mind.

I think the African wilderness remains so digestible yet unpredictable that you can more easily set aside the nagging responsibilities of the modern world without turning off the inquisitiveness and excitements that earn us success in the modern world.

Simply, you come to fully appreciate the here-and-now. I’ve always wondered if this is true only of the foreigner who finds himself removed to a distant and beautiful place or is equally true of the Africans who live here.

Of course I’ll never know: You can’t enter someone else’s soul. I only know it’s true for myself.

- Bill Banzhaf
– Bill Banzhaf

On Safari: Rain Reigns

On Safari: Rain Reigns

migrationmaasaikopjesMy final safari of the season in Tanzania gave us an extraordinary picture of the beauty, majesty and drama of the rainy season.

For this is the rainy season. While there continues to be a lot of misinformation about “short rains” and “long rains” (an appropriate Kenyan differentiation that doesn’t exist in northern Tanzania), April is always a month of rain.

May is often heavier, and then the spigot turns off in June.

This is my favorite time for East Africa. It’s amazing how so many tour companies and guide books suggest this isn’t a good time to visit: ask my clients for 40 years! Here are some of the pluses for visiting at this time of the year, all of which we just finished experiencing:

1. The Migration
At no other time of the year, anywhere in Kenya or Tanzania, does such a large congregation of animals occur. The 1.5 million wildebeest begin to gather in the southern plains at the end of the year, and indeed there could be horizons filled with wildebeest in the southern Serengeti on any of the first five months of the year.

But never with the span that we witness in April. This safari was in the migration for nearly six hours of steady, not slow travel, as we moved from Lemuta to Ndutu. The next day we continued in a different area north of Ndutu, the Kusini Plains to Hidden Valley, and the wildebeest were solid every inch of the way.

That only happens, now. When we then went atop Naabi Hill and used our binoculars to sweep the southern grasslands, it was clear we’d only seen a tip of the iceberg. What we saw from Naabi would fill two or three Maasai Maras.

2. Youngsters
Wildebeest calve starting at the end of February. Most other animals calve year round, but we saw hundreds if not thousands of baby zebras, gazelle, giraffe, buffalo and impala. It makes perfect sense. The veld is at its most fulsome in the rains. This is the easiest time to begin raising offspring.

3. Scenery
At one point I held 26 different wildflowers in a bouquet in my hand. Every color and shape imaginable. The grasses, too, were bountiful and glorious. Many of the acacias were blooming. The baobabs were all in leaf. At certain points in the veld, the yellow biden bidens wild flower had exploded over everything! It was magnificent.

4. Dramatic Landscapes
Three of every five days the afternoon around 3 p.m. was punctuated with a magnificent storm. Now oftentimes we watched it but weren’t under it. In the tropics, storms don’t move consistently and rapidly as they do in the temperate zones.

Unusual morning storms never disrupt our game viewing because we simply go where they aren’t forming. And I often scheduled intense game viewing in the morning packing a picnic lunch that would last 7-8 hours before the afternoon storms would begin.

But with brilliant skies unfettered by buildings or tall mountains, our front row seats of the power of nature over the magnificent African veld is an unmatched experience.

5. Climate
Hardly ever over the mid-eighties during the day and wonderfully crisp and cool at night with … no dust!

To be fair, there are good points to every different season in East Africa, just as I imagine you would ascribe to your home. We do have to plan extra carefully in the wet season, and single vehicle safaris cannot enjoy the wide freedom of itineraries possible for them in the dry season.

But never let someone tell you “don’t go in the rains!”

They have no idea what they’re talking about and certainly have never experienced it themselves!
landscapes

Important Stories for 2013

Important Stories for 2013

Important 2013 StoriesMisreported elephant poaching, a changed attitude against big game hunting, enduring corruption, a radical change in how safaris are bought and sold, and the end of the “Black Jews” in Ethiopia are my last big stories for 2013.

#6 is the most welcome growing opposition to big game hunting.

It’s hard to tell which came first, public attitudes or government action, but the turning point was earlier this year when first Botswana, then Zambia, began to ban big game hunting.

Botswana banned all hunting in December, 2012, and a month later Zambia announced a ban on cats with an indication they would be going further. Until now big game hunting revenues in Zambia were almost as much as tourism’s photography safari revenues, that’s how important these two countries are to hunting. (Kenya banned all hunting in the 1980s.)

The decision to ban a traditional industry is major. While some animal populations are down (lions and elephants) many like the buffalo are thriving, so this is not wholly an ecological decision. Rather, I think, people’s attitudes are changing.

Then in October a movement began to “list lion” on CITES endangered species list, which would effectively ban hunting of lion even in countries that still allow it. There was little opposition in the media to this, except surprisingly by NatGeo which once again proved my point the organization is in terrible decline.

The fact is that public sentiment for big game hunting is shifting, and from my point of view, very nicely so.

#7 is the Exaggerate story of elephant poaching. I write this way intentionally, to buff the hysteria in the media which began in January with a breaking story in Newsweek and the Daily Beast.

Poaching of all animals is showing troubling increases, and elephants are at the top of that list. But in typical American news style that it has to “bleed to read” the story has been Exaggerate to the point that good news like China’s turnaround is ignored and that the necessary remedies will be missed.

Poaching today is nowhere near as apocalyptic as it was in the 1970s, but NGOs are trying to make it look so, and that it infuriates me. Poaching today is mostly individual. Unlike the horrible corrupt poaching that really didn’t nearly exterminate elephants in the 1970s and 80s.

Poaching today also carries an onerous new component that has nothing to do with elephants. It’s become a revenue stream for terrorists, and the hysteria to contribute to your local NGO to save elephants completely masks this probably more urgent situation.

And so important and completely missed in the headlining is that there are too many elephants. Don’t mistake me! I don’t mean we should kill them off. But in the huge difference in the size of African people populations in the 1970s and those of today, the stress of too many elephants can lead to easy local poaching, and that’s what’s happening.

#8 is a tectonic change in the way safaris are being bought and sold.

The middle man, the multiple layers of agents inserted between the safari and its consumer have been eroding for decades. But in one fell swoop this year, a major South African hotel chain sold itself to Marriott, leapfrogging at least the decade behind that Africans were in selling their wares.

Most African tourism products are not bought by Americans, and so how safaris were are has mostly been governed by buying habits in such places as Europe. America is far ahead of the rest of the world in direct tour product buying, and the sale of Protea Hotels to Marriott signals to all of Africa that the American way is the world trend.

#9 is a depressing tale. After a number of years where Africa’s overall corruption seemed to be declining, last year it took a nosedive.

The good news/bad news flag came in September, when France’s President Hollande ended centuries
of deceitful collaboration between corrupt African leaders and the Élysée Palace.

Many of us jumped on this as a further indication of Africa’s improving transparency, but in fact, it was just the reverse and Hollande beat us to the punch. In November the European union gave Tanzania a spanking for being so egregiously corrupt.

And then Transparency International’s annual rankings came out. It’s so terribly disappointing and I’d like to think it all has to do with declining economies, but closer looks at places like Zimbabwe and South Africa suggest otherwise. I’m afraid the “public will” has just been sapped, and bad guys have taken advantage … again.

#10 is intriguing and since my own brush with “Operation Moses” in the 1980s, I’ve never stopped thinking about it. The last of Africa’s “Black Jews” were “brought home
” to Israel October 31.

A tribe in Ethiopia referred to as the “Falashas” has an oral history there that goes back to the 3rd century. Israel has always contended they were migrants from the land of the Jews, possibly the lost Tribe of Dan. Systematically, through an extreme range of politics that included the emperor Selassie, to the Tyrant Mengistu to today’s slightly more democratic Ethiopia, Israel has aided Ethiopia.

For only reason. To get the Black Jews back home. And whether they all are or not, Israel formally announced that they were on October 31.

Blame Reigns

Blame Reigns

EscapeFromKenyaConfusion, (global) stupidity and pure intrigue surround three U.S. medical students who just escaped from a hotel in western Kenya that had imprisoned them. Where are they, now?

Logan Key, Brooke Weiser and Ilya Frid, students on a work-study project with the questionably reliable Medics to Africa program, had been locked inside the little Gilly Hotel in Migori, Kenya.

Kenya media reported that the kids refused to pay a hotel bill when presented to them at checkout. They told the hotel manager that they had paid Medics to Africa before coming to Kenya for all the services they had used, including the hotel accommodations.

So the hotel manager … locked them up!

The weekend brouhaha made national Kenyan news and prompted local police in western Kenya to arrest the Kenyan agent who had booked the kids’ program.

But – absolutely remarkably – the police refused to free the kids from the hotel!

It’s unbelievable. Client/hotel disputes are not uncommon throughout the world, and particularly when a middleman or agent is involved. I can’t remember, though, a single case where the dispute involved locking up the patrons.

Then, this morning NewsKenya reported that the students had escaped! Much of their luggage had been left behind in their room, and the news source reported that they had escaped over a fence while guards slept.

Normally, documentation presented by the client showing that payment has been made is sufficient for the hotel to send them off with a smile. The hotel may know from the getgo that they haven’t been paid, but the risk of bad PR from abroad is too compelling for them to start a fight.

The hotel is essentially accepting blame for having itself made a bad decision: extending credit to the agent that was supposed to pay.

Dozens of times I’ve been hired as a consultant by African tour companies to collect these bad debts from intermediaries. I’d say my success rate has been less than 20%, and then only after some serious negotiations that recovers far less than half that’s due.

And I’ve always approached these jobs with full disclosure of such, berating the African companies from the beginning for extending credit to questionable agents. And then continuing to extend credit when the account falls into arrears.

That’s the main problem. I remember, in fact, tracking down an Ohio zoo group at Ngorongoro Crater and telling them that the vehicles they were using wouldn’t continue on if my client, an African tour company, weren’t immediately paid.

Of course, I was bluffing somewhat, but I was furious. And we gathered enough credit cards that I managed to recover about 30% of what was due.

I was furious at everyone, as I am with this story. Of course I was furious with the zoo officials who had not completed due diligence with their American operator (the real culprit who had collected the individuals’ money and bagged it away), but I was equally furious with my African client for having driven them out of Arusha to Ngorongoro without having been paid!

I can’t stand incompetence, but I explode at fraud. And I go bonkers at abject stupidity.

In this case it’s so clear what happened: Medics to Africa, despite one of the kids claiming to the Kenyan media that it was recommended by the American Embassy, which is not true, is not a reputable company.

The owner is currently in jail for having absconded with a far greater amount of money than these three kids’ hotel bill. When you drill down beneath the so-called testimonials shown on its brilliant website, and make all but a few calls to Kenya, you’ll discover that the man is a crook and known to be throughout the community of Migori.

The naivete of believing a website is absolutely incredible.

But the owner of the Gilly Hotel is equally incredible. Under Kenyan law, he is kidnaping. Under Kenyan law, if he felt the kids were ripping him off, he could get an arrest warrant from the local police.

But wait! In this case, even that would be going too far. The hotel owner claims that Medics to Africa had a huge unpaid bill. So why did he even check the kids in without getting at least their payment? He could have refused accommodation when they tried to check-in… that would have been legal.

But wait, wait! Why did the police not free the kids?

My goodness, this story is incomplete, and I’ll try to run it down for you as the ending unfolds. Meanwhile, help these naive kids learn their lesson.

Be careful when you travel. Just like your third grader, crooks know how to make pretty websites, too.

Memory Track

Memory Track

MemoryTrackSafari travelers thirty years ago paid only a little bit less for air fare but only about a fifth as much for their safari!

Recently my good friend, the Cleveland Zoo Director Emeritus, Steve Taylor, sent me a copy of the brochure for the safari that my company, EWT, operated for him when he was director of the Sacramento Zoo thirty years ago!

The 15-day Kenyan safari roundtrip Sacramento in July, 1984, cost $2935 per person and from what I can tell there was no supplement for traveling as a single. Back then people were afraid to travel as singles! I remember that one of the services our zoos and other not-for-profit associations provided was teaming up single bookings.

The itinerary was similiar to what a 15-day land program would do, today, although today the average time travelers take on safaris is only 11 days.

And back then there was no flying … it was all driving. And the driving wasn’t so bad, really, because the roads were OK and the traffic was minimal.

Today, travel for example between the Mara and Nairobi is more often by air than road.

To book the safari you had to make a deposit of $300, about the same percentage as you would today. But the deposit was refundable! For this program, which began on July 10, 1984, you could cancel up to May 12 for only a $35 penalty!

Holy Smokes! That would kill us tour companies, today! For one thing back then we held the deposit in the U.S. We rarely paid our African vendors until shortly before arrival, and sometimes not even then. As our reputations grew more reliable, we would be invoiced after the trip for the costs.

So we could extend that refundability advantage to our customers. Today most safari vendors in Africa require up-front payments which are nonrefundable.

1984 was a critical year, as I remember. It was the year that airline deregulation started to be implemented, so when airlines began to become more competitive. But it hadn’t translated into prices, yet. That wouldn’t happen until around 1986 when prices began to drop steeply.

And as those of you who regularly read me, I don’t think that was a good thing. As Steve and many other veteran travelers will tell you, airline travel back then was a dream. Bigger seats, easy check-in, all the luggage you could muster, fantastic attendants, excellent food and wine … not today.

So airline services are reduced so much, today, that they’re almost intolerable … but the price is the same. Safari services, on the other hand, have grown better and better … and it costs you five times as much.

There are, in fact, still some downmarket tented camps that look like the best we had in 1984, but their prices are about twice as much as what we paid for the only (and then, best) accommodation in 1984. And the best accommodation is astronomically higher today than then.

Because .. not only does everyone have flush toilets, today, but in the better camps both an indoor and outdoor shower. Hot water is available 24 hours, not just a few hours during the day. Tents are giant size compared to before, with beautiful furniture and rugs and wonderful, massive beds. There’s electricity! Not just kerosene lanterns. And the food today at the better camps rivals any good restaurant in a big American city. Quite different from our beans and rice and occasional stick of boiled chicken of days gone bye.

And the animals? Well, actually, there are more of them today than in 1984 with the notable exceptions of the lion and a group of smaller animals like duikers that have been sacrificed to the felling of so many forests. But all the animals that thrive on the plains are in greater numbers today, than in 1984.

Which I’ve often written about poses one of the greatest challenges to East African development. If you’re a student or venture capitalist in Nairobi, you don’t want a lion disrupting your morning commute or an elephant traipsing through your garden, and if you’re a farmer – believe me – you’re not going to like tourism.
84JulSMFzoosafari001
But there were definitely things back thirty years that made a safari more wonderful than today: the many fewer vehicles, to begin with. Friendly and safe “little” Nairobi and Mombasa. “Safe” and “secure” weren’t even terms we applied to anything other than wild animals.

And call it nostalgia if you will, but the “wildness” of those endless plains thirty years ago was a thrill hard to recreate, today. At least in the same way. No cell phones. No internet. No Flying Doctors. No way of “checking in” back home meant that you were really stepping onto a landscape where no one but your fellow travelers would know where you were.

And people were willing and anxious to do that back then. Today the safari traveler is infinitely more cautious and I think less inspired by the potential differentness of Africa to alternate vacation spots. It’s one of the reasons prices have gone through the roof even while the average income of a middle class traveler hasn’t.

The ecologically correct shampoo, feather bed and pillows, well delivered ginger snaps with early morning tea and of course a charging station for your smartphone are now essentials.

Times have changed.

Imminent Generation of Practicality

Imminent Generation of Practicality

Jim&Cheetah.626.sheilabritz.serengeti.mar13Predicting how you as a consumer or as an investor will successfully choose your properties for the future of safari travel is founded almost entirely on the philosophy of “luxury travel.”

Don’t get ahead of me: I’m not concluding that “luxury” will be the winner, quite to the contrary. But to understand this, you need to first understand what luxury travel has meant for sub-Saharan Africa.

Luxury travelers break down into two categories: those who believe “If you’ve got it, spend it” and who’ve got it; and those who haven’t got it quite as much but want to “treat themselves.”

There are, of course, rich travelers who are eminently practical, too, and who will choose their accommodations after they choose their place. A good example of this is the Serengeti where East Africa’s foremost luxury company, &Beyond built its first two properties in the Serengeti in areas that rarely experience the migration (Grumeti and Klein’s Camp).

Both properties are at the bottom of the company’s performance charts.

But such affluent travelers are rare. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I like to think that most of my own affluent clients are more schooled in what they want to see, but for the vast majority of rich travelers, “what” isn’t as important as “how.”

So it was a no-brainer for investors in sub-Saharan Africa over the last two decades, as the world grew more and more divided between rich and poor and the rich became much richer much quicker.

It didn’t matter to these “If you’ve got it, spend it” folks that they would miss the great migration. What mattered was very comfortable beds, good food and service, privacy and space. Of course there had to be animals, but there was little motivation to find the “best game viewing.”

This was a real boon to investors, because many of the choice locales for the best animal viewing had long before been bought by the tried-and-true (Thrun) properties. So this dilemma of not necessarily being able to build in the best place went away.

The other category that considered “treating themselves” during at least part of their safari was attracted by the hoopla associated with the ultra luxury in East Africa, which until it appeared all of a sudden in the late 1990s seemed quite out of context.

I speculate that as many as a third of the those staying at Ngorongoro Crater Lodge do so for the effect, and that likely the rest of the places they stay are much less costly and luxurious.

Crater Lodge has the benefit of being in a good location, too, something unusual for the early luxury properties.

The Great Global Recession aggravated the world’s traveling markets and accentuated the luxury. Luxury travel didn’t really decline much after the initial shocks of 2008. The rest of the markets literally withered up.

But what’s emerging now is quite different from the nineties when use and investment in luxury travel began its prime. Travelers of all market niches are returning to Africa, and the growth is steady and slow just as the economies of the world are growing steadily and slowly.

But the rich market is turning. I know it’s still around, and where it’s going is hard to say. But our anecdotal evidence is that potential safari travelers are much, much more interested in “what” than “how.” And that no matter how rich you might be, value really matters now.

It didn’t before.

I’ll speculate why. I think we’re headed world-wide for higher taxes and a greater redistribution of wealth, and that will certainly trickle down to travel practices. Second, the older generation of wealthy individuals that supported the investment and use of high-ticket travel is dying. That was also the generation of high rollers in derivatives and other nasty things.

Their children know better.

There is some interesting evidence that the luxury companies know this is true.

Wilderness Safaris is an excellent mostly southern African company that basically cornered the market on luxury properties, originally in Botswana and later throughout much of southern Africa.

Last month Wilderness announced it was moving its headquarters from South Africa to Botswana.

The company provided little fanfare with this announcement, and for good reason. There is only reason that any travel company would move from the near-perfect environment of Johannesburg to the only capital city in Africa that has no direct flights from Europe, Gaberone: reduced taxes.

Other up-market companies give us similar indicators. &Beyond is “renovating” Kichwa Tembo in the Mara, which does allow them to champion a million dollar investment. Kichwa was the only non-up market camp in &Beyond’s portfolio, a left-over from its early purchase of Thrun properties from Abercrombie & Kent in the 1990s.

What this means is that &Beyond doesn’t want to conflate the two markets. I suspect they understand the upmarket is shrinking, and that the competition for it will grow more intense. Not a good idea to have a pizza delivered into the kitchen of a gourmet restaurant.

And another wannabe luxury company, Sanctuary Retreats, has just announced a seventh luxury small cruise ship in Myanmar. This means the company which was defined by luxury African lodges will now have more than half as many boats as lodges.

These big, enormously successful companies are doing the right things. They can’t remake themselves into something less for the future, so they are preparing to be more and more competitive for what I think is going to be a diminishing luxury market.

And that means, of course …

… that the Thruns will return. The “thoroughly reliable and unspectacular” properties I wrote about in Thursday’s blog will reemerge, I believe, as the dominant market in safari travel in the next 5-20 years.

A generation of practicality is upon us.

Built To Tumble

Built To Tumble

AlreadyFallingDown If you haven’t visited the spectacular Soroi Lodge in the Serengeti yet, you better do so soon, because I don’t think it’s going to be around for a very long time.

The story of Soroi Serengeti Lodge is the story of investment in African safari lodges virtually from the onset of safari travel in the 1960s.

It’s the story of small business trying to cash out quickly on trends, and then always, failing. Only now, as Africa develops its own safari traveler are things looking up … but not for the likes of Soroi Lodge.

Below is my detailed review of Soroi. I stayed there while guiding the Felsenthal Family at the beginning of July for two nights. On Thursday, I’ll generalize in this blog to what’s happening throughout Africa with its lodge investment, tell you which few investors are doing the right thing and why, and what warning signs we’re now getting for the mid-term for safari travel.
pool.soroi
Set about half way between Serena Lodge and the Grumeti airstrip in the southern half of the western corridor, Soroi is one of the most beautiful middle-sized lodges I’ve ever stayed at. The design avoids the cliche of avant garde but is creatively modern with lots of angular twists and turns, multiple levels and daring concepts like putting a pool next to the bar and lounge.
trestle.soroiserengetilodgeSome of this is probably mandated by its limited space, the top of a 600′ high hill 25 kilometers off the nearest road, resulting in an absolutely fantastic and intimate view of the grande dame of African wildernesses.

The 25 thatched cottages and suites are connected by long and sometimes meandering walkways like trestles through outer space, views everywhere.
bathroom.soroi

The bathrooms are about the same size as the bedrooms, which are adequate and heavily wooded, and the piece de resistance is that massive deck overlooking the Serengeti. I estimate the view from the deck stretches at least 35 miles over the Serengeti. There are no other lodges and only one track in this immense area, fulfilling every safari traveler’s dream of being alone in the remote beauty of Africa.
bedroom.soroi
And that’s it folks.

Hardly two years old, this artistic masterpiece is already not working.

Much of the room finishings are breaking off. The thick lustrous wooden stain is already down to the bare wood in the bathroom and there is already significant corrosion on all the brass plated fixtures. The patio doors between the room and the deck no longer close well, leaving a gap for you know what … bugs. The screen meshes on the perfectly designed canvass windows are buckling and tearing.

There is no communication between the distant cottages or reception and management: no phones, no walkie talkies as is often customary. So there is no way to communicate danger, other than a pitifully small whistle attached your key chain, and yes there could be danger. I spotted lion and hyaena tracks regularly on the walk from my room.

There is a bouquet basket of teas and coffees, sugars and sweeteners framed by two lovely china cups on the rather small writing desk in your room, but no tea or coffee maker, and the only way to use them is to order hot water. Staff deliver hot water on demand, but there is no way to order it except to walk up to reception – might as well get it yourself.

And even that is complicated by the lodge edict that you can’t walk around at night by yourself. I learned from an askari who claimed to shoo the lions away every night. But there is no way to call for an askari at night … except your whistle.

And consider the beautiful and large four claw bathtub elegantly described in much of the lodge’s promotional literature. The briefing we got when arriving explained that there wasn’t enough hot water to fill the bath more than … maybe, once. So … don’t use.

Laundry is something that every African safari lodge and camp provides, albeit at various costs from free to outlandish. Soroi’s website and its information packet describes that two pieces of laundry are free and additional will be charged.

But at the briefing we were told there couldn’t be more than two pieces accepted, at any charge. And the complicated maize that management has thrown up to us weary warriors in need of a clean T-shirt included the fact that laundry is only accepted at night, for return the following night. This is exactly half-cycled from what is common virtually everywhere else, morning to that same evening, which further complicated anyone’s laundry plans particularly if they were only staying for two nights.

One of the six rooms my group was assigned didn’t have enough water to flush a toilet.

And my three drivers apologized to me the night after we arrived that they weren’t allowed any water to wash the vehicles.

So what do we have? We have a lodge that doesn’t have enough water, which has not been built to last, and which is declining fast. An investment with a quick R.O.I.

It’s a lovely sand castle, but the engineering won’t withstand the next strong wind.

This beautiful, very artistic but so temporal investment is the perfect example of why investment in African safari lodges is so tricky, and probably so misplaced.

For that, come back to this blog on Thursday.
DeckView.Soroi.500

It’s NOT Hot in Africa!

It’s NOT Hot in Africa!

in_hot_africa_800Ok, it’s hot. But it’s NOT “Africa Hot.” That phrase is racing around twitter as a way to describe unusual heat in the U.S., and … it’s blazing wrong!!

Now, historically, and probably for the whole futures any of us will ever have, most of the United States is hotter than most of the Africa in which I guide and spend nearly half my life.
TempComparisonsUSvsAfrica
And for that life of me I’ve spent my career trying to understand why people think otherwise.

Was it the Tarzan movies? Johnny Weissmüller’s hair was always perfectly slicked down, so I suppose you might think that was because of sweat.

Was it because of movies like Africa Queen? Or histories of the early explorers who were always drawn sweating off their clothes?

Or… was it because we associated Africa with slavery, and we associate slaves with the South, and we associated the South with heat?

To be utterly and completely fair, West Africa is a pretty hot place, and North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt) can be extremely hot. If I compiled those statistics I’m guessing it would be a near draw or slight advantage for those parts of Africa as hotter than the U.S.

But those are not the places that most American visit, today, or for that matter have visited in the past.

Sub-Saharan Africa has always been the American destination on the continent (with the notable exception of Egypt, whose tourist market share has fluctuated with great volatility over the years).

Look at my chart. Of the ten most visited places in the U.S. and the ten most visited places in sub-Saharan Africa, 5 of the top 6 hottest destinations are in America!

In fact, by a lot! The most popular safari destination that I guide today is northern Tanzania. That averages ten degrees cooler than where I grew up in Chicago.

By now I hope you’ve realized that I might be ever so slightly manipulating the statistics, so I’ll come completely clean, because I’ll still prevail:

America’s temperature spread, from hottest to lowest in the year, is much greater than for most any other part of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa.

A chart showing my 20 destinations by their averages results in 3 of the top 5 hottest all coming from Africa (Zanzibar, Botswana & Central Tanzania) with only 2 from America (Orlando and Las Vegas).

But that’s not the point, either. The real study would take these twenty places during the times that they were most visited, and remarkably in almost all cases, that’s the end of the year, the holiday periods in December.

Doing that, Africa wins by a long shot, because it’s the coldest time in America and it tends to be the warmest time in Africa. So that’s probably why the “myth” of “hot Africa” exists. It’s when most Americans have visited Africa, during its hottest time.

But I’m not done. Although the end of December is the highest tourist season for most Americans visiting Africa, it shouldn’t be. It’s really not the best time to go, and that’s not because it’s the hottest time. It’s just not a good season for anything, not animal viewing or city touring, or even for experiencing Victoria Falls.

So if we did a chart of when it’s the best time to visit each of those twenty places, the hottest would definitely be almost exclusively all in America.

This is because America’s best city touring is usually during our summer for the eastern and northern cities, and during our winter for the southern cities.

And because for Africa the best time tends to be their coolest times.

That comparison would definitely show that America is hotter than Africa!

So don’t tweet today that it is “Africa Hot!” It isn’t. It’s “America Hot!”

Beware The Blackened Honey!

Beware The Blackened Honey!

killerbeeracismRacism on the march, from Trayvon Martin to African Killer Bees … again. From rhino horns that are not aphrodisiacs to setbacks to immigration reform.

It’s a depressing Monday in the free but dumb world.

I know a lot more about inappropriately named “African Killer Bees” than about the Trayvon Martin case, but the fact is that it doesn’t take much for anyone to know about either to realize the implications.

As has been pointed out time and again, there is no such thing as an “African Killer Bee.” It is the same honey bee, the exact same genetic honey bee, as lives all over the world. The behavior of this creature in equatorial Africa developed a bit differently than in the non-tropic world … obviously, don’t we all?

And yes, the behavior of the equatorial bee can legitimately be called more aggressive than its sisters and brothers that have to deal with winters. The best and least disturbing explanation of this was a PBS interview of bee expert, Justin Smith, several years ago.

The bottom line is that the difference in aggression is not considerable enough to even begin to warrant the panic and racist fears that still continue, today. Just as some pet dogs are more aggressive than other pet dogs, you deal with it:

Whether you’re the owner, or the neighbor. Neither dog, and neither bee, is going to kill you if you don’t try to bite it.

But alas, what do facts have to do with any of this? Truth? It just doesn’t seem to matter.

“Beekeepers attribute the aggressive nature of [African Killer] bees to their origins in Africa, where predators range from birds to honey badgers to humans,” wrote Michael Lollar in Memphis’ main newspaper, the Commercial Appeal, just last month.

Where predators range from birds to honey badgers to humans. That sounds like Memphis.

But no, it isn’t. It’s those dastardly creatures whose “origins in Africa” make them so bad.

Lollar’s story was picked up all over the south and his wild and unsubstantiated claims spread pell-mell.

Lollar claimed that Tennessee authorities had determined that one local honey bee they tested proved 17% African. (How much is Obama?) But the Tennessee Department of Natural Resources has no such test available and has a much more realistic appraisal of bees in the State than Lollar.

That appraisal in the link above was for January, 2008, and the department has found no need to make any change.

If anything, we should be grateful for the arrival of the African honey bee, because there’s every evidence they contributed to the successful turnaround against the horrible virus that was decimating bees in North America this decade.

But here’s my real scoop, today, are you ready?

There are worse bees in Africa than the honey bee! More aggressive, better pollinators, probably more dastardly and with a stronger sting! Ouch!!

See below pictures taken just in the last few weeks in Kenya and Tanzania by dudu sleuth Dino Martins!
beautifulbees

And Beware! They’ll be in New Haven by Labor Day!

On Safari with Babu

On Safari with Babu

GrandpaDriving.655.Jul13Children really do better than their parents on a family safari in all cases, no matter how difficult or how easy it might be. And that makes sense.

The first question I get from a parent or grandparent considering taking their family on safari is what is the ideal age, or actually more often, what is too young to go?

The Felsenthal Family Safari organized by Babu Eddie just ended, and as I reflect on that ten days a lot of the answers I’ve given over the years are confirmed.

Children of virtually any age are as different as any person of any age, so the qualification that my generalization might not apply to your particular child is a very important one. I’ve had three-year-olds that two decades later would recite the days on safari with rapture. And I’ve had many repeat adult clients that for the life of them couldn’t remember what they’d done before.

But generalize I will. The best ages for children on safari are between 8 and 16. The Felsenthals had a 5-year-old and two 7-year-olds and the safari worked well. And last year I guided a family with university students, and they were outstanding safari travelers.

But in general kids under 8 lack the stamina a safari requires, and kids over 16 lack any interest for much except being home with their friends.
HoldingUpBoulder.NgongRock.Jul13.655
How this generalization was torn to smithereens by the Felsenthals! To begin with, I was amazed at how much they wanted to do as a family. With near unanimity the family pressed the envelope of reasonable game driving. According to my notes, we had four game drives of 12 hours!

And quite a few of ten!

Part of this was because a family safari usually does better with all-day drives with a picnic lunch, than with the traditional early morning and late afternoon drives separated by a long mid-day period in camp with lunch.

It’s easier for a family to get going in full light and without an early wakeup. But in my memory I don’t remember such enthusiasm as the Felsenthals.

We were unable to get satisfactory accommodation near the expected whereabouts of the migration in northern Tanzania, and that became the motivation for the 12-hour day. We left the central Serengeti around 7 a.m. and traveled to the Kenyan border, returning around 7 p.m.

And … we found the migration! Big time, in fact. It was a relief to me, of course, and the family was fully aware that the information we had garnered might not have been accurate. But as it turned out, it was.

And on the way back, 7-year-old Nate simply fell asleep on the back seat of the cruiser, certainly the most bumpy part of the car!

I was amazed day after day how these young kids all chose to go out for hours longer than the average adult safari. But then I’d learned long ago that the stress of such a long day really hangs on the parents, not the kids.

They are understandably worried that such a trial of bumpy roads and long periods of seeing nothing foments the boredom that often turns into anxiety or peevishness in kids. But it doesn’t. And my saying so from experience after experience doesn’t seem to convince anyone.

But it doesn’t. Kids always … and I mean always … end up doing better than their parents on safari, and particularly when the safari is challenged by long drives and bumpy roads.

That isn’t to say they’re constantly enthused and wrapped in attention. It just means that the parents do more poorly than they do.

So the maxim stands: analyze your own stamina and interest, parents and grandparents, as the threshold of what the family safari should do. The kids will always work into it just fine!

I can’t thank the Felsenthals enough for giving me such a fine experience, too! Our elephant encounters in Tarangire were exceptional and so exciting. There was even a trunk into the pop-top roof!

In one morning around Seronera, we saw four leopard and twelve lion. Not to mention several hundred zebra, and a giant croc guarding its zebra kill.

We found the migration, a beautiful and always awe inspiring site. And as usual with migration experiences, there was something extremely unusual and dramatic: we saw at least four hundred vultures collected together near a bit of water drying their wings.

The Felsenthal kids spent a good hour or two mingling with school kids from Arusha on a field trip safari, and taught them tic-tac-toe! The Felsenthal boys played frisby on the endless plains of Lemuta, not another car in sight for 50 miles, even as a single Maasai teenager walked across this enormous veld to greet us.
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We saw hyaena relocating babies that couldn’t have been more than a day old. We watched a family of lion unsuccessfully hunt warthog that successfully held up backwards into a hole!

We walked around the actual place where Zinj, the Nutcracker Man, was found, and walked over the Shifting Sands hills that themselves walk over the veld. The kids pounded the magical Ngong Rock with granite stones to recreate the dream booms that called Maasai to their last conclave in 1972.

And for icing on the cake, hardly a half hour before we took off on the charter that started the journey home, a lionness flopped in the shade of the kids’ safari car!

There’s just nothing as good as a family safari. And no one as happy as the kids!
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