I am generally loathe to dissuade anyone from doing practically anything (except meth. Don’t do meth.), and this holds doubly true for travel. Want to ride your bike to Everest base camp? Sounds awesome. Yak herding in Mongolia? Send pics please. Central America by bus? Not my first choice, but you are going to have some epic stories. So it hurts – really hurts – to tell you: don’t self-drive in Tanzania.
And it hurts because we had an absolutely incredible time that I still close my eyes and see. I will take more than a handful of memories from that trip with me for the rest of my life. It hurts because I had several this is why I travel moments on the trip. But I know, deep down I know, that this trip was…not ideal…and definitely not something I could recommend to everyone. In fact the number of people I personally know for whom I would provide this recommendation is: 0.
Tanzania was not easy. It has a glorious, safe, lovely tourist infrastructure that has exactly no patience for you attempting to operate outside of its boundaries. If you want to go to Tanzania, Tanzania wants you to do it in a certain, proscribed way and on your own head be it if you attempt any other permutation. You should absolutely go to Tanzania – it’s flipping amazing – but you should probably go to Tanzania the way Tanzania wants to be gone to: on an organized trip of some sort.
You will pay dearly for this privilege – and by dearly, I mean you should probably budget at least $1500/day for two people, and that might be underestimating. You will want to be comfortable flying in many tiny planes. You will want to be attended to at all times. You will want to be less of an explorer and more of an experiencer. And while you’re already setting that much money on fire, please take the hot air balloon ride – it was too rich for our blood but looked amazing.
Because doing Tanzania the way we did Tanzania was…foolhardy. Let me explain:
- The roads in Tanzania are utter shit. And we believe it’s intentional. Concessions pay the government for permission to operate in national parks…weirdos camping on top of their trucks pay less. Since the people at the concessions have nearly all flown into the concession, the roads are only for creepy poor people trying to enjoy the country without invading their 401(k)s. And by utter shit, I mean that unless you are practiced in the art of driving on unpaved, highly corrugated, gravel roads, you want nothing to do with this. It is both uncomfortable and potentially dangerous: flipping trucks is by far the most common cause of accidents.
- Oh, you wanted gas for your car? Screw you! When the main hub of the main national park is OUT OF GAS, you know you’ve made poor life choices. Later, when you’re buying gas at a markup (that you happily paid) from an NGO that some guy walking down the road pointed out, it occurs to you that this kind of trip isn’t for everyone. Sure, YOU will dine out on this story for years to come, but do you really want your friends to suffer similarly? How about when, 7 hours later, you finally found a town with gas? Sure, that was “fun,” but was it fun? Not really.
- Pack once, pack heavy. Because there will be literally nowhere to reprovision. Lest you think we were way off the beaten path, allow me to disabuse you: we went to the 4 main attractions on the Northern Tanzania safari circuit. We couldn’t even find a Mars bar anywhere. After we left the main drag, there wasn’t even a place to buy an onion. So it was good that we loaded up with $500 worth of stuff at the fancy European grocery store before we left. And the “stuff” you can’t get anywhere along the route includes WATER. Which you will need. To not die of dehydration.
- Your map is useless. Or, in our case, maps: 3 digital, 5 paper. We had garmin and google and maps.me and many, many, different paper maps of all the locations we were traveling. None of them was right. We cobbled routes together by taking the consensus roads of as many of our maps as could agree. By the way, every one of them referenced a GAS STATION THAT DIDN’T EXIST ergo our black market gas purchase.
If this doesn’t dissuade you, then perhaps we underestimated one another. I loved everything about the trip: the solitude, the wild camping, the incredible diversity of landscape and fauna, but it was Not. Fucking. Easy. It was not what I would call relaxing and that’s before the unrelaxing part about erecting your roof tent in the dark when there may or may not be angry buffalo nearby. And the craziest thing is that, while writing this, I’m dreaming about doing it again (albeit with a 40 gallon spare fuel tank). So maybe you should try this at home. Just don’t blame me when it’s everything I told you it would be.