I struggled to keep my eyes awake as the tiny plane passed over the Great Rift Valley. It was only 3pm but thanks to a pack of hyenas, a hot air balloon, an even hotter pack of lions, 2 planes, a black market, and the world’s smallest duty free shop… It had been a long day already. My eyes were almost closed and my head was dropping when my shoulder was poked by a passenger sitting behind me. The finer pointed out of the cockpit window towards a giant dust swirl ahead of us. However, what worried me wasn’t so much the dust whirl as what was happening right next to me inside the plane.
The pilot was texting. His left hand was on the steering column, his right hand on his tiny mobile phone. The small keys were frustrating him so he did what anyone would do when trying to text whilst flying one handed: he let go of the steering column completely and texted with both hands!
You may think at this point that the co-pilot would take control. Well we didn’t have one. Technically I was the co-pilot as I was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat. However, this was only because of a slight misunderstanding between the pilot and I. Before boarding the plane I definitely said:
“Can I please sit in the cockpit for a quick photo?”
And he heard me say:
“Can I sit up front for the whole flight and be your co-pilot so you can text your mates and live tweet the flight from 10,000 feet in the air?“
Crossing from Kenya to Tanzania had been an interesting day… and the day was still young.
Early morning Balloon Safari
The day started very early when at 2:30am a Masai Warrior “knocked” on our tent door to give us a wake-up call. You know it’s a weird day when your friendly local Masai Wake up call doesn’t get a mention until 330 words into your story.
By 3:15am we were in our jeep bouncing through the Masai Mara trying to get to Little Governors’ Camp before first light for our sunrise balloon ride.
The Masai Mara is different at night. Animals that hide or sleep during the day, own the plains at night. There are laws and rules regarding driving at night so these animals are far less at ease with vehicles and people. Packs of hyenas would stare at us wondering whether they needed to fight or flee.
We eventually made it to Little Governor’s Camp and caught our balloon. You can read the full story here. If you don’t have time let me summarise it for you here:
The views are incredible and it’s very lovely and romantic, then you crash land and get dragged along the floor until you hit a termite mound(s).
Once upright again we returned to our jeep and set off for the airport but not before a picturesque breakfast on the edges of the Mara river. Well, it would have been if a pack of lions hadn’t showed up and sent us fleeing back in the jeep (click here for the full story).
Flying from the Masai Mara to Serengeti
Sadly our time in the Masai Mara had come to an end. We arrived at Ol Kiombo airport to start our journey out of the famous national park. Ol Kiombo is more of an airstrip than an airport. There is a runway (of course), a concrete building where someone sells coffee, a dirt car park, and a toilet.
There is no check in desk, so when a plane landed gave our names to the pilot. He didn’t really know what to do with this information. It was as if we told him that the only member of ZZ Top who doesn’t have a beard is called Frank Beard. He seemed to enjoy learning our names but deep down didn’t seem to care.
He told us he was flying to Migori and if we wanted to go there we should put our bags in the hold. I felt like we were hitch hiking a plane flight. I didn’t know whether I should feel cheeky getting on the plane or whether I should resent having paid for this flight as it seemed that they took anyone fancying a trip.
Our goal destination was Isebania, which is still in Kenya, but due to the visa and yellow fever vaccination requirements in Tanzania, small airports cannot operate international flights. Therefore you have three options to get from the Masai Mara to the Serengeti:
- Fly back to Nairobi, change airports, fly to a major Tanzanian airport and then get a connecting internal flight to your Serengeti airstrip.
- Drive to the border crossing at Isebania. This will take an entire day, the roads will probably give you back pain and, as drivers will need special licenses to cross the border, you’ll need to be REALLY confident there’s a Tanzanian driver on the other side waiting to collect you.
- Fly to the nearest airport to the border (Migori), have a specially licensed driver collect you and take you over the border to the Tarime airport on the other side and get an internal flight to your Serengeti airstrip (in our case Seronera).
We had chosen number 3 but hit an early snag when we arrived at Migori airport: our driver wasn’t there. However there were plenty of people at the airport sitting around, staring at the plane and its’ passengers. As I disembarked the plane’s small steps I felt a little like a national athlete returning from home from a World Cup campaign or Olympic glory. However, judging from the crowd’s enthusiasm the performance of this Olympic team had been deeply average.
We decided to get away from the crowd and head to the airport ‘lounge.’ As I approached the entrance of the lounge I got my Premier Lounge pass out of my wallet, desperately hoping this was part of the lounge ‘Priority Pass’ network. I would have asked the receptionist but there wasn’t anyone there. There also wasn’t a card machine, departure boards, sofas, a fully stocked bar or a refreshments buffet. In fact, the longer I spent in the lounge, the more I thought this is just a hut:
Crossing the border
Our van eventually arrived and, despite my seat belt not working, within the hour we were at the border crossing at Isebania in between Tanzania and Kenya.
The border crossing is a weird place. Two gates intersect the road from Kenya to Tanzania: one guarding the entry to Kenya, the other to Tanzania. Whilst only 50 meters or so apart, there is a flurry of activity between the two posts. Motorbikes fly around seemingly through each gate without challenge carrying unmarked boxes and disappearing down small alleyways or behind the toilet blocks. In the shadows of the immigration buildings people had set up a market table and motorcycles swarmed to them like flies to a light.
This is a small time black market. Tanzania is not overly fond of imported goods as it tries to boost its own economy. Whilst it has been able to crack down on the smuggling of bigger products such as ivory and timber… there doesn’t seem to be the resource, energy or interest in stopping individuals crossing into this no man’s land and exchange small items such as mobile phones and sugar.
Once we had passed the checks and obtained our entry visas we hit the road. The drive down a lovely paved road for 10 minutes was a welcome relief before turning off onto a dirt track. This later gave way to a nice, relatively smooth grass track. The grass track was wide and had a line down the middle and was practically straight. We drove for a couple of minutes down the grass track until we slowed down and parked next to a plane. It turns out this grass track was also the runway.
We were disappointed to find out that there was no ‘lounge’ at the end of Tarime airport’s runway. However, there were two men with two tables. The first man was standing in front of the table dressed in a pilot uniform. The second man sat behind. Table 1 was adorned with a spread of traditional African crafts such as Masai blankets and wood carvings. Table 2 was piled with a spread of mini-Pringles and bottles of Fanta.
We asked the man in the pilot uniform when the flight was due to leave. He told us as soon as we’d finished in the duty free shop. He also apologised for the fact the plane was going to be hot. They had opened all the doors and windows before we arrived to cool it down, but a swarm of bees had invaded so they had to chase them all out and close all the doors.
Tim was taking some photos of me sitting in the co-pilot seat, pretending to fly the plane whilst trying to hide the fact we were in something that until recently was a bee infested green house with wings. Then the greenhouse engines began to roar and we started to move. The pilot told me to stay in the front now, although he left out the part about taking control of the plane in the event of an unexpected text situation.
He later told us that the reason he was texting was to let the airstrip ground staff at Seronera know our expected landing times since radios aren’t strong enough to reach the planes flying at 3,000 feet. This made us feel slightly better until we realised that every flight we’d been on since leaving Nairobi probably had pilots letting the planes fly themselves as they texted away.
Welcome to the Serengeti
Our journey to the Serengeti ended as we came stepped off the plane at Serengeti Seronera airport, right in the heart of the Central Serengeti. We were met by our driver, who had set up a table with a spread of welcome drinks: a Sprite, a Fanta, 2 waters, 2 large bottles of Kilimanjaro beer, 2 large bottles of Serengeti beer. Rachel chose a Sprite, I went for a Serengeti. Our driver loaded the bags into the car and then returned to our drinks table.
I was almost finished with my beer so I suggested we head off and start the safari.
He looked confused: “Are not going to finish your drinks?”
Rachel and I looked at each other. Whilst I enjoy a beer, and Sprite/Fanta/water …the idea of drinking a whole 8 drinks in one go seemed a bit weird. We declined the invitation.
He shrugged his shoulders, seemingly confused about the waste of a good opportunity to get high on carbonated sugar and geographically themed beer and we packed ourselves into the car.
It had been a long day, but one we’ll remember forever. Along with ‘hands free’ pilots, lion selfies and a balloon ride, that night we stayed at the most luxurious and wonderful hotel we’ve ever been to. A modern paradise set in place that’s anything but… check back later this week for our thoughts, reflections and tales from Tanzania.
Last modified: 31st January 2020
Great post! I had a good Lauch at your description of the hands free pilot as my dad has a pilots license and people always freak out when he takes hands off the controls. It’s not like a car…there is pretty much nothing to run into and it just stays level on it’s own.
Thanks for this funny but informative description of the border crossing. We will be doing the reverse of this itinerary in a few weeks.
Hi Christina, thank you! We knew that there wasn’t anything to worry about, but it didn’t stop me freaking out for a minute. Ha! Good luck on your journey, would love to hear all about it!
This is the exact trip that I’m planning for December. Our main goal is a safari in the Serengeti. The airport lounge photo was a hoot. I’ll be back to soak up more information.
Oh thats cool! Wishing you a great trip, you won’t be disappointed by your safari in the Serengeti!