Seven Days in Paradise: Ben's Kilimanjaro Extension
Before he started work in the Choose a Challenge USA’s team, Ben Burtis headed out as a participant on a Kilimanjaro trek in 2018. Here he tells us all about his experience on our amazing extension trip, Safari and Zanzibar.
One of the best decisions I’ve ever made…
I loved my experience trekking to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The bonds I shared with my teammates and guides, the gorgeous vistas, the epic six-day adventure itself, and the sense of accomplishment I had when I reached Uhuru Peak were just some of the highlights of what was truly an amazing moment in my life. However, the two days I spent in the national parks of mainland Tanzania and the five days I spent in Zanzibar as a part of my extension after my trek were just as incredible, if not more so.
Two days in a scene from the Discovery Channel…
Ok, so I wasn’t actually ever in a scene of the Discovery Channel (fingers crossed for that one day!), but it certainly felt that way! Our two-day safari took us through both Ngorongoro Crater National Park and Lake Manyara National Park as well; they are each as beautiful as they are teeming with wildlife. The amount of animals I came across during the days I spent on safari has never ceased to amaze me.
Ngorongoro Crater National Park
Deciding to go on the extension was a no-brainer for me; I had already made it all the way to Tanzania and climbed Kili so why not take full advantage of this opportunity while in this corner of the world? When our safari vehicles arrived to pick us up in Moshi, I was all the more certain that I had made the right call.
After a night of celebrating our successful climb with our team and saying our farewells to those who were heading home in the morning, in came two heavy-duty safari jeeps at the crack of dawn. As we all hopped into these safari trucks, I had a feeling we were about to do something special.
Next thing I knew, we were passing through the park gates as we ascended a massive ridge line on our way into the crater basin (fun fact: the “crater” was actually created by a collapsed mountainside log ago). Driving down dirt roads, through a rain forest shrouded in a thick mist, we popped open the roof of the truck to get a better view of what lay ahead. Then, all of a sudden, we were there…
We descended right into one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and right away we started to see animals! We came across huge herds of zebras and wildebeests, gazelles prancing across open fields, families of elephants, bands of baboons, hippos wading in lily pools, ostriches, buffalo, a rhinoceros, and even a pair of female lions that decided to make a pit-stop right in front of our truck. There were countless more and each time we came across a great opportunity to view a particular animal, our driver/guide was quick to stop, silence our engine, and give a bit of background information on the amazing creatures in front of us. It was truly a wonderful day!
We ate lunch and continued our travels around the crater basin as the sun sank low in the sky, and then we left to be taken to our new accommodations near our next day’s destination, Lake Manyara National Park.
Lake Manyara National Park
The next morning we were met by the same safari guides who quickly took us to our second gorgeous park. In contrast to the Ngorongoro Crater, the area around Lake Manyara is more densely vegetated with forests and fields of tall grass that surround the lake, at least in the areas that we traveled to. While this does obscure one’s view of the animals in these areas a bit, it makes for some striking scenery and is also responsible for one of the parks most famous features, the tree-climbing lions of Lake Manyara. I personally enjoyed this day just as much as I had the day prior.
On this day we were able to observe many of the same animals in this new setting but we were also able to find a family of giraffes, several different species of monkeys, and some up-close encounters with huge hippopotamuses. The latter event was my favorite moment of the day as our safari guides took full advantage of their trucks’ capabilities and took us for a ride through the swamps surrounding the hippo pools. It was an absolute blast!
Much like the day before, we ate another packed lunch in the beauty of the park and in the afternoon we exited Lake Manyara National Park and headed to a nearby airport in Arusha. We had the opportunity to visit a local Maasai village on our way, but my group decided that we wanted to head directly to our next destination. At the airport we bid our safari guides farewell and then prepared ourselves for the second part of our extension adventure, five day on the island of Zanzibar…
And then came Zanzibar…
Don’t get me wrong, I loved every second of my two days exploring the national parks of Tanzania, but Zanzibar was a whole different ball game. I had always wanted to travel to a tropical paradise and spent much of my free time planning trips to such places leading up to my trek, but even then I was not prepared for how amazing the island of Zanzibar really was.
A short flight from the mainland, we touched down on the island just outside of Stone Town (I’ll get to that in a bit) and were driven by our in-country Choose A Challenge representatives to the Sunset Kendwa Resort on the picturesque northern tip of Zanzibar. This was a recurring theme throughout my entire stay in Tanzania, we never had to worry about finding transportation because it was already arranged for us at each checkpoint along our journey. It was a beautiful drive to our resort. As the sun began to set, we drove by rows upon rows of palm trees and massive groves of banana trees; it seemed as if everything was green and thriving.
When we got to our accommodations that night I didn’t know what to expect from the Sunset Kendwa. To be honest I didn’t really know much about the place before we got there other than the fact that we’d be staying in beachside “bungalows”. I found out soon enough. Once I saw my room I thought we were being treated like royalty!
That first night we were tired and hungry, treating ourselves to pizzas from the resort’s extensive menu, but we didn’t do much other than eat and sleep. I did, however, go for a moonlit walk on the beach, marveling at where I was and also thinking about what laid in store for me the next day.
In the morning, I got to see the place in all its glory. Stepping out to the balcony of my room, I was surrounded by palm trees and a cool ocean breeze. Heading down to where breakfast was served, I walked down rows of more palms as walkways gave way to soft, white sand. It might sound like I’m trying to be poetic or that I’m trying to hype this place up, but I’m not, what you’re reading is how I actually felt during these moments of my trip. Anyways, after taking this all in it was time for us to sit down and talk about what excursions we wanted to do individually and as a team…
The next day we left directly from the beach of the Sunset Kendwa, boarded a small sail boat that looked like a pirate ship, and then headed to a local island for a snorkelling adventure. This was my first time ever doing anything like this and it certainly won’t be the last.
After sailing along the coast of Zanzibar, we approached a small island and dropped anchor. The water was so pristine and clear that I immediately understood why we had stopped here; there was a huge coral reef right below us!
I took my time getting my flippers and goggles on but could not wait to leap into the water and join the rest of my team who were already off exploring the sea floor. I jumped off the top deck of our sail boat and crashed into the water. As soon as I threw on my goggles on and could see what was beneath me, I tore off through the water. All around there were countless kinds of exotic fish swimming in and out of coral dens, calmly moving away whenever my curiosity got the best of me and I had to go in for a closer look. This also bears mentioning, the water around Zanzibar and Tanzania is unlike anything I have ever experienced; it is by far the warmest, clearest, and saltiest ocean water that I have ever swam in and to this day it is one of the things I miss most from my stay.
When we finished snorkelling we boarded our pirate ship once again and sailed off to a distant beach for a barbecue with other groups that had also been snorkelling with us. Over fresh fruit, rice, some sort of curry, and grilled fish from that day’s catch, we joyfully reminisced about our ocean adventure. We relaxed, went for some walks, played in the sand, and then started our long voyage back to the comfort of our resort. This was arguably the best day of my entire stay in Zanzibar.
Another amazing opportunity we all took advantage of was a trip to the World Heritage Site of Stone Town and the nearby Prison Island. On this day we were picked up at our resort and headed to the other end of the island, where we were to go on a guided tour of the history of Stone Town. Once there, we sat down for a traditional Tanzanian lunch and began our journey around the city, learning about things like the House of Wonders, the four different kinds of doors used in the city, the origin of the name “Stone Town”, the history of the spice markets, and even the house Freddy Mercury was born in (hopefully now that Bohemian Rhapsody is in theaters most of you know who I’m talking about).
At about midday we took a short boat ride to Prison Island, one of several islands situated around the city harbor and one with special significance. Learning about the history of the island was amazing but the best part of the island in my eyes is the fact that it is also home to the second largest species of tortoises in the world. Speaking of gentle creatures, these tortoises were incredible both in terms of their sheer size but also long lifespans, with several of them over 100 years old! It was a unique experience to be around animals that have survived so much.
There were many more lifelong memories that I forged during my extra week in Tanzania, far too many to fit into one post, but these were the ones that stood out to me the most. All in all my extension experience was unbelievable and I couldn’t have asked for it to go any better!
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