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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Text and photos by Luc Jones

When Russians bump into their fellow citizens abroad, their initial reaction is usually one of either surprise or embarrassment, depending I suppose on the location and the behaviour involved. In 2012 it’s hard to believe that just one generation ago, an entire nation of nearly 300 million people were denied the opportunity to travel outside the borders of the USSR, lest their thoughts become tainted with evil, foreign ideas, or—presumably worse still—that they might finally see for themselves that the whole socialist dream was one massive con job (something that many were already well aware of).

Elephants on the march!

Gorbachev’s reforms in the late 1980s resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union, and finally the freedom of movement which came with it. However, few had the financial means to venture far except those looking to emigrate, so initially tourism took the form of “chelnoki” (shuttle-trading) across nearby borders such as Poland, Germany, and China with “tourists” travelling often by train to purchase goods in bulk that were in short supply back home. Progressing from this was the “Shop-Tour” which often combined a beach holiday with wholesale shopping, usually in Turkey, Egypt, Greece or, once again, China.

Visa restrictions have long dictated where Russians travel, so as much as many would like to visit more of Europe, the hassle of securing a Schengen visa puts many off. So it’s Turkey and Egypt with their cheap and on-arrival visa sticker that ensures its these countries which remain popular as travel destinations. Decent hotels, good service, numerous flights from all parts of Russia, sandy beaches, warm winter weather and low prices meant that it was often cheaper than holidaying on the Black Sea! Exotic destinations, such as the Maldives and the Seychelles were open but only for those with cash to splash.


The past few years have seen Russians become more adventurous, thanks in part to the number of countries finally waking up to the spending power of the world’s largest country and allowing visa-free (or at least visa-upon-arrival) visits, such as Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco and Brazil to name but a few

Despite this, it’s still possible to hear Russians requesting “a destination or a hotel where there won’t be any other Russians.” The reasons for this are too numerous to list here, just ask them yourselves. One country where we certainly didn’t expect to hear any Russian spoken was Tanzania, although slowly, very slowly, this west African country is appearing on tour operators’ programmes for those who want a little more than sea, sun and sand.

Tanzania has all three of these, but the main lure is a fourth “s” –that is, safari. Traditionalists used to travel to Kenya although recent violence (due to bordering on Somalia) has allowed its southern neighbour to step up a notch and soak up the stragglers. As a result, the country is well geared for a greater influx of foreigners who are keen to see the “big five” and more in their natural habitat.

Safaris are great fun—once you’ve been on one you’ll never visit a zoo ever again. They’re hot, dusty, bumpy and can be quite tiring (don’t expect much of a lie-in, the animals are up and about before sunrise) and this isn’t a holiday for you to show off your Gucci collection. Germanic types may struggle with the ad hoc nature of the safari programme, as you drive to where the animals are, and since they go where they feel like—the Serengeti hosts the largest mammal migration in the world.

Your guide will be charged with finding them wherever they happen to be at any particular time. However, as the guides are fully aware that the size of their tips depends entirely on which animals they managed to find for you, they work hard and deserve their daily reward. You may feel like you’re driving around in circles but they actually know exactly where they’re going and what they’re up to—in fact they keep in constant radio contact with each other to swap information on the rarer species and whilst you might think they’re whizzing you past something you wanted to photograph, in fact they just heard of something even more special. You won’t understand at first but you certainly won’t be disappointed!

Unless you’re on an overland expedition, you’ll almost certainly enter the country in Dar-Es-Salaam, which curiously translates as “harbour of peace.” Tanzania “did a Kazakhstan” back in 1973 by moving the capital to the middle of nowhere—Dodoma, the fad didn’t catch on and DES is still the main commercial centre. However, there’s little of interest to warrant more than a day here (event the beaches aren’t up to much). So jump on a domestic flight north at the first available opportunity. Most likely you’ll arrive at Kilimanjaro International Airport—which is slightly misleading as you can’t see the famous mountain from there, and even as you head towards it, it’s likely to be covered in clouds. Unless you’re there to climb it, you’ll head in the opposite direction to the town of Arusha which is where most safari companies base their operations, on the edge of the Great Rift Valley.

First off you’ll head down into the Ngorongoro crater (stopping for a quick Kodak moment at the top) which is a great starter. Within a matter of minutes you’ll see wildebeest, zebra and gazelle, then with any luck some lions, buffalo, elephant and perhaps even a rhino. Be sure to bring a long lens as distances are greater than they first appear.

Only once you enter the Serengeti (which you’ll pass through Maasai territory to reach—check out their distinctive clothing) do the animals begin to appear in abundance. This is the point where you wish you’d brought an additional memory card for the camera as you’ll want to snap at everything. We were fortunate enough to stop near a pride of lions shortly after they had left the remains of a wildebeest for the vultures to pick at. We also saw cheetahs, leopards and giraffes, oh, and lots more zebra and wildebeest!

The only resemblance the Serengeti has to a zoo is the hippo pool, but despite the perimetre fence (which is a wise move, to stop you falling in, getting eaten or stamped on) it’s real enough and well over a hundred of these beats can be spotted almost on top of each other, some of them “yawning” but most of them sleeping. And there’s even a croc at the back, if you can spot him!

Three days of non-stop animal action and you’ll be ready for a holiday! Take the easy option by flying on a Cessna back to Arusha, and then you can catch a connecting flight to Zanzibar airport to see a distinctly different part of Tanzania. In fact Zanzibar was originally a separate state, run by Omani traders, and only at the end of British rule in Tanganyika (i.e., most of the rest of what makes up modern-day Tanzania) in the early 1960s did the country unite to form the United Republic of Tanzania.

Technically Zanzibar refers to the entire archipelago and the main island is Unguja, although to make life easier for foreigners it tends to be known simply as Zanzibar Island. It’s very much a Muslim area (the mainland is mostly either Christian or tribal beliefs) and despite the white beaches and hordes of tourists, it has a conservative feel to it, so if you were to only visit here, you’d get a fairly lopsided impression of the country.

The best beaches are in the north of the island, called Nungwi with quality hotels and local bars to keep visitors amused. Be sure to visit Stone Town for some cultural sightseeing, such as the old fort on the waterfront, and the slave market. Souvenirs come in the form of spices, tea and scarves, plus various Queen memorabilia since their famous son Farrokh Bulsara (better known to the world as Freddie Mercury) was in fact born here. You can even enjoy a beer and a pizza in Mercury’s bar, although we had to ask them to actually play some Queen!

Tanzania has something for everyone—visit before your neighbours get here!

Getting there: The main entry point is Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar-Es-Salaam which is a cross between a garden shed and an airport hanger. There are no direct flights from Moscow, but easy connections on Egyptair, Emirates, Qatar Airways and Turkish airlines (via Cairo, Dubai, Doha and Istanbul respectively); British Airways, KLM & Swiss are also options, and KLM even fly to Kilimanjaro in case you’re a hurry to climb Mount Kili.

Getting in: Everyone needs a visa, but they’re available upon arrival for a fee of $50 (although it doubles to $100 if you hold an American, Irish or Pakistani passport)!

Getting around: You can do safari by renting your own car but you won’t save much cash and essentially you’re missing out on all the local knowledge that your guide/driver will provide you with. And good luck if you get stuck in the middle of the Serengeti!

Speaking there: Tanzania’s two official languages are Swahili (spoken by pretty much everyone) and English (spoken by most in urban areas and by those connected with the tourist trade, but it thins out in the more rural areas). Everyone will greet you with a ubiquitous “Jambo” (hello) and be delighted if you can pick up any other phrases.

With our guide and driver, Julius

Spending there: Safaris are pricey, but they’re generally all-inclusive (except the beers that you’ll drink in the evenings). Tanzania isn’t an expensive destination compared to Europe although expect costs to double in Zanzibar. The currency is the Tanzanian Shilling; ATMs are fairly widespread and you can change US Dollars, British Pounds and Euros with relative ease, in fact some tourist shops and restaurants will quote prices in USD although you can pay in local money, and often with credit cards

Staying there: You can either rough it by sleeping in a tent, or go in style by staying in a safari lodge, which even in the middle of the Serengeti National Park will have electricity, hot water, TV and pretty decent food. Given that the bulk of the cost of a safari is a combination of park entrance fees and the transport costs, scrimping on accommodation costs won’t knock much off your bottom line.

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