Archive for the ‘2. Planning’ Category

Planning: Getting drugged up and shot

Friday, April 25th, 2008

No, not that kind of drug and not that kind of shot. These are the travel medicine kinds of drugs and shots.

So first, when I was talking to my niece about firming up the plans for South Africa, I told her I would have to get all the necessary medical stuff taken care of. She blithely informed me that she had had all that done last year when she went to Ghana on a humanitarian mission (she is a Ph.D. audiologist; her father, my brother, is a medical doctor; they’ve done many humanitarian missions over the years). Well, unfortunately, I didn’t go to Ghana last year, so I had to find myself a travel doctor.

Now the first thing you have to realize is that, no matter how good your insurance is, it probably won’t pay for immunizations and the like that are exclusively for travel purposes. I haven’t quite figured that out. If I came back from Africa with typhoid and malaria, they would treat it like any other claim. But they won’t pay much less to prevent typhoid and malaria? Sigh… nobody ever said insurance had to make sense.

The next thing anybody should do when contemplating a trip like this is drop in to the website of the Centers for Disease Control and, particularly, its Travelers Health section. There, under Destinations, there’s a list of every conceivable place you might want to travel with the CDC’s recommended pre-, during and post-travel care. Fortunately, the recommendations for South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe are all the same.

First, you need to get up to date with routine vaccinations. Okay, so I’m 15 years overdue for tetanus, diptheria and pertussis. What the heck… that’s only one shot. Measles, mumps, rubella (German measles), varicella (chickenpox): been there, done that, usually more than once. (I have five brothers and two sisters and I was born before 1957. If you think I didn’t have every childhood disease known to man, you have another think coming.) Besides, it sounds better to think I have immunity than to think I’m too old to have the vaccine recommended. I’ve already had the one adult booster for polio that’s recommended, and we won’t be staying in Victoria Falls long enough for me to need another meningitis dose.

Then the hepatitis stuff. Hep A could be spread through food or water and I’m the type never to remember not to get ice in my drink, so yep, gotta have that one. I’m not at risk for Hep B in the usual ways (I’m not planning to start a torrid affair with someone who might be infected and I don’t share needles) but with my luck I’d get hit by a bus, need a blood transfusion and pick it up that way. So yep, gotta have that one. Fortunately, they put the two into a single vaccine shot, so we’re now up to two.

Typhoid gets spread through food or water, and I still won’t remember to leave the ice out, so yep, gotta have that one. That’s three.

Rabies. Rabies? What the heck…? Isn’t that something like a bunch of ultra-painful shots in your stomach??? Time to consult Dr. Google. Okay, nope, it’s not that bad. It’s still a whole bunch of shots (three in 28 days) but it’s intramuscular. But rabies? Really? I emailed Grant. His reply: “Does occur here on isolated occasions, just don’t bite any dogs and you will be fine.” Since I have yet to bite a dog, I’m nixing that one.

Okay, now what?

DRUGS! Two in particular. One to prevent malaria. You get the prescription for that one, and start taking it just before you leave and continue for a week after you get back. The other one to treat … ahem … well … traveler’s diarrhea. Otherwise known by an appropriate local name (Montezuma’s Revenge in Mexico, Delhi Belly in India, and the like). An antibiotic to add to Imodium or whatever similar over-the-counter thing you use.

Next: finding a doctor who will give you all this stuff. Some people are lucky. They live in states or counties or cities where there’s a good local health department that does this. I’m not one of them. So I used the links on the CDC website to locate a doctor in my area. Turns out that there’s an International Travel Program at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, not too far from my home.

The doctor, Daniel Hart, is — as usual — way too young to be a medical professional. (Why is it that the older I get, the younger the doctors are? I mean, I don’t mind young doctors, but I’d like them to look like they’re old enough to have graduated from high school…) He also seemed surprised that I had done my homework, read through the CDC website, and knew what I needed. Hey, I may not be a member of Generation X or Y or whatever, but Dr. Google and I are very good friends…

So I’m now almost fully shot up (I need one more Hep A-Hep B shot before I go, plus another to complete the series in six months) and have my malaria and antibiotic prescriptions. Now, of course, I have to remember to fill them, and to start taking the malaria pills before I leave, and…

Planning: travel insurance

Thursday, April 17th, 2008

Oh man… this travel insurance stuff is complicated, and then some. You have to be covered for trip cancellation. And for trip interruption. And if your safari operator absconds with the funds. And if you get sick and need to be med-evac’d out. And even med-evac’d home to the US. And if your bags get lost. And if terrorism breaks out in a city in your itinerary (not a bad idea given the political situation in Zimbabwe, except I’m not sure if civil war would count). I’m not worried about flight insurance. If I end up injured, that’s what the medical is for. If I end up dead, it’s my estate’s problem. (Except that the travel insurance does cover sending your remains home. How nice…)

Now there are, conservatively estimating here, 8,462 different travel insurance policies offered by at least as many travel insurance companies. There are a few different websites that will give you side-by-side comparisons (Insure My Trip is one of the big ones) and I figure anything that isn’t bottom of the line (might miss some coverages) or top of the line (I’m not a Rolls Royce!) and that’s underwritten by a company that (a) I’ve at least heard of before and (b) has a decent rating from A.M. Best is going to be worth looking at.

And, hours and hours later (or at least so it seems), I’m looked out. I’ve picked out a few and emailed my friend Kay who’s in the travel business, and she recommended two, and I’m going with the least expensive of those two.

If Tru Travel Insurance goes belly up between now and the time I get back from this trip, I’m going to be very annoyed with myself…

Planning: how not to do business

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

Okay… we have to fly from Johannesburg to Maun in Botswana on June 8th. There are two flights on Air Botswana a day, we chose the later one (to be able to at least have breakfast with Evan, Gina and Gina’s cousin Dana before we leave), and Grant provisionally booked it for us locally and sent me the record locator number. Then it came time to pay for the tickets. Oh yeah. This is fun…

First, I called Air Botswana’s US office over the weekend and got a recording saying to leave my name and number and they’d call back. I did. When I hadn’t heard from them several hours later, I called again and got a nice young man who said the office was closed over the weekend but someone would call me Monday.

I waited until about 2 p.m. on Monday and then called the Air Botswana office again. They said their reservations people would call back in 10 minutes. When I still hadn’t received a call back three hours later, I called again and was finally put through to reservations. A lovely young woman named Jen said she couldn’t issue tickets on the locator number Grant had sent, and would have to do a whole new reservation. I said fine. She started the reservation, got it through almost to the end and her computer crashed.

She started the reservation again, got it through to the end and it said we had to cancel the provisional reservation Grant made for us, and we’d have to do that first or pay a cancellation fee. I said fine, as long as we are guaranteed that flight. She said yes, and put me on hold.

When she came back online, she said they didn’t need to cancel the first reservation at all, didn’t need to make a new reservation and could ticket on this locator number. I said fine. She asked me how I wanted to pay for the tickets and I said I wanted to pay by credit card.

She said they didn’t take credit cards over the phone. They have to email you an authorization form, you have to fax it back with a copy of both sides of the credit card PLUS a copy of a photo ID. She said the email would come through in 5-10 minutes.

Forty-five minutes after I hung up the phone, and after checking email several times… no email. I waited a while longer, called back, and again was promised: “You’ll get the email within 5-10 minutes.” Half an hour later, I gave up and went home.

This afternoon, I got an email asking for our names on our passports. When I replied to that, I finally got the authorization form by email. (By the way, this was also the first time I got an actual price on the tickets…) I immediately filled it out, copied all the necessary documents and faxed them to some fax number in New York.

Some time after that, I got an email with what I hope will be an effective e-ticket.

Sigh… I have never had so hard a time actually paying for something before…

Planning: Zimbabwe or Zambia

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

The Victoria Falls is definitely on the “I wanna do it” list for this trip. One of the seven wonders of the natural world, it’s right on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. Now, everyone says that the view from the Zimbabwean side is spectacular. The falls themselves, I believe, are entirely in Zambia, but you can see them so much better from Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe. Formerly Rhodesia. Now and for the last however many years the home of Robert Mugabe. The same Robert Mugabe who is now embroiled in a major political brouhaha that could very well spill over into major violence. That’s just not exactly what I have in mind for a safari trip ending at Victoria Falls. I mean, there are different meanings to the word “ending” and I’d rather not have any terminal incidents…

So… I’m hedging our bets. For the moment, we’ll leave our accommodations reservation on the Zimbabwean side. But I’m booking the flight back to Johannesburg, where we’ll fly home from, out of Livingstone, Zambia. That way, even if all #$%^@$# breaks loose in Zimbabwe, we should still have a fighting chance of making it back to Johannesburg and on to home from there, on time.

Planning: Checking references

Monday, April 14th, 2008

I had asked Grant Craig of Papadi Safaris for references I could check. He gave me three, and what a combination they were.

The first was a real estate broker from Colorado. His take: “Grant came highly recommended by a longtime friend of mine with whom I worked while in South Africa, in the wild life field. He knew Grant from the Game Rangers Association of Southern Africa. … I would say my experience with him has been that of a knowledgeable bush expert of impeccable integrity and a new found friend. I would entrust all my closest friends into his care. … Having spent a lot of time in the African bush, I was gratefully surprised at the pristine nature of Botswana’s wildlife. And the people are a delight. I envy you your trip. I recommend Grant to you without reservation.”

Good. Very good. But not quite enough. His trip had been a self-drive trip, which Grant helped him plan. Not the same sort of trip we’re talking about.

The second was from Meredith Smith of Maryland. If that name sounds familiar, then you’re probably a fan of the Amazing Race television show. Meredith and his wife Gretchen were participants in the seventh season. The show’s production company hired Grant to shepherd them on the African leg of the journey. His take: “Grant, in the estimation of my wife Gretchen and I, is first class in every respect….a fine and thoughtful man and a very knowledgeable and committed guide and wild life conservationist. His love of the out back and in roads to nature is wonderful and his ability to explain Africa from the stand point of safari even better. … we could not feel more secure and informed about what we saw and the wild life encountered. Bottom-line…if we ever return to Africa, Grant Craig will be our first choice of guides. Incidentally, our successful race through Botswana was critical to our remaining in the competition. We were 70 and 67 years of age at the time and placed 4th competing against 10 other teams of men and women 40 years or more our junior.”

Good again. Very very good indeed. But again, not exactly the same sort of trip. (I don’t expect to be accompanied and filmed by a camera crew 24 hours a day, seven days a week!)

So it came down to the third reference. This man, from Illinois, had been on almost exactly the same kind of trip Fred and I want to take. The only difference is that there were four on that trip and will be two on this one. His take: “I went on safari with Grant with 3 friends in 2005. We went to the Okavango Delta, Moremi and Chobe National Parks in Botswana and the experience was stunning. It was my second safari to Botswana…. Grant is like an african “Crocodile Dundee”…by that I mean he is very comfortable in the bush! If you are interested in upscale/luxury accommodations, this would not be the trip for you. Unless Grant has changed his safaris, you will sleep in 2 person tents, on the ground and it can be hot and dusty! However, the food is good, although not gourmet, clean and you will see LOTS of wildlife! Because you are in small tents and there is no enclosure around you, the animals will walk through the camp at night. The parks in Botswana are not very developed, but that allows you to see lots of animals close up, without lots of crowds. Grant is very good at spotting the animals, knowing where they are and getting you close to them. I never felt in danger…. Grant is a great guy, warm, funny and very competent…. He has years of experience, can tell you story after story about the behavior of the animals and how they interact in the wild. He’s lived it and it is obvious that he was born to be in the bush. He loves the wildlife and the land and it shows. You will have a great experience!!”

Sigh… okay… I’m sold. Where do I sign on the dotted line?

Planning: Gearing Up

Saturday, April 12th, 2008

Now I’m about three-quarters convinced that the reason why I was invited to be the fourth in the South Africa part of the trip is because everybody in the family knows I’ll be taking 8,462 pictures so Evan and Gina and Dana can sit back and enjoy the scenery while I’m glued to an eyepiece. But between that trip and what’s being planned as an additional 12 days as a photo safari, I mean, well, I just can’t take one camera, right? And even though I’ve sworn that I don’t want a dSLR (too big, too much hassle, too heavy), I mean I really can’t go to Africa without a dSLR and a reasonably long lens, right?

Okay, so I like my toys too.

I am now the proud owner of a brand spanking new Canon Rebel XSi (also called the 450D). It comes with an 18-55mm IS lens, and I’ve ordered a 70-300 IS lens to go along with it. Since the Rebel is a 1.6 platform, the 300mm lens is the functional equivalent of 480mm. I’d love to get the 100-400 L lens, but then again I am NOT going to take out a THIRD mortgage on the house to pay for a lens I realistically won’t use much after I get back. (Nor do I want to run the risks or costs involved in renting such a lens, or even in buying it with the thought of selling it when I get back). So I’ll make do with the 70-300!

That’s not to say I’m not also going to take my trusty Canon S5IS P&S camera. I have a suspicion that in a lot of situations, the S5 will be better than the Rebel: it’s got the best movie option in the business and it’s small, unobtrusive and has a very long lens feature of its own. So both cameras will be in the camera bag.

Let’s see… first, I need a camera bag. Lowepro Fastpack 250, that’ll do. Extra batteries for both cameras and chargers. Power inverters for the chargers for the times that the sole power source is the cigarette lighter connector of the safari truck. Battery grip for the dSLR so I can keep two batteries available at all times. Lightweight tripod, lightweight monopod, empty beanbag (to fill there). Circular polarizer. Neutral density filters. Lens cleaners. Rocket blower for dust. Sensor cleaner kit just in case. External flash for the few times it might be useful. Lots and lots of SD cards. Uh oh… even with lots and lots of SD cards, I have to be able to offload the images into some storage device. Check out the various options and settle on the Hyperdrive Colorspace O casing and a Western Digital 250Gb drive. (I can buy the two separately for more than $100 less than buying a Hyperdrive equipped with, most likely, the exact same drive.)

Egads… I know I’m going to forget something critical…

Planning: What’s in a name?

Tuesday, April 8th, 2008

So I get the information on flights that my niece is arranging for the South Africa trip and… sigh… she’s got my name wrong on one flight reservation.

Now it is true that her father is my brother. It is also true that my birth name is the same as his (and her) last name. The problem is that my last name NOW isn’t the same as it was when I was born. (Sigh… this business of married names is really a pain… why couldn’t I at least have hyphenated my last name using both maiden and married names???)

Now a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but airlines get real downright sticky about that sort of thing. Fortunately, this is a flight entirely within the country of South Africa, and South African Airways assures me that if I can provide proof that the person getting on the plane is the same person for whom the reservation was made, it’ll be okay. So… let’s see how long it takes me to get a certified copy of my marriage certificate…

Planning: the long way home…

Tuesday, April 8th, 2008

After confirming with Gina, my niece, that I could change the return ticket on our group tickets so that I could stay longer in Africa, I had the wonderful experience of trying to do that tonight. First, I called United Airlines, because Gina had booked the package with them (Star Alliance – South African Airways). United’s customer service representative was very kind and very helpful, quoted me all the ins and outs of making the change, and then told me I’d have to actually make the change with South African Airways.

So I called South African Airways, and sure enough, everything is fine, I can change the return, the flight I want back is available at the same fare as the original return ticket, and the extra cost is more than the entire cost of the original round trip ticket! Huh??? What am I missing here? It turns out that they can’t simply change the return ticket (at this time). They’d have to cancel the entire ticket, then rebook the entire itinerary, and the fare class that was used for the entire itinerary is not available. Now you’d think that if I give up a seat in class X, there’d be a seat available in class X, right? Wrong. That’s not the way the airlines work. Now after I use the outbound ticket, they might consider letting me change the return ticket for a more reasonable price, but of course there’s no guarantee then that there’d be a seat on the flight I want. And no guarantee it’d be priced reasonably. And I do have this boss who has this odd idea that if he’s going to pay me, I should actually show up and work for him. Which means I really do have to be back in the office on Monday June 23. So I have got to be sure I can get home.

Back online, checking all the various options, and I figure the safest way to handle this is to buy a fully refundable one way ticket on Delta (Johannesburg-Atlanta-Newark). That way, if I CAN change my original return ticket, I’ll simply cancel the Delta ticket and get the refund. On the other hand, if I CAN’T change the original ticket, I’ll still get home on time. Poorer in the short run, but richer in the long run (especially since it means I’ll keep my job).

Sigh… this stuff ain’t easy…

Planning: NOT going it alone

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

Back months ago when we first started talking about this Africa trip, my brother Fred also really wanted to go. But logistically it just didn’t work out for him to come on the one-week trip to South Africa. So here I was, this afternoon, sitting here thinking about the prospects of being totally by myself on this private exclusive photo safari, with nobody else there who would be as wide-eyed and astounded as I expect to be, nobody who would also be thinking (0r saying) “Wow…”

And it occurred to me that even though Fred couldn’t come on the one week trip to South Africa, maybe, just maybe, he could work it out to come along on the next part of the trip, to Botswana and Victoria Falls.

So I dropped him a quick email… you wanna come? It took him about as long as it took me initially to say I wanted to go… about a nanosecond to say yes. So I’m not going to go alone on this trip! It’ll be terrific to be surrounded by brothers on the whole adventure — Evan in South Africa, and Fred in Botswana and Victoria Falls.

Now to move ahead with the rest of the planning… next, checking references.

Planning: a private photo safari???

Friday, April 4th, 2008

Okay, now THIS is more like it. Got a response from a safari operator — Grant Craig of Papadi Safaris — today who proposes a private photo safari along the lines of one itinerary laid out on his website. It’s called the Great Parks Safari, and it looks verrrrrrry nice. I may have a few extra days, so I’ve emailed asking for more options, plus references. And, of course, I have to try to figure out what the heck the conversion rate is between US dollars and the Botswana pula.

I like the fact that the name of the company — Papadi — translates as “game” or “sport.”