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Trip Report A wonderful safari in Kenya and Tanzania with the family

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Us: Two families from the U.S. traveling together with 4 kids ages 12 to 17- total group of 8 persons. We have been on safari in South Africa a couple of years ago but this was the first time in East Africa for us. Two of us are avid amateur photographers.

Safari: An all fly-in 10 night Safari in Kenya and Tanzania. Late June/early July 2010.

Camps: Masai Mara (Mara North)- Ngerende Island Lodge- 3 nights; Amboseli- Tortilis camp- 2 nights; Western Serengeti- Kirawira Camp- 4 nights; Ngorongoro crater- Ngo Serena 1 night, Nairobi- Stanley 2 nights.

Safari Flights: Wilson/Ngerende (Air Kenya); Ngerende/Amboseli (direct via Mombasa Air); Amboseli/Wilson (charter to avoid long layover at Wilson) connecting to Wilson/JRO/Grumeti; Grumeti/Lake Manyara and JBO/NBO. Flights were all very efficient, generally on-time, baggage was no problem, no one ever weighed it or even looked at it, no bags were misplaced and no one asked for any tickets or confirms, just my name X 8.

Game Vehicles: We experienced three configurations of Toyota Land Cruisers during the safari at three different camps. Ngerende had a closed configuration with windows that had sliding glass and a large pop-up roof, Tortilis had the traditional configuration best liked by photographers with an open vehicle with a canvas cover and Kirawira had a hybrid, open windows with canvas pull-downs and a pop-up roof. For photography purposes we liked the Kirawira vehicle the best, with Ngerende’s second. The reason was with heavy telephoto lenses the pop-up roof was indispensable for stabilizing the lens with a clamp or beanbag. I found it interesting that Toyota appears to have completely overtaken Landrover in East Africa- we must have seen vehicles from over 20 camps and I recall only one Landrover being used as a game viewing vehicle. On the other hand, I saw several being used as staging vehicles for bush meals etc by the camps.

Safari Operator: Neo Destinations (Nairobi). I got quotes from 10 different Agents, 3 in the U.S, 4 in Kenya, 2 in Tanzania and 1 in South Africa. I also got direct quotes from the lodges and the internal airlines/charter companies to get an overall sense of pricing. Understanding the power of 8 (group size)- this was a major booking for any Agent, the present economic environment and the fact that I knew precisely the group of Lodges/Camps and the logistics of the flights I wanted, I was able to negotiate and get a good price. The difference in initial quotes received to final negotiated price- highest quote to final price was a spread of 40%, a number I found astounding. The safari industry thrives on pppn (per person per night)- my goal was to pay each camp on a group booking basis, given we were prepared to keep one child in the tent/room with each family and to get at least 50% off the adult rate for all the kids. Also, as Kenya had mid season pricing till June 30th and Tanzania is high season from June 1st, to go to Kenya first. I did not need the agent to provide me with fancy itineraries or glossy brochures, just to do the bookings at the best price and carefully handle the logistics.

Neo came through on negotiating the best price and then, significantly, on the actual logistics of the transfer of money- they agreed to backload the payment break-up with only 1/3rd paid upfront to make the bookings and the remaining amount paid at the actual start of the safari, thereby drastically reducing my risk of wiring large amounts of money (credit card costs in East Africa are a steep 5%). In the end we were very satisfied. Thanks Larry and Neo Destinations.

Books: We took Wildlife of East Africa (Withers & Hoskins) a very portable, small book on animals and birds in the region which proved very useful and was so liked by one of our Safari guides that I left it with him; Kenya (Eyewitness Travel) a somewhat large book very helpful to visually see Kenya and read about its history, animals, flora and fauna. Finally, a new photography book by a German photographer Uwe Skrzypczak that was spot on for our safari. Its called “Wildlife Photography-on Safari with your DSLR” and specifically refers to photographing animals in the Mara, Serengeti and the Ngorongoro crater, all places we were going to. Highly recommended.

Packing: We took one 21” roller bag each with a few backpacks for photography equipment. Did laundry at every camp- only had to pay at Kirawira.

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    Report: Given the concerns with the volcanic ash in Europe, we had decided to use EgyptAir for our travel to East Africa. Also, the fact that EA gave us a free stopover in Cairo on the way back allowing us to see the Pyramids along with the fact they were significantly cheaper than the European airlines made this an easy choice. We left NY on EgyptAir for Nairobi via Cairo- the stopover in Cairo was 10 hours but this worked out as we used it to rest up at a nearby hotel for the second short leg to Nairobi which was only 4 hours. All EA flights were exactly on time, service was passable, aircraft fairly new, food bad and no alcohol served. However, our baggage arrived on time and we had no complaints with the airline. Getting the Kenyan visa was a breeze as we were the first to reach the visa counter at 4.30 am when the flight arrived. Larry from Neo Destinations was waiting for us with a van and driver and before we knew it we were resting in 3 rooms at the Stanley hotel till 11.30 am when we had to leave for our first safari flight from Wilson airport. After the EA food, the excellent breakfast spread at the Stanley was welcome. We really liked the Stanley.

    Masai Mara: Our 16 seater flight was full with the 8 of us getting off at the first stop Ngerende airstrip. As the plane descended to land at the airstrip we could see the brown Mara river flowing with lots of water due to the tremendous rainfall in the entire region this year after last years historic drought. Herds of Zebra and gnus (wildebeest ) could be seen and we even saw a few giraffe before touchdown. We got off the plane to glorious weather, bright sunlight, blue skies and yellow/green grass with a surprisingly cool breeze. Right there was a major welcoming committee from Ngerende Island Lodge – 5 staff and count them, a full dozen Masai who gave us a bang-off welcome with music and a jumping show that lasted around 20 minutes. A vehicle from another camp with a few safari-goers waiting for a plane were staring at us in astonishment- who are these people being given such a welcome.
    This was no fluke- Ngerende Lodge (pronounced ga-ren-day) turned out to be beyond fabulous- without exaggeration the single finest lodging we have ever stayed at with incomparable service. And given the fact we have traveled extensively for over two decades, this is no small endorsement! I have several folks over at TripAdvisor to thank for strongly recommending Ngerende and persuading us to go there when I was wavering. Neo had arranged for us to get 4 rooms (even though we had paid for 3, as the camp only had one other couple) and what rooms- room is not the way to describe this huge cottage with an open walled bathroom very large private wooden deck overlooking the Mara river with around 100 “resident” hippos that grunt and fight periodically.

    I am not going to dwell on the luxury and exceptional service of the camp as the main point is safari and game drives. I will however say that Ngerende provided an extraordinary blend of bush luxury and safari convenience. The large grounds on an oxbow on the banks of the Mara river with a huge herd of resident hippos and crocs, the amazing chef Edward, bush meals on the grounds of the camp (each meal location was placed on a picturesque, even though inconvenient from the kitchens and servers perspective, spot on the grounds), David the resident Masai who would take our kids on walks and to a local Masai school, it just goes on and on. The camp has a large, beautifully maintained vegetable garden where all the produce comes from fresh daily. Falling asleep each night to the loud grunts and splashes, sometimes fights of the hippos with the occasional roar of a lion in the distance, yet in complete comfort was an experience to savor. At night the canvas was rolled down in the front of the cottage to insulate the completely open front from the river with the hippos and crocs and mosquito netting all around the bed, yet with perfectly adequate lighting for reading.

    Ngerende is located in the Ol Chorro conservancy which abuts the Mara North conservancy (MNC). They have transversing rights in OC and MNC – you have to pay Masai Mara Park fees if (when) you go there ($60pp). This was the one issue that was of concern to me when we were choosing a camp in the Mara- Ngerende’s distance from the main Park. Our second choice was Mara Plains, third, Little Governors. We did not need a private vehicle as the camp gave us two for our party which was plenty for us with each photographer having a full row to himself. At the risk of repeating myself, am I glad we went for Ngerende. First, the big surprise was the MNC- it was just fantastic. Ol Chorro was great as well with plenty of game. I reasoned if a migration river crossing is not a must, given our timing at the end of June I thought there was no chance of this anyway, being in the Mara proper was not essential. Well as it turns out due to the massive amount of rain this year, the migration reached the Mara extremely early and the migration was on-going when we were there. We spent a full day in the Mara- the distance from Ngerende to the Musiara gate is under an hour if you don’t make any stops, but that’s hard to do when you pass through the MNC- we left at 6 am planning to be in the Park by 7 am but ran into a pride of lions, a serval cat etc in MNC where we ended up spenting a half hour. Our second best viewing in the Mara came just after we entered the gate but I am getting ahead of myself.

    Ol Chorro: The landscape is just beautiful, with the sun coming out behind a range of hills and vast open grasslands with We saw large herds of zebra, gnus (wildebeest), several old male buffalo, elephants, large numbers of giraffe, a few lions, numerous antelope, eland, warthogs, topi, various birds etc. Best of all almost no other vehicles- I only saw Mara Safari club vehicles twice, no other camp.

    MNC: Superb conservancy, very well managed in terms of access and constantly patrolled by rangers. We saw 4 lion prides, cheetah, large numbers of elephants, zebra, gnus, buffalo including a small herd, large elephant families including some huge males- we were able to get very close to most of the game and a 400mm lens on a APS-C sensor camera with a 1.6x crop factor was more than sufficient for close up shots. Limited off roading is allowed.

    OK, let me get to our number one game sighting of the entire safari. On our second morning at Ngerende we were out in the MNC for our morning game drive that we extended from 6 to 10 am each day. The afternoon drives were from 3 to 7pm (normally they only do two three hour drives a day). At around 7.30 am we were in the MNC when our wonderful driver/guide Peter suddenly says cheetah- I was looking out backwards from the pop-up roof at an eagle and did a 360. There was a mother and cub walking slowly towards us no more than a 100 yards away. In a few minutes they came right up to the vehicle and the mom jumps up on the hood. My face was no more than 3 feet from her face but she ignored me. I had a 100-400 lens and could not focus that close but did lean back and get several passport photos of a cheetah face. The cheetah was looking intently in the distance where a few impalas were grazing with 3 ostriches around 250m away. She jumped off the hood and Peter yelled she’s going for it. She walked fast about 50m and came to a halt. The cub was laying low. Next thing she moves into full chase mode (meanwhile Peter is flying towards her and I’m holding on for dear life). My autofocus or more likely my photography skills failed- the 10 shots I took of the chase are all out of focus. However it was all a blur with the impala running zig-zag and jumping high and the cheetah accelerating in the grass. 30 seconds later she nailed the impala. My first kill, also Peter’s first cheetah kill in 12 years of guiding. We reached 10m from her as she began choking the impala being careful its sharp horns were down. We saw the impala gradually lose its life. Once it was dead the cheetah laid it down and stood up panting. Peter pointed out its body temperature was very high and they can only do one full chase a day so its make or break. The cub soon rambled over and started feeding but the mom did not take a bite for 15 minutes carefully surveying the horizon for hyena or lion that perennially steal cheetah kill. We were there for 45 minutes and no predators showed up except for a vulture. The cheetah dragged the kill into high grass and slowly started feeding.

    The next day in the Mara we saw a pride of lions on safari- I mean the lions were on safari, I felt like offering them a lens. Let me explain. A short distance after we enerted the part and not far from Governors Camp, we saw a long line (I estimate over a hundred), zebra and gnu walking single file towards us. We also spotted a total of 6 lions in the tall grass- both our vehicles were parked strategically along with a Rekero vehicle with a birds eye view of the action directly in front of us. The lions were inching forward and I could not believe our luck- a second kill was definitely going to happen. The lions were moving so slowly we started eating breakfast in the vehicle, through the camera lens it looked like one lion was right next to the line of moving animals but its possible it was 50 to 75m. It was an idyllic safari scene with the vast plains of the Mara, elephant in the far distance, a lone acacia tree, tall yellow glass swaying gently in the breeze, lion heads ears just above the grass and the march of the gnus and zebras. To make a long story short after one full hour (that’s how long it took for the entire line to pass as the zebra were wary), the lions did not attack- they were also on safari along with us and all the creeping and stalking was just to tantalize us! I was sure they were waiting for the last one in line but it just coolly walked by.

    Later that morning we reached the river after driving past Rekero camp and seeing the Serena hotel across the river with its hut like structures on a hillside. There were several thousand gnus (Peter estimated over 5,000) waiting to cross. We along with about 20 vehicles from nearby camps waited in a line as the gnus moved ever closer to the river, but they kept moving. Peter and our second vehicle moved ahead of the others and steered away from the gnus to try and get a view of where they were going. Peter drove us high up a hill called poachers hill with a birds eye view of the gnu hordes. Unfortunately they did not appear to be crossing. This was a great spot for family pictures with views of the Mara triangle in the distance and the Mara river along with grassy plains and hills the other direction in the horizon. I guess poachers used to use this spot to scout game in yester-years hence the name. We drove down towards the river when suddenly all hell broke loose- some dust was rising from the not visible river bank and dozens of vehicles were speeding there- we joined in the high speed chase. All to no avail- false alarm, the gnus reached the bank and turned around. This happened repeatedly for the next hour till we gave up. We were starting to get hungry and Peter spoke about our lunch boxes being in the other vehicle but I noticed he was talking on his phone a lot and we started to drive north seeing several herds of buffalo, elephant and giraffe on the way. We kept asking him to stop but he ignored us talking on the phone (its 2.30 pm now) and I was wondering what was going on when Peter made an abrupt off road move- there were two huge acacia trees about 250m apart. Under the first one was a table with 8 chairs, beautiful tablecloth, with China and silverware, several staff and the amazing Ngerende chef Edward + 3 staff, complete with an armed Mara park ranger. Wonderful Ngerende had done it again- a surprise 5 course bush lunch in the middle of the Mara complete with wine, printed menus -it goes on and on. Over the top you say- not for me! We sat there for 2 hours being literally wined and dined. And it does’nt end there. As the meal started, Peter comes over with 10X50 binoculars and says look under the next tree (remember the second tree around 250m away). There were 3 cheetah brothers there looking quite happy in the shade. Two hours later we made our way to that tree and they were still there flopped out on the ground. We sat and ate in the middle of the Mara looking at the wilderness around us, the sound of the tall grass in the winds, birds all around, gnu calls in the distance and just thought about how lucky we were. What an amazing day- I don’t even recall what we saw on the way back to camp- all I remember is another amazing meal on Ngerende’s grounds with a large bornfire and hippos grunting in the Mara river behind. I could have gone home right there with my safari successful.

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    Amboseli: Our last morning at Ngendere consisted of a game drive in Ol Chorro where the highlight was a long intimate viewing of a very large Verreaux eagle owl that had caught and decapitated a fairly large hare sitting peaceful in a tree despite a troop of baboons after the meal and attempting to scare it away, a big brunch and a tree planting ceremony where each of us was asked to plant a tree with staff members assisting all led by David, the Ngerende head Masai. It was fairly elaborate and we were told Ngerende has a tradition that all guests plant a tree which is maintained with their name and date of visit so that they can see it on their next visit. I intend to take them up on that.

    Our Mombasa Air flight was scheduled to leave at 1.30 pm. We only left camp after it landed as we were the only passengers and the airstrip is 5 minutes from camp. Seeing that plane sitting on the desolate airstrip waiting for us with animals grazing nearby was another scene to remember. We loaded up and took off with one stop in the Mara to pick up passengers and an hour later landed in Amboseli. Two vehicles from Tortelis camp were waiting for us- these were completely open with canvas roofs. We loaded up and the Tortelis staff got our park fee receipts from the ranger and were soon on our way to camp seeing elephants and flamingos on the way- it takes about 35 minutes to camp. Kilimanjaro was clouded up which was a bummer but Tortelis was fine. We were greeted by a relief manager Barbara who had a nice Italian accent and it appeared Italian was the default language in camp. Several staff members were from Italy- Neo once again pulled off 4 tents for us- the manager said she had prepared two tents with three beds but Neo called that morning and “requested” a fourth which she gave us as the camp was only half full during our stay. The look and feel of the place was very different from Ngerende. The camp was much larger with 30 tents compared to just 7 at Negrende and the atmosphere while very professional was more business-like. The bar area is beautiful directly overlooking Kilimanjaro and an illuminated waterhole about 150m away at the edge of the property. The clouds parted as if to greet us and there was Kilimanjaro. The mountain is truly awe inspiring and one look made me happy we had decided to come here. The dining area is right next to the bar also with direct views of Killi. A number of famous people have stayed at Tortelis and the library has dozens of books and periodicals featuring Tortelis camp. I read Michael Palin’s chapter in his on the trail of Hemmingway book where he stayed at Tortelis and drank his first Tusker beer in Africa the same brand Hemmingway had drunk when he pitched a tent in Amboseli not far from Tortelis. I opened a Tusker and sat there contemplating the mountain. The tents are great with zip up fronts and a nice bathroom- the inside is well thought out with plenty of storage and flat surfaces to place stuff on. We had a view of Killi from the tent but there was a large bush obscuring it- I did’nt understand why they did not trim the bush. It’s a long walk up from the tent but given the amount of food we were eating, good exercise. The food at Tortelis is Italian and they have an excellent reputation- Stephano Chelli the founder came from a family of chefs. However, in my opinion the food was fresh and good, nothing more, far outclassed by Ngerende’s 3 star chef Edward (the stars are given by me not Michelin).

    Game drives: Amboseli suffered terribly from last years historic drought but has recovered considerably due to the abundant rains this year. Gnus and zebra were decimated last year- we saw their bones all over the park. The elephants tend to be the Amboselis strong point and we saw large herds that appear to be thriving. Amboselis main attraction for us was seeing the animals juxtaposed by Kilimanjaro and for the 2 days we were there, Killi was visible clearly for roughly one day- one full afternoon and the next morning till noon. We got several beautiful shots of elephants, a lion, giraffe, buffalo, ostrich, zebra, gnus etc with Killi in the background. Off roading is not allowed and several animals were too far away to photograph properly but were clearly visible with binoculars. In particular we saw thousands of flamingos doing very well but the distance between the pond and where we were was about 150m too far for our 640mm lenses. We had a surprise bush breakfast overlooking Killi that was great and was our best meal at camp. Also, on the last evening sundowners were provided by a second vehicle and staff on top of a very steep hill – the views were incredible but unfortunately Killi was obscured by clouds. Our driver/guide Simon was very good. The second vehicle had two different drivers on our two days. We also saw the photographer Nick Brandt who was staying at Tortelis for a few weeks – he had a special vehicle with few seats and was sitting on the floor to I assume get eye level shots of animals and also had a few dedicated spotters in different vehicles. Unfortunately I was not able to meet him.

    Serengeti: I had asked Neo to arrange a charter from Amboseli to Wilson due to our short stay in Amboseli and the fact the direct flight left at 8 am with our connection to JRO at 1 pm. Neo arranged with Yellow charters for a great deal of only $50pp over the scheduled flight fare. We got a brand new, I mean 3 day old, Cessna 250 which smelt like a Bentley- it appeared to have Connelly leather seats. The flight was scheduled for 12 noon and was again waiting for us when we got to the airstrip. The only disconcerting thing was the pilot playing with the new avionics the way one plays a videogame (I was right behind). Anyway we made it in 45 minutes, and were rushed through customs by Kenya Air- Larry from Neo was also there to make sure we were fine. Next stop JRO and again we had a Safari-link rep waiting for us as the Grumeti flight was ready to go. However there was a huge line at the visa counter- TZ visas are a steep $100 for Americans, kids included. Somehow the Safari-link guys got us the visa in 5 minutes and we were loaded onto the small 12 seater, I got the last seat. The blonde pilot’s name was Sarah and she looked about 17! It was supposed to stop in Arusha, Lake Manyara and Seronera prior to Grumeti but at Arusha they off-loaded the other 4 passengers to wait for another flight and flew us direct to Grumeti.

    Kirawira Camp: I was a little concerned that Kirawira is owned by a big hotel chain (Serena) and the experience may not match the price but I was wrong. We, especially the kids, loved the camp. The staff were wonderful especially Charles and Mariam who served us like royalty. The camp has an Out of Africa feel to it much like I understand (I have not stayed there) Fitch Huttons or Cottars 1920 camp. The common areas have antique (hunting) safari era furniture. The tents were very large and opulent. The food was spectacular far exceeding Tortilis. I generally have no problem with over the top but the free champagne at breakfast each day was pushing it. Very formal service (but exceedingly friendly) for all three meals. They had a beautiful pool overlooking the plains with lots of game visible. The camp is unfenced so animals roam freely and there is a strict policy of being escorted to and from your tent. We had a baboon unzip our tent find a sealed box of water crackers in a zipped bag on a top shelf which he ate outside the tent so one needs to be careful with any food, even chewing gum in the tent.
    Unlike the Kenyan camps, Kirawira was completely full, mostly Europeans and I saw new clients replacing anyone leaving so I can say its an extremely popular camp at least in the first week of July which is supposed to be the peak migration season in the Western Serengeti. Also, at Kirawira we had the only glitch of the trip. The camp is dependent on most clients arriving in their own vehicles and only has two vehicles in camp one of which was taken, leaving one for the 8 of us. Neo had sent us a TZ vehicle and driver from Arusha which we deemed unsuitable for game drives (they said the Kenyan vehicle they had sent was turned away at the border), so we decided to make do with the one vehicle. To my surprise this was not as bad as it seems. The Kirawira vehicle was the best safari vehicle we had, really extended (long) with 9 seats, a pop up roof and large open windows with canvas sides. So the arrangement became two kids with the driver in front in the double size front seat, and one person in each of the seats in the other 3 rows. Tight for photography but we adapted. The point was it was our private vehicle and only the kids were inconvenienced as they had got used to having their own vehicle and cutting short game drives when they felt like to go back and swim in the pool.

    Game viewing: There were tse-tse flies around but they only appeared late afternoon and our deet (close to 100% deet) and full sleeves kept them in check. None in camp. You should not wear dark colors especially dark blue and black as they is what they use for the Tse-tse traps that were all over the W.Serengeti. The objective here was to see a river crossing and maybe a huge Grumeti croc get a gnu. Gnus were out in the thousands and we saw river crossings and truly huge crocs but did not see a croc kill. The gnus were wary and clever and despite the crocs best attempts to get them they got away. Also, the river was much shallower than the Mara and already drying fast. Someone else at camp saw a croc get a gnu and said it was horrific, but I was still disappointed to miss that despite several hours spent camping out for this over our stay. We saw several lion prides and a number of close encounters with lions and cubs- a highlight was a truly beautiful lion the kids called the Ralph Lauren lion as he looked like he had been blow dried and did not have a single scratch on his face. A memorable game drive was this very lion mating with a lioness – we and a Grumeti River camp vehicle had a ringside seat for a full hour and we got some great shots. Another memorable drive involved lions hunting a huge herd of gnus numbering in the thousands. While the hunt was unsuccessful, it was a stunning safari drive surrounded by gnus and zebras and lion in the beautiful endless plains. We could hear (Wildebeest go gnu,gnu hence that name) and smell them all around us. The river crossings were also memorable with hundreds of thirsty gnus and zebras trying to drink while evading the scary crocs. It is true- the Grumeti crocs are the largest in East Africa if not the world. I saw several monsters with bellies the size of a buffalo and 18 feet long. I’m certain several gnus went down their throats, we just did not witness the act. Our driver/guide Dos, was excellent positioning the vehicle perfectly for photographs and providing excellent guiding throughout. All of us did not go on each game drive (the kids went separately sometimes) so it really was not a problem having the one vehicle. Each day brought new excitement in terms of game watching – we did not get to see the elusive leopard (compared to the 8 different Leopard sightings we had in the Sabi Sands) but saw mostly everything else. No rhinos here (except for very recently imported white rhinos from S.Africa by the Paul Tudor Jones camps- Sasakawa etc, but we did not have access) and we did not see one in the Mara either. On a side note, Kirawira also had wireless internet which was welcome and a big TV which was only used for World cup soccer matches and given the various nationalities in camp from S. Americans to Europeans (Germans and Spaniards), along with flowing alcohol, it was a potent combination for some raucous matches at night.

    The service at camp was wonderful- bush meals are extra so we did not partake but the camp dining room was so good, our table for 8 was reserved in a great spot with a view for us for our entire stay, we did not miss them. On our last evening Dos took us to a special spot on a hill overlooking the Serengeti for an elaborate sundowner (no second vehicle bringing staff to set things up here), but Dos did a superb job serving us a bunch of things there and the “secret” location (its seen in the Kirawira brochure) is called Kitunge hill.

    The next morning we were informed our flight to Lake Manyara would be an hour late so we left later. The Grumeti airstrip was jammed with vehicles and planes- 5 flights landed before ours going to all sorts of places like Zanzibar, Mahale and Selous. Soon we were airborne on a completely full 16 seater with the first stop at LM. Neo had arranged for vehicle to meet us; our driver/guide Daniel was again great (we lucked out on drivers on this trip). First stop was Lake Manyara park headquarters where we saw our first Baobab tree and took some pictures of birds and monkeys but decided not to pay the park fees for all of us for at most an hours drive. Next stop for lunch was the LM Serena. Great location overlooking the lake and a nice lunch- Neo had managed to get this included in the price from Serena. Then we drove to Ngorongoro, where after some bureaucracy at the entrance in terms of 24 hour permits and vehicle fees we soon reached the Ngo Serena. The weather was cold but we had no idea how cold it was going to be. A note on the Serena. I had initially wanted to stay at Lemala camp but ended up at the Serena. Turns out my concern about the Serena was unfounded for the one night we were there. Neo had got us great rooms with superb views (no 1, 2 and 3). The place was completely full and overflowing so a 4th room was out. We went for a wonderful walk with the resident naturalist that was quite strenuous as we kept going down and up the sides of the crater and ended up at the edge of the hotel right next to our rooms but had to loop around all the way back to the entrance. The weather was turning sharply colder and I was glad we were not in a tent at Lemala (the Serena is heated). Dinner was in a jammed room with dozens of people but was perfectly adequate. The manager of the Serena and the head chef came over to discuss next days bush lunch with us. The logistics of the next day were of concern as we had to be at JRO by 6.30 pm for our flight to Nairobi at 7.40pm and this was the only leg we were driving to get a flavor of the countryside and Arusha; also there was no flight from LM to Arusha/JRO in the afternoon. I had asked Neo to organize a final bush lunch in the crater but this was not easy as only the Crater Lodge and Lemala do this and the Serena supposedly did not. However Neo got the Serena to do this for us and it worked out great despite not being a surprise.

    We wanted to be in the crater when the gates opened at 6.30 am and left at 5.45. The breakfast box- actually a huge hamper of all sorts of breakfast goodies- logistics delayed us by 15 minutes (the entire hotel was asleep). The weather was terrible- really cold (I had on three layers but was still cold), but worse was the visibility which was 10 feet at best. It took us an excruciating 45 minutes to get to the access road (no other vehicle was there which made me even more uneasy) and I seriously was thinking of turning back as the thought of going down with zero visibility was scary. Turned out once we started our descent the visibility improved but not the cold. It was cold and damp in the crater and it stayed overcast and cold the entire day. To make a long story short, despite three good sightings this was our least favorite day on safari. This despite the fact that the crater is amazing and I had really looked forward to experiencing it. Don’t get me wrong- it was well worth it but scheduling only one day down there, and that day being the coldest they have had in a while, was unfortunate. Maybe if we had two days the second day would have been much better. The animals were asleep in the grass or the bush, huddled together and generally inactive. We saw a large pack of hyena unsuccessfully hunting but enjoyed the interaction with them all around the vehicle (maybe 20 of them). No lions or leopards. Lots of hippos, gnus, some buffalo, various antelope and a few giraffe. Second memorable sighting was two cheetahs feeding on a kill but this was several hours later and it seemed every vehicle that was in the crater was there. Finally, we saw a black rhino at about 300m, a good look through a long lens or binoculars but still too far to properly observe. He (or she) walked a long way but always parallel to the vehicles and kept his distance.

    After driving all around the crater looking for leopard in the yellow acacia trees and then through the middle over the open grasslands (despite the waether, the crater was beautiful- it must be a great experience on a sunny warm day) we reached the lunch site by a pool where about 40 vehicles were parked with people having lunch outside their vehicles by a pool. We continued on and around the bend about 500m away was our table set beautifully in a groove with views of grazing zebra and impalas. Serena had sent two vehicles and 6 staff to prepare/serve the lunch and had set-up a portable loo as well. A chef was cooking steaks, lamb, chicken and fish and a full bar had been set-up. The eagles were a problem as they kept swooping down to take food off the plates but three men with sticks were positioned to keep them away. A fitting final safari meal in of all places the floor of the fabled Ngorongoro crater.

    I spent around a half hour standing up in the moving vehicle taking the entire caldera scene in and it is truly breathtaking and unique. We left the crater floor at 1.45 pm stopped at the Serena to load our bags and made it to JRO on a very good paved road by 6.15 pm. There was almost no traffic- we literally saw 10 cars from Ngo to Arusha which we made in 2.5 hours, and where there was plenty of traffic. The last leg from Arusha to JRO took almost an hour. JRO was jammed with a long line to get in. Precision Air was an hour late with no announcement of any kind till 5 minutes before departure. The kids were upset as the Germany/Spain game at 9 pm was now in jeopardy. They got to see some of it at the long lines in immigration at Nairobi. What a different experience from 11 days before- now we had to be fingerprinted and photographed despite having a visa (new rule) and the entire process was very inefficient. A driver from Neo took us to the Stanley for our last two nights. Neo had upgraded us to a huge suite with a second bedroom and two other connecting rooms. We really liked the Stanley and its staff- the bar and restaurants were very good as well. More than adequate for our stay in Nairobi.

    The next day we roamed around Nairobi in a van Neo provided- the main agenda was visiting a school for disadvantaged kids. We had brought a large amount of supplies, an electronic piano and camera for them (this had been left with Neo at the start). A wonderful experience at St. Catherines primary school (Mukuru school), They are doing such wonderful work with disadvantaged boys and girls, giving them an education and preparing them with a vocation. This was a highlight of our entire trip and I have to thank Neo for making all the arrangements.

    We also visited Sheldicks elephant orphanage for the daily show, the Giraffe center (both lots of fun), Kazuri beads (strongly recommended as an example of social microfinance with superb products), the Karen Blixen house and had lunch in the KB Gardens- great place. Early next morning was our flight to Cairo for the last two days. EA was right on time and Cairo was a blast, but that’s another story.

    Final thoughts: An amazing trip that worked out very well, given the number of us and all the logistics involved. I realized animals are completely unpredictable and opportunistic patience is key to great game viewing. Instead of rushing to the next sighting, spend a little more time with say, a sleeping lion. We did and saw them mating after another vehicle left. The river crossing in the Serengeti took a lot of patience and I am sure we would have seen a croc attack if we had spent more time at one place. Pure luck helps too, as does being in the right place at the right time- our cheetah kill was luck. Also, my best memories of the trip are not the finest sightings but rather the quieter moments in the Mara and Serengeti waiting for action but being able to contemplate the absolute beauty of the natural scene unfolding in front of our eyes. Saving the best for last did not work for us. The best was front-loaded in the Mara and the presumed sure-thing, the crater, turned out to be a bit of an off day for us, but even there I realized how fortunate we were to be down there and the scenery was clearly unique. However, we had no idea the migration would be so early in the Mara this year and the western Serengeti was supposed to be the best chance of seeing the migration. We saw all the animals in the wild I had hoped to and more, except a leopard. The cheetah kill, the morning with the lion pride and the zebras in the Mara and the river crossings with the thousands of gnu in the Serengeti, the misty sunrises with the endless plains and the swaying golden tall grass, and the gorgeous African sunsets amidst the acacia trees will stay with me forever.

    As someone who was quite pessimistic about the future of the animals in East Africa, I was pleasantly surprised at how the ecosystem has bounced back after last years horrific drought and the animals appear to be doing well. I realize the key to their survival is to make it profitable for the people like the Masai who live along side the animals- I hope in some small way we contributed to this. The private conservancies in the Mara are doing a great job of employing the Masai and other local people and making them realize the animals are definitely worth saving- I encourage people to patronize the camps there to help the animals.
    Hope to go back soon.

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    Many thanks for your report, enjoyed reading it. Do you feel that 10 nights (12 total) was rather short time, especially going over from USA? Will you be putting up any pictures?

    regards - tom

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    Great to read another trip report from you AKR1, fantastic detail, and sounds like it was a superb trip. I'm curious, how would you compare it to your Sabi Sand / Timbavati trip? Considering the relative cost, etc?
    Thanks for posting, and a great reference for especially Neo and Ngerende, among others.
    Best regards,
    Onne

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    We just got back and my pictures are still being loaded. Hope to post some in the next few days. Tom, 10 days on safari was sufficient for us given we had a maximum of 15 days for the entire trip and the last 2 were in Cairo. Onne, good to hear from you- I remember our Sabi Sands/Timbavati safari you organized for us two years ago fondly. My view is South Africa is perfect for a first family safari as the country is more developed and logistics are much easier. The Sabi Sands was great- however, the vastness of the East African plains is very different and more of a classic safari - a different league, but the logistics are much harder. Its also significantly more expensive to do East Africa properly than just say the Sabi Sands.

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    Enjoyed the report; the lodgings you chose sounded awesome esp. for a large group. Your game sightings sounded ideal.

    I do love it when folks take their kids to Africa; something everyone should experience at a young age.
    I think it plants the seed in their mind of preservation, the unbelievable history of the country;and immense curiosity and understanding of the different cultures. Taking them to the schools and bringing a piano & camera - awesome!

    Do you have recommendations what one could take (in carry-ons) to leave for schools, orphanages etc? We are definitely doing carry-on as we are booked on US Air - that says it all. (But at a savings of over $1,000 I can handle it!)

    Looking foward to the pics!
    We have only been to Sabi Sands and Chobe prior to this upcoming adventure to Kenya so I can't wait to see all you've described.

    Of course we are not ending in Cairo, but Amsterdam, so I guess I will have a lager or two!

    Thank you for a lovely trip report.

    MoneyBurns (especially on safari!)
    .

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    Great trip report and pictures---thanks for sharing.

    I'll be at Tortilis Camp for 2 nights mid August. Sounds like you enjoyed your time there, and happy to hear the rains have helped heal the area. Is there anything special about the camp I need to know? Like, was there anything you wished you had known about it before you went?

    Appreciate your feedback.

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    Thanks so much for a very enjoyable report - totally agree with Moneyburns about taking kids of a reasonable age along on safari - not only do the memories linger for many years, but I think it changes their whole perspective on Africa and the importance of preserving these lands. Sounds like your lot had a blast - good to hear that!

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    AKR1 - Thanks for posting such a detailed trip report. Great pictures too. Love the cheetah close ups. I think the crater is going to be one of the more memorable highlights of your trip. For me, sometimes less than ideal conditions make for the greatest memories. We once got caught in a monsoon downpour on a cycling trip. We had to run for cover and later continue the ride another 15 or 20 miles while teeth chattering cold and squishy wet in Spandex. It seemed to be ruining the day at the time but I have fond memories from that day.

    I am especially interested in your trip since we leave in a few weeks and our trip will be similar. We will be in the Mara with a teen and have an over night in Cairo. Will you be writing anything about the Cairo portion of your trip?

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    Responding to questions:
    Moneyburns, as far as gift for the orphanage schools, I noticed there was a big difference between the city schools and the rural ones. Foe example in the Ngerende area we had visited a local school and were dismayed to see few children had shoes. We gave a cash contribution and left it with the manager of the camp to get 40 pairs of simple shoes. In Nairobi the boys were much better cared for and loved the piano and camera we left for them, but also like footballs,flashlights,t-shirts, calculators, pencil sharpeners, colored pens etc.

    Elizabethj, I can't think of anything I needed to know about Tortelis before getting there. Its a fairly long & steep walk up from the tent to the dining area/bar. If you have heavy camera equipment you can leave it on the top where the vehicles are with a staff member. Also, I did not think the bush walk was worthwhile- at least the short one near camp. They have a much longer one where you walk in Amboseli that might be better. Check out Michael Palins book on Hemmingway to see what he did at Tortelis in terms of walks.

    Micmic, as far as tipping is concerned all the camps asked for one tip to be shared amongst employees. We tipped the drivers separately. At Ngendere there were 16 people in all that served us, maybe 6 core members. We tipped very generously there as we had been overwhelmed by the service and experience.

    long2travel, I am thinking of the crater and in the week we have been back not quite able to make it a highlight yet, but am working on it!. Also I was not planning to write about Cairo- we packed in a lot in two days- I had hired a company called Casual Cairo (Debbie) recommended on this board and we did the museum with an excellent Egyptologist, a private cruise on the Nile at sunset and then we stayed in Giza overlooking the Pyramids. We did a morning tour of the 3 main pyramids, chilled out in the hotel by the pool in the afternoon and then a final sunset camel ride into the desert where a tent and drinks had been set up overlooking the pyramids ending with the sound & light show.

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    AKR1, thanks for a wonderful Trip Report, and absolutely lovely photographs. Thoroughly enjoyed both. We are leaving for a safari ourselves to the very same parks that you covered, and it was very interesting to read through your report.

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    Without sounding to nosy, how much did this trip cost you all together? Just interested because my family did a 10 day trip 4 years ago, flying from San Francisco, it cost us 5,000 p.p. We went through an amazing tour company, Green Footprints.
    Thanks

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    We are plotting a first safari to Africs...very overwhelming...Looked at S. Africa, mainly because we are going to try to use ff miles on S African Airways and that seems to be the easiest entry from the States. Your trip report here, however, has us ga-ga.....Do you have suggestions for a S. African trip that has this interest, but perhaps not quite the traveling hardship....My biggest worries: MOSQUITOES (allergic to deet, which is unfortunate)...and long rides in bumpy jeeps (darm the back)...I was looking for another trip report from you, but haven't found one....Can you direct us? Thanks...and thanks for the wonderful trip report and gorgeous pics

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    Jodo,

    My view is South Africa is great for a first safari especially if you want to limit the number of days on safari- safari at good camps is a very expensive holiday and what we did in South Africa was to combine 7 nights on safari with a week in Cape Town that worked out well. Also, the Sabi Sands is an excellent safari destination with a virtual guaranty (make that a very good probability) of seeing the big 5, especially leopards that are hard to see in East Africa. On the other hand, East Africa has the vast open spaces and the real "Out of Africa" look and feel, but is harder to plan and much more expensive if done right with a fly-in safari model (what I learned was fly-in is critical in East Africa). The one negative in the Sabi Sands was the fences that for me were a turn off even though they make sense given the reality on the ground.

    If you want to read my S.Africa trip report post your e-mail as I cannot find it on Fodors anymore (I think they have a 3 year time limit).

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    jodo -

    Suggest you start your own thread for your upcomping trip. Otherwise, any replies will be lost having tagged onto this trip report. With your own thread, replies will be specific to your query.

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    Unfortunately our Safari with Neodestinations was quite a disaster. We booked an identical safari in Kenya and Tanzania with Larry Naphthally and were subsequently abandoned by his tour group half way through the itinerary at the Kilimanjaro airport. After a late night drive to Serena hotel we found out that the vouchers for our stay at that hotel were fictitious. We were forced to rebook and refinance our safari with the aid of the Serena group. Incidentally, the Serena Hotel group were able to duplicate the rest of the safari at a similar price with no prior notice. Needless to say we did file a report with the Kenya Police in Nairobi about Larry Naphthally's antics. After a rather shattering experience such as this I would strongly recommend to future travelers that they be very cautious in booking tours through small local tour operators in Kenya and Tanzania. Furthermore, should they decide to take this risk I would urge them not to pay via bank wire transfers but rather use credit cards for payments ( no matter how vehement the tour operators protests). And finally do call the lodges and hotels and confirm your stay with them. Do not take the vouchers from these local tour operators as valid unless so verified.
    Africa and the game sanctuaries are wonderful, the safaris are breathtaking experiences and life changing in many ways. I encourage all who can to take the trip but please remember it's not a trip in western Europe or North America and one does need to take reasonable travel precautions.

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    I am extremely angry this happened. The person who posted above is a close friend of ours and I unfortunately recommended this Agent to them based on our experience last year. The Kenyan authorities should shut Neo Destinations down immediately. They are nothing but common criminals.

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