We had a great first safari!
And here’s the trip report. Finally. Almost a year to the day that we left.
Thanks to everyone on this forum who answered my questions and posted their own trip reports. We found the information here to be invaluable. Advice on gear, packing, photography, and even toilets was spot on.
I have lots and lots of pictures on smugmug, but I put together this smaller gallery that won’t take so much time to go through. www.xpd2014.smugmug.com
We thought we were going to Botswana, but then I decided I wanted to go to East Africa. I realized that, growing up, most of my images of African wildlife and habitat were from National Geographic magazine and the Wild Kingdom episodes that were shot in Kenya and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. So the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater won out over the Okavango Delta. This time.
I’ll start with answers to the FAQ’s we received on our return.
1. 13 days. 10 days in Tanzania. The private safari was absolutely worth the extra money.
2. Arusha National Park, Tarangire NP, Ngorongoro Crater, Olduvai Gorge, and Serengeti NP.
3. Yes, in a heartbeat! We’re already saving for the next one!
4. Botswana. Or maybe Zambia. But South Africa has a lot to offer as well…
5. Good Earth Tours and we’d recommend them to anyone. Every aspect of our trip went very smoothly.
6. Yes, we liked our guide, Joseph, a lot. Thoroughly professional, friendly, knowledgeable, and well prepared.
7. The food was mostly western European, with Indian influenced vegetarian dishes, and good to very good.
8. Except for the lunch boxes! We got tired of the same thing every day.
9. All the parks were different; they were all our favorites.
10. Oh, the best had to be our last morning in Tanzania. At 0615, tea was delivered to our tent at Migration Camp, Serengeti. We had already been awakened by the sound of a hippo grazing noisily just outside our tent. Peering out the door, just before dawn, we could just make out its huge form about 20 feet from the tent. We settled back into our beds with tea and listened to hippos bellowing, hyena whoops from the left answered by lions roaring from the right, and as the sun began to rise, seemingly every bird in Serengeti commenced chirping, squawking, and singing.
We have a lot of memorable experiences. Like the disbelieving look on Joseph’s face when we told him that no, we didn’t have any more luggage back at the hotel. Just these soft sided carry ons, two small daypacks, and a camera bag.
Day 3 in TZ, learning Swahili phrases. Early morning, Joseph asks me “Lala salama?” (Did you sleep well?). My jet-lagged, fuzzy brain is not working. Joseph laughs as I blurt out, “Uh, bueno!”
Sitting in the dining room at the Serena Mountain Village Lodge, Arusha, overhearing the conversations of guests from several other countries and realizing that they could understand our conversation but we couldn’t understand theirs.
The music in the dining room at Mountain Village was a source of endless amusement for us. At dinner, a gentleman with an electric keyboard was playing “Red River Valley”, “You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me Lucille”, and some Broadway show tunes. He did play one song by Zimbabwean singer, Tuku, which received an enthusiastic response from us and the happily inebriated USAID guy celebrating his retirement. At breakfast, we listened to soft rock from the 80’s.
Driving through Arusha Town watching the unbelievable ballet of vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians as each maneuvered through the crowded streets.
Along the sides of the roads, women walking with bundles on top of their heads, men on bicycles, all disappearing in clouds of dust as trucks and safari vehicles sped past them. And thinking, “That’s got to be miserable!”
From the terrace at Tarangire Safari Lodge, looking out over the river, binoculars in one hand, washing down the Malarone with a G&T in the other. We’re certain that the old Africa hands did it just this way.
We had another good laugh there, when, at dusk, a very young waiter tried to bring us another party’s drinks. He apologized, saying, “I am sorry! In this light it is hard to tell the white people apart.” We determined that he needed additional practice and ordered another round. We’re big proponents of education.
We chose Good Earth Tours for our safari because they came highly recommended by a number of people on various travel forums and we believed they best met our budget, (which we proceeded to ignore). We had interviewed 2 or 3 other companies as well and liked all of them. We wanted to make sure that they had reliable vehicles, well trained guides, and a history of satisfied customers. The price of a private safari wasn’t that much more than that of a group safari, so we began to consider a private one. When we began looking for flights in November 2007, the price of oil and the value of the dollar had really started to accelerate in opposite directions and we thought we’d have to look for some other vacation destination. I finally found a combination of departure dates and airlines that resulted in a price we were willing to pay and then fit the safari in between those dates. That’s mostly how we wound up with a private safari. Well once we were doing a private safari why not just select the lodges and camps we wanted to stay in and the number of nights in each park? We spent more money, worked some overtime to pay for it, and we don’t regret it. That said, I think taking a scheduled safari itinerary as a private trip would also be very satisfying.
We had an excellent experience with Good Earth. Narry was responsive and very pleasant to work with. And our guide, Joseph, was terrific. He was always on time, kept the Land Cruiser in good condition and stocked with water, and was skillful driver. He’s an ace wildlife spotter, as well. He’s quite knowledgeable about the flora and fauna in the parks we visited. He’s friendly, without being too familiar, and we thoroughly enjoyed his company on the long drives.
This was our itinerary:
Overnight flight Denver to Heathrow (booked time in the Lufthansa lounge for part of the 7 hr. layover)
Overnight flight Heathrow to Nairobi
Precision air flight to Arusha
Met by Good Earth representative
2 nights Serena Mountain Village Lodge, Arusha
Game drive and hiking in Arusha National Park
2 nights Tarangire National Park/ Tarangire Safari Lodge
1 night Ngorongoro Crater/Serena Lodge
Olduvai Gorge enroute to Serengeti
2 nights Serengeti/Serena Lodge
1 night Serengeti/ Sayari Camp
2 nights Serengeti/Migration Camp
Depart from Lobo Airstrip to Nairobi/Heathrow/USA
This was not a particularly adventurous itinerary, but it wasn’t intended to be.
ABOUT THE PARKS
Arusha NP was a nice way to start, and in the dry season provided quite a contrast to the dryness of Serengeti and Tarangire. We enjoyed the opportunity to take a 2 hour hike with Park Ranger Johannes. He was astounded to learn that, at Yellowstone NP, tourists don’t have to be accompanied by an armed ranger. He wanted to know if people were ever injured by the bison. I told him, “Only if you’re stupid.” Many of the guides, rangers, and some lodging staff know about American NP’s, especially Yellowstone. Next time, we’ll take some souvenirs from Yellowstone and any other parks we get to, as well as a map or two of the U.S. Staff at the lodges and camps were very interested in where we lived.
In Arusha NP, we saw zebras, warthogs, colobus and blue monkeys, baboons, cape buffalo, Maasai giraffe, impala, dik diks, and lots of beautiful birds. Baboons just amble down the road, sometimes sitting and scratching for a while, and generally treating it as if it was built for their convenience.
In Tarangire, we saw elephants everywhere, spotted our first lions, watched bushbuck sparring, dik diks in front of our tent, Bataleur eagles flying past us as we sat on the terrace, ostriches mating, and our first serval. We saw cape buffalo, giraffes, zebras, a few hippos, warthogs, impalas, several martial eagles, lilac breasted rollers, and other birds. And vultures. There are always vultures.
We watched elephants digging for water in the dry Tarangire River bed, crossing the road right in front of us, and walking next to our Land Cruiser just a few feet away.
At the end of each day, we sat on the terrace, telling each other, “I can’t believe we get to do this!” We’d sit on the terrace with our binoculars until it was too dark to see anything then go in for dinner. Tarangire Safari Lodge is not luxurious and the food was nothing special, but the location is terrific, the staff was genuinely warm and friendly, and the tents and beds were comfortable enough.
The landscape on the drive from Tarangire to Ngorongoro reminded us of parts of the American southwest. The land was rolling hills and dry, with short grasses, few trees and a far horizon. There’s an excellent two lane highway right up through the escarpment of the Rift Valley and up to the entrance to the Crater. I understand it was built by a wealthy Japanese businessman who was quite taken by his experience of the Crater. It will probably be in good condition for many years since almost no one has a car. There were far more bicyclists and pedestrians using, what we would call the emergency or breakdown lanes on either side, than cars or trucks driving in the vehicle lanes.
Ngorongoro was yet another treat! Leaving a busy troop of baboons, we drove up on a pair of lions sleeping about 4 feet from the edge of the road. Their distended bellies and the bloody ribcage a few yards away explained their lethargy. Occasionally, one or the other would roll over, stretch and then flatten out again, as if saying, “Oh man, zebra always makes me sleepy.” We saw several hyenas on the shore of Lake Magkadi. One was wading into the lake, clearly looking for a flamingo snack, but kept getting stuck in the mud and gave up. A very long line of wildies was queued up to drink at the shore. One spotted the four lionesses about three hundred yards down the beach. We watched as each wildebeest walked up to the spot the one ahead had just vacated, made a U-turn, and walked back past the line of incoming wildies.
While watching hippos grunting and jousting in their pool, I looked over my shoulder just in case I was missing something else. And indeed a bit of drama was about to unfold. Through the binoculars, I spotted a couple of lion heads sink below the tall grass. A small herd of zebras had passed but the lions showed little interest until a foal, alone and several yards behind the herd, came trotting into view. One of the lionesses moved into a crouch and we thought the little zebra was done for. But the lioness made only a half hearted attempt, and the foal raced off as fast as its little legs would carry it. Joseph told us that Crater lions rarely go hungry. When we saw Serengeti lions we noted that they looked appreciably thinner compared to those in the Crater, where their prey doesn’t migrate.
We saw only one elephant, a bull, but a friend told me their group had seen dozens when they were there in November 07. In fact, 2 people were stuck in the loo for a few minutes while several elephants passed between the building and their car. They’d also seen 2 rhinos while we were able to glimpse only the horn, through binoculars.
We’d read differing opinions, on Fodor’s, about the value of stopping at Olduvai Gorge. We decided that we couldn’t fly halfway around the world and drive right by Olduvai Gorge. We really enjoyed the museum and the short presentation by a young graduate student. Plus, it offered our first opportunity to try out a “traditional loo”. We go camping and hiking all the time, so I don’t know why we thought this was entertaining. The visitor’s center is a good 30 minutes off the main highway. Apparently, the correct spelling is really “Oldupai”. If I recall correctly, the area is named for the sisal plant called oldupai in Maa. BTW, does anyone else think that sisal trees look like Dr. Seuss trees?
The drive to the Naabi Hill Gate in Serengeti was long and slow due to the poor condition of the road. The roads in the rest of the park were actually pretty good; similar to Forest Service roads in the U.S. We stopped for lunch, fuel, etc and then drove on into the park and almost immediately encountered elephants near the road. Further on, we spotted a pair of adolescent bulls sparring and watched them for a long time. We saw cape buffalo, hippos, assorted antelope and lots of birds of prey in trees and bushes near the road. We saw our first cheetah, crossing the road in front of us as we neared the lodge.
We stayed at the Serena Lodge in the Seronera area of Serengeti. We paid $5.00 to use the internet for 15 minutes and sent a message to friends and family and read their replies. It wasn’t a blazingly fast connection but not maddeningly slow either. I wouldn’t try sending photos. A local tribe, the Makoma, performed some of their local music and dances before a rather staid, western audience. We were curious to find out what they were singing about so we asked James, who seemed to be some kind of uber host for the lodge. We laughed when he stammered out, “I don’t know, I don’t speak Makoma. I’m from Kenya!” He told us that he didn’t know of any staff who spoke Makoma. But I think I recognized one of the dancers from the restaurant staff. Joseph had told us that most of the schools were now teaching Swahili and English, and that there was some political effort to make Swahili the common language across Africa. We made an effort, largely successful, to learn several phrases in Swahili as well as all the animal names. Joseph was a good teacher.
We saw lots of lions in the Seronera area, including a lioness stalking some Thomson gazelles. She did kill a reedbuck but she’d gone down into a gulley and we didn’t witness that. Spotting the spiral of dust coming up from the kill site, Joseph accurately gauged where she’d stopped, and led a herd of safari vehicles to the spot where she was feeding. Yes, we stayed on the road. You’ll never be lonely in the central Serengeti; every good sighting is well attended.
The northern part up near Sayari and Migration Camps had far fewer visitors. We had hoped to catch some of the Migration by going up there, but we missed it. We knew there was no guarantee and we did enjoy the relative solitude of this far northern area. It was a very long drive up to Sayari and we’d probably opt to fly if we did it again. But we were glad we had the experience of driving through that landscape. On the way, we had some interesting conversations with Joseph. In the Sayari area, we saw wildebeests, zebras, warthogs, baboons, elephants, lots of Nile crocodiles, and two species we hadn’t seen previously, eland and bat eared foxes. We spent some time watching mother and daughter elephants feeding on a tree Mom had just knocked over. They were quite tolerant of our presence. We didn’t see any lions, but at breakfast, a couple of Italian women who were staying in a tent at the other end of the camp, told us that they’d had some lionesses walk by their tent that morning. We were very envious! We did see a young male elephant who’d lost part of his trunk, most likely, in a snare set by poachers. We took a picture, but the image remains very clear in our minds.
At that particular time, the wildlife viewing at Migration Camp wasn’t as good as that in the other areas, but we did watch a cheetah family for a while and got our only half decent leopard sighting there. There was a habituated warthog that grazed in front of our tent and lots of hyraxes on the porch and in the trees. Oh, and a klipspringer on our way to the airstrip!
ABOUT THE LODGES AND CAMPS
The Serena lodges are very nice and we enjoyed staying in each of them. But the tented camps were our favorites—from the no frills Tarangire Safari Lodge to the deluxe Sayari and Migration Camps. We liked falling asleep to the sounds of zebras, wildebeest, hyenas, and lions. The smaller number of guests seemed to make it easier to strike up a conversation.
At Sayari, we enjoyed drinks around the “bush TV” (bonfire) with our guides and other guests. Later, we had dinner under the shelter of the dining tent, while a ferocious rainstorm provided the sound and light show.
CLOTHING, GEAR, AND CAMERAS
You need less than you think you do. I was convinced that we could pack everything we needed in soft sided carry ons and a couple of daypacks. My partner was just as convinced that this was impossible. So when I bought a suitcase from www.ebags.com called The Weekender, you can imagine how the conversation went!
We have a terrific packing method that permits you to pack vast quantities of clothing in any sized bag, but it’s not great if you’re going to be staying at a different place every couple of days. So this time we bought and borrowed packing cubes in assorted sizes and found that method was perfect.
We pored over the packing lists that others had posted and did follow much of the advice. Including clothing worn on the plane, we took enough outer and under garments to go 3 days without laundering. This allowed us to change clothes for dinner each evening. We each packed shorts/capris, S/S tops in muted colors, one long sleeved top, a knit cap (DP used hers), cheap flip flops, light jacket, and a crushable brimmed hat. My partner also packed a silk camisole for layering and BUFF to keep her neck warm. We did not pack a second pair of shoes and didn’t miss them. We included several quick dry items and, on the rare occasions that we did any of our own laundry, were glad that we did. At Mountain Village, Seronera, and Migration, we sent our laundry out and received it the next morning neatly folded and a bit stiff since they don’t use fabric softener. I think it averaged about $2/piece; but was included in the price at Migration. The flexoline worked great and was easy to hook onto just about anything. My partner really liked her safari vest, but I never wore mine. The one item DP really wished she brought but didn’t was a light fleece, as evenings and early mornings were often chilly.
Using the 3-1-1 Totally Compliant Carry-on Kit, (amazon.com) we packed more toiletries than we really needed! We made good use of the TravelJohn disposable urinals. We had room for a pair of 8x40 binos for each of us, a digital recorder, small flashlight, plug adapter, charging kits and extra batteries for the cameras, Noisebuster headphones, a couple of paperback books, a wonderful safari journal we received as a gift, two superzoom cameras, and some other stuff I’ve forgotten by now. In a different season, we might have packed swimsuits.
The Rick Steves Civita daypack was an excellent choice. It took up almost no room when empty, but swallowed up whatever we stuffed into it.
Really, when that first zebra crosses the road in front of your Land Cruiser, most of what you thought was essential for your comfort and well being is forgotten.
Neither of us has photography as a hobby, so we didn’t think that the addition of expensive cameras was going to transform us into wildlife photographers. We settled on a Panasonic FZ18 and the smaller Panasonic TZ4. They didn’t share the same battery but did have very similar menus so we could readily use each other’s camera. They are incredibly easy and fun to use. Most of the time, the zoom was adequate and most of the time, the color noise and noise reduction feature wasn’t a problem at higher ISOs. We enjoyed putting the cameras down and just being present in the moment.
We booked a Yotel for the layover on our return and thought it was an excellent choice. Plus, it’s just cool. I wish we’d done it on the way out, but we wanted to try both a lounge and the Yotel. If your layover gives you enough time to stay in the room at least 3 hours, I think it’s a good deal. We had a nap in the luxurious bed, refreshing showers, and a decent meal in the pub next door.
Don’t be surprised if not everyone is excited to hear all about your safari.
Below is a hilarious account of my conversation with my 21 year old nephew.
Upon arriving at the house, I thought I’d call my mother, who lives in another state, to let her know we’d arrived home.
Me: Hi Brennon. How are you?
B: Oh hi, Aunt Diane. I’m good. How are you?
Me: Fine, but pretty tired. We just got back home.
B: Oh, where’d you go?
B: The restaurant?
Me: (without even laughing) No, the country.
B: Oh, did you drive?
Me: (deadpan) No…no. It’s in Africa. You have to fly there.
B: Wait. It’s another country?!
Me: Yeah, it’s in East Africa. You can’t really drive there.
B: And you went there?
B: (Pause) Huh. That’s different. Here’s Grandma.
I think we'll drive to Zambia next year. Anyone up for a road trip?
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We had a great first safari!