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Trip Report Back from amazing Tanzania - Feb 2012 Trip Report

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We just got back from the most amazing 2 weeks in Tanzania (Feb 9-22). This was our 2nd safari, and our first experience in Botswana 7 years ago was so magnificent, we were both afraid that this trip will not live up to expectation. But if anything, it was even better! We had an amazing guide for the duration, there seemed to be even more animals, and the landscape was varied and stunning.

Our itinerary was as follows:

- 2 nights in Karatu at the Ngorongoro Farm House, which we used as a base for Lake Manyara and the Crater
- 1 night at Olduvai Camp to break up the drive
- 3 nights in Ndutu at Olakira Camp
- 2 nights in Southern Serengeti at Dunia Camp
- 3 nights in Matemwe Zanzibar, at 1 night at Matemwe Bungalow, and 2 nights at the Retreat (a mistake on the booking)
- 2 nights in Stone Town at Kisiwa House

Before I get into all the details, here are some of my favorite photos: https://picasaweb.google.com/alan.judy.albumn/TanzaniaHighlights

And here’s a slideshow video of the same photos (this is what happens when it takes 39 hours and 5 planes to get back home ☺): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_kJWAGCbR0

As for a detailed trip report, I thought pictures are worth more than words, so if you have lots of time on your hands, I posted these 300 photos with captions to help us remember our trip. It will give you a good idea of all the things we experienced: https://picasaweb.google.com/alan.judy.albumn/Tanzania2012

Now, some summaries and lessons learned:

Booking Agent/Operator: After getting quotes from 5 companies, some local some UK/US-based, we decided on Africa Travel Resources (ATR), primarily because the price was lowest for identical itinerary, and they gave very detailed breakdown of the cost. I would recommend them without any hesitation. All of their advice, including some I didn’t take, was spot on. The arrangements were flawless except for one error on our booking at Matemwe Retreat, and they in conjunction with Asilia immediately offered a full refund for one night. I had made 3 special requests (specific guide, vehicle, and villa at the Retreat), and all 3 were honored. The ground operator was Tanganyka Expedition, and they seemed to be one of the larger operators as we saw quite a few of their trucks. Plus they employ our guide, so must be awesome ☺

Guide: We were a bit worried about having a single guide for the entire trip (in Botswana everyone uses camp guides), and had gotten our guide’s name from speaking with references provided by ATR. He was simply over the top outstanding and really made our trip very special! He’s been guiding since 1987, did a stint as the operations manager for his company, seems to know everybody, and was great at spotting animals. I say about 20-30% of the time we were the first or second vehicle at a sighting, an important thing in Tanzania which has a lot more tourists when compared with Botswana. But what really made our trip special were all the stories he shared about his life and experiences on safari. For anyone who’s deciding between using camp guides vs. your own, I would definitely get your own guide. According to the camp managers, about 80% of the guests arrive with their own guide, so the camp vehicle may not be of the highest quality, and even if the guide is good, it takes time to get to know your preferences and interests.

Vehicle: Again, I was a bit worried about game drives in an enclosed vehicle since our previous experience were in completely open (no top or side) trucks. But our land cruiser turned out to be great. I had requested a newer one, and it came with this roll-up roof, that when opened, is completely unobstructed (unlike the more common pop-up roof which has poles that would get in the way of photos). We usually kept it half rolled up so we can sit in the shade, and go to the open part in the back at a sighting. It even has AC! This was great when we closed up the entire vehicle when driving thru a heavy tse tse fly area.

Camps/Lodges: We were very happy with all the ones we chose; I think all my reviews have been published on TA. Only change I would make is to stay one night on the rim so we can be down in the crater earlier. All 3 of the Asilia properties were outstanding, just as good if not better than Wilderness Safari camps in Botswana.

Animals sighting highlights: We saw a total of 65 unique lions, 11 cheetahs, 3 leopards, 2 striped hyenas, countless elephants, giraffes, and of course the Great Migration. Also saw a couple of failed hunts, and a few post-kill. Tons of babies of every kind, which was really cool! Did not see any birthings, but did see a zebra in labor.

Migration timing: One simply cannot predict weather and nature, especially given all the climate change. The migration was supposed to be at Ndutu in Feb, but due to the lack of rain, everyone was in Seronera. I’m really glad we took ATR’s advice and booked at both places. Many of the folks at Olakira drove 3.5 hours one way on a day trip to see the migration. That’s 7 hours in a car on very bumpy road! For those who really want to see the migration, I would highly advice hedging your bets on location.

Now a bit more details on the parks we visited:

Lake Manyara: Most people seem to recommend against this park, but we really enjoyed it. It’s an especially beautiful park of woodland and lake down in the Rift Valley. We saw huge herd of elephants that had migrated from Tarangire, and our first tree-climbing lion ever. The lake area was also very beautiful, with flamingos in the distance. I would definitely recommend a short drive in this park if you have time

Ngorongoro Crater: This was ironically my least favorite park. Of course, the landscape and views were beautiful, but it was the only place where I felt I was in a national park instead of the wilderness. You can’t drive off-road, so most sightings were quite far in the distance. It was also very crowded – we literally had trouble finding a parking spot at the picnic site. Despite its reputation, we only saw one lion. Of course, I think our experience might have been different if we were able to get down earlier, but coming from Karatu there’s no way to be there much before 8-9am with all the park entry procedures.

Olduvai: This was a very nice one-day stop to break up the drive from the crater to Ndutu. The camp was very nice, and we enjoyed the sunset walk and interaction with the Maasai staff. There weren’t really many animals when we were there, although the migration was supposedly in the area just a couple of weeks prior, which would’ve been an awesome sight on the flat plains. The museum was interesting, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit it. We drove to Ndutu the long way, and while we didn’t see much, it was one of my favorite days. Driving across this vast African landscape without encountering a single other vehicle!

Ndutu: Despite the migration not being in the area, this was probably our favorite stop. It was fully of cats, and you can drive off-road which was great for getting up close with the cats. We saw lion and cheetah cubs, a leopard, plus the very rare striped hyena. Also saw a bit of the aftermath of a fight between 2 lion prides. The best up-close flamingo opportunities were at Lake Ndutu and Lake Masek. Plus Olakira is an amazing and fun camp with the best chef. This area is incredibly dusty though without rain. On our last morning, we couldn’t open the car, as there’s so much dust.

Serengeti: Our camp was actually in the Moru Kopje area, about 40 minutes to Seronera. By this time, we had seem so many animals, we were mostly focused on the migration, and spent the 1.5 days we had in Seronera and didn’t do any drives in Moru Kopje. We definitely got to see the migration, with the herds coming down to the Seronera River and various watering holes to drink. For some reason, we saw many more zebras than wildebeests. The herd was more in wooded areas rather than all gathered on the plain (like in the national geographic shots), but it was still an amazing sight.

Zanzibar: Our 3 day stay at Matemwe was magic – just perfect after a safari. Because of the screwed up booking, we stayed in the bungalow instead of the retreat the first night, but they surprised us with this private dinner on the beach, in a cove lit with hundreds of candles! They had champagne on ice and brought us tons of fresh lobsters, prawns and fish from the seafood BBQ. It was possibly the most romantic evening short of our wedding day :). We were both feeling a bit down that our safari was over, and this totally perked us up. Even though it was 90+ and very humid, it never felt hot as there was a strong and cool breeze all day. We were a bit less happy in Stone Town, it was very hot, humid and chaotic. It’s good for a day of shopping, but next time I would probably skip it.

Finally, a bit on “lessons learned”:

Things to bring/not bring: Last time we both had baseball caps, and this time we got proper safari hats. Definitely better – cooler, easier to get on/off with the strap, and keeps your neck shaded. I was also really glad I brought a buff, which I used to cover up all my hair during game drives. Another great thing was a lightweight cotton scarf. This was great for keeping out of the sun, and during the hottest/driest part of the day, I would wet it and drape it around my neck. I brought some cotton tunic-type swimsuit cover-ups which did great double duty both on safari and at the beach. I wish I had brought more lotion/hand cream/lip balm – it was extremely dry. Should have left the shorts and short sleeve shirts at home; the sun was way to strong and I never wore them.

Getting there: We had stayed 4 nights in Istanbul at the beginning of the trip in hopes of getting over jetlag. It didn’t work. We still arrived totally exhausted from Nairobi. Next time we may consider going to the beach first to recover before going on safari.

Camera: I got a new camera, the Canon SX40, which has a 35x zoom. Definitely useful in Tanzania especially in areas where one can’t drive off-road.

Compared to Botswana: This is a really tough question, as we love both. But I would have to say our Tanzania experience was just a shade better. It was interesting to drive and see a bit more of the villages and interaction of the human settlements with the wilderness. The Okavango was stunningly beautiful, but Tanzania landscape had more grandeur. I’d say except for the Mombo area, Tanzania had more animals, but was much more crowded with tourists. But most importantly, it was awesome to spend all 8 days with our wonderful guide. So, if you’re choosing, go to both!

Visa/Vaccination: The visa was a breeze at JRO. After a lot of research and consideration, we decided not to get the yellow fever shot due to possible side effects, and no reported cases in Tanzania. They were checking for the certificate at JRO, but when we told them we never left the Nairobi airport, they waved us through with no issues. No one was checking anything at Zanzibar.

I think that’s all! Thanks to everyone who answered my questions during my planning phase. You helped us to have an amazing trip. If I can be of any help to folks who are planning a trip, please don’t hesitate to PM me.

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