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Kenya/Tanz trip Jan/Feb2013

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We jsut returned from a wonderful trip to Kenya and Tanzania spanning end Jan-beginning Feb 2013. here's a brief summary:
Camps:
Ngorongoro Serena Lodge
Elewana Pioneer Camp - Serengeti
Elephant Bedroom Camp - Samburu
Kicheche Bush Camp - Olare Orok Conservancy (Masai Mara)
Pongwe Beach Hotel - Zanzibar
Fairview Hotel - Nairobi

Pioneer Camp - it's a new camp. the location has a stunning view from the kopjes over the serengeti from the lounge area. sadly, dining area has no view. Overall, lovely furnishings of the the "classic safari"/victorian style. Comfortable beds. the staff is still a little stiff as they probably haven't had time to "gel" together yet and when we were there, we had temporary managers, so that probably doesn't help. It has the beginning of a fine camp and i'm sure it will improve with time. Food was ok - meat was usually on the tough side and sauces too heavy/salty. not much in way of fresh vegetables or fruits (a little in the morning, but limited). more meat and potatoes. If you are taking picnic lunch/breakfast, be VERY clear on what you want. it seems they don't have clear menus/instructions on what to include and you may not receive what you expect. Surprisingly for a camp of this level, they don't pack the full "sundowners" setup - drinks, snacks, glasses..they will give you all these things but you have to ask for everything individually and once again with very clear instructions. Laundry - they send it out, so take 48hrs from morning pickup. only practical if you are staying 3 nights of more. for a camp of this level, that's unacceptable!
Location - we had very good gameviewing in the area. We were a bit early for the migration heards - saw some, but mostly saw resident game. Note: approach to the camp is HEAVY tse-tse fly territory. about 10min out from the camp, you have to close all windows or wrap yourself. it's really, really bad. once you arrive in the camp, it's fine.
Guides - we were with our own guide, so can't comment (but he was wonderful!)

Elephant Bedroom Camp - beautiful location on the river and as promised, lots of elephants going through the camp (and monkeys!). tents large, comfortable and lounge/dining areas lovely. food was good. sundowners only every OTHER day (but they set it up in a nice location on a river for all guests). Unusually for tented camps, had a feeling of nickle and diming - for "all inclusive drinks", it was only house wine and beer and local rum. When ordered a "local rum" drink, was served imported rum and charged $10. for the "sundowners", no choice of drinks - just wine and local rum punch. Manager hardly present - a quick hello each day and that's it.
Guides - this is the reason i WOULD NOT recommend this camp. For a camp of 12 tents, they have only 2 guides on staff (to be fair, many guests arrive with their own guides). We flew in and used their guides. Our "guide" was a local boy barely 20 who's been on the job for 3 months and was more interested in texting on his phone than looking for animals. EVERY sighting we had was because we saw something and ASKED to stop (except one time he saw a cheetah). His english was very, very weak. In addition to the the guide, we had a separate driver who also didn't speak english and didn't know the roads in the park (I guess the "guide" didn't have his drivers' license?). Both were lovely people, but completely not suited to the jobs. Also - very "cheap" with gamedriving times - strictly 6:30 till 9am and 4 till 6:30. that's it! we managed to beg and go our a little earlier for afternoon drives (3/3:30), but there wasn't a lot of enthusiasm.
Gameviewing - i have mixed feelings about Samburu. there are unique species to see and that was interesting. We also had excellent leopard and cheetah viewing (both with cubs and alone, saw both every day). but otherwise, ther'es not a lot going on (but maybe due to the terrible guide?). we had some long gamedrivew where for hours we didn't see anything worth stopping for (and we like all the little and big things, just perhaps less interest in seeing the 500th impala).

Kicheche Bush Camp - this was by FAR our FAVORITE camp. I'm already dreaming of coming back! they put a lot of focus on the quality of guiding (we used their guide). For 6 tents, they have 4 guides on staff and 1 in training. 2 guides are going for Gold certification this year. Ours was Bronze level, but he was fantastic! one of the best guides i've ever had.
Camp - low-key, comfortable and beautiful tents (only 6). the managers - Emma and Darren are lovely and share every meal with their guests. You really feel like you are at home! Emma has her own garden and every meal has plentiful fresh vegetables and herbs, which was a nice change of pace. the food was fantastic!
Our guide was very proactive in offering to take us on extended drives and we packed breakfast with us every morning and our usual schedule was morning drive 6:30a-1pm, lunch, 4p-7p. since it's a conservancy, we could drive off-road and after dark (but not really a night drive as they don't use spotlight to light up game, just the car lights and whatever you can see on your own on the way back into camp).
Gameviewing - Olare Orok is fanstatic for gameviewing. saw leopard every day (same one), several sets of cheetahs (brothers and mother with cubs), lions on every corner and all the other usual animals. We drove into Masai Mara proper one day to the Mara river to see the huge crocs, but overall I preferred the Conservancy. Since there are only 4 camps, you hardly ever see more than one other car. Favorite memories - having sundowners with leopard directly overhead in a tree with her kill and another sundowners watching Hyena den and cubs outside playing.

Overall impressions - Samburu was interesting to see once and was nice variety in landscape and animals from MM/Serengeti, but don't feel a need to return.
Masai Mara - the highlight of the trip and Conservancy (either OO or Mara North) are the way to go.
Serengeti - i doubt i'm coming back. It was so crowded (and it wasn't even the peak time), i felt i was in Six Flags Safari. Every sighting of lion, cheetah or leopard had at least 30 cars around and even huge BUSES! people making noise, talking loudly. it was a zoo! the only way to come back would be in complete off-season.
We were there last time in 2005 and compared to last trip, the roads have gotten significantly worse. We drove Arusha-NN Crater and what was a nice tarmak road was so bone-rattling, i didn't think i would make it. about half of tarmak is torn up and you are driving on gravel. the drive form Crater to Serengeti was even worse (and yes, you expect worse road, but it was truly awful). in addition to the crowding (our guide said it's even worse during the summer holidays), no ability to drive off-road it makes overall for a very subpar experience. Compare to 2005, the prices are double for similar camps (last time we stayed in Migration Camp) and at this price points (Pioneer camp is $800pppn), it's about the same as going to Botswana without all these problems described above (and each camp having it's own airstrip 5 min away without having to drive an hour each way at least). By comparion, the fabulous and superior (in every way) Kicheche Bush Camp was almost half price ($450pppp) for experience twice as good.
Crater - be aware that the "close" exit (on the side of Crater and Serena lodges) is closed for maintance for a long time and everyone has to exit from the back and then drive all around the crater rim before proceeding either back to Arusha or on to Serengeti. It added 1hr of driving. Just something to keep in mind for you planning.
So, Tanzania needs to rethink what market segment it's really going for as it doesn't seem to be hitting either the high or the low-end properly (and yes, i'm aware there are less expensive camps, but not too many that are not huge lodges or really, really basic).
Kenya prices are up sharply also - this trip cost us 2X pppn than our 2005 trip and we stayed at similar-level camps (Little Governor's, Migration, Tortilis, NN Serena).

Pongwe - little piece of haven! pefect beach, fantastic food, low--key, laid back, great pool, quiet! if you get a chance, GO!

Happy to answer any questions.

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    Thanks for the report on Pioneer Camp... first I've seen. Shame they didn't yet have their act together, but on opening any lodge/camp/hotel there has to be a 'soft-opening' to work out the kinks, which seemed this camp had lots. Sure hope you got the 'special' of 'stay 3/nts, pay for 2/nts.' As far as the Serengeti being 'a zoo' guess that's what's to be expected during this very peak season when the 'calving' of wildebeest takes place, much as the Mara can be during the 'migration.' As to the beef... well, welcome to Tanzania, where it's not as we're used to at home, though beef in Kenya does tend to be better. Cows are just raised/fed differently than we are more familiar. Wonder though how you felt with the kitchen and manager's tents up front of the camp vs to the back where most camps place these. And, how was it walking up those stairs to the public/dining areas?

    Elephant Bedroom at Samburu often has guests arriving with own guide/vehicle, but surprising the few they had on-hand were newbies. We didn't find that during our visit. When it comes to beverages included it's almost always only - soft drinks, local beers and house wines. Other than these, it's gotta be paid for. As to the Reserve itself, you do realize that Samburu in Jan/Feb is very very hot, so not surprised that even game went looking for shade or water to cool off. Why they have the tiny plunge pools on the deck of each tent. Overall though sorry you were disappointed with Samburu which happens to be one of my favorite areas.

    Kicheche Bush is a gem as are the other camps on this conservancy; likewise their Kicheche Valley Camp located on the Naboisho conservancy the next over to the east. How does Emma look? We did notice her baby bump... for sure there will be lots of babies amongst the many camp managers who are preggy... will be a busy early summer, me thinks. :)

    At Ngorongoro with only two roads in/out... periodically one or the other has to be closed for 'repair' if you can call the roads here to need repair from where they started... rather chilling and bumpy, no doubt.

    As to the condition of the roads in the Serengeti, considering that during December there was lots and lots of rain, these turned into mud, rivers into lakes and airstrips were washed out. Welcome to the bush! But the rain is needed and unlike what we'd expect you can't expect Public Works to repair as would hopefully happen in the West. When we were in late Oct, we marvelled how our guide got around all the twists/turns... not a single direct rather good condition, at least gravel road. They deserve whatever tips we give them... amazing.

    Prices, since 2005 when between the economy worldwide went into the tank, prices from 2008 thru 2010, there were few if any increases which then started again in '11 and now every year since. On average increases range between 8-15%, besides the increase in fuel prices (vehicles and flights) and even park fees. If I tried repricing my first safari 18/yrs ago, figure they've minimum 4x or 5x higher. So goes.

    Again, thanks for your review.

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    couple things forgot to add:
    at Elephant Bedrooom Camp, the guides also worked as waiters for lunch and dinner and did checkin, registration and orientation. It added to the discomfort and the feeling that the camp management is cutting corners on cost.
    plunge baths - there were little baths with water on the deck of each tent. it was lovely, but not very practical as they were too small to be fully submerged with water. so at any point, you can have half your body wet and if there's any breeze, the other half that is exposed gets chilly quickly. nice idea, but not quiet there yet. i did cool off my feet though and that was nice.
    re: drinks - Every camp I've been before, if alcohol is included, it also included mixed drinks (G&T) and things like Amarula (which is cheaper than wine per serving). This includes - Little Governor's, Tortilis, Migration Camp, Pioneer Camp, Kicheche Bush Camp, All camps in Botswana. EBC was different and I didn't appreciate the "bait and switch" with the rum drink. Just pointing it out for any G&T afficionados.

    Samburu - it wasn't particularly hot. it was actually somewhat cool (relatively) and pleasant and we spent a lot of time hanging around the river and waterholes. i think our lack of seeing game is due to subpar guiding and not going to the right places within the reserve. a guide can truly make or break your experience. I've had fantastic guides in the past, so i guess it was time to draw the short straw. But I do hold management responsible for sending out such an unexperienced guide with clients. By comparison, in Kicheche Bush Camp, they have a trainee guide who is only allowed to do transfers to/from airstrip until he is deemed to be ready to work with clients.

    My only point in comparing costs is that Botswana used to be more expensive in part due to low-density and guaranteed lack of crowds. Tanzania and Kenya were less expensive (more "Value" destinations) but it was understood that with that came more crowds. That was a choice to make.
    Now, Tanzania is about the same cost as Botswana but with significantly more crowds and I don't see how the experience justifies the cost premium. Kenya is getting there also, which is why in my opinion the only way to visit Masai Mara now is by staying in the Conservancies. You can still drive into the Reserve proper to see the crossing at the Mara river and then can do other gameviewing in better conditions. In Serengeti, that is not as much of an option (there are some private reserves on the West side, but depending on the season that's now where you may want to be).

    Pioneer Camp - there are a fair number of steps up and down and sloping ground to the tents. not a problem, but not recommended for anyone with mobility issues. Mostly, I feel bad for the staff as the bar is kept in the lounge, which is a good 20 steps up and during dinner service every drink request requires staff member to keep running up and down the stairs.
    Manager's tent is in the front, but to the side and pretty well hidden, so hardly noticable. Kitchen is next to dining tent - i had no problem with it. everything is neat, clean and no additional noise.

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