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Trip Report Micato Safaris – The Heart of Kenya and Tanzania

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Pre-trip planning began with perusing Fodor’s Complete Africa Safari Planner, African Safari Journal by Mark W. Nolting, and Frommer’s Kenya and Tanzania travel guide. In addition, I did some web surfing and attended the New York Times travel show, which had a few exhibitors that specialized in safaris as well as an exhibition from the Tanzanian Tourist Board. In the end, I spoke to three safari operators/consolidators: Abercrombie & Kent, Micato, and Hippo Creek Safaris. Hippo Creek was a New Jersey based agency that develops custom itineraries and contracts local safari operators, lodges and camps to provide the on-the-ground services. They do not have staff on-the-ground in East Africa. My interest was to have a fully escorted travel experience; therefore, I concluded that Hippo Creek was not for us.
The individuals I contacted at A & K and Micato were very knowledgeable and were able to spontaneously answer every question I asked.
I asked questions covering a broad range of topics including, for example:
Tour Operator Credentials:
1. Trade recognitions and awards
2. Client references
3. Support infrastructure and native staff on the ground in Africa
4. US based staff’s experience on the ground in Africa
5. The last time the staff member was in Africa
6. Personal experience at the lodges and camps used in the itinerary
Pre-Trip Preparation:
1. VISA requirements
2. Health documents required
3. Packing list recommendation
4. Information resources and research recommendations
5. Recommended shopping venues for safari gear
Life in the bush:
1. Food restrictions and recommendations
2. Is the ice safe to use?
3. Practical items available for sale at the lodges & camps? Snacks? Drinks? Toiletries? OTC medicines? Batteries?
4. Number of in room electrical outlets and voltage type
5. Capacity to charge batteries for cameras and cell phones
6. Hair dryers in the rooms
7. Adaptors furnished or not
8. Do lodges & camps accept credit cards? Which ones?
9. What services are provided? Not provided?
Financial:
1. Tipping protocol and recommendations
2. Potential unplanned expenses
3. Recommended cash balance and denominations
4. Refund policy
Murphy’s Law:
1. Contingency plans for civil unrest/terrorism
Most guide books provide a detailed list of frequently-asked questions from which you can tailor a questionnaire to satisfy your needs and requirements.
My research indicated the lodges A & K used were more upscale, which was of interest to me; however, the determining factor for selecting Micato as our travel provider was the fact they had a significant presence on the ground in both Kenya and Tanzania. In hindsight, I can say Micato does some things very well and others not so well. Micato’s use of Sopa lodges is a very negative consideration.
Our trip was scheduled for mid to late September, 2011. I chose this timeframe because it is around the time of the Great Migration. As it turned out, the rains came early this year and the Great Migration was pretty much a thing of the past at the time of our arrival. No big thing other than we did not get to see the crocs in action as the wildebeest and zebras made the Mara river crossing. September was a good time for the trip. I am told the other optimum time slot is in February, which is in the middle of calving season.
Micato did a credible job providing pre-trip information on a timely basis. Shortly after posting the trip deposit a Safari Planning brochure arrived. It contained information concerning VISA and health requirements, clothing and packing recommendations, and practical information concerning what to expect while on safari. There was also a brochure for VISA information and applications. Micato uses the CIBT agency to process the VISA applications for Kenya and Tanzania. They charge a premium; however, the process is seamless. Make sure your passport has enough blank pages to accommodate the VISA insertions.
At intervals prior to the trip we received various tidbits of information including an informative James Earl Jones narrated documentary film, Africa: The Serengeti (pop corn included) and a coffee table book, The Micato Safaris Guide to Predators. Just prior to our departure, we received a detailed itinerary and contact information for the lodges, etc.
I normally do not purchase trip insurance; however, this is one of those occasions where this is, in my view, a wise investment. Of particular note is the fact the Micato’s recommended policy includes coverage for the Nairobi based Flying Doctors who will be dispatched out into the bush to attend to medical emergencies. I believe the insurance premium is approximately 7% of the trip cost.
The itinerary requires certain health care preparations, and a pre-trip medical travel examination is appropriate. Treatments included yellow fever vaccination and a malaria prophylactic (Malarome). We also received tetanus and polio booster, Hepatitis A & B, and meningococcal vaccinations.
Packing
RELAX!!! The 15 kg (33 lbs) weight restriction for domestic flights is very workable. There are two keys to success. First, take advantage of your starting point hotel’s offer to store luggage while you are out in the bush. We were in England for several days prior to arriving in East Africa, thus we were carrying many items that were not relevant to safari travel. We each traveled with one piece of regular luggage and the duffle provided by Micato. We packed all of the non-safari related apparel, etc. in our suitcases that we locked and stored at the hotel in Nairobi prior to our departure for the bush. Our safari gear and clothing were packed in the Micato duffels or our one carryon piece. The Micato rep checked the weight of the duffels at the hotel in Nairobi and would have advised us if there was a problem. We were well within the weight restrictions. FYI, the air carriers did not check the weight of carry-ons. The second key to success is to take advantage of having your laundry done at the camps and lodges while you are out on safari. Laundry left in the morning will be returned to you with the evening turn down service. The costs for the laundry service are very reasonable. Representative laundry charges were:
Laundry Charges - Sopa Lodges
Trousers/Slacks $ 1.50
Shirts/Blouses $ 1.25
Shorts $ 1.25
Dresses $ 1.50
T-Shirts $ 1.00
Brassieres $ 1.00
Underpants $ 1.00
Socks $ 0.75
Night Gown $ 1.00
Sweaters $ 2.00
Jackets $ 2.00

My Packing List
Clothing
1 Safari Vest - Light Weight - Scottevest is a good one - Wear on board
1 Fleece Hoodie
1 Rain/Windbreaker Jacket
3 Convertible Pants - In place of shorts - Wear one on board
1 Flip Flops/Slippers
1 Shoes - Rockport Walking
1 PJs - Long Johns
4 Socks - One pair worn on board
6 Under pants - One worn on board
1 Swimming Suit
1 Hat - Tilley - Wide Brimmed - Provided by Micato
6 T-shirts - One worn on board
2 Short Sleeve Polo Shirt
3 Long Sleeve Shirt - One worn on Board
2 Neckerchief
2 Short Sleeve Shirts
Personal toiletries

Medications:
NEVER EVER CHECK IN YOUR LUGGAGE. STORE IN YOUR CARRYON
Levofloxacin – Treats bacterial infections
Malaria Meds
Medication – Personal

Personal Gear
AAA Batteries
Bean bag – For camera stability in the safari vehicles
Camera - Nikon
Camera Battery - Extra
Camera Battery Charger
Camera Flash
Camera Lens Cleaning material/cloth
Camera UV Filters
Camera telephoto zoom lens 300 M – An absolute must!!!
Cigar Lighter - Disposable
Cigars - Five
Day Pack
Ear Gear
iPhone
iPhone Charger
Locking Cable to secure bags in camp
Locks for stored luggage
NOOK
NOOK Charger
Notebook/Journal - Provided by Micato
Pencil - Mechanical
Pens (2)
Reading Light - Clip On
Safety Pins
SD Media Storage Cards - I had 2 - 16GB, 1 - 8GB and 1 - 4 GB
Small denomination bills
Sunglasses - Wraparound & Neck Cord

Personal Care
Anti-fungal cream
Antihistamine
Anti-septic wipes
Aspirin
Baby powder
Chap stick/lip balm
Cortisone (anti-bite cream)
DEET = 35% or >
DEET cream
Permethrin mozzie repellant laundry clothes spray
Facial moisturizer
First aid kit - mini
H & S shampoo minis
Hand sanitizer - 2 X
Immodium
Kleenex packets
Neosporin
Off wipes
Peptol Bismal
Personal waste plastic bags
Shave cream
Soaps - mini - 2 X
Sucret Throat Lozenges
Sun screen - SPF 30
Toilet paper - 2 rolls - YES TWO ROLLS
Vitamins

Camp Gear
Cord
Duct tape
Flash tights - provided by Micato
Laundry bag
Leatherman
Mulit-plug outlet
Plug adaptor
Sewing kit with buttons
Tide-to-Go Pen
Trash bags (2)
Velcro strip
Zip Loc Bags - 3 Sizes

Documents:
Business cards
Hotel confirmations
International license
Passport
Prescription forms from your MD – In case a refill is needed
Tickets and other travel documents
Travel insurance documents
Vaccination certificates

You can make pdf copies of many of these documents and copy them from your PC to a smart phone, e-reader, or tablet PC. It will reduce your baggage weight and eliminate the hassle of hauling around the African bush.
My wife packed the female equivalent of the clothing list. We split the personal care and camp gear between the two duffle bags. The personal care and camp gear list is extensive. Most of it you will never use; however, all of it you do not want to be without. The two bags came in at 57 lbs. (9 lbs. under the weight restrictions!)
Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) proved to be a great, one-stop shopping destination for our safari apparel and gear.
Nairobi:
Arrival --- We landed at NBO at around 9:00 PM on BA 64, an eight and one-half flight from LHR. Customs clearance was relatively simple given the fact that we had arranged for VISAs prior to our departure. This is a very prudent thing to do because those who had not done so stood in a separate line for a considerable length of time. Not a fun away to end an all day flight!
As soon as we cleared customs, we were greeted by four Micato staff who were awaiting us at the luggage carousel. They were dressed in Micato outfits and had a large sign bearing our names. Henry, our Safari Director for the Kenya portion of our trip, advised we were the only two who were on this particular itinerary segment in Nairobi although we would join a group of eight in Arusha who were travelling on the Stanley Wing Safari. Our luggage arrived fairly quickly and we departed for the 20-minute ride to Nairobi’s legendary Norfolk Hotel. Check-in had been arranged in advance consequently, the only thing required of us was a signature on the hotel registration form. Upon entry to the room we were treated to the first of the many trinkets and gifts from Micato, in this case, a vase of roses and a fruit basket. I have grouped my comments concerning hotels, lodges and camps in one section towards the end of this journal.
15 September 2011 --- Day 1 --- Nairobi --- Our day started with a meeting with the Micato staff who briefed us on our time in Nairobi. We were then joined by a Maasai warrior dressed in full regalia. He explained the history of the Maasai culture and how Maasai life centers on the role of cattle in their lives. It provided interesting insight.
We then drove with Henry to Sheldrick’s Wildlife Center, which is a haven for baby elephants orphaned in the bush (usually by poachers) that are brought to the reserve in Nairobi to be nurtured into adolescence and then returned to the wild. A large crowd of tourists and students on field trip encircled a pen like area as the elephants were escorted by their handlers into the pitch. They are fed enormous bottles of formula that they consume instantaneously. They are allowed to wallow and play in the mud while one of the handlers gives a presentation about the work of the Center as well as a brief background of each of the animals. It’s honorable work and in complete contrast to what awaits you in the bush where survival of the fittest reigns supreme.
We then proceeded to the Pinto residence (owners of Micato Safaris) for a buffet luncheon with Mrs. Pinto. She is a most interesting woman who delights in telling of the development and achievements of Micato Safaris.
After lunch, we went to the National Museum of Kenya for a tour of the artifacts. It has an impressive taxidermy collection. From there we returned to the hotel to relax and pack for our venture into the African bush.
16 September 2011 --- Day 2 --- Nairobi and Transit to Tarangire National Park ---
In the morning we visited the Karen Blixen home (Out of Africa fame) and the Langata Giraffe Center that was founded to save the endangered Rothschild Giraffe, which had become endangered as a result of losing its natural habitat in western Kenya to agriculture. Giraffes born at the center are relocated to reserves throughout Kenya.
We then drove to Wilson airport for an early lunch prior to departing for Tarangire National Park in Tanzania. Government bureaucracy makes getting there far more complicated that it should be. The first leg was a 55-minute flight departing at 1:15 PM on Air Kenya # 871 (19-seat Twin Otter) to Kilimanjaro International Airport. We cleared Tanzanian Customs here and had a 90-minute layover before departing on a 15-minute flight to Arusha on a 19-seat LET aircraft where we connected with our Tanzanian Safari Director, Raphael, and the 8 people from the Micato Stanley Wing Safari group for the 22-minute flight on a 12-seat Cessna Grand Caravan arriving at an airstrip in Tarangire National Park at 4:31 PM. We were 3 and one-half hours in transit for what could have been a one hour flight in the best of all worlds.
We were met by two Micato “pop top” Land Cruisers and in 15 minutes were off on our first game drive. Our driver was “Safari Steve”, a personable, highly experienced and very knowledgeable individual. His experienced eye knew where to look and what to look for. It was incredible what he would see out on the horizon.
Within 10 minutes of departing from the airstrip we encountered our first elephants! Hello Africa!!! It was awesome. One baby had been born within the past few days! It was still learning to walk! It was a brilliant afternoon and we continued on across the terrain, which was picture perfect. The soil had a distinct red tint, the grass was pure gold and brilliant green candelabra trees were interspersed across the plain. About 30 minutes after we left the herd of elephants, Steve, our driver, spotted a leopard in a tree on the horizon. It was an incredible sight. At first it was laying down on a large branch; however, after a few minutes it stood up on the limb, which gave us a full profile. It was about 5:45 PM as the sun was beginning to set directly behind where we were and the sun was casting a soft light golden glow on this magnificent creature. I knew this was going to be the iconic photo for the entire safari because the lighting conditions could not have been better. The great photo-ops on a safari are almost endless but this turned out to be the treasure.
After becoming leopard sated, we continued on to the Tarangire Sopa lodge arriving there at 6:37 PM. The group met for cocktails, snacks, and a briefing before the evening meal. Drinking the local water is absolutely taboo, thus I was concerned about ice; however, our guide advised the ice was made from bottled water and was perfectly safe. I consumed it throughout our time in the bush and had no problems.
The food at this Sopa lodge and, for that matter, at the next two was pedestrian, at best. I have traveled the second and third world extensively and am a very conservative eater. I stick to cooked or peeled. Having said that, the others in the group ate freely including raw vegetables and no one had any dietary problems.
17 September 2011 --- Day 3 --- Tarangire National Park and Transit to the Ngorongoro Crater ---
Tarangire National Park was high on my list of priorities because I learned in my pre-trip research the Tarangire River is a year-round source of water for the animals consequently the odds of spotting abundant wildlife is excellent. Tarangire did not disappoint. We left the Sopa Lodge at 7:30 AM for a game drive. After driving past herds of cape buffalo, impala, and the occasional black-faced monkey we came upon our first sighting of lions sleeping under a tree. They were a lazy lot most probably sleeping off a successful hunt the previous night. One was sleeping about 100 yards from the pride and she eventually got up and slowly moseyed on over to the others. We continued on past a pair of ostriches. The male’s neck and legs were a shade of pink that our driver, Steve, advised was a sign he was preparing to mate although the two females in the immediate vicinity seemed less than enthused or were playing hard to get!
We drove to the river, which was quite low at this time of year. The short rains were probably a month away from replenishing the Tarangire. We drove past a herd of elephants that were making their way to the river for a morning drink. We parked in the river bed and witnessed the most amazing show of the elephants walking past us to the river for their sip. They were so close to the vehicle you could almost reach out and touch them. There was a newborn who closely trailed its mother. When they got into the water, it became evident the baby was just learning to drink and had yet to master the art. It would suck water into its trunk and try to spray it into his/her mouth; however, it managed to spray more on itself that into its mouth. Live and learn …. Africa style.
We continued on and came upon a pair of giraffes “necking,” which is a form of fighting. The flow of wildlife was almost non-stop as we passed more giraffes, an eagle perched in a tree, beautiful varieties of birds, zebra, impala, and on and on.
At that point we came up on a huge congregation of impala and zebra. They were absolutely motionless, frozen in time. The reason for the “freezin” soon became apparent as up ahead laying under the shade of a tree was a lioness gazing out on her domain. She was obviously sated since she did not demonstrate the slightest interest in the bounty of prey at her doorstep. As we were watching her, a warthog came walking towards the tree unaware of the lion’s presence. It got to within three feet of the lion before realizing its presence. When it finally saw the lion, it jumped into the air and did an airborne 180 ° and took off like a bat out of hell. On our drive back to lodge we came upon another parade of elephants heading to the river. They march in single file behind the leader with the younger ones interspersed among the adults for their protection from predators. They are amazing creatures.
We arrived back at the Sopa at 11:45 AM. We had a bar-b-que lunch down by the swimming pool. We departed the Sopa Tarangire at 1:10 PM headed for the Ngorongoro Crater Sopa Lodge. The first part of the trip was a short game drive to the Tarangire Park gate, which we reached at 2:20 PM. From there we continued on to the Crater gate arriving at 5:00 PM. From the gate we drove straight to the Ngorongoro Crater Sopa Lodge arriving at 5:50 PM. The initial roads from Tarangire were paved and fine for overland travel; however, once we left pavement, the drive became an absolute trip to and from hell. You cannot imagine the condition of the roads. It was misery.
Our day ended with a briefing and cocktails prior to dinner. We deserved a drink for surviving the drive to the crater’s rim.
18 September 2011 --- Day 4 --- Ngorongoro Crater ---
The Ngorongoro Crater is a World Heritage site that was created when a volcano exploded and collapsed on itself creating an oblong crater with a floor that sits 2000 feet below the crater rim. Sunrises and sunsets from the rim are notable. Unfortunately the weather conditions for both mornings and evenings we were there were overcast or fog thus it was a missed photo op. The second morning the clouds were lifting and separating allowing the sun to peak through, which created some really interesting visual effects on the crater floor below. Our game drive left the lodge at 7:05 AM and arrived at the Crater gate at 7:20 AM. From there it was a 16-minute descent onto the crater floor. One of the benefits of staying at the Sopa Lodge at Ngorongoro is its proximity to the crater access road, which gives its guests an approximate one hour advantage in the descent to the crater.
The crater was teeming with wildlife including massive herds of wildebeest and zebra. Very early in the drive we closed our “Big Five” loop (buffalo, rhino, elephant, lion and leopard) with the sighting of two black rhinos off on the horizon. Unfortunately we couldn’t get as close as we might have liked because no roadway led to where they were. The days of off-road access to wildlife are over. This is where a good telephoto lens comes in handy. We soon came across a pretty nasty looking hyena that was at roadside along with a couple of super-sized warthogs. Further along we approached Lake Magadi, which I believe is an inland salt lake. It was carpeted with a huge flock of pink flamingoes that created an incredible color contrast of the brilliant pink hue set against the gold and green flora of the crater floor.
Our game drive continued into a forested section (I believe it is referred to as the Lerai Forest) past numerous elephants. We made a pit stop that was hosted by a group of black-faced monkeys who were scurrying over fallen trees in search of a snack.
We drove out of the forested area and back onto the plain and came upon a pride of lions napping under and around a tree. Not a lot of activity here. There was the occasional lifting of a head to scope out the local terrain or get up to move to a more comfortable prone position but that was it. The male was completely out of it, sleeping in the open with an accomplice about 50 yards from the where the rest of the pride was under the tree.
Our drive continued past a massive hippo wallowing in the mud on the horizon and a couple of hyenas who were napping on the roadside. You could have touched them. We once again sighted a couple of black rhinos off in the distance. They seem to keep to themselves away from the safari vehicles.
We continued on and overcame a large pride of lions including a few cubs that were sleeping on the roadside. Some of them were no more than six feet from where we were parked. We spent a long time checking them out. Those that were awake and gazing out at their surroundings couldn’t have cared less about our presence. They completely ignored us. A couple of them where dead to the world sleeping on their backs with their paws skyward.
Our drive continued to the Ngoitokituk spring lake rest area arriving at 1:40 PM. The lake was populated with a number of hippos just passing their time in the cool waters. There must have been at least 50 safari vehicles that had congregated there for a lunch break. Our lunch was one of Sopa’s box lunches, which are awful. After lunch we began our trek back to the crater rim. I was not feeling well and asked to be taken back to the lodge. The other group continued on for a visit to a Maasai village.
19 September 2011 --- Day 5 --- Ngorongoro Crater to the Serengeti via the Odulpai Gorge
We departed from the Ngorongoro Crater Sopa Lodge at 8:07 AM for our drive to Odulpai Gorge. We made a brief pit stop at the Tanzania Tourist office. The toilets were “squats only,” no western style commodes. As we drove out of the park, I did take note of the fact there was an airstrip, the use of which would have greatly enhanced the trek to and fro the Ngorongoro Crater. The weather quickly tuned partly sunny and warm, a beautiful day. The drive took us through a countryside setting of hills and valleys interspersed with Maasai bomas. As you gazed out across the horizon towards the villages, the brightly colored Maasai robes stood out in stark contrast to the brown/golden terrain. We came across several herdsmen marching their phalanxes of cattle back through the valley from what I had assumed to be a local water source. This time of year is just prior to the short rains and the terrain was incredibly arid. We were stopped along the side of the road and about a mile in the valley below; I took note of two female Maasai marching their cattle back to the village and when one of them saw me taking their picture she started to run towards the vehicle. I assume she was seeking compensation.
We arrived at the Odulpai Gorge (not Odulvai) research center at 10:30 AM. The Odulpai Gorge is considered in many circles to be Cradle of Mankind and is one of the most important prehistoric sites in the research of early human evolution. Research was pioneered by the Leakeys and a very active program continues to this day. We gathered in an open air shelter on the edge of the ravine that over looked a massive monolith. One of the research interns gave an informative lecture on human evolution and the work being performed at the research center. The site also has a small museum and a gift shop. While browsing I managed to get stung by an African bee. Obviously not the killer strain because I survived.
We left the research center at 11:35 AM headed for the Serengeti National Park. The drive was unbelievably dusty. Shortly after departing the center I came across what I think was one of the most striking images and contrasts of life in the African bush. We drove past a Maasai young man who was walking along the road. He was dressed in the traditional Maasai robe and in one hand carried one of the walking sticks they use. His other hand was lifted to the side of his head holding his cell phone. He was having a chat with god only knows who!!!
We arrived at the Serengeti gate at 12:35 PM and had another crappy Sopa box lunch in the picnic area. There were a number of really striking multi-colored lizards scampering about the picnic area. I had not seen anything like this up until this point of our journey. They became the subjects of some really great images. We left on a game drive at 1:40 PM. There had been some recent rain and there was a noticeable difference in the landscape. The grasses were more plentiful than in Tarangire and the Crater and there was some green growth interspersed amongst the harvest gold. The roads in the Serengeti were a vast improvement from what we experienced getting to and from the Crater rim.
The landscape was dotted with kopje, small rocky hills. We drove past the Simba Kopje and appropriately enough we came upon the first of the two lion prides we spotted on the drive. They were, as par for the course, lounging around underneath a shade tree. I never got to the point where one might utter “another lion, so what?” Even with all the sightings, I never bored of them. They truly are regal and they fear nothing given their only natural predator is humankind and they have become accustomed to the protection offered them in the park system.
About an hour and one-half after entering the park we came upon a herd of hippos. There were about twelve and they were all out of the water along the edge of the stream. You develop a real sense of appreciation for their size when you see that many in “full dress” all at one time. Our drive to the lodge passed the usual throngs of impalas. Impalas can be distinguished by three black vertical lines on their rear ends that give the appearance of the letter “M”. The locals claim this to be the logo for “McDonalds for Lions”.
We arrived at the lodge at 4:00 PM. Our room had a balcony that looked out over the Serengeti savannah. The roof line at the edge of the balcony was home to the lodge’s welcoming ambassador, a petite black-faced monkey that had the saddest face, which would disappear quickly if a snack were pro-offered. We ended the day with a pre-dinner briefing and sundowners at a bonfire outside in the pool area.
20 September 2011 --- Day 6 --- Serengeti National Park
This turned out to be a great game day. We left on a morning game drive at 7:30 AM. The day was going to be sunny and warm following last evening’s rain shower. Our first stop was at a stream where there was a large troop of baboons along the river bank. They ranged in age from full adulthood to adolescence and a newborn that was being closely held by its mother. Eventually the mother got up to walk away and the infant was transported by clinging to its mother’s underbelly. The young baboons are very social and playful. We next came upon a bloat of hippos in full periscope mode that being only their eyes and little ears were protruding from the water. Our next encounter along the roadside was with a group of animals that were on or around a termite mound. I believe they were mongoose although I’m not totally sure. The river was a gathering point for a number of wildlife including buffalo, zebra, and giraffe.
As we moved away from the stream we came across what looked to be an endless line of zebra walking single file in what may have been the first arrivals of the migration. We once again encountered a male ostrich in full mating mode as his neck and legs were a shade of bright pink. There were a couple of females who were the objects of his interest. One of the females began to walk away and as she did, she was spreading her wings and fluffing her feathers. The male was following her. Perhaps this was the ostrich equivalent of “strutting her stuff.”
At this point, the game drive became most interesting as we came upon our first sighting of a cheetah that was standing in the grass just off the road. It walked into the taller grasses where it became camouflaged to the point it was almost undistinguishable. It sat there gazing at a herd of impalas grazing about two hundred yards away. A lone hyena was in the grass about a half mile behind the cheetah and was walking towards the cheetah and impala herd. Once the cheetah realized the hyena was approaching it started to alternate its watch between it and the impalas. Safari Steve said the cheetah was unlikely to attack the impalas because it was not about to do the hyenas dirty work meaning that if the cat did kill one of the impalas, the hyena would attempt to steal the kill. After a while we drove off leaving the cheetah at stealth in the deep grass.
After driving past another bloat of hippos in the river we came upon a horde of about 20 safari vehicles that were focused on a leopard in a tree. The leopard had made a kill the night before and dragged the impala carcass back to the tree. The carcass was hanging from the tree about 20 feet off the ground to keep scavengers at bay. The leopard had removed the animal’s intestines and left them on the ground. That was the extent of its willingness to share any of its bounty. The tree was adjacent to the roadside so I was able to get some incredible close up images of the leopard.
We continued our game drive and came upon an elephant jam. The previous evening rain showers had left puddles of water in the depressions in the roadway and the elephants were taking their morning drink in the middle of the road rather than trekking to the nearby river. It’s really interesting to watch how protective they are of their young. They always make sure the young are surrounded by full grown adults to ward off any predators (lions). Hillary Clinton would be proud as it was the elephant rendition of “it takes a village”.
A pride of lions resting under a shade tree closed the loop for our “cat day” morning game drive. It was a good size group of six to eight of them. They were more active than the others we had observed. A jeep with two game wardens came by and drove out and parked right next to them. The lions were totally indifferent.
As we were working our way back to the lodge to conclude our morning game drive we came upon another bloat of hippos wallowing away in the river as well as a herd of zebras who were in the river sating their thirst.
As we were approaching the lodge we drove past a three Grey Crowned Cranes, a spectacular and beautiful bird. I had observed them on each of our game drives. Not being a birder seemed to detract my attention from the birdlife we encountered on our journey. The Weaver nests hanging from trees are ubiquitous and there were some really beautiful varieties, for example, the Lilac-breasted Roller and a couple of varieties of Starlings. A true appreciation for Africa’s vast and varied birdlife would also seem to require a separate venture.
We arrived back at the lodge at 12:45 PM concluding our morning game drive.
We departed from the lodge at 4:15 PM for a short afternoon game drive. We drove past the usual cast of characters on our drive to a kopje in the Moru section of the Serengeti. The kopje was billed as Pride Rock, the inspiration for the location of the same name in The Lion King. The kopje is comprised of giant boulders on top of other giant boulders. We climbed to the top. Our guide drew our attention to one boulder that was partially hollow. He stated the Maasai used it as a ceremonial site and pointed out indentations in the formation that had been formed by drumming with other rocks. I was off exploring and didn’t get the full story. This was one of the few times we were allowed to get out of the vehicle. It was a great vantage point to gaze out on the Serengeti’s endless plains. The rain showers were already producing some green growth on the landscape. Our drive back to the lodge was highlighted by the onset of one of the better sunsets we experienced on our journey.
We arrived back at the lodge at 6:34 PM. The Micato staff briefing summarized the Tanzanian segment of our journey. This was to be our last evening with them as tomorrow we were venturing back to Kenya and on to the Maasai Mara section of the Serengeti, which was due north of our current location.
Before heading in for the evening meal we took a few minutes to sit out on our balcony. Our “front yard” was occupied by a group of giraffe partaking their evening meal. It was a moment to relish the vast Serengeti plains that stretched out before us. After two days of incredible game viewing and experiences you could only wonder what awaited you on the other side in the Mara.
21 September 2011 --- Day 7 ---Flying Over Africa --- Serengeti to the Maasai Mara
We departed the Serengeti Sopa Lodge at 9:00 AM for a short game drive before continuing on to the Serengeti airstrip. We drove past the stream that was yesterday’s home for the troop of baboons. They were nowhere to be found. Today’s residents were a duck and a beautiful white stork-like bird that had a bright red head and elongated yellow beak. There were giraffe at the road’s edge and I was able to get some really great close-up shots. One of them featured a couple of birds on a piggy back ride across the plain. We also passed a large herd of cape buffalo. They really are cantankerous looking. This herd had some calves that were just beginning to grow out their horns, which at this point in their life comprised small stubs on each side of their head.
We soon arrived at Serengeti “International Airport” that comprised of a hut (I assume used by Park Rangers), a satellite dish, and a dirt airstrip. We took off at 10:40 AM in an 18-seat Twin Otter aircraft for a 52-minute flight to Arusha. The weather was clear and sunny, which made for smooth flying and great sightseeing. Fortunately, I was able to commandeer the rear seat that afforded my 6”2” frame with something close to what could be characterized as leg room. We landed in Arusha at 11:32 AM and had a one and one-half hour layover waiting on a flight to Kilimanjaro International. It seemed unnecessary down time that was considerably worsened by another one of those awful Sopa box lunches. It was the last time I would have to go eye-to-eye with one of those culinary minefields.
Before taking off we were sitting in the aircraft and the pilot’s door opened and a young blonde woman (mid 20’s I would guess) jumped into the pilot’s seat. She turned around and said “Hi. My name is Sarah and I will be flying you to Kilimanjaro today.” We took off from Arusha at 12:58 PM in a 12-seat Cessna Grand Caravan for the 13-minute flight to Kilimanjaro International airport where we landed at 1:11 PM. While we were waiting for the luggage to de-plane, Sarah came over and one of the group inquired as to what her background was and how she got to Africa to fly planes. It turned out she was a graduate of Western Michigan University which has a School of Aviation Science. After graduation she decided to head for Africa to seek adventure! Good for her.
We had about a 45-minute layover at Kilimanjaro before departing for Nairobi’s Wilson airport at 2:00 PM on a Dehaviland Dash 8, 37-seat aircraft. It was a 40-minute flight that touched down at 2:40 PM. Our approach into Wilson afforded us some great views of Nairobi. We flew directly over what I assumed was one of Nairobi’s slums as it was a vast maze of huts with corrugated metal roofs.
We were met at Wilson by Henry and George, the Micato Safari Directors for the Kenyan side of the journey. The final leg of the trip from Nairobi to the Mara was on another 18-seat Twin Otter aircraft that took off at 3:14 PM for the 40-minute flight. The flight out of Wilson to the Mara affords some terrific aerial views of the Great Rift Valley and Nguruman Escarpment terrain. The final approach to the Kichwa Tembo airstrip took us directly over the Mara River. We landed at the Mara airstrip at 3:57 PM. Kichwa Tembo “International” comprises a wooden sign and a thatched roofed gazebo. The transit from the Tanzanian side of the Serengeti to the Kenyan side took most of the day. It’s a total waste of Safari time, as the distance between the two points is probably a total of 100 km as the Lilac-breasted Roller flies.
We were met at the airstrip by two safari vehicles from &beyond, Micato’s sub-contracted safari operator in the Maasai Mara. The drivers had set out a clothed table with coffee and refreshments. The &beyond vehicles are different from those we used in Tanzania. These do not have the pop up roofs. They are Land Cruisers that have been configured with 4-tiered passenger platforms each of which accommodate two persons. These Land Cruisers are less user friendly on the game drives. Our driver was a young woman whose name is Sophy. She was one of the few females I experienced working as a driver or guide. She is working in a man’s world. She proved to be up to the task and then some.
We were out on our game drive by 4:14 PM. My initial reaction of the Mara was that the vegetation was much greener than it had been on the Tanzanian side of the Serengeti, which was the result of recent evening rain showers. Our drive took us past the usual cast of characters although there always seemed to be a new twist. We passed a group of cape buffalo who were laying along the roadside. Sophy referred to them as the “old boys,” males who were in their waning years.
We then came upon a pack of Hyena lounging along the road. There were several newborn pups among the lot. This must have been a mini calving season as within the herd of giraffe we passed was a newborn who was nursing. We also a saw a male ostrich, glowing pink and looking for love. There was also a flock of a quail or grouse-like birds. Their feathers were a striking mixture of black, white, brown, and pale gold.
A bit further away we encountered a lion who was sitting up in a tree intermittingly dozing. We parked almost directly under the tree so I was able to get some incredible close-up shots. I don’t think you ever bore of the big cats; however, you reluctantly reach a point where you have to move on. We did find the male napping on the edge of a ravine a short distance from where we came across the treed lioness.
There was a huge herd of elephants grazing in the woods and meadow as we approached the entrance to the Kichwa Tembo tented camp. We pulled in at around 6:30 PM as the African darkness was settling in.
The convoluted itinerary that took us from the Serengeti to the Mara wasted a good part of our day; however, the consequent boredom set the stage for tomorrow….. our day to float across the fabled Maasai Mara in a hot air balloon!
22 September 2011 --- Day 8 --- Maasai Mara
Our steward brought coffee and cookies to awaken us at 5:00 AM. We departed the lodge at 5:30 AM for the 30-minute drive through the African darkness to the balloon launch site. They were filling two balloons as we arrived. They do this utilizing large fans that are run off of generators. The balloon itself is absolutely massive. The baskets for these particular balloons transported 16 people in four individual compartments with the pilot, an Israeli named Gephardt, in the center of the craft. It took them another hour to complete the filling. Finally we were asked to begin the boarding process, which takes a little dexterity. The basket was laying on its side, which required sitting down and sliding in on your butt. There were rope handles on each side for you to grasp while in the squatting position. Most people got aboard this way; however, once the basket was up righted, the last few climbed on board.
It was still dark when we lifted off at 7:30 AM. The conditions for flying were optimal, no wind and no humidity. Sunrise would bring us a brilliant, warm day. We were floating across the savannah at 8 knots and 8 minutes into the flight the horizon turned from darkness to a brilliant orange. As the moments passed, the center of nature’s orange palette began to evolve to a brilliant yellow heralding the rise of the solar fireball over the hills on the edge of this magical savannah. The magnificence of the moment is indescribable. There were moments of silent awe only to be interrupted by the occasional hiss of the burners.
The other balloon from our group was floating just behind us on the right. Sunrise gave us our first glimpse of two other balloons off a couple of miles to our left that had launched from another location. At first we were flying close to the ground; however, as the forested area at the edge of the Mara River approached, the pilot initiated a few blasts that lifted the craft. It’s an unusual sensation because the craft doesn’t respond immediately as an automobile does when you press the accelerator. Instead there is a pause and then the balloon seems to magically rise. The pilot was gifted in his ability to raise and lower the craft to take maximum advantage of the terrain below.
The approach to the Mara River revealed a stream dotted with hippos. The pilot lowered the balloon to where it was a few feet off the riverbank along which were giant crocs at rest. They are enormous, and measure up to twelve feet long. They have an overbite that exposes their teeth hanging out over their lower jaw. Not the time you want the balloon to run out of gas. At that point, the pilot blasted the burners and we lifted back up to clear the forested area along the river. We continued to elevate reaching our highest altitude during the flight flying over a variety of wildlife including a herd of giraffe at the edge of the forest, zebras, impalas, gazelles, and a huge herd of elephants of all sizes.
Unfortunately, good things come to an end. One hour after lift-off, the pilot directed us to “assume the position” and prepare to land. We were all tucked in the womb of the basket as it did a couple of gentle bounces as it slid along the plain for a few feet and came to rest on its side. Oh what a feeling!
We were met by a number of safari vehicles who transported us to a location on the open plain where an open air breakfast was to be served. The pilots did double duty as they popped the corks for a champagne celebration. This was not your ordinary picnic. The long banquet table was covered with white table cloths and brightly colored Maasai blankets and furnished with china and silver. The meal comprised a variety of fruits, breads, and cheeses, and omelets were cooked to order.
The balloon ride is expensive ($450.00 per person); however, I would strongly encourage finding a way to include it in your budget. That float across Africa was the exclamation point to our journey.
After breakfast we began our morning game drive back across the plain we had just floated over. We passed the herd of elephants we had observed from above. One of the young was nursing. We then came upon a pride of lions resting on a mound along the side of the road. These folks know how to relax. Because of their proximity to the vehicle, I was able to shoot some terrific close-ups.
Further on there was a lone hyena in the deep grass. I don’t think it was fully grown and, once again, its proximity to the vehicle afforded me the opportunity to get some really good close-up images.
In the ditch alongside the road was a set of ribs and other bones, the remains of some animal who met its fate. There is no waste in the African bush. What the lions start, the scavengers finish. Our next wildlife encounter was a gruesome illustration of this fact of nature. We came upon a flock of scavenger birds that were in a feeding frenzy surrounding a carcass. Evidently a zebra delivered a stillborn foal. The mother tried in vain to defend her offspring from the attacking scavengers; however, the task was too great given the multitude of attackers and she abandoned her endeavor and left it to the screeching horde and its feeding frenzy.
Fortunately, our next wildlife encounter was destined to be a very different experience. As we drove along we sighted a cheetah sitting upright in a thicket of brush. All of a sudden, there seemed to be some movement and, sure enough, a tiny head popped up followed by two more. Right before us were three newborn cheetah cubs. They were very curious and adventurous and would wander out of the thicket although the mother would tolerate them going only so far at which point she made a noise and they would all be in full retreat. All of a sudden, the mother rose and came walking out of the thicket with her cubs in town. She walked to a point right between our two vehicles and sat upright in full pose surrounded by her offspring. She would turn her head and gaze in different directions and was completely indifferent to our presence. This was one of those moments you hope for when planning your journey.
After a long interlude with the cheetahs, we continued our game drive and came upon another pride of lions relaxing in the shade of a tree. Hakuna matata. There were four young cubs that were very active although they didn’t stray too far.
We drove a few miles more and came upon another pride lying upright on a mound alongside the road. As short distance away the male was laying under the shade of a tree. He also was lying upright giving us full view of his mane. I got one shot when he yawned, which exposed two huge teeth in his lower jaw. He then put his head down and dozed off.
At this point, we were back along the river where the crocs were sunning themselves. Up on the bank were two male Topis fighting. They would kneel, butt heads and lock horns. Eventually one of them capitulated and walked away ceding the territory to the dominant male.
We returned to the camp at 12:45 PM for lunch and a break before heading out on the afternoon drive.
Our afternoon (and last) game drive began at 4:00 PM. Almost right out of the gate we came upon a lion lounging in a tree. After a few minutes dozing, she got up and had a look around and decided it was time to continue her nap. She put her head down on a limb and dozed off.
We drove over by the river and found a lone hippo out of the water but there was little action. Further down the road we came across a jackal that was curled up and resting in the road. Sophy said they do it because the road surface is warmer.
It seemed as if the wildlife had taken the afternoon off. We had very few sightings. Then we hit pay dirt! We came upon a pair of leopards, a male and a female, who were mating. When they finished they got up and walked off into woods. It was unbelievable. Sophy was really excited. She said she had never seen that during her tenure as a driver. From there it was back to the camp arriving at 6:25 PM
23 September 2011 --- Day 9 --- Maasai Mara to Nairobi
We left the camp at 9:00 AM for the 20-minute drive to the airstrip. We boarded a 50-seat Dehaviland Dash 7 turboprop and took off at 10:15 AM. I closed my eyes and started to doze; however, a few minutes later we hit what I thought was some chop. When I opened my eyes I realized we had landed at another airstrip after 5 minutes in the air. A few people got off, a few got on. At 10:32 AM we took off again and flew for 8 minutes landing at another airstrip. The plane filled with passengers and we took off at 11:06 for the 39-minute flight to Nairobi Wilson.
We were met by Micato staff who drove us to the Fairmont Norfolk where we had a day room. After a light meal, the Micato team drove us to Jomo Kenyatta International airport. At 11:15 PM it was wheels up on BA 64 bound for London Heathrow. What an experience!!!
Hotels, Lodges and Camps
Norfolk Hotel – Nairobi
A good starting point for your safari
We stayed at the Fairmont Norfolk at the beginning and end of our safari to East Africa. We had a standard single room initially and were upgraded to a suite on our return to the hotel. The Norfolk has a great history and tradition that dates back to British colonial days. It is located across the road from the University of Nairobi and the National Cultural Center.
Our standard room was tastefully decorated and was furnished with a queen bed, night stands, sofa, coffee table, desk, chair and a mini bar upon which was a flat panel TV. There is satellite TV reception; however, CNN was hit or miss. There was a built-in armoire with a personal safe located in the vestibule. The tiled bath was small although nicely appointed with quality bath linens and a walk-in shower. Unfortunately, the shower was sans hot water. The bedroom of the suite had the exact same footprint. In addition, there was a sitting room with a large dining set, sofa, coffee table, two comfortable Queen Anne chairs, chest with a second flat panel TV and a second toilet. The bathroom had a dual vanity, small whirlpool tub, and separate walk-in shower. This bathroom came with hot water! Both rooms had excellent internet connectivity, which is complimentary if you are a member of Fairmont’s Presidents Club.
The common areas occupy the ground level of the hotel and all are tastefully decorated as one would expect of a Fairmont property. The hotel has a large bar area that faces and opens onto the inner courtyard and gardens. The exterior area of the bar is a brick covered terrace furnished with tables and chairs. It is a beautiful setting. There is a very nice, large salon in the space between the bar and reception. The legendary Lord Delamere Terrace is located at the front of the hotel along the street. It now serves as a dining venue for breakfast, lunch, and causal dinners. The hotel’s formal dining room, Tatu, is off the main lobby. The hotel has a small gift shop and business center in the vicinity of the main lobby.
The original hotel structure surrounds a magnificent inner courtyard and gardens that provide a haven to sit and enjoy Nairobi’s beautiful climate. What appears to be a second addition of the hotel has been added at the rear of the courtyard. A second inner court resulted from this construction and it houses the swimming pool-health club-spa complex.
The hotel is happy to store your luggage while you are travelling out in the bush on safari. Upon our return to Nairobi we found our luggage awaiting our arrival in the suite. This service facilitates staying under the 15-kg weight limit for bush air travel and was most welcome. Laundry service at the Norfolk is outrageously expensive. For example, representative costs include: shirt/blouse $9.00, T-shirt $7.00, briefs/panties $4.00, socks $4.00, trousers/slacks $9.50, shorts $6.00, PJs/nightgown $8.00, sweater $8.00. If you are departing on safari, wait to have your laundry done at one of the lodges or camps. The work quality is on par and it will be done at a fraction of the cost.
Sopa Lodge – Tarangire National Park – Tanzania
Spartan
We stayed in three Sopa lodges during our Safari through Tanzania. This is the most basic of the three. The lodge’s airstrip is a 22-minute flight from Arusha and it is a short drive from the airstrip to the hotel. Hotel staff greet guests with a cool drink and a refreshing towel to wipe away the drive’s dust. The reception and common areas are spacious and open with marble floors and a dark wood décor. The common areas are considerably more appealing than the rooms. A fully stocked gift shop is adjacent to the reception lounge. Items available for sale include an endless variety of souvenirs and curios, and an assortment of toiletries, drinks, snacks, and travel accessories (batteries, etc.), which command a price premium given the lodge’s remote location and the fact that it is the “only game in town”. You should expect to pay double what you would at your local convenience store. The reception area extends out to a verandah that overlooks the Tarangire terrain.
The expansive dining venue is located off the reception area and its large bay windows offer a panoramic view of the Tarangire landscape. The evening meal was a buffet service situated on a large adjoining exterior terrace. There was considerable variety. The food is pedestrian; although, you won’t starve. A bottle of South African “pinotage” was US $37.50. Breakfast fare came in the form of an extensive buffet in the main dining room. A chef prepared omelets, eggs, pancakes, and crepes to individual tastes.
The lodge has a very nice swimming pool facility. The pool surrounds a concrete center island for sunbathing. Facilities include numerous covered tables, a covered banquet table, a bar and bar-b-que station.
Hotel accommodations can be characterized, at best, as very, very tired. Our accommodation comprised two rooms, a sitting room furnished with a mini bar stocked with seltzer and Coke and two chairs. Quite frankly, the space is useless on a practical basis. The sleeping chamber is sparsely furnished with two queen size beds, a night stand in between and a desk, mirror and chair. An armoire that contains a personal safe is located in the foyer between the two rooms. Retractable mozzie netting surrounds the two beds. A ceiling fan is located between the two beds and provides great air circulation in the room. The spacious bathroom has a walk-in shower, hair dryer, and is stocked with a range of Sopa branded toiletries. The room lighting is very dim, limited to two bedside night lights and another fixture over the wall mirror.
Hot water is available twice daily, once in the morning and again in the early evening. The hotel and safari guides strongly advise not to drink or brush your teeth with the tap water. Bottled water is readily available. Electricity is available 24/7. Daily laundry service is available and very inexpensive.
Check out was a challenge. The device for processing credit card transactions was a hit or miss proposition. Neither my VISA nor MasterCard could transmit the transaction; therefore, I ended up paying cash. Fellow travelers had similar experiences at other Sopa lodges along the way so you should be prepared to have some cash available when this occurs.
While internet service is proclaimed available, fellow travelers reported connectivity to be challenging. We did not attempt to use the service.
The staff at Sopa Lodge Tarangire is happy, very friendly, and provides great service to their guests.
Sopa Lodge – Ngorongoro Crater – Tanzania
Convenient Access to the Crater
Getting there is no day at the beach. The lodge is a one-hour drive from the reserve entrance. The road is extremely rough. The lodge sits on top of the eastern side of the crater rim at an altitude of almost 8K feet. The crater floor is approximately 2K feet below the rim having been created by the collapse of the volcano, and is in the form of a giant elliptical bowl. Clear conditions offer a panorama that is incredible. Unfortunately, there were overcast skies both nights we were at the lodge. Consequently, we missed the brilliant sunsets that are one of the lodge’s hallmark attractions. Our first morning was also marked by overcast and fog. The second morning was better, and we arose to bold shadows interspaced with sunlight peeking through the clouds. I found it reminiscent of sunrise on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. The lodge’s adjacency to the access road provides guests with a head start on the throngs visiting the crater floor.
Given the lodges proximity to easy crater access, the Ngorongoro Crater Sopa Lodge is a very busy place. Hotel staff greet guests with a cool drink and a refreshing towel to wipe away the drive’s dust. The reception and common areas are cavernous and occupy two levels with various combinations of tile, parquet, and carpeted floors. The décor in the reception, public lounges and cocktail lounge is a combination of dark wood and a deep red masonry finish. The dining venue is of similar décor; however, the masonry finished walls are off-white. The fronts of the cocktail lounge, public lounge, and dining venue face the crater edge and are finished with large floor to ceiling glass windows which afford spectacular views of the crater. Both the cocktail lounge and dining venue have huge open fireplaces. The lodge has a fully stocked gift shop on the lower level of the common area. Items available for sale include an endless range of souvenirs and curios, and an assortment of toiletries, drinks, snacks, and travel accessories (batteries, etc.), which command a price premium given the lodge’s remote location and the fact that it is the “only game in town.” You should expect to pay double what you would at your local convenience store. The reception area opens out onto a terrace and an elliptical pool which overlooks the crater rim and vista beyond. The lodge’s altitude and consequent cooler climate limit usage of the pool to the hardiest for a number of months through the year.
The expansive dining venue is located off the reception area, and its large bay windows offer a panoramic view of the lodge grounds and landscape beyond. The evening meals are a combination of table service and buffet. The fare is basic. A bottle of South African “pinotage” was US $37.50; an individual glass of red wine was +/- $5.00. Breakfast fare came in the form of an extensive buffet in the main dining room. A chef prepared omelets, eggs, pancakes, and crepes to individual tastes. The hotel provides box lunches for the noon meal for your visit to the crater. They are awful!!! Take some fruit, etc. from the breakfast buffet and supplement it with a snack from the gift shop.
The hotel accommodations were a considerable improvement from out prior stay at the Sopa Tarangire. Our carpeted accommodation comprised two rooms. A foyer is furnished with a mini bar stocked with seltzer and Coke. The space is useless on a practical basis. The sleeping chamber is furnished with two queen size beds, a night stand in between and on the side of each bed, dressing table, mirror, chair, and coffee table. The dressing table is outfitted with a quality hair dryer. The armoire contains a personal safe. There is no retractable mozzie netting given the lodges altitude. The room is finished with a glass enclosed balcony which overlooks the crater. A coffee table and two rocking chairs are provided for your viewing pleasure. The bedroom and bathroom have central heating radiators, which can be turned on or off dependent upon your comfort requirement. A fresh fruit basket is also provided. The walls tend to be thin; therefore, you should be prepared to share your neighbor’s day.
The spacious tiled bathroom has a walk-in shower, a wooden vanity with ceramic basin, and was stocked with a range of Sopa branded toiletries. The bath linens are of reasonable quality
Hot water is available twice daily, once in the morning and again in the early evening. The hotel and safari guides strongly advise not to drink or brush your teeth with the tap water. Bottled water is readily available. Electricity is available 24/7. Daily laundry service is available and very inexpensive. Laundry prices for selected items were:
Trousers/Slacks – 1700 TShs ($1.25)
Shirts /Blouses – 1500 TShs ($1.00)
Skirts – 1500 TShs ($1.00)
T-Shirts – 1100 TShs ($.75)
Taking advantage of the inexpensive laundry prices makes packing and staying within the 15-kg weight limit effortless.
We didn’t attempt to use internet service; however, I did take note of the fact that many in the public lounges were using their laptops and smart phones.
The staff at Sopa Lodge Ngorongoro Crater entertains the evening meal crowd, is very friendly, and provides great service to their guests. Given the fact animals can and do freely room the grounds, security guards provide an after dark escort to and from rooms to the main lodge.
Serengeti Sopa Lodge
Sopa venue with a beautiful terrace and pool
Of the three Sopa lodges (Tarangire, Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti) we stayed in on our visit to Tanzania, this was the best. It sits on a hillside overlooking the vast Serengeti savannah. The views are incredible and our immediate neighbors included black-faced monkeys, giraffes, zebra, and cape buffaloes all of which were grazing outside our window.
Safari life at this venue follows the Sopa model beginning with staff greeting you on arrival with a refreshing towel and glass of fruit juice. The common areas of the lodge (reception, dining venue, cocktail lounge, and sitting areas) are similarly cavernous and occupy multiple levels that lead to a stone grand staircase down to the exterior terrace, which looks out over the Serengeti plains. A beautiful swimming pool is located on the terrace and the facility is furnished with tables, chairs, and chaise lounges for relaxation and sunbathing. There also is a fitness center furnished with a selection of gym equipment that is located on the terrace balcony above the swimming pool area.
The cocktail lounge is located on one side of the main lodge. In addition to the inside lounge there is an adjacent outside patio that overlooks the swimming pool and terrace. The other side of the lodge is where the large dining venue is located. The side facing the Serengeti is constructed with large glass panels affording magnificent views of the pool and terrace as well as the Serengeti vistas beyond.
The lodge also had a large TV lounge furnished with comfortable chairs, sofas, and cocktail tables. The broadcast lineup included coverage from CNN, the BBC, as well as cable channel coverage of international sporting events. The Rugby World Cup was of considerable interest.
The rooms are located along two wings off the main lodge and are reached via a covered stone masonry walkway. The room footprint is the same as the other Sopa lodges. Entry is through a vestibule that houses a mini-refrigerator stocked with refreshments and a selection of fresh fruit. There is also a settee in the vestibule. The carpeted sleeping chamber is furnished with two queen beds, each with its own luggage bench at the foot of the bed, night tables at each side and in between the two beds, large wall mirror with light over a dressing table with chair, and an open clothing rack, which also had an attached personal digital safe. The dressing table has a quality hair dryer for occupant’s use. Retractable mozzie netting surrounds the beds. Sliding glass doors lead out to a small balcony, which is furnished with two padded chairs and a coffee table. The balcony overlooks an area teeming with grazing wildlife and provides a spot for enjoying the magnificent vistas of the Serengeti plains.
The tiled bathroom has a huge walk-in shower and is stocked with a complete range of Sopa branded toiletries. Hot water is available two times per day and electricity is available 24/7. As with the other Sopas, the laundry service is very inexpensive and promptly returned at day’s end.
Dining selection and fare is consistent with the other Sopa lodges. This consistency extends to the box lunches, which are equally awful. The Sopa staff is very friendly, courteous and provides quality service. The evening meal is concluded with song and dance entertainment provided by the dining staff. One of the members of our group was celebrating his birthday unbeknownst to the rest of the group. The wait staff came out with a birthday cake and serenaded him with their birthday wishes.
Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp – Maasai Mara Kenya
Wake up to monkey thunder!!!
The camp is a very comfortable venue that overlooks the Maasai Mara plains. The tented camp is an attractive alternative and compliment following a week staying in the Sopa lodges of Tanzania. The main buildings are located at the camp entrance and include reception, a large gift shop stocked with souvenirs, curios, etc., a dining room and bar/lounge. The tents extend further down a lighted stone masonry walkway. The camp is located in a forested area, thus the tents are well shaded from the midday sun. The exception is a large center lawn that sits between the pool, main buildings and first group of tents. The lawn is carefully manicured by the resident group of warthogs.
The tents are pitched on a masonry platform and supported by a cast iron pipe infrastructure. The tent has two compartments. The bathroom is separated from the sleeping compartment by a zippered curtain. The tent has numerous flaps that can be opened to insure ventilation and circulation throughout. The bathroom is furnished with a commode, vanity with sink and chair, storage cabinet, and a walk-in shower constructed of stone masonry. The water pressure is considerable. The bath is fully stocked with a complete range of toiletries. The bath and bed linens are of good quality.
The sleeping compartment has two single beds, luggage racks, dressing table, chair, and a lamp above each bed. The tent lighting is very dim. The lamps are complemented by overhead lamps in the sleeping compartment and bathroom. The tents do not have electrical outlets. There is a charging station in the bar that is outfitted with a number of plugs for charging electronics. Laundry service is very inexpensive (trousers and shirts $2.00) and promptly returned.
Outside is a small portico furnished with two chairs and a coffee table. The tents are close together and voices carry so be prepared to share your day and that of your neighbors.
Wake up service comes in two formats. First, a porter brings coffee and biscuits to your tent accompanied by a hearty “good morning.” Second, the bush wake up of “monkey thunder” with the resident monkey population scurrying across the roof of your tent.
Kichwa Tembo has a beautiful swimming pool located at the property’s edge bordering the plains. The pool is surrounded by a wooden platform and furnished with a number of chaise lounges for relaxation and sunbathing. The lawn between the main complex and swimming pool is well shaded and a buffet lunch is served al fresco.
Dining fare was the best we had on our trip. Meals are a combination of buffet and table service. The preparation was far superior to that we experienced at the Sopa lodges in Tanzania. A bottle of wine runs +/- $40.00. The staff at the camp friendly, courteous, and very attentive to guest needs.
The Financials
The costs are pretty straight forward. The expense with some degree of discretion is air fare. We did the trip on British Airways. I purchased two business class tickets between New York and London Heathrow for $6511.66. I used 300,000 miles to get two first class round trip tickets between London Heathrow and Nairobi. In addition to the miles, BA charged an additional $1228.92 in taxes and surcharges.
Safari - September 2011
Item Expense
Safari - Micato $ 16,900.00
Air Fare on Safari - Kenya & Tanzania $ 3,370.00
Guides ($20 per diem) & Drivers ($25 per diem) - Gratuities $ 385.00

Meals & Consumables - Mostly wine @ dinner $ 303.53
Hot Air Balloon Ride $ 900.00
Gratuities $ 40.00
Laundry @ Norfolk Hotel - 1 Time $ 119.34
Laundry @ Lodges - 3 Times $ 73.60

Air Fare - NYC - NBO $ 7,740.58
Airport Transfers - NYC $ 232.18

Clothing/Gear $ 956.62
Photographic Gear – Primarily for a new telephoto lens $ 806.56

Trip Insurance $ 1,506.00
Medicals & Medications $ 842.00

VISAs & Additional Passport Pages $ 718.75
Travel Literature $ 48.18
Miscellaneous $ 43.07

$ 34,985.41
Micato
In summary, I would give Micato an A for marketing and branding and a B – for the product itself. They do some things very well although the on-the-ground execution is sometimes remiss.
I will address the various components on the trip in the format provided by Micato in its post experience evaluation process.
Pre-Trip Information / Documentation was thorough and helpful. The Micato product catalog is a glossy, high-end publication, which does an excellent job of romancing the product and the adventure. Soon after booking the trip and remitting the deposit, we received a Safari Planning Information bound publication as well as relevant VISA information and applications housed in an expensive Micato branded hard cover file folder. These and the cover letter were shipped in a branded Safari documents file box suited for storing all of your documents relevant to your forthcoming trip.
A few months later, a James Earl Jones narrated DVD, Africa: The Serengeti, arrived for our viewing pleasure accompanied by a package of microwave popcorn.
In late June, we relieved a letter and brochure introducing Micato’s really terrific AmericaShare program, the essence of which is their commitment to educate one child for each safari sold. Micato clients are invited to visit Harambee Centre, the location of their community outreach initiatives in the Mukuru slum on the outskirts to Nairobi.
One month prior to departure, a package arrived containing two safari bags for use as luggage, two travel document organizers, flashlights for lodge/camp use, and luggage tags. A bound brochure detailing the itinerary as well as copies of contact information sheets for hotels, lodges, and camps was included. Arrival at the hotel in Nairobi included a welcoming letter advising us of the names of our Safari Directors for Kenya and Tanzania, Micato Concierge contact information, and security and luggage considerations. This too was housed in an expensive, hand-crafted African themed portfolio.
Very little was overlooked. The only advance information I would have found useful was a detailed flight schedule which would have kept us informed as to the layovers we should have expected. They should also consider furnishing all of the information provided in a digital pdf format for storage on laptops, tablets, e-readers, etc.
Transportation on the game drives was very good. Micato’s proprietary Safari Cruisers used in Tanzania were more user friendly than the &beyond vehicles used in the Mara because the Safari Cruisers in Tanzania were outfitted with “pop-up” tops, which were better for standing, viewing, and photographing. Petrol was leaking from storage cans located in the back of the vehicle on one of the overland legs of our trip. Unfortunately, we were sitting in the back and my wife became nauseous as a result of being exposed to it for 3 to 4 hours.
It should be incumbent on the Safari Directors to actively manage seat rotation so that everyone has the opportunity to sit in the front row on an equitable rotating basis. The burden for this should not rest with the clients who are likely to be unknown to each other prior to joining the safari.
The flight schedule could be more accommodating. I believe the Tanzanian government requires entry through Kilimanjaro International for purpose of custom clearance; however, the Arusha connections and layovers seemed unnecessary and a waste of time. Our group was large enough to warrant a small charter aircraft to and from the bush and Kilimanjaro.
We were accompanied on most of the flights by Micato staff. The exceptions are the legs between Nairobi Wilson and Kilimanjaro and Kilimanjaro and Nairobi Wilson. This is a function of the transition from one sovereignty to another. A staff member drops you off at the door and another picks you up at the door on the other end. We were accompanied from the Serengeti to Kilimanjaro and taken from the domestic arrivals side of the airport to the international departures door where we were dropped off by the Safari Director with the advisory that if there were any problems he would be right outside the door. As it turned out, we learned at the check-in desk, my wife had been left off the passenger list for the flight to Wilson. I immediately sought out our Safari Director and, of course, he was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, the group, through the process of elimination of the names on the flight manifest, was able to convince the agent that the wrong name had been entered and she was issued a boarding card and allowed to continue on. This was one of those quality control enhancement opportunities.
The Nairobi Hotel, Lodges and Tented Camps are covered in my comments related to each of the itinerary’s settings although it warrants repeating, a considerable opportunity exists for enhanced food service. The facilities ranged from Spartan at the Sopa Tarangire to considerably improved at Ngorongoro and Serengeti. Kichwa Tembo was a fun way to end the journey. Monkey Thunder!!!
Prior to our departure, I developed a mindset based upon my experience with some of the National Parks lodges in the western USA (Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks), which were very dated and less than optimally maintained although located in magnificent surroundings. Having said this, the preferred prototype is Jenny Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park.
Nairobi Sightseeing was, in my view, a waste of time and money. The time and money spent here would have been far more enjoyed out in the bush (perhaps in locations where the food service was a level or two above Sopa). I have traveled the third world extensively, thus I knew what to expect. In the back of my mind, was the thought that the Nairobi portion of the trip was designed to serve as a buffer for potential delays in transiting from the US, which represents the vast proportion of Micato’s client base. Departing for the bush, the morning after arrival would be a considerable improvement in the product offering.
Game Viewing was fantastic, unreal and what a safari should be all about. I will admit to some level of jealousy being rendered a caged animal locked in a safari cruiser while the wildlife roamed free across the plains of East Africa!
Driver / Guides were a credit to their profession. Safari Steve and Sophy could not have been more friendly, knowledgeable, considerate, and professional. Their motto must be, “At Your Service.” They stopped whenever asked, and their ability to spot wildlife out on the horizon is remarkable. They get high marks.
Safari Directors receive similar consideration on most levels yet a differing consideration on another level. I chose Micato, first and foremost, because their program one, included Safari Directors and two, included Safari Directors and staff on the ground in East Africa who were natives who would be knowledgeable of the ins and outs of life in East Africa. If there was a problem, I wanted someone there who could resolve it quickly and seamlessly. I was most willing to pay the Micato premium for this level of service. Both individuals assigned to us met this expectation and were knowledgeable, courteous, considerate and very attentive to our needs.
The Safari Director assigned to us in Tanzania went a step too far in one aspect of our trip. The Micato trips are touted as being all-inclusive, that is, all expenses, including gratuities are pre-paid and the responsibility of Micato. The stated exception is gratuities for the drivers and safari directors. For this consideration, Micato provides very specific guidelines as to the amounts that should be remitted to the individuals acting in these capacities. Our Tanzanian Safari Director, not once, but on three separate occasions solicited a gratuity that was self-serving and considerably divergent from the Micato guidelines. Individuals on a trip of this nature can afford to, and want to, fairly compensate staff members for their services. To that end, there exists an expectation for an upscale service provider to communicate a harmonious message at all levels throughout its organization. The transgression was discussed at length both individually and within the group setting and there was unanimity that it was totally out of order and uncalled for.
Other Micato Staff in New York, Kenya, and Tanzania were first rate. My first contact with someone at Micato was Diana in the New York office. She was enthusiastic, experienced, knowledgeable, and spontaneously answered all of my questions. She serves the Micato cause in an exemplary manner. Once we had booked the trip, the administrative contact point was passed to Ken who was equally up to the task. The Micato concierge staff in Kenya and Tanzania could not have been more pleasant, considerate and helpful. They were always there for you.
The letdown came relative to the AmericaShares program. We were given a New York contact for information concerning the program as we had an interest in giving back. Following a game of telephone tag, I spoke with the programs’ Director who stated the information would be forwarded to me. Seven weeks have passed and I’m still waiting.
Safari Programme distills down to what amounts to seven days in the bush, which we found really worked for us. Tarangire, Ngorongoro, Serengeti, and the Maasai Mara offered sufficient variety of terrain. The programme delivered when it came to the game viewing, which was first, and quite frankly foremost, our only interest. Everything else was window dressing. Each change of location came with the provision of relevant information in the form of maps and directories of indigenous wildlife and birdlife.
The programme fairly closely mirrored the outline provided in the product directory. The only real exception was the directory’s promise that on the final evening “romance awaits in the form of an extraordinary sunset cocktail party in the bush overlooking the Great Rift Valley” For whatever reason, it didn’t happen.
General Impression of The Heart of Kenya and Tanzania Safari is rooted in our starting premise that we went to East Africa to go on a safari. It was to be all about the wildlife and life in the bush. From my perspective, realization of the experience could have been enhanced by what I would characterize as less, can in fact, be more.
In my view, the money associated with the time spent in Nairobi should be re-directed to other bush related activities or experiences. Secondarily, every evening came with a gift of a trinket of one kind or another accompanied with a card offering a tidbit of proverbial wisdom. It was a very nice and considerate gesture, and such consideration may be of greater importance to others than it was to me, so perhaps I am being petty; however, my view is to do fewer things better. An enhanced culinary experience would resonate exponentially and/or air transportation to and/or from the Crater would convert wasted travel time into additional game viewing.
Such is the view from my perspective.

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