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November Tanzania Safari Recommendations!

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My wife and I just returned home from a 7 day safari and wanted to share with everyone our thoughts, recommendations and other helpful tips given how great this board was in helping us plan our safari. Often when people leave positive reviews, I notice that they get accused of being somehow affiliated with the various hotels/companies so I’ll preface this post that I am lawyer and my wife is a nonprofit fundraiser and we live in Manhattan and have no affiliation with any of the below companies. Sorry if this email is a bit longwinded, I wanted to get everything in in one post and I have a lot to share.

Itinerary:

Day 1 (11/13/09)- Arrive in Arusha via the Amsterdam-Kili flight. Go straight to our hotel, Mountain Village Lodge in Arusha.
Day 2 (11/14)- Tarangire, stay at Boundary Hill Lodge
Day 3 (11/15) - Tarangire, Boundary Hill Lodge
Day 4 (11/16)- Ngorongoro Crater, Ngornogoro Serena
Day 5 (11/17)- Serengeti, Serengeti Serena
Day 6 (11/18)- Serengeti, Serengeti Serena
Day 7 (11/19)- Serengeti, Mbuzi Mawe Luxury Tented Camp
Day 8 (11/20)- Serengeti, then take a bush plane back to Arusha, day room at the Mountain Village, fly home to New York via the Amsterdam to Kili flight

Highlights of the Gameviewing-

Just wanted to throw in a few of the highlights of the things that we saw on the trip (although the purpose of this post is recommendations, I couldn’t help but brag):

1. The Great Migration!!!! (ran smack into it in the Serengeti)
2. Cheetah hunting and catching a rabbit
3. Mother lion with lion cubs
4. Rhino in Ngorongoro (rareish)
5. Many leopards, cheetahs, lions, elephants, zebras, warthogs, hippos, crocs, wildebeest, hardebeests, antelope (and other antelope like animals), vultures, buffalo, giraffes, and im sure many others that I’m forgetting here!
6. lion eating a wildebeest-this male lion was hanging out by the road next to its prey near the Serengeti Serena at 7am when we left for the game drive and was STILL THERE at 5pm in the same spot when we drove back by that area. Lazy lion!

Operator: Access to Tanzania (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)

Based on recommendations from this board we booked our safari with Access 2 Tanzania and couldn't have been happier. Karen and her husband Brian, who operate the company, are Americans that lived in Tanzania and were extremely nice, helpful and responsive in planning our trip and really planned something that was exactly what we wanted. Our guide Said was spectacular. He was pleasant to be around, extremely knowledgeable and experienced and eager to do long game drives and really seek out the animals. We heard from some other guests that other safari companies put kilometer limits on how far they'd drive each day- something that was certainly not done at Access 2 Tanzania. Ultimately, this was a great company that really worked hard to make sure we had an absolutely amazing time. I’d highly recommend them. They are an honest place that provides a good product.

Time of Year:

We did our safari from November 12-November 21st. At first I was very reluctant to go on a November safari due to the short rains and quite honestly did not find a whole lot of posts that really detailed the pros and cons (so I wanted to lay them out as I saw it). We actually experienced quite a bit of rain and the whole “it doesn’t rain for more than 10 minutes” was not really true in our case. That said, as I’ll show below we think the pros definitely outweighed the cons of going this time of year and I’d recommend that anyone thinking of going during the short rains not hesitate to do so. One thing though, Tarangire is not great when it’s raining. It has most of the elephants we saw on our trip (it has A LOT of elephants) so you should go even during the rainy season, but just know that it’s apparently much better during the dry season.

Cons of a November safari-

1. The biggest con of a safari during the short rains (and long rains I’d assume) is not the actual weather, but the fact that the animals generally become more spread out. During the dry season the guides can easily find the animals at the few rivers, water holes, lakes, etc. During the rainy season, there are puddles and the animals can spread out and not go near the dangerous water. The result for us was that we had to drive around more to find everything.

2. The next con is also that the rain prevents you from opening the pop top on your vehicle-although this didn’t really bother us as we spent more time then we needed standing up and enjoying the fresh air through the pop-top. Quite honestly, the rain itself had no real effect on our trip and it actually rained quite a bit. In the end the rain over the Serengeti at times made for some pretty cool pictures.

3. Roads can get muddy and somewhat impassable (due to the mud and flooded rivers), although the land cruisers that you use are pretty impressive in what they can drive over.

Pros of a November safari-

1. NO CROWDS! I cannot begin to tell you the advantage that not having crowds provides you when game viewing. There were times that we were able to follow a cheetah or lion for a long time and just keep moving the truck every time the animal moved. Our guide told us that during the dry high season, doing that can often be impossible as there are too many cars jockeying for position. It was incredible as most of the time we couldn’t even see a car and had the place to ourselves. This 100% outweighed the cons of the rain and really made for a great safari.

2. We got to see the great migration without the crowds. Although this isn’t guaranteed on any given year, if you get to see it at this time of year, it’s pretty amazing.

Ultimately, don’t worry about the short rains. You’ll see more animals than you care to (by the end of the 7 day safari we were pretty tired of seeing most of the animals to be quite honest) and will have a great time.

Packing Recommendations

1. Binoculars- You need a pair of binoculars for each person going on safari. Our guide had a few pairs, but we were still happy that we had our own. As most people going on safari do not have a need for binoculars at any other time in their lives, there is no sense in spending a whole lot on a pair. We ended up getting what turned out to be spectacular binoculars at about $50 a piece-Bushnell Powerview 8 X 42 binoculars. I could see long distances clearly. One helpful tip for the un-experienced binocular user- you need to unscrew and pull out the part of the binocular that touches your eye or the view will appear black (ask your guide to show you). Again, unless you plan on using the binoculars many times, don’t bother buying the several hundred dollar pair-you wont notice the difference. We saw everything very well with this pair.

2. Insect Repellant- Despite what people told us Ben's Insect and Tick Repellant 30% Deet worked really well, even against the massive amounts of Tse Tse Flies in Tarangire. They would land on us and bounce off. Our guide refused to put on the repellant the first day and got attacked while we did not have a bite for 3 straight days each (and we went during the rainy season). The second day he gave in and used the repellant and subsequently had no bites.

3. Clothing and Bags- Pack somewhat lightly but not too lightly. We brought 2 sets of khaki pants and about 3 shirts to wear during the day on safari, but forgot to pack for the nights (I had one pair of jeans). Keep in mind that if you stay at a lodge, you'll be eating dinner at a restaurant each night so bring at least two extra pairs of pants and shirts for dinner (I only brought 1 and spilled ketchup on them the first night so had to walk around wearing stained pants to dinner the rest of the time). For bags, bring duffel bags if you plan on taking the bush planes back- the people who brought hard luggage REALLY p*ssed off the pilot of the plan who had a hard time arranging the luggage in the limited compartments in the plane.

4. Power converters- Bring at least two TZ converters so you can charge all your stuff at once. Having only one became a bit of a pain given all the stuff we needed to charge (cameras, amazon kindle, blackberry, etc.). Our car had 2 chargers in it though which made charging everything much easier (not sure if this is standard, but assume it is).

5. Camera- We brought the Canon SX120 IS, 10 megapixel, 10X optical zoom, 4X digital zoom and were extremely impressed. For all of you one time safari-ers who don’t have any need for a massive camera in your day-to-day life, this one is perfect. The 10X optical zoom allows you to take pics of everything you’ll want to take pictures of (we were able to get great pics of a far away cheetah hunting and catching a rabbit) and its usable in real life since its pretty compact. Furthermore, its only about $250, so its very affordable in the context of a trip like this. Personally the last thing I wanted was an expensive gigantic camera that I’d never use again at home.

Lodging:

Boundary Hill Lodge, Tarangire- We stayed at Boundary Hill Lodge while in Tarangire. It was really a great hotel and probably one of the more underrated places in Tarangire. It's a very interesting place and has probably one of the most remarkable settings you will ever see for a hotel (and this includes places like the Four Seasons Maui). Getting there is a bit tough, requiring about an hour drive up an extremely poorly maintained road (not the hotel's fault, its an 8 room hotel that requires a 30 kilometer dirt road up a large hill for access and it's really the only place using the road, no way it could afford to really maintain the road well). The hotel actually does not have a lobby or an indoor dining area- you check in outside under an overhang. The eating area is on an outdoor patio with panoramic views of the valley below, can make for a buggy experience, but dining there one of the most remarkable things I've ever experienced and something I believe everyone will appreciate (we live in NYC and my wife hates bugs and loved it). Quite honestly, it's one of the most beautiful settings I've ever seen. Rooms are spectacular, can have some bugs in them, but that inconvenience is more than made up by the views (including the view from the toilet which is pretty unreal). Your room basically has a panoramic view of a huge conservation area outside of Tarangire. In our 2 days there we saw giraffes, antelope and elephants from our room and some of the most amazing sunrises ever (rooms face east so no sunsets). The staff are all masaai tribesman and are probably the nicest people you'll ever meet and really bend over backwards for you. All in, despite the drive to the hotel, I'd highly recommend this hotel, at least for a night. Food was also very good, but for full disclosure we were the only people in the hotel both nights so we didn’t have a buffet. Not sure how that would change the dining experience.

Ngorongoro Serena- Not much to say about this hotel. It’s the only traditional lodge we stayed at (by that I mean where your room is attached by a hallway to the dining room and reception area). By western standards, it’s a very nice hotel and the rooms have great views. Food is acceptable- you won’t be blown away but it’s perfectly good and even though we do a lot of dining out in Manhattan, were perfectly happy with the buffet. I’d recommend staying here for a nice comfortable, relaxing experience. It also has a great bar area.

Serengeti Serena- This hotel was our favorite one on our safari (although Boundary Hill was a very close second). We actually liked this place so much that we knocked off a day of our stay Mbuzi Mawe and extended our stay here. The food is comparable to other serena hotels-being an extensive buffet of adequate food that is good enough (see my review of Ngorongoro Serena above). Again we had no problems finding enough items to enjoy at this hotel. It has a great lobby and bar area and a pool with an incredible view-we got to sit in the pool and watch the great migration across the valley below (wonderful to relax in after a good days game drive). The rooms are bungalows and require security assistance to walk you to and from your room after sunset (i.e. it is not a traditional "lodge"). Each one has a great view of the valley below. The grounds are beautiful and the staff was great to us. It is truly a perfect safari lodge for anyone who wants to stay in a bit more luxury.

Mbuzi Mawe- This place was good for a tented camp. As a threshold issue, the problem we had with this place-which may be our problem with all luxury tented camps-is that your room is effectively a luxury hotel room with canvas walls instead of wood walls. The main benefit as far as I can see is "hearing the animals" outside and honestly all we heard was a buffalo or two and a lot of birds and insects (same things we heard from our rooms in traditional lodges elsewhere). Your tent has no real view and the grounds are not all that nice. I can understand wanting to camp out in the Serengeti surrounded by animals, but that is not really what you are doing here. When your bathroom has a marble countertop you can't really call it camping. Ultimately we thought it was “not quite a nice lodge” and “not quite a camping experience.” In terms of service, the people were nice but the dining room staff were significantly undertrained. I'm not sure if this was a matter of the language barrier (which we did not find to be a problem anywhere else so I tend to believe that it is not) or a simple lack of caring, but in our one day there they probably got 4 of our 8 courses wrong (and for each one we really only had 2 options so it was pretty sad). Finally, just a recommendation to the hotel: in the main tent, before dinner they have some entertainment (ours was some pretty incredible acrobats). However, they leave all the flaps up on the tent allowing what probably amounted to thousands of bugs to enter the tent- being attracted to the lights. Indeed the problem is so bad the hotel has special covers for your drinking glass so the bugs don’t fall into your drink. This made for a pretty uncomfortable experience watching the entertainment and is something that is easily solved at no cost to the hotel- simply pull down the flaps to the tent. All in, I just didnt see the point in staying here over Serengeti Serena for the same price (location is only 50 kilometers difference and we saw more animals near the Serengeti Serena). That said, everyone else seemed to be loving it so this is likely just a personal opinion. There really was nothing wrong with the camp, it just did not make a whole lot of sense to us to stay at what amounted to a hotel room on grounds that were not as nice as the Serena for the same price.

Mountain Village Serena, Arusha- Nice luxurious hotel in Arusha. If you are looking for a reasonably luxurious tourist class hotel as a comfortable place to relax after a grueling travel day (or after a grueling safari on your way home), then this place is perfect. The rooms are clean and contain hair dryers and tv's with english speaking channels. The lodge is very nice and the food is perfectly adequate-same as the other serenas. One thing though that was somewhat discouraging to us was the customer service at the hotel. We encountered a problem with our KLM flight reservation and I requested that the hotel call the International toll free number for the airline from the front desk, which they did without comment. Upon checkout we received a bill for $10.00 per minute despite the fact that this was an international toll free number. Instead of either (i) removing the charge from our bill since no one told us that we were about to pay $10.00 per minute for a call which should be free, or (ii) simply saying its the hotel policy to make us pay, they proceeded to bargain with us like we were at a local market- something I find highly inappropriate at an international hotel chain. I dont think this is something that should prevent you from staying here, but be forewarned not to call anyone from the hotel and that at the management level (not the staff level, who were very nice) the customer service is pretty atrocious.

Conclusion-

This was pretty much the best trip I’ve ever taken and we loved every minute of it. Please feel free to contact me with any more specific questions that you have as I’m happy to share my year of research and experience that I put into this trip. Enjoy!

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