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photos and trip report ... Tanzania April 2006

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In January 2006 my wife and I took a photo safari to Tanzania. This was one of the few times when the actual trip turned out even better than the brochure, so I decided to go back as soon as I could and booked a return trip in April 2006. On the January trip we went with a photo tour (15 photographers in 5 jeeps) but in April we went alone, just the two of us with one of our favorite drivers from January.

We choose April because hotel rates are lower during the April - May "long rains" season. One of our drivers in January told us that if the three year drought continued we would be getting a great deal (rainy season rates with no rain!). The deal clincher for me was seeing a 20 year weather history on the Ndutu Lodge site that said at Ndutu they averaged only 12 days with rain in April and average amount was about 3 inches. So I figured we'd get lucky and do another great safari with little rain, if the pattern held up. So we booked two nights at Lake Manyara Serena for birds, seven nights at the Serengeti Serena for big game, another night at Manyara on the way back to Arusha to break up the drive.

Then two things happened. First, in March the drought broke with a vengence, with torrential rains flooding northern Tz, including closing the main Arusha - Nairobi highway for several days and stranding hundreds of people on the roadways. This rain continued thru April, raining almost daily though in lesser amounts. Second, I learned that Ndutu is under the "rain shadow" of the Ngorongoro Highlands so gets much less rain than central Serengeti, where we were going. In the Seronera area most of the rainy season storms form over Lake Victoria to the west and sweep inland thru the woodlands, so the Ndutu numbers didn't mean much for where we were headed. I was feeling pretty stupid right about this time, but we had reservations so treated it as an adventure and went with open minds.

Our first excitement came in the parking lot at Lake Manyara on our first afternoon. The guide went to pay our entry fees, I went to get a soda and a map at the store and my wife stayed to guard the open-roofed jeep and assemble her photo gear. We were the only vehicle in the lot (everyone knows not to go to Manyara in the rainy season -- everyone but us I guess -- since it's at the base of the rift and floods quickly). I heard shouts from the parking lot and returned to find the driver and an armed guard with my wife Carolyn talking excitedly about the male baboon that jumped into the interior and started rifling thru bags looking for food, threatening Carol by flashing his long canines. She is used to photographing grizzly bears at close range in Alaska so didn't panic but her shouts brought the Ranger, who ran the baboon off. Good start to the trip!

At Manyara we basically had the park to ourselves, never seeing another vehicle for 3 game drives and only a few the last drive. We shot many birds, necking giraffes, impalas, elephants etc but the birds were the main attraction. The roads and parking lots near the hippo pools were under water and you could see signs of flash flooding under a couple of the concrete bridges, but we had no serious problems.

We drove thru the rain past Ngorongoro to Seronera and then to the Serena, where we stayed for seven nights. Since there were few other guests we got the royal treatment (free wine or fruit sent to the room each night, assigned the room with the best view -- # 2 if you get a choice, many new friends once they learned we tipped :). We had two exciting moments in the Serengeti -- first, we found a buffalo carcass not far from the Seronera airstrip with two lions fending off a younger male and two females, and 24 hyenas circling ominously. I got the feeling something was about to explode so we waited several hours as the lions kept chasing off the females when they approached the carcass, until finally a lioness crept up and smacked a male in the nose, precipitating a short, vicious fight as the two males mauled her. You can see pics of this fight on the page after this one ... http://members.aol.com/bhilton665/tanzania_rainy_2006/lion.htm

The other exciting moment came at one of the remote kopjes were we found three male cheetahs. As we were watching them to see if they were shy or habituated one strode right to the jeep ... I thought he was going to lay in the shade cast by the jeep but the driver said he might jump on the hood so I kneeled down for a shorter lens, which he took as an invite to jump on the roof, a few inches from my head and camera. I've been in a cage with a recently trapped wild cheetah in Namibia and knew they were not aggressive towards people, so we simply got out the wide angle lenses and photographed this aloof, elegant cat from point blank range until it looked like he might slip off into the cockpit or knock the camera off the roof. Pretty cool experience. You can see some of these pics at http://members.aol.com/bhilton665/tanzania_rainy_2006/cheetah.htm ...

Oh yeah, the migration was in full force near Naabi Hill. One day while we were out in the kopjes I'd guess we saw 500,000 - 600,000 wildebeests and zebras as at times we were completely surrounded by them, with herds stretching miles in all directions. Pretty cool. And almost no other tourists.

Also were able to photograph many species of birds, including weavers building nests and whydahs doing this strange mid-air hopping courtship dance of love ... http://members.aol.com/bhilton665/tanzania_rainy_2006/birds.htm

So even though we had a lot of rain and in places the off-road tracks were too muddy to use and we saw twelve billion flies and tsetses it was still a pretty good trip. I think given the time we lost photographing due to overcast skies that dry season trips are a better bargain for photographers, but if you want to see more birds and fewer people the rainy season has some advantages.

Main site for this trip is at http://members.aol.com/bhilton665/tanzania_rainy_2006/ ... if I were doing 10 nights again in rainy season I think I'd shorten the Serengeti time to 4 days and spend 3 nights at Ngorongoro Crater. And not leave my wife alone in the jeep at the Lake Manyara parking lot.

Bill

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