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Report - Northern Circuit - Good Earth - January 2007

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Photos: http://www.kodakgallery.com/Slideshow.jsp?mode=fromshare&Uc=b58e5n71.9cojbyrx&Uy=fwqy7&Ux=0

Instructions for Use: Sell the house, sell the cars, and go to Africa. Repeat.

My wife and I returned two weeks ago from our first visit to East Africa and we had a marvelous time. Africa is everything we imagined and much more. There is no way that words or pictures can capture just how magnificent the experience is. I will try to keep the superlatives to a dull roar, but it is hard to hold back. We’ve only been back for a bit and are still on a bit of a high!

I am writing this report out of gratitude to the many posters in fodors.com, whose reports allowed my wife and me to understand how to prepare for and accomplish our adventure. We had a terrific experience due to the arrangements (and performance) by Good Earth, the skill and professionalism of our Driver/Guide, Abdul, and the information provided to us by the faithful members of the fodors.com community. Thanks to all, double to Abdul.

ITINERARY – Where we went and how long…

- Arrive Kilimanjaro Int’l Airport, transfer to Arusha Hotel for overnight
- Tarangire NP, overnight at Tarangire Tented Safari Lodge - Day 1
- Lake Manyara NP, overnight at Lake Manyara Serena Lodge - Day 2
- Ngorongoro Conservation Area (Crater), two nights at Ngorongoro Serena Lodge – Days 3-4
- Southern Serengeti, two nights at Ndutu Lodge – Days 5-6
- Serengeti NP (Central Serengeti), two nights at Serengeti Serena Lodge – Days 7-8
- Drive to Seronera Airport and internal flight to Arusha with stop at Lake Manyara (about one hour total). Transfer to Impala Hotel, Arusha for day room. Shopping in Arusha, the transfer to JRO for evening flight to Amsterdam – Day 9
- Amsterdam to Newark, then flight to Cleveland, home Sunday afternoon for dinner.

SAFARI PLANNING & OPERATOR SELECTION -

This trip was planned as an alternative celebration of our 30th wedding anniversary. My wife had planned a big catered affair, but I figured it would be much work for her. So I looked for something so over the top that she couldn’t say no. While looking for information on travel to China and Egypt, I came across fodors.com and discovered the Africa Forum. In two weeks I had roughed out what I thought would be the best option for us to undertake a safari to Tanzania. At this point I knew enough to do two things: 1) propose the plan to her and 2) seek bids from operators to put the trip together.

When I put the idea to my wife, she didn’t believe that I was serious and finally agreed that, if I really put this together (scoff) she would be thrilled. So I immediately proceeded to seek bids from what I perceived to be three mid-range operators (based on my extensive lurker-based knowledge of Tanzania gained on fodors.com). I asked them to bid on standard packages they individually offered, all essentially the same (7 days on the ground, the three standard Northern Circuit parks and Ngorongoro) with a general time specified, and with a request to quote a price for a private safari. Operator A never responded. Operator B told me that they didn’t have openings on the dates I wanted (and no other encouragement offered), and Operator C (Good Earth) responded immediately with what seemed a very reasonable price, just under what I had calculated they should offer based on web-site information. Also, they told me that for $90pp for the trip, we could have a private safari and start any day we pleased.

I then called Good Earth’s office in Tampa and talked with Joe Aikambe. Emboldened by further lurker-based fodors.com knowledge, I asked him to re-quote the safari based on an additional day in Ngorongoro and another in the Serengeti. Also, to modify the trip so that we went from Tarangire to Manyara to Crater to Serengeti, and to include an internal flight back to Arusha on the last day. This was as an alternative to driving the ‘great circle route’ from and to Arusha, with some extended drives on several days. When I called to ask a question about the second quote I had the opportunity to speak with Narry Ernest, a co-founder of Good Earth; he suggested that we consider doing two Serengeti days at the Ndutu Lodge and two at Serena, vs. all at the Serena. Based on a quick look at fodors.com postings about Ndutu and the Ndutu website, I quickly agreed.

Thus our itinerary was fixed and the final process of verifying lodge availability began (this is now early July 2006, with plans set for a mid-January 2007 safari. Within a week or so, all was set, with the exception of a second night at Ndutu being wait-listed (this was later resolved when over-reservers turned their days loose in early December). On July 18, I sent a small deposit to Good Earth and I purchased airline tickets for January 2007.

Now the long wait begins.

PREPARATIONS – Worrying about small stuff…

Using my growing lurker skills, I began building checklists of things to arrange and worry about. These included:

- The internal flight meant a limit of 15kg per person, which in the end was no problem at all. We ended up each taking one standard, no-frills, 30-inch duffle bag and one decent-sized carry-on, something that would be comfortable to carry in our lap if necessary. In the end, no one at Seronera Airport or associated with the Ex-Cel flight we took back to Arusha seemed to care at all about who had what bags and what they weighed. I could have packed anvils. In fact, no one looked at our tickets. They expected 13 passengers and they had 13, let’s go.

- I have never needed more than a snapshot camera, so this was the big expense. After researching fodors.com and other websites, I decided that either the Sony H2 or Canon S3 would be appropriate, primarily due to good reviews, reported ease of use and 12X optical zoom. Long story short, the Canon felt more comfortable than the Sony and was not much more expensive. I also purchased a lens hood, thinking that would help with bright mid-day light. The S3 worked out wonderfully. Easy to shoot and view photos, cull out obvious bad shots, and reload batt’s and cards. It provided terrific quality in the end.

- I spoke with our family doctor about immunizations and he advised that he was good at many things, but travel medicine and tropical infectious diseases were beyond him. I used the internet and my insurer’s (Aetna) website to identify several doctors offering ‘Travel Clinics’ in the Cleveland area. I selected a doctor at Cleveland Metro Hospital in Westlake OH and made an appointment for my wife and me. The Doctor was terrific; he spent over 40 minutes with us, explained all our available options and what he recommended. He also provided an information package that he had assembled that explained the typical East Africa immunizations and medications. We received injections for Yellow Fever, Hep A and Tetanus (Booster). He provided a prescription for Cholera vaccine, and for Malarone and Cipro (the latter for emergency use). My Aetna Choice POS policy paid for the visit and for the immunizations administered at the Clinic. Caremark was less generous in covering the cost of the prescribed medication, but did cover some. We did the immunizations about 60 days prior to the trip, thinking that we might have some problem or reaction, but had none. Felt a bit flu-ish about eight days after the Yellow Fever just for a day, but no worries.

Other essential items that we assembled included:

- Three sets of batt’s (the Canon used AAA, two sets would have been fine), a 15-minute charger (Duracell, rated for 120-250V) and five 512MB and one 1GB memory cards. I used all of the memory we had in the end (3.5 GB total), and probably tossed two in five total shots that I took in the field. I borrowed a British 3-prong from a friend, but I think the Lodges had loaners. I used the 1GB card as my ‘reserve’ and put it into service late in the trip when I was comfortable with how much I needed to get to the end of the safari.
- I asked for and received as Christmas gifts Tombazzi maps of Tarangire, Ngorongoro and Serengeti prior to the trip, and picked up a Manyara map in Tanzania. I used the maps constantly and wore them out, in spite of their sturdy construction.
- We took two flashlights but only needed one.
- Take a couple of small washcloths – the Serena’s provided them, but the Arusha hotels and Tarangire did not.
- The pre-packaged wipes are terrific, not only for general sanitation but for cleaning up after bug juice or sunscreen application. We used both of those, but not in excess. About 1/3 of a 175ml bottle of 25% Deet OFF, and some SPF45 sunblock (about half of a 200ml bottle).
- TAKE BINOC’s FOR EACH PERSON. We had 7X35 and 8X40, both low to mid-range value Bushnell’s that were just fine.
- We had ‘Document Folder’ things for our passports, ID, and money. I thought they were clumsy, but they did make it easy to keep track of things.
- We used a small fanny pack to carry to meals, with cash, passports and other ID, our backup camera (small digital) and our evening dose of Malarone.
- Take lots of Advil or your pain pill of choice. The overseas flights are arduous and jet lag is murder. Africa is wearing, largely due to the rigor of the Tanzanian Road System (this is affectionate sarcasm) and riding around 8 hours a day standing in a Land Cruiser.
- Our doctor provided us some Ambien; we used this for the first overnight flight and then ½ tabs for sleep assistance early in the safari. Good stuff, better living through medicine and all that.
- We took tan, khaki and other light-colored clothes. We didn’t over-worry the clothing thing and were fine. Once you are staying 2 nights somewhere, laundry is a breeze anyhow. Sandals are essential: its hot, you are in the vehicle all day, and why risk the fungus-amoungus.

As we neared our trips start, I pushed the Good Earth folks on two issues: I wanted someone to make a conscious decision as to who would be our driver/guide, vs. just having the next available guy, AND I wanted a reliable vehicle with a pop-up roof, as originally stated in the confirmation. I made sure this was understood by Joe and Narry in Tampa, and then trusted them to do right by us through their folks on the ground in Arusha. They did what they promised.

AIR TRAVEL

Our trip began on Wednesday, 1/17/07, with a flight from Cleveland OH to Detroit MI (with time built in to allow for winter weather delay) and then an overnight flight to Amsterdam via KLM. Then all day (8 hours) from Amsterdam to Kilamanjaro Int’l Airport in Tanzania. The latter flight was delayed several hours by storms and we arrived after 11pm EAT. Our Driver/Guide picked us up at JRO and drove us to Arusha for an overnight at the Arusha Hotel. Our safari began with our Driver/Guide picking us up the next morning. After a stop at the ShopRite to buy drinking water we were on our way.

Our flights via KLM were long and wearing. Steerage is not for the faint of heart. But its affordable and you make do. We were going to AFRICA for crying-out-loud, and so what if we had to cramp up for a bit. The KLM service crews were hard-working and efficient. There was more service (carts and treats) then I expected based on pre-trip internet whining. The hot towels were a nice touch. Water and juice was always out and available. Its seems true that the one-step-from-the-boneyard planes are put on the Kilimanjaro run. Our plane back from JRO was pretty beat up. But our next flight, Amsterdam to Newark, was a brand-new Airbus A330, bright and shiny inside and out (and only 1/3 full too!)

Our internal flight from Seronera Airstrip (Central Serengeti) to Arusha at the end of our safari was a great deal, saving us at least 8 hours of rock-and-roll on the roads. We had an Ex-Cel flight that was full. We flew over the eastern part of Serengeti and crossed directly over the Ngorongoro Crater on the way to Lake Manyara Airstrip, enjoying a terrific view of the crater and rim, and also of the Maasai domos ranging across the countryside.

THE PARKS AND CONSERVATION AREA

TARANGIRE NATIONAL PARK was a good place to get used to safari. We enjoyed beautiful scenery of every description, a large variety of animals, and a gorgeous day. Our Driver/Guide quickly adjusted to our desired pace (stop and look at everything) and our interest in learning about all things. We asked endless questions and listened to his answers. We were particularly interested in birds, and Abdul was the perfect choice for our safari; he had incredible vision and was able to name and describe the habits of everything we encountered. We spent our entire day in the Northern part of the park and were worn out by the end of the afternoon. At the Tented Safari Lodge, our ‘luxury twin tent’ gave us a sense of camping with the convenience of toilet and shower. We enjoyed a great view of the river and valley, as heavy storms rolled in from the East. We were fortunate to be in our tent when the storm hit, as we were able to secure our tent-flaps and avoid the sideways rain that otherwise blew rain into the other tents. Dinner was delicious and we were entertained that night by a trumpeting elephant around 1am, followed by what sounded like a growling predator (lion?) around 3am. My twin bed became a double at that point. Sleep was elusive due to jet lag, but we were in AFRICA! A little adrenalin goes a long way in the morning! My wife’s least favorite place, but after the tent, everything else was luxury!

Our drive to LAKE MANYARA NATIONAL PARK included passing through several small villages, giving us some small sense of local living conditions. Upon entering the Park proper, we were immediately stopped by a small herd of elephants that crashed out into the road from the hill to the west and spent 20 minutes drinking water. We were entertained throughout the day by large numbers of elephant and giraffe, hippos, baboons, and a large assortment of birds, including kingfishers, owls, and you-name-it. The views of the lake, filled with flamingos and the mountains on the North, East and West made for gorgeous views. We toured far to the south before returning to the Serena Lodge high on the Western escarpment of the Rift Valley. The Serena’s circular bungalows were very nice, and we enjoyed the amazing view from our room. After dinner we encountered a group of Tanzanians in robes and were delighted to find a choir from a local church in the Lodge’s TV Room. A large group of guests was entertained for almost an hour by the singing of these young people (with some older help). The group also danced and we were moved to tears by the enthusiasm of the boys and beauty of the entire group’s voices.

Upon leaving for NGORONGORO CONSERVATION AREA the next morning, we were pleased to find that there was a splendid paved road leading to the Crater. This was a welcome relief to our bruised ribs from standing in the well of the gyrating Land Cruiser for the past two days. I was sure that this must be indicative of the road all the way to Serengeti, the world’s most famous wildlife setting! Our pleasure was short-lived, as it seems that the Japanese funding that made the road possible ran out before too long. The imposing rise of the tropical crater rim took over the view (as the pavement disappeared) and we were suddenly at the entry gate to the Conservation Area and Crater Proper. And then upon reaching the summit we had the opportunity to compare our expectations with the reality of a full view of the crater floor below us: reality was far better than we had imagined it. Adbul suggested that we check in at the Serena before heading to the Seneto Descent Road into the crater. This turned out to be a great idea as we (mostly Abdul I think) were able to secure the first room in the second tier of the Southeast wing, giving us close proximity to the lodge, lounge, and dining, and an incredible view of the bowl. We then traveled to the descent road, with great views of the Malanja Depression to the west of Ngorongoro.

The crater itself was a marvel of nature and was my wife’s favorite place that we visited. Over the next two days we saw everything and then some. The first afternoon it rained most of the time and we ended up seeing 36 total lions and three different prides, amongst everything else. While the terrain is far less variable (plains and swamps) than the three Parks, there is a huge amount of animal stuff going on in the confines of the rim. There were decent herds of wildebeest, zebra and buffalo, plus rhino, cheetah, Crowned Cranes (very cool), Kori Bustards (rumored to fly, but we never saw that happen), hyena, and birds galore. If you think the descent road is bad, the roads in the crater were worse. The Lerai Ascent Road is beyond description.

The Ngorongoro Serena Lodge is beautiful and we had an amazing view of the Crater from our balcony. We were entertained the first evening by the “New Volcano Acrobats”, who demonstrated a willingness to risk serious injury in order to stretch the entertainment envelope. The second afternoon we were further amused on our return from our Drive by a group of “High-End Safari Company” clients assembled in the lounge and receiving instruction in how to properly fill out a laundry slip. .

After two days in at the Crater, we traveled to the NDUTU AREA, which is both SERENGETI NATIONAL PARK and NGORONGORO CA. We stopped at a Maasai “Cultural Domo” and at the Oldapai Gorge Museum on the way. Having done so, we will not go back to either. The Domo was interesting at first but degraded into a shopping experience. The Museum is interesting but limited, and featured what were arguably the foulest restroom facilities on the Continent that are billed as such. If you go to either, do so with low expectations. We discussed this with our Tour Operator later. In fairness to our Driver/Guide, both were on the Itinerary, so we were swept along; had we had a better appreciation of what was to be offered, particularly at the domo, we would have passed.

The entire ride to Ndutu Lodge was a constant flow of wildlife and great views. The track from the main road to Ndutu was arguably the best extended piece of road we saw (aside from the paved section discussed before). Ndutu was my favorite place – great variation in terrain and animals. The Lodge was our most pleasant stopover and we were able to unwind over the two days. It was simple, uncrowded, well-maintained, and low-key. The service staff was as good as or better than any other place we were. We enjoyed excellent dining in a beautiful setting. The “Tanganyika Boilers” used to heat our evening shower water were especially charming. While at Ndutu we also had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with Bill and Carolyn H., frequent posters on this site. Special thanks to Louise and Paul for their comfort and assistance with my antibiotic reaction problem, and to Joseph, our server, who made us feel welcome at every meal.

Our last two days were spent at SERENGETI NATIONAL PARK. We traveled North from Ndutu and picked up the “main road” just Southeast of Naabi Hill. We saw large herds of wildebeest and zebra, and flocks of stork all through this area. For the next two days we enjoyed game drives throughout the Seronera area, and on the last afternoon to and around the Retima Hippo Pool. There’s some of almost everything in central Serengeti; the downside of the Seronera area is the high concentration of other vehicles and people.

We did the balloon ride, and were disappointed. First by the wind which failed to provide a ride over the Seronera River, and then by the Pilots, who were too engaged in either overseeing (the boss) or being given (the new pilot) a check flight. They were all about themselves and the sixteen passengers seemed to be secondary. We didn’t even get to a decent altitude for a cheap thrill. The take-off and landing were very cool, and the breakfast setting was over the top. Just not our day, I guess.

The Serengeti Serena was similar to Lake Manyara, same architect, different lot. Our room was equipped with a small lizard and a great view to the Northwest. I required some medical attention for an infected insect bite and received excellent care from a member of the Serena staff. Aside from being at the end of a long and tragically un-maintained road, a nice place to stay with friendly staff. Both Victor and Witness were of particular help to us.

Free Tips and Observations:

1. If you are coming for the first time, prepare to be amazed. Africa is huge and primeval.
2. Learn some Kiswahili. Simple greetings, Hello, Good-bye, Thank You, You’re Welcome, Two Beers Please, Coffee without Milk. The service staff will light up when you experiment on them and will treat you like royalty. It’s not that hard.
3. Why would you spend all that money and come all that way and not do a private safari? We marveled at people we saw packed in Land Cruisers and could not imagine not having the convenience we enjoyed.
4. Tsetse flies are part of the deal. Be prepared to get bitten, especially if you are going to pop the lid and get a face-full of Africa. Use bug juice and have a good time.
5. The lodges don’t seem very concerned about keeping mosquitoes at bay; none of the places we stayed bothered much with using the bug nets that were hung (and usually stowed) around dining rooms and lounges. At dusk break out the bug juice and protect yourself. We didn’t see lots of mosquitoes, but we saw them. Healthy respect is appropriate, but don’t obsess over it. Everyone smells like bug juice and sunscreen, as a minimum. And when its dusty, so are you.
6. Invest in a good bird book, you will be amazed at the variety and beauty of the winged wildlife. We had a paperback copy of “Birds of East Africa”, Stevenson and Fanshawe.
7. Don’t get hung up on photography (unless you are a pro) or on seeing at least one of everything. Seeing Africa through a viewfinder or at high-speed is a surefire way to miss the whole thing. Africa is not a zoo, it’s a miracle; take what you get and savor it.

If you are not sure about going, go anyhow. If you don’t know how to make arrangements, there is plenty of good advice in this website, study for a bit and take a chance. No itinerary or operator is perfect and there is no ideal set of lodges or campsites. The important thing is to get there and experience the wonder.

Just do it. We did and we’re going back! Jim and Phyllis, Concord Ohio USA

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