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Trip Report Tanzania Feb 2013 -- my first but not last safari!

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Who We Are: Four ladies aged 38, 42, 65 and 66. We met on a tour to China where we volunteered at a panda breeding facility a couple years ago. As like minded animal lovers, we decided to do the safari thing together.

How We Got There: I was charged with researching tour operators and flights. I am a Type A hyper-planner and they were pretty amenable to anything I came up with that accomplished the goal of experiencing the migration and "Seeing a lot of animals". After talking to many of the usual suspects and their references, I decided on Access2Tanzania, a Minnesota-based firm which has an operation on the ground in Arusha, owns its own guides and vehicles (no sub-contractors or loaner guides) and has a charity operation as well. To me, they seemed emotionally vested both in their involvement in Tanzania and providing an excellent experience for us. Karen, the co-owner I spoke with the most, was uber-patient with our numerous requests, questions, revisions and the like. And even better, the quote for our 11 days was well under what most of us budgeted per person.

Where We Stayed: Arumeru River Lodge (arrival night and departure day room), Maramboi Tented Camp (2 nights), Ngorongoro Farm House (2 nights), Ndutu Wilderness Camp (2 nights), Serengeti Wilderness Camp (2 nights)

Where We Went: Tarangire National Park, Lake Manyara National Park, Ngorongoro Crater and two regions of the Serengeti (Ndutu and Seronera).

Flights: Like most everyone in North America, the most expeditious route was via KLM/Delta through Amsterdam. That was all fine except I had a Precision Air leg coming home (KIA to DAR, where I'd then get on KLM to AMS), which I got bumped from, and spent an uncomfortable 3 hours before the flights home working with airport and airline staff to get on the flights that I was meant to be on but that weren't actually cancelled. Not an ideal situation, but I wasn't up for staying in Arusha an extra night on my own due to Precision's whim. My travel buddies' flights were fine, for whatever reason.

Our Guide: I've only ever taken two other guided vacations, in China and Russia, and I know the guide can make or break a tour. Karen grilled me on the four of us, our travel styles, our personalities, what worked for us in China and she assigned Said to us. He is a guide with 15 years' experience in Tanzania and has been with A2T for 11 of those years. He is their lead guide and an absolute gem. I'm sure many guides can do this, but I was astounded at his game spotting ability. So many times we would have just driven by a rock and missed the three cheetahs on top, or missed the indentation in the grass that had two honeymooning lions snoring away, or known that that leopard, just because it just yawned, was about to get up and move rather than snooze the rest of the day away. Plus, he taught us things about animals we'd never know at home and even got us into birding, which was the last thing from my mind when we left home. I broke down into a sobbing heap when we all said goodbye at the airstrip, I would miss his wry sense of humor, his passion to teach us and his desire to show us every single species he could conjure up, and even some he couldn't. I can't thank him enough for all he did for us.

This report was originally posted in Safaritalk, with about 100 accompanying photos. If you want to see those, it's at http://safaritalk.net/topic/10344-tanzania-february-2013-my-first-but-certainly-not-last-time-on-safari/

So now on to the day by day stuff...

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    Day One

    After a great night's sleep at Arumeru River Lodge, we headed out on a longish trek to Tarangire. Between the ride itself and an impromptu stop for Tanzanite shopping, we didn't get to Tarangire until mid-afternoon. I knew most that that may affect the quality of our game ride, but it being our first day out, the threshold was high.

    Arriving at the park, we were greeted quite literally by a family of vervet monkeys. Said had to move the Land Rover away from them or they’d climb in and have their way with our stuff. They seemed fearless and certainly not threatened by us. Once we got into the park and started driving around, we came upon zebra pretty quickly. They were doing their zebra thing just munching away. Then came our first herd of elephants, for which Tarangire is known. We’d come upon several more groups before the day was over, mostly family units, but once we found two teenage males fighting for dominance, and we sat and watched for a while. Said is good, he popped the top before we went in and he’d stop and turn off the car for photos, waiting until we were done to move on.

    At one point Said spotted two trees full of vultures, and it nagged at him that there must be a reason, a dead reason, why they were nearby. He maneuvered the car until he could look down off the cliff, and there was a somewhat fresh carcass of an elephant down below, which the vultures were freely tearing into. Cycle of life, cycle of life.

    It seemed that just about wherever Said looked, he made animals appear. Mostly impala, who are friendly, happy go lucky deer, but also waterbuck, larger deer like creatures, and warthogs, the mean tusked furry pigs. He even pointed a monitor lizard out that all of us missed at the top of a termite mound.

    For the most part, the animals are fairly close. If they seem far off, Said would almost always manage to find a way to get closer. The baboons and impala were almost uncomfortably close. It is definitely a vast improvement on seeing the same animals in a zoo. Here they are on protected land but they have free reign.

    No big cats today, although they are out there. But no snakes either (a phobia of mine), so big score.

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    Day Two



    The night before, there was a certain amount of heated discussion amongst us about the worth and necessity of the early morning game rides. My position was "I came here to see animals, not to sleep in" and I'd do what it took to see them. Having read here and other sources, I knew early mornings were prime. My fellow travelers had to be convinced of this, apparently. They agreed to an early morning game ride "Just this once", but would soon (read: by afternoon today) be admitting to the error of their ways, and early morning ride became something we'd all clamor for. This morning we were up early so that we'd be on the road by 6:30. Breakfast was good, an omelet and pancake and some fresh fruit. The coffee here is incredible. This would be the first of many times the caffeine-holics amongst us would wish we had a thermal travel mug to take a cup on the road.

    Said expertly navigated our way back to Tarangire for the parts of the park we hadn't seen yesterday. Right outside the gates to our camp, there were about 2 dozen zebras and a dozen wildebeest. I mean, right outside our camp, as in close enough to have in for a drink last night.

    I have neglected to mention so far that at night, the Maasai will walk us back to our cabin. We are in the middle of wildlife and a team of about 6 Maasai will meet and relay us from one to the next as they escort us back to our cabins. That they are carrying bow and arrow, spear or dart gun will give you a gentle reminder why that may be. Slightly unsettling but pretty cool at the same time. Our cabin at Maramboi was as far as it could be from the common areas, which grew to be a minor annoyance, having to schlepp back and forth through rather thick sand and the sun/heat of the day. But the silence and isolation couldn't be beat. I don't get that at home.

    Anyway, back to our ride to Tarangire. Not so secretly, the hope was to see big cats, finally. I know it is only day two, but I won't kid you, that's why I was;here. I love the other animals, but please, throw me a bone here. Find me a cat.

    We were at the park just after the sun came up and Said started cutting a path to parts unknown. Right off the bat, the visit here started off differently, with over 100 Cape buffalo. These;were the first sighting of the "big five" animals that safari-goers strive to see while they're here. They're pretty angry looking and one of the few things that will give lions a run for their money. We hadn't seen one yesterday and here they were, well over 100 of them just off the roadside. Said stopped the car and let us photograph to our hearts' content until he said "Ok, good" which meant he was starting the car again and we'd be moving on.

    Next up we came upon six ostriches, just pecking away at the low grass. We also saw six banded (striped) mongoose. So far, so good. All animals new to us. But would the elusive cats continue to elude us? We'd joked with Said yesterday that he was texting the animals just ahead of our passing by and we hoped he'd texted the cats this morning. You know, just to let them know we were coming. He shrugged and said he had, but got no reply from them. No pressure, Said. But how about those cats?

    It seemed we never drove more than 5-7 minutes without seeing something for the first hour, and then we hit a dead spot and started chatting amongst ourselves because we weren't seeing anything. Enough time went by that I contemplated pulling out the Kindle (ok, not really, it wasn't even 10 minutes) but suddenly Said screeched to a halt and pointed up the hill to our right saying "Cheetah". We all saw nothing. I mean NOTHING. Then he told us where to look, and on a termite mound about 50 yards up from us were three cheetahs, lying there regally, surveying the area, sniffing and just lazing about. I was beyond excited. Said said they were either a sibling coalition or a mother and two older cubs. Whichever, we must have sat there for about 45 minutes, just the five of us humans and the three of them, before other vehicles pulled up to see what we were so intently watching. It was SO NICE to have them to ourselves, without hoards of others around making noise or otherwise distracting us or them. Finally after about 90 minutes we realized they were going no where fast so we moved on.

    Just around the bend, believe it or not, was a lioness lying right out in the open in the sun on the bank of a shallow stream. Said pulled to a stop and said "and two cubs." Again, we all saw nothing until we looked closer, and there were a pair of the cutest little cubs right behind their mom in some shallow grass. Patience paid off as they finally popped up heads, came out and climbed on mom, and then encouraged her to let them nurse. At this point, she moved to the shade of a large bush to indulge them out of the heat of the day. Said said this mother had probably introduced the cubs to the rest of her pride, but was keeping them separate for now for safe keeping. Just about the time he said this, a group of about 8 elephants approached from the left, piquing her curiosity. Elephants will crush things like baby lions if they think the lions are threats to their own young, so this lioness stood up and shuffled her cubs off and away to a distant bush. Once the elephants passed, mom came back but her babies remained hidden. I don't think the elephants even really knew she was there, but she knew of them and took steps to protect her babies.

    As if this wasn't enough, we came upon a herd of about 10 elephants who were speeding their way toward a stream bed on the other side of our vehicle. We of course came to a halt to let them pass. Then we followed them down to the stream bed, where there were already dozens of elephants drinking, bathing, rolling in dirt and play fighting with each other. It seemed every 10 or 15 minutes, another herd of 10-20 would show up and do the same thing. At one point, there were more elephants than I could count right in front of me, and more coming from every direction. This watering hole was very popular. As they came and went, they would pass right by our vehicle, sometimes under 30 feet from us. Said warned us to stay quiet and not make fast movements as the elephants are easily disturbed. There were several very small babies and many youngsters as well as females and older males (which were gigantic!). We stayed here well over an hour taking it all in. It was a panorama I never could have imagined a week ago. Bumper to bumper elephants, endless elephants. More elephants than I ever imagined I'd see in once place at one time.

    At this point we'd been out for over 6 hours and the heat of the day was setting in. We also hadn't had a stop for a toilet, so Said found one for us quickly. We'd decided to do the early half day of safari and spend the rest lounging at the lodge, so we returned for lunch and either relaxed in the pool or in the cool of the common deck for the rest of the day.

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    Day Three

    After a good night's sleep during which I think I heard zebras outside our cabin, we had breakfast and were on the road by 8, which was later than a game ride day but still a bit early. I was having trouble getting to sleep without Ambien, so took one late and woke up groggy. I also think the adrenalin rush from the first few days has worn off and I've settled into a routine here and am actually starting to feel tired rather than just raw excited. Not that that is a bad thing, just that the travel and experience may have caught up with me. But hot damn, I'm still in Africa.

    Our first stop this morning was a Maasai village. This particular village had 10-15 circular huts for the 85 family members living there. The Maasai leader came out and introduced himself and asked the four of us to line up. Next thing I knew, there were about 12 men and women from the tribe parading out in front of us, singing a welcome song just for us. It was mostly rhythmic chanting and African instruments. It was actually really impressive that they came out for us. Then, as if this isn't enough entertainment, they invited us into the camp and put traditional neck pieces on us and made us stand and dance with them! As a white girl with no rhythm this was an embarrassment but I figured I had to do it. The women mostly danced while the men did that really high jumping that you always see them do.

    They are fabulously dressed, with that really bright jewel toned fabric robes. Some of the women had dresses on but all of them had wonderfully beaded jewelry or copper bracelets.

    Once we were thoroughly embarrassed by the dancing, one of the tribe leaders took us on a tour of the village. We went into one of the huts, which we maybe the size of two to three phone booths at home and completely pitch dark inside, but remarkably cooler than the hot sunlight of mid-morning. There were two narrow beds made of what felt like thick branches and small fire with two pots was smoldering on the floor. I was unsure exactly how a family of four or more would have been in there eating and sleeping together. The hut itself is an Acacia frame with plaster walls made of dung and straw and dung roof. Oddly enough the women are responsible for building the huts and keeping them up in terms of filling holes, patching ceilings. As a migrant people, they move often and when they do, they just leave these huts for whomever may pass by.

    The guy who was taking us around was 23 years old. He let us ask him anything, so I asked him if he was married and how that worked. He said they don't marry until 25 and at that time his father will go out and strike a deal for a woman for him.

    After the hut tour, we were taken to the school, which was about the same size as the huts only made only of Acacia branches. There were about 10 little kids, mostly toddlers, inside. They were all pretty dirty with runny noses and were wearing rundown clothes but they were so happy. The smiles I see here on the kids are heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. The teacher got them to sing us a welcome song and then one little guy took the pointer to a chalkboard and led the class through reciting numbers one through 10, ten through twenty, the alphabet and vowels all in English. It is sort of funny that they sing the same alphabet song that we do.

    After the school, there is a market of sorts run by the women of the village. It has a lot of bead and wood and copper works on display. We both picked out a few items we were buying not really because we wanted them but because we wanted to support them and the school that the older kids go to. The leader took us aside to offer us the "best price", which came out to an exorbitant $250 for the mere 5 handmade items we'd found. We both laughed, having been to countries that bargain as a matter of course, but we felt that even with bargaining, starting this high was ridiculous. In the end we talked him down to about $150, but that was still a bit uncomfortably high. We just chalk it up to supporting the locals.

    I enjoyed the visit but as time passes and I think about it, I'm more and more struck by the disparity between my life and theirs. Probably I will need to think on this more, because once the "cool" factor of being there wears off, I think I may find it more depressing than I do right now. While I learned a lot and learned to appreciate their lifestyle, I think it was also really a reality slap.

    Our next stop was Lake Manyara National Park, which is known for its lush forests and vegetation. It was such an extreme contrast from the flat openness of Tarangire, and also attracted a different type of wildlife. Here we saw so many more baboons and monkeys, probably because of the more forested landscape. Manyara is also known for its tree climbing lions and leopards, but as we arrived around noontime, which is the known siesta for most cats, we didn't see one at all.

    The trip through Manyara was not a total bust, as we saw three hippos out in the hippo pool (rare to hit that right, Said said). We also got to see maybe a dozen elephants so close today that I could have reached out and touched them from my seat in the Land Rover. I am getting utterly spoiled by how close some of the animals are getting. It is so difficult to resist (I could pat/touch/feed pandas in China, and held cubs there, so maybe I think I'm special?). I think we had to have sat and watched at least 150 different baboons on three or four different stops. They are fun to watch as they sit and pull up vegetation and chomp it down, or chase each other through trees, or pick bugs off each other. The interactions are just so human-like, it is amazing. There were also a fair number of vervet monkeys, which are the same as we saw at the entrance to Tarangire, but just in larger numbers. It is an awesome experience to sit in the middle of the path as these monkeys are climbing, playing, chasing and eating all around us, yet they hardly give us a second glance.

    Today we also spotted about 6 more giraffes, but not very close up, and quite a few warthogs. Random impala, wildebeest and zebras too, but I think Said is skipping those as they are more of a highlight of where we are going next than they are at Manyara. I won't say Manyara was a bust, but after the absolutely breathtaking two days we had at Tarangire, it was a bit of a letdown.

    Lunch today was a box lunch we prepared this morning after breakfast. Mine was a chicken sandwich with lettuce, onion and carrot on a delicious homemade brown bread. Throw in a cookie, a donut and a pineapple juice and that is a great picnic lunch.

    We spent from noon to about 5:00 in the park and then retreated for our next accommodation, which turns out to be the very lush Ngorongoro Farmhouse. We are again sharing a building (not a tent) with the other two in our group, with the separate units but shared porch. The grounds are immaculate and the room is really nice and modern. After we arrived we had cocktails on the deck outside the dining room and then headed in for a buffet dinner. The salad buffet was to die for, with a wonderful creamy potato salad, buffalo mozzarella, pasta salad, antipasto and regular salad. I could have eaten only this, but I did indulge in beef stroganoff on rice, a "bananas and vegetables" casserole and lemon tart and a brownie for dessert. I had a pina colada before dinner and sauvignon blanc with dinner, so I'm living and eating well. And they are obviously serving us foods we're used to, which makes me wonder if that is to keep us from getting ill. All the food is fresh, the vegetables and fruits are wonderful and they reassure us that everything is washed with mineral water, to prevent us from getting any water-borne illness.

    A Masaai escorted us to our room with all of our bags. He unlocked the door, gently unloaded all the luggage and then proceeded to turn down our beds and adjust the mosquito nets. Then he pulled the windows shut and let down the curtains. I was flabbergasted; a Masaai was turning down my bed for me!

    Today was hot. I'm guessing it runs in the high 80s to low 90s every day but not humid like it can get at home. I sweat but not excessively so. The park today was cooler due to a lot of shade from the trees. Up here in the farmhouse, which seems to be quite elevated, it is much, much cooler, but a very vicious rainstorm passed through after dinner and really made it quite comfortable in our room here, so that we don't need a fan and can keep cool with the windows open.

    One mistake I made was to think that because I wore long pants today, I didn't need insect repellant on my legs. Somehow the mosquitos made it into both pant legs, and I have upwards of 30 bites on my legs, despite the pants being "bug repellant". Note to self, always use repellant.

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    Day Four

    Last night I actually fell asleep without pharmaceutical assistance, which is a great thing. I slept fairly well and when the alarm went off at 5:15, I leapt out of bed. I knew that since today is our visit to the Ngorongoro Crater, this was my first really good chance to see some big cats. My hopes were high. Before we set out, I asked Said “Big cats today?” and he said “you can never predict…” So we went out at 6:30 with a hope and a prayer.

    The crater itself is 269 square kilometers of space, which, let me tell you folks, is a pretty damn big space.. We drove along the rim of the crater for about a half hour before we started the descent down to the floor. Once on the floor, it was nothing but flatness with animals as far as the eye can see. I felt as if I’d turn in any one direction and would see specks on the horizon and would have to compute that those are herds of cape buffalo or herds of zebra, herds of wildebeest. At some point, you just have to stop counting. To say we saw hundreds of either is sufficient for me, but I will never be able to explain the scope of the animals that were just there. Or explain the scope of how big this crater was. It is completely, entirely inexplicable. For once, I am without words.

    To start the day, we saw a whole lot of wildebeest, zebra, gazelles, some waterbuck, cape buffalo. Can you tell that I had my mind on other things? Our first significant stop was when Said spotted four black rhino. There are only 20 in the crater altogether, so to see four right in front of us was fabulous. So now we has spotted three of the big five on this trip.

    Continuing along, we managed to see a hippo pool where we watched five hippos float around and interact. This was an improvement upon the hippos we saw yesterday in that they were so much closer, and we could hear them honk and blow off air underwater. It was pretty cool. Sadly, we moved further along and saw a hyena snacking on what we think was a baby hippo kill, which was sad but fascinating at the same time. Hyena are scavengers, so whether the hyena killed this itself or found it as leftovers is a question we won’t find an answer to.

    Finally, finally, finally, after about 3 hours out in the crater, Said spotted two lions dozing about 75 yards from the road, and through the binoculars, it appeared to be a male and a female. There were a whole lot of other jeeps around, but we managed to out-wait them. Said said they were probably “honeymooning” as they were alone and not part of a larger pride. This meant that they were in the process of mating, which can happen repeatedly every 10-15 minutes or hours over the course of a week or so. After a few false starts when either the male or the female would get up to stretch of change position, our patience paid off and the pair mated. It was over in a flash, but we all felt like we’d seen something really unique, and it was just us in the jeep and the loving pair. Once it was over, they laid down again to snooze and despite us waiting a bit longer, they did not go for it again.

    Just past that, we came upon two more black rhino, so now we’ve seen five of the 20 in the crater, which is sort of spectacular if you think of it.

    We lunched near another hippo pool where there were several hippos floating about right outside our jeep. Lunch today was a box lunch that we put together before we left the lodge this morning. I had a tomato and cheese sandwich, a piece of spinach quiche and a piece of spice bread.

    Right after lunch, Said with his eagle eye again spotted a pride of lions. This time it seems we happened upon a pride. My count was one male, four adult females and 3 older cubs (not tiny but still young enough to have their baby spots and stripes). We watched them for quite a while as various combinations of them would move, roll, stretch, but for the most part it was one big pile of lion. I was in heaven, no complaints here.

    Just down the road, Said spotted a solo adult male lion sleeping alone. He said due to the proximity to the pride we just left, it was probably part of that pride just choosing to be on his own for a bit.

    After 7 hours in the crater, we started to climb back up to the rim and head out. Along the way we encountered jackal, a warthog family with 4 piglets, a lot of really colorful birds. But all of a sudden we came upon a zebra pair who were just about to start mating. Of course we stopped to watch, and they performed spectacularly for us, although both looked at us awkwardly when they were done and I almost felt bad about it. Except it was really a privilege to be there.

    All these encounters managed to be just us and the animals. Other than lunch and once at the hippo pool, we were always alone, no other vehicles distracting us or the animals. In many cases, like wildebeest, zebra, ostrich, gazelles, hyena, buffalo, we can pull up right next to them and they don’t even flinch. I resist the urge to reach out and touch them almost every time. Already this has surpassed my expectations. I cannot believe I still have a week left here. How much better can it get?

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    Day Five

    Having slept again without assistance, I woke happy that I’d slept but sort of wishing that I had another couple hours. I was up before the alarm went off at 7:15 but wished that was 9:15 instead.

    Breakfast was great, and what has become my standard: omelet with tomato and cheese, a muffin, pancake and a sausage. The coffee continues to be stellar here, and this one in particular is grown on the lodge’s farm, as are all the vegetables (carrots, eggplant, tomato, leeks). When I make this trip again, I will most definitely bring a thermal travel mug!!!

    We left a little before 9:00 for a village tour with a guy who we saw singing here at dinner the other night. Paulo (yes, it does sound Italian) led us around his village, showing us some highlights. Whatever image you have of a village in Africa, is probably completely accurate when it comes to this: ramshackle two room buildings with dirt floors, laundry hung along a thin clothes line with chickens and goats running amok. Little kids running around with no shoes, the girls wearing traditional long printed skirts. It was very overwhelming initially, walking the red soil road, leaving a trail of red dust behind us an taking this in. Paulo greeted us and asked us about ourselves, always reaffirming that he remembered our names and where we were from.

    He led us to the village brickyard, where we saw the entire process being done by teenage boys. They chop the dirt down for clay, add water, pour the wet clay into brick molds and turn upside down on to the ground for drying. The dried bricks then are stacked into a kiln which is covered with mud and let burn for 3 days, then cooled. The mud is chipped off the kiln and then the bricks are done. I was surprised how young the boys were doing what is extremely manual labor. But Paulo explained to us that the work is best done by the young, and men only. Women have their place, if not nurses or teachers, at home with the kids.

    Paulo took us to his home, which was a single story with a living room and kitchen with a dirt floor and single layer of brick wall. He lives here with his wife and 6 kids and they sleep in another building nearby. Paulo let us ask a bunch of questions about his life and told us how he met his wife and that he prizes her for her good behaviors over her beauty. He says beautiful women can be crazy and you wouldn’t want to be stuck with that type of wife.

    Paulo, his wife, two of his daughters and his son played music and sang and danced for us. Then the daughters dressed us in traditional skirts and we sang and danced with them. It was a nice experience and let us see part of their lives we might not have otherwise.

    My favorite part of the visit was when we went to their church where the Sunday service was in progress. Paulo’s son took us and he joined the singers at the front of the church, where some very spiritual singing and dancing was already going on. While my travel mates joined him up front, I stayed back taking video and photos of them and the congregants. Suddenly, the cutest little girl, maybe 4 or 5 years old caught my eye and smiled. I took her picture and then showed her the picture on the playback display on my camera. She responded with the biggest smile and then she blew me a kiss. This was all so spontaneous and genuine that my heart just melted. I took some pictures of some other little kids and showed them, and they all seemed generally surprised to see what they looked like, and fascinated by my camera.

    I ended up hanging at the back of the church and dancing with my new little friend. She would mimic whatever movement I did and she smiled the whole time. I think that face is one I’ll always remember when I think back on this trip.

    After lunch back at the farmhouse, we left for Ndutu, with sort of a "game drive as we go" approach. The area around Ndutu is completely different from where we’ve been already. It is absolutely flat for miles with nothing taller than 6-8 inch little patches of scrub bush as far as the eye can see. All of the guides Said had bumped into confirmed that the migration was here. With that come more wildebeest, zebra and Thompson gazelle than you will ever be able to count. Some in single numbers, some in larger herds, some in the trademark migratory single file lines. Many times it was so hard to pick what to look at where, because all around us there was something going on. The best part though is that vehicles can go off-road here, so we could drive right up to herds or something of interest. And the herds hardly even give us any notice. In fact often times they would not even attempt to move as Said drove right up to them.

    We happened upon several giraffe at different parts of our ride, and managed to get close up a few times. Said also found a different type of jackal than the ones we saw the other day, bat eared foxes and a couple more hyena.

    I think what we all found most fascinating though was a wildebeest that had just been born. We missed the delivery by mere minutes, because when Said pulled up to it, it was still shiny and wet, with an umbilical cord still attached. The mom also still showed signs on her rear quarters that she’d just given birth. Said explained that when wildebeest are born, they need to be up and walking within minutes to avoid predation. The mother will drop the placenta quickly and move away from it, giving her time to clean up and get the calf walking by the time any hyena or other predator gets done with the placenta. It’s all really incredible if you ask me.

    Mother wildebeests will lick clean the calf to imprint and remember the scent of the baby. The baby will also learn to recognize its mother’s sound. Zebra babies recognize the particular stripe pattern of their mothers. Again, this is stuff I want to know! Said seems to know everything.

    There is something that is inherently liberating watching these animals running freely and unconstrained for as far as the eye can see. We stopped and did just that more than a few times this week, and it is a gorgeous site, whether it’s just one playing on its own, or playmates or an entire line of migrating beasts. Just to see them where this is all that is natural and good is incredible.

    I have decided that I’ll never be able to explain the scope of what we’re seeing here. The vistas are beyond enormous and impressive. The fact that every one of the millions of specks we see from here to the horizon is an animal that most people get to see maybe one or two of in a zoo, is a privilege. Today we were easily in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of animals here. It is awesome, and I mean that in the “full of awe” way.

    We arrived at the wilderness camp just as the skies unzipped and let unleash a quick moving thunderstorm. First order of business was to get batteries recharged on the only charging station in camp. I’d gone through two today. The camp has about 10 large tents, with twin beds in them and enclosed shower/toilet facilities. As I’ve never even seen a tent before, this is an experience.

    The toilets are flushed with a hand pump. The showers are filled from the outside and provide about 2 minutes of water. The beds are amazingly comfortable though, just as all of them have been so far. There are battery lights in the room, but no other power. But, we are IN the Ndutu conservation area. Tomorrow’s game drive starts at 6:30 am from right outside our camp. What that also means though is that as I sit here typing this at 9:30 at night, I have already heard hyena, wildebeest and I think a warthog very nearby. I hope to hear a lion, just to know they’re out there. But not terribly close!

    Dinner tonight was impressive. It was served in the mess tent and was lasagna with salad and cream of vegetable soup, and crème caramel for dessert. It was wonderful.

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    Day Six

    What an absolutely incredible overnight experience. We all crashed early, by 9:30 or so, and slept the best sleep of the trip so far. However, that doesn’t mean I missed the overnight activities. At one point I woke to hear the distinctive sound of clumps of grass being pulled up right outside our tent. I think it was most likely wildebeest grazing there, because I heard the moo-like sound coming from behind our tent. At another point, I heard what sounded like a stampede right through the center of our campsite. Said confirmed this morning that some species was here running around during the night. At any point I awoke, I heard the calls of wildebeest, zebra or hyena. Now this is camping!

    We were up at 5:15 and ready to hit the road by 6:30. No shower early, just a quick wet down of the hair, throw on some clothes, apply sunscreen and insect repellant and we were off. I’ve given up trying to look even remotely presentable here. Neither Said nor the animals care, and it sort of adds to the relaxation level not to worry about that too.

    Breakfast this morning was pretty good. We all had scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon and a pancake, with toast, OJ and coffee. It was a great way to start the day and would last us well.

    On the ride out to where we would eventually find our main attractions of the day, we saw more wildebeest and zebras than we could ever even imagine. It is easier to enumerate the places where there weren’t any of them. As far as I could see in just about any direction, nothing but wildebeest and zebra. Said told us that his goal was to have us see a wildebeest give birth, and indeed we came so close three times early today. Each time we came upon a newly born wildebeest, still wet from emerging from its mother, placenta about to drop. The moms were licking the calves and nudging them along. Within minutes, they were running alongside their moms, some more wobbly than others, but in any event ready to try to evade the predators.

    A couple hours passed and we continued to bump into some wildebeest births, some pretty cool birds (eagle, vultures) and a few hyena. Said all of a sudden turned toward a mini-swarm of other vehicles that were all looking at one thing in particular. When we got upon it, we found a lone jackal feasting on a fresh wildebeest kill. Just nearby were a dozen or so vultures waiting to step up. We all wanted Said’s opinion on what happened here, and he said there are two deaths here, either a natural death or a kill. He thought initially this was a natural death. It wasn’t until I happened to look behind us and see a few vehicles looking under a nearby tree that I saw a cheetah walking away. Said turned the vehicle around and we followed them.

    The cheetah brothers were working in a coalition. Said recognized the pair from previous visits and knew they were brothers from the same mother. Cheetah males will only form hunting coalitions with their own siblings, and originally this pair had been part of three brothers. One brother has been killed by a lion in the past. We followed the cheetahs to the next tree where they laid down. Close-up view by either binoculars or my zoom lens revealed blood on the chin of one brother, so it was obvious that they had made the kill. Both males had very distended stomachs, which was further proof that they’d gorged on their kill before that jackal had gotten to it. So we’d missed the kill probably by less than an hour, but at least now we’d seen two more cats. The brothers settled down to sleep off their meal and we continued on after getting our fill from about 30 feet away.

    Somehow Said knew where to find the next big event of the day and it was probably the highlight of my trip so far. We came upon a mother cheetah and three one-year old cubs. They were walking through the grass with a long, single-file line of migrating wildebeests just past it. It didn’t take long to realize the mother cheetah was sizing up the line of migratory beasts, looking for food for her family. Compared to the brothers we just saw, these cats were very thin and apparently hungry. It was interesting to see how they followed her until she was ready to hunt. Then it was as if she’d sent them to huddle down together out of the line of fire, and they did as she told. She watched the line of wildebeest for some time, passing up several calves which would have been easy kill if she’d tried. It seemed like she hadn’t deemed any one of them worth a try. All of a sudden though, one of the cubs got antsy and went for it, bursting out of his hiding spot with his brothers, then making the mistake of hesitating, which gave the wildebeests just time to realize what was going on. The cubs tried to pursue after the false start but came up empty and gave up the chase. It was fascinating to see, and makes me wonder if the mother was training them to hunt or if that one cub was just over-eager. I didn’t realize how much I wanted to see the kill. It was all so exciting and some what disappointing that they weren’t successful, although I know from my reading that they are successful only about 20% of the time.

    It seemed like a good idea now to head back to camp for lunch. On the way though, Said spotted two male lions asleep under a tree, and he pulled our vehicle right up next to them. We were no more than 15 feet from two sleeping lions! We waited long enough for one to raise its head, pose, stand and stretch only to lie down next to his brother again. Unlike cheetahs, male lions will only hang out with brothers from their pride, but they don’t have to be brothers from the same mother. Just past these two guys was a female who was soundly sleeping belly up under another tree.

    We definitely had worked up an appetite with all this excitement, so we headed back to camp for a hot lunch, which was pizza, a green been, carrot and onion casserole and a mixed salad, with apple caramel for dessert. I washed it all down with a Tangawizi, of course. During lunch Said gave us the option of a bush walk or an evening game drive, and we chose the latter unanimously. So we took a break until 4 and headed out again to see what else Ndutu had in store for us. Kim and I played Uno and drank beer or Baileys and listened to the animals. I could get used to this life.

    Promptly at 4:00 Said loaded us in the car and we took off. Right outside our camp, he came across 5 cheetahs, a mother and four 1-year old cubs. We found them walking and followed them to under a tree where they sprawled out. They didn’t seem to be doing much of anything but lying there, but sitting and watching five cheetahs is heavenly, and I have the pictures to prove it. Once we ascertained that the weren’t up to much just yet, we moved on.

    Next we happened upon 6 giraffe, two of which were very short juveniles who were munching on the foliage near the sandy beach areas around the river. We watched them amble around a bit and moved on again.

    Just past the giraffes, we came upon two female lions who were sleeping soundly under a tree. We sat and watched with our usual patience and were rewarded after close to 45 minutes when a line of a couple hundred zebra and wildebeest made their way from the beach up the hill in the line of sight of the lions. Even though Said thought that they looked as if they had eaten recently, they paid careful attention to everything that went by them. That got them up and awake enough to take some excellent photos. Then they flopped back down and took more of a cat nap. One of the lions snored loudly while the other was having kitty dreams of some sort, twitching and she dozed away. Once again though, our vehicle outlasted about 8 others who came and went while we sat there. We are the masters at the waiting game, and it always seems to pay off.

    Said told us that lions noses start to turn black after they turn five years old. Before that they are mostly pink. As these two lions had noses just starting to turn black, he said they are probably just over five. Each also had four teats, which is standard for lions, regardless of how many cubs they have.

    Letting sleeping lions lie, we moved on and rode around through more masses of wildebeest and zebras again. I think Said really has his heart set on showing us a birth. I’d love to see it, but I think so far we have just missed quite a few!

    I took a few wonderful shots of the sky and the light here today. The clouds here seem to just hang in the sky and never move, which I think is due to there being such an expanse of sky over us and no frame of reference like buildings to track the movement. And I caught a wonderful moment just before sunset when huge rays of light broke through a cloud and streamed down to earth. It really was more poetic than I am doing it justice.

    Finally, just outside camp again, we happened upon the same five cheetahs we saw earlier. This time they were watching a herd of wildebeest move into the area. We watched them lie together for a while and two of the cubs play fought with each other, just like our housecats do. I couldn’t tell for sure how serious the mother was about actually hunting tonight, but after a bit of a wait, one cub decided to make an approach on his own. He walked away from the group and I thought maybe no one had noticed, but finally when he took up position to observe the wildebeests, the others seemed to take notice and move in with him. Said called it a night as it was getting terribly dark and we wouldn’t be able to see much more anyway. Hopefully we can bump into the group tomorrow and see if they are noticeably fatter or not.

    Back at camp we had dinner. How they manage to pull of such good meals is beyond me. Tonight we had cream of pumpkin soup, marinated lamb (which was fabulous), grilled potatoes, mixed vegetable, salad and a chocolate cake with white sauce. We split a bottle of chenin blanc and some water. It was a delicious meal and no one can say I’m not eating well in Africa.

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    Day Seven – If It’s Tuesday It Must Be Lion Day

    Last night right after lights out, one of the staff came to the tent to return cameras and batteries that we’d been charging in the main tent. Thank goodness he did, because he got me awake just in time to hear two lions roaring right behind our tent! It was spectacular, and try as I might, I couldn’t stay awake long enough to hear more. Yet another very restful sleep here in the great outdoors.

    This morning we were up at 5:45 am to leave at 6:15. We skipped breakfast in lieu of a late morning brunch. We were actually on the road in the dark and went immediately to see if we could find the cheetah family right outside our camp. We weren’t successful, so we will never know how their stalking turned out for them last night. Said says that a mother cheetah with four cubs that size and age is very successful, because most cheetah litters don’t remain that size to adulthood. If they’ve made it to a year, they will most likely make it to independence. That made me feel good.

    En route to the rest of our game drive, Said heard from another guide that two lions were feasting on a kill nearby. It turned out to be in the same area where we saw the two dozing lionesses last night, and indeed, it was them. They had hidden a wildebeest kill deep in a bush and were snacking on it. Said put the pieces of the puzzle together and reminded us of the circling vultures that we saw near them the evening before, and coupled with the fact that the cats themselves were uninterested in the parade of wildebeest and zebras that went by them, and add to that the utter stench of the kill which tells us it was not a fresh kill, he thinks that they’d killed the wildebeest last night and stashed it for a few days’ worth of meals. Interesting. We followed one lioness down to the bank along the riverbed where we took some photos from a respectable distance and then left her to sleep.

    I think Said had a mission to get us to see a wildebeest birth today. We rode around a whole bunch of wildebeests for a really long time, but the closest we got was to see one little guy just born on the ground, but we were in time to see his first very wobbly steps. That was a joy to see, honestly. That mom had him up and running within minutes of his birth, which is astounding, but it’s move or be eaten out here. Said later found us a placenta on the ground, which was interesting from a scientific point of view but not so much a photo opportunity. Yes, even I have limits on something like that.

    With lesser luck seeing big game today, Kim and I resorted to bird watching, which is an Olympic sport here on safari. There are some hard core birders here, of which we are not two, but we give it a good shot. And sometimes we are right. I think Said is proud when we recognize a bird that he’d previously pointed out to us.

    When I say “lesser luck” in terms of what we saw today, do not think we saw nothing. In terms of wildebeest and zebra count, we have to be close to a million by this point. They are everywhere, in astounding numbers. As much video or still photos I take, I don’t think any of them ever capture what we’re seeing here. At one point we stopped and there were wildebeest as far back along the horizon as I could see. It seemed to go on forever. It is a truly impressive sight. I also noticed today that some of the zebra and wildebeest would take an interest in us, stopping what they were doing to stare at us curiously. That provides for great photos, but also provides a laugh. I wonder what they think of us exactly.

    We returned to the camp for brunch, which was fabulous as always. Meatballs (really like seasoned hamburgers), crepes, mixed vegetable salad that was like a salsa, pasta salad with hard boiled egg, zucchini salad, bread, fruit and a glass of wine. I could get used to eating like this. Kim and I asked to see the kitchen, and they gave us a tour before we left. It has a gas oven and two gas stove tops, two refrigerators and two prep counters. They only have room to serve about 20 people a night, so it’s a controlled environment, but I’m still amazed at how they manage to make such delicious food.

    After brunch we packed the Land Cruiser and headed for the Serengeti. Said had expressed a bit of concern that with all the migratory animals near Ndutu (where we’d just been), that we might have a tough time in the Serengeti. Once we crossed over into the park, it was noticeable that the migration certainly was not here. Serengeti is derived from the Maasai words for “open space” and that is a vast understatement. Here more than anywhere we’ve been already, you can see for miles across vast flatness. This is the second biggest park in Tanzania and it shows. But it also appeared empty, so I was a bit hesitant about what we were going to see over the next three days. No sooner had I thought that than Said screeched to a halt and backed the vehicle up. Right next to the road in a bush was a female lion dozing in the tall grass. She obliged us with several photo opps before adjourning under a bush for the rest of her nap. Said pointed out that she had a large collar around her neck which researchers were using to track her. A bit further down the road we found a kill (wildebeest) in a bush that Said believed based on proximity was the work of this lioness.

    We continued our drive through the Serengeti and I became completely transfixed by the clouds here. Against a gorgeous blue sky, they just seem to hang and not move. But even the dark storm clouds are interesting, because you can see the entire storm cell move because there is nothing else to block your view of it. I’ve taken more sky photos here than I ever have anywhere.

    Said took a side road up and around a large rock formation and immediately pointed out two young male lions and an older female asleep on the top of the rock. The males barely had any mane grown in yet, and they had the all-pink nose of youngsters. The female may have been a mom or an auntie, Said explained. As they remain a family unit, that could have been any older female in the pride with them today. Around the other side of the same rock formation was a younger male and female sunning themselves.

    Further on, and not that long after the rock pride, we came across another vehicle stopped alongside the road. Their guide said there was a sleeping lion in the taller grass. Said used his binoculars and said this was another “honeymooning couple” like we’d seen back in Ngorongoro, and that they’d be mating at regular intervals if we could wait it out. He knows by now that we’ll wait for just about anything, and we were rewarded with a lightning fast mating ritual that we only got to see from behind. But still, we got to see magic happen, so we moved on.

    But not even 15 seconds down the road we saw yet another vehicle stopped looking the same way into the same sort of grass. We stopped too and within 2 minutes, the female rolled on to her back, paws up in the air, which is the lions’ way of saying “I’m ready” and the male sat up, yawned, stood up and made motions to get the business of the moment done. This guy knew what he was doing, and we were treated to a fairly expert display, complete with growling, neck biting and a swat on the head. It was an excellent show. For a lover of big cats, I’m just in heaven over all this. We were not even 30 feet away from all this.

    Finally we headed for camp as a lot of strong thunderstorms looked as if they were moving in. On the way, Said pointed out a serval cat in the road, which disappeared so quickly none of could get much more than a quick glance at it. It is not much larger than a house cat and spotted. It was one of three spotted cats in Tanzania, after the cheetah and the leopard. We also got to see an animal new to us, the Coke’s hartebeest. This is a large antelope with horns that sort of twist upward like they could almost form a heart.

    The Serengeti Wilderness Camp is pretty much like the one we left in Ndutu, and run by the same people. We’re looking forward to whatever we hear tonight!

    A bit about the weather here. Initially it was pretty hot when we landed and the first couple days out. Since then it seems to have settled into a pretty comfortable 80-85 and dry. The only time it gets terribly hot is when I’m in the direct sun. I will say I have gotten great color here, and even while wearing SPF 30! The mosquitoes and Tse Tse flies seem to have become a non-issue since we left Manyara, it is just pesky regular old flies that bother us here, and they are more a nuisance than anything.

    Before dinner Kim and I stopped for a drink. They had no Bailey’s but they did have Amerula, which was very similar, so I had that. Dinner was a starter of potato and leek soup, and the main course was the meat and vegetable lasagna we had at the last camp with mixed salad and a carrot pound cake. The soups here are just amazing. I have no idea how they are so damn good.

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    Day Eight – The Serengeti Lions

    This morning I was awoken around 3:45 by the sound of lions roaring way off in the distance. I was transfixed by this so managed to stay awake and listen to them approach from the front to around the side of our tent. By 4:15 they were as close as they would get and it sounded like they were pretty darn close. I thought that there were at least two roaring to each other, but when I talked to one of the guys who work here, he said it was a big pride. It’s funny how people who work here can tell the difference.

    On the way to breakfast, I saw the very top edge of the sun peeking up over the horizon. It took all of two minutes before it was fully up, I couldn’t believe how quickly it happened, and I could just stand there and take it all in. Tomorrow, we’ll be seeing it from the hot air balloon.

    Breakfast was good, scrambled eggs, sausage, a pancake that tasted really cinnamony and toast. I woke with a fairly good case of intestinal distress, but like hell was I going to let that stop me, so I dosed up on Cipro and Lomotil and was on my way.

    We left at 7:00 and I think we all had leopard on our minds. Said says the taller grass here is more conducive to leopards and lions, but as we saw yesterday, that means we hardly ever see them unless they stand up. If they’re laying down, we see nothing. The other thing that is quite different here is that because the migration is still in Ndutu, it feels as though there are almost no animals here at all. Comparatively speaking.

    This morning we drove for quite some time before seeing much of anything. The vistas are beautiful though and the weather here is gorgeous so it made it easy to just watch the world go by. I also downloaded an album of traditional African music that I listened to while we were riding. That way, when I listen to it at home, I’ll think back to everything I saw here.

    So, early on, we saw an elephant, some solo jackals, a jackal family, two warthog. Then we came upon some Topi, which is the first we’ve seen here. They look like antelope with socks on. While scanning some rocks for either lions or leopards, we saw some hyrax, which looked like guinea pigs. Oddly enough, they are the most anatomical similar mammal to elephants. Said said they share the same type of incisors that are like tusks and have internal testicles like elephants. Odd that the smallest thing we’ve seen is so like the largest thing we’ve seen.

    After a while, it got really slow in terms of seeing much of anything, but Said seemed to conjure up a female lion dozing in the grass. Judging from her more or less bolting away from us, I think we clearly disturbed her, which is the first time I’ve felt that all this time. We moved on fairly quickly.

    Just past the lioness, we came upon six giraffe that we’d seen wandering further along the horizon. These passed right in front of and along our vehicle, so we got fairly close. They are very tranquil and relaxing to watch so we spent some time there.

    Circling yet another rock formation for the same cats we had yet to see, I spotted a lizard that was half red, half green. Said said it was a male Agama lizard. That was about all the reptiles I’m willing to tolerate this safari, thank you very much.

    After a bit more driving, we came upon a gathering of vehicles along the side of the road. From the midst of that, a female lion ran out and crossed the road right in front of us. We watched her wander off into the distance and then headed back towards lunch.

    Fairly close to camp, one of us spotted a head go up under a tree just off the road to our left. When we backed up to investigate, it looked as if there was definitely one and maybe even two lions under that tree. On second look, there were 21 (YES! TWENTY ONE!) lions lying there under the tree. There seemed to be two adult females and a whole slew of cubs. I think since it was a bit off road we weren’t able to get much closer, so we left and continued on, which was a HUGE disappointment, but my wish to see a pride had come true, however short-lived. We continued down the road and saw a pod of elephants crossing the road, and as interesting as that was, I just could not get into it after what we’d left behind. I think Said noticed that another vehicle had made its way to our pride, so he took us back. Soon there were 5 or 6 vehicles there and the pride got antsy and started to move to other cover further from us. But I got more photos and got to watch them and it was just an amazing dream come true. I never, ever thought I’d get to see so many at one time. It was blissful and then some. Finally the lions decided it was time to move as the crowd of paparazzi grew bigger, so we left as well. I teared up as we pulled away, just completely overcome by something so fabulous. Despite a very slow morning overall, this was more than enough to justify going out early and being so very patient.

    Back at camp it had warmed up some and lunch was ready for us. The cool gazpacho soup was tasty and so refreshing. There was a warm chicken salad in a creamy tomato sauce with carrots and onions and homemade French fries, which were wonderful. I had Sprite and ginger ale and returned to the tent to write up the blog and rest before we headed out at 4 p.m. for the evening game drive.

    After our siesta, Said told us that the pride we saw was only part of the larger pride. The area we are staying in is called Turner Spring and the pride is local to this area, so it is called the Turner Spring Pride. He said we saw only 21 of the 35 known pride members. Even still, I’m impressed.

    We had to go first to register for our hot air balloon ride so we got that out of the way and then were off to find the still elusive leopard. This was sort of a race against the clock because extremely threatening storm clouds were building on the horizon in two different directions. Said was skillfully driving us over the dirt and potholed roads before it even started raining. Finally he came upon an area where a few other vehicles had already pulled over. While we were taking photos of the ominous skies overhead, Said spotted a female leopard coming down out of a tree as the rain started to fall. I managed to snap a few photos as she disappeared into the tall grass. Just when we started to baton down the hatches and heavier rain fell, Said spotted a small cub, one of two he is aware of in this area, in another tree. I got a few better shots of him with my zoom lens. It's unlikely we'll get much closer than this, so those will have to do. But we have managed to spot all of the Big Five and the Big Three Spotted Cats of Tanzania, so big score for us and props to Said.

    The storm that passed through was very intense. The cloud deck fell so low and was so dark that it had an Armageddon feel to it. The rain fell hard and fast. The whole storm passed in maybe 15 or 20 minutes. But what is incredible about it is how intense it was and how you can easily see the entire cell of weather as it heads towards you. I’ve never seen anything like it.

    We managed to see another elephant mini-migration with a few babies. And Said gave us another lesson on the differences between Thompson gazelle, Grant’s gazelle and impala. I think maybe in the next 24 hours we’ll get it right at least once!

    On the road back to camp we stopped a few times to see the most incredible sunset with the dark storm clouds intermingling with the oranges and pinks of the sun going down. So I saw the sun coming up and going down today, and both were just as spectacular.

    Dinner tonight was that wonderful pumpkin soup we had at the other camp, beef stew on rice, a type of cabbage slaw and really good homemade rolls. One of the other guests had a birthday so the staff made him a cake which we all had a slice of.

    So another really good day in the books. Who knows what tomorrow will bring! It’s our last full day on safari.

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    Day Nine – Balloons, Leopard and Hippos, Oh My

    This morning we were up even before the lions could really get started with their overnight roaring. That would be 4:15, which is an ungodly hour for anyone, but today we had a sunrise hot air balloon ride followed by a champagne English style breakfast. We were picked up first in the pitch blackness. On the way we stumbled into an impromptu game ride when we came upon a gorgeous leopard just meandering its way along the road. The driver of the van stopped so we could admire it until it turned into the bush. Just then, another vehicle came from the other direction at a very high speed. It either didn’t see the leopard, didn’t see our driver flash his headlights to slow down, or both, but it went right at the leopard. Thankfully the leopard made it into the bush, barely, but not without my letting loose a string of expletives that I think may have embarrassed my fellow travelers. It was another one of those moments where I thought to myself that maybe we shouldn’t be here.

    Finally after picking up two other groups of tourists, we got to the field where the balloon inflation. By this point it was still totally dark but the balloons weren’t even close to inflated that we swore we weren’t going to make sunrise liftoff. It was pretty damn close, but we did just miss it. We were up just after the sun went over the horizon. But let me tell you, that balloon ride was pretty amazing. The basket was on its side and we all loaded in horizontally. Once the air got hot enough in the balloon, it pulled the basket upright and then off the ground. The guys working the ground untethered the basket from the jeep it was tied to and up we went, smooth as silk. We gained altitude and literally floated over the Serengeti. The air was clear and smooth and it was completely silent except for the occasional blast of hot air to keep the balloon rising. The pilot could rotate the balloon so we all got a good look at everything around us. From up there, we saw a bunch of giraffe, some elephants, a lion on a giraffe kill, impala and hippos. They were small from high up but it was kind of neat to see them from that angle. The landing was picture perfect, two small bumps and we were down after about an hour of drifting. This was one of the most impressive ways to see vastness of the Serengeti, though, and well worth the price and painful wake up call.

    We were met with a champagne toast, which is tradition after hot air balloon flights since they were founded in France. Then we were shuttled to a breakfast under an Acacia tree, which was a traditional English breakfast with eggs, sausage, bacon, tomato and baked beans. More coffee and champagne flowed and we got to meet and chat with all of our fellow travelers.

    Said picked us up around 10:00 and we went straight out on our game ride. He said our goal for the morning was to find that leopard again for a better look. True to his word, we had spotted the leopard within minutes. Well, it was hard to miss the poor thing because the leopard paparazzi had staked out the road alongside where she was sleeping in the tree. But as usual, Said’s experience and our patience paid off. While several other vans came and went, we waited. At one point the leopard yawned and shifted position and Said said “She wants to get up.” And we knew if we waited long enough, she would. Not 15 minutes later, she got up, stretched, and went head first down the tree. Said started the car and drove far down the road, further than any other vehicle. Next think I knew, the leopard was headed straight for us, walking through the thick grass. She passed us and he moved the car again, this time even with another tree, which of course she went right up. It was a great experience, certainly better than yesterday, but again, only made possible by Said’s expert guiding.

    We came back to camp for lunch, which was spaghetti, onion bread, spicy ground beef and ginger ale for me. It was pretty good, even after the big breakfast we had late morning. I’m getting used to these multi-course meals three times a day, I don’t know how I’ll live without them.

    On days when we have two game rides, we would either nap, read or play cards during the few hours between lunch and our afternoon game ride. Here the tents get incredibly warm during the day, even though we leave the place zipped open all day. So we usually lie here like sloths and complain about how hot it is, which makes going out again in the moving vehicle that much more enjoyable, as it’s so much cooler out there.

    For our last game ride, Said said “my goal is to find you a hippo.” So off we went. And after an extraordinarily long ride, we finally saw a sign pointing to the hippo pool. As we’d passed a few of those with a handful of resident hippos during our balloon ride, we all just assumed it was one of those. But we were wrong. Like everything else Said has conjured up for us, this experience was beyond what we could have ever imagined. This pool was good sized, but what was unique about it was that there were over 100 hippos here. There were hippos of every size and age, all lolling about in the water, barking and howling at each other. Little babies followed their moms around, trying to nurse. Big males stretching their mouth open 180 degrees to yawn big dramatic, over-exaggerated yawns. It was all just so surreal, that this was all natural and not a zoo. I loved it, it was a pretty cool way to end the trip.

    On the way back to camp we came upon a handful of zebra and giraffes munching away. There was a large, adult giraffe, a medium sized giraffe and two of the littlest giraffes we’d seen to date. We felt it a nice way to leave, seeing two of the gentlest of the safari beast so far.

    Again we had another round of storms come through that we seem to have missed here by driving down to the hippo pool. Coming back after the hippo experience though, we again saw the best of sunsets around and also some fascinating heat lightning which lit up the clouds around it in an electric pink. I’ll miss seeing so much sky when I go home.

    Dinner tonight was a nicely marinated lamb like we had at the last camp, rosemary potatos, a green bean and carrot casserole and a guacamole salad. Dessert was crème caramel. I had a Sprite and vodka to celebrate the end of the trip. I will really miss eating so well regularly!!!

    Tomorrow’s a travel day but Said promised a game ride on the way to the airstrip. Who knows what else he has up his sleeve for us. As I write this, the lions are doing their best to serenade us to sleep for one more night. I’ll miss this too!

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    Day Ten -- Last Day Out



    The overnight was quiet as we settled in for our first long sleep in a few days. Long meaning past 6 a.m. I was out cold by about 9:30 pm and didn't hear much in the way of animal noises overnight, so either there weren't so many or I slept through it. We packed up and paid up for our bar tab and we were off with Said. He managed to squeeze in one more game ride before we got on our flight back to Arusha.

    It seemed as though Said was visiting some spots of recent famous sightings as we drove along. He pointed out where he'd seen the pride we saw take down a buffalo a while back. No such luck today. The ride was pretty quiet for about an hour and a half as he quizzed us on types of birds and the difference between impala, Grant's gazelle and Thompson's gazelle. I'll get it someday. I think I have impala figured out. It was a gorgeous morning, warm and sunny with that blue sky with puffy clouds. Finally with only about a half hour left before we had to be at the airstrip, Said spotted a leopard in a tree. All left and right paws dangling on either side of a thick branch, this guy was down for the count. And out cold he was. His head was pointed the other way, so I was hoping he'd at least pop up for a stretch while I had my camera ready and before we had to go. No time for being patient and waiting him out today! This leopard was larger than the one we have seen the last two days so that leads Said to think it is a male. Finally he lifted his head and I got the shot I wanted. Handsome cat!

    We got to the airstrip, which is literally a long mowed patch of grass. There were a bunch of 8-seater prop planes lying around and we were led to one. I've never been on a plane that wasn't a jet so this would be an experience. There was no security, no checking of tickets, no one even asked my name, they just took my luggage, shoved it into the nose of the plane and let us all stand next to the plane in the grass until everyone showed up. Finally we hugged Said good-bye and climbed aboard. Our pilot was a surly old man who barked a lot and smoked one last cig before climbing in. I sat right over his left shoulder and could watch his view and the instruments. I wasn't sure if that should make me feel better or not. Finally we were airborne, and cruising over the Ngorongoro Crater, which was massive. It made me feel so small when I realize we were one of those tiny dots cruising the roads around there just last week.

    The pilot turned once and handed me a box of Cadbury eclair candies. That's the in-flight service, I suppose. He also would make motions like swerving or bumpy when we'd hit turbulence. I didn't enjoy making it through those fun white clouds that looked so pretty from the ground, but finally we made it and were on the ground in Arusha.

    David from our tour operator picked us up and we're spending the afternoon at the Arumeru Lodge again, killing time until our late day flight. There are worse ways to spend the day...officially heading home.

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    Thanks for the wonderful and enjoyable report. We had our first safari to Tanzania last November and enjoyed it so much that we have a trip booked again for Febuary nex year.

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    Loved your report!

    As someone who was not a camper you did very well in the tented camps it sounds like. I'm starting to pull information together for a TZ safari and am looking more at tent camps than I usually would and I admit it scares me! We've done tents but not the mobile kind that are really on the ground and without running water! So it made me feel better to see your glowing reviews in your report :)

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    So glad folks have read and enjoyed this. I don't know that I'll ever be able to top this experience, short of going again!

    Leslie, I think you'll do fine. If this was "camping", sign me up. I survived the bucket showers and toilets fine, and those were some of the finest beds and meals I've ever come across. Don't let it scare you off! They are fine with the added bonus of being RIGHT THERE every day for game rides. Our rides would start as soon as we left the breakfast table!

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    Thanks for the further encouragement, Amy :)

    I've made a lot of notes from your report. After looking at the reviews on TA I think those 2 tent camps sound pretty perfect and definitely authentic! Everyone reviewing mentions how great the food was and for most trip reports on TZ I'm seeing a lot of blah-food comments so that was good to read also. I'm wondering though, did they have mosquito nets? Maybe they just spray the tents in the evening?

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    The tents themselves serve as mosquito nets, so there aren't additional nets over the beds. Of everywhere we were, we were least bothered by mosquitos there. Only at dinner was I bitten at either mobile tented camp. Just remember to keep your tent zipped when you're not there or in it. Open it only to come and go.

    Generally, the mosquitos dropped off the further into the Serengeti we got. They were worst in Tarangire and Manyara and hardly a bother in Ngorongoro and Serengeti. But maybe that's a time of year thing, and could change from season to season.

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    Amyb, you mentioned flying to DAR on Precision Air from KIA. Why was that, since the KLM flight you were taking from DAR stops in KIA before continuing on to DAR? Was there a scheduling problem? Loved the report, BTW! I've stayed at all these Tanganyika Wilderness Camps properties and have always enjoyed them.

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    Sharon -

    Interesting what catches our attention ... as your mention of the Precision flight KIA/DAR... I've read those few lines a few times and still can't quite figure out where that Precision flight came into play. Of course not knowing Amy's original flight routing, with an assumption only... if KLM from AMS to JRO/DAR (this flight is heading to both airports in Tanzania)... and then home from JRO/DAR to AMS... as you mention, once the flight lands JRO it goes onto DAR before heading onto Europe/AMS.

    Times below are estimates only -
    The KLM flight departs AMS about 10am,
    arrives JRO 7:30pm... paxs for JRO deplane (those heading to DAR remain onboard).
    Those pax departing from JRO to AMS board (filling those seats of paxs who just got off) and takes off about 9pm for 1/hr and lands at DAR where DAR paxs deplane.
    Those paxs at DAR heading to AMS board (filling those seats of paxs who just got off);
    flight takes off about 11:15pm to AMS, landing next morning about 6:30am... here to connect to onward to the States, Canada, elsewhere in Europe or other.

    In the end no matter, curiosity only.

    As to the tse-tse and mossies -
    The tse-tse are an issue during daylight and in woodland areas, where besides southern Tarangire, there are lots of areas in the Serengeti they can be found as seen by the many blue/black triangles (containing chemical) hanging off the trees throught... where you close vehicle windows and pop-top till out of the area.

    The mossies, on the otherhand are an issue between dusk to dawn, so you can certainly leave your tent flaps open during daytime hours if not out on game drives/taking a walk or other... no reason to keep zipping/unzipping.

    There are, however, other mossies about during daylight hours that might carry diseases as Dengue Fever, though rare, so if this is something of concern or you are a magnet, zip up the tent and use repellent on skin. And a spritz of Doom in the tent (not over your bed linens) doesn't hurt.

    As the Crater is situated over 7,000' feet, remember mossies do not like altitude, cold or wind... thus rare to find them when staying on the rim. For that matter, most areas if over 5,000'.

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    Good question. What ended up happening is three of the four of us (not me) booked air on KLM direct from JRO to AMS (with an intermediate stop in DAR). When I went to book that a day later, that particular routing fare showed up for $5k+ (yes, you read that right). There was an alternate option of taking Precision from JRO and picking up that very same KLM flight in DAR, which was showing up for what my travel mates paid for it, so I took it, not having read anything about Precision. Foolish decision in retrospect, but I thought it was harmless at the time, and saved me $3k.

    What remains a question is why I was bumped to the next day. The Precision flight went out as scheduled (I saw it go), was not canceled. They "found" me seats on the KLM flight my friends were on but not after some serious stress, and, I will admit, some palm greasing on my part. The whole experience left me feeling dirty but I just wanted to be home at that point.

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    Now I'm super curious -- how did the palm greasing work? If you don't mind me asking. Does that mean just what it sounds like? I thought that only worked with maitre d's at restaurants :)

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    Well, here's the thing. I debated with some fellow forum-goers how much, if any of this, I should share. The whole thing smacked of wrong-ness and I feel duped and stupid but also feel others should be aware, so here it goes...

    Arriving at JRO with my three travel mates, I was not allowed in the airport at all, as you can't get in without a valid ticket for travel that day. A security guard outside stepped in, heard my story and said he could help, but it'd be $150. I took out a credit card thinking that was the change fee on KLM, but he said he only takes cash. Still without really thinking about where this was going or why, I hit the ATM, got shillings which our guide converted to USD for me (the guard wanted USD) and off he went with my e-ticket. A couple hours passed with him going back and forth, in and out of the airport, me on the sidewalk with my luggage and my guide (who said he'd stay with me and take care of me in the event I don't get on a flight that night). The guard would fluctuate between "it looks good" and "not so good" and that he was waiting for a KLM manager to show up.

    Ultimately the KLM manager showed up and I watched them confer and look and point at me. The guard came back out, and asked for another $100. I said I already gave him $150, he said that's for me. This is for him. So back to the ATM I went. With that cash, the guard escorted me through the security at the main door to the airport, directly to the front of the check-in line, where two boarding passes (one to AMS, the other AMS to BOS) were already waiting for me.

    I have no idea where the money went, why it had to be cash and not credit, but it got me home without my having to spend money on an overnight stay and day room the next day in Arusha. (As the flight wasn't until 9:30 pm, I would have had to stay somewhere all day as the airport doesn't let you in until the check-in for your flight is open).

    I've traveled out of the US over 30 times in my life, and never had an experience like this, nor do I want one again. It took until the plane took off from Amsterdam that I shook the feeling that that just sucked and I was taken advantage of somehow. It does not ruin my safari experience but does make me think that maybe things get done differently in other parts of the world. If anyone has an alternate explanation, I'm more than willing to hear it. I'd like to believe anything else!

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    Hate to say it, but yes... 'suckered' - 'chai' (bribe, not tea) is quite usual many places around the world and sadly also in Kenya/Tanzania.

    Couldn't your tour operator help you out with this? Even though your own booking, at least they speak the same language and have a darn good idea of what's going on.

    For $250 you could have stayed at a hotel, relaxed before heading home, transfer to airport. But, once at airport I can understand why you just 'wanted outta there.'

    Just write it off to experience and learn local language (anywhere) 'no money' 'not card' 'no nothing' = a pouting lower lip and even a tear could help.

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    I really wanted to get home, plus didn't want to stay alone, as nice as the Arusha lodge was, I didn't have a bathing suit or other clothes suitable for lounging around in really hot/humid weather without air conditioning, which it was there. A lot factored into it. Our guide (who was not the one we had on safari, he was driving the land rover back from Serengeti where we left him) couldn't figure out why I wanted to leave so badly, but supported me in whatever I wanted to do, but other than that, stayed out of it. There was no indication that this was a bribe or that it was necessarily a bad thing.

    Chalk it up to experience, I suppose. What is funny though is that I did try to cry, figuring they wouldn't know how to handle that and would do anything to get rid of me, and I just couldn't do it. Ha! :-)

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    Yes, Amyb, I can believe that jump in price. KLM pricing is crazy at times! They are now going to have some competition from Turkish Airlines going into JRO and Ethopian Airlines already goes in there (both are Star Alliance members.) I have to say I haven't seen such blatant bribe-taking in Tanzania, but Sandi has been there more than me. I definitely think that your guide should have been more involved in that encounter. He shouldn't have allowed you to be taken advantage of that way. Still, you got home and that's what mattered for you at that point.

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    I thought that too about the guide. I understand he wasnt't the one you had traveled with and so didn't have a "relationship" with but still! Maybe he felt he'd get some future trouble from the security guard if he sees him frequently when picking up/dropping off clients. But he could've talked to you when you were away from the guard and explained exactly what was going on in case there was any doubt that you were fully aware. Maybe bribes are common enough that he didn't think it was a big deal.

    Funny about not being able to cry! You might have a new appreciation for actresses who can cry on demand. :'(

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    Your trip sounds delightful . We are just starting the process to research the details. It seems we are going to share the same safari trip and hopefully their experiences. Just wondering thou, if you could be specific on the types of luggage you had used. The amount and types of clothing as well.
    Thank you in advance for any information you may forward .
    I love (repeated) readings of your.trip. I have great enthusiasm for this trip, even more so since reading your journals

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    I haven't personally seen such bribery, but know it's not unusual. My immediate response would have been 'no' nothing/way to get additional cash; next would have tempted me to raise my voice, but that's not done in Africa... they'd haul me off to the police or nut-house, but being soft spoken and a tear seems to work most places. In the end, we all come upon situations where we simply have to go with the situation and learn from the experience.

    patti - there are lots of threads on this forum regarding luggage and what to pack. Do a search of the forum in the box above. Though I sure hope your tour operator/outfitter supplies this information; maybe check their web site as many include such details.

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    Patti, I took a large duffle as my primary suitcase, a small carryon for a change of clothes and things for the plane rides, and a day-bag that I didn't mind getting really dirty for carrying my camera, binocs and wildlife book while out on game rides.

    Your luggage and whatever you wear will get filthy, at least ours did, so I'm glad I didn't bring my usual suitcase. Plus there is limited space in the back of the vehicle, so using duffles that can sort of bend and flex into the space available is useful for the guide. One of our group did bring suitcases and was flummoxed by not being able to drag them over dirt paths, or having them jammed into the back. It got pretty beat up. Others experiences may vary.

    I got moisture wicking short sleeved tops from Sierra Trading Post and REI online. I wore capris most of the time and on two days longer shorts, all moisture wicking. I was more concerned about being hot and staying dry and those clothes worked for me. Never needed or wanted a jacket, except for the very early morning on the way to the hot air balloon, but I was coming from 25 degrees in Boston, so even 65 would have felt tropical to me (it was close to or over 80 the entire time we were there). I kept to pastel tops and beige bottoms as our tour operator suggested, but I did see just about everything on other tourists, including red t-shirts and nice sweater and short sets that I'd wear to a BBQ party at home!

    I wore hiking shoes and was glad I did as I'm not sure sneakers would have kept up with the mud and be as easily cleanable.

    I kept one outfit to wear after the game rides were done for the day and I'd showered. Even though I only wore it to dinner and back every night, it was nice to feel clean and have something reliably clean to wear for a few hours every day. (Our MO was to shower before dinner, to be cleanest longest. Early, early mornings weren't conducive to glamming up (and who needs to anyway?) so we'd just jump out of bed, dress and go. We were dusty/sweaty within minutes most days.)

    I had one pair of pants that were insect repellant, and I'd never wear them again. The one day I wore them was the day I was bitten most. So I'd not recommend paying up for pre-treated clothes, just apply your own repellant to your skin.

    It was indeed an incredible experience. I've spent a lot of time since I've been back planning the "next" one, probably for late 2014. They weren't kidding when they said I'd be bitten with the bug once I've gone on safari!

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    Amy your trip report is absolutely wonderful and I loved seeing your photos over on Safari Talk! I'm in the early stages of planning a February 2014 trip following a similar route to yours.

    I have a question for you about Tarangire, which I originally thought I'd include on my itinerary. From your report you obviously had great sightings there, but from the research I've been doing it seems June to September are considered the best months, and now one of the agents I've contacted is saying they don't recommend Tarangire for February and suggest more time in Ndutu and south/central Serengeti instead. So I'm curious how did you decide to include it, did you request it or did A2T recommend it?

    And if anyone else has opinions on Tarangire in February I'd love to hear your input.

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    A2T recommended our itinerary and after researching myself and talking with my travel mates, we agreed. I thought our first two days there were stellar and a fabulous way to start. The encounter at the watering hole was over two hours long, because we could not believe the sheer numbers of elephants that just kept coming in from every direction. That just blew me away. I also thought we had great cheetah and lion cubs sightings there as well. When I return (not IF!) I would go back to Tarangire if it was the same season. If I were to change anything, I'd drop Manyara to be honest. I know some of it was due to visiting mid-day, but other than the monkeys, we didn't have a lot of luck in sightings there.

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    At one time it was felt that the only good time at Tarangire was between Jul-Oct. However, with the worldwide weather changes, seems now it doesn't much matter.... Tarangire is a small gem that seems to be great year-round. In fact, many visitors actually prefer Tarangire over even the Serengeti.

    Of course for a Jan-Mar visit, the Ndutu/Southeast Serengeti area is good for the 'calving' but I sure wouldn't trade one for the other. If you have at minimum 3/nts at Ndutu and at least 2/nts at Tarangire... do it.

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    Great trip report! I felt like I was there. Did you journal everyday? I think you must have, for how else could you remember those details. I must have missed something. Where are your pictures?

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    Amy, I just looked at your pictures. Wow! They are awesome...as I am full of awe! :-) What kind of camera did you use? Your close-ups are really close. If you can, please let everyone know about your photography.

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    Thanks, pumpkin. I used a Nikon P510, which is a "bridge" camera between a point and shoot and a DSLR. I bought it about 7 months before the safari, learned how to shoot manual (setting aperture and shutter speed) and shot a LOT at zoos and outdoor settings at different times of day to practice. I'm very pleased with my photos. I am thinking though for "next time" I'm going to upgrade and go full DSLR. My close ups are good, but I have to say that on a lot of those shots, we were really that close and not a lot of zoom was needed!

    Yes, I did keep a travel journal on a mini laptop the entire time I was there. It really does help in remembering and rereading it over time is like going all over again!

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    Welcome to the Said fan club! We went to A2T a few years back and he was our guide. He made our trip from what was a very good one into something truly special.

    I had so much fun reading your report, really makes me want to go back. Thanks for posting!

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    Great report - thanks - and coming back to read all of this. I volunteer here at the Zoo in SD - and while I like all the animals - especially the big cats, the pandas are always the biggest draw. :)

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    Awwwwww, it's my dream to volunteer at a zoo like that, just not close enough to one. I was just out in SD to see Mr. Xiao LiWu, and he managed to sleep about 40 feet up in the tree there the entire time we were there! But the lions there are gorgeous, especially the male there in SD!!!

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