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Trip Report Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda - If I don't do it now, I never will!

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I must apologize for taking so very, very long to do this. I was waiting till I'd gone through all my photos so I could post them somewhere, but since it is taking me months to finish that, and I know people will be wanting to plan their own safaris and book them soon, I have decided to do this report at breakneck speed as part of my new years resolution. So here goes.

We did our first safari in 6-23 September 2010, and this was our itinerary:

1 nt Arusha Coffee Lodge
3 nts Oliver's Camp / Tarangire
2 nts Ngorongoro Serena Lodge
2 nts Dunia / Serengeti
4 nts Sayari
Fly to Nairobi
1 nt House of Waine
Fly to Masai Mara
2 nts Serian mobile camp
3 nts Serian Main camp
Fly to Kigali
1 nt Top Tower Hotel Kigali
3 nts Virunga Lodge/ 2 gorilla treks

After nearly getting bumped off our connecting flight in Bangkok, we managed to get on board and made it to all our connections after that: http://www.fodors.com/community/africa-the-middle-east/flying-kenya-airlines-better-beware.cfm
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Tanzania:

We had a private Land Cruiser our entire safari in Tanzania with a driver/guide. We were very happy with our decision to have a private car, as we were very, very comfortable the entire way and had total control of our schedule everywhere. We especially appreciated this when we would see other vehicles packed with 6 or so people. Our vehicle also had windows and a pop top, which I found just wonderful. We had total control over how much exposure to the elements we had, and I personally did not find it restrictive at all as we could move around inside the vehicle and look and take photos in all directions. When it rained too hard, we could just drop the pop top down, and open it again when it stopped. If it was chilly or windy, we could open and close the windows.

We chose Tarangire because of the elephants, and we were not disappointed. There are so many elephants there and easy to find everywhere. Oliver's Camp has moved to a more southern permanent location which is very isolated. Getting there meant driving past one of the large swamps where the elephants love to play and so it was always wonderful to pass it. One day we were stopped on the road by dozens and dozens of elephants re-locating from the swamp, and we could only stop the engine, sit quietly and wait for them to pass us by. It was wonderful! They are magnificently large, and yet so quiet. As they moved around our vehicle, they'd turn their heads to look us over and make sure we were not a threat. It took them all 20+ minutes to get past us. Another vehicle that came through after us said they counted 40 elephants, but it could have been more as the groups just kept coming and coming.

In Tarangire we also saw lions who were mating, and this was one example of why it's worth having a private car. Other cars were there, but did not want to wait to see the lions go again, so they moved on. My guide suggested that we just wait, and after 45 minutes they went at it another time and I got some fantastic photographs.

We also saw several leopards, but none too close (that would happen later in the Masai Mara), plenty of wildebeest, zebra, monkeys, baboons, hyena, giraffes, birds.

Our tent at Oliver's was very roomy and very comfortable, with an open bathroom from which we could see an elephant at the next tent on the first day we arrived. This elephant would repeatedly visit the camp at various times during the day and night and we had to be on the lookout for it when going to or from the camp. We were escorted in the evenings. But one day I had to pass somewhat close to him, not too close, just not very far away from where I had to walk to get to the tent. Another morning the staff were trapped in their tents by him and had to bang pots and pans together so they could get to the kitchen to cook breakfast.

I took a walking safari one day down below the camp, and we saw several elephants and also were joined by a large herd of buffalo which our guide said he had never seen down there.

We stopped at Lake Manyara en route to Ngorongoro Crater. As this was not the optimum time of year for here, we only needed a couple of hours. What I really liked about it here was that after the very dry terrain of Tarangire, it had quite a bit of rainforest which was totally different. We saw a very large baboon troop with many babies, one of which was brand new and very delicate and pink. I got some great photos of the mother inspecting it's fingers. We also saw many hippos, zebra, flamingos, etc. I'm sorry, I am not very good at keeping track of numbers, but wildlife were everywhere.

The Serena Lodge at the crater is very big and comfortable and right on the rim, which is why we chose it. We could look right down into the crater, to the lake, from our room. It was very cold in the mornings.

Although there are many vehicles inside the crater, this did not bother us. But at the picnic ground it was a bit daunting to count over 60 cars there at one time. The toilets there were fine in the morning when we stopped, but just awful in the afternoon after many people had been there. Still, we saw many wildebeest doing their thing of walking in a long line, many zebra, a number of lions, hyenas with a kill, jackals, plenty of birds, hippos, and then 2 rhinos although not very close to us at all.

From there we drove across to the Serengeti staying at Dunia Camp. Oliver's , Dunia, and Sayari are all owned by the same company. We just loved Dunia. It's location just seemed so like a safari camp, it was very comfortable yet very down to earth and not fancy. The staff were wonderful and the food was very good. Although I must admit that I found most of the meals we had everywhere but a few places only edible and nothing to write home about. I still admire what they can do considering where they are and what their backgrounds are.

At Dunia we saw leopards, many lions, buffalo, and there was one puff adder snake in the camp kitchen which was luckily killed before it could do any damage. I had an up close and personal experience with a field mouse that found it's way into our tent and actually ate through the zipper of my carry on bag thus consuming the zipper, part of a rubber thong, and some chocolate. The next night we locked our bags in the trunk by the bed, and I could hear that cheeky little mouse trying to open the lock during the night. Although it felt like we were very isolated here at Dunia, there were many vehicles at our lion sightings and we can only imagine how crowded it might be during the peak season at this location.

From there we went to Sayari, which was probably the most luxurious camp we stayed in. Our tent was all the way at the end, a good 5-7 minutes walk from the dining room. It was very large with a king size bed plus a single, a large bathroom with a lovely tub and a veranda across the front. The migration came right through the camp and outside we often had zebra, wildebeest, and twice a hippo. Once outside the tent right behind the bed during the night (we could hear it snuffling) and the next night out front, making our return to the tent a bit more cautious.

The camp has a lovely pool, but I never got to use it because I didn't want to give up any of the time game driving, and it also was raining most afternoons. It's actually a large camp, having 18 tents, but it is split into two parts so it only ever seems half as big.

The location of Sayari is perfect for game crossing the Mara River and there were hardly any cars there, so the most we saw at any one crossing was maybe 4 or 5 spread out. We saw 4 crossings. Our first was a very large and long crossing lasting about 90 minutes. The second one we came across in the evening when we weren't expecting it, then we saw another smaller one, and our last day there we waiting about 3 hours for what looked like would be a major crossing and indeed it was. It may sound like a lot to wait that long for a crossing, but it was actually very, very interesting watching how the wildebeest move in, and out, and in again, and go left, and go right, and split, and keep doing this over and over again until one of them 'takes the plunge' and it's off to the races.

Other people who were there when we left who we met later in Kenya said they saw 12 crossings. We saw 4.

We also saw lions and lots of elephants who were very, very wary of us. In this area it is possible to cross the Mara River and go closer to the border, what is known as the Mara triangle, but because of the rains and the river crossing being not a bridge but just a ground crossing, we couldn't take the chance of getting caught and not being able to come back. I think other people who did cross over in the morning did not have as good game sightings as we did, only because they had little to talk about in the evening.
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Kenya:

We then flew to Nairobi for one night and were able to visit the Sheldrick elephant orphanage which was just wonderful. I was not supposed to touch one of the babies, but the keeper let me do this as no one else was around, and I was amazed at how very warm it felt. It reminded me of a newborn baby. Just amazing. So very well worth the fostering and the time to visit. Although the road to get there is one of the worst we were on.

We stayed one night at the House of Waine, which was very nice with a very large room opening out on to the garden. The food is only so so, but by now I was used to this and didn't expect it to be any different.

We flew to the Masai Mara and immediately on driving from the airport we came across the swamp pride (complete with the BBC vehicle and camera). However, this location is very, very populated and at this lion sighting on this occasion there were very many cars.

Serian Mobile camp was located on a river (can't remember the name of the location) and our tent was about 2 meters from the bank. There were hippos living in the river here and we spent hours watching them. We were the only guests here on both nights. It was very nice to have the place to ourselves and to be able to sit at the fire and talk with our guide and the manager on several occasions. The food was good, and the tent basic but comfortable.

On our first morning here we saw lions with a kill, a cheetah kill, a leopard with a kill, and that was just in the first 90 minutes! So regardless of how large the tourist population is, the game sighting is extremely good. Here at the mobil camp the food was better than any we had in Tanzania. Game spotting here was excellent.

The main camp, which is in a private conservancy next to the Mara, is beautiful. We had a big 'tent', with a big bathroom outside (all private, just not inside the tent). The food was very, very good. The atmosphere throughout was really elegant and beautiful, and the staff friendly.

But, some things were just not to my liking. First, one of the reasons we booked here was to have the private car and driver. The vehicle we had was basically a truck, modified to have two benches in the back. It was a high climb up on the runner, stepping on the tire, and then over the side to get in. Not easy if you are short, heavy, or older. Although the seats had some cushions, to say it was comfortable would be a stretch. The seats only came up to shoulder height, so no putting your head back to rest. The truck was completely opened. Some people think this is wonderful, and 'authentic', but as far as I am concerned it was no better than riding around in an opened pick up truck. In the morning it was very cold with the wind blowing. Even having 2 fleece jackets and a hat didn't help. When the sun got high in the sky, it blazed down on us and was very uncomfortable. The only protection from the hot sun was a thick, green canvas cover that the drivers had to spend 10+ minutes unrolling. Because it was so much work to do that, it wasn't something one could take on and off as conditions dictate, unlike our vehicle in Tanzania with a pop top that we had some control over. When it rained heavily, they had to roll down the sides of the canvas, leaving us to sit in the dark. Not exactly what I wanted to experience on an expensive safari. One day it was so cold with wind blowing, that while freezing in the back I watched the driver and guide roll up their windows to protect them in the cab. Not a good look. In fairness to them, they offered me to sit in the front, but somehow that didn't appeal much either. Also, our driver/guide never had a pair of binoculars, and were constantly borrowing ours. I know many people love the opened vehicles, but after spending 10 days driving in the Serengeti in Tanzania in our own private Land Cruiser with a pop top, I felt like we really came down several notches in this car. Although I asked our guide if we could change the vehicle once we got to the main camp, they said that this was the only type that they had. I don't think this was the case, but it's what I was told.

Then, in spite of our tent and the main camp being just beautiful, and in a beautiful location, there were some things that were just not acceptable for such a high priced camp. Firstly, after arriving from the mobile camp, where we had only gas lanterns, having only gas lanterns in the main camp seemed to be par. It was very dark in our tent. Our bathroom was opened to the river, and this seemed very rustic and nice. Although I did notice a man walking on the pathway just below the tent, and I could definitely see him, just don't know if he saw me. However, on our second night, we came back to the tent to find a mosquito net which was not there the first night. Also, we found we also had a battery lantern which went out nearly immediately. On the third night, we not only had the mosquito net, but now we had 2 battery lanterns which also went quickly out, but this time they had put up a screen across the opened bathroom, so we could not be seen from the pathway. So, to re-cap, It wasn't until our third night in the main camp that we had a mosquito net, 2 battery lanterns that were not fully charged and went out, and a privacy screen across the bathroom which up until then had been open. Since all these shortcomings did not fall into place until our last night, we could only mention it to the manager before we left. Also, when I told him about the vehicle, he said that he had other people making the same comments.

In a nutshell, the camp and tent were extremely beautiful, the Serian food was probably the best we had, but the attention to details was sorely lacking for that price range, and the vehicle was awful, and having to loan our guide our binoculars regularly was unprofessional at best.

Although I would not say don't book this camp because of this, being aware gives you a chance to make certain that all the details are in place and that the vehicle you get you are comfortable with. Probably a good idea to contact the camp prior and ask what the vehicle is like.

On the up side, there is a resident leopard whose territory is very close to the main camp that we spent many, many hours watching, and the guides were pretty good at finding cats, and courteous and helpful.

Although we could see game across the river from the camp, and we did see several lions in the area, the leopard was really the ultimate for us. I have so many photos of her that it is nearly impossible to discard too many. We watched her mark around her territory, up a tree with a kill, napping, washing, drinking water and of course snoozing in the tree. It was wonderful.

The bush breakfasts and lunches from Serian were the best. The guides found great spots underneath trees and it was really lovely. There are also plenty of giraffes around here, which we saw throughout both Tanzania and Kenya.

I'd also recommend that you have your guides go into the Masai Mara conservancy as there are definitely more animals there than closer to the camp. We also went to the Rhino conservancy which I would have to say is NOT worth the time it takes to get to. Unless you absolutely have to see the rhinos, give this a miss. It takes several hours on terrible roads with nothing interesting to see on either the drive there or back. Go into the Masai Mara conservancy instead.

Also, we only tried to see one crossing while in the Mara because we'd seen such good ones in Tanzania. But it was so very crowded with cars on both sides of the river and all around our vehicle, and so hot that we never went back to see another one again. In Tanzania we could find a spot underneath a tree while watching and waiting and then just jump over to the bank once they began crossing.

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Rwanda

We flew from the Masai Mara back to Nairobi where we had 7 hours to wait for our flight to Kigali. We had planned to get a taxi to a restaurant near the airport, but my husband wasn't well and wanted to stay at the airport. I must admit that as backwards as Nairobi airport is, I seemed to pass the time well reading and looking in shops and buying some souvenirs.

We flew with Rwanda Air, and were pleasantly surprised at how professional they were, how nice and new and clean the aircraft was, and how good the food was. They actually departed exactly on time and landed exactly on time.

We stayed one night in Kigali at the Top Tower Hotel which was half the price of all the others and sounded just as good. As we were only going to be there for 12 hours, it didn't matter much. Our driver picked us up in the morning and took us on a tour of the city, including the genocide memorial, which I highly recommend to anyone going to Rwanda. It is essential to understand the people you will have contact with that you have some knowledge of the recent, and tragic, history of the country. We then went to the Hotel des Milles Collines (from the film 'Hotel Rwanda') for lunch by the pool which was very nice.

We love Rwanda! We loved the people, and we loved the beauty of the country, and we loved our hotel, and we loved the gorillas!

It's a 3 hour drive up to the area where the trekking is, but it is so beautiful that the time just flies by. We were not expecting it to be so drop dead gorgeous. Mountains, valleys, rivers, terraced fields, neat villages, lots of people on the roads, very green, plush, and colourful.

We love the Virunga Lodge. it was not as expensive, nor as basic as the other lodges closer to the park entrance. It is a 45 minute drive from the park headquarters. Located up high on a ridge overlooking two lakes on either side, and also views of the volcanoes where the gorillas live, lovely bungalows with plenty of room, comfortable furniture, a veranda, large bathroom, and hot water during the day. The whole place runs on solar, so there are times in the evening when there is no hot water. The people here were wonderful and friendly, and authentic, and the food was good. The road up to this lodge is without a doubt the very worst road we have ever been on. Our driver said it was an African massage. No extra charge!

Without going into a ton of detail, I was very, very nervous about doing the treks. I didn't know if I had the strength or stamina, and if I'd fall behind, etc. We came prepared for everything. We had gloves, we had rain jackets and over trousers, whatever anyone suggested we had we brought with us. Except hiking boots, we have hiking shoes, which were just fine. The same kind of shoes you'd wear to walk around the rim of the Grand Canyon. Since we went in late September, the rains had not yet begun, and it was dry, so we never needed our rain clothes. Although it did rain in the afternoon. Also, it was warm, so we never needed our jackets. The first day I wore a t-shirt with a long sleeved shirt over it, but the second day I just wore the t-shirt. Although we went through one or two areas with stinging nettles, there weren't many, and we didn't touch any of them, and had no problems with them on our trousers, which were the very lightweight type. The only time I had a problem was when the guide sat me down to take my photo with the silverback behind me and I put down my hand to steady myself in that position and then I got stung. But, with all the action, I forgot about it immediately and then it never bothered me again and I forgot about it.

Our first trek was only 45 minutes, and only slightly uphill. As you have to walk through cultivated fields to get to the wall, it is not an easy walk, but not the end of the world either. You just have to pay attention to where you place your feet. The stone wall was built around the park to keep the locals out and gorillas in, and it is fairly high and everyone must climb over it but the guides help with everything.

The second day was a longer walk. About 90 minutes each way, and quicker paced, because they must have known the group was on the move. It was more uphill, and more difficult for me, and I was falling behind. I had heard that they take the slowest person and put them up front and that the group goes according to the pace of the slowest person, and this day that is what they did. When we reached the stone wall , the guide took me to the front, and I was the first person over the wall. From that point onwards, he held my hand until we got to the gorillas.

On both treks, we had 2 guides, and we hired a porter to carry our gear for about $10. Once we got to where the tracker was waiting for us, we had to leave all our unnecessary gear, and take only our cameras. I took a little fanny pack that I had with my extra batteries and memory cards.

Trekking to the gorillas was absolutely , unbelievably wonderful. The tracker had to keep cutting through the vines and bamboo as the gorillas kept moving. They'd move around us, sometimes over us, and sometimes the little ones tried to touch one of us. I got bumped out of the way by a female who came barreling down from behind and just bumped me out of her way. it was a surprise, but not anything dangerous or scary. The first day I found it easier to move around once we located the group. The second day I found it more difficult because it was on an incline, so I had to be more careful about moving around and try to hold on to a tree or something, so I wasn't as fast in adjusting my position on the second trek as I was on the first, and more level trek.

We saw several mothers with 1 or 2 month old babies, 4 silverbacks, many females, many youngsters running, rolling, climbing, fighting, chasing, etcing. And then we were right there when the jr. silverback was having sex with one of the females when he wasn't supposed to. The alpha male has the females, and if they were caught, it would have meant trouble. I got great photographs of this, and I always have to remember the guide telling us to keep taking pictures of this over and over again. It is something very unusual to see I think.

We were very tired after the treks, but we got back to the lodge by around 1:30 both days and could relax.

On our last afternoon we took the loop walk at the lodge, and were spotted by children in the village below. It took them about 3 seconds to get up to the top where we were, and we had a lovely visit with them, taking photos, videos, and having them sing for us. It is one of the most memorable times of the whole trip for me.

Although I was very nervous about the trekking, and found it very difficult at times, I would go back again in a heartbeat and do it again.

I just want to mention a few suggestions for those planning their first trip. Try to have both a camera and a video camera. I took the photographs, and my husband did only video. I must admit that having the video makes a big difference as there are so many things to see that can only captured on video. We have spent hours looking at the video because we now see so many things that we missed at the moment, especially with the gorillas, who move around so much.

Take lots and lots of memory cards for still cameras. You won't be sorry if you have too much, but you will really be sorry if you don't. I took over 4,000 photos, and I must have had about 60GB with me. I also took rechargeable batteries (3 sets), and one set of good lithium just in case. I kept most of them with me daily except the one set back at the camp on the charger.

Take a good small flashlight for looking through your bag in the tents at night as it can be quite dark.

Take the time to just sit and watch the animals, even when you think they are not doing anything. You'll be surprised at what you can learn about their behaviors just from quietly watching.

I'm sure I've left out lots and lots of details, but I really couldn't put off doing this any longer. I plan to do some photo albums on line, and when I do I will come back and post the links to them also. Sorry not to have that available yet.

Thanks to everyone here at Fodor's who helped me so much with suggestions, advice, and everything. I could not have done it without your help. You are amazing!

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