A girlfriend (Jane) and I (Jean) spent 13 days in Tanzania on a private safari with Kiliwarriors in June 2010. It was a fabulous trip, first time in Africa for both of us. I have traveled extensively, both for pleasure and business, in many parts of the world but this was the best trip I’ve ever taken, no question!
Here is a link to some of my photos and videos:
I’ll list our itinerary first and then make some comments about each lodging site as I go along with the details of the trip. Like many people on this forum, I had looked at many tour operators and gleaned extremely useful information from reading the Fodor’s Africa board comments. Thanks everyone!! I chose Kiliwarriors mainly because the value seemed good and, importantly, I was given advice about which parks would be good or not good for the time of the year we were traveling. Another thing is that we were interested in (but not fully committed to) a balloon ride and all other tour operators said we should book it up front to be sure we had a spot. Eben from Kiliwarriors said no, wait until you’re there. Then you can see where the migration is and you can pay with a credit card when you book it. That’s what we did and it worked fine. All communications with Eben were answered promptly and everything about the actual travel went according to plan – very smooth. This company also aims to put travelers in the location of the migration, and we did see that. Although the migration per se wasn’t the most important goal of our travels, it was an added highlight. For anyone looking at the Kiliwarriors travel “levels”, we did the gold trip. The diamond and platinum were way too expensive, and the only difference was in the lodging, not where you went or what animals you could expect to see. We found the gold level accommodations absolutely comfortable and satisfactory, and some pretty luxurious actually. We were also very fortunate in that Eben Schoeman (owner) gave us an upgraded land cruiser for our trip (not the one that normally goes with the gold level safari according to the web site). This vehicle was really comfortable, pop up top and side flaps that folded down to give a huge open window rather than the glass windows that slide open, which we saw on almost all other vehicles. It had a refrigerator inside and sand bags for photography. Our guide for the trip was George, who was wonderful. An extremely skilled and experienced guide, and a kind and mild mannered person. We really enjoyed spending our days with him.
I took 2 safari books with me…. Wildlife of East Africa by Withers and Hosking. It was excellent and I loved having it to refer to. I also took African Safari Journal by Nolting, which I used to write my own daily entries and can now refer back to for this trip report. George had 3 guide books in the vehicle which we also used extensively, but it was nice to have my own with me (especially the first one).
Ok, on to the details of the trip….
KLM flight from Chicago to Amsterdam (8 hr) with a 4 hr layover. Then on to Kilimanjaro (8.5 hr), arriving around 9pm local time. Exhausted but excited to have landed in Africa! No delays en route. We got our visas at the airport which took about 20 min due to lots of people in line ahead of us. $100 cash for US citizens. We had filled out the visa applications in advance, which is much better than trying to do it there. George was waiting for us and we were off to our first lodging site, about a 30 min drive. I was struck by the gorgeous star filled sky! I could clearly see the Milky Way.
Rivertrees Inn – Arusha, 2 nights
Gibb’s Farm – Ngorongoro Highlands, 2 nights
Lemala Ngorongoro Tented Camp, 2 nights
Lemala (central) Serengeti Tented Camp, 1 night
Dunia Tented Camp (central Serengeti), 2 nights
Mbalageti Camp (western Serengeti), 3 nights
Drive back to central Serengeti for a small plane flight back to Kilimanjaro
Kia Lodge – day room for a few hours prior to an evening departure
A quick word about the Serengeti flight… our plane did not come in on time so we waited around. It’s not really an airport, just an airstrip. You don’t check in anywhere (fortunately our guide George stayed with us until we finally got on board a plane, as he was well familiar with the routine), just show your ticket to the pilot. The plane company we were booked on was Regional Air. Another Regional Air flight came in and George checked… no, not our plane. Then another one… not our plane. Finally a third Regional Air plane. Then the pilots conferred and decided they would take some people off one plane, put others on and send the planes to the destinations people needed to go to. You could call all this activity “disorganized” but Jane and I decided to call it “fluid”. Regarding baggage, about which I’d heard so much, no comment on weight or hard sided versus duffle bag. Nada. In fact George put our bags into the cargo hold himself and the pilot wasn’t even watching. We climbed on board and she came into the plane a few minutes later, called our names and asked where our bags were. “Already in the cargo hold”, I answered. “Ok.” So that was the extent of any worries about baggage weight or material. They have someone in a vehicle drive out on the runway to shoo away all the gazelles and zebra that are wandering around. At times, the guy gets out of his vehicle to run at the animals to scare them away more, since they are probably not very intimidated by land cruisers. It seemed to be an adequate method, if a bit comical, for the relatively short airstrip. We flew to Arusha airport (about 1 hr, nice scenery although we did not fly over the crater), where we took our bags off (well, someone else pulled them out), identified which were ours, put them back into the same plane, switched pilots, and flew for 15 min over to Kilimanjaro airport. Fluid.
Rivertrees Inn – it was late and we were tired when we arrived. We were not hungry so declined any food, which was offered by the staff. All we wanted was a shower and bed. The rooms are little individual units and are really cute. Very dim lighting, which we found would be a consistent feature throughout our travels. Like forget reading or seeing a combination lock on your luggage if you don’t bring a camping headlight (which I did and was glad for). I don’t think there was a flashlight in the room at Rivertrees, although other places we stayed would have them. We each took a shower in what can charitably only be called “tepid” water. Beds rock hard, which we also found would be pretty consistent with one exception (Dunia) throughout. But we had no trouble zonking out quickly. The food was not very good at Rivertrees. Fortunately every other place we stayed had much better fare. Also on our second night at this hotel, the water was ice cold, and showering was an experience in gritting one’s teeth. The grounds at this hotel were lovely though and there were hardly any other guests there. They had a computer anyone could use, and although the internet service was out the first day, I was able to email home on the second day to let people know we’d arrived safely.
Day 2: George picked us up at 9am and we drove to Arusha National Park. It seems from reading other trip reports that some people don’t think this park is very interesting, but we loved it! It was a wonderful introduction to our safari. It is small but full of animals, so we had an exciting first morning of animal viewing (I will use the term “animal drive” or “animal viewing” throughout my report, because the term “game drive” sounds too much like hunters out looking for something to kill, which I don’t even want to think about). Arusha NP is in the rain forest, so the vegetation is lush green and there is lots of water. We saw the following animals in our first 3 hours: giraffe (Masai which are the only type throughout Tanzania), hippo, zebra, warthogs, cape buffalo, blue monkey, baboon (including a rare albino baby – our guide George’s first sighting of an albino baboon), waterbuck and bushbuck antelopes, dik dik, colobus monkeys, lots of birds: ibis (Hadada and Sacred), weavers, flamingo, grey crown cranes, grey heron, black winged stilt. We immediately loved the warthogs for their comical appearance when they run – their skinny little tails go straight up. Regarding flamingos, we saw them most closely in this park – on the larger of the two Momella lakes. We would see them again at Lake Manyara, but from much farther away. In the afternoon we took a guided canoe ride and paddled around the smaller of the two Momella lakes. Each canoe had a guide and one of us. You could just sit back and relax, or paddle as you wished. The guides pointed out lots of things, mostly birds, but we also came across an African rock python coiled and sleeping in the brown and green reeds next to the water’s edge, and later a green mamba snake sleeping in a low lying green tree next to the water! We would never have seen these snakes if the guides hadn’t. We were able to paddle in close for a good look and some photos without disturbing the snakes. We saw hippos but they were out in the middle of the lake so we were some distance away. We would see hippos much more closely later in our trip, but Arusha NP was probably where we got the closest to giraffe during the entire safari. We had a box lunch (the first of many!) provided by the hotel. We had dinner at the hotel and were asleep (after a cold shower!) by 10pm.
Day 3: We were up and at breakfast by 8am. George picked us up and we drove through Arusha, a city of about 500,000 people. It was our first look at the city and the daily lives of people. I was interested in the fact that all the men dress in western clothing, but almost all of the women dress in more traditional African clothing – colorful skirts and wrap around shawls; almost none of them wear pants. People walk everywhere, carrying large bulky items on their heads, including huge stalks of green bananas. We saw wooden carts pushed by men or occasionally pulled by ox. There were dogs everywhere and when we got out of the main part of the city, herds of cows and goats grazed by the sides of the roads everywhere. It amazed me that the animals tend to stay on the side of the road and do not wander into the road very often. We saw men using scythes to chop the grass on the side of the road, bundling it up (which we sometimes saw men carrying on the back of bicycles as they peddled down the road). George told us they use this grass to feed the cattle. We stopped at a grocery store where George went in to buy bottled water and diet Coke per our request. Then we were out of the city and headed to Lake Manyara on a paved road (maybe the last paved road we would be on!).
Lake Manyara is a huge salt water lake and a national park site. We enter Masai territory on the way, so we begin to see the Masai along the road with their herds of cattle, goats and occasionally donkeys. The herds are mostly tended to by young boys. There were grass huts here and there which are the Masai homes, although they are still a nomadic people. But even when they move the herds of animals, they will return later to the same huts. There are bomas, large wooden (trees or limbs) enclosures for the animals at night. In this area the risk is hyenas rather than lions. We began to see huge termite mounds, some of them more than 6 feet high. These are the tallest we would see on our safari. They reminded me of high rise apartment buildings, with multiple openings. We saw a few camels on the drive. What? Camels in Tanzania? Yes, they have been introduced and are mainly used for racing. An oddity to be sure.
Lake Manyara is an underground water forest and sits on the Rift Valley Escarpment – parts are very lush green but parts are more open and dry. We saw the beautiful old baobab trees, the only ones we’d see since we were not visiting Tarangire National Park (wrong time of the year for best animal viewing there according to Eben). We saw lots of animals here, including: elephant (but only a few and mostly hidden behind brush), giraffe, hippos, dik dik, rock hyrax, zebra, a monitor lizard, vervet monkeys, blue monkeys, baboons, impala, Thomson’s gazelle, cape buffalo, wildebeest (these are lighter brown than the ones in the Serengeti and do not migrate). More birds: yellow billed stork, cormorants, king fisher, Egyptian geese, grey crowned cranes with chicks, augur buzzard, African spoonbill, African harrier hawk, flamingo. I learned that buzzards are raptors and look like hawks. Back in the States I think many people use the term buzzard as a synonym for vulture. Buzzards are not carrion eaters like vultures and are beautiful birds of prey.
On the drive out of the park late in the afternoon we stopped at a look out point where we could see the Rift Valley and the lake. It was beautiful. There was a young guy selling cheap plastic necklaces and he latched onto Jane. I waved him off and returned to the car, but he followed Jane unrelentingly all the way back to the car. I had to laugh because she is normally not very susceptible to such things but she ended up buying 5 necklaces for $5. George said these vendors are known as “fly catchers”. This one caught a fly on this particular day. We would have a much more interesting vendor experience later!
We headed out for the drive to Gibb’s Farm, our destination for the next 2 nights. There is a 5km road – dirt with huge ruts – that leads off the main road to the farm. The road is lined with tin huts, very poor living conditions. Then you get to the end of the road and there is the gorgeous, lush, beautiful Gibb’s Farm. Quite a contrast. As with all subsequent locales, we are met at the driveway by staff with warm washcloths to wipe the dust off your hands and face, as well as a welcome drink of juice (typically). At Gibb’s we were served avacado juice which was pretty tasty (must have been mixed with something else rather than pure avacado).
Gibb’s Farm is a working farm and coffee plantation. They have a huge organic vegetable garden, many acres of coffee plants. All of the accommodations are individual cottages. We stayed in #5 – the Writer’s Cottage. Fabulous view of the valley below along with the rows of coffee bushes. This would be the nicest place we stayed on our trip. It is very different, however, from the tented camp experience and I wouldn’t have traded the latter for anything. But the accommodations here were excellent, as was the food. Our cottage contained 2 double beds, a sitting area with superb views, a little porch/deck, a lovely bathroom with a nice hot water shower. There is even an outdoor shower should one elect that (we didn’t). Turn down service includes a hot water bottle placed in your bed, which was lovely, as the nights are chilly in this highland area. I don’t think I mentioned earlier that I am a vegetarian and had made that known in advance. While I was well accommodated everywhere and have no complaints about the food, Gibb’s Farm had the BEST food. It’s all made from items on the farm and was just delicious as well as healthy. The coffee is SUPREME – hand roasted daily. I bought some to bring home and it was definitely the best coffee throughout the entire trip.
There was some printed information in the room, which I happened to read before our first night there. It said that avacados, bush babies, or civet cats might jump on the tin roof of the cottages during the night. Well, cottage #5 is right under an avacado tree and both nights we were there, there were a few avacado BOMBS that went off during the night. It’s amazing how loud they were when dropping on the roof and rolling off. Wake you right out of a sound sleep. I did hear a bush baby scream one night (they are apparently named for the similarity in sound to a human infant) although I don’t think it jumped on the roof.
Gibb’s Farm has a computer guests can use for $5 per half hour. It was even a Mac and the internet speed was pretty good. I was able to send off a couple of more emails with updates on our trip.
Day 4: We elected not to return to Lake Manyara (one day is probably enough for this park) and stayed at Gibb’s all day. We started the morning with an excellent breakfast, followed by a coffee roasting demonstration. Small batches of coffee are hand roasted there. They start with a wood fire in a small metal oven. When the coals are just right, they put the beans into a metal drum and a guy hand turns the drum by a crank for about 45 min to roast the coffee. When it’s done, the beans are poured out into a large wire bottomed basket to cool. Smells heavenly. This coffee is served in the dining room, as well as sold in the gift shop. Next we had a tour of the property, including the enormous vegetable garden. Then we took the elephant cave walk, which is about 2 hrs. We walked to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (adjacent to the farm) to meet the park ranger who would guide us. On the path to the ranger station there were black ants and I noticed we had been walking on them. We got to the ranger station and I began to notice a stinging sensation around my knee. There was a young woman working at the station who asked me if I was being bitten. She told me to grab my pants and pinch them (purportedly to kill an ant) and then shake my leg to get the offending insect out of my pant leg. I did this and intermittently continued to feel something. Finally when I felt something very high!! up on my thigh, I went into a small room in the ranger station where I took off my pants. I found an ant biting me along my underwear line. Ugh. I now know the true meaning of “ants in your pants”. I would have some more ants crawl up and bite my calves on this trek, though my friend was unbothered by them.
The walk to the elephant caves was very enjoyable. It felt so good to get a bit of exercise and the views of the valley below from the trail were excellent. The elephants need minerals and dig out the dirt from the side of the hill to extract what they need. This process leaves large excavations in the side of a hill, which are known as elephant caves, although they are not caves in the real sense. Sadly, in the mud leading up the short hillside to the caves, was a dead baby elephant, about 3 months in age. Our guide was clearly upset about this. He told us he loved elephants. He felt the baby had probably fallen from the overhang above. No hyenas had disturbed the carcass, so our guide felt it had likely only been dead for 2-3 days. There were also 3 skulls of cape buffalo, long dead, but our guide had no sympathy for them! On the trail, we saw some animal tracks, including elephant, leopard, bush pig and buffalo. The only animal we saw was a beautiful Verreaux’s eagle owl perched in a tree. Our guide spotted it and pointed it out to us.
Day 5: We left Gibb’s Farm around 9am and drove through the city of Karatu, where we did a little shopping for souvenirs. We stopped at a couple of roadside shops. One staff member immediately begins to show you items and follows you for the duration. It seemed to be a propriety thing as you couldn’t shake the guy who was always about 3 feet away, and no other clerk approached. I did not buy anything, but Jane bought a Masai cloth wrap. We extracted ourselves and went out back to watch some men carving figurines from the ebony wood. Then I asked George about trading items we’d brought for goods and he knew a different place where he said they would love to trade. So off we went in the land cruiser down the road and pulled into an area with a series of small stalls, each independently operated. We were immediately beset by about 10 men, each trying to maneuver us into their own stall and away from another’s stall. It appeared that they all sold the same artwork more or less. I ended up feeling sorry for the guys with stalls at the end of the long walkway, because most customers probably never make it to the end of the row. So now we began the fun of some serious bartering!! I had brought a bunch of Obama stuff: t-shirts, buttons, bumper stickers. They loved it! One guy put on a t-shirt to try and later when we could not come to a deal, I practically had to peel it off his body to move on to the next stall. We found you could never trade goods for goods. There always had to be some cash included. Jane had brought some t-shirts from running races she enters to trade and she did. But then a guy said he really liked the one she was wearing (another race shirt) and wanted that one. Getting into the game, she returned to the vehicle and took it off, put on something else, literally trading the shirt off her back. We could have stayed in this place for hours, but after about 45 min the fun (and it was fun! I never felt intimidated or like it was anything but a game) sort of wore off. I had collected up 3 items I liked and got rid of about half the Obama stuff (sadly I would return home with about 8 buttons left over that I should have divested myself of while there). George was standing out front and I called to him that we needed to be rescued (jokingly), so he said something to all the guys and they backed off. Then we were off down the road again heading to Ngorongoro Crater.
The first sighting of the crater is amazing. Standing on the rim and staring into the huge expanse of an old collapsed volcano (about 2.5 million years old) is inspiring. We went on to check in at our first tented camp – Lemala Ngorongoro. This camp has 8 tents and is situated on the crater rim in a dense acacia forest near the Lemala access road (so it’s a very short drive to get to the crater entrance). We loved this tented camp! That first night we were the only guests in the place. The staff was amazing – so friendly and hospitable. The food was very good and wine and beer and laundry were included. It was very chilly there at night and in the early morning so the hot water bottle (which must have had nuclear water in it as the heat lasted until the morning) in the bed and the in-tent propane heater were most welcome. At the morning wake up call (which consists of a staff member quietly calling “hello, jambo” outside your tent), the staff member would ask if we wanted him to come in and light the heater. Yes! So while we were still in our beds, he came in and got it going. The heat was immediate and did a great job of heating the tent. This was to be our favorite of the tented camps during our safari.
After we checked in initially, we had lunch, then headed down into the crater around 2pm for our first animal drive. You can’t imagine from the top looking down how many animals there are living in the crater, which is about 100 square miles (260 sq km) in size. We saw our first lions here – 2 adolescent males just sleeping right next to a road. They looked dead they were so oblivious. Finally one roused his head and I got one of my most beautiful photos of the whole trip. There are not many elephant on the crater floor, but we did see 2 bull elephants some distance away. We saw lots of zebra, wildebeest (the ones living in the crater do not migrate), Thomson’s gazelle and Grant’s gazelle, a black rhino off in the distance, black backed jackals (one was digging and hopping at the ground, snatching up grasshoppers as a snack), spotted hyena, hippos in a small pool – one was completely on its back, head under water and belly exposed in a position of utter bliss. We saw some flamingos, and the lovely large Kori bustard birds. It was a fabulous afternoon and very few other vehicles around. We returned to camp around 6pm for dinner and a shower. Our first tent shower – nice hot water poured into the bucket shower system. They have a big fire with chairs around so you can have a drink and talk with other guests before dinner. That night there was a beautiful crescent moon in the completely black sky and so many stars! I wish I knew the southern constellations, but I don’t. I kept trying during the trip to find the southern cross. I think I finally found it later in the trip, but was never sure since no one could verify it for me.
All of the tented camps have Masai guards who patrol around at night, spears at the ready. They escort you to and from your tent to the dining tent after dark and you are not allowed to wander very far from camp. Jane was taking a little stroll before dinner (it was still light) and a Masai appeared silently to guide her back to the camp area – like an errant goat, haha. This is the only camp where we saw the Masai wear wool hats and thick wool socks (one with Teva sandals!). They looked cold constantly, huddling into and rearranging their wraps.
Day 6: During the night I thought I heard some lions roaring off in the distance but wasn’t sure. In the morning, George said you could hear them from the crater sometimes. We had a box breakfast and took off early so as to enter the crater as soon as it opened at 6:30 am. We’d had some tea and coffee delivered to the tent with our wake up call. The morning animal drive was even better than the afternoon before! We saw elephants very close (like right next to the vehicle – 3 males hanging out together), several lions, including a pair mating, zebra, warthogs, gazelles, cape buffalo, hartebeest, 2 cheetahs at a distance, many ostrich. The most fortunate sighting of the day was 2 black rhino up very close. We saw them walking across the grassland at a distance and George suggested we drive around on the road in the direction they were moving. We did this and were lucky that they continued in the same direction, coming out and crossing the road about 50 yards in front of us! We saw lots of new birds including the amazing (and my favorite) secretary bird, Guinea fowl, long crested eagle, red billed ducks, black crake, African black duck, whydah bird, Cape rook, and more Kori bustards. We saw the yellowbark acacia tree for the first time. As named they have a beautiful yellow bark that is particularly stunning when the morning sunlight hits it. Many of the trees have had the trunks damaged by elephants and they then grow large knobs all over the trunk as they repair the damage.
The crater has 2 distinct zones – one side is lush green forest, and the other side is more arid. But there is water everywhere and the animals have everything they need. It’s a complete ecosystem – so interesting what has developed a couple of million years after a major volcanic explosion. Something noteworthy that we wouldn’t appreciate until we got to the Serengeti - the animals in the crater are not afraid of the vehicles. We saw so many animals just standing on or right next to the road, allowing for great up close sightings and photography. One group of zebra were just standing on the road and George stopped right behind them. A female with her back to us, took a few steps backward and began to kick out at the land cruiser. Funny! She didn’t actually hit it. Later in the Serengeti we would find the zebra (and many other animals although not lions) to be quite afraid of the vehicle and run off. I’m glad I got some nice pictures of the zeebies in the crater while I had the chance.
The Masai are allowed to take their cattle into the crater during the day to graze, and we saw them in one area on this day. They must have the cattle out by sundown, in the same way that all vehicles, tourists and guides must be out. We were told that as short as 15 years ago, the Masai were living on the crater floor, and tourists were camping there. There was no control over what was happening but when a new Tanzanian president was elected, he put a stop to that and imposed the rules that are in effect today. A very wise decision!
We returned at sundown to camp. This night there were some other guests so we got to meet some new people and chat about our crater sightings. Our last night of needing a heater and a hot water bottle in the bed!
Day 7: We left Lemala Ngorongoro around 7:30 am for the drive to the Serengeti. Dusty bumpy roads all the way. We stopped at Olduvai Gorge for about an hour. It’s pretty interesting to see in light of the famous Leakys and their work there for so many years. The museum was enjoyable. We voted this the worst bathroom on the whole trip. Truly disgusting. For such a popular tourist stop, you’d think they could do a little better than filthy pit toilets.
As we entered the southern most aspect of the Serengeti, the grassland stretched far to the horizon, almost no trees. We entered the park at the Naabi Hill Gate. From here you could stand atop a hill (where we also found 4 elephants munching grass and tree limbs!) and look out with a panoramic view of the savannah. And look at the gravel road that stretched to infinity (or so it seemed). Yep, that was our route. We ate a box lunch here and George paid our entry fees to the park. He put the top up and the side flaps down on the vehicle and we were off – finally into the most famous park in Tanzania. We saw many animals on the way…. A few new ones such as prong horned gazelle, topi, leopard (2 different ones, both sleeping in trees), agama rock lizards (the males are blue and pink, the females grey). Repeat animal sightings included giraffe, elephant, buffalo, Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles, hartebeest, wildebeest and baboons. There were some new bird sightings too: fish eagle, love birds, vultures, lilac breasted roller, saddle billed stork, southern ground hornbill, white crowned plover, starlings and more ostrich. The way we found the first leopard was kind of funny. I saw a sausage tree way off in the distance, a lone tree on the plain, no other trees remotely close by. I asked George if there was a road to that tree because I wanted a photo of nice sausage tree (long dangling fruit with purportedly high alcohol content such that elephants and baboons get drunk when they eat the fruit). We drove to the tree, although the road was a bit far away so we were not really close to the tree. We were all looking at the tree with binoculars, when what do you know?? A leopard was sleeping in the tree! What a lucky find, with no other vehicles anywhere near us. The second sleeping leopard we saw later in the day in a yellow barked acacia tree. There were 13 other vehicles looking at this one sleeping cat! By late afternoon we rolled into Lemala Serengeti tented camp, in the Seronera region (central Serengeti).
This camp was brand new, had only been open for 2 weeks and was not totally full. Not sure how many tents – maybe 10 at the most. It was very nice, attentive friendly staff and sitting on the open savannah so we could see zebra not too far away. The two beds in our tent were actually full size, rather than twin – the only time we would find this on our trip. A treat to be able to stretch out a bit more. Good food, wine and beer and laundry included. We even got a little gift the next day when we left – a small ceramic bowl with beads on the bottom, very cute and a nice gesture. That evening there were huge black beetles crawling on the mat outside our tent and when we were walked back from dinner by a guard I asked him what kind they were. Dung beetles! I had no idea they were as large as they are. No dung balls in sight unfortunately. I tried to take their picture, but it was dark and they just scurried away. During the night the zebra were so noisy! I had no idea the racket they can make. Sounds like a cross between a braying donkey and a yipping dog. A bunch of them would make noise for about an hour, stop for awhile, then start up again. Hard to sleep through that (although throughout the trip we kept saying, “hey, we can sleep when we get home – who wants to sleep in Africa??”) Someone told us the zebra probably knew lions were nearby and that’s why they were so noisy. Early the next morning we had coffee delivered to our tent (terrible coffee) and got a boxed breakfast, so we were gone by 7am as we only stayed at this camp for one night.
Day 8: Our first sunrise over the Serengeti – lovely because it’s so flat you can see the light rising up over the horizon. We headed to the Masai kopjes and saw 2 balloons lifting off in the distance. Not actually on the kopjes, but nearby we came upon a pride of 17 lions – 7 adult females and 10 cubs from three different litters. We could tell by their sizes. All out for an early morning stroll and some play time. They were very close to the road, crossing back and forth, strolling through the grass. At one point 3 cubs climbed part way up a tree and one of the females (with a tracking collar on her) came to the base of the tree, stretched out her legs and clawed the tree, staring up at the cubs playfully. It was a total delight and our closest encounter to date with lions. This remained our best sighting throughout the trip because of the cubs, their playfulness and sheer adorability factor. At one point there were 6 cubs gathered and each and every one had a dried elephant dung ball to play with. They were batting them around, carrying the balls in their mouths. Nature’s toys!
Later in the morning we saw our first cheetahs. One had 3 cubs and was sitting on a termite mound, but off in the distance so hard to see well. The other had chased an impala but failed to catch it. We saw her better – sitting in the tall grass amongst some trees resting after her failed effort. We saw two more leopards asleep in trees, and a female spotted hyena with 3 pups. They came very close to the road allowing for some great photos of the pups.
In the afternoon we drove to the Retima hippo pool – a seriously stinky place! Whew. But the hippos clearly loved their fetid location. There were at least 100 in the large pool, mostly just lounging about although some of them were engaged in either mild fighting or just playing (hard to tell). We hung around quite awhile until all other people and vehicles left because I wanted to get some video without the noise of others. The sound the hippos make (the deep grunting sound) is so enjoyable I wanted to capture it so I could listen to it once back home. None of the hippos were out of the water, so we were happy we’d seen several of them out at Lake Manyara, but this location was definitely the most fun sighting (and most close up) we would have of hippos during our safari.
At the end of the day we made our way to Dunia tented camp (still in the central Serengeti) – our stay for the next 2 nights. The manager of this camp, Peter, was super nice and very obviously trying to be a great host. He even had dinner with everyone each night, something we did not experience at other camps. There were 8 tents in this camp and it had some nice features – the most comfortable beds. They were twin beds again, but softer than all of the other rock hard mattresses we would experience and with better pillows too. The tents had a front porch area that was screened in. The weird thing was the bathroom did not have a curtain like other tented camps, leaving it open to the rest of the tent. We had some repeated problems with the toilet not flushing and we did not find the staff (other than the manager) as friendly and helpful as at other camps. Our tent was quite far down the row from the dining tent and our escort after dark practically ran, leaving me in the distance. I became annoyed at this. Ok, I have to be escorted after dark, I understand that. But I should not have to run to keep up. So I didn’t. Jane normally walks faster than me and she said she did practically have to run. I refused to do so. At one point, Peter showed up with a flashlight looking for me (I wasn’t actually that far back) and I told him his escort was leaving us behind which seemed to earn the employee a scolding. After that, the escorts walked slowly (ie normally!).
The food at this camp was good and wine and beer were included. In fact this camp had the best desserts of anywhere. I did get a little tired of eating curried lentils and rice at the various camps, including this one! Although as vegetarian I was not too picky about what I was served and it was always very tasty.
Day 9: At 6am the next morning we had some good coffee delivered to our tent and by 6:30 we were off with a breakfast box for our next day of animal viewing. We headed to the Moru kopjes, about a half hour away, in search of more lions. We found 2 male and 2 female lions lounging on the rocks, close enough for some good photos. We saw two bat eared fox dash through the grass. They stopped and stared at us long enough for a photo, then they were gone. We saw many Thomson’s gazelle and zebra – they seem to be together very frequently – and a few topi and impala. We had breakfast at a little cleared area just off the road where you are allowed to get out of the vehicle and climb the nearby rocks. George went first to be sure it was safe. We were so happy to be out of the land cruiser, if only for a short time. We eagerly climbed up on the rocks. There was a large rock up on the kopjes with many depressions hollowed out and a couple of rounded loose rocks sitting in the depressions. This was an old Masai ceremonial rock, used perhaps 50 years ago. They clearly pounded the holes in the big rock using the smaller rock. When we came down and were back in the vehicle ready to pull away we had one of the best sightings of the whole trip! A fluorescent green, with black spots, chameleon was on the road. It was about 8 inches long and looked like a child’s toy. It was just standing there with one back leg held up. I got a couple of great photos and then some video when it started to walk. What a bizarre stilting gait!! George said if we startled it, it would run very fast, but its normal gait was strange and comical indeed. It moved off into the brush and I felt very fortunate to have seen it. Didn’t seem very well camouflaged for the brown savannah grass. We drove on down the road and came to some caves that have Masai wall paintings. There was a female lion with one cub on the kopjes on the other side of the road, so George said it was not safe to get out and look at the rock paintings, but we could see them pretty well from the road.
We returned to camp for lunch and then went out again in the afternoon for an animal drive. We saw a leopard asleep in a tree. It had pulled a dead gazelle up into the tree but it was uneaten. Later in the afternoon when we returned to this spot the leopard was eating. We saw a group of 5 elephants and one was a baby only about 1 week old – the youngest we would see on our safari. At one point it fell down on the road, a little cloud of dust rising up, poof! It righted itself and got up although all the other elephants stopped and were very attentive to the little one. We followed this group for quite some time and they walked a very long distance for having such a newborn among them.
In the central Serengeti we met our first tse tse flies, although we would meet them more intimately when we moved to the western Serengeti. At least George told us in this area they do not carry sleeping sickness. More on these creatures later.
We came across an aardvark hole – a huge excavation just off the side of the road. No sign of the inhabitant since they are nocturnal. On the way back to camp we stopped to watch some elephants. A female was stripping the bark off a tree while a baby (a few months old) and a juvenile (maybe 4-5 years old) stood next to her. The older of the two young ones seemed to be attempting to strip bark too, as if having a lesson, while the little baby was oblivious. We saw a female and baby Defassa waterbuck standing in the woods. We had previously seen the common waterbuck. These 2 are distinguished only by the white pattern on their rear ends – the common having a “toilet seat” white circular pattern on the rear end, while the Defassa has a more uniform white area. We saw a tawny eagle in a tree, bateleur eagle, and a cobra sleeping on a termite mound! On the road back to Dunia camp, there was a termite mound full of dwarf mongoose. They all scurried into the holes, but when we stopped the vehicle and were quiet, little heads and bodies came popping out, curiosity winning them over. They are pretty cute – golden brown and the smallest of the 3 species of Serengeti mongoose (the others being the slender, a black and thin mongoose, and the banded, a larger brown with dark bands on the body mongoose). Earlier in the day we had also seen eland on the savannah but at some distance. The largest antelope, they are known for being shy. Another night at Dunia, and then we were off the next morning for some more time in the central area before heading to the western Serengeti.
Day 10: Off at dawn again to head to the Masai, Barafu and “research” kopjes. The latter are not on the maps but are called research because of lion studies conducted in this area. We saw 3 cheetah, 2 together and 1 solo, in the tall grass. Got a pretty good look at them, but still no close ups. We saw several lions on the kopjes. We’d been told by another guide that there were lion eating a zebra at the research kopjes so we headed out there, quite a long drive. When we got there we found a pride of about 10 lion. Clearly they had been eating as evidenced by blood on their faces, but they were done and heading to a watering hole. We followed them and got some nice up close sightings as they plopped down near the water to rest. There were some warthogs and gazelle in the area, as well as some zebra farther out. One of the lions seemed to be stalking the zebra from a pretty far distance, but her colleagues just headed to the water, so eventually she veered off and came to drink herself.
We stopped at the Serengeti Visitor’s Center which is a nice place. They have a little educational trail which was interesting. There are rock hyrax hanging around like fat tame guinea pigs. They plop right down at your feet under the picnic tables and when no one is at the table, they climb on top of the tables and just stretch out, lounging in complete peacefulness. There were also some dwarf mongoose dashing around snatching up crumbs. Quite a difference from the ones we’d seen the day before who were so easily startled in their termite mound.
After a picnic lunch at the visitor’s center we began the 3 hour drive over dusty bumpy roads to the western Serengeti in search of the wildebeest migration. We’d seen some wildebeest still in the central Serengeti, but it was clear most of them were gone. The zebra were still in the central area in large numbers. On this drive is where we definitely met the tse tse fly up close and personal for the first time. I had imagined that these were small flies. Tse tse sounds like “teeny”, but was I wrong! They are quite large, oblong shaped grey critters that fly aggressively into the vehicle and straight at you, bang! Like others have relayed, I can testify that they bite you through clothing and seem to have a predilection for your ankles, although I got plenty of bites on my arms and one through my t-shirt on my back. I can also verify that DEET does not seem to deter them. In the 3 days we spent in the western Serengeti, I can say both my friend and I probably got 30 bites each. What was interesting was that I had small red dots where they bit me and they itched some, but not severely. Jane on the other hand, got huge red swollen welts where they bit her, with some of the wounds actually draining, and severe itching. She claimed to have an ankle bracelet on one leg – where she had about 12 bites in a circumferential pattern around her ankle – and her ankle actually was quite swollen. So there is obviously an individual difference in how each person reacts to the bites – I got a bit lucky there.
We made our way to Mbalageti Camp, our destination for 3 nights. This camp is at the end of a 16 km road, which we determined was the worst road in all of our travels. It’s the longest 16 km you’ve ever endured and we rode on it several times over 3 days. It’s just filled with huge ruts and goes on forever. Fortunately at the end of the miserable road is a lovely lovely camp! We stayed in a tented chalet which was very nice. It has a rock wall on one side and canvas walls on the other side, so it’s sort of like a tented camp. It has a nice bathroom with very well flushing toilets! and all the hot water you want in a nice shower. No bucket shower. This camp obviously has all the water they need as they also have a swimming pool though we did not partake of that luxury. The restaurant and bar are very nice, with good food. Wine, beer and laundry were not included at this location. The staff was superb here, particularly in the restaurant. There is one computer here that is free for guests' use. The internet connection is painfully slow, but hey, it was free and any internet connection out in the middle of the Serengeti was rather amazing, so no one was complaining.
The drive into the western Serengeti was somewhat less than ideal (besides the dreaded tse tse flies) because this area was actively being burned. The park service sets controlled fires throughout the Serengeti with the goal of burning all areas once a year. This allows new vegetation to grow. But driving through fire is not much fun. We repeatedly came upon fires right next to the road, intense heat and smoke that was choking as well as obscured the actual visualization of the road many times. The fire doesn’t seem to catch the trees much. It stays in the low level grasses and moves through quickly. We actually saw animals standing around on burnt ground that was still smoking, so they didn’t seem too distressed about it. But during our stay at Mbalageti we could see fires on the hillsides at night and heavy smoke in the morning.
The first night at Mbalageti camp ended up being pretty comical. Around 9:30 Jane and I were each in our beds, I reading with my little headlamp, she trying to go to sleep. I kept hearing a noise to my right near the little bedside table. I’d look over there… nothing. But about the 4th time I looked over I saw a little fuzzy grey tail shoot off the table onto the floor. Huh? I said, “Jane, there’s an animal in the room.” She said, “Like a gecko?” “No, not a gecko.” I got up and grabbed the flashlight, looking under and behind the bed. Nothing. After walking around a bit with the light, I saw a flash of grey behind one of the beds. “Something is definitely in the room.” Then I couldn’t see it…. Finally I decided to get back in bed and after reading for a bit, turned out the lights. Almost immediately we could hear little scratching noises. Jane flicked on the flashlight and saw the critter up high on the wall atop one of the canvas sides of the tent. Of course, it dashed off immediately – looked like a small squirrel. We turned the lights on a searched some more. Finally I saw it dash from the bathroom back into the main room, where we once again lost sight of it. We both agreed we couldn’t sleep with a critter running around in the room. What to do? I wondered if the manager was still at the main desk. If so, we could ask for another room. But how to get up there? We were not supposed to walk around after dark without the Masai guard. We got dressed and went outside with our flashlight, flicked it on and off a few times, hoping one of the guards would see it and come. Nothing. We did this about 3 times at 10 min intervals. There was a whistle in the room that you were instructed to blow in an emergency. Haha. Clearly a little animal running around the room did not constitute an emergency. No way was I going to stand outside and blow a whistle! Finally on the 4th trip outside with the flashlight, a Masai who was guiding someone else back to their tent saw us and came over. He actually spoke a reasonable bit of English and we were able to convey the situation. He came into our room, leaving his spear outside! to look for the offending creature. “Was it a mouse?” he asked. “No” (although later we would decide it was in fact probably an African dormouse, which are pretty good sized and have a large bushy grey tail, but looks like no mouse we’d ever seen). “A rat?” “No,” we said. “Did it fly?” “No.” He looked all around, under the beds, behind the canvas flaps, nothing. “Maybe it’s gone,” he said. “Maybe, but unlikely,” I said. I asked about going up to the desk to speak with the manager about possibly moving to another room. The Masai said they had standard rooms available but no other tented chalets. I did not want to give up our nice tented chalet for a standard room. The Masai guard was really intent on seeing the critter, so we turned out the lights to see if it would come out. It was really funny… sitting there in the dark with a Masai warrior in our room, trying to lure out a tiny rodent who was not about to make an appearance! After about10 min, I turned the lights back on. I thanked the Masai, and told him he could leave. We’d just go to sleep and ignore anything we heard in the room. He kindly told us he’d be on duty all night if we needed to call him. I’m sure he was completely amused at the thought of being called back to do battle with a mouse! We certainly were not afraid of a mouse, just not happy with it dashing around the room.
About 10 min after we’d turned out the lights and tried to fall asleep, the Masai was back. “Hello, hello,” he called softly outside our tent. “Yes?” I called. “I spoke to the manager, we have another room for you.” “A chalet?” I asked. “Yes.” Ok, great. We got up and packed up our stuff and moved to a new room that had suddenly become available. We sincerely hoped that little mouse found its way out of the room without someone killing it. We decided they probably just cleaned the room and gave it to the next guests the following day without a word!
Two of the three nights at Mbalageti I heard lions fairly close by. One night there was a hyena very close to the tent. The hyenas make such an interesting sound. “Woop, woop!” I expected them to sound more like a dog.
Day 11: This morning we were off early in search of the wildebeest migration. About an hour into our drive, we began to see them in large numbers, congregated on the Musabi plain and near the Grumeti river. There were a fair number of zebras as well, but not as many as we’d seen still back in the central Serengeti. The Grumeti river has portions that are almost dry, or are essentially just a creek. Other areas are a bit wider with more water, but still relatively narrow compared to the Mara River. Most of the wildebeest had not crossed the river yet and were just milling around and resting on the plain. The males were not resting much though as they ran back and forth, warding off other males and trying to protect their group of females. We saw many solo males, standing forlornly off by themselves, often in the shade of one little tree. Better luck next year perhaps. We did see a few gathered near different areas of the river, trying to get a drink but nervous about the potential for crocodiles. We saw many crocodiles lying on the sandbanks or floating in the water. One had an enormous distended belly – clearly had just eaten. The wildebeest on the plains were sometimes in action, running en mass. It was funny because they would often run by the hundreds for about half a mile, then stop, turn and run back the same way they had just come from. At one point there was a herd of Cape buffalo involved, running with the wildebeest in a huge circle, round and round, very chaotically. There was a lone waterbuck lying unperturbed under a tree while all this commotion went on around it. We saw more hippos hanging out in the river and pools, clearly not concerned about crocodiles. Lots of birds, and 2 different monitor lizards – one near the river’s edge and one huge one walking along the road on the way back to camp. We returned to camp in the mid afternoon to relax. We had booked a balloon ride on our first evening for the following morning as the balloon company has an agent at the Mbalageti camp.
Day 12: Up at 4:30 for a 5am departure to the balloon lift off site – about a 1 hr drive from the camp. It was still pretty dark when we arrived, so that you could just barely see the activity of getting the balloons (two) laid out on the ground and the preparations for inflating them. One balloon had a 16 person basket, the other 12. We were in the smaller of the two. We lifted off around 6:45 and fortunately the morning was very clear – no smoke from the fires. I would guess our ride was only about 45 min (I would have been happier with about another 1/2 hr ride) and ranged from coasting along almost at grass level, to about 500-800 feet up. The views were great and we saw a fair number of animals, including hippo, a lion in the grass, zebra and wildbeest, giraffe, vultures up in the trees, colobus monkeys in the trees, crocodile and antelope. The landing was very soft and we climbed out to walk over and enjoy a glass of champagne, the traditional toast after ballooning. Then we got back in the land cruisers and headed a few minutes off to the breakfast site. A traditional English breakfast with a lovely table laid out. Then our guide met us at the site to take off for more animal viewing. I guess my opinion of the balloon ride was that it was worth the cost for the unique experience it offers. If and when I return, I probably won’t do it a second time. This was our last full day in the Serengeti so it was a nice way to spend the morning.
Day 13: The next morning we left Mbalageti at 7am – the last drive down the dreaded 16 km road from the camp! We drove straight through to the central Serengeti, stopping only occasionally for an interesting animal sighting – including a few Marabou stork right by the roadside eating on a dead wildebeest. It was nice to get back to the Seronera as the scenery and animals are more interesting there. The western corridor was definitely worth visiting for the migration and the river sites, but we preferred the central area. We came across 3 female lions lying next to the road, resting under a tree. They clearly had full bellies and blood on their faces, so they were in sleepy mode. We got some nice photos. I also found a male impala that actually stayed where I saw him, instead of running away like most had, to allow me to get a full frontal photo. During the whole trip, it seemed I just had to speak aloud what I wanted to see or photograph and it would appear. This impala was like the last parting gift of this phenomenon! To say I’m grateful to the universe for this whole two week experience would be putting it appropriately!
We got to the little airstrip which I described at the beginning of this report around 10:30 am. We got to the Kia Lodge around 2pm where we had a day room. This lodge was ok for a few hours and a shower. I wouldn’t really want to spend the night there as the rooms are pretty bare bones. We did eat dinner there, thinking our late night flight probably would not serve dinner. The food was pretty good, although I was a little concerned about whether it would be safe to eat there. But neither of us got sick from that meal – or anything on the trip!
We returned to the Kilimanjaro airport at 7pm for a 9:30 pm flight. There was a huge line out the door – easily more than a hundred people. Good thing we got there early, although the KLM flight was the only one going out that night, so there was really no concern about anyone missing it. We took off pretty much on time and had to fly to Dar Es Salaam to pick up more people before heading to Amsterdam. The entire journey from JRO back to Chicago was close to 24 hr, the air travel being the only bad thing about going to Africa.
For someone who loves animals as much as I do, this trip was a dream come true. But I think besides the personal pleasure of seeing so many animals, was the heartening feeling I got from seeing healthy ecosystems full of healthy animals. The fact that we saw so many babies is another indication of the health of the overall ecosystem. All credit to Tanzania for setting aside 25% of the country’s land in national parks to protect such a precious resource. We felt good about being tourists there where our dollars directly support this effort. I’m already dreaming of my next trip to Africa. I’ve got the bug as others have spoken of. It was just a fabulous trip in all regards and I hope everyone who ventures forth has the same rich experience.
TANZANIA NORTHERN CIRCUIT WITH KILIWARRIORS
A girlfriend (Jane) and I (Jean) spent 13 days in Tanzania on a private safari with Kiliwarriors in June 2010. It was a fabulous trip, first time in Africa for both of us. I have traveled extensively, both for pleasure and business, in many parts of the world but this was the best trip I’ve ever taken, no question!
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