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Trip Report Tanzania Safari with Private Island

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My husband and I are members of Exclusive Resorts, and we participated in their Once-in-a-Lifetime trip to Tanzania in June 2011. It was a nine-day itinerary and our first time to Africa, and it was the most amazing experience.

The company that operated the tour, Tanzania by Firelight (www.firelightexpeditions.com), is based in Arusha and is owned by a native Tanzanian and his wife. Their properties include a luxury mobile camp in the Serengeti, Mwanga Moto, which is repositioned several times each year in pursuit of the Great Migration. They also have a permanent luxury camp, Palahala Lodge in Katavi National Park, which we did not visit on this trip. And the jewel in the crown is their stunning resort on a private island, Lupita Island on Lake Tanganyika. Here are the details:

DAY 1 – We had planned to arrive a day early, but after missing a series of connections due to airline delays, we arrived at Kilimanjaro International Airport in Arusha the night prior to the beginning of the trip. We were transported to the Arusha Coffee Lodge, where we caught the end of the cocktail reception. Afterward, we were shown to the plantation house where we would stay for the night. It was welcome luxury after the two long days of travel from Austin, TX. Unfortunately, it was dark out so our first impressions of Africa would have to wait.

DAY 2 – After a lovely breakfast (with some really excellent coffee!) we took a 20-minute Cessna Caravan charter from Arusha to Manyara, then got in our jeeps and were transported to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. We spent the day driving around the crater floor, and we saw cape buffalo, zebra, baboons, warthogs, wildebeest, lions, cranes, ostrich, gazelle, eland and hyena. The highlight of the day was finding a wildebeest in a watering hole who was surrounded by hyena. There were over thirty of them and they just kept coming. We hoped for the best but knew the big guy didn’t stand a chance. And he didn’t. It was horrifying to watch, but that’s life on the savanna, all day every day.

For our own lunch we were surprised with a catered affair in the floor of the crater, complete with white tablecloths, open bar and a toilet. Now this is living!

We stayed overnight at the lush and beautiful Gibb’s Farm in Karatu. Located on the forested slopes of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, it reminded us of Hawaii because it was so green and gorgeous. Our room was large and comfortable with a roaring fire and a panoramic view of the property. The meals there were excellent, especially the dinner, with some of the best ratatouille and couscous, also amazing bread pudding. For breakfast I had avocado juice for the first time and it was delicious.

DAY 3 – We took a 30-minute chartered flight from Manyara to Seronera, then got into some even nicer jeeps and headed out for our first Serengeti game drive on the way to our camp. Some highlights included seeing a female leopard sharing her kill in a tree with her cubs, a cheetah with a kill, giraffes, elephants, a secretary bird, some hippos, and my favorite, the adorable little Thomson gazelles with their sporty racing stripes and flapping little tails as if they are so happy to see us. Seeing my first giraffe in the landscape, stepping back from an acacia tree, was really special. They are so beautiful. Then we stopped and we were suddenly 15 feet from a lion. It really unnerved me. I couldn’t understand why no one else was alarmed, but then it was explained that they don’t see us as food; their own food is plentiful. Still, it was amazing to be so close you could see his amber eyes. Just magnificent. In the afternoon it started to rain, and a bolt of lightning struck so close to our jeep you could see the dirt and smoke burst into the air; it was time to head to camp.

The Mwanga Moto mobile camp was first class bush luxury. We were greeted upon our arrival by the staff, champagne in hand, and given a nice lunch. Our tent was equipped with two king-sized beds, down comforters, lights, writing desk with snacks, hot showers and a flush toilet. This is how I like to camp!

In addition to our private tent, which included a zipped-in porch, there was a dining tent and a game tent for the kids. But the main gathering area (besides the open bar!) was the campfire, also known as “Maasai TV.” Every evening before and after dinner we would sip our beverage of choice (South African cabernet, ice cold Kilimanjaro or Cola Light) and talk about the day with the 19 other folks in the group, plus the guides and staff.

DAY 4 – The next day was a long one – 10 hours on the road in search of the Great Migration. Today we saw lots of babies – giraffes, elephants, bat-eared foxes and hyena. We observed a pair of mating lions and saw another cheetah, which the guides and drivers were expert at spotting. We finally found the giant herds of migrating wildebeest and stopped for lunch within view.

In the evening we dined al fresco on the plains as a Maasai warrior explained the finer points of his culture. Before dinner we each cooked our own bread over the campfire! The meal was fabulous, ranging from traditional African dishes to continental cuisine, and we sat out long after dark. At one time we could see the shiny eyes of a passing herd of wildebeest. Later the hyenas would sing us to sleep with their whooping cries.

DAY 5 – On our last day in the Serengeti, we did a game drive in the morning, then another one in the afternoon. We saw elephants, giraffes, a pair of lionesses hunting, a dung beetle pushing around his little ball of excrement, vervet monkeys, banded mongoose and lots of birds. The ostrich tickled me the most; you would always see one, maybe two, just wandering around out in the middle of nowhere. We did get mock charged by an elephant, but our experienced guide shut that down and he lumbered off. An archaeologist spoke to us about early man and his rudimentary tools as we searched the ground for them amidst the rocks.

We took a break in the afternoon and scrambled atop Ngong Rock in the Moru Kopjes near our camp. We saw rock hyrax, dik dik and colorful agama lizards, and we marveled at the beautiful but very poisonous candelabra trees. And what a great view! The ever-changing scenery and all the many hues of landscape, foliage, and sky, the iconic acacia trees - it just never got old. In the late afternoon we stopped near our camp for our last happy hour on the Serengeti and watched the sun set. It was so beautiful!

DAY 6 – The next morning we left the Serengeti for Lupita Island on Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania. It would be a three-hour flight from Seronera to the airstrip at Kipili. We really hated to leave the Serengeti, especially since we never found a black rhino, or even a white one, but we looked forward to relaxing in luxury at Lupita. We flew for over an hour, then stopped to refuel in Tabora. Once we landed at Kipili, we had a ten-minute walk to the shore, then a ten-minute boat ride across to the island.

Remote, private and exclusive, the resort at Lupita Island was truly amazing. All open-air African style with a bar, dining room, pool area, campfire, spa, gym, game room and decks for taking in the beautiful lake views. Each area was decorated with local African art and furniture, and there were many places to lounge and lots of big coffee table books to peruse.

Our room… wow. We were three and so we scored one of the two large suites. 2400 square feet, two bedrooms, completely open-air without even a front door to bother with! We would awaken in the morning to a magnificent sunrise over the lake, then doze off again to the sound of singing birds.

The first evening, we were treated to a sundowner’s cruise aboard the Windsor Rose, the owner’s boat. There were snacks and beverages as well as swimming. Lake Tanganyika is the second oldest and second deepest freshwater lake in the world, and holds 18% of the world’s fresh water. We took turns jumping off the boat into water that was over 4200 feet deep! We were promised that the sunsets were particularly stunning, and they were right as the blood-red sun settled over the water.

DAY 7 - The next day we were taken to a beach on the lakeshore, where we swam, snorkeled and sunned while enjoying drinks and snacks. Lake Tanganyika is home to hundreds of cichlids, many of which are unique to this lake. There were also otters, water cobra and tiny freshwater jellyfish. Some of the others fished, kayaked, and went water skiing. Yet another group took advantage of a side helicopter trip to nearby Kalambo Falls on the Zambian border.

I headed back early via complimentary golf cart for my scheduled massage. Perched high on the island, it was a breezy balmy open-air affair with an excellent view of the lake. One of my best massages ever, and I’ve had a lot! In the afternoon the kids played at the pool, or in the game room, where there was ping pong, pool, foosball, and darts. I managed to get to the gift shop.

Before dinner, as usual, the campfire was the gathering point of choice, and a terrific vantage from which to view the spectacular night sky full of stars while sipping Amarula.

DAY 8 – One of the highlights of the entire trip was taking a short boat ride to a small fishing village. Unchanged for hundreds of years, they had only recently begun receiving visitors from Lupita Island. They were very friendly, especially the children, who immediately swarmed us. Begging for money? No! They were fascinated with our digital cameras. We spent a good hour taking dozens of photos of them, then showing them on their camera screen. They just couldn’t get enough of this! I showed them pictures of animals from the Serengeti and they would call out their names in Swahili. They knew them all! Then our liaison brought out a soccer ball and they went nuts, running around the village, kicking around the ball. It was so much fun to watch.
They sang and danced for us, then took us on a tour of their village. We got to meet the witch doctor and see the table of stuff he uses in his practice. He has a large roofing nail embedded under the skin in his arm which protects the village from attackers. I am pretty sure he put a funk on me that makes me want to go back to Africa.

That evening at dinner, we dined outside by the pool, and a local group was brought in to sing and dance for us. It was a very special event.

DAY 9 – We reluctantly vacated our room and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before beginning the long journey home.

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