As always, thank you to everyone who helped put the trip together and offered advice and suggestions ahead of time. If anyone has any questions, please feel free to ask.
I started planning a trip to Kenya and Tanzania last winter and Sandi (yep, Sandi who posts on these forums) of Africa Serendipity helped me with the itinerary and she made the arrangements for me. I'd happily send anyone who wanted help putting an African trip together to her for help. I had so much fun planning the trip and telling my parents where I was going to go and the things I’d see, when I asked if they’d like to join me they said yes. The plan was for the three of us to leave home December 11 and return home December 27.
The general itinerary was:
Dec 12: Arrive in Arusha Tanzania, spend the night at the African Tulip.
Dec 13: Ngorongoro Crater. Night at Sopa Lodge.
Dec 14-17: Ndutu Area. Staying at Ndutu Safari Lodge.
Dec 18-20: Amboseli. Staying at the Serena Lodge.
Dec 21: Nairobi. Macushla House
Dec 22-24: Masai Mara. Staying at Kichwa Tembo.
Dec 25-26: Nairobi. Macushla House.
I put a lot of time in ahead of time reading trip reports, packing lists and suggestions. That helped immensely! Because our itinerary includes flying, we were limited to 15kg, or 33 pounds, total. Total means luggage, day-bag, cameras, etc. To be gone just over two weeks, that weight limit looked a bit daunting. In the end, we were all under the limit without feeling deprived.
4 T shirts, 1 tank top and light weight long sleeve shirt (think a fishing/camping shirt)
3 pairs of pants - all comfy drawstring hiking style pants from BackCountry.com
Bras, undies and socks
Merrell sandals and low hiking shoes (think brown sneakers)
Bathroom stuff: shampoo, conditioner, body wash, toothbrush/paste, hairbrush/ties, Q-tips, bandaids, mini sewing kit, face wash cloths, eye drops for contacts, wet wipes, Kleenex, etc.
Meds: Malarone, Imodium, Rolaids, benadryl, cold/sinus meds, Dramamine, Advil, etc
Face moisturizer, lotion, sunblock, bug lotion.
Hat - it was called a fishing hat and has a nice wide brim and mesh around the crown for ventilation.
Messenger bag as a day bag
Extra contacts, prescription glasses and contact solution just incase
Main camera, charger, extra batteries and SD cards.
Extra camera and charger (because if anyone can have a camera die in the middle of an amazing trip, it’s me)
Netbook and charger, and a tiny external hard drive (for backing up photos and emailing/calling home when internet was available)
Nook and charger
Ipod and connector cord to charge from the netbook
Tiny flash light
Tiny bottle of laundry detergent, a line and suction cup hooks.
Granola bars, cereal bars, tiny tubs of peanut butter
Duct tape (a long length rewrapped onto a simply chunk of cardboard about the size of a credit card)
Notebook, pencil and pen
Fold up market bags (about the size of a walmart bag but folds up to keychain size and is useful for a million different things)
Ziplock bags - quart and gallon size
That list really looks like a lot, but it was well under 30 pounds and fit into my carryon size convertible backpack from eBags. Many people do take binoculars (my Dad did) but my camera could pull things in as well or better than many binoculars and I hate the dang things. Some people swear by them, some people swear at them. The only things I had to purchase was the pants (I only had jeans or black work slacks), one shirt, the hat, Malarone and the better camera. There’s a rumor that a generic version of Malarone will be available soon making it much cheaper, yay!
I purchased a Panasonic Lumix FZ-150 which has a 24X optical zoom and is crazy easy to use. My “old” camera is a Lumix 10X optical zoom which I still adore so I wanted to stay with a line I know and like. I tried a couple other cameras with even more zoom but they just didn’t fit my hands right. Burst mode at full quality is a wonderful thing and excellent for wildlife and/or while driving on crazy bumpy roads. More zoom would be nice at times, but generally isn’t necessary other than at Amboseli where you’re not allowed off the roads. The various guides thought it was both odd and funny that I would often stick the camera half out the window and take photos while we were bouncing along the roads.
Our flight itinerary was a bit annoying because we fly out of a tiny regional airport, but it generally works out easiest. We were to go from our regional airport to Detroit, to Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro. The trip started out with a headache because I was required to have the credit card that I used to purchase my ticket back in March, but that card was destroyed when the program was cancelled months ago. The ticket agent said that if I knew the last four digits of the purchasing card she knew a workaround in the system. Otherwise, I would have to purchase a new ticket and wait 7-10 business days for a refund (to a card that no longer exists so I’m not sure how that would work anyway). But they’d honor the price I paid. Oh for craps sake! I rattled off the four digits and she started working on the computer. I didn’t tell her that I only knew the number because the self check-in kiosk lists the four numbers when it asks for that card. There’s something about tying up a very large chunk of my available balance on my credit card while I’m out of the country that I was not happy about.
The flight was scheduled to depart just before 2pm and we knew we were in trouble when the passengers getting off the plane we were to get on practically fell to their knees kissing the terminal floor. That’s never good. The gate attendants had a little pow-wow and then announced that there was a mechanical problem and it would be at least 30 minutes before a mechanic even got to the airport. Our 90 minute layover in Detroit started looking shaky so we got into line to be rescheduled.
The Delta gate agents did a fantastic job of rebooking passengers onto every available plane in the airport, even onto competitor airlines. They were pushing people out of the terminal just as fast as they could. When it was our turn and we said that we were trying to get to Tanzania, and oh yeah one of the biggest attractions was scheduled to start 12 hours after landing, they cringed in a big way. They called the help desk and continued to check every routing plan that they could come up with. Unfortunately, everything ended up working out so that we would arrive in one airport 1-2 hours after the plane we needed left. We were rebooked onto the next Delta flight leaving our regional airport at 6pm and for the flight out of Amsterdam a full day late as there’s only one flight to Kilimanjaro each day. I considered Nairobi, which would get us in 12 hours late instead of 24, but I didn’t know what the options were for getting from Nairobi to Arusha and didn’t think trying to figure it out when we got there would be the best option to only save 12 hours and possibly spend more time than that trying to get to Arusha. As an upside, the gate agents bumped us up to business class from economy plus for the flight from Detroit to Amsterdam. The gate agents worked for 2 hours trying to find a different route for us while we waited for the plane to be fixed or for the later flight, whichever was first.
As soon as I knew what our plan was I emailed Roy Safaris with an update and asked if it was possible if the day at the Crater could be moved back a day and lose a day at Ndutu instead of losing our day at the Crater.
Our plane was fixed and the flight that started with 50 people (of course it was the only full flight of the day) was down to only 10. We had a short time in Detroit and then hopped into our fancy seats and off to Amsterdam. Business class was definitely fun… every time I turned around someone was offering me a drink, a bite to eat, a warm towel, etc. I had lots of butt space and couldn’t even reach the seat in front of me if I stretched. The little comforter and full pillow were a really nice upgrade from the tiny, flat pillow and light blanket you get in economy. If I didn’t despise mustard so much I might have asked one of the flight attendants if there was any Grey Poupon.
Once we hit Amsterdam, there was no gate agent to ask so we wandered all over trying to get to the right desk to get our hotel vouchers from the airline for our unplanned night in Amsterdam. Everyone tried to help us, but generally just sent us to the wrong place. We eventually got to the desk who could set us up with hotel vouchers (next to baggage carousel 14 if I remember correctly). The vouchers were for Hotel Valk and there was an easy shuttle bus.
When we got to the hotel, I checked email and found an email from Roy Safaris. They were able to reschedule our time at the Crater so that we would lose a day at Ndutu and still get to see the Crater. Woohoo! I also looked online to find something to do in Amsterdam for the evening but unfortunately everything that looked like potential fun closed at 5pm and it was a 45+ minute ride from the hotel to the airport and then on to the city center. Add in the fact that we all only had clothes for the warm weather of Africa and nothing for the chill of Amsterdam in December and we chose to just relax in the hotel for the evening. The buffet dinner at the hotel was very nice.
Back at the airport the next morning, we went through security at the gate and headed out for the right continent a day behind schedule. That night we arrived into Kilimanjaro airport and I was a bit amazed at the incredibly small size of this international airport. There were two agents at the desks to purchase a visa and it took around 45 minutes to process everyone who needed a visa. Jacob (pronounced Ya-cub) met us immediately after the baggage carousel and escorted us to the van. He said that there wasn’t an ATM at the airport and that we could hit one in town. I’ve never been to an international airport that didn’t have an ATM, but I certainly didn’t see one on the way out. We were greeted at the van with wet washcloths and bottles of water. A wet washcloth seems like a simple thing, but after a long flight and waiting in a line for that long with no air movement, it was truly wonderful.
We arrived at the African Tulip in Arusha after an hour drive and a stop to find out that the ATM a block from the hotel was closed for the night. My room had a king size bed, a large window seat and a small balcony. It was a wonderfully comfortable room and felt like luxury. Not quite as good a day as had been planned, but still a nice way to spend a birthday.
We met with the staff at Roy Safari’s first thing in the morning and met our driver/guide for our time in Tanzania. He said that his name was too long and to just call him Eli (pronounced L-E). We watched in amazement at the sights of Arusha in the morning. There were goats and cattle on the road on a frequent basis, there were lots of men pushing and/or pulling heavy wooden carts, there were women in very bright dresses and outfits. All sorts of tiny shops lined the road with merchandise sitting on the dirt/mud between the shop and road. Some of the larger items were up on concrete blocks to keep them out of the mud. There were generally no sidewalks so people simply walk up the side of the main road. As we drove away from Arusha, we passed through many small villages that are set up around the main highway through the area. There would be a few small buildings gathered around the road, their corrugated metal sides painted with a variety of signs as if the metal had been salvaged from multiple buildings over time. In between villages, we passed a lot of people walking from one village to the next on the side of the road. Unfortunately, we also passed through many places that were working on repairs from a recent flash flood. The rains that the area so depends on have been unpredictable causing drought followed by flash floods. We could see the water marks a few feet up on many buildings, many parts of the road were being repaired after being washed away entirely and at bridges the water ran brown like rivers of caramel.
I had been warned about the road descending into the Crater so I knew the road in would be bumpy, rutted and a bit scary at times. Bumpy and rutted doesn’t even begin to describe the road. As we were coming into the crater at lunch time, Eli was trying to hurry a bit to give us as much time in the Crater as possible. The weather made the drive even more interesting as we were playing in and out of drizzle and rain. The four wheel drive LandCruiser was a wonderful vehicle for this sort of trek. In the Crater we saw a whole host of gorgeous (and not so gorgeous) animals. This was what we traveled around the world for!
There’s something about lions (truly all of the big cats, but especially lions) that makes them impressive even when they’re sleeping flopped out on their backs like overgrown house cats with no dignity. That first time to drive up and see a pride of lions sleeping off their meal from the night before is something that still makes me smile. You’re not in a zoo, there is no fence. That’s a very skilled predator less than 50 feet away and the large windows and pop top of the vehicle are open. It didn’t matter that the lions couldn’t have cared less about us, or that Eli could have easily had the car turned back on and moving and we could have closed the windows before even a lion could get to the vehicle. There’s something about having a predator like that just on the other side of an open window that is just amazing.
We saw elephants, wildebeest, zebra, rhinos, a cheetah, birds, lions, baboons, warthogs, ostriches, Thompsons gazelle, monkeys with robin’s egg blue balls, grey crowned cranes, and more. Everywhere we looked was something new and amazing. Lunch was a boxed lunch from the African Tulip with a cold chicken breast wrapped in foil. It wasn’t great, but there are certain limits on what you can do with a boxed lunch that is simply going to ride around in a LandCruiser in a cardboard box all day. It was food and that was good enough. On the way out we were a bit distracted by a pride of lions and had to hurry. Eli made fast progress up the side of the Crater as we had to be out by 6:00pm. We didn’t know it at the time, but if we had been late we would have had to call a gate keeper to come let us out and also pay a $100 fine. We cleared the gate at 5:56pm.
The Sopa Lodge was very nice and the food for dinner and breakfast was incredible. There was a menu with a couple options each for starter, salad, main and dessert. The main lodge looks out with an excellent view over the Crater and the individual rooms are very comfortable. The rooms are in small rounded buildings (think a modern and luxurious version of a Maasai boma hut, without the cow dung) with two upper and two lower rooms each. There was free wi-fi available in the main lodge, you simply had to request a username and password from the front desk.
After a wonderful first day and excellent dinner, I got ready for bed and caught myself just before shrieking like a 14 year old girl at a Justin Bieber concert. All the lights were off but when I flipped back my blankets and crawled into bed, I could see a dark shape against the bright white sheets. I noticed the dark shape right as I touched the slightly fuzzy, warm, soft object. It felt exactly like touching an animal! Right on the heels of the “OHMYGODTHERE’SSOMETHINGINMYBED!” thought came the much more rational and logical thought of “that must be a hot water bottle”. A flip of the light switch proved that yep, that was a hot water bottle wrapped in dark flannel. That was the first time I’ve ever seen a hot water bottle. I snickered and cuddled in with the dang thing.
After breakfast we were entertained by the resident monkeys tearing around the pool area with large mushrooms that they were trying to devour as rapidly as possible. Once the mushrooms were gone, they got to work as the pool cleaning crew and proceeded to fish out and eat the dead flying termites that were floating on the pool surface. On the way to the lodge roof, one cheeky little guy stopped on the chairs outside the dining room to see if anyone having breakfast had anything good to offer him.
We headed from Ngorongoro Crater to the Oldupai Gorge. There were a few pictures from an area about 40 km away and a lecture about the history of the area. Unfortunately the lecture mainly focused on the fact that it is Oldupai Gorge and not Olduvai Gorge as the legal name was recorded. There is a path of footprints that shows the oldest evidence of when people started to walk upright at the site 40km away but there really wasn’t much at the museum site. I’m glad we stopped because I would have wondered if we had missed out otherwise, but it wasn’t a very interesting stop.
We ate our box lunches in a large open field with Thompsons’s gazelles looking on. It was nice to get out of the vehicle for a bit and be able to look out across such an open area. The Serengeti was in front of us while we were still in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. As we got closer to Ndutu, the number of wildebeest we saw started increasing dramatically. Hyena, wildebeest, zebra, flamingoes, secretary birds, vultures, marabou storks, bat eared foxes, Grant’s gazelle. Everywhere we looked there were more animals, many of which we had never even heard of let alone seen. The roads were sloppy in the Ndutu area and I was again thankful for the tall clearance of the LandCruiser. We got quite a surprise when we saw a pride of lions and Eli slipped, slid and skidded through a massive mud hole and then proceeded to slowly drive right up to the lions. We were less than 10 feet, and at times closer to 5 feet, away from lions. This goes back to that whole “there’s no fence or window between me and a lion”. This was magnified as the lion wasn’t 50 feet away, but 5 feet away. Other vehicles joined us eventually and when a new vehicle would pull up or would start their engine to move or leave, a lion would usually open their eyes for a glance but that was pretty much the extent of their reaction to us. They simply could not have cared less. It was warm, their bellies were full and they were going to sleep no matter who was silly enough to be awake to watch them sleep.
Ndutu Safari Lodge is made up of a main lodge area and a row of small cabins. As there is no fence, animals of all sorts come right up to the cabins throughout the day and night. A staff member is posted along the path and mimics a lighthouse, sweeping a light through the darkness throughout the night on watch for animals that might be dangerous.
One issue that I had with Ndutu was that there is a set menu and no options for meals (unless you’ve told them ahead of time that you’re vegetarian, need kosher meals, etc). When the food was something that I liked, it was fabulous. However, when it was something I disliked, it was a choice between eating something that I disliked or not eating. It helped that there was a starter, a soup, a main dish and a dessert for every lunch and dinner and at least one of those was usually good. Oh well, this is exactly why I packed granola bars and small tubs of peanut butter. I would very highly recommend the place and would quite happily return, but I would suggest that if you’re even a bit of a picky eater that you pack granola bars or similar.
The power was turned off throughout the day to save use of the generators and their fuel so it became a bit of a game to figure out how to arrange items on chargers at the proper times. There were lots of power strips available in the bar/restaurant and that power might have been on all the time and not just at designated times. It was a world of difference from the feeling of luxury of the Crater Sopa Lodge, but it was a lot of fun and I loved the variety. Ndutu definitely felt more like being in the “wild” than Sopa did! It was interesting that the windows don’t shut entirely. They’re simply glass slats that can be pushed up so that they’re mostly solid but the very top doesn’t have glass. This means that when the herd of wildebeest come through in the middle of the night, it sounds like a herd of wildebeest are right outside your room. If you’re a light sleeper, I’d suggest ear plugs and/or sleeping pills as the nights tended to be somewhat loud.
We headed out to meet Eli for a morning drive and saw dik dik before even leaving the front porches of our cabins. On the way out the driveway, we saw impala, buffalo, gazelles and more dik dik. Eli headed out to where the pride of lions had been sleeping the afternoon before. When we got back to that area, we were greeted by the lions 100m over from their previous location and the sight of a LandCruiser well and truly stuck in the mud hole that was right next to where they were the day before. Before we headed in, Eli had warned the driver to be careful of that mud hole. It was pretty iffy and even a careful driver had a good chance of getting stuck there. Apparently the other driver wasn’t as careful as Eli was and they got stuck in the mud. Next to the lions. We had noticed the night before that the single passenger didn’t come into dinner until well after everyone else. That had to be an interesting vehicle change.
We watched the lions for a little while and watched as the Ndutu Lodge crew worked on freeing the stuck vehicle. They had a small truck that had no hope of pulling that LandCruiser free so we went over to lend our heavier and stronger vehicle if needed. We got there a few minutes before they drove the vehicle out using plastic tracks. Back to watching the lions as they decided to walk around a bit. A breakfast box watching a pride of lions is definitely an excellent way to start off the day!
From there we went to see the wildebeest herds. Everywhere we looked, in all directions, were wildebeest. Dad estimated that we could see 10 miles in every direction because the land was so flat in that area and everywhere you looked, were more wildebeest and zebra. You can read the statistics with the numbers of animals involved in the great migration but it doesn’t really sink in until you realize that you’ve been driving around all day, and all day you’ve passed different herds of wildebeest. Herd after herd, each one bigger than the last. One of the fun things about wildebeest is that they’re, well, rather stupid animals. If one runs, they all run. They don’t run like the gazelle do where if one gives an alarm they all run the same direction. No, wildebeest will run in a (mostly) single file line and will follow the one in front of them even if they take a bad route. I swear that the wildebeest tended to be better behaved than most airline passengers!
We also got to see a trio of cheetahs sleeping in the shade of a lonely tree. Their coats are absolutely gorgeous! Throughout the day I think we ended up seeing four different prides of lions of various sizes and ages. Add in some elephants, dung beetles (because what is a day without a dung beetle), jackals, yet more wildebeest and a couple rainbows and it was a great day.
The next day we saw Ed the Hyena from the Lion King. For those of you less familiar with the Disney classic, Ed was the hyena who must have been stepped on by an elephant or something as a pup because he was simply beyond stupid.
We started driving and after just a few minutes spotted two hyenas trotting down the shores of the lake. One of us said “that hyena’s carrying a stick” and we all agreed that no, it had to be a lower leg bone or some such. We got a bit closer and hyena #2 was carrying a lower leg (hoof still attached) like a proper hyena. However as we look and look again, hyena #1 was proudly carrying a stick. Eli was shocked and amazed and said that he had never seen such a thing. Every once in awhile hyena #2 would look at his stick carrying brother like “dude, you don’t get it, you’re doing it wrong. Agh, why does Mom always make me be the one to take you out?”. Yep, definitely Ed.
It’s hard to compete with lions and hyenas carrying sticks, but a large group of giraffe certainly comes close. They had young giraffe and they’re just fun to watch. They’re the only animal (I’m pretty sure the only one) that walks with both legs on one side at a time instead of the front left-back right, front right-back left stride of other animals. Every time I saw giraffe I could only think that they belonged on Jurassic Park with their lumbering movements. We got to see two elephants play fighting. I never knew that elephants growl! Apparently they do that and more as they communicate with sounds that are usually too low for humans to hear and can be heard from amazing distances. There’s something quite impressive about seeing two behemoths going face to face and smacking tusks together. When the tusks clashed, it sounded like trees clashing.
One of the odd sights of the day was a marabou stork at rest. Apparently when they’re relaxing, they land on the ground and lay down flat, or kneel. Considering their knees go backwards, it looks very strange to see a large bird sitting close to the ground with its lower legs and feet sticking out in front of it. It would help if they weren’t such ugly birds to begin with. We also lucked into seeing a brand new baby Thompsons gazelle toddling around it’s mother.
After seeing the baby gazelle and a sad cheetah (he was calling for his brother but didn’t get an answer while we were there) we went back to where we had spotted a pride of lions with young cubs the day before. They were flopped out under a tree that looked like an umbrella with long fringe hanging all the way to the ground. It was amazing to sit in the vehicle 5 feet away from one of the lionesses and hear them panting. One of the cubs may still have a crick in his little neck as he kept putting his chin up on the tree trunk and cranking his neck way back. It was incredibly adorable, but I think everyone watching was thinking “oh that’s going to hurt tomorrow”. I would never have thought that nine lions could shelter under a tree and unless you were looking in one of the two small openings you could stand right on the other side of the hanging branches and not know they were there.
One more day in Tanzania, Kenya and photos to come...
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As always, thank you to everyone who helped put the trip together and offered advice and suggestions ahead of time. If anyone has any questions, please feel free to ask.