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Trip Report-2 months late

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My apologies for taking this long to post this report. I returned to my 40 hr a week job and also as the caretaker for my ailing 86 year old mother, so time to organize my thoughts and get them into a format suitable for posting has taken some time.

This Trip Journal was written for "posterity" as well as posting so you will have to be patient with the detail and the length.

I will try not to overwhelm with all of it at one time but post it over several days. So here goes!

TRIP JOURNAL
TANZANIA-JUNE 26-JULY 9, 2007
THOMSON SAFARIS


Tuesday, June 26-27
What was to be a trip of a lifetime began with a Delta flight out of Palm Beach Florida to JFK in New York. The flight was about 35 minutes late but I thought I had a good margin for changing to my Northwest flight. However, I did not make allowances for the unfortunate JFK terminal issues. A change in airlines involves going outside the terminal, taking an air train to the correct terminal and then checking in and going through security all over again. Fortunately, Mary Jo had arrived shortly before me and called me on my cell phone to let me know what to do. Her Northwest flight out of Lexington had been delayed but NW was kind enough to put her in a cab (they paid) and get her to Cincinnati in time to connect to JFK for our flight to Amsterdam.
I made the flight but in the rush to pick up my belongings after being searched (my knee replacement requires I always undergo the ‘wand’) I failed to pick up my cell phone and my e-ticket confirmation. And my seat assignment was given away. Fortunately, a very nice young woman sitting in “my” seat agreed to switch so MJ and I could fly together. The flight departed more or less on time and we had a very nice flight with a quite good in-flight meal and movies on demand, arriving in Amsterdam for a three hour layover. We were so excited that we had been unable to sleep on the plan and our energy was still pretty high. We had fun checking out all the other folks waiting for flights, trying to figure out where they were going and striking up a conversation with a Mom who was shepherding eight kids who explained it was actually two families. Evidently they travel quite a bit the kids were very accustomed to waiting as evidenced by their good behavior.
The flight to Arusha (7 hrs 59 min) proved uneventful with attempts to sleep being mostly unsuccessful for my part. I scored maybe 1 ½ hrs altogether. We were excited to arrive in Arusha, at least until we had cleared security (we had our visas in advance) and discovered our bags had not made it. We found out later that they did not make the transfer at JFK. A very helpful and painstakingly methodical young man assisted us with the proper forms and we were finally able to join Leonard , our guide, and four others that were a part of our next eleven days in Tanzania. One couple had arrived a day earlier.
A 45 minute ride through the dark (unable to see much of anything) brought us to Kigongoni Lodge. There was a beautiful room with two full sized beds with a fireplace and a beautiful full bath. We were delighted with the room but sorry we could not enjoy it longer as we immediately showered and crashed.

Thursday, June 28
Breakfast the next morning was served on the open patio and was a preview of every breakfast we were to have on the trip. Fresh fruit, passion fruit juice, scrambled eggs, sausage, toast and coffee kept us busy until a 9 AM briefing and introduction to our six fellow travelers.
There was a change of itinerary for today as there was some mix-up in reservations at the Nogorongora Serena where we were to spend two nights. We were re-booked for one night at Manyara Lake Lodge. We started with a stop at the African Cultural Center in Arusha where they had an amazing selection of beautiful carvings, beadwork, jewelry, etc. and made some small purchases. Many items were too large to consider and many seemed pricey A three hour drive brought us to Manyara Lodge. Another lovely accommodation with beautiful decoration and our own patio with a vista over the lake. Lunch was a buffet with many choices and the dining room was beautiful. All in all a lovely setting.
Our drive to the Manyara Reserve was on paved roads. We passed by many Masai villages and herds (cattle and goats). We also passed through several villages and market places. There were locals with goods to sell and others transporting wares, often by wheelbarrow, car, bicycle or on their heads. The women wear beautiful fabrics wrapped into a garment and often their heads are also wrapped like a turban. The men, aside from the Masai, are mostly dressed in western clothes.
And finally, we saw were going to see what we had come for….wildlife. Manyara National Reserve is a smaller reserve that is largely a forest that grows on top of a underground stream that occasionally surfaces. Our first animal encounter was with a tribe of baboons by the road. We were excited because up until now, the wildest thing we had seen was a goat trying to escape his herder. Following in short order was a warthog that trotted across our path, black monkeys in the fig trees, impala by the road, a beautiful giraffe family, a glimpse of a dik dik (my they are fast), the hippo pool, pink pelicans, guinea hen and various other birds and water fowl. We were to find out over the next few days that timing is everything when it comes to game viewing. Our highlight of the afternoon was a large family of elephants that crossed the road directly in front of our vehicle. The were very close and didn’t seem to mind us at all. There were all ages and sizes and they hung around quite a while before heading off in the trees. We headed back to the lodge for a shower followed by dinner in the beautiful dining room. Dinner was an entrée selection from the menu with appetizer, soup and salad choices. Dessert was from the buffet where the selection was large but not memorable. Leonard got the hotel to provide three bottles of wine to console us for the changed reservations. Our group is a pretty sober one with several non-drinkers and the others all moderate imbibers. It is a good group…no smokers and no inappropriate language. Mary Jo and I teamed up with Chris and Jim from Sacarmento, CA for today. They are very outgoing, very well-traveled and smart about most everything. They also have an eagle eye for game. It was a good day and we slept well that night.

Friday, June 29
Today is a big day with a visit to Nogorongoro Crater. After a good breakfast at the buffet with everything from crepes and omelets to fruit, cereal and yogurt we headed out for a two hour drive through a thick fog with visibility at no more than 30 feet. The road is unpaved and winding. Oncoming traffic would seem to just suddenly appear. Masai men walking along the road would appear like an apparition out of the fog. The red cloaks they wear make them highly visible which is a good thing. A note here regarding the road up into the crater; it was not as bad as we expected. Maybe the fog distracted us. Coming out in the afternoon was a different matter.
As we cleared the fog and clouds, the crater floor was revealed and we immediately knew those tiny dots in the distance were the herds we had been waiting to see. There were large herds of wildebeest and zebra mixed with a few Thomson Gazelles and cape buffalo. Soon we saw a gathering of vehicles and made our way to see a group of six lions that were apparently just finishing off a morning meal. The large lions appeared to be finished while two younger ones were still ‘at the table’. A hyena and vultures were waiting to take advantage of the opportunity. One lioness and a young male made their way across the open field to some trees. Leonard thought there might be some mating activity, but if it was, they were discreet enough to seek privacy in the trees. Some zebras in the area were very alert but obviously were not in danger since lion tummies were full.
Our first large herd encounter was with a group of wildebeest and zebras near the lake’s edge. They were drinking from the fresh streams that feed in the lake. There were quite a few young that were cavorting; running in wild spurts of energy. They were fun to watch. One of the first impressions we got here was that when you turn off the truck engine and sit quietly (first rule of game viewing), it is sooooo quiet. The wildebeest make kind of a grunting sound and the zebras have a bray of sorts, but for the large numbers of animals, it is exceptional quiet and peaceful. It became clear to me that we are so assaulted by noise in our everyday lives, we really don’t know what quiet is.
Further around the lake, we came upon a hippo lying on the grass…and it was noon. At first we thought he might be injured or dead but it appears he was just sleeping. I think he may have had a little too much grazing overnight. It was cool and overcast so maybe he just thought he could sun bathe a little. Later we realized he was not too far from the hippo pool that had a large herd.
This was our first box lunch and what can you say about the box lunch? It was adequate and we would not starve. We had chicken, cucumber roll sandwiches, Ham (we think) and butter on a roll, roasted peanuts, a small chocolate bar and a juice box. There was a large ‘picnic’ area where all the trucks stop. We were a bit jealous of the small buffet set up a few vehicles from us. They had a silver containers set up on hood of the Land Rover. For those who know of my concern, there was a bathroom facility with a flush toilet here. Not delightful, but again adequate.
Leonard was determined to find rhino for us. In the process we saw ostrich, wart hogs, an old male elephant with impressive tusks, golden jackal and lots of birds. And we did find Rhino-twice. The first were two whites about ½ mile away. They were supposedly lying down in the grass but you could only really identify two white dots in the grass, even with the binoculars.
Abour 4 PM, after a long search, Jim spotted a lone black rhino at about 300 yards. He moved behind some bush but re-emerged and walked steadily on a diagonal path until he was about 200 yards away….then stopped cold. He sensed the crowd on the road it seemed. Drivers backed up to make a wide passage for him but he decided he’d had enough and just lay down to wait us out. It worked!
We headed for our Serena Lodge. The road out of the crater has to be experienced to be believed. It is really rough. But as one who likes amusement part thrill rides, I have to tell you it was better than any Disney experience…..but no worse than we had been led to believe. An excellent driver is a must and Leonard was good. It was ‘cool’ and we had some incredible views of the crater.
The lodge is beautiful, well designed and there is great service. The food is okay. There were several entrée choices for dinner and the pumpkin soup was of interest to me as I make one that I wanted to compare. It was pretty good. Ed, of our party, was sick so we were minus one. Turns out he just had motion sickness from the ride.
We were all tired and retired to our comfortable rooms. Our only negative comment on the rooms would be that it appears to be a policy of the Serena lodge to have the world’s hardest beds. Everyone agreed. But we were so exhausted we pretty much overcame that obstacle.
Now I have to tell you that we are still without our bags at this point. Fortunately, we did pack a change of clothes and some few toiletry items but due to concerns with the “one bag rule” KLM seemed to be enforcing, we only had one carry-on and did not have nearly everything we needed. For those wondering, you can take two bags of modest size. Almost everyone did and I did not see anyone prohibited from taking theirs on the plan. Fortunately, the first three nights were in lodges where they did have shampoo, etc. We washed out underwear each evening and it was dry by morning. We did make a T-shirt purchase at the Crater lodge just to have a change and also bought deodorant (I am sure our fellow travelers appreciated this). Our travel companions were quick to volunteer anything we might need. We did have travel insurance, but found that the availability of clothing items, particularly a choice of sizes for women, was limited. So even if you have the money to spend, you might not be able to find anything to buy.

Saturday June 30, 2007
Today we drove to Oldavi Gorge. The roads are rough but better than coming out of the Crater the day before.
Oldavi Gorge is the 9,000 sq mile site made famous by the Leakey and the discovery of humanoid fossils as far back as 32 million years. There are four layers that we were able to define in a large mesa like formation from the overview at the Visitor Center. There is a museum of sorts with lots of fossil remains and pictures of the early workers there. It is small and difficult to navigate in a crowd.
A word to the wise, this may be the last chance to buy from the Masai if you are not returning this way i.e. going south to other parks as we were. There was a pretty nice selection of things and I think the prices were reasonable enough. We bought just a few trinkets.
We began our long dusty drive to the Serengetti only to get a call on the mobile that our second car had broken down…seems the oil pump gave up. We had to drive back about ten miles to rescue the others, leaving Mustafa, our other guide and driver, to deal with the vehicle. We were sorry to have to leave him as we were just getting to know him. We entered at the Ndutu gate and basically spent the rest of the day crossing the plains to our camp outside the Ikona gate. The Thomson camp is 5 miles past the park gate, very isolated of course, but it looked good to us when we arrived.
This was a successful day for game viewing with the always present Thomsons, zebra, baboon, hardebest, topi, monkeys, cape buffalo, elephant, giraffe, hippos, lions, watrhogs and wildebeest. The only thing that dampened our enthusiasm was the very close riding conditions as there were nine of us in the vehicle and it was hard to jockey for a camera position. Everyone was quite thoughtful and we made the best of what we had. A really good thing about this day was that we got our bags, flown in to the Serengeti airstrip. Leonard had made many phone calls and between him and the Thomson group, they were able to get them to us. I kept telling Mary Jo “That’s why we paid the big bucks”.
It was quite hot and dusty and we were glad to arrive at camp where we were greeted with fresh orange juice, cold wet cloths and much enthusiasm from the camp staff. We were assigned our tent (#4) and given the toilet/shower instructions and soon began to take advantage of the hot showers. The power for this camp is all solar and when you wanted a shower, you just asked one of the staff and they would fill up the bag outside with hot water and gravity took care of the rest. It was a little disconcerting at first to have the staff guys right outside hovering around to wait on you with only a canvas wall between. But they were very anxious to please and we learned to enjoy their presence.
The tent is large and spacious with a well appointed main room for sleeping and a bath tent attached with three compartments for toilet, shower and a vanity. The vanity was equipped with beautiful glass vessel sinks and matching pitchers that contained water for washing (no running water here). All this sat on a beautiful wood base. The chemical toilet took a little getting used to but worked brilliantly. The shower was hot and plentiful. I don’t think we every used all the water. There was a sisal rug on the floor and a down comforter over feather beds. This was really my kind of roughing it.
At dusk, lanterns are delivered to the veranda of your tent and lanterns are put along the path to the dining tent. There is lighting inside the tent supplied by solar power. It is not very bright, but certainly enough to function by. The power goes off at 10 PM so we were prepared with headlamp (I highly recommend this if you read in bed) and flashlights. We tried to get to sleep early but it was almost impossible because we knew what awaited us very early the next morning.

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    Thanks for this--keep it coming! Could you, if possible, add an extra space between your paragraphs? It would be a little easier on the eyes. Although I will read it anyway. :)

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    Oh, my gosh dandy...keep it coming! You're really priming me for our own Thomson trip next March! We'll be staying entirely in their tents once we're on safari so your descriptions of the camp in the Ndutu area are a treat to read :- )

    -doo

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    No apologies needed. If anyone complains about the timeliness of the info, the price is right.

    Detail is great for you and others trying to figure out what they want to do.

    So baboons were the first animal!

    Great description of the fog and Maasai in the crater.

    You certainly maintained good spirits despite your missing bags. Glad you were reunited with your stuff before it was time to come home.

    Now my turn to apologize in advance. I am putting Part II here with the original so people can follow it better.


    ----------------------------------------

    Jambo! Jambo! Greeted us a 3:45 AM…. and me with about 3 ½ hours sleep. A quick coffee and ‘cookie” and we were off at 4:15 for our balloon flight. It is cool enough for the fleece now and even colder when we reach the launch site and just stand around waiting.

    The drive to the launch site is about 45 minutes but the drive gave us an opportunity to see a few night creatures scurrying about and we saw two hippos contentedly munching away on a little raised mound. They paid no mind to our headlights and just kept on eating. One has to keep up one’s strength you know.

    As we approach the launch site, we see two huge green and cream balloons, lying on their sides in the earliest stages of inflation. We are told they are the second largest balloons in the world. It is cold (they mean it when they say take a fleece jacket) and the sun is just beginning to make an appearance. There are large blowers (really big fans) that begin the inflation process. They blow cold air into the balloon in the beginning. As the balloons begin to fill, we are given instructions about boarding. The large baskets that we are obviously going to ride in, are lying on their side with eight compartments (for 16 passengers) four above and four below. My luck… we drew an ‘up’ compartment. Now, I think I am the oldest person boarding and I had a knee replacement three years ago, so hoisting myself to into a little bitty square that is 3-4 feet off the ground, is not going to be pretty. I got the left leg (my replacement) in the basket but was unable to pull myself high enough to get the other leg in. Never fear, a couple of guys grabbed me by buttock and thigh and before I knew it, I was aboard. We were half way there as Mary Jo now need to squeeze in beside me and quite frankly, I was feeling the space was a little tight with just me. Never the less, here she came. Now you have to remember, once you are in, you are actually lying on your back looking up at the sky. If you weren’t friendly before you climbed in, you were after. For those of us who could stand to lose a few, it became somewhat of a ‘fat melding’ experience. Fortunately, Jim and Chris had more trouble boarding than us, so that provided a distraction from our little sideshow.

    About boarding time, the hot blowers came on and the balloon started inflating more quickly and slowly we started to tilt to an upright position and then….we were airborne. The sensation is awesome, especially when the blower is not on. Our Pilot, Paul was a real cutie and he actually does fly the balloon, regulating the height, and checking winds, etc. He also acted as a spotter, pointing out animals on the ground, birds in the trees. We flew as high as 1200 ft and as low as 200, sometimes an eagle’s eye view and sometimes a giraffes. We flew for about an hour. We were able to see the other balloon and got some beautiful shots as the sun rose.

    We saw herds of wildebeest, zebras and impala, all moving in the same direction in long lines. We are told this is the tail end of the migration so they are heading for greener pastures. Hippos were just returning to their pond and there was quite a bit of activity. We were told there was a cheetah in the distance but really too far to get a good look. Giraffe were feeding right below us and we were right on top of a vultures nest with several chicks. The streams and ponds are pretty from up there and we could have gone on for a while. We were fortunate in that we had a good day and favorable winds for the flight.

    Too soon, we were descending for the landing and while there was talk about landing on a hyena’s den, we had a very soft and quiet landing. The basket remains upright and you climb from your cubicle to the next one and over the side, much easier than the boarding.

    We walk about 50 feet to the road where the vehicles that have been following us have parked and set up some small tables with bottles of champagne and orange juice. It’s a tradition they tell us and we partake, even though we are not usually imbibers. As soon as everyone has enjoyed this time, we load up and are taken back to the location set up for breakfast. Set up under an umbrella acacia is a long table for thirty-four. There is linen, china, crystal and flatware. There is a hand washing station and a toilet. It is a three sided canvas structure with a chemical toilet and a sign “Loo With a View”. I think this was my favorite thing. The breakfast was a full English breakfast. I do without the ‘baked beans and tomato’.

    We had heard many opinions as to whether the ballooning was worth it. It was for us. I can’t say that I would pay that amount to do it again (since I’ve now done it) but I loved this experience. And when you think about where you are and what they provide, you understand why it is so expensive. And there is the supply and demand factor as it seems they are always fully booked.

    After breakfast, we are driven to Serona Lodge where we meet up with Leonard and our 2 non-balloon folks. Here we pick up our second vehicle and our need driver/guide Musa. We look high and low for leopard and cheetah with no results and return to camp for dinner and much need rest.

    Monday, July 2nd
    We are up at 6:30 with breakfast at 7. Since we are out for an all day drive and we pack our own lunch boxes from a selection provided by the camp. If you did not like this lunch, it was your own fault. Leonard is determined to find leopard and shortly he gets a call that there is one up a tree with a kill. There are a least eight vehicles watching this beauty sleeping in the fork of a tree. You could see the hooves of her kill, probably an impala, dangling in the upper branches. We were determined to wait her out and about 40 minutes later, she began to stir. She made several false starts but then rose up, turned and after several false starts, came down the tree on our side. She lay in the tall grass beneath and Leonard thought she would go up the tree again, but not everyone in our group was patient, and we headed to our lunch site. Just as we arrived, there was a call that Musa spotted a cheetah. We headed out at breakneck speed (or as fast as one can go on these so-called roads) and indeed found a little female with a fresh kill. She was down in some grass and would rise up periodically to check for other predators, but never exposed herself fully. She was about 25 feet away. I had hoped for more but was pleased to see her since visitors the week before had failed to see any cats. We are finding out more and more that timing is everything in the game-viewing business. Some wanted to wait for her to move but it appeared she was going to be a while and so we returned to the lunch site at the visitor’s center.

    We did a quick tour of a very well done exhibit and then we were off to the hippo pool. We were able to get out of the truck for a better view. There were at least 50 hippos (hard to count as there are always a bunch under the water). There was an upset of some sort at one point and the hippos all starting grunting and flailing about. Eventually, that seemed to be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction and they settled down. One very large bull near us appeared to be unhappy with the ‘paparazzi’ and decided to let us know with several vigorous feces spraying. They back right up to you and let loose. Evidently, their digestive systems are not very efficient, and it comes out much like it goes in, grassy and smelly. It was very funny to see this activity but this is a standard defensive technique. Although adult hippos have no predator problems they are very territorial and use this technique to discourage trespassing. We returned to camp for a hot shower and dinner.

    The camp staff was extraordinary, always smiling and happy. They were so anxious to please and to learn anything we were willing to share. What a joy to be there. We would hate to say our goodbyes in the morning.

    Tuesday, July 3
    Awake again at 6:30AM for a departure to the airstrip at 8. We said our goodbyes to the staff with appropriate tips. They were worth it.

    Our airplane set down on the strip very shortly after we arrived. It was a brand new Cessna 208B that held twelve passengers but it is small and the seating very cramped. The pilots, Joseph and Ludovic told us the plane had 60 hours flight time on it and we later learned it had just been ferried from Kansas City by one of the fellows we later met at Ruaha. The first leg of our flight was 1 hr 45 min to Dudoma where we refueled and were able to use the toilets. It has a paved runway and a small terminal building. Dudoma is a fair sized city and we were told a political center. The second leg of the flight to Ruaha National Park was 45 Min, setting down on a dirt airstrip. The ‘terminal’ is a hut made of sticks and wire, an oval shape with a thatched roof. There was a bench all around the inside, also stick and wire…you had to position yourself just so to sit without pain. It was about 1PM and we snacked on a Northern Air box lunch. There was a herd of elephants moving parallel to the runway and we saw herds impala on the 45 minute ride to the lodge. They held lunch for us and it was one of our best.

    The lodge is beautiful with thatched roof stone bandas almost as large as my condo. A porch across the front faces the river where you can hang out, if you can find time. There are no glass windows, only screens with a heavy muslin type drapes that can be pulled to provide privacy. Both days, a large (2-3ft) lizard sunned himself outside one of the windows. There is a large room that is has a bedroom space (two single beds) and a sitting area (sofa chairs, table, desk) , divided by a shelving unit that serves as a dresser, clothing storage, etc. The bathroom is huge with a double sink set in a stone base, toilet and shower. What a shower!. It takes up about half the room and is actually just a platform (all the floors are stone) with a rain shower. It is a bit disconcerting to those of us who are accustomed to at least a shower curtain. There is electricity from 9AM to 1PM and 6:30 to 9PM daily.

    After 7PM we are not allowed to leave our bandas without a Masai escort. He comes down the path calling out “Hello” and we make our way down our small path to the main path and join the parade of folks heading toward the main dining facility. It is very, very dark and your imagination is sparked by all that you know can be in those bushes as we walk along. Dinner is at 8PM and the food is all prepared by the local staff. They work over open fires and bake delicious bread in a primitive oven. All is prepared from scratch and they try to use as much from local resources as possible. Of course, much of it must be flown in. The food is different, much of it with an Indian flair, but considering the remote location, it was amazing.

    More later......



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