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Trip report: Kenya/Tanzania, 19 Dec 07 to 5 Jan 08

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Trip report: Kenya/Tanzania, 19 Dec 07 to 5 Jan 08

Travelers- Group of nine friends (Boston and Paris-based); 4 couples—in their 30s-50s--and a pre-teen boy who speaks only French.

• Two nights, Nairobi, Giraffe Manor: Two nights were just right to recover from the journey and to feel transported to an Africa, more fantastical/literary than contemporary, but a worth punctuation between home and the bush. Managers David and Nadine are great.
• Three nights, near Amboseli, in private tented camp in a Ker & Downey concession on Kisongo Masai land bordering Amboseli National Park. Spent a day meeting Masai and touring their homes and schools. Also had lessons and competition in throwing spears and rungu (wooden club). It was truly a privileged experience. On game drives we saw many elephant, giraffe, gazelle, ostrich, and other birds. A lot of fun climbing rocks and speeding on dry lake beds.
• Three nights, Mahale Mountains, Greystoke Lodge: What a delight. Short walks up the mountain to visit with chimpanzees. Cruising along the shores of Lake Tanganika in a dhow for swimming, fishing, then eating the catch sashimi-style. Mile after mile of jungle and mountains, and no one else except baboons, monkeys, hippo, crocodile, giant kingfisher, eagle, and bush buck. The guides from Greystoke were excellent (Theophil and Saif)--the lodge staff and the kitchen as well. However, the young woman who played the role of lodge host was a bit rude; not a good fit with the lodge’s vibe of low-key luxury.
• Six nights, Serengeti National Park, tented camps, two sites. The first camp was in the south, in an area of short grass plains near Lake Ndutu. Other campers, but vast numbers of game, birds and reptiles. What a spectacle! Migrating wildebeest, zebra, gazelle and antelope; many lion and cheetah; elephant. Also, caracal, serval cats, hyena—the list goes on. The second camp was further north, near Ngare Nanyuki. A beautiful location, few/no other campers. Vast landscapes of tall grass, outcroppings of kopjes (fun to climb and for picnics). Followed a pride of 16 lion for three days. A lot of mouths to feed! The Ker & Downey guides tailored the drives for a wide range of activities for our group. The Sokwe camp staff were good, but the standout was Esther, who oversaw operations at both sites.
• Two nights, Ngorongoro Crater, Ngorongoro Crater Lodge. We left the Lodge early in the AM and were at park gate when it first opened. The landscapes and wildlife were breathtaking and the clear highlights of this site. The Lodge has dramatic architecture and décor: Trader Vic’s meets the Shire? The staff were attentive, but for the price, kept missing the target. Some of the rooms needed a bit more cleaning. Things didn’t work and took too long to fix. Food was OK. Not sure why. Organized in a decentralized manner?
• One night, Nairobi, Macushla House. A good place to cool off in the pool, but overall we preferred Giraffe Manor.

Safari outfitter- Ker and Downey, Kenya

Lead guide- Simon Belcher. Other guides- Sandor Carter and Andy Campbell.

Overall experience-

First time to Africa for most of us: Gasp. For those of us who had already been on safari: double gasp (this was a completely different and superior safari). Can’t say enough about the care, attention, organization, knowledge, and quality of service from both Simon and Amanda Belcher, as well as the two other guides from Ker & Downey, (Kenya): Sandor Carter and Andy Campbell. We are already crafting another safari with them.

The three Ker & Downey (Kenya) guides traveled with us the entire trip. We think this continuity made the difference between a good trip and a fantastic one. On the ground we had three cars, with a guide in each. While in Kenya, there was an additional Masai spotter for each car. While in Tanzania, we had local drivers freeing the guides to concentrate even more on spotting and teaching.

There is a lot of art in figuring out the right guides for a group of travelers—and Simon’s selections were phenomenal. Simon, Sandor, and Andy had very different styles, but each had great chemistry with our group, deep knowledge of the bush and its denizens, and an amazing eye for game. And Andy’s fluency in French was critical in ensuring that the youngest member of the party—who speaks very little English—had a phenomenal time. In the bush, we impressed how quickly and deftly the guides tailored the routines to match our different interests/styles. They had great knowledge of birdlife, reptiles, insects and bontanicals. A simple question often led to a brief academic discussion. This provided a continuity of experience and quality between different camp sites and lodge. In particular, this allowed discussions on wildlife, culture and history, as well as game drive agendas to build over time.

The tented camps were terrific, particularly those in Kenya. Simon and Amanda had added special features to the Ker & Downey tent interiors. Much appreciated. The camp staff were great. And there’s no question that the food in the camps was often superior to that served in the lodges.

Weather was excellent. A happy surprise was the almost complete lack of mosquitoes. In total, among many other beasts, saw over 80 lion, 10 cheetah, dozens of elephant and hippo, one rhino, innumerable wildebeest and zebra—and hardly any other tourists. Even in the national parks, our guides were so good at spotting game that we had a huge head start in viewing—by the time others saw us and came over to see what we were looking at, we were ready to move on.

Our trip happened to coincide with the post-election unrest in Kenya. Again, here the Belchers were great, with flawless coordination between Simon--with us--and Amanda, at the main office in Nairobi. We were already in Tanzania by the time of the election, so our main issue was the impact of rallies on our scheduled departure from Nairobi. Just in case, the Belchers had arranged an alternative. Instead of spending the last day of the trip in Nairobi, we would spend the night in Arusha and a private plane would take us directly to Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi hours before our outbound flights. We elected to stick to our original plan, but it was a great comfort during out time in Tanzania to know that Plan B existed.

In Kenya, aside from stepped up police stops on Nairobi roads, we had no encounters or problems with political rallies following the national elections. In fact, we went shopping at a nearby mall where there were many locals enjoying the day and each other.

Given the unsettled political situation, seats were very tight on outbound flights and some of us could not get confirmed seat assignments in advance of check-in. Somehow the Belchers arranged to have all of our boarding passes printed and delivered to us at Macushla House hours before our departure. What a relief! Really above and beyond the call.

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