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Trip report, Northen Circuit, October 2006

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OUR TRIP TO THE TANZANIA NORTHERN CIRCUIT AND ZANZIBAR, October 2006

Having dipped into this forum in the run-up to our safari and learned a lot of useful stuff, I thought I’d put a bit back in now our trip is over. This was our first safari and it covered well-worn tracks, so I can’t claim any expertise or originality: our impressions may seem naïve to old-timers and I hope I don’t come across, as one illustrious member of this forum might say, as a ‘pushy newby’.

‘We’ are Roger, Julie and Lizzie (13) from Exeter, Devon. We have no commercial connection to the travel business. Our Northern Circuit Tanzanian safari (with an extension to Zanzibar) was organised with the British company Africa Travel Resource. We were initially drawn to this operator by the excellence of its website but finally chose it, from eight other contenders, because of the responsiveness and flexibility of its planning. On our first safari we wanted to get a real African experience (thus avoiding wherever possible the bigger chain lodges) without actually roughing it. Our budget precluded any luxurious lodgings and in any case we didn’t want to be treated like Great White Hunters. ATR were good at matching our requirements to our budget and their price was OK. The very act of planning the holiday, with different options coming in almost every day, was itself huge fun.

Our eventual itinerary, taken at the end of October 2006, was:

Day 1. Bristol-Schipol-Kilimanjaro with KLM arriving evening. Night at Arusha (Moivaro Lodge)
Days 2/3. Tarangire (Mawe Ninga Tented Camp)
Day 4. Lake Manyara NP then night at Gibbs Farm
Days 5/6. Day in Crater then drive to Ndutu Lodge for two nights.
Day 7. Via Seronera to Lobo Wildlife Lodge
Day 8. Touring northern Serengeti. Lobo
Days 9/10/11. Fly from Seronera to Zanzibar. Three nights at Pongwe Beach Hotel.
Day 12. Stonetown (Dhow Palace)
Day 13. Fly to Dar Es Salaam. Overnight flight to Amsterdam and Bristol.

We had an absolutely marvellous time.

Despite an early-morning start (0600hrs), the KLM option from Bristol worked well: it avoided Heathrow and put us in the middle of Africa, with a proper night’s sleep ahead of us, within about 12 hours of leaving the UK.. KLM lost one of our bags but it was delivered to us in the middle of Tarangire NP about 36 later.

Arusha was wet as we arrived - the short rains had just come - and the garden of our little bungalow at Moivaro was drippily lush as we settled in for our first night. The following day was bright and sunny and it remained so. At Kilimanjaro Airport we’d been met by M, our driver/guide for the safari. He later proved to be a wonderful guide, with exceptional knowledge of all the wildlife we saw, especially the birds, and was reliable and good fun to be with. He was adaptable and very hard-working and a really good ambassador for his company and his country. ATR use a French-owned operator called Mount Kilimanjaro Safari Club (MKSC). We saw lots of their Landrovers as we travelled around and there was great camaraderie between their guides. The Landrover itself was well-maintained and gave an impression of rugged reliability. It was surprisingly comfortable - we had expected a back-wrencher - with good seats and firm fixed arm-rests. There was lots of space for the four of us and our bags, and the openable roof allowed great game-viewing. Many other vehicles had little pop-up roofs, presumably to give some extra shade but, to be honest, they looked a bit wimpish to us and a good broad hat was enough to keep out the sun.

TARANGIRE

Our first proper safari stop was at Mawe Ninga in the Tarangire NP. Of all the places we stayed at, Lizzie liked this the best. I think she enjoyed its genuine unfussy bush atmosphere: there are just a dozen or so permanent tents, widely spread out and perched on tumbling rocks. Birdsong fills the morning air. Hyraxes, squirrels and monkeys play in the trees outside and in fact there is no real ‘inside’ at all: the bar/sitting/eating area is open-walled and the fire-pit has gigantic views over to Lake Burungi. Several of the people working here are Masaai and their shy and unpretentious approach is rather endearing. (This may sound condescending but isn’t meant to). The food was simple but good and Lizzie, a vegetarian who also has a nut allergy, had no problems at all. We later discovered this be true everywhere: Lizzie ate like a princess through the whole holiday.

Overall, Tarangire was probably my favourite park. It was teeming with dry-season game and as this was our first set of encounters with elephants, giraffes, impala, dik-diks, warthogs, baboons and the rest, each of these warranted a good long stop. The bird-life was a revelation. Our full-day drive, on Day 3, to the (dry) swamps in the south was utterly compelling and in its own way was just as full of interest and beauty as the Ngonongoro Crater itself. Fascinating wildlife appeared every few minutes and the relatively tall vegetation made each encounter slightly unexpected. There were lots of charming little dik-diks - normally in pairs and with big eyes and mobile noses; a characteristically quiet and gentle encounter with a family of munching giraffes; a distant view of the elusive Kudu; an arresting moment when a family of elephants crossed the road purposefully just in front of us. There were many birds, including a small hornbill at the top of a tree, rollers, white-faced ‘go-away’ birds and bataleur eagles.

Our picnic overlooked the expansive Silale Swamp in a place of astonishing grandeur and beauty. It took us a long time to realise that the tiny dots in the middle of the plain/swamp were elephants. Driving along the swamp we saw lots of zebras, groups of giraffes, two snuffly warthogs and three jet-black hornbills trudging in a line looking like three Londoners going to work on a dreary day (albeit with bright red heads). A solitary little vervet monkey sat in an acacia tree eating away despite the prickles.

We saw just one other vehicle in the whole afternoon. At one point we stopped on a river causeway to watch a charmingly herbivorous scene of waterbuck and zebra coming down to drink. The river flowed gently, with the gentle ’tinkle’ of a Dartmoor stream. We were just about to move off when the zebras ‘spooked’ and an unmistakable buff-coloured blur leaped across the river after them. This was our first lion encounter and, enthralled, we watched the ensuing stand-off for ages.

I expected the journey back to Mawe Ninga to be an anti-climax, but not at all. We seemed always to be in view of a herd of elephants - in fact we probably saw about 200 in the day and this is absolutely not an over-estimate - or some impalas or an interesting bird. Example: a beautiful Hoopoe (which Lizzie identified first) and two fine Secretary Birds (which really deserve a better name).


MANYARA AND GIBBS

The entrance to Tarangire NP has an excellent new visitors’ display area explaining the ecosystem. At the entrance to Lake Manyara NP, our next destination, there is an even better one, set in the lush groundwater forest with the sound of running water in the background. Manyara was a delight, with more splendid birdlife (including the mirage-like glow of distant flamingos), lots of booping hippos, elephant families enjoying the water, and baboons galore. Near the entrance gate a big male elephant emerged, as if in ambush, and just stood in the road We probably spent about four hours at Manyara but it could have been much longer.

The excellent new road quickly took us up the Rift Escarpment, through Karatu to Gibbs Farm. This was a bigger and slicker operation than Mawe Ninga but was very welcoming and well-run. The little detached bungalows are set in lush gardens, a huge contrast to Tarangire (and even more so, as we found out later, to Ndutu). We took a guided walk through the coffee plantations and the huge organic kitchen garden which supplies the vegetables for the lodge. An elephant had been in the previous night and tramped though the cabbages. Then we sat on the terrace and, over a beer, used wireless internet ($5 per half hour) to keep in touch with family and friends back home - a slightly surreal experience in the middle of Africa.

There is building work going on at Gibbs, rebuilding some of the rooms in a flashier style. The rumour is that the new management is going up-market but we hope they don’t change much because the place is nice just as it is.


NGORONGORO to NDUTU

The new road ends at the entrance to the Conservation Area and it’s bumpy, or very bumpy, from there on. Luxuriant green vegetation now leads to the heart-stopping Crater Viewpoint. Nothing can really prepare you for this sight, with the whole crater set before you and tiny dots on the crater floor which, with your binoculars, turn into herds of buffalo and wildebeest.

Most vehicles turned left here towards the bulk of the lodges but we turned right to the Sopa Descent. The map marks this route ominously as ‘Bad Road’ but it seemed no worse than all the other local roads and the descent itself was gentle and deserted in human terms.

The Crater has been well-described elsewhere and I’ll add little, except to mention the rhinos (with over 20 vehicles peering at them from a polite distance) the many glorious crowned cranes, pelicans, egrets and bustards, the ostrich pair doing an elaborately odd ritual and the solitary, slightly lonely-looking, male elephant with his immensely long tusks.

The steep ascent road is appalling. We were quickly onto the Masaai Steppe. People from Australia and America are allowed to be blasé about this, but to a west-European, the sheer scale of this African landscape is overwhelming and the effect is made all the more moving by the knowledge that this is the landscape where mankind first walked.

The road to Ndutu was just a pair of tyre tracks leading straight across the endless short-grass plains. It is hard to believe that in February this is green and full of calving wildebeest because in October Ndutu is bone dry.

Bone dry but full of interest. From our Ndutu Lodge balcony we saw hyenas, dik-diks, steinboks, spring hares and loads of bright and noisy Fischer’s lovebirds. After a fascinating morning drive around the dried-up lake, with loads of interesting spottings including lions with cubs, we spent the afternoon on a bush walk with an armed Ranger called John. This gave a completely new perspective on the area because we could properly see the animal tracks, their dung and the plants they eat. Elephant dung is the largest but giraffes produce surprisingly small pellets. Hyena faeces is white because they eat all the bones that animal leave behind. It is interesting that the only bones around are jawbones with teeth and skulls, both too hard even for a hyena. We had expected lots of skeletons.

The game kept its distance on our walk: we saw dik-dik, gazelles, hartebeest, spring hares, warthogs, a huge secretary bird and a hyena, which came quite close and then ran off when John took his rifle into his hands. It was thrilling to walk (fairly) close to the area which we’d toured by Landrover in the morning and seen lions. In celebration, we all sang Hakuna Matata together, from the Lion King.

Dry season Ndutu is relaxed, quiet and very well run by Louise and Paul, from Southampton. It was interesting to hear from them how they manage, especially with a six-month-old baby in tow. They seem remarkably unstressed, given the logistics, the water problems and periodic elephant invasions. Lizzie loved the genets and the German visitors seemed to love the rhubarb crumble.


SERENGETI AND LOBO

At first glance the short-grass plains seem devoid of life but you are rarely out of sight of some gazelles or an ostrich (which seem to be everywhere - what a survivor!) A cheetah had killed a Tommy which was being eaten by lappet-faced vultures. A fascinating pecking order applied. A sole white-backed vulture hung around but got nothing; three tawny eagles were chased off. Then two hyenas galloped in, the vultures and eagles scattered and the female hyena proceeded to eat the carcase while the male looked on hoping for a morsel. He eventually got a little.

In the long grass plains, lions were much in evidence and we got a classic view of a grand male doing his King of the Serengeti act on a rock. Then we got a grandstand view of a fight between three lions and a huge male buffalo. The three had been strolling along rather leisurely for some time, then suddenly speeded up and there was an almighty crash of legs, tails and claws as they jumped on the buffalo and tried to bring it down. For a time it seemed they would succeed but he managed to throw two off and hurtled off with the remaining lion(ess) hanging round his neck. She eventually lost her grip and the buffalo ran off very grumpily indeed. The lions followed listlessly, then settled under an acacia by a hippo pool. No-one else was around and anyone arriving a few minutes later would have seen just a lovely peaceful poolside scene. Great.

It was quite a drive up to Lobo but once there the scenery was maybe the most expansive and beautiful we’d seen; huge rolling plains, kopjes and grand but unthreatening mountains. This was all splendid backdrop for the wildlife, especially the herds of zebra and wildebeest close to the Kenyan border, which gave us a taste of what the full migration must be like. By now we has seen so much wildlife - much more than I’ve listed in this report and much more than we’d ever hoped for - that, in a sense, the ‘pressure was off’ and we could just enjoy it flowing all around us. But we were not satiated - we could happily have repeated the whole journey straightaway.

Lobo Wildlife Lodge was much bigger and busier than the other places we’d stayed at but the setting was marvellous (cf Conrad Hilton), with views which were stupendous even in this land of stupendous views. There were lots of animals immediately around - including hyraxes, baboons, vervets and our first klipspringers. After reading earlier reports I expected the lodge to be run-down but it was well-kept and the food and service were good.


TO ZANZIBAR

Seronera airstrip couldn’t be simpler - a dirt runway, loos and a little ‘coffee bar‘. Apparently, the rangers are kept busy clearing .animals off the runway but the best ‘clearer’ is a cheetah.

After our fond farewells to M - who faced a much slower and bumpier solo return to Arusha - the 12-seater Cessna flights to Arusha and then on to Zanzibar were exhilarating and just a bit scary. The view of the crater was stupendous as we flew straight over it and it was slightly disappointing to see houses and towns emerging after so many miles of virtually human-free wilderness.

I won’t add much on Zanzibar. Pongwe was as lovely as everyone says and we had a great time with the colobuses at Jozani. Dhow Palace was the kind of place where you feel like a traveller rather than a tourist. (I strolled over to look at the Serena and Tembo and, in contrast, they looked a bit like tourist ghettos.) I’m glad we had a night in Stonetown but to be honest, despite its exotic and fascinating history, I don’t think we’ll hurry back there.


PRICES AND OTHER COSTS.

Because pricing of safaris can seem a bit mysterious I though I’d give some details of our costs. I have rounded all figures for simplicity.

Our return flights from Bristol to Kilimanjaro and back from Dar cost £770 ($1400) each. We booked direct with KLM online and had to pay in full on booking, which in our case was about 8 months before departure.

We paid ATR a total of £1400 ($2500) each, for the three of us. This covered: the 8-night safari with full-board throughout; the services of the guide and his Landrover; most park fees (Manyara excluded); the flights from Seronera to Zanzibar and from Zanzibar to Dar; taxi transfers on Zanzibar and four nights in Zanzibar (three on half-board and one on B&B terms). Unlike other operators we consulted, ATR gave a fairly clear breakdown of the component costs. The Zanzibar portion of the total, for instance - including the flight from Seronera, came to about £360 ($640) each out of the £1400.

At Moivaro, Gibbs and on Zanzibar the three of us all slept in one big room; at Mawe Ninga, Gibbs and Lobo we had two rooms (or tents). I suppose different configurations would have cost more or less.

There were of course other costs involved and they added up. In total, the costs of visas, vaccinations, Malarone, Flying Doctor subscription and the carbon-offset contribution to Climate-Care came to about £160 ($290) each, or nearly £500 ($900) for the three of us.

So our total pre-departure costs came to about £7000 ($12600) in all, or about £2300 ($4200) each.

In Tanzania itself, the only real essential extras were for: drinks (which were cheaper than I expected -excellent Kilimanjaro beer at lodges came in big bottles for as little as 90 pence -$1.60; the tip to the guide (where we erred a bit on the generous side of ATR’s suggestion of $20 a day because we thought M was so good) and bits and bobs like internal air taxes. How much is spent on souvenirs is up to the individual. Gibbs Farm and Ndutu had really good gift shops; Stonetown was the proverbial Alladin’s Cave and the terminal at Dar International Airport had excellent shops. Prices were low by our standards. I have read of some guides deliberately stopping at roadside gift shops in the hope of getting commission from sales but M was not like that.


PLANNING

This was fun. Once we’d got a basic idea of what we wanted to do, we sent a standard email out to nine different safari companies and waited to see what turned up. Some replies came back within two days; others took (apologetically) up to three weeks. Although we specifically said we wanted to avoid big lodges if possible, almost all included Serenas or Sopas, which may well be great but were not what we wanted. Some firms seemed to be offering fairly ‘stock’ tours rather than trying to match our own requests. Replies ranged from the grandiose: ‘Baobabs and Craters - our personal safari quotation for to the W family…)…. to the downright misleading (you must go to Western Serengeti in October because that’s where the migration is at that time of year) and the straightforwardly honest (we can’t do this within your budget - try Roy’s). Prices varied greatly - the gap between the cheapest and the most expensive was about £4000.

Some firms gave different options at different prices but others didn’t; none other than ATR itemised the bill. In Tarangire ATR suggested Mawe Ninga and Swala and we chose the first because it was cheaper and sounded simpler, and so more to our taste. Gibbs and Ndutu had been in our plan from the start. In Northern Serengeti they suggested Mbuzi Mawe, Migration or Lobo and explained their various attributes and costs. In the event Mbuzi Mawe was full and we chose Lobo over Migration, despite our aversion to big lodges, mainly on grounds of cost - it saved us hundreds of pounds. For Zanzibar we just took ATR advice and weren’t disappointed. Throughout, forums like this one and the basic guidebooks gave extra help in our choice.



BOOKS and MAPS.

Of the many really good guidebooks to Tanzania available, I preferred the Rough Guide to the others as it seemed to have the most detail. But the Footprints and Bradt guides are also very good and all are fairly up-to-date. For animals, we took the excellent pocket-sized Wildlife of East Africa by Withers and Hosking for a quick reference and checklist and the heavier Safari Companion by Richard Estes, a marvellous compendium which explains what animals are actually doing rather than just what they look like.

One thing I would suggest to safari-planners is that they get hold of copies of the hand-drawn Tombazzi maps (published by Maco) of the various parks. They are available once you are there but, as well as being very beautiful in themselves, they are excellent for planning beforehand because you can get a proper idea of distances and precise locations of lodges etc. They seem very accurate for main roads but maybe, understandably, a bit less so for tracks. Sometimes they give useful driving times, although if anything they seem to err a bit on the pessimistic side. They are available from specialist travel shops like Stanfords of Long Acre, London and you can order by ‘phone and online. Compared to he overall cost of a safari they are cheap. Eben’s website, of course, is also absolutely marvellous for planning.

I’ll close by paying tribute to the wonderful people of Tanzania who look after their splendid natural heritage with such love and dignity and by thanking the various contributors to this forum, who added so much to our anticipation of the trip. Although over the last few months I’ve read some bits of thoroughly misleading stuff here, along with lots of very helpful stuff, it has never been dull or less than stimulating.

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