Part 1: Overview
My husband and I and a female traveling companion just returned from a fabulous two-week Northern Circuit safari. While our itinerary was rather typical, in one sense our focus was a bit different than most--we are avid birders. I am also an advanced amateur photographer so was traveling with quite a bit of photo gear (8,470 photos (that's before culling!) and 205 GBs in 15 days!) I'll start with an overview of practical points and then later will continue with more details on specific parks/areas we visited and wildlife sightings.
3 nights Ngere Sero Mountain Lodge (Arusha)
2 nights Tarangire Safari Lodge
2 nights Lake Manyara Serena
3 nights Ndutu Safari Lodge
3 nights Seronera Wildlife Lodge (Serengeti)
2 nights Ngorongoro Sopa.
Our tour operator was Roy Safari and they were nothing short of perfect. When filling out the comment form "what could be improved", none of us could think of a thing, at least in terms of Roy's services. We had asked for a birding guide, or at least one who knew birds beyond the usual flashy ones. I was skeptical and had wondered up until departure if we had made a mistake in not booking with a specialty bird tour operator, but the cost differential was great. Well, my worrying was for naught. Emmanuel was promised as Roy's top birding guide and he was all we'd hoped for. He worked tirelessly and enthusiastically with us to identify each and every bird. Was he as expert as the "big guns" at the major birding tour companies? No, but he made up for it in enthusiasm and of course, he also had the incredible wildlife finding/tracking skills that they would not have. Not to mention being a generally nice guy, really fun to be with, always knowing the light and the best place to be at the right time. We had over 270 species of birds (I still am working on a final count.) And more incredible wildlife sightings than I could have hoped for, including of course thousands of migrating wildebeest and zebra, countless lions, at least 15 individual cheetah, leopards (with cubs!), and such hoped for species as hunting serval and hissing honeybadger (more on these later.)
Sanjay (owner of Roy Safari) called Emmanuel many times during the trip to check up on us and make sure we were happy. He provided rice for my bean bags (gratis) which was brought to us on our first day. He also wanted to come meet us before the trip but as I expressed desire not to waste time in Arusha, he came to meet us at the end. It seemed that all our accommodations were upgraded, as we seemed to have the best at each lodge (no doubt we paid for that, but didn't expect it.) We had zero problems (well, one minor lodge problem/misunderstanding.) More on lodges later.
Arrival: We opted to get visas on arrival--no problems, no photos required, took about 15 minutes. We got off the plane fast and were fourth in line at the visa line, but then had to also wait on the immigration line, which I hadn't expected. Still, it was fast. Yellow Fever certificates were in-hand but never requested (we arrived on KLM from AMS.) I must say security is nil at that airport. My husband, when in the parking lot, suddenly realized he had left his small bag which had our binoculars--and his medications--on the plane! A moment of panic as he rushed back into the airport and out onto the air field (no one stopped him at any point!) Luckily the plane was still there and the flight attendant retrieved his pack. First crisis averted
Money: We got $60 worth of shillings at the airport ATM (to the right as you exit; guarded, no issues using my Capitol One bank card.) We really could have done without the shillings and ended up bringing some home. Used them for some tips and to buy sodas for the vehicle. We used our Capitol One credit card (no exchange fees) to pay for our bills at most of the lodges. Yes, they charged a bit of a premium...but it only amounted to a few dollars on bills that were generally $20-40 dollars and it was worth the convenience. What's an extra $25 over the course of a trip that cost many thousands?
Vehicle: Our Roy Safari 6 passenger Land Cruiser was well maintained and Emmanuel informed us he was a mechanic before becoming a tour guide--nice to know We never had any vehicle trouble, and E. was vigilant about checking the tires. Apparently we did have one flat which manifested overnight; E. changed the tire and we never were inconvenienced. The vehicle had a charging port which used a regular plug; my friend used it to charge her iPhone as she was doing GPS tracking of our route. There was also a powered cooler for drinks, which was fantastic to have.
Food: I'll talk about individual lodges later, but I have to say a word about food. We are (I hate the term) foodies and often travel to eat (Italy, Spain) but when on a wildlife or birding trip we don't expect that level of food. Well, we were quite happily surprised because we found all the food quite good, and some ranging into excellent! (Not talking about the boxed lunches and breakfasts, which varied from sad to adequate. But even these always had enough to eat.) There were many delicious Indian dishes at several lodges--the Lake Manyara Serena stands out in this regard. Curries, masalas, great Indian breads like nan, chapati, papadum...chutneys, raitas...we were really pleased! Other food was good as well, especially pork dishes. My husband and I were cautious and did not eat any salads or unpeeled fruit; nor did I eat the odd sausages or meat pies in our boxes. However my friend ate everything. None of us ever got sick.
Insects: Despite all our precautions, we all ended up with a LOT of mosquito bites. Let's hope the anti-malarials do their job. While we used the nets, where provided, one lodge (Seronera) did not provide nets, and that is also where we got the most bites. Even nets won't protect you in the bathroom, where mossies love to get your ankles in the middle of the night. I think we also got some bites that were not mosquitoes...maybe flies. Speaking of tse-tse flies...we encountered quite a lot, especially because as birders, we made a point to go into wooded areas; but I'm not sure what the fuss is all about. They are a nuisance but their bite is not really a big deal, our horseflies here in the USA are much worse, and our blackflies in Alaska and Maine make tse-tse look like wimps Other little flies were as much of an annoyance as tse-tses.
Packing: In the "what did I bring that I didn't need" category, I'd say our fleeces. Aside from the fact that we left in USA winter, so needed them for the journey, we never took them out of our bags. Even at the crater rim, a light long-sleeved shirt was ample in the evenings and early mornings. We did laundry half-way through at Ndutu...no problem doing underwear. It was expensive ($42 for two people's clothes!) but worth it. I wish I could fold as nicely as they did Don't underestimate the dust--it permeates everything. I also hand-washed a few more things later on, cool-max shirts and nylon convertible pants dry in a flash.
In the "what did we wish we'd brought" category, we were well prepared and the only thing we missed was birding-related. We wished we'd brought a spotting scope, there were many, many opportunities to use it, even in the vehicle, especially for shorebirds and raptors. Next time we'll pack one.
Next up: Safari begins!
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Part 1: Overview