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Trip Report – Tanzania – Jose Vigano – July/2007

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INTRODUCTION

I want to start saying that I’ve traveled quite a bit but this one was one of the most amazing trips ever in terms of close contact with nature. Absolute outstanding and worth it!!! I want to thank all fodorites that provide valuable information that proved to be extremely helpful in planning this successful trip. More on resources for planning below.

Photography (my #1 hobby, my #2 passion after my lovely wife) was one of the primary goals of this trip. I took 3000+ pictures (thanks to the digital era), trashed about 1000 and selected about 200 for you. For other enthusiastic photographers, I’ve added a session a the end of this report. A selection of the pictures be accessed at link below. They are better viewed in slideshow mode. They are all “geo-tagged” so you can see (in your browser on in Google Earth) the approximate location were they were taken.
http://picasaweb.google.com/jose.vigano/Tanzania?authkey=XlCzS2-_jwc

Also keep in mind that my comments/experiences/suggestions below are just that: mine, from a single safari trip experience. Other people will certainly have different opinions/observations: listen to them all and do what you think is best for you.

A safari is not for you if you:
a) don’t enjoy watching animal behavior for hours
b) want a “for sure we’ll see it” deal (go to a zoo instead)
c) mind cold lunches
d) want to stay in bed till late
e) if you can’t afford $300 to $500 pppd (per person per day)
f) mind peeing in the open (and I mean, really open! I thought we’d look for some bushes but apparently that’s where the lions hide ;-) )
g) mosquitoes bother you (we actually saw very few of them – it’s was winter/dry season – summer may be a different story; we did get some annoying tsetse flies though)

We are looking forward to turn this “trip of a life time” into a “first trip of a lifetime”: we’ll most certainly be back; perhaps next time during the wet season for a change.

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    PREPARATION

    Which country?
    We picked Tanzania for 2 reasons:
    1) Well, I need to confess that 1 year ago I had no plans to go to Africa until, while commuting to work 6am in the morning I’ve heard on NPR radio Michael Ellis, a naturalist here in California, talking about what he would do if he would have only 24h of life: he would like to spend his last hours in the Ngorongoro Crater. At that time, I’ve never heard about the place but, with such a testimony, I had no choice but to learn more about it and include it on my “must see” list.
    2) To see the migration

    Which company?
    There are so many companies out there… Some real and some long gone that will no even answer your request for information. Do a lot of research, get reviews from others and quote comparable itineraries with several of them since prices vary greatly. Our decision, greatly influenced by fodorite opinions, was:
    - based on review from others
    - we knew we want a local company from Tanzania (this excluded a bunch of them)
    We end up picking Good Earth (GE) but there are several other good ones out there also. We were vary satisfied with:
    a) Narry, the US rep that helped us plan the trip (responsive and precise)
    b) the back end loaded payment option (paying only a small portion at booking time was convenient for us)
    c) quality of the pop-up roofed Toyota Land Cruiser provided (it was a new one with a few thousand miles on it and it was in excellent condition). Note that we did request in advance (prior to booking), the “the pop-up roof” (not all of their vehicles are yet of this type).
    d) the provided bean bags (requested in advance)
    e) the driver/guide: Saidi

    Regarding Saidi, I must confess that I was influenced by some of the positive references in this forum. We did ask to have him as our guide in advance. GE did/could not commit but we end up getting him anyways. His style/personality matched very well with ours. He’s very knowledgeable of the area (“I have a GPS in my head”, as he indicated), a tireless and effective spotter, very prudent driver, excellent knowledge about wildlife, utmost respect for them as well as park rules and very patient and accommodating. A pleasure to be with. You feel he loves his job. Setting up our expectations upfront (punctuality, 6am drives for the “best light”, long stays in one spot for the “best moment”) I believe helped also. He was 100% and we’d pick him again. Yet, he may not be the best choice for everybody: if you are looking for someone that will talk and joke a lot (like most of the guides I met before, frankly speaking) he may not be the best choice. For us, again, I couldn’t wish for a better match.


    Type of Safari?
    We saw 4 types of safaris while traveling in Tanzania:
    a) private vehicles (with no guides)
    There were very few of them; we saw a couple in the Crater. They struggled with (a) the roads and (b) the limited view point from a regular car window.
    b) private tour on Land Cruiser (with guide)
    This was our pick and I don’t regret it. Having the ability to (a) pace the safari to your own taste, (b) access 360 degrees and (c) photographing advantages (more on that in the “photo tips” session below) were very important to me and my wife. You do have the disadvantage of a more restricted social interaction though.
    c) group tour on Land Cruiser (with guide)
    This seams to be a good option also, specially if you can (a) limit the number of people in the car and (b) select the group of people traveling with you. There’s a couple of Land Cruiser sizes out there. The small one has 6 seats plus driver but max capacity is not a good option: front seat usually does not have roof access; the remaining 5 seats, if filled, would be crowded also; 4 is more manageable; 3 would be very comfortable. The larger Land Cruiser is an extender vehicle with an extra row of seats giving you 8 plus driver. In this case, 5 passengers would be comfortable here. You can always get more people in there (toward max capacity) but you will (a) bump shoulders/elbows to get everybody standing through the roof opening and (b) probably need to have some of the luggage stored on the top of the vehicle (what will partially obstruct the view during some of the game drives).
    d) group tour on truck/bus like vehicle (with guide)
    We saw a couple of these in the Serengeti. I speculate you can lower your cost by getting in one of these. However, from what I saw, they are (a) much more restricted in terms of where they can go (due to size), (b) not very welcome by the overwhelming majority of Land Cruisers (the safari roads are not really designed for them plus they block the views) and (c) they are packed with dozens of people inside. My suggestion, work 10 more years and save money for a decent (“b” or “c”) alternative.

    One last comment on the Land Cruiser roof access. There are 2 types out there: a (1) roll off roof and a (2) pop up roof. The pop up type is much better because it gives you shade when open. Some “roll off” type also have a canopy for shade but I can’t see that staying in place if the vehicle needs to speed up.

    Our final itinerary:

    Narry, the US Good Earth agent, was very helpful and responsive throughout the planning phase. I first contacted him (as well as several other companies) in Sep/2006 and booked it a month later.

    • July 1: 2007: Arrival Kilimanjaro
    Arrival Kilimanjaro airport, met and transfer to hotel in Arusha, Ilboru Safari Lodge
    • July 2: Arusha NP; Ilboru Safari Lodge, B.
    • July 3: Arusha / Tarangire National Park
    Today, after breakfast, we drive to Tarangire National Park with picnic lunch, the park is renowned for its large elephant population. Game drives in the park, Swala Camp, B,L,D.
    • July 4: Tarangire
    More game drives in Tarangire park, Swala Camp, B, L, D.
    • July 5: Tarangire / Lake Manyara National Park
    We drive to Lake Manyara National Park in the Great Rift Valley. After a picnic lunch in the Park, home to tree-climbing lion, colorful birds, elephant and hippo, we will have afternoon game drive in the park, Kirurumu Luxury Tented Camp, B, L, D.
    • July 6: Lake Manyara / Ngorongoro Crater
    Today we leave Lake Manyara for Ngorongoro Crater, afternoon game drives in the Crater, Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge, B,L,D.
    • July 7: Ngorongoro / Serengeti Central
    Morning game drive in Ngorongoro Crater, then drive to Serengeti with optional ($50/group) visit of Masai Village, and afternoon game drive in the Serengeti, Serengeti Serena Lodge, B,L,D.
    • July 8~9: Serengeti North
    More game drives in the Serengeti, and this time in the northern, Migration Camp, B,L,D.
    • July 10~11: More game drives in Serengeti, and this time in Western Serengeti, Kirawira Tented Camp, B,L,D.
    • July 12: Serengeti
    More game drives in the Serengeti, Mbalageti Camp (chalets), B,L,D.
    • July 13: Morning game drive as we drive to the airstrip in Serengeti, flight to Arusha, day room at Ilboru Safari Lodge, then proceed to Kilimanjaro airport, B,L.

    The actual safari trip matched exactly the planned above itinerary. No surprises. I should comment though:
    a) the full day in Arusha, when we saw Arusha NP, was added to the schedule as a buffer day. The idea was no to loose any day in Tarangire should we have a 1 day delay due to travel problems. With this in mind, I didn’t have Arusha NP included in the initial safari package and I’ve make the arrangements to visit it at the night of our (on time) arrival with our guide Saidi. I paid for it in cash there.
    b) For Central Serengeti, our request was to stay at “Seronera Wildlife Lodge” instead of Serena. This would have been an inferior option but would be better located for the morning Seronera Valley safari plus would save us is $50pp. But we couldn’t get it booked because “they stopped taking any reservation for 2007 until further notice” according to Narry. This added 45 + 45 minutes drive to the Serena. We enjoyed the evening at the Serena (but not our check out experience; more on that below).
    c) our request was for 3 nights at one place (Kirawira) on Western Serengeti but Narry could not get a 3rd night available there so we spent our last night at the Mbalageti Chalet (very unique place; we enjoyed it very much but it’s not as well located for Grumeti river game viewing area).

    Resources:
    Below are some of the resources we used:
    1) Fodor’s (Tanzania) Forum: http://www.fodors.com/forums/threadselect.jsp?fid=4
    This is, by far, where we spend most of our planning time. Reading, reading, reading… A lot of fun and useful information.
    2) Howard Hillman’s “31 safari mistakes” guide: http://www.hillmanwonders.com/safari/index.htm#_vtop
    3) Eben’s site with the Google Earth (GE) KMZ files:
    http://www.go-safari.com/
    (*) he took the KMZ out of the site now :-( but you may be able to get him to email/sell them to you. I’m a GE fan and found the park boundaries, camp and lodge location, roads, points of interest, gates, etc info he added in the GE KMZ file to be very valuable.
    4) National Audubon Society; Field Guide to African Wildlife
    This is a very comprehensive directory including 577 full color photos listing 850 species. We were lucky that Saidi had an exact same copy what made the job of “finding it in the book” much easier.

    Flight:

    I did quite a bit of research to find a discounted ticked to JRO from California. I didn’t find it. There were a cheaper alternatives but with much worse connections and less reliable companies and not for the dates we wanted so we opted to the alternative below. I booked it directly with NWA/KLM (for about $2400/person) in early Oct/2007.
    To get there:
    June/30: SFO-LAX
    June/30: LAX-AMS
    July/1: AMS-JRO

    To come back:
    July/13: JRO-AMS (stopping in Dar es Salaam)
    July/14: AMS-LAX (we had a very tight 1h connection to catch this flight in Amsterdam, but worked out OK; it’s a looong flight: 4 movies and some…)
    July/14: LAX-SFO

    And back home 44h after we left Mbalageti (yes, we left 6am for a last early game drive again before our 10am small plane flight to Arusha)…

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    <reb>ARUSHA

    We landed in JRO on time after a full day flight from Amsterdam. It was already dark. We got our visas on the spot at the airport and met our guide, Saidi, who was waiting for us. From there, we head straight to Ilboru Safari Lodge in Arusha.

    Ilboru is located on the suburbs of the city. I has nice chalets sitting on beautifully landscaped gardens (it also has smaller not so nice suites in the main building; we used one as a “day room” in our last day before our flight back). Service personal was friendly. Food was good. The chalets are private, simply decorated and functional (with the exception of the low water pressure shower, but we didn’t complain after seeing so many people carrying water in buckets on their back just outside the lodge). This is an oasis in the middle of a very poor neighborhood. The 200m bumpy road to get to the place will give you a taste of what’s life without the infrastructure (running water, sewer etc) we take for granted. A shock in the beginning, yet I found the people to be very beautiful and happy with the community thriving with a lot of commerce done on the streets. I didn’t feel it was safe to walk outside the Lodge boundaries though (and we didn’t have the time anyways).

    Most people will stay here 1 night only. We stayed 2 and got a chance to have a full day safari in the Arusha National Park.. This was a great start for our safari with multiple highlights that made this a very positive day overall. Arusha NP was unique for it’s large herds of giraffes and mountains and lakes not found in other parks we visited. I found this was a great appetizer for what was to come. Park entrance is 30 minutes from town. Breakfast was at the lodge and lunch was boxed (the first of many cold meals).

    Highlights:
    1) giraffes, giraffes, giraffes…
    They are good to photograph here because it’s easier to get them against a mountain background (instead of a bright sky).
    2) our first zebras, buffalos and warthogs.
    3) Red Forrest Duiker: the only one we saw in the whole trip
    4) walking tour:
    This was the only park we were able to do a walking safari. It’s done with a local armed ranger that walk you through the area. You can do a 2 or 4h walking (some people choose a longer one). We picked the 2h tour and enjoyed the walking to the waterfall. We walked very close to giraffes and buffalos (the reason for the armed ranger, I was told).
    5) blue monkey
    6) many birds, including our favorite Lilac Breasted Roller
    7) lakes and mountains
    8) Hadada Ibis

    Our exposure to the city of Arusha was limited to the few drives in/out of town at the beginning and end of our safari trip. I felt no need to spend anymore time than we did there since we were looking for secluded and far from crowd places in this trip. Some of you with different interests may find the city more attractive than we did. I was amazed to see so many people on the streets, buying, transporting, selling, eating, talking: the city was very vibrant and alive. It’s a major trade center for the region. You’ll not see many foreigners venturing on the streets there despite the many wonderful ‘everyday life’ and portrait photo opportunities. The few shots I got were always from our moving vehicle, a not very good position to start with.


    TARANGIRE

    July/3 started with a breakfast at Ilboru. We checked out and headed to Tarangire after a quick stop at a local Arusha supermarket so Saidi could get our water supply for the trip and our lunch box of the day. The road to the park was surprisingly good: all paved (till near the entrance), no traffic at all with the exception of occasional other safari Land Cruiser and scenic with some Masai villages on the way and our first taste of the increasingly warmer and dryer environment as you drive West. Per our (or my wife’s, I should say) request we stopped at a nice tourist oriented souvenir shop along the way but did not buy anything.

    Tarangire was one of our favorite parks. There were some of the highlights for us:

    1) Nice visitor/welcome center
    Modern design, many displays and nice birds.
    2) Lots of baobab trees
    3) The most elephants we saw anywhere else, including:
    a) great close up opportunities
    b) large groups (4 groups of about 20 each) drinking at the end of the day
    4) river views were breathtaking
    5) Swala Tented Camp
    6) Wildebeest (Eastern White-bearded race) at waterhole: these are different from the Serengeti ones
    7) Great bird sights. Enjoyed: Lilac Breasted Roller, Lovebirds, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater and Red-an-yellow Barbet
    8) Fight between 2 impalas
    9) Controlled fire with birds feasting near it
    10) Birds/view around the large swamp in the NE of the park (Egrets, Ibis, Storks)
    11) Our 1st lioness: and almost our 1st kill
    This was early in the first full day there. We left Swala 6am but other than the great sun rise, the first 2h were not very active while driving toward the swamp area. Then, close to our “swamp picnic/breakfast area” we spotted our first lion. A female, she was close (about 30 meters) to the road. Impalas were playing 100m from there unaware of her. When they started coming toward the lion we thought we’d see a kill. They got to about 30 or 40 meter from her. She kept her head and body low in the grass and ready to sprint. Saidi whispered to me: “get your camera ready”. But the impalas drifted farther; always unaware of how close they got to have one less in the family. And we moved on to enjoy our 1st breakfast basket.
    12) Breakfast baskets provided by Swala
    13) Martial eagle
    12) Jackal eating a fresh kill

    Swala Tented Camp was our first luxury tented experience. Personnel were waiting for us (it was already early evening when we got there) at the entrance with a fresh wet towel and a welcome drink. We got a clear introduction to the facilities and the camp routine. Everything was included in the package (laundry, meals, wine etc). The tent was very private and had a good view of the water hole area where we saw elephants drinking in the morning. The bed was the best of all trip with excellent (goose feather?) pillows. Functional flush toilet and shower with plenty of hot water. This was the only place that provided an emergency radio for the tent: I was hoping we’d get a chance to use it in the middle of the night but I guess the elephants didn’t get that close during the 2 nights we were there. Wake up calls are managed by someone greeting you from outside with a morning drink of your choice and cookies (they have to bring it inside the tent or the monkeys may get them). Food and service was truly outstanding: among the finest of the whole trip. I should mention though that Saidi, our guide, ate something there that made him sick for a couple of days. We gave him Imodium we had brought with us (he called the pills “tanzanites” because of their jelly-bluish color) and later in the trip he saw a doctor at Sopa-Crater. He recovered without impacting the trip. The full day we stayed at the park, we took the breakfast and lunch baskets so we didn’t have to come back to the camp. The food was excellent (we had even a bottle of good South African red wine during lunch).
    Their common facility (a large tent with a porch opening to a deck and a fire pit) was nice, under a large acacia tree that is illuminated in the evenings. When I was there, I felt this common area was outstanding but after I saw the ones from the other places we stayed I’d say Swala has one of the more modest common areas of all: not an issue if you are planning to be on the road most of the time like we did.

    I should say that the “baskets” are very good in general. You get them only if you are returning to the same place that evening. If you are in transit from one lodge to an other, you get the “box” instead: still plenty but a more modest meal.

    For our second (and last) morning we decided to have breakfast (6am) at the camp before hitting the road to Manyara. We ate and left before any other guest was up. On the road, just a few miles from the camp we saw a large male lion walking our way on the road. This was our first male. He seamed full and determined to get somewhere. A little bit ahead on the road we saw a freshly killed gazelle being eaten by a jackal. We knew we were off to a good start.

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    Jose,

    Thanks for your posting. When did you take the trip and what camera and lens(s)did you use? We have book OAT's Ultimate Africa for December/January but am considering a change to the Best of Kenya and Tanzania during the same period. What do you think. Jon

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    LAKE MANYARA

    We got to the park entrance late morning. We explored the visitor center while Saidi took care of the paperwork. This “paperwork entrance routine” was the norm in all parks and took usually around 30 minutes, sometimes a little more. A hassle for the guide (we didn’t have to do anything) while we get to go to the restroom, shot pictures of some birds and read some of the visitor center displays. We were in the middle of a dense forest, quite a different scene from what we’ve seen since then. And that was the case also for the first kilometers into the park. It’s not until you get closer to the lake itself that you get to a more open landscape.

    Some of the highlights for us were:

    1) Kirurumu tented lodge: Masai, nice view, good food
    2) Lots of baboons
    3) Vervet monkey
    4) Hippo pool:
    a) Excellent bird watching place; we’ve had our lunch (box from Swala) here; we spend a couple of hours here watching the hippos (very nice although you can’t get as close to then as in the hippo pool in Central Serengeti; the Manyara hippo pool smells much better than the Serengeti though), pelicans and many other birds landing and taking off.
    5) Southern Ground Hornbill: hunting insects
    6) Lake views from elevated rest area

    Kirurumu Tented Camp was a positive surprise to us. We stayed here because it was the only tented camp choice in the area and we wanted to maximize our more secluded stay opportunities. The drive to the camp is a bumpy road to a high plateau overlooking the lake (you can’t really see it from the tents but you can from the bar deck). They have several Masai personnel throughout the camp to help you out. That gave the camp a very unique character. Food and service were good. This was the only camp that had paved walkways between the tents and the common facilities (restaurant, bar with deck and live music after dinner and reception building). The tent was private, well decorated with good shower and toilet facilities. The only glitch I had there was associated with a defective power adaptor they gave me. I thought the problem was with my Nikon battery charger and got desperate for a moment with the perspective of not being able to continue to photograph. Replacing the power adaptor fixed the problem. Plus now I convinced my wife that it’s a good idea to have a spare camera, just in case, so I’ll be looking into it.

    NGORONGORO CRATER

    Our plan called for one afternoon and one morning here. I thought we were limited to half day max in the Crater. Apparently the rule (recently introduced to limit the crowd) exists, but following Saidi’s suggestion, we got an early start after checking out from Kururumu and our ‘afternoon’ at the Crater started early/mid morning. This was a good decision: there’s so much to see in the Crater and it is always changing; you never know what you’ll face next. The road from Manyara area to the Crater visitor center has been recently paved with funds from a Japanese bank: it’s in excellent condition. After the Visitor Center, we’ve never saw a stretch of paved road till we were back in Arusha at the end of the trip. The Visitor Center is unattractive and crowded. We stayed there for 30 minutes for restroom and paperwork (all taken care by Saidi) and were entertained by some baboons stealing from an open vehicle.

    While the Crater is a very unique and great place to see wildlife because so many of them are concentrated is a small area, I’d like to mention that:
    1) The Crater is just a small part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). The park is very large and from what I’ve heard has many other areas of interest beyond the Crater that are worth exploring (although the infrastructure to get to them is precarious). Perhaps the park should invest more on access to those areas as a way to dilute traffic out from the Crater itself
    2) There are disadvantages that come with this marvelous place:
    a) Traffic of safari vehicles
    b) Very poor infrastructure (access road, restroom facilities, visitor center): the worse of all parks I visited in this trip
    c) Dust: dry conditions combined with traffic and some over speeding vehicles make the matter worse.
    d) More limited “good light” for photographers (the sun won’t pop up until it’s above the high crater rim)

    Overall, we enjoyed it very much and several of the highlights below were not anywhere else:

    1) The only place we saw cheetahs:
    Two good encounters: one at dawn when I got a nice picture of him with the eyes glistening and later a pair that walked close to the car.
    2) Rhino
    This one was not far from the road. It was laid down when we got there around 7am. We were committed to wait for it to stand. People came and went… and we stayed. We stayed over 4 hours… and the rhino did not move. But he raised his head and the wait was not without emotion. We’ve had our box breakfast there. At a certain point we spotted a lion far in the horizon. She was walking toward us. A large herd of impalas nearby saw her and ran way. She kept coming: heading straight toward the rhino. They didn’t see each other at this point. She got about 15 or 20m from the rhino when she saw him. He kept his head down, sleeping, totally unaware of her. After pausing, the lion kept moving and walked by our car.
    3) Kill: lion getting a warthog
    This was very exciting to watch although the action was not close to us (about 150m). The solo female lion was very patient and approached very carefully before sprinting toward the warthogs. We thought he would escape but he was slowed down in a muddy area where she got him.
    4) Pride of 7 lions hidden in the grass
    This brought our total of lion sights to 14 so far
    5) White tailed mongoose: hard to spot, nocturnal one
    6) Crown crane courtship display
    7) Masai village:
    This was an interesting mixed experience. We stopped at a village just outside the Crater on the road to Serengeti. We paid on the spot a flat $50 fee for the visit and you get a “show” with the tribe members singing and dancing, chat with the chief (he speaks fluent English) and a walking tour in the village, school and inside a Masai house. I liked the chat with the chief, the house (so small and yet they have the space to keep a calf inside in the evenings), the school (we had gifts – pens and stickers – for the kids; I think they enjoyed them although we’re glad we let Saidi get some for his kids before; they will enjoy them more than the Masai kids), the photo opportunities and the few glimpses into this dramatically different culture. I should say though that we felt very uncomfortable all the time due to a combination of factors: the show felt too scripted, there are flies everywhere (the village is built around an enclosed area where they keep their cattle in the evening), you are always escorted by the chief and others limiting your freedom of movement and the very poor living conditions they are in. The chief was very honest also: I by mistake gave him an extra $20 bill when I paid and he later returned it to me, with my $10 change back.

    Our only night in the area was spent at the Sopa Lodge. I felt this was a good choice to stay in the area. It’s the only place on the East side of the rim: this gives you (a) a chance for a nice sunset (the Lodge has a outstanding common area overlooking the crater) and (b) a Crater access road all for yourself (the roads, one for ascend and one for descend, on the West side are worse and shared by all the other Lodges). The common facilities are very nice, nice souvenir store, food was good and the room was huge with a balcony that opens to the crater (though not with a view nearly as good as the one from the common area). It was cold there in the evening so we were glad they had the heating system on. Our only complain is the smell of the bathroom: it was clean but it had a “trapped air/basement/wine cellar” smell perhaps because steam from the shower gets trapped in there. Be careful also with some of the concrete beams near some of the rooms: they would not pass US safety code; I smacked my head in one of them.
    So after our long and productive last (and only) morning in the Crater and the Masai village we were heading to Serengeti Central.

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    SERENGETI-CENTRAL

    To get here from the Crater area was one of the longest, but manageable, stretches of (dirt) road. The plan was to head straight to our evening Serena destination since we were running a little bit behind schedule. We did make 3 stops/deviations though:
    1) The visitor center: a very nice stop. It’s located in a hill (in the middle of very flat and dry plains). The views from the top (a 5 to 10 minute steep trail) are very nice and I got excellent opportunities to photograph many birds and several Agama lizards.
    2) A lion resting on top of a kopje
    3) A quick game drive (it was getting dark) in Seronera Valley were we saw our first leopard. With this sight, we got the “big 5” all in one day: rhino, elephant, buffalo, lion and leopard.

    Other highlights of this part of the trip were:

    4) Live evening (music/dance) show at the Serena
    5) Pride of lions playing by the river.
    We counted 9 of them, bringing our total to 26
    6) Large male lion right by the road.
    It was early in the morning; he was very alert and full. I was wishing for a big yawn but we got only a vomiting convulsion instead. He moved away a few minutes later.
    7) Leopard on tree
    This one was spotted by Saidi. We got multiple yawn from him and saw him jumping with agility to higher branches after 20 minutes.
    8) Seronera Visitor Center: we had our lunch box here; nice walking path; we were entertained by monkeys stealing food from other tourists.
    9) Zebras coming to drink water at the river at mid day



    The Serengeti Serena Lodge is located in a nice hilly area, about 40 minutes from the game rich Seronera valley. Rooms and common are were nice and ample. Dinner was very good with excellent service considering the large size of the lodge. Power adaptor to my battery charger could only be checked out with a $5 deposit. While our stay there was OK, I can’t say the same for our check out experience. We planned to leave (drive out) 6am and were delayed about 30 minutes due to several factors; no escorting person to take us from the room to the common area (you are not allowed to go by yourself if it’s dark), nobody present at the check out area, breakfast and lunch boxes not ready. The unattended check out area was not a big deal for me since our stay was pre-paid and I paid cash for the drinks in the evening. I did ask our escort if he had $5 to exchange for the power adaptor, he said ‘no’ and I indicated that I couldn’t wait for someone to show up at the check out area and that I was taking it with me. We were already in our vehicle (now waiting for Saidi who was chasing our lunch boxes) when someone showed up with the cash for the adaptor (and we proceeded with the exchange) and a bar bill that was not mine (it had my room number on it and someone else’s name/signature) but he appear not to trust the fact I owed nothing to them. We left 30 minutes late to our morning drive with both sides upset with each other. We forgot the incidence soon after and didn’t let it take away from the very productive morning in Seronera valley.

    In the afternoon we started heading north.

    SERENGETI-NORTH

    While driving from Central to North Serengeti you see the change in landscape going from a more flat savanna to rolling hills and more trees. We planned 2 nights at Migration Camp, our favorite stay in the whole trip. We enjoyed the stay in this area in spite of the fact that we didn’t see many cats (a sleepy lioness on a kopje at the end of the day and a nice Genet in Migration Camp fire pit deck) but we saw many Wildebeest, Zebras, Gazelles, Giraffes and Birds.

    Highlights:
    1) Migration Camp
    2) our first Wildebeest herds migrating
    3) Nice drives in the Lobo area
    4) Basket breakfast with Duane and his wife
    5) Genet

    For the 6am morning drive there were 2 Good Earth vehicles: ours and Duane’s (we “met” him on this forum) whom we met face to face for the first time and had breakfast (basket) together at the top of a hill with outstanding view of the area.

    Migration Camp is located in a hilly area near (a few hundred meters) a hippo spot on the river. You can see them from camp “fire pit” higher deck: this is the spot to be in the camp during sunset for drinks and appetizers, the view and interaction with other guests before dinner. The hippos leave the river area and come toward the camp (to eat grass) in the night so, here also, you need to be escorted to/from your tent. The stairs and paths throughout the camp are lit with kerosene (?) lanterns that create a lovely mood. From the warm reception, to the restaurant and common areas the service was impeccable. Everything was included (also drinks and laundry) and the staff goes overboard to insure you have a pleasant stay. Food was outstanding. The day we were there we did our usual 6am drive but we chose came back to the camp for lunch/rest before the afternoon drive.

    In the morning we started heading to the western part of the Serengeti.

    SERENGETI-WEST

    On the way to the western part of the Serengeti we stopped at the hippo pool. You get very close to them. This was a great opportunity for close up shots and one of the highlights of the trip for me. We spend 1.5h watching them. I should say though, that those with an acute sense of smell will be pressed to move on faster.

    The western part we visited was near the Grumeti River. We were in the middle of the migration there and saw tens of thousands of wildebeest. We enjoyed the combination of rich game viewing, not much traffic and exciting river scenes. Based videos seen earlier I was expecting a Grumeti River with more water (I guess I should know better, it’s was the dry season after all) but it didn’t disappoint us: we witnessed crocodiles hunting wildebeest twice and saw one being torn apart by several of them.

    We were here for 3 nights and 2 full days. Both days were exciting but rather different since we went cat-less the first one but saw on the 2nd day more lions than any other day.
    Highlights here were:

    1) Kirawira
    On our 2nd night we were awaken by lion roars nearby.
    2) Mbalageti Chalets
    3) Large herds of Wildebeest
    We enjoy spending the time to observe their movement to and from the river. They are always in constant fear (what protects them) and trying to stay together. Stampedes are common near the river and a great photo opportunity with all the dust and early light.
    4) Male lion persistently courting a female trying to mate with her
    5) Crocodiles
    We witness 2 of their attempts to catch a wildebeest drinking at the river. We saw also an unlucky wildebeest being torn apart by several crocs.
    6) Hyenas working as a team to hunt wildebeest
    7) Stork repairing a nest for his 3 “chicks”
    8) Large pride of lions
    9) Vultures devouring a carcass
    10) Lioness with her kill hidden behind a bush by the road
    She was so close yet so hard to see. Saidi was able to “guess” she was there after he spotted marks on the road where she dragged her prey.
    This was our last lion sight bringing our count to 43.
    11) Golden jackal
    This type is very hard to spot. We saw it near the river in Mbalageti
    12) Black mamba crossing the road
    13) African Civet
    Being nocturnal, they are hard to spot also. We saw it at dawn by the road out of Kirawira.


    Kirawira is very well located with outstanding views of the valley from your tent deck (the best from all the places we stayed). Both the common facilities (pool, restaurant, bar/resting area) and tent are comfortable and well decorated. Food was excellent with very friendly and relaxed restaurant service. Service outside the restaurant was not that great, starting from our arrival (it seems we caught them by surprise since they were running to get us our welcome drink and get out luggage) and followed by a couple of other events (including late escort out of our tent in the 1st morning). A polite constructive feedback to the manager later earned me a letter of apology, a bottle of wine and prompt attention from the staff during our 2nd day and hopefully served as a positive “wake up call” (to use the manager’s words) that other guests will benefit from. Drinks and laundry are not included here.


    Mbalageti Chalets was a rushed (we stayed there only 1 night) but pleasant experience. The place is very unique. The welcome center at the entrance is ample, well decorated and has plenty of entertaining options (movie, free internet access, books, drinks and treats). Tents (they call them chalets: they are actually half masonry and half tent) are very private, build and decorated with local material creating a very unique mood (door knobs and towel hangers are made from tree branches, for example). The restaurant (self service buffet) was 5 star with excellent service and outstanding view of the pool and valley.

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    LIST OF SPECIES SPOTED

    Mammals:
    Swine (Warthog)
    Hippopotamuses (common)
    Giraffes (Masai race)
    Antelopes/ Bovids (Natal Red Duiker, Kirk’s Dik-Dik, Thomson’s Gazelle, Grant’s Gazelle, Waterbuck, Hartebeest, Topi, Wildebeest, Impala, Bushbuck, Eland, buffalo)
    Rhinoceroses (black)
    Zebras
    Elephants
    Hyraxes
    Carnivores (Large-spotted Genet, Mongoose (White-tailed and Banded), Civet, spotted hyena, leopard, cheetah, lion, jackal (golden, black-backed and side-stripped)
    Primates (Blue Monkey, Vervet Monkey, Savannah Baboon)
    Hare

    Birds:
    Ostrich
    Little Grebe
    Pelicans (Great-white)
    Storks (Goliath Heron, Gray Heron, Cattle Egret, Hammerkop, Yellow-billed Stork, Saddle-billed Stork, Marabou Stork, African Open-billed Stork, Sacred Ibis, Glossy Ibis, Lesser Flamingo)
    Waterfowl (Egyptian Goose)
    Hawks (Black-shouldered Kite, Martial Eagle, African-fish Eagle, Vulture, Secretary Bird, African Pygmy Falcon)
    Partridges (Yellow-necked Spurfowl, Red-necked Spurfowl, Crested Francolin, Guineafowl)
    Cranes (Gray-crowned Cranes, Black-bellied Bustard, White-bellied Bustard, Cori Bustard)
    Gull (Crowned Lapwing, Wattled Lapwing)
    Sandgrouse (Black-faced Sandgrouse)
    Doves (Namaqua, Ring-necked)
    Parrots (Fisher’s Lovebird, African Orange-bellied Parrot)
    White-bellied Go-away-bird
    Owls
    Kingfisher and allies (Grayheaded Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, White-fronted Bee-eater, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater, Lilac-breasted Roller, Crested Hoopoe, African Gray Hornbill, Silvery-cheeked Hornbill, Southern Ground-hornbill)
    Barbets (Red-and-yellow Barbet)
    Songbirds (Golden Pipit, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Tropical Boubou, Magpie Shrike, Gray-backed Fiscal Shrike, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Tacazze Sunbird, White-headed Buffalo-weaver, Hildebrandt’s Starling, Burchell’s Starling, Superb Starling, African Black-headed Orio)

    Reptiles:
    Crocodiles (Nile)
    Lizards (Red-headed Agama)
    Snakes (Green Mamba, Black Mamba)


    SAFARI PHOTO TIPS

    First, for the ones that would like to know, this is the main equipment I used:
    a) Nikon D2H
    b) Nikon 70-200mm 2.8VR lens (I had this lens on the camera, with the 1.4 extender, 95% of the time)
    c) 17-55mm 2.8 lens
    d) Sigma 14mm 2.8 (for wide angle shots)


    The suggestions below are just that: suggestions. Sometimes you can get outstanding shots doing just the opposite of what I recommend below. View the tips below as tools in your toolbox for you to experiment and have fun with. I hope they are helpful to some of you ;-)

    1) Bill’s site (http://members.aol.com/bhilton665/africa/index.htm) has some of the finest pictures I’ve seen and THE recipe for an outstanding shot: put “THE 3” together: (a) interesting subject; (b) subject doing something different; (c) good light
    - a well planned safari will provide you plenty of “a”
    - for the “b”, you need to wait and wait and wait (in the Crater, we waited 4h for the rhino to stand up, and he didn’t) and be always ready with your gear
    - for “c”, be prepared for long days: start 6am and go to 7pm; beginning and end of the day is when you can get the “good light”

    2) Tripod: you’ll not need it (with the exception perhaps of some group shot situations or evening hotel/camp shots. Remember, you’ll be in a Toyota Land Cruiser all the time

    3) Bean bag: a must. Don’t bother bringing yours. Make arrangements instead for your tour operator to prepare some for you. Good Earth had 4 small (1 Kg) ones that I could conveniently position and move. One large one (4 to 5 Kg) with a few small one would have been even better.

    4) Get a long fast lenses: I used all the time my 70-200VR2.8 with an 1.4 extension tube. I found it was a good compromise between reach and mobility/ability to hand held. But often, it was not long enough. And using the 1.4 extension tube turned my fast 2.8 into a 4.0 what was good for large animals (in terms of giving me the depth of field I need) but I lost some of bouquet (the nice out of focus background) that help making your main subjects to stand out.

    5) You need an SLR. Point and shots won’t do it since you lose the ability to track moving subjects.

    6) Frames per second count. As a fast focusing system do. The Nikon D2H I used gets 8 shots per second and I could not get a picture like the one below with a slower one:
    http://picasaweb.google.com/jose.vigano/Tanzania/photo?authkey=XlCzS2-_jwc#5092492591446885234

    7) Shoot wide open and boost up your ISO to get your camera close to the max shutter speed to freeze your subjects (I used this technique on the shot above also to get to 1/8000). The trade off is increased noise with the higher ISO.

    8) Animals are very active at dawn so wake up early, crank the ISO up (you need a low noise camera for this to work) and consider using flash to get a lit eye. Avoid using flash when animals are close though since it can disturb/scare them. A couple of examples below:
    http://picasaweb.google.com/jose.vigano/Tanzania/photo?authkey=XlCzS2-_jwc#5092493330181260514
    http://picasaweb.google.com/jose.vigano/Tanzania/photo?authkey=XlCzS2-_jwc#5092496534226864546

    9) Private tour. You will need it in order to:
    a) keep the vehicle still: the vehicle is your tripod; if people move in it, your shot is not going to be as sharp
    b) avoid the trouble of reconciling conflicting interest: I think we should move, I thing we should stay a little longer
    c) get instant access to any side of the vehicle you need
    d) get one source of command to the driver: move a little bit forward, move a little bit backward
    e) set your own pace
    Note that a “private tour”, in the luxury tent category, IS NOT more expensive then a group one (since most of the cost is on you stays anyways) but some of you may miss the group interaction and the opportunity to know other people (I did).

    10) Don’t shoot always from the vehicle top opening: especially for close subjects, get down to a side window (or lower if possible) trying to get as close as possible to eye level with your subject.

    11) Safaris are not zoos: animals are not there just waiting for you and sometimes you will not find them. Be persistent and patient. And enjoy it even when you are not getting the shots you perhaps thought you would. Good memories are just as good.


    == End of report ==

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    Jose,
    it was great meeting you and your wife. Your pictures are awesome. I am going to be embarrassed to post mine, once I sort through them.

    Glad you had a great time too.
    Duane

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    Jose, thank you for posting those great pictures! They make mine look pitiful. Since we were in Northern Tanzania just this past May/June it was easy to recognize backgrounds and locations where you were and stayed. I will reread your posting as I am sure I will learn a bit about taking quality pictures. Again, thanks for the posting.

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    Jose, awesome photos. I can see that photography is your #2 passion, running only a close second to your wife. Hyena on the road in the Western Serengeti is ...I don't know...the most evocative hyena shot I can recall seeing.

    Glad Saidi and Good Earth came through for you. Excellent report, so well-organized. I will have to study your photo tips too.

    Did you have a favorite place, moment, animal? What about your wife?

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    Jose - How are you post processing your photos? From your picasaweb site they are showing up very "flat" looking on my monitor. And when I analyze one like the Impala _DSC4489 that is in sunshine, with Photoshop, the "levels" analysis shows that the image is using only the about left half of the dynamic (0-255) range. "Spread" it out and it picks up a lot of punch and color.
    I'm offering this as a constructive suggestion to further improve on your fine pictures. They are good but IMHO they can be made to show a lot better. If you want me to email you the above Impala picture after just that one Photoshop adjustment, here is my email - tdgraham at sbcglobal dot net. And I have a bunch of safari photos of my own at tomgraham dot smugmug dot com if you'd like to critique mine :-) .

    regards - tom
    ps - mine also taken with Nikon gear

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    nice pictures but I disagree with this statement:
    "5) You need an SLR. Point and shots won’t do it since you lose the ability to track moving subjects."

    Many people here using point and shoot cameras have posted just as many incredible pictures as slr posters have-sometimes better, sometimes not but definitely it's a toss up.

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    Excellent report. Some of the best photos I have seen. How do you get them to have an out of focus background like that? (do you call it bouquet?) Is it because of an expensive long lense? (I know very little about such stuff).

    Again great job!

    Kevin from California (Thousand Oaks)

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    Jose: great report and photos, thanks for being so detailed and organized.

    I will be staying at 3 of the same places in February and July so it was of great interest to read your accounts.

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    Sounds like you had an amazing time. Your pictures bring back great memories of our safari. On our Journey to Africa safari, we stayed at Kikoti but our next trip is going to include Swala Tented Camp and Migration Camp.

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    Thanks for all the compliments and suggestions for improvement!

    Leely: Each place has had it’s own unique opportunity. We enjoyed them all. I’d be hard pressed to pick one. We’ve had our favorite moments though: Tarangire (our 1st lion and “almost” a kill); Manyara (boxed lunch at hippo pool watching the birds), Crater (lion approaching the rhino), Serengeti (male lions courting a lioness).

    Tom: (cary999) Thanks a lot for the suggestion. I’ve sent you an email directly.

    Matnikstyn: I’m glad you are happy with your photo gear. I agree with you that award winning pictures can be taken with point and shots. They also have advantages (like portability and ability to better position the camera height) that are not matched by SLR’s. My personal experience though is that I’m able to yield better pictures with an SLR.

    Kevin: (Stakerk) In order to get the “out of focus background” (people call it “boukeh”; I misspelled it on tip#4 of my report) you will need:
    a) an SLR
    Point and shot will not do it because they have a small sensor and this (it’s too much physics to get into here) tend to increase your depth of field (are in focus)
    b) a fast zoom lens (2.8 or lower): yes, they are expensive!
    c) shoot at maximum zoom (200mm or higher) and at maximum aperture (2.8 or lower)
    Note also that the optical design of the lenses also influence on how the out of focus area will look like so you may want to test them or read some reviews. One of the reasons I picked the Nikon 70-200VR was for the appealing boukeh.

    QueenofDaNile: Regarding the Crater “1/2 day rule”, it’s my understanding that it’s officially in place now. Our experience however with our guide, Saidi, was that we were able to get in for our afternoon drive early (mid morning). He had to pay the “full day rate” according to him though.

    Cheers,

    Jose’

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    Patti helped direct me here.

    Your report is written in such a helpful style. I like the reasons not to go on safari and I'll have to check out the 31 safari mistakes on the website you listed.

    Saidi seems like a winner!

    Those giraffe herds in Arusha are becoming a famous sight. On your full day in ANP, did you have a boxed lunch? When was the waterfall walk? That's great you saw blue monkeys. Any colobus?

    I got a kick out of one of your Tarangire highlights. Maybe others have mentioned it also.

    "Large groups (4 groups of about 20 each) drinking at the end of each day"
    Quite a social crowd there at Swala, eh?

    Ha Ha. I assume you mean elephants or something like that.

    Thanks for contrasting baskets and boxes.

    A spare camera is a good idea. Hope you did not have too many frantic moments as you came up with that solution.

    The crater packed a punch for you. Cheetahs, rhinos (which can be elusive there) and a lion kill! Also nice to read about the honest chief.

    I don't blame you for being ticked at a 30 minute delay to the start of your game viewing day at Serena.

    Grumeti River proved to be exciting too.

    Great report. Thanks.


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    jose,
    thank you for your trip report, it was exciting and informative. my husband and i are going to tanzania in feb/mar'08 for our first safari and will be staying at some of the places you wrote about, and so i want to thank you for all your wonderful "hints".

    while looking at your 1st photo i noticed it was in alaska, and so i looked at the rest of the album :). so many bears! and so close! we've been to homer, and the kenai and denali, but i was very interested in knowing more about the trip you took. was it a cruise? and where were the photos taken of all the bears? did you stay at a lodge or did you camp. maybe this has to be on another forum, or if it would be easier, maybe you can email me directly at
    rspalter@gmail.com.
    i loved alaska, and want to go back soon. thanks you for your wonderful trip report, and beautiful photos (of africa as well as alaska).
    roberta

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    José, thanks for your extremely organized report! But, I strongly disagree with “A safari is not for you if you: e) if you can’t afford $300 to $500 pppd (per person per day)” also, wanting to stay in bed till late isn’t a problem because that will change once you’re on safari.

    Your photos are simply amazing – all of them!

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    Thanks everybody again for the constructive feedback and positive comments.



    Lynn: For our full day in ANP, we left in the morning (9am) after breakfast. We had a lunch box (provided by Saidi/Good Earth) with us. The water fall walk was right after lunch. I don’t think we saw any Colobus.



    Yes, the “Large groups drinking…” in Tarangire refers to elephants ;-) Sorry if that was not clear on the report. I lost some of the formatting/tabbing when it was posted.



    Roberta: I emailed you the bear info. It’s in Katmai NP should others want to check it out. This is not a regular NP: no access roads (you have to fly a float plane in) and advanced planing/reservation is required. Very worth it.



    Nyamera: Thanks for pitching in. You (and everybody else) should take my comments with caution since my experience is a “sample of one”. I’m sure there are other insights from more frequent safari travelers that may be more valuable and differ from mine. Regarding cost, I can tell you that I researched quite a bit for discounted air tickets and all inclusive safari packages and I did not find acceptable alternatives that would average out below $300 pppd unless you make compromises (that may be acceptable for several of you) on locations you stay/visit.

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