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Trip Report: Tanzania Kenya - August 2008 - Otis Returns!

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Agent, Outfitter: Good Earth Tours (Tanzania), partnered with SafariLine (Kenya)
Guide: Abdul (Good Earth in TZ), Jesse and Peter (SafariLine: Samburu and Masai Mara, resp.)
Type: Private
Logistics: Drive (TZ), Fly (Kenya)
Been Before? Second Trip

ITINERARY:
Arusha – Serena Mountain Village Lodge (Overnight on arrival to TZ)
Tarangire – Sopa (2 days/nights)
Ngorongoro – Sopa (2 days/1 night)
Nairobi – Fairview (1 night, in transit to…)
Samburu – Serena (2 days/nights)
Masai Mara – Serena (4 days/3 nights)

We took our own advice (see our January 2007 Trip Report in the East Africa INDEX) and returned to East Africa during August 2-14, 2008, bringing another couple along. Within four months of our return from a TZ Northern Circuit private safari in Jan 2007, we were actively plotting a return to Africa. Sound familiar to anyone??

Thanks to the gang at fodors.com that share their experiences with others, and allow others to plan and enjoy amazing trips.

Here’s a link to a sample of photos from our trip: http://www.kodakgallery.com/I.jsp?c=b58e5n71.69d7scu9&x=0&y=56jxky&localeid=en_US

Planning the Trip

We looked at several options for a return trip. These included a Ruaha/Selous safari, some combination that included TZ and Egypt, or a TZ/Kenya trip. The latter won out based on the opportunity to see East Africa in dry season, and the planning window that made an August trip to both Tarangire and Masai Mara work well. With the time we had available (approx. two weeks) trying to do both Egypt and East Africa was too much.

Our original thought was Tarangire - Ngorongoro - Masai Mara, for an August or September safari of 9-10 days (on the ground), using internal air where appropriate to save time and avoid long drives. I contacted both Good Earth Tours (GET) and Africa Serendipity (AS) to seek suggestions I didn’t fully understand the limited options for travel between TZ and Kenya, so we were open to suggestions. We wanted to see Tarangire in the dry season, and Ngorongoro just because its worth seeing if you’re in TZ. I also asked for recommendations on a second Reserve to visit in Kenya, something that would be different from Masai Mara. Samburu was suggested by Narry at GET and Sandi at AS, and this turned out to be a most excellent idea. Once we had laid out a basic itinerary, we asked both GET and AS to quote a price for the ground portion of the trip and internal air flights (everything other than our international flights, visas, insurance, etc.) Both Narry and Sandi made additional suggestions and provided pricing (short of confirming lodging). All things being roughly equal, we chose Good Earth/SafariLine based on our previous positive experience with GET. Both Sandi and Narry are terrific to work with (no great revelation to visitors to this site.)

Getting Ready

Second time around, there was far less to worry about. We had gotten a Hep A booster about eight months after our immunizations for our first trip. Typhoid, Tetanus and Yellow Fever were still good. We worked through our GP to obtain Malarone and antibiotics. And Ambien for dealing with the time travel.

Having multiple days at all locations, we knew that we could get laundry done without any hassle (and that worked great.) About a third of the clothing we took was stuff we could leave, and we did that near the end of our trip.

We took a Canon S5IS, and a smaller Canon PowerShot 520 as a backup and “carry to dinner” camera. We had three sets of AA’s and a 15-minute charger (rated for 120-250V). We also had about 10 GB of memory cards and a monopod. I had my Tombazzi maps for the TZ locations, and obtained good maps for the Kenya wildlife reserves ordered via the internet from Stanfords Maps & Books, London.

We obtained visas for TZ and Kenya prior to our trip. We mailed our passports, applications and money orders in and got them back in 10-14 days. The TZ Embassy called and grumbled about needing a copy of a bank statement; we negotiated that down to a copy of the email from GET affirming our itinerary and receipt of our deposit. Go figure.

ON THE GROUND!

The flights to JRO were uneventful. Overnight to Amsterdam, and the day flight into JRO. We were on time. We collected our checked soft duffles (all four bags showed up in JRO) and got in the Passport Control line. We paid attention to the empty booths and were quick to move when an extra booth was opened up. We waited less than 5 minutes. Our GET Driver/Guide, Abdul, was waiting for us in the mob of tour folks at the exit. We were very pleased to have Abdul for the TZ portion of our trip and he seemed very pleased that we had returned to see his beautiful Tanzania!

Our first night was at the Serena Mountain Village Lodge, just outside Arusha. We had the last two bungalows, a long walk. Nothing fancy about the rooms, water noises in the night, clean enough and no holes in the bug net. Good dinner that first evening and excellent breakfast the next day. There were two big silvery-cheeked hornbills sitting in the trees right outside the dining room window at breakfast, welcoming us to Africa.

Day 1-2: Tarangire National Park

Tarangire was completely different from our January 07 experience. The green grassland of leafy baobabs was now a world of brown and dust, with large groups of elephant and giraffe. We saw lions, jackals, and buffalo. The highlight of the stay was driving down to Silale Swamp and seeing large groups of animals coming and going. Saw three types of mongoose on that drive. Sopa was OK, bungalows not much to talk about, but the main lodge was nice. Food was good and service staff attentive and eager to please.

Weather at Tarangire was 70’s F. overnight, and mid-80’s days, partly cloudy.

Day 3-4: Ngorongoro Conservation Area

The difference between our visit in January 2007 and in August 2008 was dramatic. At the top of the road to the rim, at the lookout point, clouds were rolling up the crater rim from the SE and we could not see into the crater. After driving around to the Seneto Descent Road, we could look into the crater and across to the south and east rims where the white clouds crawled over the rim, contrasting against the rain-forest green. Down in the crater all was brown; Lake Magadi was partly dried up and surrounded by a wide band of powdered soda, with the wind throwing up white dust devils. We enjoyed two days of game drives. We didn’t see as many lions as before, but enjoyed many good sightings. Most notable was the black rhino with the split horn; we watched him cross the northeast side of the crater for about 20 minutes, and then he turned and walked within 30 feet of our LandCruiser. He was just passing from A to B, but was quite a sight to see up close. We stayed at Crater Sopa for one night. This was a letdown after having stayed at Serena last year. Our room was OK, and food was good. Service was not what we had seen at other lodges; staff was friendly enough when you engaged them directly, but not much enthusiasm or “how can I help you?” One thing that we didn’t expect…our bungalow was near the end of the north row, and it was a long walk downhill to get there, and then uphill to get to the Lodge. The altitude makes a difference when you are walking up that hill.

Weather was cool on the crater rim in the mornings (50’s F), but warmer in the Crater as the day advanced, low 80’s. Partly cloudy skies.

Day 4 Return to Arusha, Overnight: Fairview Hotel – Nairobi

We left the Crater late morning for our drive back to Arusha and flight to Nairobi from JRO. It took us less than three hours to get to Arusha from the top of the rim. We stopped at a souvenir place just west of Arusha and took abuse from the help for not leaving more dollars. We stopped at the Cultural Center in Arusha and left some dollars there. As for crafts, they didn’t necessarily have anything that wasn’t available in other places and it was same-same prices. But they did have an extraordinary selection of shirts and other clothing; worth a stop if you are looking for that kind of thing. We parted company with Abdul at JRO, grateful for the opportunity to travel with him again and looking forward to a third Tanzanian safari (perhaps to Ruaha and Selous??)

We departed JRO on time and flew to NBO. Nairobi was startling from the air; we weren’t prepared for how big and (in the main city) metropolitan it appeared to be. No problems in customs; we had visas and were once again able to get into a suddenly-opened line, marked for “Kenya Passports”. Took us less then three minutes to negotiate that and we grabbed our bags and quickly found our SafariLIne Driver/Guide Peter, who enthusiastically welcomed us to Kenya. (Peter was to be our Driver/Guide in Masai Mara, and was there just to provide our evening and morning transportation.) He dropped us at the Fairview and got us checked in. We were given lovely rooms, and went downstairs for an excellent dinner in one of the several restaurants. The Fairview is beautiful, stone buildings on five acres of gardens, with modern rooms and very gracious staff. If you are looking for a safe and first-rate place to layover in Nairobi, this is a good choice. Peter picked us up in the morning and dropped us at the Wilson Airport, only minutes from the Fairview. Catherine from the SafariLine office met us there to make sure we were ready to take on Kenya and saw us off to our flights after making sure our bags were properly handled. (A nice touch from SafariLine, which proved to be an excellent operator.)

Day 5-6: Samburu/Buffalo Springs/Shaba National Reserves

IF YOU HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO GO TO KENYA, GET YOURSELF TO THIS AMAZING PLACE. Absolutely beautiful desert country, with enough vegetation to host a wide variety of wildlife. Breathtaking views from both the air and on the ground. We were met at the Buffalo Springs airstrip by our Driver/Guide Jesse from SafariLine. We warned him that we would wear him out with questions and that we wanted to learn everything he could teach us – he was ready for the challenge and proved himself more than capable over the following two days.

During our game drives we saw amazing landscapes and enjoyed great sightings throughout Buffalo Springs and Samburu (we never made it over to Shaba.) As in every other park and reserve, we enjoyed a wide assortment of birds. Herds of elephant and reticulated giraffe, especially by the river (Ewaso Ng’iro.) Oryx, mongooses, ostriches, lions, Grevy’s zebra, and buffalo (of course). Our favorites were the unconventional generuks, who stand and dine in the tops of the trees with their graceful bodies and long necks. You have to see them to appreciate how special they are; evolution is a glorious thing!

We enjoyed two nights at the Samburu Serena. The lodge and dining rooms are beautiful and the service staff knocked themselves out; everyone friendly and eager to please. On our first afternoon in camp we went to the native dancing (and shopping experience) in the Lodge amphitheater. Morans and maidens from the local Samburu village entertained us for nearly an hour, even though it was just the two of us and an Australian couple. We also signed up for the Amazing Camel Ride Experience. Once you’ve climbed on, done the launch, and ridden for a couple hundred yards, the magic and mystery evaporate pretty quickly. Unless you are prepared to ride all the way to the Samburu village and do the shopping experience, you are well served to insist on a u-turn and return to the landing area for the not-to-be-missed “Dismount of the Wazungu”. A memory to cherish for all in attendance.

Weather at Samburu/Buffalo Springs was warm, both nights and days. Temperatures were in the upper 80’s F. in the afternoon, with partly cloudy skies both days. It was warm enough at night to be stuffy in the rooms.

Day 7-10: Masai Mara National Reserve

Jesse provided a final game drive on our way to the “Buffalo International Airstrip and Local Duty Free Shop” (its worth the trip just to see the sign), and, after a 2 hour delay, our Air Kenya plane showed up to carry us to the Mara. We enjoyed views of Kenya from the air, and stopped at Nanyuki Airfield enroute. We also dropped off and picked up passengers at the Keekorok and Intrepids airstrips in the Mara before arriving at the Serena airstrip, where our Driver/Guide Peter from SafariLine was waiting for us. As with Jesse, we gave him fair warning about our expectations for learning what he knew about the Mara and its flora and fauna. Thus began the marvelous conclusion to our trip.

Many others have already ably described the wonders of Masai Mara. I selected the Serena because we had previously had good experiences with their lodges and this location was no exception. Also, I was intrigued with the location in the “Mara Triangle”. Prior to our arrival, we didn’t understand or appreciate the contribution made to the Triangle area, its roads and countryside by the stewardship of the Mara Conservancy. We could see the benefits when we were able to see the Triangle and contrast it with the remainder of the Mara (at least the eastern Mara) during our stay. We enjoyed good trails and appreciated the limits put on unnecessary “off-roading”, as well as the discipline in all things enforced by the Conservancy’s Rangers. We were particularly impressed by the discipline displayed by our Driver/Guide and most others in demonstrating respect for the wildlife, countryside and other folks on safari.

We checked into the Serena and were shown to our bungalow; our usual end-of-the-row location was evidently unavailable and we had only a short walk from our room to the lodge and dining room (hurrah!) The lodge and bungalows are hard to describe, but the entire place is beautiful, especially the veranda viewing north to the Mara River and beyond. The expected Serena landscaping is way over the top here, with climbing flowers, candelabra cactus, and everything else creating a lovely setting. The dining area is broken up into small rooms; it appears cramped but everyone fits. The food and service were excellent, especially at our assigned table looking out the north windows to the Mara. We were greeted after every game drive by Charles, who served coffee and drinks on the veranda overlooking the pool and River. We enjoyed his attentive service and he tolerated our attempts at Kiswahili conversation with great amusement.

Our evening game drive on Day 1 and the morning drive on Day 2 were in the general area of the Serena Lodge and adjacent Mara Riverine Forest. We saw a bit of everything, especially enjoying cheetah and secretary birds on the evening drive. The morning drive began with a lioness (and her two cubs) trying to drag a wildebeest kill to cover below and south of the Serena kopje. The lioness was clearly exhausted and the cubs kept riding on and attacking the carcass as she attempted to move it.

The evening of the Day 2 we drove along the Riverine Forest on the west side of the Mara, north toward Oloololo Gate. The landscapes on either side were beautiful, with the forest to the right and the Oloololo Escarpment rising to the left. We saw lion and many antelope and buffalo, as well as birds. We joined a group of vehicles trying to get a look at a black rhino and her juvenile in a copse of trees just South of Little Governor’s Camp, but didn’t see much in spite of great effort.

Day 3 was our Ultimate Game Drive and Endurance Event. We drove south on the main road and turned west toward the Wilderness Area in the far west end of the Reserve. We went south all the way to the Tanzanian border, seeing large herds of wildebeest and zebra, and many types of antelope and birds. We followed the border east to the South Mara River Bridge, and witnessed the spectacle of hundreds of vultures and storks eating drowned wildebeest that had floated downriver and hung up on rocks in the river. At the bridge we also encountered restroom facilities that are arguably more disgusting than those found at the Oldapai Gorge Museum (yes folks, hard to believe, but true.) To add insult to injury, some enterprising soul had placed a tip box in the Men’s. We all (ladies and gents) retired to the shrubberies for a not-very-private-but-necessary moment.

We spent the next several hours exploring the eastern end of the Reserve. We saw herds of wildebeest and zebra, lions, and many birds. We enjoyed our box lunches high on a hill under a lone balanites tree, and tracked game along a number of creeks. The surprise part of our trip was a Safari Shopping Experience, when Peter announced that we were going to stop at Keekorok Lodge to afford the ladies the benefits of porcelain and running water. We immediately discovered an excellent and extensive gift shop and left a hefty sum of dollars. On our return trip we almost had the opportunity for a herd crossing several kilometers north of the South Mara Bridge, but no luck.

Day 4 was our last day in East Africa. Peter arranged a late checkout with the Lodge and we packed and consolidated our gear on one room before leaving for our final game drive around 730am. We drove around for several hours without seeing much of anything and headed back toward the Serena for lunch. When the radio suddenly picked up in noise level, Peter lit out for the River and we found ourselves waiting for a large herd on the north side of the Mara River to get organized enough to cross just north of the Serena. It took well over an hour for the herd to make it to the point of crossing. Vehicles on the north side of the river had pulled up very close to the crossing point which was slightly to the east (or right) of where we were on the south bank, and the front end of the large herd was working up the courage to come down to the water. The entire herd started moving back to the west and another crossing point, but balked at that, again apparently spooked by the vehicles on the opposite side, parked close to the second crossing point. When the herd started back to the east, the vehicles finally backed away to the west. After some false starts, a group of wildebeests slowly came down, began drinking (one, then two and suddenly many) and the herd surged forward and animals began crossing. Once the wildebeests began crossing in earnest, the zebras began creeping down to drink, but didn’t cross. Suddenly the vehicles on the north side made a mad scramble to get a better view, roaring up to the bluff overlooking the crossing point. This scared the herd, sending many animals running away from the water, and driving the remainder downstream to gain access to the water at some point farther away from the vehicles. Right about this time, the crocodiles downstream lit into the wildebeests being pulled downriver by the current. As the screams of the captured wildebeests rose in volume, the crowd of animals crawling across the rocks to gain access to the water began retreating. Animals in the water were swept downstream and struggled to reach the South shore. As animals reached the bank, they scrambled along the river’s edge and then roared up the bank at a single point, shooting up to the top of the bluff in ones and twos, finally bolting off to the grassland south. All of this happens in what seems slow-motion time, with bawling wildebeest, great clouds of dust, the noise of the river rapids and vehicles jockeying for position. This was a marvelous and exciting experience, far more exciting than can be imparted in words. Even though only a portion of the assembled herd crossed, there was a whole lot going on very quickly, with great noise and uproar. Great moment.

We returned finally to the Lodge, having been out for almost seven hours on our last drive (we had planned to return at after about four hours.) After lunch and a quick shower, we were ready to be driven to the airstrip for our flight to Nairobi.

Weather in the Mara was generally cool at night (50-60’s F), and warm during the day (70-80’s). On two mornings it was cool enough to cover up for the first hour or two of the drive. It was partly cloudy much of the time, but we did have some periods of strong sunshine, especially mid-day.

The remainder is straightforward. We flew into Nairobi and were met by SafariLine’s Catherine, who welcomed us and turned us over to the driver who was to take us to Carnivore for dinner before our departure to Amsterdam. Carnivore was fun, but we were rushed to get in and out. Overnight to Amsterdam, waste some time at Schopol, and next thing you know you’re landing in Detroit and slogging through U.S. Customs.

Things we knew and things we learned this time around –

- I should have paid more attention to start and finish dates and the potential complications of flying to Kili/JRO and leaving from Nairobi/NBO. In the end, this was not a big logistical problem, but leaving on Saturday limited flights and the open jaw probably cost a bit more.

- We built in 2-3 hour layovers between flights (Cleveland-Detroit-Amsterdam-JR0 and vice-versa, departing from NBO on the homeward journey) and had no problem with checked bags. Economy was full and tight, big deal; we were either headed to Africa or on our way home. Quit whining.

- Talk to your Driver/Guide about what your expectations are for game drives. If you are content with two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon, no problem. If you prefer all day drives with a box lunch, let him or her know that. Or what mix of formats on what days you’d like. Why risk being disappointed?

- Stay two days minimum wherever possible. If you are into checking off locations visited on a list, ignore this advice and carry on. Not having to pack up and go in the morning is a huge benefit to serenity and enjoyment of Africa and the lodge or camp experience. Having four days to enjoy the Mara was a great gift we gave ourselves.

- I used a monopod in the LandCruiser and this worked very well. I purchased an inexpensive ProMaster and it gave me a great platform for photos and for videos. It was especially easy to adjust length when I was standing on a seat or on an uneven surface in the truck. I used the video feature on my Canon S5 and got terrific results, largely due to the ease of panning with the monopod. I was sorry I didn’t do more video in the end, but I was not sure how much storage capacity I would use up.

- Repeat advice from our first trip: Learn some minimal Kiswahili, simple greatings, please, thank you, two beers please, drinking water, and so on. Put the camera down sometimes and just watch. Use the binoculars more than the camera, you’ll see a lot more and enjoy the trip better in the end. Don’t fret over what you haven’t seen, savor what has come your way.

- Africa (in spite of all its frailties) is a miracle - let it swallow you whole.

We were planning our return trip (third safari) before we were halfway home this time. We’re coming back.

Jim & Phyllis

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