The following is long (sorry!) but hopefully the details will help those who are planning a safari on the Northern Circuit in Tanzania. Our experience was awesome! "We" are four old friends who have known one another for more than 50 years so you can guess that we are "seniors!"
Tuesday, September 4, 2012 – On Our Way to Amsterdam and Beyond!
Our journey to Amsterdam and eventually to Tanzania originated at Newark's Liberty Airport. Two of us used a car service to get from Brooklyn to the airport while the others drove from Margate, parked their car at a nearby hotel and shuttled to the airport. After a slight delay obtaining boarding passes our duffels were checked and we made our way through security and to the gate. Weather forced another delay but soon we were airborne on KLM/Delta's 767 to Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. The flight was routine except for countless announcements in both Dutch and English which made sleep on the overnight flight a bit of a challenge. Meals were served, movies were shown and a few hours of sleep happened in a fully loaded aircraft. Another adventure had begun!
Wednesday, September 5, 2012 - Arrival in Amsterdam and Visit to Zaans Schans
We arrived at Amsterdam's beautiful Schiphol airport right on-time at 7:00am. Passport control was quick and there was no customs check or paperwork to complete. It was a beautiful sunny day as we left the airport and took a taxi to our Courtyard by Marriott Hotel. While waiting for our rooms to be ready, we checked email and relaxed in the lobby and had a small breakfast in the dining room. Our rooms were ready by 10:30am and we settled in to rest for an hour. Ronald, our guide for the afternoon, picked us up about noon for a 30 minute drive to Zaans Schans. This is an open-air village museum that focuses on life in Holland from the early 1700's.
We first visited the shop of wooden shoes and watched a demonstration of how they are sized and carved. There was an interesting display of wooden shoes of all types from those worn in the fields to those made for special occasions. The shoes are made from poplar. The size is determined by running your finger around the rim between your socks and the shoe edge. If you can do that comfortably you have selected the correct size. We next visited a cheese shop and sampled different varieties of Gouda cheese following a cheese making demonstration. Next was a windmill used to grind minerals for dyes and the chalk for lining soccer fields. The miller explained the process and we watched as the large crushing wheels pulverized the chalk. There are still many working mills in this region. This mill, De Kat, was rejuvenated in 1959 when parts of old mills dating from 1780 were gathered and used to bring this mill back to life. At the peak, there were 1,000 factory windmills in the Zaans which gave the region the distinction of being one of the oldest industrial areas in the world. The De Kat windmill is probably the last wind powered dye mill in the world. Our last stop in the village was Albert Heijn's grocery store. It was maintained and stocked as in its earliest days from 1887. Today there are over 800 stores as Albert Heijn's legacy. We walked back to the car through a village of restored cottages and shops.
We returned to the hotel about 4:30pm and decided to eat dinner at the Bistro adjacent to the hotel. It was empty when we walked in an hour later but by 7:00pm several large parties arrived and we were happy to be done with our dinner. By that time we were eager for sleep!
Thursday, September 6, 2012 - An All Day Walking Tour of Amsterdam
After a good night's sleep and breakfast at the hotel, our guide Edwin, picked us up at 8:45am. Edwin Groeneweg founded The Dutch Travel Advisor tour company about ten years ago following careers in aerospace and hotel management. He now employs eight guides who cover all of The Netherlands. We drove into Amsterdam and parked the car at a garage for the day. We were awed by the number of bicycles in the city. Pedestrians have to constantly be aware of the bike paths when crossing streets or at intersections. Many people who live outside of the city use public transportation to commute into the city then pick up their bikes to get to their workplace. We then took a tram to the launch point for our 75 minute canal tour. We were the only passengers and we went straight to the outside rear deck. It was a beautiful day and this was a great way to get an overview of the city and its history. Edwin explained the canal system which is defined by the rings of three canals which were built in the 17th century. All of the homes on the canals are built on pilings. A two or three window wide house is called a single, while a double has five windows. We saw the hook on the top façade of each building which is used to hoist furniture to the upper floors.
There are also 2,500 houseboats anchored throughout the canal system. The government leases the canal space and the lessee then pays a rental fee to cover utilities. There are a variety of houseboats and most are permanently secured. Some are quite large and are decorated in distinctive styles. Most of the houses along the canals display the symbol of Amsterdam which is three crosses which stand for courage, heroism and determination. The entire canal system is drained annually and water levels are controlled by locks. We passed by a large cruise ship as well as a river cruise ship anchored in the widest and newest canal. At one point we could look through seven bridges nested in a row. We passed a tall, narrow brick building which was part of the original fortifications for the city. The building now sports a white dome and clock. An original toll house is now painted black and is a residence. Some houses have shifted and were leaning to the side or leaning forward and needed to be secured with external beams.
We walked from the boat launch site to the Rijksmuseum arriving about 11:30am. This is the country's largest national museum and it houses over 7 million pieces of art. The museum was designed by Cuypers and opened in 1885. The most prized possession is The Night Watch by Rembrandt which dates from 1642. We noted the gold and silver glass holders in the painting. Eating utensils were not yet used and glass holders were used prevent the glasses from slipping out of the diners' greasy hands. We saw an exhibit of what seemed to be doll houses. They were actually replicas of mansions. Wealthy homeowners wanted to show off their opulent furnishings without having their guests walk through their homes. So they commissioned exact replicas of their homes complete with the porcelain dinnerware, wall coverings and furniture. Another gallery featured a collection of porcelain tulip vases resembling stacked obelisks. There were many portraits of wealthy merchants from the 16th and 17th centuries. The detail on the decorative collars was very interesting and reflective of the wealth of the subject. We learned that these collars were fashioned from one piece of cloth artfully folded by servants. The most unusual exhibit was a clock that is very difficult to describe.
We walked across the Museum Square and had lunch at the Cobra Restaurant. After lunch we toured the Museum Geelvinck which was the mansion of a Dutch coffee merchant. The 1687 mansion sits on Gentleman's canal, the most exclusive canal, and opens in the rear onto a lovely garden which served as the main or coach entrance to the house. We walked to the City Archives, an elaborately faced Art Deco building. Here we visited the ornate safe depository area in the basement. We walked through the Floating Flower market, which is really semi-permanent. Flowers and bulbs are just part of the merchandise sold in the market.
We visited several hidden gardens and courtyards. These are tucked on a narrow lane behind the houses fronting a main street and a second row of small homes. The location and tranquility of these homes attracts many students from the area. As we walked through several courtyards we were told that private space is distinguished from public space by yellow pavers. We stopped at Begijnhof which was built as a residential enclave for single women and included the oldest house in Amsterdam, the Wooden House. The quiet courtyard was a sharp contrast to the busy streets outside the entrance. Begijnhof was adjacent to the Amsterdam Historical Museum.
We arrived at the Anne Frank house at 5:00pm. Edwin had arranged for a quick entry bypassing the queue out front. However, the route through the house was very congested. The Anne Frank house has been restored and features artifacts, video testimonies as well as the original Anne Frank diaries. The experience clearly shows the small space which was occupied by eight people for nearly two years. It was a very interesting and moving self paced tour. No photography was allowed inside the Anne Frank House.
It was a short walk to our dinner destination "Long Pura" where we enjoyed a typical Indonesian Rice Table dinner. There was a great variety of food dishes presented and we topped off the meal with complimentary dessert and after dinner drinks. Edwin drove us back to the hotel at 10:00pm, exhausted from a 12 hour day of walking but satisfied with a wonderful visit to Amsterdam.
Friday, September 7, 2012 Travel from Amsterdam to Tanzania
At 7:30am we returned to Schiphol airport on the hotel shuttle (five euros per person) and searched the huge airport for the proper kiosk to print boarding passes for our 10:00am flight. Then we queued up in front of the automated baggage handlers - all of which was fully self-service. We proceeded through security to our gate and boarded KLM flight #567 to Kilimanjaro (JRO) airport in northern Tanzania. The eight hour flight was full and included many passengers destined for their week long trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest peak on the African continent. We arrived at JRO about 8:30pm and followed the crowd to the visa area. Fortunately we were near the front of the visa line, the officials examined and accepted the US currency for the $100 visa for each of us, and quickly we found our checked duffels. We exited the terminal and outside we found our guide Raphael from Good Earth Tours who was waiting for us and holding a sign that read "Willis X4." He drove us in the dark to the Arumeru River Lodge where we checked in and had a light dinner before retreating to our rooms after a long day of travel; we were still feeling the effects of jetlag from our long first flight a few days earlier.
Saturday, September 8, 2012 - Arumeru River Lodge through Arusha and We Are on Safari!
We enjoyed breakfast on Arumeru's covered patio, explored the beautiful grounds of the lodge and packed up so we were ready to go when Raphael picked us up at 9:00am. We drove into Arusha, a city of about 700,000 and the starting point for safaris to the northern circuit, where we attempted unsuccessfully to buy a SIM card for the cell phone. Arusha is halfway between Cairo and Cape Town on Cecil Rhodes' rail line and is a hectic, crowded and dusty commercial center. There are over 200 safari tour operators and many small hotels in the city. The roadway was crammed with cars, vans and motorcycles. It was like driving through a maze with pedestrians, bicycles and motorcycles weaving in and out traffic. Everyone seemed to be carrying something to sell and every day is market day. The government has built small storefronts along the roads which can be rented, while other vendors simply pick a spot on the sidewalk to set up their wares. No one disputes another's chosen spot. We decided we were happy to have spent our pre-safari night at the Arumeru River Lodge since it was a lovely setting about 30 minutes away from the hustle and bustle of Arusha.
The three main languages spoken in Tanzania are Swahili, English and Iriqui. There are 120 different tribes in Tanzania but most live harmoniously in and around the cities. There are regular tribal meetings however they are usually attended by the women as the men are off working.
The Maasai continue to live separately and can usually be seen walking along the roadside wearing their distinctive red garb or tending a small herd of livestock with their stick in hand. The stick is a trademark of the Maasai as it can be used as a weapon as well as for herding cattle. They generally use wood from the Sandpiper tree because the wood is flexible. After leaving Arusha we passed many small Maasai villages, usually with several round thatched homes or bomas. Fifty percent of the Maasai have turned to agriculture or livestock to maintain their existence. There were groups of adolescent Maasai boys who were dressed in black with their faces decorated with white paint. These young men had just completed the circumcision ceremony and were about to become warriors. Throughout our journey we would see Maasai walking great distances. In the beginning of the trip their herds of cattle and goats were small and emaciated looking. Each day for them was consumed with leading the herds to water and then back to the home site. Further on our journey, where water was more plentiful, the herds appeared to be much more robust. The government is encouraging land ownership though most land is still leased. To maintain possession of a property the owner or lessee must make annual improvements to the property most importantly by planting trees.
September 8, 2012 (Continued) - Tarangire National Park and Maramboi Tented Camp
About 2:00pm we arrived at Tarangire National Park which is the sixth largest national park (1,100 sq miles) in Tanzania. The name of the park originates from the Tarangire River that crosses through the park and is the only source of water for wildlife during the dry season. During the dry season thousands of animals migrate to Tarangire National Park from Lake Manyara. The park is home to more than 550 species of birds and animals. The park is also famous for the termite mounds that dot the landscape. Dwarf mongoose often take up residence in and around the abandoned mounds.
After Raphael completed the necessary paperwork with the park rangers we walked to the picnic area for our first boxed meal that Raphael brought from Arusha. The content of the boxed lunch was usually a roasted chicken leg, a hard-boiled egg, half a cheese sandwich, some fresh fruit, a juice box, some nuts, and occasionally a bar of chocolate. They were not gourmet fare but the lunches sufficed. There was a bird bath at the picnic area which introduced us to our first sightings - hornbills, weavers, starlings, lovebirds, and a few other little birds.
We then drove through the very northern region of the park and immediately saw our first big wildlife - really big wildlife in the form of elephants! We were very impressed with the gigantic baobab trees that were scattered throughout the park; we had seen baobab trees in Botswana but Tarangire's trees were bigger and less damaged by elephants. We stopped at a waterhole where a few wildebeest, zebra and warthogs came to drink. From time to time we encountered giraffe that were always eating leaves on the top branches of acacia trees. We added one sleepy cheetah, several waterbuck, a group of banded mongoose, and a wide variety of birds including the colorful lilac breasted roller to our list of sightings. After about three hours of game drive we left the park and headed to our first tented camp.
After a very rough ride off the main paved road we arrived at Maramboi Tented Camp adjacent to Tarangire National Park at 6:00pm. The reception and dining areas had high vaulted ceilings and were on raised decks where we saw a classic African sunset. After a drink and orientation, we walked to our tents. The walk to the 30 tents was a raised sand path - annoying and tricky to navigate. As usual, we were told to always be accompanied by a guard after dark. Dinner was served about 7:30pm and we enjoyed sharing our meal with Raphael who continued to teach us about animals, birds, trees and the history of Tanzania. By 9:00pm we were escorted to our spacious tent and ready for bed.
September 9, 2012 - Another Visit to Tarangire National Park
Since we entered the park yesterday at 2:00pm our entrance fee was valid until 2:00pm today which meant we were up at 5:30am for an early game drive. We had a quick bite to eat and then packed a box breakfast for ourselves. As on the previous day and through most of the trip, until we reached the northern Serengeti, there were picnic areas with washrooms of varying quality where we could stop during the day.
That morning on the drive back to the park, we passed more Maasai youths tending small herds along the roadside. The landscape was incredibly rocky and we learned that the Maasai gather stones and sort them into piles of similar sizes along the roadside. Cement brick makers and builders cruise the roads and stop to negotiate with the Maasai to purchase piles of stones. At one point we slowed down to look at the piles of stones and young Maasai boys appeared quickly out of nowhere hoping to sell stones to us or offer to pose for a photo for compensation.
We saw our first large herds of wildebeest slowly making their way towards the waterhole in a mini migration. Zebra are frequent travel companions to the wildebeest and are thought to guide the wildebeests to water. It is thought the zebras have imprinted in their memory the migration trail and the route to the waterholes. We watched the large herd enjoy drinks and baths in the waterhole for about an hour. At about 9:30am we ate our boxed breakfasts at a campsite under social weaver nests.
Raphael showed us a poacher's hideout in a large baobab tree. The tree was hollow and large enough for several men to conceal themselves and their contraband from the authorities. We saw several parades of elephants throughout the day, and numerous water birds at the waterhole. We drove down to the Tarangire River where animals and birds gathered to quench their thirsts. A large "dazzle" of zebra came to the river, drank and left in a very orderly fashion. The most unusual sight was a wildebeest carcass from a leopard kill hanging from the limb of a tree that now fed a tawny eagle.
We returned to camp around 3:00pm and had a lunch of salads with small dishes of pasta, vegetables and cabbage. It was great to have some time to relax although we decided against a bush walk to Lake Manyara in the late afternoon. Dinner was at 8:00pm with Raphael and then to bed. Our time at Maramboi and Tarangire would end in the morning but the images so many elephants, wildebeest, zebra and birds would last in our photographs and in our memories.
Monday, September 10, 2012 - From Maramboi to Lake Manyara National Park & Kirurumu Tented Lodge
We all were awakened at 6:30am by a cacophony of animal sounds. It was as if a switch had been turned on. We ate breakfast on Maramboi's deck and watched a lone zebra patiently standing in a dry waterhole. After we checked out about 9:00am a female porter carried one of the large duffel bag on her head. This is a common way for woman to carry goods - we saw some amazing feats of balance by women during our travels in Tanzania.
Today we were driving to Lake Manyara National Park (200 sq miles). The western boundary of the park is an escarpment of the Great Rift Valley. The park is known for the flamingos that inhabit its alkaline lake. We were able to catch a glimpse of them at a very great distance as we left Maramboi.
The Maasai are permitted to bring their herds into the game control areas to reach waterholes which are filled by rain as there are no springs in this area. Since the Maasai in Eastern Africa no longer live nomadic lives, they live in small villages, usually one man's family to each village. One Maasai man will have many wives. There is a high mortality rate among the women and infants. Generally, when Maasai women are pregnant, they do not do any work. The chores are taken over by younger females in the family. Girls are valued more than boys as they bring dowries and assure growth and stability of the family. Girls can be married after they are 12 years old. Men usually take a wife after they are 20 years old. Men must possess cattle to pay the dowry before they can take a wife. Some become cattle thieves to accumulate cattle, though never stealing from their own tribe. The main food of the Maasai is meat, blood and milk so the cattle are vital to the survival.
We drove through a new town being established by the government to encourage those who live in the flood prone areas of Mo Wa Mbu (Swahili for Mosquito Creek) at the base of the escarpment to relocate to a more suitable environment. This new town has a large main street with permanent buildings and homes as well as government schools. It is located at the junction of a new road to the Serengeti. The inhabitants vary but are mostly Bantu. The population is expected to reach 250,000 in the coming years. The landscape is green all year round as there are many underground creeks and springs. Crops are grown year round and include bananas, sugar cane, rice and sweet potatoes. During the dry season the farmers use irrigation.
Monday, September 10, 2012 (Continued) - Lake Manyara National Park and Kirurumu Tented Lodge
We arrived at Lake Manyara National Park about 11:00am and after a short stop at the welcome center we proceeded on our game drive. The road was populated with vervet and Sykes monkeys and olive baboons scurrying everywhere, grooming each other and carrying hitchhiking babies. The rainforest was filled with small streams, waterfalls and dense forests. This area was quite different from the arid and bleak landscape of our days in Tarangire. We encountered a small herd of elephants and watched a baby nursing. Raphael guessed the baby was less than two weeks old. We found the hippo pool and watched them lolling in the water. We stopped for lunch at a picnic ground part way up the escarpment which provided a great view of the forest and lake below. During our game drive which last several hours we saw zebra and wildebeest on the daily trek to water, giraffe on the shores of the shallow lake, a wide variety of birds and an exciting close encounter about 4:00pm with a herd of elephants. The elephants ranged from huge bulls, to several nursing mothers, a batch of energetic adolescents and of course, several adorable "little" ones. We watched the herd as they approached our vehicle and one of them came so close that zoom lenses were unnecessary. Two of the adolescents engaged in a tussle in the middle of the road that was more playing than fighting. We all took great photos of the encounter and we captured it all on video. We left the park at 6:00pm and saw a beautiful sunset on our short drive to our next tented camp.
We arrived at Kirurumu Tented Lodge at 6:30pm. This lodge has 27 tented rooms and overlooks the Rift Valley from the top of the escarpment. The dining lodge was well appointed, the wait staff well trained, and the food was excellent - perhaps the best of all. After dinner we turned in and went to sleep to the sound of frogs loudly croaking.
Tuesday, September 11, 2012 - Lake Manyara National Park and a Maasai Nature Walk at Kirurumu
We were up very early in the morning because we could hear a loud speaker from the mosque in the town below calling for morning prayers - at 5:30am! Once again we were in the vehicle for another game drive before 6:30am and we were greeted with a beautiful sunrise. Our entry was valid until about noon so that necessitated the pre-dawn departure. Our first sighting was a baboon family sitting by the road. As the sun rose we watched a large parade of wildebeest and zebra walk slowly across the grasslands. The glow of the rising sun was reflected off their bodies. As on previous days Raphael was able to spot countless birds for us as he was driving - we had trouble finding them with binoculars! We stopped for our boxed breakfasts about 8:30am at the same picnic ground as the day before. We watched the graceful giraffe walk along the lake's shoreline. One lone elephant appeared as we were driving towards the exit and our final sighting in Lake Manyara National Park was a group of Sykes monkeys.
We returned for lunch at Kirurumu before noon and then downloaded photos, did some laundry and rested until about 4:00pm when we went on a walk around the grounds with a Maasai guide for about an hour. He pointed out all of the native plants and trees and described how they were used by the Maasai to treat yellow fever, vomiting, pneumonia, diarrhea, gout and other ailments. This was the first and only day during our two week safari that we actually had down time and the view from our tents' porch made the quiet time even more enjoyable. We enjoyed another great meal and again went to bed early. Both of the tented camps had 24 hour electricity and hot water but during the night the electrical power came from batteries and the light fixtures were too dim for reading so sleep was the best option.
Wednesday, September 12, 2012 - Kirurumu Tented Lodge to the Ngorongoro Crater
We indulged in a leisurely breakfast and at 10:00am we set off from Kirurumu to the Ngorongoro Crater. The road was dotted with strips of stops through the small and dusty towns. We see students in uniforms walking to school, some taking a chicken or bag of flour to trade for their education. Homes are built with adobe bricks and are in various states of completion. The homes are completed as the owners are able to purchase additional bricks.
We decided to stop at a large souvenir shop. Most of the large craft and souvenir shops are owned by Asian Indians, however, this one did return some of the profits to the local residents. It was a huge shop and we all were able to make some nice purchases as gifts and as mementos from Tanzania. The population in this area is 60% Iriqui. The soil is good and provides a fertile agricultural area. An electrical substation was an anomaly along the road but all of the wires then go underground up to the crater. By noon we reached the entrance to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area where we spent some time exploring the exhibits in the visitor's center while Raphael tackled the bureaucratic paper work.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) was designated a national conservation area in 1959 and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. The Ngorongoro Crater is a large volcanic caldera ten miles wide and twelve miles long. The first Europeans set foot in the crater in 1892. The Ngorongoro area originally was part of the Serengeti National Park when it was created by the British in 1951. Maasai continued to live in the newly created park until 1959, when repeated conflicts with park authorities over land use led the British to evict them to the newly declared Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The Maasai can graze their cattle on the rim and use the waterholes in the crater. The NCA is the only conservation area in Tanzania which provides protection status for wildlife while allowing human habitation. Land use is controlled to prevent negative effects on the wildlife population.
After crossing into the conservation area about 12:30pm we begin the climb to the crater rim road. The crater rim road is a narrow, barely two lane, dirt packed road. The gorge on our left is very deep. The road is level with the tops of giant trees growing out of the gorge. Red dust is everywhere and coats the foliage on the roadsides. Raphael pointed out gouges in the slopes bordering the road. These are made by elephants digging for minerals. We stopped at an overlook for a view of the crater and caught our first views of the crater by 1:00pm. We were amazed at the landscape before us. We saw a group of small black dots which were actually Cape buffalo on the floor of the crater.
Wednesday, September 12, 2012 (Continued) - Ngorongoro Crater to the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge
At the overlook there was a small stone monument and plaque honoring Bernhard Grzimek and his son Michael. Grzimek is most famous for the work he undertook for the conservation of the Serengeti. He spent several years studying the wildlife there along with his son Michael. In 1959 Michael was killed in an air crash. The elder Grzimek wrote a best-selling book called Serengeti Shall Not Die, which was key in driving the creation of the Serengeti National Park. When he died in 1987 he was buried next to his son at the overlook. He prophesied in his book the following: "Large cities continue to proliferate. In the coming decades and centuries, men will not travel to view marvels of engineering, but they will leave the dusty towns in order to behold the last places on earth where God's creatures are peacefully living. Countries which have preserved such places will be envied by other nations and visited by streams of tourists. There is a difference between wild animals living a natural life and famous buildings. Palaces can be rebuilt if they are destroyed in wartime, but once the wild animals of the Serengeti are exterminated no power on earth can bring them back."
After passing several large and expensive lodges, we stopped for a quick lunch in the vehicle to avoid the aggressive black kites, then we descended into the crater via the north wall and exited via the east wall later in the day. Tourism in the crater is limited as permits are purchased for each 24 hour period. We spent the afternoon in the crater and needed to exit by closing time at 6:00pm.
Our adventure sighting of the day was the recent kill of a Cape buffalo by lions. When we came upon the scene, two lions were still gnawing at the freshly killed buffalo while another slept nearby, worn out from the attack. Further on we saw a lioness that appeared to have a black mask. We learn later that she had probably been involved in the Cape buffalo attack and had been mauled, her face was nearly pulled apart and now was a mass of dried blood. Several ranger vehicles were around her. Later Raphael learned they had administered a tranquilizer and were observing her and were also providing her with protection from predators which could sense her injury and weakness. During our four hours on the crater floor we saw a group of grandfather (meaning, old) Cape buffalo, naturally some wildebeest and zebra, a group of grey crowned cranes (the national bird of Tanzania), gazelle, and many, many different birds. The favorite bird was a male Kori Bustard who strutted about with his feathers and tail all puffed up.
We left the crater just before closing and arrived at the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge just before a hazy sunset. The Lodge was perched on the eastern rim of the crater and offered a spectacular view from its rear deck. Due to our late arrival we were given rooms down the hill and far from the reception area. The lodge has 100 rooms; they are spacious and have large, tiled showers. However, there was hot water for showers only from 6:00 to 8:00pm. The furnishings were adequate but dated. We settled in but found that our rooms did not provide us with a view of the crater. Dinner is in a large dining room and is just fair in taste and selection. We also asked that our rooms be moved for the second night. Complimentary Internet access was available in the lobby for the first time so we spent some time catching up on email and current events including the attack in Benghazi. Soon we retired to our rooms and were quickly ready to sleep.
Thursday, September 13, 2012 - Another Day Exploring the Ngorongoro Crater
We were up and ready for another early morning game drive. Beforehand we left our duffels packed and locked so that our rooms could be changed during the day. We had a light snack at the breakfast buffet which was good even at 6:00am. We gathered our boxed breakfasts and headed back into the crater. We had another day crammed with wildlife. First we revisited the site of the Cape buffalo kill and there was not a trace of the carcass left. The vultures and hyenas were busy during the night! Next we saw a small group of lions on a ridge overlooking a waterhole that could attract their next meal. One of the lionesses might have been the one that was mauled during the Cape buffalo kill. Her face was discolored and she did not move very much. Then we were treated to a pair of ostriches mating. At 8:30am we stopped at a hippo pool with very lazy hippos in the Gorigor Swamp. We snacked on our boxed breakfast but ate in the vehicle to avoid the chill wind and attacks from the aggressive birds. After eating we saw our only black rhino of the trip about 10:00am. We had seen white rhino in South Africa but the black rhino are much rarer.
Across Lake Magadi we could just make out a flock of lesser and greater flamingos. At the hippo pool in the Mandusi Swamp we saw livelier hippos and various water birds that were more interesting to photograph than the lethargic hippos. We saw several other groups of lions across the crater floor. About noon we stopped and watched one sleeping on her back in a complete state of relaxation, peeing on cue for more than two minutes straight. We then drove through the Lerai Forest which was the only area besides the Mandusi and Gorigor Swamps where green plants and trees were growing. Our 24 hour pass expired about noon but we extended our stay until about 2:00pm before climbing the ascent road on the east rim of the crater.
When we returned to the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge about 2:30pm, we were taken to our new rooms which were on the second level, closer to the lobby and now had a great view of the crater. We had a late lunch and wandered the lovely grounds of the Sopa; it was way too cool to consider using the swimming pool. Then it was time to relax and use the Internet before taking afternoon naps. Sunset was once again quite hazy but it was special to watch it over the Ngorongoro Crater nonetheless. Dinner was at 7:30pm and it was a fairly good buffet. The Sopa Choir entertained us while we ate and then about 9:15pm we took the very short walk back to our new rooms for another night of deep sleep.
Friday, September 14, 2012 - Ngorongoro Crater to the Oldupai Gorge
We were up and ready for another early departure after Sopa's breakfast buffet at 6:30am. By 7:00am we departed Sopa with boxed lunches to drive back around the crater rim, descended west into the vast and barren landscape and traveled along a washboard road to the Oldupai Gorge. The landscape changed from red dust to brown dust and a vast empty plain with little vegetation. After about two hours we arrived at the Oldupai Gorge.
Olduvai Gorge, the archaeological site also known as "The Cradle of Mankind", is a steep-sided ravine in the Great Rift Valley. It is in the southeastern Serengeti plains in northern Tanzania and is about 30 miles long. The name Olduvai is a misspelling of Oldupai Gorge, which was adopted as the official name in 2005. Oldupai is the Maasai word for the wild sisal plant, which grows in the gorge. We encountered both spellings during our visit.
Louis and Mary Leakey were the archaeologists responsible for most of the excavations and discoveries of the hominid fossils in Olduvai Gorge. Their finds at Olduvai Gorge convinced most paleoanthropologists that humans originally evolved in Africa and radically altered the accepted ideas about the time scale of human evolution. They also found and studied more than 2,000 stone tools and flakes at the site, which were classified as Oldowan tools. Louis Leakey's son Jonathan found the first specimen of Homo habilis, a jaw fragment, at Olduvai in 1960. The most recent find was a set of early hominid footprints. The footprints are currently sealed to prevent deterioration; however, the site received a grant to construct in the future a secure structure which would allow the footprints to be safely uncovered and available for viewing and further study.
We paid the entrance fee of $20 per person and entered the visitor's area. We explored the small museum which displayed many of the artifacts found by the Leakeys and listened to an excellent presentation by a resident archaeologist about the history of the site and its current operation. Our visit lasted about 90 minutes and was a worthwhile stop. We left the Gorge about 11:00am and as we continued the drive to the entrance to the Serengeti, the landscape became a little more green and lush. The herds of cattle and goats were larger and better nourished. There were many Maasai sitting by the side of the road waiting for any transportation to come along. As well, we continued to see solitary Maasai men walking across the plain.
Friday, September 14, 2012 (Continued) - Serengeti National Park and Mbuzi Mawe Tented Camp
We finally arrived at Naabi Gate, the actual gate into the Serengeti National Park, at noon. It was crowded with safari vehicles, trekkers and bugs. The guys hiked up the hill for a view of the plains. We visited the small museum, ate lunch in the picnic area and then waited while Raphael got our entry permits processed. It was hot, noisy and generally unpleasant. We were happy to finally get on our way into the park by 2:00pm. The only advantage of the long wait was being out of the vehicle for a couple of hours.
The Serengeti National Park is most famous for its annual migration of over two million wildebeest and 250,000 zebra. The Maasai people had been grazing their livestock in the open plains which they knew as "endless plain" for around 200 years when the first European explorers visited the area. The park was established in 1951. The Serengeti gained more fame after the work of Bernhard Grzimek and his son Michael in the 1950s. Together they produced the book and film "Serengeti Shall Not Die", widely recognized as one of the most important early pieces of nature conservation documentary.
As part of the creation of the park, and in order to preserve wildlife, the resident Maasai were moved to the Ngorongoro highlands. There is still considerable controversy surrounding this move, with claims made of coercion and deceit on the part of the British colonial authorities. The Serengeti is Tanzania's oldest national park. The park covers 5,700 square miles. The park lies in the north of the country, bordered to the north by the national Tanzania and Kenyan border. Human habitation is forbidden in the national park with the exception of researchers and staff of the various lodges and hotels. The main settlement is Seronera which houses the majority of research staff and the park's main headquarters, including its primary airstrip. The Serengeti is believed to hold the largest population of lions in Africa due in part to the abundance of prey species. Currently more than 3,000 lions live in this ecosystem. As a result of the biodiversity and ecological significance of the area, the park has been listed by UNESCO as one of the World Heritage Sites.
The trip from the Serengeti gate to our next camp was a great game drive. After passing Simba Kopjes we saw two lionesses on an old termite mound scanning for prey; one of them wore a tracking collar. Starlings, rollers, weavers and a lone Secretary bird kept the cameras busy until everyone - meaning about 25 other safari vehicles spotted a cheetah and three small cubs in the tall grasses about 4:00pm. We stayed with the cheetah for about 30 minutes when we moved on to a leopard lolling by a tree. The leopard was quite far away and merely moved its head back and forth watching all the onlookers. We saw a beautiful rainbow at 5:30pm after a brief rain shower as we continued driving north to Mbuzi Mawe Tented Camp which we finally reached at 6:15pm just before sunset.
After a 12 hour day of viewing wildlife we were delighted to be finally at the camp which is located in the north-central Serengeti. It is known as the place of the klipspringer (Swahili: mbuzi mawe) and is nestled among three million year old granite towers. There were 16 luxury ensuite tents. We had beautiful and spacious accommodations with tiled floors, modern bathrooms with double sinks and a rain shower. We checked in and went to the lobby area for a 7:00pm cultural show followed by dinner at 7:30pm which was excellent and then to bed.
Friday, September 15, 2012 - Game Drive in Seronera Area and Another Night at Mbuzi Mawe Tented Camp
We were up at 7:00am for a relatively late 7:30am breakfast. We left at 8:00am for our game drive in the Seronera region of the national park. The camp is named for the klipspringer, a small antelope which is generally found on top of the rocks scattered between the tents. The klipspringer eyes are on the side of their head to provide them with a wider range of view. Their hair is coarse and cushions any falls on the rocks and the hooves are cloven with a rubbery bottom to help grip the rocks. As we drove south we passed evidence of a porcupine road kill. Just the spines were scattered on the road. We spotted a group of topi with their characteristic dark patches near the road. We watched a male Impala with his harem as he chased a female who was attempting to break away. We saw another male impala but this one had lost one of its horns, probably in a fight with another male. A herd of zebra grazed nearby and we watched them as they watched us. A very tall giraffe wandered by stopping at every bush and tree for a bite or two. We saw our first crocodile at a hippo pool where once again the hippos were pretty lethargic. A long line of Cape buffalo crossed the road in front of our vehicle. They were fearsome looking animals and were intimidating since we were vastly outnumbered. When they cross the roads, traffic comes to a stop. Of course the oxpeckers were at work on the backs and snouts of several buffalo.
About 12:45pm we had lunch at a picnic spot with a few educational displays and well-maintained rest rooms. Most of the restrooms in the national parks we visited were in excellent condition - far better than restrooms in NYC subway stations! During our one hour lunch break we watched rock and tree hyrax scoot around looking for handouts under each picnic table. They were very cute! When we continued our drive we found the birds to be plentiful and we continued to be amazed how Raphael could spot a little bee-eater a hundred yards away. He needed to do some paperwork at the small airstrip related to our accommodations in the northern Serengeti so we spent some time waiting and relaxing.
At 4:30pm we stopped at another hippo pool that was teeming with the huge bodies. At the same time we were identifying several water birds which we had not seen previously. The cutest was a mother Egyptian Goose with her flock of little chicks. The little ones stayed very close to mom. We wanted to catch hippos yawning and they were very accommodating by opening wide for the camera. It had been a lower keyed day without any exceptional or exciting sightings but nonetheless we thought it was a great day in the central Serengeti. We returned to camp, showered and relaxed before we enjoyed another performance by local dancers and acrobats. We had another excellent dinner and went to bed early in our wonderful accommodations.
Sunday, September 16, 2012 - Another Day in Seronera in the Central Serengeti and Mbuzi Mawe
We woke up to a beautiful, clear, crisp morning. Klipspringers greeted us as we walked to breakfast at 7:30am. Before we set out for our 8:00am game drive Raphael introduced us to a dung beetle - one of the little five! We started out and encountered another dazzle of zebra with their companion wildebeest. By now we think we have seen all of the millions of wildebeest but in the next few days we were in for several surprises in that assessment. Topi which appeared to have a dark blue tattoo on their hind quarter were also grazing nearby; we had only seen these large antelopes in the Serengeti. As we crossed a stream we saw a young crocodile and its reflection on the still water. At about 10:00am we encountered a proud "tusker' - AKA elephant, which struck classic poses for us - front, back and side profiles. The full front view with flared ears was the most impressive.
At last, we again saw the first cheetah, a female with her three cubs, resting on some rocks. They were too far away and really tough to see, but Raphael had great eyes. We observed the cheetah family for the next hour as they moved across the grasslands, rested from time to time, stopped under another tree, and then disappeared into the grasses. Next we spied a very sleepy leopard atop rocks and nearly hidden by tree branches. After a quick lunch in the vehicle we drove around interesting rock formations until Raphael shouted "Simba, Simba!" and we came upon a male and female lion resting on the side of the road. A bit later we were excited to see an adult cheetah and her one cub at the side of the road where they posed for the assembled cameras until they walked off into the tall grasses and disappeared. Then as we drove into a rest area to mark our territory, we saw a female warthog nursing her six babies. We watched in fascination as the little piggies eagerly nursed on both sides of the female. We saw two Lappet faced vultures in classic poses at the top of an acacia tree.
We returned to Mbuzi Mawe about 4:30pm, rested and showered and watched the nightly entertainment of singing and acrobatics at 7:00pm. The Kahabi International Sanaa Group posted an email address in case we wanted to hire them for an event we were planning! We then enjoyed another nice dinner and headed back to the tents for our last night at this camp. Three night stays were the perfect pace and much preferred to one night stays.
Monday, September 17, 2012 - Mbuzi Mawe Tented Camp to the Lobo Hills
We woke to another clear sunny day. Raphael said it was time to apply bug repellent as we would be traveling into the woodlands. Bugs already found the wives but now their husbands conceded to use the spray also. Raphael said today would be a day of wildebeest and zebra! We asked, "How can there be more?" At 8:00am we checked out and said our Asante Sana and Karibu to the staff at Mbuzi Mawe which was a great place to stay at the mid-point of our time on safari. As we drove north we continued to see many rock hyrax and klipspringers scampering over the kopjes and rocks. About 9:00am we met a pair of imposing Cape buffalo and another dazzle of zebra. Our zebra viewing was rewarded with several nursing zebra. Off on the horizon we saw a long line of Thomsons Gazelles. We stopped near a Whistling Thorn tree, a relative of the acacia. Ants burrow into the black berries and eat the pulp, then use the berry shell as a nest. The ants actually protect the tree as they bite the muzzle of animals that come to eat the berries. It sounded like a nice symbiotic relationship to us.
We began to see lots of carcasses strewn across the landscape, casualties of the migration. Most of the remains were wildebeest. All varieties of vultures and Marabou stork congregated on the casualties while jackals waited nearby. We also saw elephants, vervet monkeys, topi and a majestic eland. A gazelle stood perfectly still between two lionesses; one was out in broad daylight and the other crouched under a bush. Later we watched a lioness sleep on her back near a recent wildebeest kill. Lions really do behave like kittens - just much bigger. At 10:00am we reached the migration - thousands and thousands of wildebeest walking in a line that reached as far as our eyes could see. It took about 30 minutes for the line of wildebeest to pass. All day we continued to see more zebra, thousands of wildebeest and Thomsons gazelles following the migration trail. It seemed as if every female zebra was pregnant. It was not unusual to see a zebra which was pregnant and still nursing its young. Most wildebeest mating occurs during a three- to four-week period at the end of the rainy season, March to April. Female wildebeest give birth in the middle of a herd rather than alone. The gestation period is about 8.5 months; calves are able to stand within seven minutes and run with the herd in less than two hours from birth, an evolutionary trait to protect the young from predators.
Monday, September 17, 2012 (Continued) - The Lobo Hills to Simiyu Exclusive Mobile Camp
About 1:00pm we reached the Lobo Hills where Agama lizards and curious starlings added bright colors to the scene. We stopped at a special campsite near Lobo Lodge for lunch; the surroundings were great but the facilities were far too rustic. After lunch we stopped and watched first a large herd of Cape buffalo staring us down and then a group of elephants on a hillside. Two youngsters were playing with each other, one obviously getting the upper hand, until Mom came in with a nudge to break it up. Elephants' behaviors were one of the most fascinating aspects of our sightings. On the way to camp we had our first water/mud hazard. We got out of the vehicle to lighten the load and thanks to Raphael's skills and four wheel drive, the mud trap was left behind. Standing in the middle of the Serengeti put random thoughts into our heads, especially since the guides cannot carry any firearms - unlike Botswana where each vehicle had a rifle.
We arrived at Simiyu Exclusive Mobile Camp Tented Camp at 4:30pm. This was the most primitive of our camps. Each unit was fully tented with a soft floor. These camps are completely portable. They are packed up and moved to three different locations each year to maximize guests' proximity to the migration trail. We learn that at 6:00pm an attendant would come around and pour 25 liters of hot water into a vat above our shower. We pulled the chain to get wet, soaped up and pulled the chain again to rinse off. We joined other guests around a campfire and then had dinner in the dining tent while our batteries charged in the kitchen area. Raphael was able to join us for dinner and we had an interesting conversation with him regarding his children and their aspirations for future careers.
Tuesday, September 18, 2012 - The Northern Serengeti Amid Countless Wildebeest
We were up before 6:30am, packed up and ready for breakfast which was cooked outside the Simiyu EMC dining tent with the cook offering eggs to order, fruit and pastries. Considering the remote location and the lack of permanent facilities EMC was a delightful one night stay. We were back on the bumpy and dusty dirt roads. The first sightings were several unique water birds that we had not seen previously - a hammerkop and a woolly necked stork.
There were more casualties of the migration and the stench of the rotting carcasses was heavy in the air. We watched one vulture indulge in a wildebeest carcass without any competition from other scavengers. After less than an hour on our game drive we encountered a huge herd of wildebeest covering the horizon in a never ending line. The zebra were also plentiful and we could tell the young ones as they appear to be more brown than grey in color. We saw the hills of Kenya on the horizon. Within another hour we found another huge herd of wildebeests and the tag-along zebra. The next encounter with the migrating wildebeest and zebra shifted the balance and there were more of the latter. The pattern continued where we saw one large herd after another. By now we were convinced that there were way more than two million wildebeests since we have seen that many times over in our estimation!
Suddenly a blue water lily captured our attention and we learned it was a Blue Egyptian or sacred blue lily in the genus Nymphaea. Its original habitat was probably along the Nile and other locations in East Africa. It spread to other locations like the Indian Subcontinent and Thailand in ancient times. The leaves were broadly rounded at 10 to 12 inches across, and the flowers were 4 to 6 inches in diameter. It was a nice diversion to see a unique flower after concentrating on mammals and birds most of the time.
About 12:30pm we finally saw an elusive leopard, barely visible however, in a tree. We watched and photographed it until it slithered down the tree and disappeared where we were not permitted to follow. At least for about 20 minutes we had a leopard in a tree in our sights. Since there were no picnic grounds or rest areas in the far northern part of the Serengeti we made use of a bush washroom with a commanding view of wildebeests chomping on the grass. We also made do by having another lunch in the vehicle while parked amid wildebeest, zebra and a solitary Cape buffalo under a tree. Insect bites were becoming more of a problem for the wives while the guys seemed to be immune!
Tuesday, September 18, 2012 (Continued) - Game Drive to Sayari Camp
A herd of elephants caught our eye and we watched for almost an hour as they gave themselves mud showers. The youngsters playfully wallowed in the small mud pool and the adults appeared to be doting on the little ones. The adults carefully shielded the young ones from view when the wandered into the open or seemed to be heading too close to our vehicle. At 3:30pm we stopped and viewed the Mara River for the first time but there were no wildebeests interested in crossing at that time. The highlands of Kenya were in the distance. We scooted off road for a couple of minutes to quickly look at a sleeping male lion and we sneaked in one souvenir photograph. We came upon wildebeest and zebra drinking from a small tributary of the Mara River and then had a thrilling crossing of one of those streams on a "bridge" that was actually huge boulders.
A few minutes later we arrived at our last camp, Sayari Camp, in the Mara region of the Serengeti. The camp was located close to the Mara River and in a great spot to see the migration trail. It is part of the Asilia Camps and Lodges in East Africa. We were welcomed by Maggie, the assistant director and given a brief orientation to the property. The accommodations were luxurious. The tented rooms had sliding glass doors and a large modern bathroom area, with many views of the outdoors. We settled in and attempted to use the Internet but the system was not functional beyond the office. Once again we are told to wait for an escort after dark. We joined other guests at a bonfire, then we had dinner about 8:00pm. Here all of the guests sat at one long table and there were about 20 of us. The dinner was excellent and we enjoyed conversations with the other guests. Dinner was a slower paced affair and we did not return to our tents until after 10:00pm. Fortunately Raphael had agreed to a somewhat later start time for the next morning.
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Another Game Drive from Sayari Camp
After a brilliant sunrise at 6:30am we discovered the remarkable pool at Sayari the bottom of which was formed from the huge boulders covering the area. Too bad there was no free time to enjoy the unusual pool; it was also a bit chilly that morning for a swim! We had breakfast and were off on another adventure by 8:00am. Raphael told us we would spend part of the day along the Mara River in hopes of seeing a wildebeest crossing. Our sightings began with the nimble klipspringer and the usual array of wildebeest, zebra, impala and birds of all sorts, including a yellow-throated longclaw high in an acacia tree. Plus there were wildebeest carcasses of only bones, horns, teeth and clumps of fur. We saw our first baby impala trying to keep up with its mother and a male impala was marking his territory.. We encountered three stealth lions resting and watching from the bushes.
We reached the Mara River before 9:00am to see large groups of hippos in the river alongside Nile crocodiles. We could not help but notice the putrid odor of rotting wildebeest carcasses scattered in the river with eager scores of Marabou storks and vultures ready to partake. A baby and mother hippo caught our eye as they wandered on rocks at the edge of the river; the size difference between the two was amazing. Before we left the river a huge hippo walked over to our vehicle before making its way back to the water. It was the closest hippo encounter.
We drove away from the river and were surrounded by a very rocky landscape. Huge rocks had ficus trees growing out of them and the trees eventually split the rocks. As we drove around one large rock formation, we saw several lions sleeping on a ledge. They were resting their heads on each other and we could barely make out where one began and the other ended. One of the lions woke up briefly and looked directly at us before going back to sleep. We briefly caught a glimpse of a leopard in the same area. About 1:30pm we had lunch, once again sitting in the vehicle; the Sayari lunches were much more interesting compared to the previous box lunches since we had skewered roasted potatoes, samosas, sauteed veggie sandwiches, and sodas to drink!
Wednesday, September 19, 2012 (Continued) - Wildebeest Crossing and Another Night at Sayari Camp
We encountered another large group of wildebeest and zebra about 3:00pm while we were driving back towards Sayari. Around 4:00pm as we forded yet another stream we heard reports on the radio that a group of wildebeest was massing on the other side of the Mara River. We arrived at the location and watched as the wildebeest made tentative moves towards the river shore, then retreated and slowly moved downstream to another location about 4:15pm. There were crocodiles lurking on an island near both of these locations and we wondered if the wildebeest were aware of them. The wildebeest moved downstream to a beach-like area about 4:40pm but after lingering there for a while they moved further downstream.
We followed the herd for an hour and a half until they were at a grassy area just downstream from the concrete causeway into the Lamai Wedge and near the local airstrip at the Kogatende ranger station. We watched and waited. A few reached the river's edge and finally one started across followed by the entire herd about 5:15pm. They had chosen a crossing place that was free of predators, no crocodiles! We watched as they leaped into the water and swam across. We had a perfect view of the crossing and we were sharing the view with just one other vehicle. By 5:30pm they were all on our side of the river! It was not a mega-crossing but it was an amazing experience. We filmed the seven minute crossing for posterity. Right after the crossing we noticed a pair of Steppe eagles high in a tree overlooking the river. Since there were no causalities on this crossing the eagles would not have wildebeest for dinner that night. We returned to camp bursting with the news of the wildebeest crossing we had seen. We felt fortunate to have witnessed this unique event. Dinner provided us with more interesting conversations with our tablemates.
Thursday, September 20, 2012 - Final Day of Safari from Sayari Camp
We woke on our last full day on safari to another brilliant sunrise. After an excellent breakfast we posed for a photograph with Raphael and our trusty Toyota Land Cruiser. We wondered how we could beat the prior day's view of the wildebeest crossing but little did we know we were in for another treat later in the day. Again at 8:00am we began our game drive through more landscapes with boulders haphazardly strewn about. It was fascinating to see how trees take root in small cracks in the boulders, then the trees slowly grow to full height. By 8:30am we encountered impala, cute reedbucks with their pointy horns, and of course herds of wildebeests. For a change some of the wildebeests were walking towards us. We also spotted more vulture conventions feasting on rotting carcasses.
About an hour later we found another elusive leopard sitting on a boulder partially hidden by branches. Around the corner near the same boulder a male lion was fast asleep - also barely visible. These were two more examples of Raphael's superior spotting skills. In the distance the hillsides were dotted with countless wildebeest. Right in front of us a small group of klipspringers climbed over the big rocks. One of them was very young with only tiny little horns beginning to show. The bird sightings did not disappoint us, especially a photogenic Ruppell's starling that posed in different positions. Raphael also spotted a rock hyrax on a ledge with two babies on her back.
At 12:30pm we discovered a group of giraffe that were grazing by the side of the road. A baby giraffe was nursing - a new and amazing sight for us! We had seen so much familial behavior among the animals, with the exception of the wildebeest. They seemed to move as if automatons and exhibited no sense of family that we could detect. Right before lunch we watched a large group of elephants cavorting in a mud bath. The elephant parenting skills once again were impressive and interesting to watch. We ate lunch in the vehicle and found another ideal spot for a bush washroom stop - we missed the convenient picnic grounds and facilities that existed in the Central Serengeti and elsewhere but the lack of other vehicles at every sighting was a better trade off.
Thursday, September 20, 2012 (Continued) - Final Day of Safari from Sayari Camp
Raphael decided it was time to head back to the Mara River and as we approached the river we saw another large group of elephants climbing on a small hill at the other side. Within minutes of stopping at the river's edge we were again rewarded with another crossing - this time it was an elephant crossing! We particularly enjoyed watching the way the adults helped the babies cross the river. Elephants live in clans of up to 30 animals. There is a dominant female and an assistant dominant female in each clan. Once the number reaches 30, the clan splits in half and the assistant has her own group. We could see this societal system at work during the crossing. They entered the water single file with one of the largest elephants at the beginning of the line and the other largest one at the end. There were about a dozen big adults and little ones in the group. When the water was too deep for the little ones, the adults crowded around and basically lifted the babies out of the water by propping them up with their bodies and trunks. We knew elephants could swim based on what we had seen on the Chobe River in Botswana in 2010, but the care and concern they exhibited for their young on this crossing was exceptional. The actual crossing lasted for about ten minutes but the climb up the river bank took a bit longer. Once all the elephants were out of the river they immediately started snacking on the bushes and trees. They had earned a meal. The lead dominant female extended her trunk and trumpeted on the success of the crossing.
We left that group of elephants and soon encountered an even larger group. Half of them were crowded under a tree attempting to cool off in the shade . When Raphael drove closer to the tree the adults tightened the huddle and moved the babies into the center. The other half was enjoying the last bit of mud in a dried small waterhole. We watched for almost an hour as the adults protected the young and as the young played with one another. It was a delightful scene!
The sightings continued as we drove upstream parallel to the river and through the grasslands; we spotted eland, zebra, waterbuck, impala and of course more wildebeest. We saw more hippos in the river and an extensive array of birds on the ground and in trees, including another solo Secretary bird. About 4:45pm Raphael suddenly stopped the vehicle and pointed to the edge of the road. It was a leopard tortoise - another member of the "Little Five": Dung Beetle, Lion Ant, White Headed Buffalo Weaver and Elephant Shrew. We had seen all of them except the Shrew. The last few hours of our game drive were relaxed and productive - nothing thrilling except for crossing another stream on the way back to camp, but very satisfying. At 5:30pm we returned to camp and once again related our latest crossing experience to the staff. We started the process of packing but stopping for another delicious dinner. We had no trouble - "Hakuna Matata" - sleeping well on our last night in the bush!
Friday, September 21, 2012 - The End of Our Safari and Return to Arusha
Sadly we said goodbye to the Sayari Camp staff, an unusual mix of locals and expats. We found the stories of the local staff to be very interesting. Most were hired initially as security and escort guards for the guests. As they spent time at the camp, they learned new skills and moved up in the camp administration. The parent company encouraged this training and provided the staff with annual management seminars. We wondered about the tremendous pool of untapped human resources in this country due to the lack of workplace training. As had been the case each time we left or returned to the camp either Maggie or Tanya were there to wish us well. This time they were both there to send us off!
The drive to the airport was less than 20 minutes and along the way we finally saw some indication of familial behavior from wildebeest when we witnessed a calf nursing. As far as bird sightings on this last drive with Raphael, the only photograph was of the favorite lilac breasted roller. With even more sadness we said goodbye to Raphael when we arrived at the airport about 9:30am for our 10:00 flight back to Arusha. He was a wonderful guide. His knowledge of the wildlife was astounding and we enjoyed his stories about both animal and human behavior. He is a wonderful advocate for his country. We wished him and his family success, happiness and good health and said we hoped to stay in touch from time to time. The "airport" was basically an unpaved landing strip and the tarmac was just a patch of grass next to the Kogatende Ranger Station that looked like a fortress with high walls and barbed wire. It was the first sign of security we had seen in any of the national parks. The station had been built in the 1960's as protection against the poachers who controlled the nearby areas. Those areas have since become part of the Serengeti but the fight against poaching, mostly elephants for the tusks and rhino for their horn, continues. It was ironic that the newspaper handed out on our flight to Tanzania contained a long article about the continuing battle against poaching and as we were leaving we were standing next to a facility that waged such a fight.
We boarded the 12 seat aircraft and enjoyed seeing the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro areas from the air. When we landed at the Arusha airport, we are met by Abdul, another guide from Good Earth Tours, who would take care of us until we left Tanzania the following evening. We stopped at the Cultural Center to eat our Sayari box lunches then went into Arusha to stop at the central post office to try to buy bird stamps. No luck, so we settled for some animal stamps. Once again we drove slowly through Arusha's central district with its chaos, traffic and congestion. We arrived at the Arumeru Lodge and checked in for our one night stay. There was no electricity and the Internet was powered by batteries. The power company turned off the power at noon and it was expected to return at 5:00pm. We later found out that generators were used to provide power for lighting at 5:30pm as the power company did not switch on power until 1:00am. For the first time in two weeks we did nothing but relax, download photos, wander the lovely Arumeru grounds. We ate dinner in the dining room and turned in early since there was literally nothing else to do.
While relaxing in the lounge area of the Arumeru lodge and without the distractions of email and the Internet (The electrical power was off again!) We talked about our favorite moments over the past two weeks. Setting aside the wildebeest and elephant crossings of the Mara River which were truly National Geographic and Kodak Moments, we decided that seeing the interaction of the adult mammals with their young was very special. Sometimes we were able to capture those moments with our cameras but we also captured them in our minds by just watching. The adults escorted, coaxed, nursed, surrounded, nudged, and "took care" of the little ones just as we did as parents and we see our children do with our grandchildren. We will remember those images forever!
September 22, 2012 - Cultural Heritage Center Visit and Flights to Amsterdam and Beyond
Abdul picked us up at 10:00am for the drive to the Cultural Heritage Center. On the way we were surprised to meet Narry Ernest, co-founder of Good Earth Tours and our contact during our trip's planning process. He had returned to Tanzania from Florida. We arrived at the Cultural Heritage Center and walked through the souvenir shops. We made a few purchases but had done more serious shopping at the large shop near the Ngorongoro Crater. Then we walked over to the new art gallery. The building was modeled after the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan with a winding circular ramp connecting the five floors. The gallery housed museum grade African art - photography, carvings, sculpture and paintings. It was definitely worth the visit as the art was excellent in both appearance and its dramatic staging.
After lunch at the center, we returned to the Arumeru River Lodge for a quiet afternoon - once again without electrical power! At 5:00pm Abdul drove us to the airport which took about an hour. What a zoo! There were hundreds of people milling around. We queued up to check in at the KLM counter and then found some seats where we could eat our box snack. We were chased from our spot by insects attacking, so we went through security and found some seats in the gate area. It was hot, crowded, buggy and the washroom facilities were sparse. The duty free shops were not accessible once we went through security so we could only sit and wait for our boarding time. We were relived to board our KLM flight and get underway. As usual, the flight was full and the flight attendants were plentiful. We nibbled on several meals over the 8.5 hour and tried to sleep in spite of the frequent announcements.
September 23, 2012 - Arrival in Amsterdam and Onwards to Our Homes in New Jersey and California
We arrived at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport at 7:00am. Fortunately our duffels were checked through to our final destinations. At the Self Service Transfer kiosks we printed boarding passes for the next legs of our journeys home. At that point we parted company – two of us went to the gate for their 9:50am flight to Los Angeles while the other two settled in for their longer layover before their 1:30pm flight back to Newark's Liberty Airport. For the third time in four years all four had a great time together. We were all in our own homes about 30 hours after leaving the Arumeru lodge in Tanzania - tired but exhilarated after a wonderful experience thanks to great accommodations, beautiful scenery, great service from Good Earth Tours, and expert guiding from Raphael. Now the chore was laundry, sorting through thousands of photographs and hours of video - and start thinking about our next adventure!
And Now for Some Numbers
20,000 Miles we each earned on our Delta/KLM flights
15 Nights in lodges and tented camps
1,484 Miles on game drives and journeys from camp to camp
22 Boxed meals
7 Different accommodations in Tanzania
48 Hours in Amsterdam
18 Months of planning
4 Old friends who enjoyed their third adventure together
2,000,000 Wildebeest migrating and we saw them all!
20 Days away from home
45 Species of mammals and reptiles
6,102 Photographs (before weeding)
5.5 Hours of video recorded and edited for future viewing
10 Times a day "nice bird" was uttered
Less than 60 kg total weight of our four duffels
5 Cameras, 4 Lenses, and 6 Pairs of binocs in the vehicle at all times
Too many tsetse fly bites
166 Species of bird sightings
2 Mara River crossings
105 Hours of game drives to and from camps
1 Internal small aircraft flight
4 International flights
1,457 Photos compiled in two books
3 Tasty beers enjoyed in Tanzania: Tusker, Safari and Serengeti
2 Traffic lights in Arusha, a city of 700,000 people
Countless smiles and "Jambos" from every Tanzanian we met
12 Unidentified mystery birds
Dozens of questions answered by Narry via phone and email
15 Pages of written narrative
Thousands of comments read on the Fodor’s’ and TripAdvisor's Tanzania forums
17 Elephant sightings
4 National parks and conservation areas visited
0 Flat tires on the Toyota Land Cruiser
And 1 Wonderful guide named Raphael
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Two weeks on the Northern Circuit in September 2012 (+48 hrs in Amsterdam!)
The following is long (sorry!) but hopefully the details will help those who are planning a safari on the Northern Circuit in Tanzania. Our experience was awesome! "We" are four old friends who have known one another for more than 50 years so you can guess that we are "seniors!"