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Trip Report - Tanzania Northern Circuit - Otis in Africa - Part III

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Feb 20th, 2011, 11:49 AM
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Trip Report - Tanzania Northern Circuit - Otis in Africa - Part III

Here we go with another report! We hope this is entertaining to many and useful to some. We had a great trip and are looking forward to our next adventure!

Agent, Outfitter: Good Earth Tours (Arusha, Tanzania)
Guide: Moses
Type: Private
Logistics: Driving
Been Before?: Third Safari to East Africa

ITINERARY:
Arusha – Arumeru River Lodge (Overnight on arrival to TZ) 31JAN2011
Tarangire NP – Sopa (1 day/night)
Lake Manyara NP – Serena (1 day/night)
NCA Ndutu Area – Lake Masek Tented Camp (3 days/nights)
Serengeti NP – Sopa (2 days/nights)
NCA Crater – Serena (2 days/nights)
Arusha – Arumeru River Lodge (Day room prior to JRO departure)10FEB2011

Summary Trip Report: This was the absolute best of our three safaris. Amazing sightings, great experiences with our Driver/Guide, comfortable lodgings (wonderful food as always), and very hot and dry weather throughout (even though we hoped for rain for various reasons). Amongst other things: two cheetah hunts, two leopards, two Hoopoes, and a Serval Cat! End of Summary.

PHOTOS: This links to a Picasa gallery with 60 of the most interesting photos. We have about 245 “keepers” out of approx. 2500 we brought home. Also, another 20 short videos. Tip: When gallery opens, click on Slideshow upper left, then F11 to get fullscreen view.

https://picasaweb.google.com/valleyr...eat=directlink

PRELUDE

We (DW and I) returned to Tanzania for our third East Africa safari during the first two weeks of February 2011 (31Jan2011 to 10Feb2011). Our two previous trips (January 2007-TZ and August 2008 – TZ/Kenya) are chronicled in this forum, with a great amount of planning detail that I will omit from this report.

Once again I must express thanks to the terrific folks at the Fodors.com Africa and Middle East Forum who offer so much helpful information, encouragement and enthusiasm about travel to Africa, particularly Tanzania and Kenya. For many of us, the first trip to Africa was a wildly emotional event and the stepping-stone to a continued interest in the Continent, its people, natural beauty, and wildlife. If we can encourage others to go on a first-time wildlife safari, that is a good thing.

PREPARATION

We resolved to re-visit Tanzania’s Northern Circuit late in 2009, with the thought of taking along our two children and their spouses. When that proved impractical for them, DW acceded to my strong desire to return and we began planning a trip just for us. Our plan was to travel later (early February vs. first-trip mid-January) to increase our chances of seeing migration birthing in the Ndutu area. Having had two previous great experiences with Good Earth Tours, we obtained a quotation for a private driving safari for two based on our desired locations, lodging and durations, modified with advice from Narry Ernest at GET’s Tampa, FL office. Based on that quote, we sent GET a deposit in late February 2010.

Refer to our previous trip reports for more detail on planning. For this trip, significant steps included:

- Purchasing and completing Rosetta Stone for Kiswahili. Outdated and clunky (it needs revision to match up with the features in more current RS products), it was better than nothing. While there is no substitute for talking to others in the language being learned, I slogged through it and was glad I did. Talking (kidogo) with staff at the lodges, and our driver and other drivers made up for that non-practice to some extent. If you go beyond Jambo with Tanzanians, they really respond positively. It was particularly fun to see the reaction from other drivers, who typically responded with absolute amazement at the Mzungu asking questions of them or our driver in KS. (Note that Rosetta Stone is not easy or quick – it takes focus and lots of time. I am retired and was able to put that time into it, but it is not something to attempt on a casual basis.)

- I purchased a Canon T2i digital SLR and a Tamron 18-270 lens to augment the Canon S5 P&S that we used on the last safari. I did this in June 2010 and made sure I used the camera sufficiently to understand it. There is nothing that prepares you for the rigor of shooting photos or the dust while in the truck, but you need to try. No lens is enough and our budget allowed for the good-quality Tamron; both camera and lens were terrific. When I couldn’t get close enough, it was a sign that it was time to drop the camera and use the binocs, hakuna matata. Go overboard on protecting your camera from dust – I did not and got lucky.

- We took 16GB of high-speed SD card for photo and video, and another 9GB in “regular” low-speed cards for photo only. Brought home about 2400 photos and 20 videos. Shooting good video is damned hard, and I used the video to augment still photos, vs. trying to be Animal Planet’s next great find. I used most, but not all the of media space I had. I shoot all still photos at “superfine-large”. Not really necessary, but it gives you options for saving photos you might otherwise lose. The biggest problem is the size of my photo files with the T2i – they are monsters!

- I used my trusty-yet-cheap ProMaster monopod and/or a home-made beanbag (8” X 14”) in the truck. Both worked great. If you have any interest in taking good amateur photos, get the monopod; it’s easy to use and works great. I used the monopod both out the top and through the window, as well as on the few occasions we shot photos from outside of the vehicle. In the end, I wished I had used the beanbag more than I did, either alone or to help with the monopod. FYI – My beanbag required 4.5kg of good Tanzanian beans from the Shoprite in Arusha.

THE JOURNEY (At long last!)

Travel to Arusha:

Delta and KLM, Cleveland to NY/JFK (a foul and dirty place) to Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro. It’s tight and nasty in steerage, but worth the trip. We packed cameras, binocs, meds, back-up clothes for first day on safari, and all important documents in carry-ons, and each checked one canvas duffle. Upon arrival in JRO, our bags were the last two on the carousel. Bushbaby from GET met us at the JRO arrivals exit and took us to Arumeru River Lodge for our first night in Tanzania.

Arumeru was a delight compared to previous experiences with both the Arusha and Impala Hotels in Arusha. Clean and secure, with a ceiling fan over the bed, just what we needed. Daylight allowed us to enjoy the beautiful grounds, friendly staff and a delicious breakfast. While waiting for to be picked up after breakfast, we talked at length with Torsten, the husband of the couple that purchased the lodge two years ago. He told us about the work they had done with the property and with staff, and was very enthusiastic about their business and the changes they had made.

Our Driver/Guide, Moses, picked DW and I up at 9am and we were off to Tarangire. We made a quick stop at the Shoprite in Arusha for water and beans. As part of getting to know Moses, we talked about our preference for being on game drives vs. hanging around the pool or lounge at the lodge/camp. If there was a reason to do morning and afternoon drives with a hot lunch in between, that was fine; otherwise, box lunches were good for us.

DAY 1 – Tarangire National Park

We enjoyed Tarangire in January 2007 and did so again on this trip in February. While it’s better/different in August, we had great sightings this trip and enjoyed the woodlands. Tsetses were present and annoying, but not as bad as in 2007. We saw elephant, giraffe, and the usual suspects on the first day traveling down the east bank of the river. The next morning, we drove down to Silale Swamp and saw several elephant groups there. On our way out of the park we saw a Black Mambo on the banks of the Tarangire River, and DW spotted two Bat-eared Foxes (her favorite) as we traveled north up the West Bank Road. Bird sightings included several Hamerkop, a White-bellied Go-away-bird, a Speckled Mousebird, and an African Hoopoe (the first of two that sat for photos on this safari!) There was relatively little traffic in the park on either day and we enjoyed the solitude.

We stayed overnight at the Tarangire Sopa, and enjoyed a good dinner (served at table that night) and breakfast. As is normal for Sopa’s, room was large and clean, with a ceiling fan over the bed. Hot water takes a while to get to your spigot, but there was plenty. (Pay attention to posted times for hot water.)

Weather was mid-90’sF, 75F overnight. Partly sunny on arrival day, with some thunderstorms to the south, and clear/sunny on the following morning as we left.

MORE TO COME.
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Feb 20th, 2011, 12:22 PM
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Gorgeous photos!

Excellent start to your report, I'm looking forward to the rest.
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Feb 20th, 2011, 02:42 PM
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"Most Excellent Photographs" Appreciated the time to cull and label shots for our viewing! And, the African Paradise-flycatcher was our favorite. Looking forward to more of the report.
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Feb 20th, 2011, 05:26 PM
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Thanks Otis! Great photos altho the slide show went by too fast to read the comments.

Hope I'm lucky enough to see a serval in June!

Can't wait for the next installment.
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Feb 20th, 2011, 08:12 PM
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Great report and images! So did you come across many folks doing a self-drive safari in TZ?
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Feb 21st, 2011, 03:02 AM
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We did notice people that were doing self-drive. Several in larger, heavy-duty landcruisers, and probably a half-dozen in small SUV's (and one 4-dr sedan). The SUV's were typically full of people and I cannot imagine they were enjoying themselves much, between the bumps and no visibility.

KathBC - Take charge of scrolling with arrow key and it should slow slideshow.
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Feb 21st, 2011, 05:04 AM
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Otis,
Great Pictures!
Did you do a morning drive in the Crater before driving back to Arusha? If so, How much time did you get to use your day room before the flight?

How were the roads on your long commute days? Which commute would you consider flying?

FrankS
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Feb 21st, 2011, 06:13 AM
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Frank - More detail to come. Yes, we did a morning drive on last day, 7am until just before Noon (a humdinger!) We stopped for lunch/shopping on the way and got to north side of Arusha about 4:30pm, so we had day room for about 3 hours. Our day room was a Arumeru River Lodge, lovely.

We did not have long commutes, other than Manyara to Ndutu area and then Crater to Arusha. Neither were oppressive, especially with pavement much of the latter drive.

Roads were (in general) best condition we remember of three safaris, but tracks are tracks. In Jan2007, we did Northern Circuit, Tarangire, Manyara, Crater, Lake Ndutu, to Serengeti/Seronera, and flew back from Seronera (via Manyara) to Arusha. We did this to eliminate long drives, and given how tired we were at end of safari, it worked well for us. This time I wanted to end at Crater Serena for relaxation and wonders of Crater as a finish to trip. Worked great. Jim.
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Feb 21st, 2011, 08:08 AM
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DAY 2 – Lake Manyara National Park

We arrived at Manyara after lunch. The park was very busy and dusty, in part due to many safari trucks, most driving at high speed on the tracks (much more traffic than we saw at Tarangire.) We saw many giraffe (especially further south in the park), but very few elephants. The hippo pool at the north end of the lake is far from the viewing area and did not offer much in the way of view or sightings. We enjoyed good sightings nonetheless, including many Silvery-cheeked Hornbills and Southern Ground-hornbills, kingfisher, baboon troops, and Syke’s (Blue) Monkey. The following morning we returned to the park, enjoying a quieter, cooler drive and many bird sightings. Our observation was that there did not seem to be many elephant at all in the park, at least in the northern half; Moses offered up that other drivers were not having luck finding elephant or other large animals to satisfy their clients. This was much different from our experience in January 2007, when groups of elephant were all over the northern areas of the park, sometimes blocking the roads!

Overnight was at the Lake Manyara Serena Lodge. Nice room overlooking pool and with good view of the lake, close to lodge (always a plus.) Room was warm, but table fan helped. Food was good, dinner was served at table that evening.

Weather was mid-90’sF, 75-80F overnight, with no breeze. Both days (coming and going) were hazy but sunny. (From this point on, dust and haze were part of the daily experience. Much dust.)

DAY 3 – Lake Masek/Lake Ndutu Area – Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Our travels to Lake Masek took us west on the Japanese Highway to the Lodoare Gate into the NCA and up to the Crater Rim Road, then west toward Serengeti. The Crater Rim Road west was in very good condition, with several repairs ongoing. Although we had the pop-up down, we enjoyed great views to the west and northwest as we traveled past Oldupai and on to the Ndutu Road. We also saw many Maasai (individuals and small groups) and their herds. We arrived at Lake Masek/Lake Ndutu late in the afternoon, and took our time finding our way to the Lake Masek Tented Camp, enjoying the late afternoon light for game drive, enjoying many giraffe, bird sightings and lake views.

We had booked three days at the Lake Masek TC with the expectation that the migration herds would likely be in the area. At this point, it was our understanding that the herds were moving and scattered, searching for better short grass. While disappointed initially that the dry conditions might disrupt our ability to see wildebeest birthing, we went on to thoroughly enjoy our stay at Lake Masek.

For our first full day, the plan was morning and afternoon drives, with hot lunch at the camp. We passed south of Ndutu¸ traveling WNW through the woodland, eventually reaching the Elemeti Swamp. Bird sightings included our second African Hoopoe and a Pearl-spotted Owlet. Shortly after passing the swamp and getting into the open savanna, we came across several trucks watching three cheetah walking to the NW around 10:30am. There were several small herds of mixed wildebeest and zebra in the area, so we settled in to watch the cheetah. Over the course of the next three hours we watched the three walk, sit, lie down and occasionally stalk closer to one of the small herds. Finally, one of the cheetah took the initiative to launch three different runs at the herd, with the third resulting in the takedown of a female wildebeest. Each of the attacks was wildly exciting to watch, animals going everywhere and dust thrown up in the air. We then moved in with about ten other trucks to watch the cheetah eat. They ate gluttonously for over an hour, taking breaks to cool off and then returning to eat more. No other animals bothered them, aside from a growing group of vultures overhead. We finally left the site about 3:30pm, having seen all we needed or cared to. Morbidly fascinating, this was the first hunt, kill and consumption that DW and I had seen in three safaris, start to (almost) finish.

[It is worth noting that our choice, here and in previous trips, to do a private safari allowed us the ability to stay at any sighting as long as we cared to, and to start and stop game drives however we pleased. To us, well worth the expense. To me, the greatest benefit is the ability to relax and enjoy everything about the trip without worrying about others. Selfish? You bet. But we don’t get to go to East Africa whenever we please and it’s expensive.]

On the way back to camp, we enjoyed a sighting of a lioness and three cubs nursing, in the shade of a small acacia. On our return, we enjoyed coffee (several), cookies and fruit out on the dining lodge veranda overlooking Lake Masek, savoring the great day and the promise of a delicious dinner!

More to come….
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Feb 21st, 2011, 04:16 PM
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Great photos, thanks for sharing. I agree with you 100% about the private safari and the ability to stay at sightings, well worth the extra $$ in my opinon.
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Feb 24th, 2011, 04:12 AM
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DAY 4 – Lake Masek/Lake Ndutu Area – (Second day at Lake Masek TC)

For our second day at Lake Masek, we traveled around Lake Ndutu. We encountered a large group of vultures (including several White-headed Vulture) fighting over the remains of a young zebra (great photos and video), several Secretary Birds, and a three foot Monitor Lizard being harassed by shore birds protecting nests. We traveled in the savanna west of Ndutu on the road to Kusini, seeing many birds and small groups of animals, including four large giraffe marching west. In the afternoon we returned to the area south of Lake Masek and saw several groups of elephant and giraffe, along with sightings of an African Marsh Owl, Little Bee-eater and a Yellow White-eye. On our drive back to the camp, within 50 meters of the road from Ndutu to Lake Masek TC, our driver spotted a leopard in an acacia. We had time to take several good photos (in spite of poor light) when the leopard suddenly ran down the tree and took off into the bush. We attempted to follow, but no luck.

We enjoyed our stay at Lake Masek Tented Camp. DW was not enthusiastic about canvas after a poor experience on the first night of our first safari in 2007. We had very much liked Ndutu Safari Lodge in 2007, and would have been happy to return. I convinced DW to give LMTC a try as it appeared to be a nice setting, well-constructed facility, and run by an organization with some experience in safari camps. I was eager to try a tented camp and, being well past the point of doing mobile camping, the substantial platforms and tents seemed a good choice for both of us. For myself, I found the camp relaxing, a nice change from the large Serena and Sopa Lodges. Dining was much calmer, with excellent food and service in the smaller setting of the camp. Having to walk from a relatively remote tent was an adjustment (compared to the more developed lodges), but it was part of the deal and we liked the privacy afforded by the spacing between tents. DW was pleasantly surprised that it was not as noisy at night as we expected, although this might have been much different had the migration herd been in that area as we originally expected. We awakened each morning to hippos grunting at the lake, which is not far from the camp, and bird sounds. On our last night, early in the morning, we heard something dragging something through the gravel under or next to our tent, but weren’t motivated to go explore that! We especially enjoyed coffee on the veranda at the main dining lodge before breakfast and at the end of the days drive.

Weather during our stay at Lake Masek was hot, sunny and hazy. Temperatures were 95-100F during the day, cooling to 75F at night. Cool breezes two of three nights helped with sleeping.

Day 5 - Lake Masek to Serengeti National Park

Today’s plan was a morning drive to explore around Lake Masek, enjoy hot lunch at Lake Masek TC and then travel north to the Serengeti. We spent part of the morning watching small and large herds of zebra at various watering spots, with many birds along the way. Just northwest of Lake Masek we found several small prides of lion and enjoyed watching cubs play. Among other bird sightings we saw several African Wattled Lapwings.

After a leisurely lunch at camp, we stopped at the Ndutu Ranger Station and then proceeded north into the Serengeti National Park toward Naabi Hill. We stopped at the watering spots between Naabi Hill and Simba Kopjes and watch a large group of elephant water and then dust-up for the heat of the afternoon. On the road to the Sopa Lodge we saw an increasing number of wildebeest and zebra herds, and enjoyed bird sightings (including a Pygmy Falcon) on the drive along the Mbalageti River. We checked into our room at the Sopa Lodge and stepped out on the porch (we were on the lower level) to see a Black-faced Go-away-bird in the tree in front of us. We enjoyed an excellent dinner and slept well.
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Feb 24th, 2011, 06:05 AM
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Ah, what a nice mid-morning refresher! Looking forward to the Lake Masek Camp in May. Appreciate your writing style and awaiting next segment.
Dick
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Feb 24th, 2011, 09:01 AM
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Wonderful report and, to echo Dick, love the short sweet selection of best photos, and especially the excellent labelling!
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Feb 24th, 2011, 11:33 AM
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Everyone is very gracious about the report and photos, thank you. I worry that I give too much detail, but we enjoy the birds and flowers (much credit to my DW for teaching me to appreciate them), and I like to identify the especially unique or hard-to-find birds we encounter. Her copy of "Birds of East Africa" (Stevenson and Fanshawe) is getting pretty dog-eared.

The weather reports are something I always look for in trip reports, as it's difficult to get detail on-line about weather at safari locations, just at the larger cities.

I use the basic Photoshop Elements product to crop and clean up photos we want to share, and Canon's excellent Zoombrowser EX to manage/build folders and to insert the short captions on the photos. If I need a clean photo later, I just go back and re-edit the original shot in Photoshop. Doing that, I often find that I can do a better job the second time(usually less monkeying with the pixels!) We have had a variety of opportunities to share our earlier safaris with others through photo presentations, and people always react positively about having the names of animals and birds on the photos.

Best, Jim.
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Feb 24th, 2011, 12:42 PM
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Definitely not too much; you are not alone!
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Feb 24th, 2011, 01:36 PM
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Hi Jim! Lovely photos and a wonderful report. I love the detail - very helpful for those of us planning a safari. I'd be curious to know what put your DW off canvas. Robin
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Feb 24th, 2011, 03:24 PM
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canadian_robin – We have been tent campers since we were married, with and without kids for well over 30 years. Our January 2007 itinerary included a first night on safari at the Tarangire Safari Lodge. We were in the last tent at the west end, one with two little cots and a tremendous view of the river below. Our fly-in night at the Arusha Hotel had been a bust (hot as hell and no screen in the window, so it was kept closed), so we were jet-lagged deluxe as we settled into our tent that night at about 10pm. At midnight we each took an Ambien. At about 1am EAT (9am US-Eastern for us), we heard elephants just below the tent toward the river. At 3am, we heard something big growling outside the tent, not just making noise, but like it (whatever it was) was unhappy and very close. DW jumped into my cot and we thus made it to a bright sunny morning. A picture someone took of us in front of the main lodge at TSL that next morning is not flattering – we look like boiled road kill.

DW has henceforth been more than happy, and in fact eager, to return to East Africa, but she has expressed clear preference for stone, brick, wood, even sticks-and-dung, rather than canvas. She knows she is safe, but just prefers something of substance betwixt her and the Night. No problem. What (and where it happens) from sunset to sunrise is just details, the point of the trip is being out on the savanna or in the woodland, standing in the truck eating bugs and dust. Jim.
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Feb 24th, 2011, 05:51 PM
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Am enjoying the details. Enjoying the photos. Enjoying the weather report.

More please!
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Feb 25th, 2011, 04:10 AM
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Jim, the Tarangire story is a hoot! We had same tent on 2007 trip and in fact have requested such for safari this coming May. We had giraffe around it during the night and of course the ever-present dik dik were there all the time. Thanks again for the special report and pics. Dick
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Feb 25th, 2011, 05:06 AM
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Otis,
I cant wait to get home & tell the Tarangire Safari lodge story to my wife! We are booked there for our Safari this year. LMTC looks very nice, and Im glad your wife enjoyed that camp
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