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


Feb 25th, 2011, 06:56 AM
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I agree with rsnyder - very funny! It is lovely to be able to hear the sounds of the African bush at night but, as we have discovered on many occasions, the tents do not necessarily provide a good night's sleep. We usually arrive home after our African safaris exhausted from all of the interrupted nights. Well worth it, but exhausting!

In 2008, we travelled to Kgalagadi NP in South Africa with two fellow Canadians, and they spent most nights huddled in one cot because the DW was convinced that she was going to be eaten by the lions and hyenas that frequented the camps. Your story is very familiar!

Looking forward to reading more! Robin
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Feb 25th, 2011, 11:50 AM
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Day 6 – Serengeti National Park/Moru Kopjes/Seronera

We thought the cheetah hunt on Day 3 was The Top, but today started a run of great sightings. Who Gnu?

Knowing that an upper level room would afford us a better breeze at night (we are snow-belters from Northern Ohio and crave a cool bedroom), I politely asked the front desk if they would be able to move us to an upper room for our second night. They graciously agreed to arrange same while we were game driving.

The plan was to spend the day at Moru Kopjes and points south of the Niaroboro Hills. Driving to Lake Magadi, we saw many birds, antelope, Pygmy Mongoose (Mongi?), and scattered small groups of wildebeest and zebra. In the watering holes about the lake, we saw larger groups of wildebeest and zebra, along with water birds including Egyptian Geese and Grey Crowned Crane. Moving south of the lake, we began to see large herds of wildebeest, but still saw very few newborns (this had been the case in Ndutu/Masek also.) Our Driver, Moses, told us the wildebeest were still searching for good grass in the short-grass plains, and were holding off birthing until then (I found information on-line that they can delay up to two weeks.)

We spent several hours driving through and around the Moru Kopjes, with sightings of four different lionesses on the rocks, most with cubs. The tracks around Moru are generally quite far from the kopjes, so without a big lens it can be tough to get close shots with the camera. We relaxed and used binoculars to enjoy the lions, antelope and the occasional giraffe we encountered. We had lunch on a kopjes dome and took advantage of the spectacular view for some good wazungu photos, with and without Moses! On our drive around the south side of Moru, we had seen large groups of wildebeest headed to and massing to the east of Moru, so we made plans to explore that direction on the next day as we headed back to Naabi Hill.

Having gotten our fill of the Moru area, we decided to run up to Seronera to finish out the day. On the way we had a variety of good bird sightings. As we started to see more large acacia about 5km south of the balloon launch site on the Seronera River, Moses abruptly slowed and stopped the truck, and whispered LEOPARD, pointing into the large Umbrella Acacia next to us. This began a great two-hour sighting, as we watched a beautiful leopard alternatively snooze and move place to place in the tree. After about 90 minutes, she (male, female, who knows? We didn’t even think to ask Moses!) slowly descended the tree, urinated in the tall grass and then climbed slowly up the trunk, in stately leaps. I managed to capture a 20 second video of the ascent. We were giddy at this point. The leopard then crawled out on a branch, into the sunlight and wide open view and, straddling her legs on either side, proceeded to ignore us and look elegant. Many trucks and groups came and went throughout this time, but we were happy to sit and watch the whole show. A marvelous sighting and a beautiful creature; why we go to Afrika!

Worn out from the heat and sun, and covered with dust, we decamped back to the Sopa, celebrating the gift of such a fine sighting with several cups of good Tanzanian coffee on the deck behind the lodge. A hot shower later, we enjoyed a good dinner and sent a quick email home to the kids. Then to bed in our much breezier upper-level room, only six doors from the lodge (a close sighting!) and looking forward to another day in the Serengeti.

[Both of our days in Serengeti National Park were very hot (95-100F), with clear skies overhead, but much haze due to dust. The roads and plains were tragically dusty, aggravated by truck traffic, moving herds, and the breeze early and late in the day. Evenings were quite a bit cooler, but not less than 70F.]

More to come…
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Feb 25th, 2011, 12:36 PM
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Hey !!!!... I'm following this too

Nice pictures, love the report.
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Feb 25th, 2011, 11:36 PM
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Bookmarking what a great report thanks.
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Feb 27th, 2011, 06:01 AM
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Day 7 – Serengeti National Park/Savanna around Olkuta River/Drive to Ngorongoro Crater

We awakened to the view from our balcony of a huge herd of wildebeest and zebra in the plain north-northeast of the Sopa, on the far side of the Mbalageti River, headed southeast. On our drive back to the main road, we enjoyed views of herds alongside and often crossing the road headed in our same direction. We stopped to watch a troop of baboon in the very top of a large Umbrella Acacia, sticking up above the top of the canopy eating the white blossoms. Bird sightings included Lesser Striped Swallow (beautiful), Red-necked Spurfowl and Wattled Starling.

After turning southeast onto the main road, we went into the Simba Kopjes West and saw several Greater Kestrel and Reedbuck. From the kopjes, we could see herds moving to and massed south of us, so we took a track southeast from Simba Kopjes toward the Olkuta River.

For the next four hours we explored up and down the Olkuta River, which at this time is a series of water pools stretching from just south of Simba Kopjes westerly to where it connects with the Mbalageti River near the Moru Kopjes. Large groups of wildebeest and zebra were gathered into a huge herd stretching along the Olkuta about 10km, and running anywhere from 2-4km in width on either side. During the time we were there, other herds were joining up with the large group and the water holes were jammed. In addition, large groups of elephant and cape buffalo were coming and going across this entire area, seeking water. There were antelope of every kind throughout the herds, and many egret and other birds in the mix. And some of the pools had hippo, just to round things out.

We have seen large herds previously, in January 2007 in the Serengeti, and in August 2008, in the Maasai Mara. But nothing compared with this. From any vantage point we could see many thousands of animals, and we traveled the length of the herd from Simba Kopjes to where the Olkuta ends. We took many photos and a number of short videos around the pools. I attempted to do a 360 degree video to try and capture the noise, chaos and extent of the herd; while my T2i is a wonder of technology, the video just doesn’t do it justice. One of those things you have to experience and see first-hand, like a river crossing on the Mara.

One thing that didn’t occur to us at the time was the thought of predators working the herds. I’m sure that there were cats hunting somewhere at the fringes of the herd we were seeing, but we were restricted to the track, which ran along the river and through the middle of the herd. As noted before, there were relatively few newborn zebra or wildebeest, so that meant fewer easy targets.

By this point we were hungry and ready for a break, so headed back to the main road (enjoying one last elephant group) and drove to Naabi Hill. Moses checked us out of the park and we sat to have lunch with the Insane Superb Starling Posse in the picnic area next to the Park Office (if you’ve eaten there, you’ll get it.) The top was put down for the dusty adventure out of Serengeti, back to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and west to the Crater. We were ready for the relative luxury of the Serena and looking forward to two days at Crater (our third stay there in four years), not realizing how much there was yet to see!

More to come…
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Feb 27th, 2011, 03:10 PM
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You got some nice photos - especially of leopards! When I was in the Serengeti I only saw them sleeping in trees, never on the move. Plus a serval cat - lucky you
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Mar 1st, 2011, 12:07 PM
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Day 8 – Ngorongoro Crater (First day)

This was our second stay at the Crater Serena, our first being for two days in January 2007, in the middle of that first safari. We tried the Sopa in August 2008, to take advantage of the more convenient and hospitable descent and ascent road. While that is an advantage, we found the Serena to be a higher quality and more relaxing accommodation, with a more engaged and responsive service staff. Having put two days at Ngorongoro Crater at the end of this safari, we saw the Serena as a better option for both enjoying the Crater and winding down the end of the trip.

We arrived at the Crater Serena late in the afternoon of the day before. While we were sitting in the lobby filling out the check-in form, I realized that I needed to ask for a better room location rather than taking pot-luck. I told the clerk we were return visitors, staying multiple nights, and would like to have a second-level room close to the dining room. He was very accommodating and we were given the second room from the dining room on the upper level, east side. I don’t know if that was good luck or if it was influenced by my fractured but earnest Kiswahili, incorporated wherever possible into the conversation!

In the morning, we left around 8am with our box lunches, enjoying sightings on the West Rim Road on our way to the descent (including many birds), and great views of the Malanja Depression that included Maasai herds and a large group of elephant. Entering the crater early in the morning via the Seneto Descent Road is one of the great delights of a Northern Circuit safari, whether the first time or one of many. Once you’ve run the gauntlet of young Maasai men selling trinkets at the gate (if it’s not crowded, you can make some good deals), you are overwhelmed by the broad vista of the Crater, flooded with light, stretching ahead of you and to the left. On the slopes to your right, you have colorful Maasai cattle herds and small groups of wildebeest coming down to the crater floor, and occasionally small groups or single elephant or buffalo returning from eating better grass on the higher ground overnight. As you near the bottom you begin to see groups of wildebeest, zebra and buffalo grazing on the short-grass or moving in dusty files across the bottom, and can begin to see the physical features across the breadth of the crater through the (already) hazy air and increasing light.

We have always enjoyed the diversity and numbers of wildlife in the Crater, but these two days were extraordinary. In previous trips, we saw many animals, but you had to move around to keep things fresh. On this trip we found that, at almost any location, there were three or more types of animals doing something, going somewhere or posing. Of particular note were the numbers of hyena and jackals that we saw; they seemed to be everywhere and busy; also, the large number of newborn wildebeest we saw, in stark contrast to the very small number of newborns in the Serengeti. Here there is much food and water, thus no delay in birthing. Although we hoped to be able to see births here, we were again disappointed (hakuna matata.)

On this first morning, we traveled up the west side of the crater (most of the traffic was going up the middle), and ended up following three lost wildebeest (a week or two old) who searched unsuccessfully through a number of herds and groups for their mothers for about 30 minutes. We stopped at the Goose Pond hippo pools (just birds, no hippos) and moved northeast toward the Munge River where we found two mature male lions finishing off a wildebeest. A third, larger male was lying next to the river with his distended stomach on display, occasionally rolling over on his side to hang his head into the water and drink without getting up. There were many White and Abdim’s Stork around and flying over the drinking/sleeping lion, making for great photos. The two dining lions got up, with one leaving to the north and the second walking over to visit the one at the water and drink himself. This allowed a large flock of vultures to descend on what was left of the carcass and both jackal and hyena began to approach. The two lions at the water returned to scare off the birds (just because they could) and then walked slowly south on the roadway to entertain a large number of trucks.

Traveling just a bit farther to the east, we come across a number of trucks watching a large Black Rhino, who posed with different birds and grazed. He then slowly walked off, crossing between trucks on the road , making an exit south. We went south also, to Ngoitokitok Springs Picnic Area to enjoy lunch and a break. No hippos in sight there, but the Black Kites were having a field day; those who chose to eat outside of the trucks were dive-bombed and the Kites ate very well.

Driving west and following the road skirting Gorigor Swamp, we came across a truckload of heavy-duty photographers who had spotted a Serval Cat (Our first!!) hiding in cover at the roadside. We sat and watched her (him/her, who knows?) for the next two hours in hopes of an opportunity to get a full view; during this time we could see only a patch of her back and the tips of her ears. She shifted a bit as trucks came and went, some jockeying for position and stay for a bit but most going on (too many people and not enough action for most.) At one point, a truckload of full-blown safari-outfits pulled up in a cloud of dust, and a puffed-up, very-important-in-his-world yahoo proceeded to loudly read the entire section on Servals from his safari guide-book. We were all of us wildly impressed with him and doubly pleased that they were quickly bored and left (in a big cloud of dust.) When the cat finally made a move to leave, she stalked very slowly away from us, pausing twice to look over the top of the grass and even sitting once, looking back over her shoulder for photographs. Marvelous.

Still excited from our encounter with the Serval Cat, we had a chance encounter with our Driver/Guide from our first two safaris, Abdi, driving another Good Earth group in the Crater. We had a short but happy visit truck-to-truck. He was our first friend in Tanzania and introduced us to the wonders of the Northern Circuit.

With that, we headed for the Lerai Ascent Road and a relaxing evening. Bird sightings of note during the day included a Black-backed Puffback, Wahlberg’s Honeybird, Barn Swallow, and a Baglafecht Weaver! Our nightcap sighting was a very large Cape Buffalo that showed up just under the balcony from the Lounge at about 930pm that night and ate his way over to just under our balcony. An impressive finish to a great day.

More to come…
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Mar 2nd, 2011, 08:50 AM
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How cool to run into your friend/guide Abdi from previous trips! The wife will be envious when she reads of the birds mentioned near the end of the segment. Thanks for the continuing report. Made for a nice read while I enjoyed lunch. Dick
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Mar 2nd, 2011, 12:59 PM
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"full-blown safari-outfits"

Explain please. Don't want to look like dorks on our Sept. trip. However another ongoing thread makes clear that "safari colors" are at least what is required. Just asking...
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Mar 2nd, 2011, 01:30 PM
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However you dress, you will fit in fine. Most folks, especially on a first trip, over-worry what to bring and what to wear. Many people invest in tan/khaki safari shirts, cargo or zip-off pants and sometimes-elaborate hats. Those work fine. I am picking on this particular truckload of people. They were from a high-end safari company, were spectacularly decked-out, and made a lot of noise so that we (the common, less-entitled folks about them) would appreciate how important they were. The reading out loud and noisy conversation at the sighting were almost comical. Their driver should have known better, if they didn't.

I am sun-resistant and wear light-colored golf shirts and shorts, with sandals, together with a ball-cap. I use sunscreen on hands and arms when the sun is brutal (taking photos exposes your hands and arms to much sun.) My wife, who is more photo-sensitive, wears capri's, sleeveless tops and a light-weight, long-sleeved shirt when its sunny. We avoid dark blue or green because the tsetse traps used in Tanzania are often based on the TZ flag, and that must mean something. Note that, regardless of what you wear, if there are tsetse's about they will dine on you.

We show color in the evenings at dinner, but you shouldn't fret too much about fashion; you will see all ranges of dress in the dining rooms. It makes you wonder what people were thinking and didn't their spouse or significant other have the sense to tell them that a bathing suit and flip-flops were not appropriate for dinner!

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Mar 4th, 2011, 11:05 AM
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Day 9 – Second Day at Ngorongoro/Last Day in Tanzania

We made an early start today and headed into the Crater via the descent road from the southwest. As we neared the bottom, there were several small herds of wildebeest and zebra in the area, and trucks were beginning to collect near Seneto Springs. Instead of avoiding traffic (our usual response), Moses drove to join them, and we arrived to find two cheetah wandering northeast toward a streambed. We stopped to watch them and they drank, took leaps over the stream and walked into a flat to lie down in the rising sun. A jackal joined up with them and after a bit, several groups of wildebeest and zebra began to filter into the area in search of fresh water. In a short time, the cheetahs were lying in the midst of several hundred animals, with the jackal nervously pacing back and forth. If the zebras saw them, they seemed unconcerned, and the wildebeest (as always) seemed clueless.

The cheetahs didn’t even need to stalk. As we had seen in the Serengeti, one cheetah made the attacks and the second loped around in support. The first run was unsuccessful and they both returned to near their original spot and sat for a few minutes while the herds came back toward the water, with the jackal pacing to and fro. When the herd had moved back within 30 yards of them, the lead cheetah made a second run, performing a classic back leg swipe-and-tackle on a two or three week old wildebeest calf, throttling him and bringing him back to the second cheetah who stood patiently waiting (with the jackal standing by.) In spite of poor light (ahead and to the left of us) and much dust, we had a great view of the entire event and, even with distance working against us, good photos.

On our way across the south side of the crater, we stopped in the Lerai Forest picnic area for a bio-break. As DW and I returned to the truck (and Moses in the restroom), a Vervet Monkey made a run up the hood of the truck and inside to grab a box lunch for herself. As I opened the door hollering, she had one in her hands and was poised to leap back up to the top. I startled her enough to get her to drop the box and, as Moses came roaring up the other side of the vehicle, out she went vertical, empty-handed. Her and her baby had the courtesy to pose for us before we left.

We spent the remainder of the morning cruising the Lerai Woods and over to the Gorigor Swamp, enjoying sightings of hippo, old male lions, impala, cape buffalo, ostrich, and birds, including Spur-winged Goose, Schalow’s Wheatear, and Fischer’s Sparrow-lark. We exited via the Lerai Ascent Road and headed east for Arusha. On our way we saw rain in the east and south, and stopped to eat our box lunch at a souvenir shop. Among the many birds there (including many chickens!) Moses spotted a male Paradise-flycatcher, which we chased for five minutes through the trees. The best shot I got included plastic brooms and a toilet building in the background, but a beautiful bird is still a catch.

The remainder of our trip to Arusha was through several thunderstorms, including a wild hailstorm about 30km west of Arusha, dime-sized hail that almost covered the ground! The payback for fighting the late afternoon traffic in Arusha was to come up behind a wedding party on the Nairobi Moshi Road, with members of the party in a pickup truck with an enthusiastic and loud band, lead by the videographer several trucks ahead!

We enjoyed a day room at the Arumeru River Lodge, where we had overnighted on our arrival ten nights earlier. After sorting bags out and cleaning up, we enjoyed an excellent dinner and were picked up for our trip to JRO, a harrowing ride in the darkness with much traffic and road construction on the way. In the excitement of checking in and moving through security, it’s important to remember that access to the airport shops is not possible from the main waiting area, so you should consider that before following the crowd straight through the lines if you want to do any last minute shopping.

The remainder of the trip is the tedium of long flights and airline food. Planes were not packed, but crowded nonetheless. It was good to get home, in spite of the cold weather and 18 inches of snow that awaited us.

As noted at the start, this was the best experience of our three safaris to East Africa. What you see from the truck is just part of the experience. There are the beautiful camps and lodges, with helpful and friendly service staff, and excellent food, that give you rest from the rigors of game driving and the heat. Our guide, Moses, was responsive to our agenda, and we enjoyed his company and knowledge of Tanzania, the parks and the wildlife. We especially appreciated his polepole approach to game drives, letting others rush by while we enjoyed all they missed. And finally thanks to Narry Ernest, Bushbaby, Mange, and all the others at Good Earth Tours that made our planning and execution successful, good service we have come to expect and very much appreciate.

Africa is a miraculous place. Borrowing from the close of our last trip report: “If you are not sure about going, go anyhow. If you don’t know how to make arrangements, there is plenty of good advice in this website, study for a bit and take a chance. No itinerary or operator is perfect and there is no ideal set of lodges or campsites. The important thing is to get there and experience the wonder.”

The best advice of all: Subira huvuta heri!

Safari njema - Jim.
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Mar 4th, 2011, 06:26 PM
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Thank you, Jim, I really enjoyed this.

Will be staying at the Ngorongoro Sopa in June, was that the road you took into the crater your 2nd day? How was it compared to the other?
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Mar 4th, 2011, 07:26 PM
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The Sopa is adjacent to the northeast ascent and descent road into (and out of) the crater; a two-way track. On the south and west side of the Crater, the Seneto Descent Road (one way down) is used to get into the crater, and the Lerai Ascent Road (one way up) is used to exit the crater. The Lerai Ascent Road is an adventure, especially in wet weather. The two-way road by the Sopa is relatively tame.
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Mar 4th, 2011, 10:27 PM
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What a beautiful end to your report, Otis72, that last paragraph really touched me. Thanks for sharing.
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Mar 5th, 2011, 11:07 AM
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Otis-thank you so much for your post as I really need to make my decision, Mala Mala for the big cats, or a near-replica of your tour in June for something totally different. What I am concerned about is the number of vehicles-will I be frustrated to have 10-20 vehicles at a sighting???? Sounds like your guy handled things just right.
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Mar 5th, 2011, 02:38 PM
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I’m not qualified to help you with decision about MalaMala vs. Tanzania. I know that in June, the migration herds will LIKELY be in western Serengeti. When thinking about the migration herds, bear in mind that you are talking about many large herds that move about seeking good grass. They combine and split up and go hither and yon in groups larger and smaller. I think that many get the impression that there is a large, single mass of animals moving around together. Wherever the herds are likely to be, there will be many groups in that area moving about in an uncoordinated way, but moving generally toward the best grass (meaning where the rains were a week or three before). Seeing that many animals all in one general area is worth the trip, but many focus on either birthing (southern Serengeti in Jan/Feb) or in the Maasai Mara with the famous river crossings in Aug/Sept.

If you were to spend some time in the central and western Serengeti, you will likely see big migration herds and many other animals, including cats. I have no firsthand knowledge of MalaMala, but the Serengeti is a pretty amazing place, with a wide range of animals and environments.

As for numbers of vehicles, you can avoid that much of the time, particularly if you do a private safari and have (together with the driver) more control over where you go and how long you are willing to sit and wait for things to happen at sightings. On the other hand, sometimes terrific sightings happen and many others either get there first or come later. We were fortunate to see the things we did, often without a large crowd. Other times we were among many others and just dealt with it. Being patient and not having to cater to a truckload of people is a key factor.

Another thing to consider is time of year. A first-time Northern Circuit safari can’t be beat, but talk to some reputable tour operators to get a feel for what June is like in places like Tarangire, Manyara, and the Crater. I think you would be fine, but our experience is January, February, and August. If you were going July, I wouldn’t hesitate to urge you to go to Tarangire, Crater, two days each, and rest of the time in two places in Serengeti. Once you get to August, you have to decide between Serengeti and Mara, and that’s a whole new bag of worms!

If others offer different opinions, they might know more than I, so good luck.

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Mar 6th, 2011, 02:53 AM
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Lovely report right through to the end.

No safari plans for us this year or next and it's hard not to throw all our plans out of the window and book a plane back to safari now!
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Mar 6th, 2011, 03:01 AM
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thx for this great trip report! wonderful to read about the hunt you witnessed and the leopard and especially the Serval sighting! .. such luck!
are you already planning your return to Tanzania/east africa?
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Mar 9th, 2011, 11:32 AM
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Great report. Serval #1, alright! Thanks for the Lake Masek info.

I was born in Toledo--that's Northern Ohio--and visited over Thanksgiving.

I'll be checking out the pics.

At some point can you list your itinerary, day by day with dates?

Glad to know Good Earth came through for you.

Any talk about the road through the Serengeti?

When did you finalize your itinerary, put down a deposit, and buy airline tickets? Trying to get a feel for how long I can delay before making a commitment for the time of year you went.

When will you be putting your Swahili to the test again?

Thank you Otis for this comprehensive entertaining AND useful report.
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Mar 9th, 2011, 01:22 PM
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Loved your report and the photos. To me, the more details, the better.

I'm headed back for trip #3 in May. I read with interest your comments about your T2i. I shoot with an XTi and T2i (this will be the T2i's first trip). I was considering taking a monopod this trip (which would be a first) because handholding the Canon 100-400 can be quite tiring at the end of the day. Last trip I used the beanbag provided or propped my elbows on my legs when shooting out the window. So I'm glad to know it was worthwhile taking it. Re video with the T2i, I have been extremely frustrated trying to get good video - which is disappointing as it was something that drew me to upgrading to the T2i. I really wanted to be able to take video this trip, so I ended up getting the Canon SX130 which takes decent video. Any tips you might have for taking video with the T2i would be helpful but it sounds like we think alike on it.

The Serval photos were fantastic. They are high on my list this trip. My guide saw one last trip but I only caught the tail. Would also love to see a wild dog.
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