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TZ safari - When the universe conspires in your favor

TZ safari - When the universe conspires in your favor

Old Oct 24th, 2023, 05:45 AM
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TZ safari - When the universe conspires in your favor

Have read many wonderful trip reports here and am happy to finally share my own. Many thanks to Fodorites (especially, Amyb) for all the prompt responses and practical advice. Apologies in advance – this will be a long report since this trip exceeded expectations.

Africa!! Central Serengeti



It all started in 2020 when we (my husband and I) decided that in September 2023 we would take a trip to celebrate becoming empty nesters. Coincidentally it would also be the year of our 30th anniversary. We went through the usual suspects – Greece, Italy, Tahiti, etc. but none resonated as a “special” trip until we thought back to our South Africa trip in 2018. We loved the safari portion and knew we wanted to go back to the continent. And that’s when we decided that it would be East Africa. After additional research (I do all the research and planning), I decided on Tanzania. More research – Fodors and TripAdvisor, among others – and I landed on Access2Tanzania. I knew I wanted the OG safari experience. And Casey understood right away. We did want to see the river crossing but could only travel after September 20. I proposed doing the trip anti-clockwise to maximize the probability of seeing a crossing. Casey liked the idea and quickly came up with an itinerary. We nixed ending the safari at a beach resort given we do beach vacations frequently. So, our itinerary ended up like this – fly Qatar Airways from Chicago to JRO.

Day 1 – Land in the morning at JRO. Drive to Arusha and spend the day/night there – Kahawa lodge

Day 2-4 – fly to Kogatende airstrip in the morning - 3 nights at Serengeti River Camp, Northern Serengeti

Day 5-6 – drive to Central Serengeti - 2 nights at Serengeti Tortilis camp

Day 7-8 – drive to Ngorongoro (old Duvai gorge en route) – 2 nights at Serena lodge

Day 9-10 – drive via Lake Manyara, Mto wa Mbu and Maasai village visits to Tarangire – 2 nights at Ndovu tented camp

Day 11 – drive to Arusha late afternoon – overnight at Rivertrees Inn

Day 12 – spend the morning in Arusha, fly home late afternoon

Coming up – Actually in Africa!!

Mt. Kilimanjaro



Part 1 – Back in 2018, we had several logistics issues getting to S. Africa so when we finally picked up our bags in the airport, I threw my head back and exhaled “Africa!” in relief. The kids thought it hysterical and since then that is how “Africa” is said in our family. This time too, I can’t wait to land in Tanzania and say “Africa!” again. The continent really does get under your skin….

Qatar Airways is turning out to be a really good experience – great service, great food and very comfy digs. We clink our champagne flutes and sit back and relax. It’s smooth sailing all the way and we’re now in JRO. It is 7:30 am and there is a slight drizzle as we walk down onto the tarmac. We take pix right away – Africa!! They’re checking our boarding passes as we enter the tiny airport. We make a beeline for the on-arrival visa counter. It’s a tiny slip of a form that we’ve filled out and we do the slide-to-the-next-counter with every step until we get our passports stamped. Online visa line looks long but it’s moving. We pick up our bags, neatly arranged next to the carousel, put them through the X-ray, exchange some money at the bank inside the airport and head out. All easy peasy.

Greeted by the biggest smile outside – Haji, our transport guide, grabs our bags and takes us to our car. He talks easily on the hour long drive to Arusha, pointing out sights and answering our questions about his country. He follows NBA and asks who our favorite players are. Purple flower laden Jacaranda trees line the main highway. Kahawa lodge turns out be quite close to Arusha airport (very convenient) and is lovely. Haji helps with check in and suggests we rest, eat lunch and then he’ll pick us up at 3pm to take us around town. It’s quiet – most people are out, I guess. Lunch is very good – we eat by the pool and chef comes by to talk to us. It’s farm to table, he says, pointing at the vegetable gardens that line the property. They also slaughter their own beef.

Haji arrives shortly after and we head into town to check out the Cultural Center and the African Gallery. It’s overrun with tourists but it’s a curated collection by local artists so a nice place to wander around for an hour. The sun is out and we ask Haji if there’s a chance to see Kilimanjaro. He has been thinking the same thing so we jump into the car and head towards Moshi. We stop at an outdoor café next to a gas station at the Panone intersection, Kimori town. The owner points in the direction of the mountain but all we see are clouds. Haji tells us about the government and what he’d like to see done for tourism (more direct flights, for one) over coffee. He gets up every now and then to check on Kili and finally, at around dusk – there it is. The shy mountain. We are thrilled and take several pix and within 30 minutes, the clouds are back. Like all places in the tropics, darkness follows fast as the sun sets. We head to dinner and take a little post-prandial walk around the property. It’s lit up and looks enchanting.


Flight to Kogatende

Day 2 – We are at the airport at 7 am for an 8 am flight, after a filling breakfast buffet. Haji has brought lunchboxes for us and Danny, our guide who will meet us in Kogatende. All the guides are helping their clients with check in. We say bye to Haji and then wait in an open area by the tarmac. Shortly before 8, someone comes to get us and a few others and we walk past several planes to get to ours. This is a new experience. It’s a Bombardier that seats 37 but there are only a handful of passengers that morning. The pilot points out the Mara river below as we near the Serengeti. Less than an hour and we’re in Northern Serengeti. When I ask one of the guides if he’s Danny (he has been smiling at us), he shakes his head no and then bursts into a grin – Yes! Okay, he’s funny. We head to the 4x4 and then he goes off to finish up paperwork. He gets back in a few and says – “Okay, your safari begins now! What would you like to see?” Cheetah! We didn’t see cheetah in S. Africa. And, of course, lions. Danny promises to work hard for a cheetah sighting. And we’re off!

The land is vast….truly endless plains. We head to one of several marked spots along the Mara river – there’s a herd of wildebeest across the river making up their mind about crossing. So we wait and wait… The ranger comes by and asks all the vehicles to park side by side. Meanwhile, the wildebeest continue to tease us with a few heading down to the water’s edge. We watch the hippos snort loudly, the vultures swarm overhead – there are quite a few dead wildebeest in the river. The warm African sun makes us drowsy so Danny suggests lunch. He parks under a tree a little distance away so we can continue to watch the wildebeest. Lunch is okay but I can’t bring myself to drink warm mango juice so I stick it in the cooler. Maybe later. We head back and see the herd has wandered off with only a third by the water’s edge still contemplating, I guess. We decide to head to camp. En route, we stop for elephants, giraffe, zebra, eland, buffalo, impala. Elephants and giraffe in the same pic! The giraffe look right at you as you take pix.


Serengeti sunrise

Wildebeest gathering by the Mara river

We make plans with Danny for the next day – 6 am start. The wind picks up as we settle in and take a nap. Thunder rolls and the staff come by to lower the tent flaps as it starts raining. After a hot shower (which one has to request and takes 2 min to get set up), we head to dinner. Lightning in the distance – does this bode well for the crossing? We order cocktails and sit down to dinner. It’s a buffet with a good variety. Everyone had introduced themselves when we checked in and they stop by again to say hi and see if we need anything. We’re off to bed soon after dinner – I hear a lion calling out to the pride in the night, other animals too.

Day 3 – We’re escorted to breakfast as it’s dark outside. We join Danny who shares his journey to becoming a guide. Sun’s coming up as we head out and we take some great sunrise pix. It’s a short drive to the Mara river – we see hot air balloons overhead, elephant herds walk by. We get to the river and wait. We ask to see the elephants again and then come back for the crossing when it occurs. As we drive out, Danny gets a call on the radio – looks like the crossing is imminent. We turn around in a hurry but the herd has moved to crossing #2. They are lowing loudly. We’re a distance away watching with binoculars. And then the first one jumps in the water and a second…. And the vehicles are off - it’s a mad dash to the riverbank. We get into a good spot to watch this awesome spectacle. They are swimming single file….a croc gets one pulling it under water…. One guy swims in the opposite direction, then turns around and swims back! The wildebeest come out on the other side, shiny in the sun and still very loud. Thrilling! All in under a half hour.


Finally...crossing!

Thundering through

Mayhem continues on the other side...

Danny explains the guides call the wildebeest ‘zero brains’ since they have no strategy and run helter skelter. We drive along the river looking at the other animals – baby topi bouncing after its mother, baboon family with a baby on a mother’s back, waterbuck, more elephants. A while later another message on the radio and a chat with another guide – it seems there is a huge herd at #1 with more joining. Danny scans the horizon pointing out wildebeest herds running towards #1. It looks promising – the gathering herd is HUGE. After a short wait, and a few teasers, the first of the animals enters the water. Danny guns it and we race to the water’s edge. We’re standing inside the Landcruiser holding onto our camera and iPhone. The wildebeest pour into the water in several lines swimming furiously to the other side. They come up the riverbank and stand still. It clicks – the vehicles are blocking their way! A few of us back up and the animals thunder through. The mayhem continues on this side as they race around in circles. Some run right back into the water! It is loud and absolutely fantastic. Danny says he has seen several crossings but nothing quite this size. We are buzzed and it’s not even noon.

After driving around looking at other game, we are back at camp for lunch. They’re excited for us when they ask how the morning went and we describe the 2 crossings. We eat fish and chips for lunch while eland graze in the distance. Then it’s time for another game drive at 4pm. Zebra, Thompson’s gazelle, an old bull elephant. We drive by the airstrip – Danny shows us the bridge where Kenya is only 10 km away. But the river is swollen and we do not want to attempt our own crossing. It starts to rain and we head back to camp – sated.

Rain on the Serengeti

Day 4 – We’re off a little later at 7am for a full day out with our lunchboxes. I heard lions calling again last night. Slept well. This morning we’re headed to Dadenia (sp?) plains to look for lions and leopards. On the way, we come across a running herd of wildebeest shiny after a crossing. The plains are awe inspiring, stretching out to infinity. More herds of herbivores. Warthogs dart among them, tails stiff like antennas. I’ve never been a birder but I am stunned at the beauty of those that I see here – lilac breasted roller, starlings, golden pipit, bee eater, and eagles. An agama lizard basks on a sunny rock, striking in its coloration – half red, half blue. We finally come across lions – the pride is napping but the male wakes up, beautiful blond mane rustling in the breeze. We drive to a spot called “the rocks” covered in dense vegetation – a fave of leopards and lions. A pair of klipspringer stroll by, rock hyrax are crouched in the shade. Several giraffe saunter by unconcerned. No predators here. The setting is straight out of a movie. We decide to check out the river one more time to see if we can catch yet another crossing. (I know, getting greedy…) But it doesn’t look promising and it’s raining now. So we head back to camp. Tomorrow, we leave for Central Serengeti. Lala Salaama! (That’s Swahili for Good night.)

Curious giraffe

Agama lizard

Lilac breasted roller

Love seeing elephant families



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Old Oct 24th, 2023, 08:03 AM
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Trying to get comfy (Central Serengeti)

Comfy at lastDay 5 – We check out after breakfast. It has been an enjoyable stay. The staff is very good – thoughtful and eager to assist. We decide to take one more shot at a crossing. But on the way, we learn from other guides that crossings 1-4 have nothing going on. We head to #6 which doesn’t look promising – it’s a small herd and not close enough to the water. We decide to move on. Right outside the park is a prison – we see inmates in orange garb tending to cows. We drive into Mugumu village where we fill the diesel tanks. And on to C. Serengeti via Ikoma gate. We eat our lunchboxes at picnic tables by the gate. There are pretty yellow weaver birds and blue starlings flying around. More zebra, wildebeest, giraffe when we drive through – the sheer number of animals is staggering. And then we see – cheetah! It’s a mother sitting on a termite mound – she has 3 cubs. We watch them entranced. As she walks off the mound, she and the cubs are completely camouflaged in the tall grass. We see Grant’s gazelle and Cox’s hartebeest – not seen in the N. Serengeti. We are about ready to head to camp when we come upon lions – sleeping under a tree. The 2 young males are next to each other – one’s paws are resting on the other’s shoulder. It's cute. A single cub nurses at one of the females.

With 3 cubs camouflaged

Hartebeest

They sleep with such devotion

Day 6 – We spent last night at Tortilis camp. We were greeted with smiles and wet towels. This is similar to the River camp but more rugged. The tent is not on a wooden platform, but directly on the ground. Same set up. Runs on solar power, request a hot shower, buffet style meals. Danny feels this is a true safari camp. I think we prefer a tent on a platform, this is oddly disorienting. Everything feels angled forward. Service is good - staff is young and immediately helps my husband with his charger request. Meals are good too. We hear buffalo and hyena all night. We’re out early this morning. We see a line of vehicles at some rocks and are making our way there when Danny stops. He points in the distance (how does he see that far away?) – the lions are on the move towards us. A lioness walks towards us – she’s eyeing the zebra in the distance. But another vehicle gets too close and distracts her. (We could have seen her stalk and hunt!) Danny and some of the other guides admonish him. The other lions join her. It’s a large pride – 5 adults and 9 cubs. The cubs look healthy. And we realize 2 of the males are quite young, their spots still visible. She makes a beeline for a sausage tree with plenty of shade and the pride settles down to nap. She, however, climbs the tree and watches the zebra and the wildebeest in the distance. By now, the vehicles surrounding the pride are a mess – so we take pix and leave quickly.

Largest pride I've ever seen

Eyeing the wildebeest and zebraAfter lunch in the 4x4, we continue on our game drive. A leopard is asleep in a tree, limbs dangling below. Rather comical. Several herds of elephants – 2 seem to be engaged in a fight, tusks and trunks entangled. Giraffes are around every corner. We come upon a hippo pool at dusk – we count over 100! It’s smelly but we enjoy watching them roll 360 degrees and yawn widely. Those teeth! And then it’s back to camp for dinner. We’ve made plans with Danny to spend more time in the Serengeti rather than leave early in the morning to get to Ngorongoro. (The rule is that one needs to leave the park at the same time that one enters it. So, if you have a 4 day permit and got in at 9am, you exit the gates at 9am on the fifth day.) He has called the Arusha office to get the permit for the extra day. That means we can leave later in the afternoon and still reach Ngorongoro by 6pm. We are skipping old Duvai gorge.

Even hippo babies are cute

Teeth!

Day 7 – We check out of Tortilis early and our first sighting is lions eating a wildebeest. The 2 males eat while the 2 lionesses wait patiently for their turn. Hyena are nearby, as are vultures. We move on – elephants everywhere. We watch the babies stick close to the mothers as they graze. We stop at a field with a couple of vehicles watching a herd of zebra. We soon spot a lion (Danny spots it and shows us) sitting utterly still in the grass and alert. A few minutes later, we spot another one in the grass some distance away. Suddenly, the zebra scatter. The hunt is on! We watch as another lioness pops up from the grass and gives chase. The zebra head for the elephants grazing some distance away. It’s an unsuccessful hunt. The pride gather together and we see that it’s 7 lions. They walk to drink water and then lay down to rest.


Unsuccessful hunt

Dragging its kill away

We drive on. It’s a cheetah on a termite mound in the grass – a gazelle kill nearby. It gets down after a while and then drags the kill away to eat it. On the opposite side of the dirt road in the distance is another cheetah. It makes its way slowly towards us and then sits down. Driving on, we see another leopard in a tree, a lone lioness under a tree in the distance…. It’s 3 pm and we’re ready to leave for Ngorongoro. It’s a dusty bumpy ride to the gate and we drive with the top down. We stop for pix when we enter the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. There are Maasai girls asking for food, water, banana. We give them some water and a few apples. We keep driving until we reach a small structure with 2 humanoid skulls – a marker for old Duvai gorge! We take quick pix and read the posters and are on our way again.
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Old Oct 24th, 2023, 11:50 AM
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What a wonderful report will look forward to the rest.The photos - especially of the cats and the crossing are terrific. I had hoped to go to SA this Aug or Sept but that didn't work out so now looking at next year. Had settled on SA but your report and a few of amyb's make me wonder if East Africa is better???

Decisions.
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Old Oct 24th, 2023, 01:24 PM
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View from our room at Serena Ngorongoro

Morning descent into the craterThe drive up to the crater is scenic. It’s cooling down now as well. I see brightly dressed Maasai kids herding cattle. Their bomas are on the slopes. Serena is a bustling hotel – reception greets us and soon we’re heading to our room. The hotel is lovely! Fabulous views, stone terraces, big picture windows in the lounge. I open the balcony doors right away when we get to our room – I want to see the view and it does not disappoint. This alone is worth the price of admission. There is a show before dinner. There may also be time for a massage before dinner. And the masseuse is fabulous. I am refreshed and we head to dinner. Salads and dessert are buffet but everything else is served to you. It’s good and service is friendly. We have an early start tomorrow.

Day 8 – We are out by 6:30 am. There aren’t as many vehicles as I was expecting heading down into the crater. The descent into the caldera is magical – a watery sun breaks through the clouds as we see herds and the shimmering lake in the distance and come upon a pair of lions napping on the slopes. Opposite, an eagle keeps watch. When we reach the bottom, Danny pulls a hard left and speeds away – there’s a rhino sighting. It’s quite far away though we can see it with the unaided eye. We keep pace with it for a while but it never does wander closer. A massive herd of buffalo walk by – one female shows albinism with large white patches on the face and horns. I look up and see clouds rim the top of the crater. Superb.

We head to the marshy area – ducks, herons, egrets, cranes, a hyena wandering too close to a hippo. Then to the alkaline lake lined with flamingoes. After lunch in a very windy picnic spot, we drive around some more and come upon a pair of rhino in the distance. Also, the same lions from the morning have wandered down, the herbivores give them a wide berth. More lions, elephants, a leopard. It’s time to head back up.

Clouds line the top of the caldera

Rhino

Black dots are hippos

Leopard

We join a ranger on a Circle hike – Tuma and his AK47 lead us past acacia, wild tobacco, and jasmine. We pass Maasai boys who inform Tuma that there are no elephants in the area today. Good! We head cattle bells all around us. It takes about 45 mins to get to this magnificent viewpoint – breathtaking. We see the lodge below. We make our way back – great hike. Were we not panting from the altitude, would have gone longer. Back at the lodge – shower, drinks and Maasai entertainment. The fascination with this tribe is understandable. Heading back to the room, we see the moon reflected dully in the lake. It looks like a painting.


Circle hike with ranger

Ngorongoro at night


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Old Oct 24th, 2023, 02:19 PM
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Day 9 – There are only a few people at breakfast since we’re leaving a little later today. We enjoy the morning view seated at the picture window. No game drives today – only cultural activities. First stop is Lake Manyara – the lake is encroaching on the land and you see dead trees at water’s edge. A local tries to sell us trinkets. He knows we’re from the US and shouts out names of various cities. Danny and my husband are cracking up.

Lake Manyara


Banana market in the village

We get to the village of Mto wa Mbu where we meet our local guide, Juma. He takes us via rice fields, banana plantations to the lake. Shares history of the place, there used to be rhino here. We stop by local artisans – they’ve emigrated from Mozambique during the civil war. We stop to taste banana beer and wine. And then it’s lunch at a local home. It’s like what was served at Tortilis one evening – rice, beef stew, vegetables, chapati, polenta. We eat as the guys teach me some Swahili phrases (I’ve mastered greetings and animal names). They talk about their history and are proud of the fact that while there are 120 tribes, they are not “allowed” to fight. That’s the term they use. Juma is Chaga and Danny is Paare, good natured ribbing follows. We thank the ladies, leave our lunchboxes and head back. Next up – Maasai village visit. This is a factory production that takes 30 mins. Dress you up, join in song and dance, walk through boma, see how fire is made, take pix and leave. Molel, the host, speaks in a British accent and I have to ask him where he studied English. At the government school, he says, then came back to continue the tradition.


Maasai boma visit

Molel and others show us how they make fire

There are several boma on either side of the road. It’s hot and dusty and we see mini tornadoes of dust in the distance. A few hours later we’re in Tarangire National Park. From the entrance to Ndovu tented lodge, we see several herds of elephants. I stop counting. Aha, elephant paradise! Setup is akin to previous camps. Our tent is massive with an outdoor shower. Dinner is served in a partly open dining area, no buffet. It’s windy but a little too much crunching while we eat so my husband shines the flashlight and there’s an elephant munching on a tree right next to the dining room. The staff try to shoo it away.


Tarangire National Park

Lesser Kudu

Brown snake eagle

Day 10 – No need for an early start and we plan to come back for a hot lunch. It’s a quiet game drive this morning – we drive by the swamp. This park has everything except rhino. And then we come upon sleeping lions under a tree. Full bellies, just resting. On the other side of the road, a lioness is eating a carcass which she abandons a little while later and walks over to us. The zebra and wildebeest scatter as she walks, eyeing her nervously. She joins the sleeping lions and we let them be. We drive around as Danny checks dry riverbeds and bushes. In one we find a lioness tucked into a hole dug by elephants. She’s cooling off. Hot lunch is a nice change – it’s a Moroccan lamb dish.

Soon it’s time for our evening game drive. We’ve seen everything and just want to watch elephants. We come upon a herd bathing in a shallow river. On the opposite bank, a line of vehicles is watching a sleeping leopard in a tree. We’re enjoying watching the elephants when they walk towards us – we stop taking pix and just hang out with them. They’re relaxed, even the babies don’t run to stick close to mom. This is the best part of a safari. A little while later, Danny says softly – Turn around. We do – the leopard has jumped down from the tree. It crosses the riverbed, stalks a mongoose, kills it, eyes the antelope nearby but then drags its kill away to eat. We watch open mouthed. A redbuck that has been sitting still in the grass near the leopard jumps up startling us. Danny thinks the leopard will walk again since the mongoose will be insufficient. We wait watching the sun set. But then we have to leave.


I will never tire of watching lions

The way she walks towards us...

Bathing elephants

Leopard stalks and hunts mongoose

Day 11 – We have a walking safari early this morning. We leave from behind camp and our armed ranger explains the rules to us. Single file, slap your thigh or whistle for his attention and no running. He tells us about the termite mounds and the animal skulls we see but it’s hard to focus. Tsetse flies! They’re persistent and driving me nuts. A little while later, Kange notices ticks on our pants and suggests we get them washed as soon as we’re done. That’s it – I’m done! We apologize and cut short the walk. Staff is super helpful and says they’ll put the wet stuff in Ziploc bags for us. We check out and are on our way.

As we’re driving, we come upon a cheetah posing on a termite mound right next to the road. So close! This is fabulous. She has cubs on the mound. Little balls of fluff. Mom’s neck is swiveling in all directions as she keeps watch. Finally, we’re ready to move on. It is a long drive to Arusha with a quick stop for lunch. We reach Rivertrees and it is charming – lush and green. It has been raining in Arusha. We explore the property – there are vegetable gardens and a river walk. There’s a spa - I decide to get a massage which is money well spent. I rave about it so my husband gets an appointment for the next morning.

Right next to the road!

Cheetah cub

Can you spot the cheetah cub as mom keeps watch?

Day 12 - I head to the Cultural Center late morning with Danny to check out Tanzanite. Wander through the gallery again and then back to the Inn for lunch. And then it’s time to head to the airport. We thank Danny for a superb safari. Long line but it moves fast. Lounge is decent. And soon it is time to board. Tuta onana tena! We’ll meet again!


Tarangire sunset (from our deck)

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Old Oct 24th, 2023, 02:22 PM
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Janisj - whatever you pick, will be the right decision! I liked both my safaris - South Africa and Tanzania. Enjoy your research.
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Old Oct 25th, 2023, 02:17 PM
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This was so enjoyable to read desibabe! Your joy and appreciation for all you were seeing was palpable. You really were blessed with those crossings!!! Thank you for taking the time to write this!
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Old Oct 25th, 2023, 06:08 PM
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Thank you amyb - so very happy with this trip. It really was an embarrassment of riches - our guide took to asking us - what else do you wish for? His skills were invaluable. People have asked about safety - you're never alone on this type of trip. Certainly felt safer here than in Cape Town!
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