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Trip Report Kenya-Tanzania safari detailed trip report

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Just got back from our 2 week safari in Kenya and Tanzania. Thanks to all Fodorites on this board for all the help.

Here's the (longish) trip report

Kenya-Tanzania Trip Report (2nd ? 16th July)

Pre Trip Planning

I worked out the itinerary myself, with lots of help from the Fodors board (thanks Kavey, sandi, RuthieC and all others who helped). Did a check on Lonely Planet recommended tour operators and mailed a prospective itinerary to 3 operators in Nairobi and 3 in Arusha. Based on their responses, costs etc. finally selected Best Camping Tours in Nairobi and Tanzania Serengeti Adventures in Arusha (Thanks Roccco ? I saw TSA mentioned in one of your posts). There were plenty of good references for Best Camping in the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Board, and in the case of TSA, they provided me a list of references ? I e-mailed to about 10 people and they all gave excellent feedback about TSA.

We wanted to have a mix of a camping and a lodge safari, so the final itinerary was as follows:

July 2nd Arrive Nairobi; stay at PanAfric hotel (arranged by Best Camping)

July 3rd Nairobi ? Masai Mara (Best Camping campsite)

July 4th Mara (campsite)

July 5th Mara (campsite)

July 6th Mara ? Lake Nakuru (Hotel Stem, Nakuru)

July 7th Nakuru ? Nairobi ? Amboseli (Amboseli Lodge)

July 8th Amboseli (Amboseli Lodge)

July 9th Amboseli ? Namanga ? Arusha (stay at Arusha cottage)

July 10th Arusha ? Tarangire (Tarangire River Camp)

July 11th Tarangire (Tarangire Sopa Lodge)

July 12th Tarangire ? Ngorongoro (Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge)

July 13th Ngorongoro ? Serengeti (Serengeti Sopa Lodge)

July 14th Serengeti (Serengeti Sopa Lodge)

July 15th Serengeti (Serengeti Sopa Lodge)

July 16th Serengeti ?Arusha (flight); Arusha ? Nairobi (by private taxi); Nairobi - Bombay

The packing list I used was based on what was provided to me by Best Camping and TSA, plus inputs from earlier posts on Fodors.

I had all my bookings confirmed about a month before the trip ? since the cancellation window is about 30 days.

From the time I started planning the trip seriously it took me about 2-3 weeks to get it all tied up (including researching, identifying tour operators, getting references, planning out alternate itineraries etc.)

July 2 ? Nairobi

Our flight from Bombay landed about 7 AM, and the first thing that struck us was the cold ? it was at least 5 deg C colder than we had expected, though we knew it was winter time. Luckily we had packed 1 set of woolens ? a sweater, a sweatshirt and a windcheeter. There was someone from Best Camping who received us and transferred to Panafric.

The Hotel was nice ? had all the conveniences without being too luxurious (read expensive!). We didn?t do much on 2nd ? went across to the Best Camping office, changed money, walked around central Nairobi a bit (and it was reasonably safe ? though we had heard some negative feedback, we didn?t have any problems).

We didn?t do the standard Karen Blixen museum tour or the Giraffe center ? we wanted to take it slow and easy on the first day. I did find the bookshop at the Stanley Hotel pretty good ? picked up books on East African animals and birds.

July 3rd ? Nairobi ? Mara

Our safari began with a bang. We had read reports in the local papers about there being some political demonstration in Nairobi on 3rd, but in the morning, as we planned to leave we got caught right in the middle. Traffic was held up, riot police was in operation, and we could hear shouts and whistles blowing across the road from the Best Camping office. Luckily we managed to scramble to our safari vehicle and push off before it became serious ? we heard later that police had to resort to tear gas to clear the mob.

We had a standard mini-van with a pop up roof for the safari in Kenya. The driver / guide sits in front and the other front seat is usually vacant (our guide used this space to keep the lunch boxes , medicine kit, his binoculars and bird field guide). The rear has space for 3 large duffel bags, plus was loaded up with vegetables / fruits and other supplies we were carrying with us (this being a camping safari, we took in fresh supplies with us which were used up during our stay ? no wonder the campsite food tasted the best!). The eggs were in front.

In the middle, the seating was 3 ? 2 ? 3, and on our trip there were 7 people in all. My wife and I had the middle 2 seats, another couple from the US were in the back row and in front were 3 girls from Ireland on a summer intership in Kenya.

We received some excellent advice on this board about the relative merits / demerits of the 3 rows, and also a good suggestion on rotating seats through the trip. We didn?t really rotate because the couple at the back returned after the 3 days in the Mara, after which we re-arranged our positions, then the 3 Irish girls dropped off after Nakuru, so we had the entire van to ourselves in Amboseli.

The road to Mara was good upto the Rift Valley; thereafter it steadily deteriorated, with the worst being a 15 km section either side of Narok, which took about an hour, and felt like riding a camel inside a blender.

Took us a full 6 hours to reach the Mara, including the lunch break ? so we reached around 4 PM. We went off on our first game drive straight away.

July 3rd ? 6th ? The Mara

Had a wonderful time in the Mara. Really lived up to everything we had heard/ read about it. We lost count of the number of lions we saw, including cubs. Zebra, wildebeest, little Tommies, Grants gazelles, elephants, hippo, giraffe, plus lots of birds. We also saw a leopard in a tree with his kill and a pair of cheetahs..

The sunsets on the Mara with wildebeest or giraffe silhouetted against the sun were just unbelievable.

Camping was a great experience ? there were 9-10 basic canvas tents with mattresses in a clearing just outside the park gate. A log cabin with a kitchen and tables was the venue for breakfast/ dinner. 2 kerosene lanterns provided light, otherwise we had to use our flashlights to move around in the tent or to go to the bathrooms. There ware common shower stalls / WCs, but no hot water ? and given the weather, we used to have a shower only at mid-day (post lunch and before the evening game drive).

We had a campfire every night, warm beer and 2 Maasai tribesemen, armed with a spear and bow / arrows to guard at night. There were plenty of baboons around the site, and we were told elephant sometimes dropped by, though we didn?t see any while we were there.

July 6th ? Lake Nakuru

Highlights were the flamingos, pelicans and other waterbirds; plus we saw a large number of white rhino, which was the only one of the Big 5 that we had missed at the Mara. One of the them came very close to the van, with his horn down; so we got a little uneasy, but he passed by. We also saw a Rothschild giraffe in Nakuru.

Our guide also provided us with one of the top moments of our trip overall ? in the fading light in the evening, he spotted a leopard in a tree about 2 rows removed from the track. After he stopped and pointed it out, it took us a couple of minutes with our binoculars to actually spot it. For the life of me, I can?t figure out how he saw it, while driving too. He was on the radio in a flash and within minutes there were 7-8 other vans jockeying for position around us (we had the best location, of course!)

After 3 days in a tent, having electricity and hot water in the hotel was a great feeling. The camp experience showed us the value of what we take for granted!

July 7th ? 9th ? Amboseli

Nakuru to Amboseli was one long drive ? nearly 3 hours to Nairobi, and a further 4 hours to Amboseli. We stopped in Nairobi for lunch, stocked up on essentials / snacks etc.

Our first impression of Amboseli was not great ? here you had to stick to the standard paths, unlike in the Mara where you could go off-road and get really close to the animals. Also there seemed to be fewer game to be seen as compared to the Mara.

However, that changes very quickly on the second day, when we saw the herds of elephant, zebra, wildebeest etc. near the swamp area. Amboseli is a very nice park ? the herbivores also seem to be much more relaxed here than in the Mara, where you could sense that they were on tenterhooks all the time, watching out for predators. In Amboseli, there is only one pride of lions, so the wildebeest and zebra seemed more comfortable.

We got glimpses of the snow capped Kili summit, but through our stay, it tended to be misty / cloudy, so we didn?t see Kili in its full glory as in the postcards.

We also went to a Masaai village in Amboseli, which was a nice experience, though a bit commercialized.

Other highlights were the small little dust devils in the park (we heard that the Swahili word for this is Amboseli, from which the park gets its name), and the serval cat and bat eared foxes which we saw.

We stayed at Amboseli lodge, which was the nicest lodge throughout our safari. This is near the Old Tukai lodge in the center of the park, is an all teak-wood construction with very nice cottages and great views of Kili. The food at the lodge was not that great, though.

July 9th ? Amboseli ? Namanga ? Arusha

We were dropped off this side of the Namanga border by our Best Camping guide; we had tickets on the Davanu shuttle which we would board at Namanga to Arusha.

The shuttle was 1 hour late, getting a visa on the Tanzania side took more than 30 minutes and we found that the shuttle was fully packed, so we got the folding seats in the center aisle, which made the remaining 1.5 hrs to Arusha pretty cramped.

Reached Arusha about 1.30 PM, were met by TSA representative and we went to Arusha Cottage (which is essentially a bunch of rooms built in the back lot of the TSA owner?s house, but are nicely appointed rooms, so no complaints)

We had consciously planned for a half day break in our safari at Arusha, and were glad we had done it. We spent the day wandering around Arusha, which is a pretty town.

We had lunch and dinner at a really nice restaurant called Jambo Makuti ? this is run by a Brit woman, and has plenty of ambience and character. There is also a nice bookshop / souvenier shop nearby, and we found prices in Arusha are generally lower than in Nairobi ? so we would recommend you hold on to your souvenier hunting till you get to Arusha.

July 10th ? 11th ? Tarangire

In Tanzania, we had a large Land Cruiser 4 WD, which we shared with one other couple. Plenty of space for everyone. Arusha to Tarangire took only about 1.5 hrs ? good road.

Due to the rush for lodge bookings (and despite my planning nearly a month in advance), we had to stay the 2 nights in Tarangire at different places ? the first was in the Tarangire River Camp just outside the camp entrance, and the second was at the Sopa Lodge in the park. Both were nice, though the River Camp with its luxury tents was a distinctly different experience.

We took a walk in the bush around the River Camp, where a couple of Masaais and the camp manager showed us tracks of animals, explained the medicinal properties of various plants that the Masaai use etc. After days spent entirely in a vehicle, this was again a different experience.

Tarangire is elephants and baobab trees. We lost count of the number of elephants we saw in Tarangire ? a highpoint was when a big male tusker walked up the road and stood in front of the vehicle for a full 10 minutes, blinking his big eyes at us. We were a little scared, because up close, we could feel the sheer size of the animal. If he had decided to give us a little shove, we would have ended up in the bush! Luckily, he moved on after what seemed an eternity.

We took a large number of pictures of baobabs against the sunset. Tarangire is also where we saw the largest number of bird species ? we are pretty avid birdwatchers, so we really enjoyed seeing the barbets, hornbills, fish eagles and the rest.

We had prepared ourselves for the tse-tse flies in Tarangire; our bug sprays came in handy, and we weren?t really troubled too much ? we kept our windows open and the roof up throughout.

July 12th ? Ngorongoro

The road from Tarangire to Ngorongoro is recently laid and is very good ? the best that we saw throughout. We reached the crater by noon and were in the crater till evening. Nothing that you have read or heard or watched about the crater quite prepares you for the actual thrill of descending down the crater and seeing the virtual zoo in front of you.

I believe that it was in the crater that we got closest to the herds of wildebeest and zebra ? even more so than in the Mara or in the swamp in Amboseli. The animals in the crater seem least bothered about the vehicles on the track.

Highlights in Ngorongoro were seeing 3 black-maned male lions fight over a pride of lionesses ? we saw the action from quite a distance through our binoculars, and couldn?t get closer due to path restrictions. Also saw a black rhino from a distance. The hippo pool also had some of the most uninhibited hippos we saw during our trip ? they floated belly up and turned over every few minutes.

The Sopa Lodge in Ngorongoro has good views over the crater (like all the lodges in the crater), and has an excellent bar around a fireplace; the only drawback is that it is farthest from the road to the Serengeti ? so you have to spend at least an extra hour when you drive on. All the other lodges are on the opposite end of the crater rim.

Ngorongoro gets really cold during the night, so the woolens really come in handy here.

July 13 ? 16th ? Serengeti

And so, on to the last and our favourite park in East Africa ? the Serengeti. Of all the parks we went to, if I have to choose just one, this is it.

In Serengeti, you can see anything that you see in any of the other parks; and the sheer expanse of the Serengeti you will not find anywhere else. For hours on end you go through endless savannah ? and to me this feeling of space is what distinguishes the Serengeti from the Mara, which is much smaller.

We saw 2 lion kills within the space of 1 hour (our guide told us that we were very, very lucky!). for the first one we waited more than 30 minutes, while the lionesses planned, tracked her prey and sprang ? all by the side of the road; in the second we arrived on the scene as the lioness was just about to spring.

We saw a pack of 3 hyena surround and chase away a lone cheetah on a rock, who then came to the side of the road and called out (in that funny bird call that they make); in response 2 other cheetah came and joined her and they went away into the bush.

We saw a full grown male lion within touching distance looking for his pride.

We saw a leopard walking in the bush, after racing across the plains for nearly 50 kms after receiving a radio report.

And countless other animals?.

We stayed at the Serengeti Sopa, which is currently undergoing some renovation, but is quite comfortable. Only drawback like in Ngorongoro is that it is about an hour?s drive from the Seronera area, which is fine in itself, but the south-western part of the Serengeti didn?t have too much game at this time of the year, so most of our game drives began with us heading either north or towards the Lake Magadi area.

We also had our most serious tse-tse fly menace in the woodlands near the lodge, but that was only on one particular afternoon game drive ? the rest of the days were fine.

The vistors center in the Seronera is well planned and is a good afternoon lunch stop.

The Serengeti is IT.

On the last day, we took a flight from the Seronera airstrip back to Arusha, and then a private taxi all the way back to Nairobi airport to connect to our flight back.

What worked, What didn?t

? Itinerary and Trip Planning

o Overall we were pretty happy with the itinerary. The Mara and the Serengeti definitely require at least 3 nights ( I would even suggest 4 nights at the Serengeti, if possible). 2 nights is just right for Amboseli and Tarangire. 1 night is fine for Lake Nakuru, but 1 would add 1 night to Ngorongoro ? we had only 5-6 hours inside the crater, and I would ideally spend a full day at least.

o Try and spend at least 2 nights at one place before moving ? the one part of our itinerary that I would definitely have changed if I had a choice was spending the 2 nights in Tarangire at different lodges. As a result, we had a sequence of 6 consecutive nights where we stayed at different places (Amboseli lodge, Arusha, Tarangire River Camp, Tarangire Sopa lodge, Ngorongoro Sopa and Serengeti Sopa). Each day we had to check in and check out ? which meant that we never really unpacked our large duffel in any. This is completely avoidable ? we didn?t manage to get our bookings in time.

o The last day was a bit of a scramble ? our Precision Air flight came in late by 1 hr into Seronera, and we had to get to Arusha and on to Nairobi ? it was touch and go, but our taxi made up time and we eventually reached well in time. Ideally, I would get into Arusha the previous day, unwind in Arusha and catch the morning shuttle back to Nairobi. I couldn?t do it this time, because I forsook the convenience for an extra night in the Serengeti!

o I would definitely recommend a mix of camping and lodges ? we stayed at the most basic camps, at luxury tents and in Sopa lodges ? and liked all experiences. If you are doing this, then I would suggest you take the camping bit right at the beginning and work your way up to more premium options in the later part. I am not sure I would have enjoyed the camp as much if it was the last 3 days of the trip. Also, I believe options for this kind of camping is better organized in Kenya than in Tanzania (though I am not sure about this)

o Don?t get into the Mara ? Serengeti trade-off (i.e doing only one). Both are exceptional and different experiences ? the Mara for the closeness to the animals and the density of the game, and the Serengeti for the sheer expanse. Do both ? they are well worth it.

o Choosing between Amboseli and Tarangire is a tough one ? really close. Do both if you can, if you can?t then my personal preference is for Tarangire over Amboseli. Costs also enter the picture ? on the whole, Kenya is less expensive than Tanzania, so Amboseli would work out less expensive than Tarangire. Both are elly-country, with Tarangire having much more elly population, but Amboseli has Kili views, Tarangire has baobabs, Amboseli has more other wildlife, Tarangire has more birds?. You get the picture.

o The wildebeest migration and trip timing- We did see ?the migration? on the Mara side ? i.e we saw long lines of wildebeest, flanked by zebra and gazelles moving into the Mara, but I suspect most people actually have a river crossing or a stampede in mind. We were too late for the river crossings ? ideally a few days in Grumeti or Kirawira on the Serengeti in May- June (for the Grumeti river crossing) or, really north (Lobo lodge / migration camp) in Serengeti in mid June (for the Mara river crossing) would be required. Even then, I believe the dates are in-exact and depend on the rains, so I?m not really sure we would be able to see a crossing even with this better insight. This time round, we were too late in the Serengeti, since the herds were way north. I would also definitely want to do a second trip in Jan-Feb for the wildebeest calving, on the southern part of the Serngeti (in a lodge like Ndutu in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area).

o As regards taking a private safari vs. going with a group ? we had a great group experience both in Kenya and in Tanzania. I believe this is a good way of meeting up with new people, and certainly adds to the travel experience. However, you have to be lucky ? you need to gel with the rest of the group, and in both cases we had really fun and adjusting people to travel with. We saw a few crabby tourists at the lodges and were quite thankful we didn?t end up with any of them in our vehicle! Also, if you like birdwatching, you need to be lucky in getting a group that doesn?t mind when you ask the driver to stop so that you get a closer look at the martial eagle on a tree far away. When you sign up for a group safari, you also don?t control the number of people in the vehicle ? in peak season, you could end up with all 8 places being full in the minivan in Kenya, which would be quite cramped. We were fine with 7 people, but we were all thankful there wasn?t an 8th person. I would say 7 is the limit for the minivan. Also as mentioned earlier, the group kept getting smaller as we went along. Another plus for having a group is that someone may spot something that you or your driver may have missed if you were the only couple in the vehicle. 4 in the LandCruiser in Tanzania was really comfortable. In both cases, the middle seats are the best ? you don?t bump your head against the bar when you get up. I also liked the rear seats in the Land Cruiser ? I could lean against the back rim and have a uninterrupted view of both sides!

o Both Best Camping and TSA were excellent ? our guides were fantastic, their vehicles were in good condition, they are pretty prompt in responding to mails ? we would definitely go with both companies again.

? Packing

o We kept clothes to a minimum ? a few pairs of T-shirts and cotton trousers / khakis and some smalls. We did the smalls ourselves, and used the laundry at the lodges where we stayed more than 1 night. This worked fine for us. There is plenty of packing advice on this board, so I won?t add too much here. We used a day backpack each, and 1 large duffel bag between the two of us.

o A flashlight with a spare set of batteries is a must, esp. if you are camping.

o Get a really good pair of binoculars ? an 8x40 is fine for both animals and birds. These really add huge value to your experience ? its amazing what kind of detail you can see through your binocs.

o We carried Arab-type light cotton headgear in addition to our caps, which really come in handy against the dust.(We had bought these in Egypt on an earlier trip and they are the best ? both against light and dust!)

o I bought inflatable neck-pillows (as recommended by someone on this board), but on Day 1 realised they were not very comfortable, and didn?t use them for the rest of the trip. Can drop.

o Take a small collapsible bag ? keep it folded on your way in, and stuff it with all the souveniers on the way back.

o Carry locks with keys for all your bags, including the day packs. We didn?t have any bad experience, but we stayed safe all the same; thanks to the warnings we got from others on this board.

o Lip balm, sunscreen, bug spray etc. are all essentials

o Stock up on snacks such as chips, biscuits, mints, etc. In the bush, time between lunch and dinner seems very long! Ideally buy what you need in Nairobi (the Nakumatt dept. store is good) or Arusha ? the same stuff at the lodges is at a considerable premium. Ditto for film rolls, batteries and other such consumables.

o Both my companies provided enough mineral water for the trip ? we bought some more, just for cover, but didn?t really need it.

? Photography

o I still can?t believe I went on safari without a zoom lens. I bought a Nikon FM 10 with a 35-70 mm lens just before leaving, and by that time I had burnt a hole in my budget with all the pre-trip shopping, so I made the fatal mistake of not buying a lens with a longer range.. 200 mm is bare minimum, but 300 would be Please carry AT LEAST a 300 mm lens with you. I got a lot of great landscapes, and at times we were lucky with getting animals close enough so I could get good results with my lens, but by the 2nd day, I was wincing every time I saw a Japanese tourist with a lens that looked like a bazooka.

o My wife used a point and shoot Canon. Between the two of us we got enough decent pics to fill and album, but we were both feeling strangely unsatisfied. I try and rationalize by saying this is a good reason for us to go back, but you really don?t need more reasons for that!

o One word regarding point and shoots ? with my manual SLR, I could set a shutter speed fast enough to avoid camera shake (1/125 or preferably 1/250), since light conditions were very good throughout, but with a point and shoot, you don?t know what shutter speed it selects ? it may select a lower aperture to give you good depth of field and a slower shutter speed. This could result in camera shake, particularly on shots from the vehicle (which are the majority of shots on the trip). What we didn?t realize is that the vehicle engine is not always switched off, so the vibrations could result in shake without you realizing it. Wait for the engine to stop, or use a bean bag with your point and shoot. We diagnosed the problem because all the point and shoot ?stationary; pics were just fine, but quite a few from the vehicle had a ?shake?.

o A circular polarizer filter is very handy ? I used one for most of my landscapes and the clouds show up very nicely. I avoided using it near water bodies (such as in Lake Nakuru) where I wanted to keep the reflections from the water surface.

? Other General points

o Notwithstanding the first day, safety was not really a concern. All the people we met were very warm, friendly and we didn?t feel insecure for even a moment.

o Arusha is much better as a stopping point that Nairobi. So if you want a break in your trip, where you want to just walk around / do nothing, do it in Arusha.

o Africa is a great place. We had a fantastic trip and I would go over and over again. Have fun!!

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