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Trip report

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My wife and I have just returned from our first safari to Tanzania (from 28 December to 7 January) and I thought I would post the following trip report for those who are interested. At the outset I should mention that we have visited most of the Southern African game parks (Kruger Park, Kwazulu-Natal parks, Etosha, Okavango, Moremi, Savuti, Chobe, Linyanti, Kalahari,and Matusadona to name a few) so we were very interested to see how the northern Tanzanian parks compared. We visited Tarangire, Ngorongoro, Serengeti, and Lake Manyara.

We arrived from South Africa at Kiliminjaro airport late in the evening and were met by the Duma Explorer driver, Charles, our guide and companion for the next 10 days, who delivered us to the Impala hotel in Arusha for our overnight stay. The hotel was a pleasant surprise as the accommodation was extremely comfortable and it has 3 restaurants that were open until very late. It also has a large spotlessly clean swimming pool that we made use of. Arusha itself is a busy city but is a bit of a culture shock for those coming from a modern city environment. Other than the hotels there seem to be no buildings that come remotely close to being modern by our own Cape Town standards.

The following morning we headed off to Tarangire. The drive there takes quite a few hours but fortunately the road is tarred (blacksurfaced) for quite some way. Once we entered the park the roads became tracks and heavily corrugated dirt roads. This was not too much of a problem and nothing in comparison to the roads we were to encounter in the Ngorongoro-Serengeti area. Tarangire is a very pretty park despite the drought that persists throughout the northern parks at present. Baobab trees are to be seen everywhere and we saw plenty of wildlife including lion, cheetah, buffalo, elephants, zebra and many of the antelopes such as the lesser and greater Kudu. We stayed at Oliver’s Camp, a 5-tented camp in the middle of nowhere. The staff were superb – their friendliness will be remembered by us for a long time. In particular manager Tim and activities manager Mark made our stay so enjoyable. Mark arranged a morning bush walk for just the two of us that we enjoyed so much – these walks are great for learning about the smaller things in life and, at the same time, provided us with fairly close encounters with some of the larger wildlife. Mark is one of those rare individuals who seems to love and enthuse about every aspect of the bush environment. Olivers camp is a fairly luxurious mid-priced tented camp and I would recommend it highly to anyone who enjoys being really close to nature and away from it all. Even the shower is under the stars and the meals were unbelievable for such a small camp! As a wildlife park we found Tarangire to be very similar to our own Kruger National Park in South Africa and very different to the other Tanzanian parks we visited.
After 2 nights in Tarangire we proceeded to the Ngorongoro Sopa lodge for a further 2 nights. The drive up the crater wall will test the very best of vehicles and we were pleased that we had a Toyota Landcruiser - any lesser vehicle would have fallen apart. However the drive suddenly becomes so worthwhile when one reaches the view-site at the top. I had read about it on this forum but being there was something else – I was so overwhelmed by the sight that I was unable to speak for a few minutes. No wonder it is regarded as one of the wonders of the world. For me it was a boyhood dream come true to see this awesome sight and I still become emotional just thinking about it. We spent the whole of the following day in the crater and saw so many thousands of animals, including a lioness defending her kill against over a dozen jackals and the same number of hyena. A really fantastic day in a really fantasic place. The Sopa lodge was superb – the food was brilliant and the staff was so polite. The sunset view from the pool verandah or pub is something special. A visit to the crater is something everyone visiting the northern parks should add to their itinerary. Allow yourself a full day or two half-days to explore the crater itself as it covers an immense area.

Our next stop was Ndutu Lodge on the border of the southern Serengeti, for 2 nights. The drive from the crater to Ndutu involved traveling on absolutely atrocious roads, with dust adding to the discomfort. It amazed us that, with so many well-heeled tourists spending so much money in these game parks, the authorities have spent so little on the roads and infrastructure. It seems that the main roads have not been graded for years and without doubt they were the worst we have experienced in any game reserve that we have visited. We arrived at Ndutu fully expecting to find the migration on our doorstep but this was not to be. It has not rained for some considerable time and somehow the animals know that they should not migrate southwards. Lake Ndutu was completely dry and the whole area was like a dust bowl. Very disappointing seeing that the lodge is so full of character and, as usual, the food was so good. Despite the dryness we were able to go on some rewarding game drives – around Ndutu it is permissible to drive off-road and this enabled us to get some fantastic close-up sightings of cheetah and lion. Our impression of Ndutu was that it would be a delightful lodge in the green season and when the migration is in the area but can be given a miss in favour of the central Serengeti at any other time. Of all the places we stayed at the staff at Ndutu were the least charming – something they could work on. Not that we experienced any rudeness, we were just not greeted in the same friendly manner as elsewhere.

From Ndutu we traveled to the Serengeti Sopa Lodge for 2 nights. This lodge has a brilliant setting but is quite some drive from the main game viewing area around Seronera in the central Serengeti. The hotel itself was far better than we expected and animals in the area were plentiful. However, I think that with the benefit of hind-site I would choose the Serengeti Serena hotel – it is very close to the Seronera area which is extremely rewarding for game viewing, despite the absence of the migration. We saw leopard, lion, so many elephants, and thousands of other animals in this area. We visited the Parks Board picnic site at Seronera and once again our observation was that so much more could be done to improve the infrastructure – the rest rooms, for example, like every other picnic spot we stopped at, leave much to be desired and, compared to the Kruger Park facilities in South Africa, fall well short of expectations. Despite this minor aggravation the experience of those huge flat plains dotted everywhere with animals in their thousands will be a lasting memory – nowhere else have we ever experienced such raw beauty and the term “big sky country” certainly applies here.

Our final destination was Kirirumu lodge overlooking Lake Manyara. The lodge was absolutely superb and compares with the best wildlife lodges anywhere in Africa. From the time we arrived until the time we left we experienced nothing but excellence. The food was the best we experienced at any lodge, and they were all very good, and the staff was fantastic. We were taken on a nature walk to the edge of the rift valley and this was so enjoyable and informative. Lake Manyara park itself was a slight disappointment. Much of the lake has dried up as a result of the drought and we were able to complete a drive around the lake and surrounding woodland in less than a full morning. Our feeling at the conclusion of our safari was that, despite the excellence of the lodge, we could have spent the time there in the Serengeti instead. This opinion might change if the lake was full of water but right now it can be left off any itinerary.

Our final night was spent back at the Impala lodge in Arusha after a very dusty drive back from Lake Manyara. The vision of the dust will be one of our lasting memories and we hope so much for the drought to be broken soon as it is having a major effect on the local population and their crops and livestock.

The following general observations may be of assistance:
1. Visas can be purchased upon arrival – just make sure you have $50 in cash for this purpose. It took about 2 minutes to obtain.
2. Although the hotels charge in Tanzanian Shillings everything can be settled in US dollars, including tips. We took 50 one-dollar notes amongst our other US dollar currency and these, plus quite a few 5-dollar notes, were given as tips wherever we went. We usually tipped 1 dollar to each bag carrier (and there were usually 2 or 3 of these). The rate of exchange used in most places seems to be $1 = Tsh 1000 which makes for very easy calculation.
3. Most of the smaller curio items that one can purchase at the roadside curio stalls, after much bargaining, can be purchased cheaper at Kilimimjaro airport duty-free. We felt really ripped-off when we discovered this.
4. We took a torch with us but never needed it – the lodges are all well lit and, where necessary, torches are supplied.
5. Beers are very good by any standard and wines are almost exclusively South African. We recognized many of our own good wines. Drinking water is supplied in sealed bottles in all hotel rooms - do not dream of drinking from the tap.
6. Despite what you may have read you will definitely encounter Tsetsi flies and they will bite you. However, they do not carry sleeping sickness and their bites do not itch afterwards. Their bite is similar to a pin-prick. It was only in the crater that we did not come across Tsetsi’s.
7. Temperatures were quite a bit warmer than we thought they would be (official published temperatures are measured in the shade) – out of the shade they were well into the 30’s and a sun hat and sun-screen is essential. Also include lip sun-screen. I lived in short pants and would suggest at least 3 or 4 pairs as they get dirty quite quickly. I also took about 6 short sleeved golf-type shirts. My wife wore Khaki and brown cropped pants and tee-shirts and we each had 2 sets of smarter wear for dinner use. Whilst the preferred clothing colour is neutral we found that people wore any and every colour imaginable. Most of the time is spent inside the vehicle so colour is not that important to the animals. Sandals were worn every day by both of us. Take one pair of good walking shoes if there is any chance of going on a game-walk. One pullover or sweat-shirt is all you need at this time of year – mainly for use at the crater-top. Bathing trunks were used a few times.
8. Most hotels have adaptors for electrical appliances, except the bush camps. Our vehicle was fitted with an inverter that enabled us to charge camera batteries and shaver. Do not rely on hair-dryers being supplied in your room.
9. We took malaria tablets (malaril) and obtained inoculation against Hepatitis A and Yellow Fever. We were never asked to show our certificates, either in Tanzania or back in South Africa.
10. We traveled alone with our driver and would not dream of doing it any other way. It meant that we had plenty of room for cameras bags, we each had our own viewing hatch, and we were able to set our own priorities (birding,etc) and time schedule.
11. Our next visit will definitely include flying from one camp to another. Whilst the distances seemed small on the map the condition of the roads make traveling extremely tedious and one’s back takes a pounding, particularly to the likes of us 50 year-olds. In any event the areas between camps were mostly devoid of game and we would much rather fly in order to make better use of the time in the game areas.
12. Our driver suggested that the very best time to visit the northern parks is late March – early April. Apparently the weather is good, the terrain is green, and the number of tourists is at its lowest. We will certainly plan around that advice for our next trip.
13. We used Duma Explorers as our tour operators. They are a small, very efficient company based in Arusha. One of their owners is an American, Stacey Readal, whom we had the privilege of meeting in Arusha. She organized our entire trip and never once did we have a hiccup. Our driver, Charles, was a true Tanzanian gentleman with 15 years experience with top companies like Abercrombie & Kent. He arranged everything at our hotels, including lunch-boxes and iced water, and his 4-wheel driving experience was the best we have encountered. Every morning he presented us with a spotlessly clean vehicle, to our amazement. We would recommend them very highly.

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