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Trip Report for Northern Tanzania July 2008

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I'm writing this because I got so much information from this site when I was planning my safari last year in June and I wanted to provide feedback to hopefully help others. To start with - something about my husband and myself: we prefer individual travel to group travel and had used A&K in the past for this (we were always very happy with them). So I checked out all the Africa books from the library and contacted A&K... I got their brochures and called them about their independent travels to a number of African countries. I then checked the internet for reviews of trips and found the Fodors site (I also used the Trip Advisor site for hotel reviews). After reading extensively here I decided: a) I wanted to start with my first safari in northern Tanzania and b) I would check with other tour operators for their prices (even though I thought I wanted a private safari for its flexibility I also checked out group tours by Thomson, Bushbuck, Micato, Hoopoe, Tauck, OAT etc but found Good Earth and Roy to be cheaper (except maybe OAT) - go figure - mostly because we did use frequent flier miles for the airfare). I put together the below mentioned itinerary for a year hence (after looking at the migration timing and weather etc) and put it out to A&K, CCAfrica, Good Earth Tours, and Roy Safaris. CCAfrica took a month to respond and then pushed me to book right away (by which time I'd already narrowed it down to Good Earth or Roy) so I decided against them on price and just general aggravation with their response time. Roy was more expensive by some so I chose Good Earth. Working with Narry in their Florida office was easy - he's cordial, helpful and always got back to me quickly. I also requested specific guides based on reviews here (which he said he would arrange later and did in the end) - so I was happy. I'd never arranged a trip so far ahead of time and it seemed a very long time to wait...

Tour operator - Good Earth Safaris and Tours

We arrived in Kili from Nairobi (Precision Air) and were picked up by Komba who was our guide just for Arusha National Park. After flying to Grumeti in the western Serengeti we met Paul who was our guide for the rest of the trip. He was wonderful - a consummate professional. Always calm, knowledgeable, a great driver - he went out of his way to make our trip perfect. I can't say enough good things about him - he's a great guy. As I read here, the guide can make or break the trip and I feel we were truly blessed to have had such a good rapport.

The vehicle was a fairly new pop top Land Cruiser. It was comfortable (you spend a lot of time in your vehicle). It had 7 seats for the 2 of us so plenty of room for luggage and to run around and get pictures without stepping on other people. We used bean bags for shooting pix and there were good binoculars for each of us. We saw lots of old, cranky (sometimes broken down vehicles) on the roads (even A&K seemd to have older Land Rover Defenders) - we saw an old Defender for a few days which, every time it stopped, the tourists had to get out and push to bump start it (or other vehicles had to push it) which was laughable. Once we had lunch at the same spot with them and Paul had to tell them to park halfway up a large termite mound so they could get started again. Also seeing people crammed into vehicles made me really happy we'd booked a private safari (no jockeying for the best seats - ever!).

Here's the itinerary (this is a reverse itinerary to most peoples so the grass had time to die down in Tarangire for best game viewing and we also got our internal flight done first):

July 4: Arrival Kilimanjaro
Mountain Village Lodge (Serena) -
Food was ok to good, service was really slow in the dining room and they didn't seem to care when they got your menu choices wrong. The rooms were nice (6 rooms on 1 level in each area around a central small courtyard) with good views of a lake (which you can't walk to without a guide, sadly). They seemed to play this endless looped tape in the main building with the most irritating american oldies music (yes, even disco) ever.

July 5: Arusha National Park
This was much greener and lusher than the other parks and has tons of giraffes. A great intro to the other parks (it's smaller) - it has lots of colobus monkeys which were among my favorite animals of the whole trip even if they were difficult to photograph. It was great to see local people enjoying this park as well - families out for the day with lots of kids... If I had it to do over again I might have done some of the trails there. It costs extra but sounded fun - also there was canoeing available on the Momela Lakes which were beautiful...

July 6: Arusha / Serengeti
flight to western Serengeti (Grumeti Airstrip) - we took Air Excel (small plane) - we shared it with one couple going to Lake Manyara (20 min flight) and then it was an hour to Grumeti. We could see the Crater and the animals from the air - very cool (I was expecting bumps but it was completely smooth). A great way to cut out 11 hours of driving time and we had our own private pilot on our private safari (OK - not really, it just felt that way).

Kirawira Camp - I really liked this camp - it has first class food and excellent service from great people who you actually get to know. The only complaint was that we got a tent that had no view (signs say tents 1-25 only and 26 and 27 were obviously added later and are right next to the car park where the staff leave around midnight and return at 5am or so and they also are next to the generator) even though they are very nice with an outside deck, then an inside sitting room with satellite TV, then the bedroom and bath. The staff was amazing - they remembered everyone's names and were very friendly and helpful. I couldn't believe when I showed up at the pool the first day and was greeted by name!

July 7: Western Serengeti
We saw lots of wildebeest and zebras even though it wasn't the main migration (see below) - enjoyed the game viewing lots. For the main parks I won't go into depth about the animals since it's pretty widely available info...

July 8: Central Serengeti
Serengeti Serena Lodge - I liked our room here - it was clean and nicely decorated. Each round hut is divided into two lower rooms and one upper room - we got the upper room with a little balcony and a nice view. The food was ok - all buffet style except for soup for some reason. Service was pretty good - just not much of it since the buffet was offered.

July 9: Central Serengeti
Serengeti Balloon Safaris - this was fun since I'd never been in a balloon (this is the 3rd largest in the world according to the operators). It was pretty expensive but once in a lifetime stuff... It ends with a huge champagne fest and full english breakfast in the middle of the Serengeti. Cool. Nigel and Nick are the pilots (2 balloons with 16 people each) and are both characters - very entertaining. The only disappointment was that we didn't see very many animals. Nick said that he'd just started (December '07) a flight in Kirawira and not many people knew about it yet. They see many more animals according to him and they're going to add another balloon there - that's maybe where I'd do it if I had had the opportunity...

As for the area itself - it seemed to have fewer animals than the west but we saw groups of lions and almost the best part was the ability to go off the road. Suddenly the crowds are left behind - once in a while we saw others. And when you find a group of 7 lions just around a corner you feel that they're all yours... Also eating lunch in the middle of it (Paul chose a tree in the middle with lots of wildebeest and zebras around so he could see any approaching animals) was beyond cool.

July 10: Serengeti / Ngorongoro
Afternoon game drive in the Crater - the drive from Serengeti was long and dusty - I was really glad to have missed that by flying in. We skipped a planned visit to the Maasai villages and I'm glad we did - seeing them by the side of the road with the Maasai spaced evenly along it begging for money for photos just reenforces what tourist traps they are... They aren't places where people live - they just go there during the day to have tourists come and take pictures and maybe watch a dance and then they sell stuff (this is according to Paul and other tourists who did go there mostly, since we skipped the visit). The guides try to discourage the outright begging even though it's great to see them in their shukas, especially with their herds and their kids. They also try to get the tourist lunch boxes (once in a while you see one holding up a deconstructed lunch box as a hint) which is discouraged because there was a time when they would scatter the garbage around (according to the guides). I kind of went against Paul's advice to buy some jewelry from the Maasai at the gate who accost you when you drive up (necklaces for $2 - who could resist?).

The crater is a bowl full of animals where the predators can come and go. Not as many animals as in the western Serengeti and loads of trucks everywhere but such a unique site. We missed the lake being covered in flamingoes by a few days...

Ngorongoro Crater Lodge - spectacular property with the best views anywhere. The rooms are amazing - you get there and start with a butler who brings you afternoon cappucino and draws your bath in this giant tub surrounded by scattered rose petals (kind of a rose theme there). Even the toilet has a breathtaking view. The service was sometimes spotty owing to staff failure to relay requests to our butler. In this caliber of property there was no excuse for that and the food was not as good as at Kirawira or Treetops. Saying that, I would still stay there again - the views and rooms are worth it. They also had a resident cape buffalo and some zebras which wander around munching the landscaping.

July 11: Ngorongoro / Lake Manyara
Morning game drive - I was proud to have spotted 6 lions (well, they were walking straight towards us at the time) and among a mix of the same animals seen elsewhere we did see rhino (from far away - twice).

Lake Manyara Serena Lodge - I would skip this altogether if I had it to do again. I liked the pool (all pools are cold there) and the evening singing and dancing at the pool by the hotel staff - one even played the zeze. They were really talented. The rooms are in need of updating and the food was the worst on the trip. Think beef that could sole your hiking boots and last a lifetime...

July 12: Lake Manyara / Tarangire
Lake Manyara - this was good even though I wasn't sure if I should include it or not. It had the best hippo pool - lots of interesting birds as well as hippos (I thought the large main Serengeti ones were kind of gross - stinky and covered in hippo poo) and because the weather was cool and cloudy we got to see the hippos out and playing. Wow. We also got to see our flamingos although they weren't too close - a challenge for the 400mm lens + teleconverter. The picnic spot here had the best bathrooms (first place to be new, neat and have toilet paper which is a rarity - do bring that with you from the hotel rooms just in case, although most guides have a roll in their glove box I think).

Tarangire Treetops - great place - best combo of room, food, plus service (IMO). The service was great and the food was top notch. The large tented room was one of the really high ones - up a steep spiral polished wood staircase maybe not for the faint-hearted (they have 3 types - very high with the spiral staircase, some with a few steps and some with a ramp). Views of trees were nice and there was a resident elephant in the camp. The food was really notable - you must request the picnic lunch for your game drive (providing you're staying the next night and can return their basket) - it was a 4 course meal for at least 3 times the people we had - with a hot soup starter in china bowls, salad, a meat course, pasta, vegetables, fruit salad and hot coffee or tea in china cups to finish. Amazing. Eating our massive picnic lunch we really felt sorry for the poor schmoes with their sorry box lunches;)!

July 13: Tarangire
Game drives in Tarangire - lots of elephants here. Otherwise more of the same as elsewhere (don't get me wrong - it never gets boring seeing animals up close) but I also really liked the scenery - lots of trees including those massive baobabs which you have to see to believe.

July 14: Tarangire / Kilimanjaro / Nairobi

Maasai boma visit - this was through the hotel and was guaranteed an "authentic, genuine, real cultural experience" etc. It was - at least, probably the closest these things ever will come. This group of Maasai had just moved a few weeks previously to 15 minutes from the hotel by truck from an hour away and built their village (the women build the houses in a week they said) of about 8-10 (I didn't count) huts- their herd was arriving the next week. They said about half their men work at the hotel and they had actually danced for us at dinner the night before. I got the feeling that they didn't really know what to do with tourists yet (this will no doubt change) - they asked us into one of their houses to sit by the fire - and answered questions through the hotel employee who drove us there. It was interesting and they hadn't picked up the money for pictures, dancing etc. habit that their brethren have elsewhere. They were openly curious about us but very hospitable. Sadly that will probably also change as more tourists visit and cause them to become more cynical (the official opening is due to happen next month and the village committee was hosted at Treetops for lunch while we were there and we heard them being given rules by the hotel staff which I'm sure they just loved).

Also on the way back to Arusha we stopped for shopping at a great place (which I forget the name of) which had quality carvings, textiles, t-shirts and clothing, even gems. I can possibly find the name if anyone is interested.

Misc. Notes:

I was expecting a lot more bugs than we encountered. I brought tons of repellents and never needed them. Every hotel room had this No-bite Lotion with DEET (except Treetops where there just weren't many at all). I got some bites but not enough to justify using DEET (maybe just in the evenings when the mosquitoes are actually out - but then I usually wore long sleeves - it beats me why I kept hearing other tourists describe how they smothered themselves in the stuff during the day). Tsetse flies which are out during the day are evil and aren't even fazed by it anyway. There fortunately weren't too many of those - probably most in the western Serengeti. The staff at each hotel sprayed the rooms with insect spray when they turned down the beds at night.

We brought too few single dollars (I think it was 30 total) - they may be a pain to carry but we needed more for those who do small things like carry bags, walk you back to your tent/room at night etc. We ended up paying bar bills in $$ to get more (thus cutting down on my shopping money for the end of the trip).

The migration
I booked this trip with seeing the migration in mind - according to this site and books and well just about everybody it should have been in the central part or the western part but was acutally at the Mara river (very northern Serengeti) at the time (a do-able day drive but just decided not to). There were lots of leftovers in the western part so based on several years of changed rain pattern I would say that if you're booking now for next year that you split your Serengeti time between north and west to see it.

My husband and I are pretty keen amateur photographers but there were some pros out there that had requested special vehicles for camera mounts from Good Earth (Good Earth is taking delivery of a brand new special photography specific vehicle according to Paul which should be really good for those even more serious than we are). We had a pop top truck which I was happy with and just used the bean bags. We took a rented Canon EOS-1D Mark III and my Canon Rebel Xti (I may yet get time to post pix) with a wide angle EF-S 10-22mm lens, my favorite EF 24-105mm lens, EF 70-200mm (which my husband dropped the very first day and disabled), my new EF 100-400mm (which I kindly loaned to my husband for a lot of the trip), 1.4x teleconverter, and older EF 300mm. We used the 100-400 and the 24-105 the most...

Gifts for guides
I had to ask Paul about the advice I'd gotten here about t-shirts, baseball caps, stuff for kids as gifts. I thought that after a while the guides would get sick of getting the same stuff from everybody but not so... According to Paul it's all good (no candy as advised here) - the shirts, the caps and for kids stationary stuff (school supplies) like pens, pencils, notebooks etc.

I know I've forgotten lots but I hope this helps somebody...

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