Jun 18, 2017

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My Trip to Tanzania, May 2017

Posted in : Uncategorized on by : Mike

A Family of Lion Cubs in the Serengeti

Note: don’t forget to check out the photo gallery!

I’m on my way home from a roughly one-week trip to Tanzania. I booked the trip about 6 months in advance through www.EarthLifeExpeditions.com. As usual, I researched several other safari companies before booking with Earthlife.

It’s always a very difficult decision deciding which company to book with. I want the best price possible, and the best experience possible. In the case of Earthlife, I spoke with Deo, who is the owner of the company, for all the planning. Deo was very helpful and put together a great itinerary. I told him that I would like to see the Great Migration, and also that big cats were my primary goal. It’s somewhat difficult to predict where the herd will be, especially 6 months in advance. But Deo planned it perfectly, and we had a front row seat to watch the migration through central Serengeti, and again later as they caught up to us in western Serengeti. In addition, Deo’s staff was friendly, knowledgeable, and fun. Our guide, Aggrey, was excellent, and we had amazing viewings thanks to him.

On this trip I had a traveling companion, and it was her first safari ever. Furthermore, it was my first trip to Tanzania, and it was very special for me to see the Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater, which are the precise locations of many wildlife documentaries I watched when I was younger. To see those places, and walk on that land, was very important to me.

So let’s get to the specifics!

Timeline

During planning with Deo, we had decided that it would be good to spend a couple of days visiting Tarangire National Park and Manyara National Park, and then make our way to Ngorongoro Crater, then Central Serengeti, and finally Western Serengeti.

The schedule was:

  • Day 1: Tarangire National Park
  • Day 2: Manyara National Park
  • Day 3: Ngorongoro Crater
  • Day 4: Central Serengeti
  • Day 5: Central Serengeti
  • Day 6: Central / Western Serengeti
  • Day 7: Western Serengeti
  • Day 8: Western / Central Serengeti, and depart for Kilimanjaro airport

Flying to Tanzania from NY, USA is not particularly difficult, but there are no non-stop flights. On the way there we had a connection in Amsterdam, and on the way back we actually had two stops, one in Nairobi and another in Paris (which is where I am right now, writing this entry to be published later).

Everything was generally fine with the flights, but beware, the short flight from Kilimanjaro to Nairobi might be cancelled unexpectedly if you book with Precision Air (which is what I did originally). It was cancelled on me, and I had booked the flights through Liberty Travel, and they never notified me! I found out myself when I randomly checked the flights a few weeks later and saw that the airline had switched that flight to one that took place 6 hours later. Of course, if we took the flight they switched us to, we would miss our connection in Nairobi. It was really an asinine move by the airline, and terrible service by Liberty Travel. As it turned out, Liberty had to re-issue my tickets for the flight from Nairobi to Paris, and Paris to NY. It was left to me to book my own transportation from Tanzania to Nairobi.

Luckily, Deo from Earthlife was familiar with Precision Air, and told me that they cancel flights at the last minute. He suggested that I book a new flight with Kenya Airways, which would be earlier in the day. I did so, and everything was fine. Of course that cost me extra money, which LIberty Travel did not reimburse me for (nor did they even give me a partial refund for the cancelled flight). That’s the last time I book a flight through Liberty Travel.

Also, when leaving the Serengeti, we opted to take a small plane to Arusha rather than drive back. This would allow us more time on safari, which was important to me because this was a relatively short trip already. Also, I’ve been on small planes before, and I know that the views are amazing.

Planning

As I mentioned earlier, I did all of the planning with Deo from Earthlife Expeditions. I found Deo’s company through www.SafariBookings.com. There I was able to submit a request for quote to many different operators, one of which was EarthLife. All of the operators responded to me and gave me their best offer. Deo’s was significantly better priced than the others, even though we were staying at many of the same lodges as the others. So I focused my planning with Deo and we decided on the itinerary and price.

Deo was able to make the plans by email, which is always important to me because I work 9-5 and can’t spend a lot of time on the phone, but I can always find 10 minutes for an email. The whole process was very convenient.

Weather

Beautiful sunset
I visited in late May, which is toward the end of the rainy season, and is the less busy season in Tanzania. The dry season starts roughly in June, and by July it is peak tourism season. As it turned out, the weather and temperatures varied significantly from one place to another. Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara National Park are both located near Arusha and had similar weather, which in this case was around 70 degrees if I remember correctly, and a bit on the cloudy side. Ngorongoro Crater had its own variations, in that the rim has a high elevation and is therefore pretty cool, especially at night with temperatures around 40 – 50 degrees. Last, the Serengeti was mostly sunny, dry, and warm with temperatures in in the 75 – 85 range.

Afternoon view of Ngorongoro craterWhen booking the trip I was worried that there would be long periods of rain, since May is technically part of the rainy season, but as it turned out we saw very little rain, and the rain we did see was only in Arusha when we arrived.

In terms of clothing, because of the wide range in temperatures, I packed some pants and shorts, as well as a nice warm hoodie. This turned out to be a good idea, since sometimes it was cold and sometimes warm. A bit annoying since it meant I had to pack more though!

Guide and Staff

Our guide, Aggrey (pronounced ah-grey, with a rolled R if you can roll your R’s), was waiting for us outside the airport the night we arrived. He drove us to our hotel, taking a route through Arusha so we could see some local night life being that it was a Saturday evening, and made sure we were checked into our room and ready for the next day’s schedule before departing.

Over the next week or so Aggrey was our guide and driver, and he did a phenomenal job. He proved to be excellent at spotting wildlife, which is the primary characteristic I want in a guide. In addition to that, he was also very friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful. Not only did he show us the wildlife, but he also taught us a lot about the people and culture of Tanzania.

I could tell that it was very important to Aggrey that we see as many animals as possible, and he worked very hard to spot everything he could. In Ngorongoro crater he found 3 black rhinos, at very far distances! In the Serengeti he took us to the wide open plains in search of cheetahs, and we were rewarded with some great sightings of these beautiful animals. Aggrey had a tough job to do, in that he was responsible for spotting as many animals as possible, and put in some very long hours behind the wheel as we drove from one park to another. This is tiring work, but he was always ready early the next day for more.

On our first morning in Tanzania we were met at breakfast by Angela, who works with Earthlife, and she reviewed our itinerary with us and made sure we were aware of the schedule and general day to day routine. She also gave us some homework, to learn a few names of animals in Swahili, and report back to her at the end of the trip. We saw her again for lunch on our last day in Tanzania and we were proud to be able to recite a few names for her, so we passed our quiz!

We also met Deo at the hotel on the first morning, and he was very warm and friendly. Last but not least, on our last day we were driven to the airport by Gilbert, who I believe also works as a guide for Earthlife, and he was also very friendly and fun to spend some time with.

Overall I was very impressed by the entire Earthlife staff. Everyone was professional, hard working, genuine, friendly and down to earth.

Accommodations

Sunset view from Kubu Kubu lodge
Because we were visiting several parks, we saw a total of 5 different hotels/lodges during the trip! We started out spending one night at the Venus Hotel in Arusha, which was a nice, modern hotel, perfect for a quick stay before heading out on an adventure.

After visiting Tarangire National Park on day 1, we spent the night at Tarangire Osupuku Lodge, which had very nice rooms set up as separate ground-level huts. Ours had a back door opening to a small patio which had a view of the surrounding park. I woke up early and watched the sky grow lighter and listened as the birds started to sing, and noticed a troupe of vervet monkeys in a nearby tree as they slowly awoke from their nighttime cuddle-positions (seriously, apparently they sleep cuddled in each other’s arms!) and went about looking for something to eat. I missed those mornings in Africa, and I was very glad to be back there!

After Manyara National Park we drove to the Ngorongoro Rhino Lodge where we stayed for the next two nights. This lodge is set up as a few buildings with adjoining rooms. Our room (and all rooms I assume) was equipped with a wood-burning stove for heat, which came in handy considering the chilly nighttime temperatures of the rim of Ngorongoro crater. The room itself was cozy, and also had a back door with a patio overlooking a small green field and foliage. Again I could wake up early and watch as the night turned to day and the birds started flying.

Next we spent two nights at Kubu Kubu Tented Camp in central Serengeti. In terms of accommodations, this was the star of the trip. It’s a full luxury lodge, which big spacious rooms, shiny modern bathrooms, a huge dining area, and an amazing view. I was blown away by the view – the lodge is situated on a mountainside, so each room overlooks the surrounding fields and trees. The rooms are set up in two rows along the hill, with the second row higher up than the first, so every room has a great view. The rooms are tented, meaning they’re a wood frame with a canvas tent for walls. The back door was a zippered tent door which opened to a patio overlooking the field. Each room has a water cooler that dispenses purified water (hot or cold) along with great tasting instant coffee, tea, sugars, etc. I woke up early each morning and sipped coffee as I watched the herds of wildebeest below. At night, the wildebeest and zebra could be heard from the not too distant field as they moo’d and called to each other. Thanks to Deo’s excellent planning from several months in advance, we were in exactly the right spot for the Great Migration. On the first morning as I sipped coffee, I noticed that the field to the distant east was filled with little dots. I realized the dots were slowly moving, and that this was a group of hundreds, maybe thousands of wildebeest making their way toward the field right below the lodge! Over the course of the next day or so they made their way past the lodge, heading west, so I had a front-row seat to watch the migration.

I should point out that Kubu Kubu is very high on the luxury side of things, so if you’re looking for a more rugged experience you might not prefer it. But it would be impossible not to be impressed by it!

Next we headed to western Serengeti and spent the final two nights at Mbalageti Serengeti in a tented Chalet. It was also a tented room, meaning an elevated wood frame with a canvas tent. On the bright side, Mbalageti is also set up on a hillside and therefore has an amazing view of the surrounding fields, with sunrise and sunset both visible on the horizons. Food was very good and staff were friendly. Unfortunately though, it did have some problems. First, walking around outside during the day would bring you through clouds of flies that would bounce into your face, your lips, your head, etc. None landed on or bit us, but they were very annoying! Probably not much that Mbalageti could do about it, but still annoying. Second, the room itself had a bug problem. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but bugs were in the bed and I got covered in bug bites. My ankles, arms and rib cage all sported dozens of itchy red bites. Maybe it was because the mosquito net didn’t hang all the way to the floor, and maybe it was just that one room, I really don’t know, but this is one lodge I wouldn’t stay at again.

I don’t let Mbalageti ruin the overall experience though – overall the lodges were all great, and despite its problems, Mbalageti still has a lot to offer. Besides, if you’re going to Africa looking for luxury instead of what you should really be looking for (animals!), then you have the wrong idea to begin with!

Daily Routine

Safari here is a bit different than other places I’ve been to. Instead of separate morning and afternoon drives, we usually did one long drive from morning until evening. Lodge staff would give us a boxed lunch (maybe chicken, a sandwhich, some fruit, a small dessert, drink, etc), and we’d take a nice break in the field somewhere to enjoy our lunch and then continue the game drive. We usually headed out a bit later than I normally did elsewhere (maybe 7 – 7:30 on most days if I remember correctly), and got back a bit before sunset.

So on most days we were out for one extended safari drive, which is why I was further impressed by Aggrey’s hard work as a guide. I got to sit back and enjoy the ride while Aggrey concentrated on driving the rough terrain and spotting wildlife at the same time, for hours each day.

Wildlife

A family of grey crowned cranes
OK OK, so what animals did we see?!

We had amazing luck from the very beginning. On our first safari drive in Tarangire, we came upon a leopard sleeping the afternoon away in a tree. First of all, no one sees a leopard on their first safari drive, and second of all, leopards are extremely rare in Tarangire! But I have the pictures to prove it – in fact the leopard was one of the first animals we saw. We also saw a pack of mongooses, a mother elephant with a very young baby (Aggrey said it was probably only a few weeks old), and more.

At Lake Manyara we took a short walking tour and saw birds and some plant life, then drove through a beautiful field surrounded by baboons and warthogs grazing peacefully in the green grass.

Zebras at Ngorongoro CraterAt Ngorongoro crater we immediately came upon a pack of lions (two males, I believe just one female, and several cubs) as they fed on a zebra kill near a small pond, while being harassed by nearby jackals. Aggrey was intent on finding us a black rhino, and sure enough two were spotted resting lazily off in the distance. They were far away and barely picked their heads up to allow us to see their horns, but they were rhinos alright! Later another was spotted walking between roads, also in the distance but we could see it clearly enough. At times we were surrounded by herds of zebra and gazelles, and we watched a lone elephant stroll and eat in a beautiful field of purple flowers. We even saw lions mating in a field of yellow flowers.

A pair of cheetahs jogging in the SerengetiFinally, the Serengeti couldn’t have been more perfect, and we had unbelievable views throughout the visit. On the drive to the Serengeti we drove through what seemed like endless fields of gazelles. We saw two beautiful cheetahs marking their territory in the afternoon, awe-inspiring sunsets, and lions almost everywhere. The Serengeti plains were amazing, spreading as far as the eye could see with tall golden grass. My favorite sighting of all was of two cheetahs preparing to hunt together, and they strolled right past our truck. They really are beautiful! And as I mentioned before, thanks to Deo’s excellent planning, we were right in the middle of the Great Migration. I’ve seen it on TV, but I was not prepared for the reality of literally millions of animals migrating together (1.7 million wildebeest, hundreds of thousands of zebras, and gazelles and impalas following). When we drove from central Serengeti to western, we drove right though the migration. At one point we drove for 10 minutes straight and there were wildebeest as far as the eye could see in every direction. It was amazing.

Aggrey had told us that western Serengeti would have less in the way of big cats, because the terrain there is different and because the migration hadn’t reached that area yet (the predators follow the migration). Some other guests confirmed what Aggrey had told us, saying that they had been there for three days and as far as cats go, they saw just one, a leopard in a tree, very concealed. Furthermore there were a bit more tsetse flies here. So, instead of a safari drive, we spent a day at Lake Victoria, which was huge! Finally on our last morning we got an early start so we could head back to central Serengeti’s airstrip for a small-plane ride back to Arusha to start the long journey home. We were rewarded with an incredible view of two elephants strolling with the rising sun behind them. Moments later some park rangers told us about a leopard up ahead, which turned out to be a cheetah! She’d made a kill the night before, and had been chased away by hyenas, but she was resting alongside the road. We got a great view and saw that her belly was huge, and Aggrey informed us that she was pregnant and would give birth soon. Finally we proceeded with our drive, and we saw that the migration had started to catch up with us, and again we drove right through it.

Tanzania And the Locals

Schoolchildren holding up pencils we gave themIn addition to the safari, we also took some tours of local villages, walked through a market-day gathering, and saw lots of maasai. One thing that was constant almost every time we turned around were the big warm smiles of the Tanzanians. Children as young as maybe 4 years old would run toward the truck and yell “hallo! Hallo hallo! Hallo!” waving and smiling as we drove by. We toured three villages, one of which was maasai, and got an idea of how the locals made their living, which was mainly through farming crops, cattle herding, and fishing.

The market-day we walked through was very interesting, but unfortunately we were swarmed by locals trying to sell us souvenirs, and frankly they were very pushy and annoying. I started out by being polite, but eventually had to tell them I was simply not going to buy anything, and still they wouldn’t stop showing me merchandise and asking me to help support them. Aggrey came over and shoo’d them away before I had to get really rude. That was annoying because I really did want to walk around and look at the goods for sale by everyone who would let me simply browse quietly. Furthermore, I was concerned that they might try to pick my pocket, because I was literally surrounded by them and couldn’t watch all of them at once.

The Safari Truck

Our safari truck
Another thing I was unsure of before arriving in Tanzania was the safari truck. I was unhappy that Tanzania requires all trucks to be closed instead of open like the trucks I was familiar with. We could open the windows (sideways slide-style windows), and pop up the roof, but it’s not the same as a wide open truck, and I wasn’t sure if I would like it.

At first glance when Aggrey picked us up at the airport, I thought that this truck looked like it had been through it’s share of battles, but if you’re familiar with safari drives you’ll know that they’re very unforgiving on a truck. If you see a shiny smooth safari truck, then you see a safari truck that has never been on safari : ) Anyway, the truck itself was tough and handled the terrain with ease.

Meanwhile, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked the popup roof. Once lifted, you can stand straight up and hold on to the metal frame on the roof, making it easy to balance and get a full 360 degree view. I couldn’t see straight up, so bird lovers might have been annoyed, but I could see more than enough to satisfy me.

Our safari truckThat being said, the trucks seat 8 people (driver plus 7 passengers). Seats in the back are three rows, two seats side by side, a bit elevated over the driver. The last seats in the back have a big cooler between them, which holds all of your drinks and various food that needs to be kept cold. It was just Aggrey driving, and my friend and I in the back, meaning we had the entire back to ourselves. I saw lots of trucks that were packed with 6 people, and personally I would have been miserable if that were the case with us. My photography gear took up space, plus binoculars, bean bags, water bottles, etc. I’m sure you can save money by going on safari with a group of 6 people in one truck, but I wouldn’t do it myself, I’d much rather spend a little more and be able to spread out and move around to whatever side of the truck I want. I would suggest no more than 4 guests in a truck if you want to be comfortable.

Where Was I?

Like my trip to the Pantanal, on this trip I also used my Nikon D500, which is capable of connecting to my cell phone via bluetooth. It can then use the cell phone’s GPS to automatically geotag all the pictures.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t really work very well. I noticed on my trip to the Pantanal that although every image was tagged, the tags were almost all the same. I got a total of maybe 10 or 20 different locations, even though we were constantly on the move while I took thousands of photos. Something is very wrong with Nikon’s app, it seems to only update the GPS location once in every great while.

So for this trip I also used a free GPS logging app, which logged my GPS coordinates every 30 seconds for every day I was out. I can then sync these up using Adobe Lightroom. It’s only a tiny bit of work, and is much more accurate than Nikon’s app. Very disappointing that Nikon screwed that up, but at least there’s a workaround.

Anyway, here’s a Google Map showing some locations!

Summary and Suggestions for Future Travelers

I’m glad to say that, again, I’ve experienced an incredible safari. I have no serious complaints and had no real problems on the trip. Earthlife Expeditions was great to work with. Here are some thoughts and suggestions for a similar trip:

  1. You’re going to encounter a handful of flies on this trip. They’re annoying but there’s not much you can do about it, so just be warned.
  2. Bring a sunhat and sunscreen. Even though you’re in the truck most of the time, you might as well bring them along. I didn’t notice sunscreen for sale but I’m sure it was available in various shops, at a nicely marked-up price just for tourists 🙂
  3. A good zoom lens is important if you want close-up pictures. I didn’t think to ask beforehand about whether we can drive off-road or not, and as it turns out, most places don’t allow it. That means most sightings were from the road, and you were as close as the animals felt like getting to you. So if you want those close-ups, bring a zoom lens of at least 300mm, preferrably 500 or 600.
  4. I brought a monopod but didn’t use it once. Instead I used the bean bags which were loaned to us by Earth Life Expeditions, and they worked great. Actually I would have had a hard time using a monopod inside the truck, and a tripod would have been a nightmare, and in any case, both were completely unecessary since the bean bags worked so well. That being said, more particular photographers might still prefer a monopod or tripod. I did see a couple of people that somehow rigged up tripods using the roof rack.
  5. Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara National Park were both great, but in the future I’ll probably either skip them, or combine them both into one day since they’re not too far apart. I enjoyed Ngorongoro and central Serengeti more. If you have a lot of time to spend in Tanzania, then definitely give each of these a day. But if you’re like me and you only have a week or so, I’d suggest asking your tour coordinator to combine them into one day (morning in Tarangire and afternoon in Manyara) or just skip them entirely.
  6. Wake up early!!!! You can sleep when you’re dead!!! I was slow on a few mornings, and other days we had a long drive ahead of us so we didn’t rush. Most days we got in the truck around 7:30 AM, which isn’t early enough. We did get a very early start on the Ngorongoro crater day, and we were one of the first couple of trucks into the crater. But when you get a late start, you never know what you might have seen. To prove my point, on our very last day we left the lodge at 6:30 AM, and within 15 minutes we saw two elephants perfectly silhouetted against the rising sun. It was a beautiful. A few minutes later we came upon a pregnant cheetah who we realized had made a kill the night before, and she walked gracefully next to the road with the golden-red early morning sun illuminating her. By 8 or 9, who knows if she still would be so close to the road, and I felt bad for any other guests who got a later start and might not get to see her. In hindsight I would have pushed to leave camp at 6:30 every morning.

And finally

On our last day we took a small-plane from central Serengeti to Arusha, where another guide from our tour company met us. We ate a leisurely lunch and then made our way to Kilimanjaro airport for the long trip home.
The Serengeti definitely stands out as my favorite part of this trip, especially the endless grassy fields of the central plains, with golden grass stretching as far as the eye could see. I’ll miss those fields (correction – I miss them already), and I can’t wait to see them again one day.

A cheetah standing on a termite mound watching a herd of gazelle

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