Featured Lodge: Serengeti Pioneer Camp

Pioneer CampView from the lounge. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Located in the hill-dotted Moru Kopjes area of Tanzania’s southcentral Serengeti, Pioneer Camp offers superlative access to the annual migration and the ‘Big Five.’ A large elevated lounge has sweeping views overlooking knobby granite outcroppings and the endless plains. Get an even better view of the surrounding landscape and its inhabitants through the lounge’s spotting scope.

Pioneer Camp

Guests can enjoy drinks and look through telescopes at the viewing lounge.

Each of the ten private tents pay homage to the mobile camps of the 1930s with solid wooden furniture and trunks, classic canvas chairs, throw rugs and gleaming copper wash basins. All have en-suite facilities that include a flush toilet, sink with oiled bronze fixtures, and rain showerhead. A digital safe and writing desk with stationery complete each room. Electric lighting is available in the rooms 24 hours a day, while cellphones and other equipment can be charged at the camp’s charging station adjacent to the dining room.

Pioneer Camp

Double rooms feature two queen beds on solid wood frames.

Serengeti Pioneer Camp  strives to have a low ecological footprint. Solar power heats the water and provides much of the camp’s electricity, and the dining tent features local seasonal produce prepared to the highest standards. The character of the area is preserved as tents are connected to the main area by natural stone paths that formed over the eons.

Pioneer Camp

The dining room offers very attentive service.

Comfort is also key here. Service is exemplary, and attention is paid to the smallest details. If you need to recharge after a long day at safari, relax in the plunge pool or use the camp’s stargazing scope to gaze at the southern sky. Another nod toward comfort: Pioneer Camp is a convenient 50-minute drive from the Seronera airstrip, allowing visitors to minimize time on bumpy roads by flying in and out of the Serengeti.

Crowdfunding to save the mountain gorillas

Courtesy of Ellen Wilson

Photo taken by Ellen Wilson on an Ujuzi safari in Rwanda.

British naturalist and science documentarian David Attenborough has launched a fundraising campaign to help protect mountain gorillas. The campaign, hosted on crowdfunding website Indiegogo, seeks to raise about $177,000 to support work by the conservation group Fauna & Flora International in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The group will use funds to protect mountain gorilla habitats, train community members as gorilla protectors, develop eco-tourism, and support gorilla protection initiatives of the local governments and parks.

Supporting mountain gorilla conservation is a great holiday gift idea for the nature lovers in your life! You can find out more about the campaign here.

Tanzania Day 10 – Zanzibar to Home

Today has been a bittersweet day for me. I’m looking forward to going home but sorry to say goodbye to this beautiful island so soon. My flights are a charter plane from Zanzibar to Dar Es Salam, then a KLM/Delta route to the United States via Amsterdam. Fortunately, my flight out of Zanzibar isn’t scheduled until 6 p.m., so I was able to visit a few more lodges, enjoy a spice farm tour, and have a late lunch at Zanzibar Serena Inn’s seaside restaurant in Stone Town before heading for the airport.

After breakfast at Essque Zalu, I headed to Matemwe, a town on the east side of the island’s northern tip. Matemwe is popular with travelers because the sand there is fine and powdery. (Some other parts of the island have coarser sand or lots of coral, both of which require the use of watershoes when wading.)

Matemwe Lodge

Two-story villa at Matemwe Lodge

I visited a set of three neighboring sister properties called Matemwe Lodge, Matemwe Retreat, and Matemwe Beach House. Matemwe Lodge consists of 12 villas: six two-story villas with a king-size bed on the first floor and a twin bed on the second loft-style floor, and six one-story villas with one king-sized bed. The villas do not have air conditioning, but have a layout that takes advantage of the sea breeze. Guests at any of the three properties can sign up for snorkeling and diving lessons. Other optional activities include a reef walk, village walk, and sailing. Or just hang around the property to swim in one of the lodge’s two pools or play chess on a large outdoor board.

Matemwe Beach House

Pool at Matemwe Beach House

Matemwe Beach House is a three-bedroom, two-bathroom cottage for groups of up to six people. It is the only of the three sister properties that allows children under six years old. The house has its own private pool and kitchen, as well as a personal chef and butler service.

Matemwe Retreat

Rooftop plunge pool and patio at Matemwe Retreat

Matemwe Retreat is a more secluded property up the hill from the beach. It has four villas that feature a rooftop patio with plunge pool. The first floor includes a master bedroom and a large veranda that looks down on the ocean. Meals are prepared by a personal chef and served in the dining area of the veranda.

We then headed south to Mchanga Beach Lodge, which was opened 6 years ago by an expat American and her German husband. The lodge has 18 units, including two garden suites that sleep up to 4 people each. Each room has a small sitting area that looks out onto the ocean. The lodge focuses on fresh food with local flavors, even harvesting coconuts from its own trees to use in food and drinks for guests.

Spice Farm Tour

One of our guides on the Spice Farm Tour shows us how the spice annatto can be used to paint the skin. The spice is a common ingredient in food coloring, make-up and dyes.

Speaking of local foods, it wouldn’t be a trip to Zanzibar without sampling some of the locally grown spices. I stopped at a spice farm owned by a cooperative of local farmers for a tour. The farm grows a large variety of spices. Cloves, cinnamon, allspice, vanilla beans, black pepper, lemongrass, turmeric, ginger, annatto, cardamom and hot pepper were just a few of the plants that our guides showed us. The farm also grows some delicious tropical fruits. After our tour we sat down to drink lemongrass tea and sample mango, jackfruit, pomelo (a bit like a grapefruit but without the bitterness), and local varieties of oranges and bananas that you can’t find in the United States.

Spice Farm Tour

This is a cardamom plant. Did you know that cardamom pods grow so close to the ground?

Our last stop before the airport was Zanzibar Serena Inn for a late lunch. Located in Stone Town, the luxury hotel is right on the beach. We enjoyed the ocean breeze from our table at the hotel’s sea front restaurant. It was lovely to be able to enjoy the Indian Ocean right up to the end of my trip!

Serena

Restaurant at Zanzibar Serena Inn

Tanzania Day 9 – Zanzibar

I awoke to the sun rising over the crystalline blue Indian Ocean. After a quick breakfast, we headed out to visit beachside lodges and resorts around the island.

The Residence

The beach at The Residence, Zanzibar, Tanzania.

Our first stop was The Residence, a beautiful 5-star resort on 79 acres on the southwest coast. Each of the 66 private villas has its own 8-meter pool and either a view of the beach or the resort’s well-manicured gardens. Visitors who want a larger pool can take a dip in the resort’s main pool — a glass-walled infinity pool that Conde Nast recently named as one of the top ten swimming pools in the world. Onsite activities include bicycling (each guest receives a bicycle to use during the stay), boating, a spa, fitness center, snorkeling, and dolphin safaris. A Kids Club offers activities for young ones ages 3 through 12, and an onsite petting zoo and bird sanctuary are fun for children of all ages.

The Residence

This pool at The Residence was rated one of the top 10 in the world by Conde Nast. It has a glass side.

We then visited Breezes Beach Club and Spa. I loved the lobby building, which was furnished with Persian-style brass lamps and intricately carved furniture. It also smelled like heaven, thanks to large urns of whole cloves and cardamon pods lining its open-air walkways.

Breezes

A spice-filled coffee table at Breezes.

The 74 air-conditioned rooms are similarly decorated, and each room has an assigned umbrella and set of loungers on the resort’s private beach. Diving excursions and spa services are available on site.

Breezes

The view from an oceanside suite at Breezes.

Konokono Beach Resort recently reopened after a two-year redesign and expansion project. Located on on Chwaka Bay on Zanzibar’s east coast, it now has 24 villas (up from 14) and a gorgeous seaside restaurant and pool. I was tempted to take a dip, but alas I did not have my swimsuit with me.

Kono Kono

Konokono Beach Resort has a beautiful pool.

However, we did enjoy a delicious lunch in the outdoor boma, which was built in the Zanzibar style with modern touches such as Italian-designed metal chandeliers. The villas themselves are spacious and airy, with their own verandas and plunge pools. Other villa amenities include air conditioning, cable television, and a coffee station.

Kono Kono

Villa at Konokono.

We then headed back toward Zanzibar’s northern tip to Essque Zalu Resort & Spa, our lodgings for the night. Essque-Zalu has been rated the island’s number five lodging by members of TripAdvisor, so I was excited to check it out for myself. I immediately saw why it ranks so highly. Essque Zalu is a luxurious retreat with a spacious lobby, three restaurants, three bars, a gorgeous swimming pool, and a high-end boutique featuring original fashions and art. It has 40 spacious suites and nine three- and four-bedroom villas with kitchens and outdoor jacuzzis, the latter of which are an excellent option for families.

Essque Zalu

Bed at Essque Zalu

Our host gave us a tour of the large spa. It offers massage, facials, manicures and pedicures using highly rated Africology products. Treatments may be given at the spa or at guests’ villas. We walked down the jetty, which goes out over the beach and water and has a restaurant at its end. Guests can access the beach and swimming from steps that run along it. After settling in our villa we had an outstanding dinner at The Market Kitchen, Essque Zalu’s main restaurant. There were three four-course offerings: a European-American-style meat option, a vegetarian option, and a Swahili option. All were delicious.

Essque Zalu

The Jetty at Essque Zalu. A bar and restaurant are at the far end.

For more pictures of Essque Zalu, visit my Essque Zalu Facebook album.

Tanzania Day 8 – Serengeti to Zanzibar

Today I bid farewell to Tanzania’s mainland. I was sad to leave such a beautiful place, but excited for my next destination: Zanzibar, a Tanzanian island in the crystal blue waters of the Indian Ocean.

I spent this morning in the Serengeti in Pioneer Camp’s lounge, talking with the camp manager about local wildlife and enjoying the antics of the yellow-spotted rock hyraxes on a neighboring outcrop. One of them even climbed up toward the edge of the lounge platform to wish me a pleasant trip. (At least that’s what it looked like the creature was trying to communicate, going by the smile on its face.)

Hyrax

This yellow-spotted rock hyrax seemed to have a smile on its face.

On our way to the Seronera Airstrip in the heart of Serengeti National Park, we came across a herd of hundreds of buffalo crossing the road in double- and triple-file. It was an astounding sight, with buffalo trailing toward both ends of the horizon as far as the eye could see. It’s the most buffalo I’ve ever seen at once. Our guide Modi said that they were all heading toward a watering hole down the hill. Cape buffalo don’t always travel in such large groups. But since the dry season has been long, watering places are fewer and farther between, so they were all headed to the same place.

Huge Herd of Cape Buffalo

A huge herd of approximately 250 Cape buffalo make their way down to the river in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

We also saw a young male lion guarding a recent kill. Although adult males generally don’t hunt for themselves — leaving it to the females of the pride to do the work — young ones that haven’t yet found females to support them do hunt for themselves. We also saw two very well-fed female lions by the side of the road; they had eaten so much that their bellies were distended. Other members of the pride were scattered here and there in the grasslands behind them.

Well-fed lionesses rest in the shade.

Last but not least, we saw a cheetah on the hunt. Unlike the cheetahs we say successfully hunt the other day, this one was by itself. When we first saw her, she seemed to have its eye on a group of mongooses that were running around under the trees. But as they came closer and she looked away, it became apparent that she was holding out hope for more substantial fare. There was a lone Thompson’s gazelle in a tree grove one- or two-hundred yards away, and she set her sights on it, moving so stealthily that we were certain she would bag this prey. But we were wrong: the Thompson’s gazelle managed to bolt away just in time.

Modi and Me

Our guide Modi was exceptional in his knowledge, attentiveness and effort.

And then it was time to say goodbye to our guide, Modi, and to the Serengeti. We got on our 13-passenger charter plane with Excel Air and flew to Zanzibar via Arusha, enjoying incredible views of the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and the Indian Ocean on our way.

 

View of Ngorongoro Crater from our charter plane.

The midday weather in Zanzibar was a change from the Serengeti. Not surprisingly, it felt like a tropical island: a bit hotter and more humid than the mainland, but with a refreshing ocean breeze that made up for the difference. The culture is different here, too. While the majority of the population here is ethnic Swahili, Zanzibar was colonized by Portugal, Oman, and Great Britain before becoming an independent state in 1963. In 1964, it merged with Tanganyika on the mainland to form Tanzania. Zanzibar holds an important port on the spice route, so Indian and Persian traders have also influenced the culture. Ninety-nine percent of Zanzibar residents are Muslim.

Fishing Boats

Fishing boats on the coast of Zanzibar.

Upon our arrival in Zanzibar, we took a brief driving tour of Stone Town, the island’s historic and cultural center. With narrow streets and white building, the architecture is reminscent of a Middle Eastern market. There are plenty of shops where visitors can purchase art from the island and mainland, as well as restaurants that reflect the variety of cultures that are part of Zanzibar’s history: Indian, Persian, East African and Middle Eastern. Music fans take note: Stone Town is where Queen’s Freddie Mercury grew up, so make sure your guide points out his childhood home to you!

Old Fort

In Stone Town you can visit the Old Fort, which the Omani sultanate built in the seventeenth century to defend the island from the Portuguese. It’s also known as the Arab Fort.

We drove along the coast to familiarize ourselves with the island, then checked in at Shooting Star Lodge for the evening. Located on a hill above a private beach, Shooting Star has a relaxed, bohemian feel that encourages guests to slow down and enjoy the island beauty. As the locals here say in Swahili: “Pole, pole!” (“Take it easy!”) Rooms are simply appointed with Indian, Persian and local fabrics, and most include a veranda with an ocean view. Next to the open-air lounge, an infinity pool for swimming overlooks the beach. It’s a great place to watch the sun rise over the ocean.

Shooting Star

Shooting Star guest room.

After the sun set, we had a great view of the southern sky. Thanks to the ocean, there weren’t a lot of lights to interfere with the view, and I saw many constellations that we don’t get to see in the northern hemisphere this time of year.

Shooting Star

View of pool and Indian Ocean at Shooting Star, Zanzibar, Tanzania.

Tanzania Day 7 – Serengeti

View from the front veranda of a guest tent at Eco-Lodge Grumeti.

We spent another day in the Serengeti area. In the morning, we visited Eco-Lodge Grumeti on hills outside of the national park’s central gate. It has 19 beautifully furnished permanent tents on high wooden platforms that overlook the savanna. Because it’s outside of the park, it’s able to offer night game drives, walking safaris and sundowners cocktail hours in the bush. (Inside the national parks, walking safaris and night game drives are generally prohibited.)

A bush hyrax enjoys a snack.

Back inside the park, we visited Mbuzi Mawe Serena, a 16-tent permanent camp whose name in Swahili means “klipspringer.” It’s an apt name because we saw at least three of the small antelopes during our visit. In addition to klipspringers, the hilly area attracts bush hyraxes (furry, guinea-pig-sized cousins of the elephant that dine on acacias and woody plants) and yellow-spotted rock hyraxes (which eat grasses, fruits and insects). We also saw several red-headed agama lizards basking on the rocks, the males occasionally doing rapid push-ups to flash their colors and claim territory.

Mbuzi Mawe Serena guest bedroom

Guests can view resident animals both day and night, thanks to night vision binoculars that Mbuzi Mawe keeps on hand. Other onsite activities include a spa that offers massages, manicures and pedicures. The lounge and rooms reflect the local landscape with  naturalistic wood furniture built from sturdy tree branches, while also embracing the modern conveniences of 24-hour electricity and hot water.

View from Pioneer Camp’s lounge

We then drove back across Serengeti National Park toward our night lodgings: Pioneer Camp, a luxury permanent-tented camp in the acacia woodlands. It has 12 ground-level tents with canvas floors, including one family tent. The 11 standard tents feature two double beds, a desk, lounge chairs, plenty of sisal and plush rugs, and an en suite bathroom with solar-heated hot water. Electrical lights operate 24 hours a day. The lounge offers beautiful views of the Serengeti; looking out toward the horizon one can see the woodlands transition into savannah and then into grasslands farther out to the east and hills to the south. Guests who want to avoid the sometimes bumpy drive from Arusha can take a charter plane to a nearby airfield and be picked up by lodge staff. The lodge provides safari guides and vehicles to guests who choose an all-inclusive package.

A lioness and cub dine on a recently killed cape buffalo.

On our way to Pioneer Camp, we had some notable sightings. We found three adult female lions and their cubs, some feasting on a recent buffalo kill, others napping in the shade. Lions can get territorial with their food, even within the family; when one of the cubs sidled up along a dining adult, he got to close and she growled at him until he backed away to another part of the buffalo. As we watched, a few of the dozing cubs woke up and started grooming each other, which soon turned into a lazy game of swat-and-pounce, then back to napping. (Napping is important for lions; they can sleep 18 to 23 hours a day.)

A giraffe bends down to pick up a rock.

We also encountered a giraffe who was sniffing around the base of a sausage tree (named after the long, sausage-shaped green pods it produces). Our guide explained that she was looking for fallen flowers and pods to snack on. It’s not easy for giraffes to pick things up from the ground: first, they have trouble seeing directly in front of them since their eyes are located on the sides of their heads; and second, they can’t spend a lot of time with their heads lowered because too much blood will flow to their brains, leading to faintness and possibly death. So her hunt was a hit-or-miss operation. She would crouch down, lower her mouth to the ground, quicly try to pick up something with her mouth, then raise her head back up above heart level so that the blood could flow back down her neck. We watched her do this a few times, but the only success she had was in picking up a rock. She quickly spit it out when she realized it wasn’t what she was looking for.

Room at Pioneer Camp

We arrived early at Pioneer Camp and were able to enjoy the view from the lounge before dinner. I retired early and from the safety of my tent enjoyed listening to the activity outside: lions, cape buffalo, hyenas, zebras and a leopard were all active in and around the camp. (Animals do not bother visitors in their tents; if you need to leave your tent at night, a guard who is familiar with the local animals and their activities will escort you to make sure that you don’t cross paths with any unwelcome visitors.) I fell asleep to the soothing sound of rain falling softly on the thirsty savanna.

Tanzania Day 6 – Lake Ndutu to Serengeti

Leopard

A leopard takes a snooze.

Tanzania continues to astound me. We didn’t have time for a game drive today since we had a lot of ground to cover between the lodges we were visiting. Nonetheless I saw all three of the country’s big cat species; dozens of ostriches, elephants and hippos; thousands of wildebeest and zebras; and several giraffes, hyenas, vultures, eagles … and the list goes on.

Cheetah Stalking

Cheetah stalking a Thompson’s gazelle.

One of the biggest highlights of the day was watching two cheetahs hunt on the Serengeti. We encountered the cheetahs just as they were preparing to make their move. They stood still as statues about 10 or 15 yards away from a gazelle who had strayed to the edge of the herd. Every few seconds, a cheetah would move one leg cautiously forward to get closer to its prey, the movement so quick and subtle that the gazelle they had their eyes on remained oblivious to their presence. It continued to munch happily on grass until it was too late: The cheetahs lunged forward, and though it tried to flee, the chase only lasted a few seconds. They pounced on it, killing it swiftly and cleanly.

Hyena

Hyena on the Serengeti

But the cheetahs didn’t have long to enjoy their meal. Less than a minute later, a hyena arrived and demanded their quarry. In a battle between a cheetah and a hyena, the hyena’s stronger jaws ensures its victory; the cheetahs surrendered their kill instantly to avoid getting into a fight. Our guide Modi assured us that the cheetahs would not end up going hungry since they are successful in the hunt 75 percent of the time. They just needed to find another wandering antelope.

Lions Sleeping

Lions sleeping in the shade

Soon after we came across a pride of about 25 snoozing lions scattered around a buffalo carcass that they had dined on earlier. It was fun to watch them so rested and content. I may have been a little tempted to nap along with them!

Lion Couple

Lions on the prowl

But it wasn’t until the cool relief of a much-needed rain that we found a pair of lions on the hunt — or rather a female lion on the hunt and a male lion who was tagging along, waiting for her to go into heat. She was more interested in the zebras a few hundred yards away than in the male’s amorous overtures. Unfortunately for her, the distracted male soon gave their presence away an the zebras quickly galloped off.

Lapped-Face Vulture

Lapped-faced vulture

In additional to the great game viewing, the landscape itself was fascinating. We started out this morning at Lake Masek in the Ndutu section of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Ndutu is named for Lake Ndutu, a large sister lake a few kilometers from Lake Masek. Unfortunately, drought has left Ndutu’s lakebed completely dry. The lake should return when the rains come, but for now it is just a small depression in the plains. Modi explained that the catfish living in the lake burrow in the mud and hibernate as they wait for the lake to return.

Chaise Lounger at Dunia

Chaise lounge on enclosed veranda at Dunia

We visited some wonderful lodges in Serengeti National Park, a large L-shaped national park that encompasses a portion of the Serengeti region. We started off with Dunia Camp, an intimate 8-tent semi-permanent camp near the Knobby Hill gate on the park’s southern side. Dunia has a mobile camp feel with bucket showers, comfortably furnished tents and attentive staff. The central lounge and dining room are a short walk from tents, and it’s a perfect place to have coffee or drinks and chat with other guests. All tents have stunning views of the plains.

View from Mbalageti

View from Mbalageti’s dining area.

Next on our list was Mbalageti Lodge in the park’s western corridor. The lodge has 24 tented chalets (buildings that incorporate the best features of a cabin with the open breezes and classic safari feel of tents); two large tented suites with two bedrooms, a living room and dining room; three family cabins; and a 14-room lodge. All lodgings have verandas that overlook the savannah. Public areas and chalets are decorated with gorgeous arts and crafts from around East Africa. Onsite activities include bush walks; bush dinners and sundowners (cocktail hour in the open savannah); a swimming pool; and a spa that offers massages, facials, manicures and pedicures.

After an exquisite late lunch at Mbalageti Lodge, we headed toward Serengeti Simba Lodge for the night. To give you an idea of how big the park is, it took a little over two hours to get from the western corridor to the central gate, which is located near the bottom corner of Serengeti’s “L” shape. We exited the gate and drove a few kilometers to reach Serengeti Simba Lodge, an attractive hilltop property with 15 permanent tents and a small lodge with 6 rooms for families. The lodge’s main building is stunning, looking almost as if it arose naturally from a rock outcropping. We had excellent sleeping weather and awoke to a stunning sunrise over the Serengeti.

Tanzania Day 5 – Ngorongoro Conservation Area

This is my third trip to Tanzania, and the country never ceases to amaze me. We took a short game drive in Ngorongoro Crater this morning, and in less than three hours we saw a week’s worth of animals. Early on in the drive we spotted a couple members of a lion pride that were totally unconcerned with our presence. The male was more interested in the zebra herd off in the distance, while the female was busy trying to coax him into mating. Apparently, he was too hungry to bother. But soon we encountered other members of the pride who were luckier in love. It was my first time seeing lions mating, and now I know why: if you blink, it’s easy to miss the whole thing.

Lioness

Lioness going for a drink of water.

Other animals we saw on our short game drive included herds of zebras, wildebeest, and Grant’s and Thompson’s gazelles; a pod of hippos sleeping in a shallow pool that included an 18-month old baby; three adult black-backed jackals and two pups; a hyena; several warthogs; and (through binoculars) two rhinos laying on the ground to avoid getting chilled by the morning wind that was blowing over the crater floor.

Wildebeest

Wildebeest taking a nap on the crater floor

Later on in the drive we encountered a male ostrich who was participating in another step of the circle of life. He was sitting down in the grass, and we soon realized that he was incubating a brood of eggs — so many eggs, in fact, that his body wasn’t able to completely cover all of them and one of the eggs was visible at the edge of his stomach. Modi, our Tanzanian guide, explained that ostriches tend to mate with one male to many females. All the females lay their eggs in the same nest, and the male and alpha female are responsible for incubating them. The male usually incubates at night and the female during the day, but obviously these roles can switch from time to time. We felt privileged to see this uncommon arrangement.

Ostrich Incubating

Male ostrich incubating eggs

Besides the ostrich, we saw two other large birds: a kori bustard, which is the heaviest flying bird in Africa; and a juvenile secretary bird.

Secretary Bird

A secretary bird takes a leisurely walk.

It’s hard to pick favorites among all of Tanzania’s destinations, but if I had to, Ngorongoro Crater would definitely be a top contender.

20131105_173055.jpg

View of Ngorongoro Crater from the eastern rim.

After our game drive, we made our way back to the rim to visit Lemala Ngorongoro Camp. It’s a nine-tent semi-permanent camp, taken down each April and set up anew in the same location in June. It has the feel of a luxury mobile-tented camp, with premier service and elegantly appointed Rooms have en suite bathrooms with bucket showers for an authentic bush camp experience.

Lemala Ngorongoro Camp

Lemala Ngorongoro Camp

Next we stopped at Ngorongoro Serena Safari Lodge, a 75-room lodge with gorgeous views Ngorongoro Crater. Activities offered at the lodge include a daily nature walk, Maasai dancing at sunset, and an African drum circle after dinner. Another unique feature of the lodge is a book exchange library, where guests can get rid of vacation reads that they’ve already completed and pick up a new paperback for the next leg of their tip.

Ngorongoro Serena Lodge

View of the crater from Ngorongoro Serena Safari Lodge

As we headed down from the crater rim toward Oldupai Gorge, I had the closest encounter I’ve ever had with a giraffe in the wild. This male was two stories tall and browsing on the top of an acacia tree right by the side of the road. We stopped the vehicle and he eyed us to make sure we weren’t a threat before continuing his feast. The average lifespan of a wild giraffe is about 25 years old, and our guide estimated that this male was 22 to 24 years old because some of the hair near the top of his head was starting to turn white. Apparently giraffes go gray as they age, just like humans do.

A giraffe munches on an acacia tree outside of Ngorongoro Crater.

From Oldupai Gorge we drove to the Ndutu section of Ngorongoro Conservation area for an overnight stay at Masek Luxury Tented Camp. The 20-tent camp lives up to his name, with well-appointed rooms and en suite bathrooms that include a large tub, enclosed outdoor shower, and enough electricity to run a hair dryer. Each tent has a furnished veranda that overlooks Lake Masek. After checking in, I went to the main lodge’s veranda for tea, watching hippos and birds through my binoculars and chatting with other guests at the camp. It was the perfect way to enjoy the sundown.

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View of Lake Masek from the veranda of Masek Luxury Tented Camp’s main building.

Tanzania Day 4: From Lake Manyara to Ngorongoro Crater

The day started at Exploreans Lodge in the Ngorongoro highlands with fresh, local coffee on my cabin’s veranda. Off in the distance, I could see the Ngorongoro Crater rim, while closer by I had a nice view of the neighboring coffee plantation.

Breakfast offered an extensive menu of hot and cold dishes, including a variety of European and American fare and many items that aren’t commonly found in Tanzanian lodges, such as chicken sausage and American-style donuts.

Baboon

Young baboon

After breakfast, we headed back to Lake Manyara for a morning game drive. Lake Manyara National Park is known for its tree-climbing lions, but unfortunately we weren’t able to spend enough time at the park to find one. Our visit was definitely worthwhile, though.

Monitor Lizard

Monitor lizard

We encountered a few herds of elephants and saw three species of primates: baboons, blue monkeys, and vervet monkeys (including a 2-3 week old infant that couldn’t have been any bigger than a chipmunk and was absolutely adorable as it gamboled up and down a tree branch within arm’s reach of its mother). There are many creeks in the park, which meant we got to see monitor lizards and a stunningly blue grey-headed kingfisher.

Lake Manyara’s shoreline varies depending on the time of year and weather conditions. The area has been under drought lately, so the shoreline was low and surrounded by vast saltmarsh flats where zebras, wildebeest and warthogs grazed. WIth the help of binoculars, we could see flamingos on the lake itself. When the water is higher and fish begin to breed, the bird population explodes with large numbers of pelicans and yellow-billed storks.

Karatu Simba

Karatu Simba opened 4 months ago and has fantastic views.

After our drive, we headed toward Karatu to visit lodges and camps. Karatu is a city close to the eastern rim of Ngorongoro crater. Karatu Simba Lodge is a new, 13-unit permanent tented camp on a hill that overlooks a large vegetable farm. The lobby features both traditional wood carvings and modern African paintings. Tents have verandas where guests can sit to enjoy the view. A large swimming pool offers refreshment after long game drives.

Rhotia Valley Camp

Rhotia Valley Camp

Rhotia Valley Camp is a 15-unit tented camp with swimming pool on a high hill outside Karatu. It is associated with Rhotia Children’s Village, which provides housing for 38 orphans and also supports the local primary school and orphaned children who live with relatives in the community. Twenty percent of accommodation charges go directly to the children’s village. From the camp, visitors can look down on Lake Manyara and Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The children’s village is a short walk away, and guests may visit it before dinner to play with the kids. Other optional activities include village walks to meet people from the community, as well as nature walks.

Plantation Lodge

Plantation Lodge dining room

We headed out of toward the Ngorongoro Crater, stopping at Plantation Lodge for lunch on our way out of Karatu. It was quite the treat, with cream of tomato soup from scratch, an avocado and cucumber salad, succulent beef tenderloin, and a rich custard topped with raspberries and spun sugar. Plantation Lodge is a beautiful 25-room property that overlooks a farm and coffee plantation. It features vast gardens that meld modern European garden design with the local flora. The cabins have a similarly chic flair, and many have verandas with views of the beautiful gardens.

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View of Ngorongoro Crater from the eastern rim.

We ended our day on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater, world-famous for being the only caldera (depression formed by an erupted volcano) that is surrounded by peaks on all sides. We stopped at a viewing point to admire the crater before finishing our day at Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge, which features round cabins that sit on the slopes of the eastern rim.

Tanzania Day 3: Tarangire to Lake Manyara

Drinking freshly-brewed coffee on the veranda outside my tent while admiring the landscape of Tarangire National Park and Lokisale Reserve — simply put, it was the perfect start to my third full day in Tanzania. The view from Maisha Kikoti Safari Camp is quite breathtaking, as the camp is located on a peak east of Tarangire on land managed by the African Nature Conservation Trust. The camp is named for Kikoti Rock, an impressively large boulder on the hill’s peak that is easily seven stories high.

Herd of zebra

Herd of zebra near Kikoti Rock.

After breakfast, we headed out for a game drive through the reserve and park. Our first sight was a herd of about 250 zebras at a watering hole in Lokasale Reserve. It was truly breathtaking to see so many of these gentle creatures in one place. The birthing season for zebras is in early December, so we spotted many pregnant females.

Elephants

A herd of elephants gathers around a newborn to protect it from human onlookers.

Tarangire Park was also lush with wildlife. We saw herds of elands, impala, wildebeest, zebra, and elephants — including a one-month-old baby! Other notable animals a reedbuck, a steenbok (an antelope the size of a cocker spaniel), a klipspringer (an even smaller antelope adapted to climbing rocks), a pair of crowned eagles, a rock hyrax and some bush hyraxes (rabbit-sized cousins of the elephant) and several ostriches.

Zebras at Manyara Ranch

A great way to spend the day is viewing animals – such as these zebras – at Manyara Ranch

Next we headed toward Lake Manyara, stopping on the way to visit Manyara Ranch. The ranch is a 6-tent luxury camp on 45,000 acres of conservation area managed by the African Wildlife Fund. The camp is much more than a place to sleep; it’s a destination in and of itself. Zebras and other herd animals often wander through the site during sundowners (cocktail hour) and dinner. On-site activities include morning walks, night drives, and half-day horseback safaris. The camp can be accessed by road, or camp representatives can pick travelers up at the nearby Manyara airstrip.

We then embarked for a fun adventure — visiting Mungere Secondary School in a rural Maasai community outside of Manyara. One of my clients sponsors a student there and plans to visit the school on her next trip to Tanzania.

Mungere Secondary School

Classroom at Mungere Secondary School

The two-room schoolhouse was started in an area that badly needed it. Illiteracy is high in this community, and before the school was built there, the closest secondary school was many miles away. Since most people in the area get around by foot, that meant that few of the children who attended elementary school continued on into secondary school.

None of the main roads reach Mungere Secondary School. To get there, one must leave the main road and follow the cattle trail (an unmarked trail made by cattle hooves that occasionally becomes obscured by dust that blows over it). Turn left at the baobab tree, and continue down the trail toward the palm grove until you see the white brick building. That is the school.

Road to/from Mungere Secondary School

The main motor vehicle road near Mungere Secondary School in E’unoto, Tanzania. To get to the school, we turned on to the cattle trail.

We lost track of the cattle trail a few times, but the local Maasai were very friendly. Although not all of them spoke Swahili (the Maasai speak their own language at home and study Swahili as a second language at school), those who did were happy to point us on our way. They were clearly very proud of the presence of the school in their community.

Although the school was closed for holiday, we were able to meet one of the students and the groundskeeper (a graduate of the school), both of whom shared the name Emmanuel. The education offered at the school is clearly quite good, as they both spoke excellent Swahili and very good English.

Escarpment Luxury Lodge

Escarpment Luxury Lodge, Lake Manyara

We then headed on to Lake Manyara for a late lunch at Escarpment Luxury Lodge. The 16-cabin lodge is on a peak with excellent views of the large alkaline lake, and has an onsite pool and children’s wading pool. Each cabin has both an indoor and private outdoor shower, air-conditioning, and a large private veranda with a lake view. A private butler is assigned to the cabin for the length of the guests’ stay, so you are always interacting with the same staff — a lovely touch. Decor is modern European and South African design with local influences; the sculpture-like chandeliers, for example, feature blue faceted glass that resemble tanzanite. Our lunch was excellent, incorporating French techniques with a contemporary flair and artistic presentation.

Our final site visit of the day was at Kirumuru Manyara, a large 30-tent permanent camp that also overlooks Lake Manyara. The camp has two tents for families. Decor features kente-cloth bedspreads and upholstery, and activities offered by the camp include a nature walk and a three-hour hike to the nearby waterfall.

Exploreans

Exploreans Luxury Lodge spa area

Exploreans

Exploreans bedroom

After a long day of adventure, we were happy to arrive at Exploreans Lodge, a 20-cabin luxury resort close to Ngorongoro Crater. The grounds are astounding, with vast well-kept vegetable, flower and herb gardens. Cabins have a living room and bedroom and overlook a reserve and coffee plantation, with Ngorongoro Mountain off in the distance. Onsite amenities include massage and spa services, a swimming pool, sauna and jacuzzi. Individuals who want to take a break from safari can go on a guided plantation walk. The staff is very attentive and service is excellent, with most drinks and room service included in the package. The lodge even offers an extensive pillow selection; guests can order from about eight different pillow styles (such as buckwheat hull pillows) to ensure optimal comfort and a great night’s sleep. However, I found the standard pillow already provided in the room to be plenty comfortable, and fell right asleep as soon as my head touched it.