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.

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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.

Tanzania Day 2: Tarangire National Park

It’s our second full day in Tanzania. We awoke this morning at the Kibo Palace Hotel to a huge breakfast buffet featuring European, Indian, American and Tanzanian foods. If you ever stay here, be sure to try the African yam and fried cassava root. They were delicious bite of local flavor.

The Kibo Palace Hotel is a 77-room luxury hotel near downtown Arusha. Guests may enjoy complimentary Wi-Fi, a health club, swimming pool, and steam and sauna rooms. Named after Mount Kilimanjaro’s highest peak, the Kibo Palace Hotel strives to deliver the highest quality of service to its guests from near and far.

Kibo Palace Hotel, Arusha

We then left for Tarangire, one of Tanzania’s most beloved national parks. Before arriving at the main gate, we stopped at Kirurumu Under Canvas, a permanent 10-tent camp in the bush. As in most of Tarangire, elephants are common in this area and residents can often watch them from their tents’ verandas.

Kirurumu Under Canvas

We also visited Tarangire River Camp, a 21-tent camp that includes four roomy family tents and a beautiful, roomy swimming pool for refreshing dips after a long day of safari. The Tarangire River is dry for about 9 months of the year, but even when there’s no water the river bed is quite stunning. The Tarangire River Camp is on a peak that overlooks the winding river. Guests can look down to watch elephants and other animals come to the river to drink. When the river is dry, animals dig in the bed to bring water that lies just below the ground up to the surface.

Tarangire River Camp

On to Tarangire National Park! We stopped at the visitor’s center at the main gate, which had many informative signs about the local flora and fauna, some stunning stained glass pieces portraying scenes from the park, and a high platform where visitors can oversee most of the park.

Tarangire National Park: Can you spot the elephants?

Inside the park we had a delectable Indian buffet for lunch at Tarangire Safari Lodge, a camp with 35 tents and 5 bungalows, many with views of the Tarangire River. Rooms feature beautiful linens from Tribal Textiles, a women’s cooperative in Zambia. Special activities include morning walking safaris and nighttime game drives.

Tarangire Safari Lodge

Our next stop was the exclusive Oliver’s Camp, near the park’s Boundary Gate (about 30 kilometers from the main gate). We had a wonderful game drive on our way, stopping to watch a cheetah and two of her cubs shortly after a kill. They were very much enjoying their impala dinner.

Toward the center of the park is a large swamp, offering a shocking and welcome swathe of green amidst the arid savannah. The swamp was a popular spot for elephants, reedbucks, open-billed storks, egrets, Egyptian geese; in its vicinity we also saw zebras, Eastern race wildebeest, ostriches (including several babies!), waterbucks, warthogs and a multitude of other animals.

Impalas at Tarangire National Park

Oliver’s Camp is a 10-tent luxury camp on the eastern edge of the park, south of the swamp. Tents are well-spaced, offering plenty of privacy, and decor is a combination of traditional English safari with a modern flair. Private outdoor showers attached to the tents are a fun way to enjoy nature. The camp has an intimate feel, and visitors can get to know one another and the camp managers over family-style meals or request private meals. The camp offers walking safaris and night game drives. Each room has its own private safe.

Oliver’s Camp

We then headed off to Maisha Kikoti Safari Camp for dinner and overnight. The 18-cabin camp is on a reserve just outside the park and is named after Kikoti Rock, a stunning geographical landmark at the top of the hill. Our dinner was a delicious barbecue under the stars. An attractive fire pit at the center of the dining area brought light and warmth to the area.

Maisha Kikoti Safari Camp main lounge
Maisha Kikoti Safari Camp main lounge

We loved our cabins — spacious, and incorporating natural features such as tree branches and stone into the architecture. Large screen windows and wood-framed screen doors surrounded three sides of the cabin, allowing plenty of fresh air in. We awoke to a morning wake up call of fresh coffee, which we sipped while enjoying the view from our high veranda overlooking the valley and park.

Kikoti Rock

Welcome to Tanzania!

I arrived last night in Tanzania via an international Delta/KLM flight through Amsterdam. The airport there is lovely, with an art museum, a library, a kids’ play area, and a large public lounge for napping, reading, or just hanging out.

Arumeru Grounds
Arumeru River Lodge Grounds

After a restful night at Arumeru River Lodge, my group enjoyed a hot breakfast and took a tour of the property with Thorston, a German emigrant who co-owns the lodge with his wife Mari. The lodge is on 12 acres of an old coffee plantation that was started by German Jewish emigrants who came to Tanzania in 1939 to flee the Nazis, and their son founded the lodge in 2005. The property has 29 rooms in cottages , most of which are in 2-unit cottages that border a well-kept garden populated by a resident family of adorable dik-diks (tiny antelope that are only slightly larger than rabbits). Arumeru River Lodge offers half-day guided hikes in the nearby rainforest for a nominal fee and free guided garden walks through its grounds.

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Flamingos on Little Momella Lake, Arusha National Park.
Blue monkey
Blue monkey
Colobus monkeys sunbathe.
Colobus monkeys sunbathe.

We then headed to Arusha National Park for a short game drive. The park has two lakes whose coastline are blanketed with flamingos. They were a truly breathtaking sight. We also spotted large groups of playful blue monkeys and black-and-white colobus monkeys, and had the privilege of watching two groups of blue monkeys in a territorial spat. (The fighting consisted mostly of posturing and screaming to scare the other group off.)

Mt. Meru Game Lodge
Mt. Meru Game Lodge

Next we visited Mt. Meru Game Lodge, a 17-cabin property that contains the only private wildlife sanctuary in Tanzania. The sanctuary is populated by injured and orphaned animals. The current residents include zebras, elands, waterbucks and an ostrich. Where possible, animals are rehabilitated to return to the wild.

Guides
Arusha Coffee Lodge

We lunched at Arusha Coffee Lodge, offering premium accommodations on a 4,400-acre plantation. The lodge is 5 minutes from Arusha Airport and well-situated near national parks. It offers tours of the plantation and a guided city tour that includes a stop at the Arusha Cultural Center, a market and museum that includes traditional crafts and fine art sculptures, paintings and fabrics from African artists.

Planet Lodge
Planet Lodge

Closer to the city of Arusha is Planet Lodge, a new facility that opened in September 2011. It has 28 rooms in unique circular 2-room cottages. This family- and budget-friendly accommodation is clean and modern, and features a large playground for kids as well as a pool. With a community-minded purpose, Planet Lodge opens the playground to children from a nearby orphanage and can arrange half-day or daylong volunteer opportunities for guests, as well as arrange lessons with local artists.

And finally we headed for a lovely dinner and night of sleep at the Kibo Palace Hotel in downtown Arusha. This is a gorgeous European-style accommodation with all the comforts of home. Watch for my next entry to learn more about this wonderful hotel!

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