Safari to Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater, and Serengeti; July 11-16, 2010

Imagine being an avid wildlife photographer, traveling all the way to Tanzania wherein lie the photo opportunities of a lifetime, and then having one's camera stop working. Well... the well-used shutter on Tim's hand-me-down Nikon D200 camera body indeed chose this trip in which to finally give up. Fortunately all was not lost; read on. The shutter stopped working at the end of the Mt. Meru portion of our trip. Back for our overnight in Moshi, we stayed up very late talking with Nikon customer service using internet phone, finally determining that the camera would need professional servicing and replacement parts. (It was all very reminiscent of talking with Kindle customer service from Amsterdam, except the stakes were higher.) Along the way we also talked with one of Tim's photography mentors and equipment-loaners, Hector Garcia-Molina. Hector offered to express-mail his D200 camera body for Tim to use on the safari. At first it seemed like a joke, but in the end that's exactly what happened: While we were climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro (with Tim resorting to his backup Canon G10), Hector's camera body successfully made the long journey from Palo Alto to Moshi, and was waiting for us when we returned before the safari. Yay Hector! All wildlife photos in this travelog are Tim's, after a quick first pass through his thousands of shots.

Our five-day safari was again organized by Eco Tours, booked through Adventures Within Reach. We couldn't have been happier. Our tireless guide and driver, Dan (photos 1 & 2), was knowledgeable, competent, and charismatic. Our vehicle was like almost all others plying the safari route: a tough old Toyota Land Cruiser modified with a double gas tank, two spare tires, and a special pop-top for animal viewing out the roof (photo 1). Unlike many of the other vehicles we saw in our five days, we had no flat tires or breakdowns, although we certainly put the Land Cruiser to the test. Weather was generally excellent -- mostly clear skies and mild temperatures.

Of course the stars of the safari were the animals, and they certainly delivered. Wow! African wildlife is everything it's cracked up to be and more -- every day brought something new and exciting. We were especially fortunate with our sightings of cats, both resting and in action. We saw several leopards and cheetahs, and more lions than we could count, some at practically arm's length (though of course we stayed safely in our vehicle). In one case we witnessed a leopard attacking a baby gazelle; to our delight the gazelle miraculously got away. Even more dramatic was seeing a lion bring down a wildebeest; unfortunately the wildebeest didn't fare as well. We also saw a lion chasing a giraffe, although our guide explained that giraffes are really only vulnerable when they're leaning down drinking. There were numerous elephants, hippos, zebras, buffalo, hartebeest, waterbucks, warthogs, topi, impalas, elands, dikdiks, hyrex, baboons, blue monkeys, velvet monkeys, jackals, hyenas, mongooses, crocodiles, ostriches, flamingos, and tons of other interesting and unusual birds. The only significant animal we never saw was a rhinoceros, giving us reason to return.

All three areas we visited were worthwhile. Lake Manyara was an excellent first-day warm-up, and a conveniently located stopover between Moshi and the remote Serengeti. The Serengeti has a well-deserved reputation for prolific large wildlife -- the national park is truly enormous, but rarely did we drive more than five minutes without seeing something worthy of a stop. Finally, Ngorongoro Crater, on the way back to Moshi, was something to behold. At 20 kilometers across it's world's largest crater, and it hosts its own animal kingdom. Each vehicle is strictly limited to six hours driving around the crater floor; we could have stayed much longer.

We also made a brief stop at Olduvai Gorge, which was interesting and evolutionarily significant, but also disappointingly (though understandably) hands-off -- one visits a museum, a gift shop, and a vista towards the gorge, where apparently some digs are still ongoing.

Outside of the national parks we saw hundreds of colorful nomadic Maasai people authentically going about their business, primarily tending their cows. Unfortunately there were also quite a few of them standing on the roadside offering to have their photos taken for a fee. There were also tourist-oriented Maasai "villages" with high entrance fees (and unlimited photos), which we decided against visiting. In one of our lodgings, two Maasai-dressed guys carried our duffel bags -- that was our closest encounter.

We stayed in a variety of lodgings: a fairly upscale permanent tented camp that was a little too just-so; a midscale permanent tented camp (photo 3) with a surprising number of families among the guests (nearly all Europeans); and a conventional lodge perched dramatically on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. Meals were included, with box lunches every day since we were generally either changing locations or on a "game drive" from early morning through late afternoon. Thanks to extremely rough and dusty roads, and spending much of our time standing on our seats looking out the pop-top at animals, the safari wasn't quite the relaxing experience we anticipated -- not that we minded, but a shower and Serengeti Lager were most welcome every evening. In spite of the (minor) rigors of the safari, what with the beer, buffet meals, and large packed lunches, it's probable we regained any weight we shed on Kilimanjaro.

Our first evening on safari was also the final game of the World Cup, which we had been following along with our porters via radio reports on Kilimanjaro. The just-so safari camp didn't have television in the guest tents or the bar, but interested guests were directed to a functional multipurpose room in a side area of the resort where all the drivers stay. Crowding around the small TV were perhaps a dozen guests, a handful of drivers, and a variety of hotel staff, including the Maasai duffel-bag carriers who had mysteriously shed their characteristic blankets. Libations were served and it was a fun scene all around, even if the predominantly Dutch guests were disappointed. (The drivers and staff were largely rooting for Spain -- we lost a four-drink bet with our driver.)

All told, the safari was a great experience, and a perfect capstone to our adventures in Africa. Afterwards we spent one last night and day in Moshi -- hanging out with other tourists, doing some last-minute souvenir shopping, and, most interestingly, visiting the Msamaria orphanage where the kids made some friends (photo 4) and the adults made a donation. Then we embarked on the 35-hour trip home.

Back to Aiken/Widom Family Travel List