Our African Vacation!

An East African Photo-Safari


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In late February and early March, 1997, Judith and I went to East Africa for vacation. We took Overseas Adventure Travel's "Tanzania Wildlife Adventure" package, which includes 10 days at Tanzanian national parks and conservation areas. We arrived three days early to get a closer look at Mount Kilimanjaro on our own.

Here's our rough itinerary:


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A word about Overseas Adventure Travel

Friends who had taken a different OAT tour (in South America, I think) recommended the company to us, and I'd say that it worked out fine. We had nine people in two vehicles. The two vehicles usually stayed pretty close together, but not always. The driver/guides were good; one was excellent. (By the way, only one of the two vehicles had any guidebooks (owned by the driver); the literature that says their vehicles are stocked with books about the scenery and wildlife is wrong.) The lodges we stayed in at all of the parks were very good - great views, good food, and excellent service. I'd definitely recommend OAT for other travelers.

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Moshi, Mount Kilimanjaro, and Marangu

Judith and I arrived three days earlier to visit Mount Kilimanjaro on our own. We arrived Kilimanjaro airport late on a Saturday night, and spent one night in Moshi at the Moshi Hotel. On our first full day in Africa, we poked around Arusha in the morning and took a taxi up to the Marangu Hotel, near the Marangu gate of Mount Kilimanjaro National Park.

On Monday, we hiked 2500 feet up just past the first camping hut on the mountain climbing route, and then back to the Marangu gate. Our guide, Rafael, was a native of Marangu, and a member of the Chaga people. The hike up to the Mandara Hut was pretty uneventful and unspectacular; most of it was on a rough road and the forest precluded any vistas. But past the hut we began to see spectacular vistas, and the possible glimpses of the mountain peak up in the clouds. Near Maundi Crater, about a mile past the hut, we hiked among the smoldering remains of a forest fire, and at the crater, we saw spectacular views down onto the plains of Kenya.

On the hike down, we decided to take the slightly longer forest trail, which went through much prettier vegetation and occasional views. As sunset approached, the clouds cleared and we got great views of the mountain peak and of the hills silhouetted by the sunset. We wound up arriving back at the gate as darkness closed in. We discovered later that our guide got in some trouble with the Park Service for keeping us out so late, though he tried to get us to take the shorter route down. We spent a second night at the Marangu Hotel, and then Rafael took us into the town of Marangu and to a nearby waterfall. We then hired him to accompany us to Arusha on the bus. The bus was far, far less expensive ($10 each) than a taxi would have been ($90), so we could easily afford to have Rafael along for assistance. And it was a good thing, for we'd have had a terrible time changing buses in Moshi, or getting the taxi driver in Arusha to chase down the bus when we realized we'd left our hats on board.

The bus ride between Moshi and Arusha matched the image of a crowded third world bus trip. I don't think that we had any animals on board or anyone on the roof, though the luggage, and even a motorcyle,were on the roof. But stopped frequently to stuff more and more people onto the bus, include many Masai dressed in their traditional red wraps. At one point I think that I had a Masai sword inadvertasticking in my ribs

But we made it safely to the Impala Hotel in Arusha and had a very pleasant dinner just up the street at an Italian restaurant. The rest of our safari group flew in that night, and we started the safari the next morning.

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Arusha National Park

The first day in Arusha National Park may have been the best day of the safari. Our first substantial wildlife sighting was of a field with several giraffes close to the road and a herd of 20 or 30 cape buffalo perhaps 200 meters away. As we watched them, we saw that there were a couple of dozen baboons lurking in the distance. Shortly thereafter, when we stopped for a short hike to a lovely waterfall, we had a lucky view of Mount Kilimanjaro. (It is usually obscured by clouds during the day, and was not visible at all from our hotel in Arusha.)

That first morning offered our only opportunity for a hike in any of the parks on the safari. Judith and I were the only members of the group who were up for a strenuous hike, so we headed off with a rifle-toting park ranger while the others went in the Range Rovers for a picnic lunch near a waterfall. The hike was hotter and more strenuous than we had counted on - and the only animals we saw were a few birds. We were just about to send the ranger on ahead to the waterfall to send a vehicle back for us when we encountered our group, who, fortunately for us, had found a pretty spot well short of the waterfall.

Early in the afternoon, we came around a hill to see below us a beatiful view of a small lake. There were a couple of islands, with a giraffe on each, and three giraffes, including two babies on the shore of the mainland. As we watched, one of the giraffes sauntered across the shallow lake to join his family on the shore. A little later, as we caught site of a larger lake, we saw white lines on the lake and assumed that they were the soda deposits typical on those alkaline lakes. But as we approached, we saw that the lines were formed by thousands and thousands of flamingos. The road took us to within about 80 meters of the shore at one point, were we watched many of them take of and land, and saw a few dip below the surface to feed. But we really didn't see any wild animals (except for a few birds) on the hike,

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Tarangire National Park

On the second day, we drove about three hours - mostly on paved roads - to Tarangire. Along the way, we saw many signs of severe drought. The countryside was nearly barren, much like many parts of the American West. And we saw Masai herders leading their starving cattle in what was probably a vain search for more fertile land.

Tarangire was impressive, despite the drought. The countryside was uniformly brown, with numerous baobab and acacia trees, but no clumps of trees that could be called a forest. There was very, very little grass or bushy undergrowth. But the view from the lodge was stunning. The lodge is on a bluff overlooking an open valley and the Tarangire river, which was nearly dry. This was the only "tented lodge" we stayed in. The tents were hardly rustic. They have electric lights, are on a cement slab and under a thatched roof along with a cinder block private bathroom and shower.. And - as at all of the lodges on the trip - we had good food and excellent service.

The highlight of our evening game drive was a pride of lions sound asleep less than 20 yeards from the road. We counted at least nine females, but no males.

Early in the morning, as we gathered in the dark for a dawn game, I though that I heard the growling of lions pretty about 400 yards away, in the valley below. Sure enough, when we returned from the uneventful game drive, we discovered that lions had killed a giraffe just below the main lodge, and several of our comrades had watched them devour the carcass. When we arrived, jackals and vultures were taking over, and the lions were lying down in the shade of a baobab tree. I sat and watched with the binoculars for another hour, and saw many elephants, zebras, and wildebeests wander by on their way down to the river, but the lions were sated and barely stirred. One lioness did stalk some zebras for a couple of minutes, but then she settled down in the shade of another tree and went back to sleep

Our third game drive in Tarangire, late in the afternoon, took us many miles to the south, where we hoped we'd find more animals. I remember that we were disappointed that we didn't see more animals, but, as I think of it, we did see elephants, lions, zebras, baboons, wildebeests, impalas, dik-diks (the smallest of the antelopes), mongooses, many birds, and a few other small animals.

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The Serengeti

The drive the next morning from Tarangire to the Serengeti was long, hot, and bumpy, but reasonably scenic. We left the paved road after less than and hour, and drove through through the Rift Valley to Ngorongoro Crater for lunch, and then on to the Serengeti.

As we approached the Serengeti - just outside the park - we had our closest encounter with raw nature. We noticed our driver peering off to the left as we drove along the road. The landscape was flat and spase, with barely any trees in sight. Suddenly he turned off of the road and headed across the plain (which was legal here; we weren't in the park yet). He pulled up a few yards away from a panting cheetah who was holding a gazelle by the neck. Our driver said that he saw the dust from the chase in the distance. The cheetah didn't seem to mind our presence a bit, but as the life flowed out of the gazelle and four cheetah cubs walked up in anticipation of a meal, the mother got a little nervous and started dragging the gazelle away. So we went on our way.

We drove on into and through the Serengeti National Park, arriving at our lodge on the north side of the park after dark. That end of the park is fairly hilly, and, ss in Tarangire, there was a great view from the lodge. But in this park, we didn't see very many animals at all from our room.

The first morning in the Serengeti, we got up before dawn to go for a balloon ride. The only animal I remember seeing in the dark that morning was a porcupine that was crossing the road. The balloon ride was disappointing, to say the least. We were constrained to a small area of the park, and we had to try to land on a road, so the pilot was quite constrained. We spent most of the 45 minute ride only a few feet above the ground, and soared up to an altitude of about a thousand feet for a few minutes. But whether we were high or low, we saw very few animals - just a few gazelles and three bat-eared foxes.

We were in the Serengeti for two days and three nights. The rest of the first day was uneventful, though we stopped at a hippo pond, which was the only spot in the park (away from the lodge) where we saw more than three or four vehicles at once. The hippos, who are very shy, never came out of the water. We mostly saw their eyes, the tops of their heads, and parts of their back, with an occasional yawn.

None of the Serengeti that we saw could be called heavily forested, but the area within 10 miles or so from the lodge was wooded, with pretty scruffy trees. There were quite a few impalas in the wooded areas, and we saw a few dikdiks and cape buffalos not too far away.

At the southern end of the park, the terrain is flat and almost treeless. That area is populated by many gazelles.

On the second day in the Serengeti, we headed south to find the wildebeest heards, and spent at least a couple of hours in sight of tens of thousands of wildebeests and zebras. It was a very impressive sight. The wildebeests are reminiscent of the American Bison in many ways. The migrating herds are huge, and the animals are humpbacked and, well, fairly grotesque. Baby wildebeests are up and walking within five minutes, and traveling with the herd within a day.

We had another cheetah encounter on the second afternoon. We heard some zebras exclaiming - their warning sound sounds an awful lot like a bark - and saw a zebra on the prowl a couple of hundred yards away. We thought he might be hunting, but, after walking across the road just a few yards from our vehicle, he plopped down for a rest. Another cheetah was lying under a tree another 50 meters away. Once the zebras realized that the cheetahs weren't hunting, they settled down, and even walked within a few feet of the cheetahs. Finally the two cheetahs wandered off together.

We also saw several families of elephants in the park, and numerous giraffes. There were many topis (a large antelope similar to a hartebeest) sharing territory with both the impalas and the gazelles.

On the way out of the park on our third morning there, we finally got a good look at some male lions. They were sitting on a mound about 20 feet above a water hole. We were able to drive up to within about 30 feet of them and watch them yawn and stretch. They didn't seem to mind our presence a bit.

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Ngorongoro Crater

The Great Rift Valley runs between the Serengeti and the crater, through the area known as the Ngorongoro Conservation District. Part of the Rift Valley, or at least connected to it, is Olduvai Gorge, where a German butterfly collector stumbled on some old bones back in the 1920's. He notified George Leaky, who studied the area and made the first of his family's landmark archeological finds there. The gorge is very dry and deep, with visible geological strata. Lava flow and the movements of the tectonic plates have preserved and/or revealed the ancient bone specimens of Homo Habilis, Australopithecus, and other early humans. We didn't get to see any excavation sites, just a nice vista into the gorge, and a small museum.

The Ngorongoro Crater is a natural volcanic crater about 80 miles in circumference and over 2000 feet deep, created millions of years ago when a volcano bigger than Kilimanjaro blew its top. It is knows as the best of the animal refuges in Tanzania, and it is pretty much all that is advertised. There are lots of animals, including all 15 of Tanzania's black rhinos. We saw five of the rhinos, and several sleeping or sleepy lions, plus many wildebeests, zebras, elephants, baboons, black-faced monkeys. There are no giraffes in the crater - they have a tough time climbing in or out. But there is a path down into the crater; the Masai bring their cattle down for grazing.

There were great vistas from the lodge up on the rim, and it was great to be up where the weather was pretty cool. Since this lodge is up on the rim, away from the animals, we were able to our first substantial walk since Arusha National park. We were able to follow the cattle path a ways down toward the crater, and then back up to the highway.

The most interesting sights in Ngorongoro Crater involved lions and rhinos.

One of the first animals we saw in the morning We first saw this lioness creeping along the plain, and we watched carefully and quietly as she crossed the road behind us and headed for some trees near some grazing antelopes. As she reached the shade, she climbed up on a log, straddled it, and plopped down for a nap!

In the afternoon, we came upon a male and female lying down next to each other. Our guide recognized the lion as one who had been castrated in a fight with another lion. But the lioness was evidently in heat, and was crawling all over him. She would roll over on her back and squire, or walk in circles around him, or step right over him. But he just wasn't interested. Every couple of minutes, he would look up at her and growl, but mostly he just ignored her. Finally, she just wandered off into the brush.

We saw one pair of rhinos in the distance in the morning. They looked kind of like Dr. Seuess creatures. In the afternoon, we saw a couple with a child. They were much closer, so we got a much better look. One of them crossed the road only about 100 feet in front of our vehicle. Our driver commented that that was one of his closest encounters with rhinos. They are very, very shy.

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Lake Manyara National Park

Lake Manyara was very anticlimactic. I got sick du8ring our second night at Ngorongoro crater, and I missed out on the three game drives at Lake Manyara. Bbut the rest of the group assured me that I didn't miss much. They didn't see any animals there that we hadn't seen previously. The tour literature promised a camel ride there, but the camel ride operator had gone out of business, and though the park was advertised as something of a bird sanctuary, the draught and the many, many baboons have evidently chased off most of the birds.

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General Observations and Advice

Some of these notes apply to East African travel in general, and others apply specifically to the Overseas Adventures Travel tour we took. I got some useful information about the trip on the rec.travel.africa newsgroup, where I also ran into some people who are planning to take the same tour. I recommend the newsgroup for people who want to inquire about travel to Africa.

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Last updated April 18, 1997, by Robin Richmond.