During the 2nd-16th May of 2007, Jerry and I spent the most delightful and productive time on a “2-person” safari in Tanzania during the “Off-Season” period, considered to be April to mid-May. We are both familiar with the area and arranged with Unique to have a safari with the outstanding driver/guide Deo Wiaiams, whom we had met in a previous trip. The flights both ways were smooth and had plenty of empty seats; Jerry and I both had empty rows to stretch out to our heart contents. Something funny happened on the way back from Dar el Salam; I went to get some water and when I returned to my seats, all my pillows were gone.
When we landed at Kilimanjaro Airport May 3 around 8 PM we were taken to the Arumeru River Lodge, a new facility on the way to Arusha from the airport, a very nice and relatively quiet place. We used to be lodged at the Impala Hotel in downtown Arusha where it was impossible for me to sleep due to the nearby noise generated by a next door night club. At Arumeru River Lodge the nightclub noise was replaced by the loudspeaker from a nearby mosque that awakened me @ 5 AM and there more noise during sunset prayers and then night prayers. But these were not that annoying and the melodious morning prayers reminded me of my stay in Cairo years ago.
On the 3rd of May we went to the Arusha National Park, a tradition to acclimatize to the regimen of a safari. I found this park very productive in the past and this time we had a great show with the Black and White Colubus monkeys when we were departing at the end of the day. A whole family was resting in top of a large fig tree watching the sunset. We had lots of rewarding photographs, as the scene was illuminated by the setting sun behind our backs.
The next day (May 4th) we departed towards the Tarangire National Park and in the way there stopped at a drugstore to buy Lariam pills for protection against malaria at a cost of $9 for a pack of 4; much cheaper than in the USA and without the hassle of getting a prescription from a doctor. Driving through town (and for that matter, the country) it is apparent that the economy has improved since my last visit there in 2002. Upon arrival at the park gate, the customary bureaucratic paperwork was completed by Deo and the real “safari” started. We did a game run on the way to the lodge and the first thing of interest was a large family of ostriches. I always get overwhelmed by the baobab trees that are quite numerous in the park; they were leafless at this time but were beginning to sprout leaves. Also at this time, many of the storks and cranes were building nests or already nesting in the tops of these trees. Tarangire is rewarding to me because the large numbers of elephants that I enjoy watching as well as well as the variety of birds, particularly the ease to approach the birds of prey, the landscapes full of palms along the lake and river and the silhouette of the baobabs on top of the hills at sunset. One interesting point was the behavior of a group of baboons---at the end of the day on the return to the Lodge, we crossed the Tarangire River next to a very large tree, and on each occasion there were baboons at the top of the tree apparently watching the sunset. And although I have no proof; it was apparent to me that the same baboon (leader?) was at the top spot surrounded by his minions and the thought came to me that these guys have an appreciation for beauty. I have observed similar behavior on previous occasions on other safaris with lions and Colubus monkeys watching sunsets. We stayed at the Tarangire Sopa Lodge 3 full nights, the accommodations were great but the food was challenging overall. This was the most friendly and attentive of the lodges and the last night they gave Jerry and me a special going away send-off and cake because we had stayed there for 3 nights; the lodge was not too busy. No cats were sighted in the park this time and the most unusual sighting was a pair of honey badgers crossing the Tarangire River. It must be noted that recent floods washed away some of the river bridges and large detour were taken to arrive at the lodge.
On May 7th we departed early in the morning to Ngorongoro Crater; the road is completely paved now to the park’s gate and in good condition. We stopped at the school on the way there where I usually bring some school supplies. I was struck during one of my previous stops there as to have seen the children in the yard practicing writing with sticks in the dirt and the teacher then erasing it with her feet, quite a low tech blackboard. The school has not changes with the wall murals outside the buildings with same old maps of the world. The school director is always grateful for anything received. Upon the entrance to the park gate, we went through the routine process and then drove directly to the Crater. What a surprise!!! This time the crater was green and full of yellow, white and violet flowers that covered the basin as far as my eyes could see. I had been there usually during the January-March timeframe to watch the migration of the herds in the Serengeti and the area is dry. The water of the lake covered a more extensive area but there was not the abundance of flamingoes observed in the past. The animal/bird population of the crater was there in abundance as in the past and we were told the numbers are increasing. We saw a great number of crowned cranes and these were nesting and with young ones and gathered in large flocks. We observed a peculiar lion behavior in Table Hill at a site used to retrieve material to repair the roads and as storage for large steel drainage pipes. Two male lions and a female where mating in this area; one of the male was seriously injured in the left rear leg apparently by the other over fights over the female. While there, the lions moved from the side of the hill and entered the pipes where they went to sleep, probably using them as shade from the direct sun. The hippo pool seems to have not much activity this time of the year with a few hippos and birds around except for the blacksmith plovers that seem to be ubiquitous in the vicinity all the time. We saw the rhinos at a distance; the present population stands at 24. While devouring the lunch boxes in the picnic a notorious absence of black kestrels that are usually around trying to steal the tourists’ meals was noted; maybe they do go in vacation too. Here we had occasion to see a successful chase by two young male cheetahs who caught a young Thompson gazelle as well as a lonely leopard walking down the ascend road to the crater the last day as we departed. I managed to get a photo as proof that there are leopards in the Crater; I have never seen one here during my previous trips. Some of the roads have closed to traffic and in particular those close to the lake making the photographing of flamingoes impossible. We stayed at the Crater Serena Lodge and in my opinion was the worst of the places both as to the quality of the accommodations and the food. These lodges were virtually empty due to the “low season”. Yet they put us in Room # 12 that according to the front desk hostess was the best room. Well, the room was almost at the end of one of the wings and with no view of the crater due to large trees in front of the window and the beds extremely small, in fact, the smallest we encountered in the whole safari. I could not understand that we were sent to that room with an almost an empty lodge and requested to be changed the next day and was moved to room 27, nearby the restaurant and with an ample view of the lake. Carrying a 40 pound camera bag around this lodge is hard work due to the many stairs to negotiate. I definitely will avoid this lodge in the future.
We left Ngorongoro Crater in the morning of May 10th and Deo gave us a special treat by taking us cross country towards the Serengeti since we had no desire to visit the Olduvi Gorge for the nth time. We took the back roads until they ceased next to an Austrian hospital that assist the Masai. We crossed an area still inside the Ngorongoro Preservation area inhabited by the Masai that consisted of rolling hills with fields full of green grass and flowers of all shades of color. We ran into two Masai men and gave them a ride. They were on their way to a nearby boma to ask permission to bring their cows there for pasturing for 2-3 months. They were to walk about 20 kilometers and carried no food or water. Deo translated our various questions about their lives; I asked why their attire was different from others that we passed in the area and was told that they were warriors and the others with the more colorful coverings were young ones. One of the warrior claimed that he had killed 3 lions and showed us the lion’s teeth mark at the base of the metal spear. While on the way, we ran into a herd of cows with interesting markings used by the Masai to identify ownership; our Masai warriors interceded and made it possible for us to take pictures of the herd as well as the Masai herder. A while later they departed our company with great courtesy, exchanges of hand shakes and fake spear attacks for our cameras to capture. After descending from the Ngorongoro we reached a flat more dry and dusty area covered by thick Acacia bushes with not much game to be seen until we arrived in the Nduti Lake area. I have found this area very productive in the past obtaining my best photos of leopards, cheetahs and bat eared foxes during previous safaris. This time, again we were not disappointed and spent quite a while with a herd of elephants. While watching the elephants, we stopped for lunch virtually in the middle of the herd under a small acacia tree. While there, a chanting eagle hawk landed on the tree next to the vehicle with a still live mouse in a talon but it promptly moved to the next tree where it proceeded to partake of its live lunch; I was fortunate to be able to capture this meal digitally. Later on we proceeded to the Serengeti Gate at Naabi Hill and just got there barely on time before the gate was closed. We were to stay at the Naabi Hill tented camp but due to the movement of the migrating herds were moved to the Yellowstone Camp at the last minute. Upon arrival at this camp around 7 PM we were graciously welcomed by the staff with a hot towel, a glass of orange juice and a hot shower waiting in our tent. We were the only ones in the tented camp pampered by 6 staffers.
We woke up May 11th to a hearty breakfast and proceeded immediately to the Land Cruiser for another photographing day; this routine continued for the next 2 days.
Yellowstone Camp was the climax of luxurious living in the bush. We were pampered in all aspects and were also rewarded to run into staffers that we had been with during previous stays at the Naabi and Nduti tented camps. The meals (including the box lunches) were the best of the whole safari and one wonders how they manage to do it with such spartan facilities. The nights in the camp are spent drinking Tuskers, Serengeti or Kilimanjaro beer, watching the overwhelming Milky Way and arguing as to which one is the real Southern Cross. After retiring for the night, one awaits the visit of the lions, hyenas or other beasts. This time I was able to observe a female lion within 100 feet when entering the tent and we heard the hyenas calling near the tent in middle of the night. We departed new and old friends with a dream of seeing them again in the near future.
This night of May 14th we arrived at the Serengeti Serena Lodge after a stop at the Retima River hippo pool that was on the way. Again the Lodge was virtually empty but they put us in Room # 56, far away from the main facility. This time the routine was that you must call for an escort to go back and forth to the accommodations for our security from wild animals. I asked the escorts how they were going to defend us since they had nothing to defend us with in case of an attack; after we were taken to the detached two story hutch the first time we ignored the escorts and the only excitement encountered on the way back and forth were quite tame dik-diks. The food and the accommodations here were better than the other lodges visited. We stayed here until we departed the Serengeti May 15th.
While both at the Yellowstone Camp and the Serengeti Serena Lodge, we covered mostly the migration route through the western corridor of the Serengeti. We had observed the migration, mainly of wildebeests and zebra previously in the Eastern Serengeti near Ngorongoro and the Nduti area in the January-March when if lucky, one can observe the calving of the wildebeest, as well as the crossing of the Mara River in the August-September in the Masai Mara in Kenya on other occasions. To me this migration of such large number of animals is the “Greatest Nature Spectacle on Earth”, land or sea. I wonder how this would have compared to the migration of the buffaloes out west in the USA. We were able observe the pattern of migration in more detail here due to the vast areas that can be seen from an elevated point. The herds appear to move at a fast pace, then stop to feed and relax repeating this cycle. They migration is composed of different herds that move separately from each other but following the same route. What I observed was that each herd has a leader (or leaders) and when they depart a rest area the guide lead and the others seems to follow roughly in single file (Indian style) and these lines are as long as the eye can see and maintain that pattern until a river or feeding area is reached. Then the orderly line of march disappears to coalesce into a mass that moves in unison. This pattern is continuously repeated and as the migration moves; single straddlers can be observed left behind or wondering away from the group. Also numerous calves are seen that have lost their mothers and are left behind. These animals may become meals for the large carnivores that anxiously await their arrival along the migration route. We witnessed on the way to see the herds, several pride of lions on the top of Kopjes scanning the horizon for the arrival of the herds. We did not witness any kills by lions during this trip but saw several sites where the hyenas, jackals, vultures and Marabou storks were feasting on the leftovers.
While in this area we were able to clearly see two leopards on trees that would have rendered outstanding images but due to off-the-road restriction imposed in the Serengeti back in January we were not able to get close. We were also able to observe an interaction between a dying zebra with vultures and two leopards. Late in the afternoon of the May 13th we were in the area of the southern kopjes and saw a zebra dying being tortured by the vultures, these birds would come and peck at the zebra and it would react by shaking and trying to stand; while photographing this at a distance I happened to look behind the vehicles and saw two leopards moving towards the zebra, as soon as they reached the vicinity of the dying animal, the vultures departed. There was an adult female leopard and an almost full grown cub. The adult approached the zebra and virtually sniffed the mouth of the zebra, the zebra reacted and tried to raise, this spooked the leopard that moved away and proceeded to move away followed by the cub past the zebra, then returned to the zebra but continued to move to a nearby kopje where it climbed the rocks along with the cub and stayed there for a while. Then the adult returned to the dying zebra and while in that process another vehicle arrived, the animal returned back to the kopje and stayed there; we had to leave because of the late hour and never saw the final outcome but suspect that the leopards feasted on zebra meat that night. Earlier this same day we saw lions in top of trees again too far to get worthwhile photos.
The last full day, May 14th, we went further west in the road to Lake Victoria along the Grumeti River where the herds were expected to cross within 2-3 days. This area in the past has been very productive. We crossed the river at a bridge were we photographed a fishing hamerkop during a previous trip in 2002. Again, a hamerkop was at the same location, whether the same or a descendant is to be debated. We also photographed a fabulous dancing display by a yellow-billed stork as well as fishing by a marabou stork, a nearby perching fish hawk and a young crocodile stalking the birds. We again walked the hanging bridge that was recently rebuilt since the original one was washed away by the recent past floods. While in the area near the landing strip, Deo pointed out a pride of lions resting on the trees; at last we had an opportunity to photograph this behavior properly. On May 15th in the morning on the way to catch the flight out of the Serengeti from the Seronera airstrip we stopped once again at the Retima River Hippo Pool; the lighting was ideal but the river horses were not cooperating and we were not able to capture any notable yawning. Upon arrival at the airstrip, we emptied our bean bags and left the beans with Deo, said our good byes and hoped to return again…soon!!!
Since my last visit to Tanzania in 2002, I have returned to Kenya and visited Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe for a first time. In my opinion, nothing beats East Africa in the number, variety and ease of photographing the wildlife. In the plans for 2008, Namibia.
Pro and Cons of the “0ff-Season” in the Serengeti.
1. Cheaper prices.
2. Hardly any tourists resulting in very low traffic.
3. Beautiful fields covered with lush grass and flowers.
4. Less road dust due to the wet season which did not affect the condition of the roads.
5. The weather was great with only short drizzles during the daytime no even requiring the replacement of the vehicle top; must heavy rain occurred at night.
6. The numbers of mammals were the same as during previous visits in different seasons; just the migrating herds were at different locations. As for the birds, the local residents were there but migratory ones were gone to Europe or Asia.
Cons: Really none. The “off-the road” limitation was imposed in January as well as the closing of roads and was not due to the “off season”. This rule really affects the opportunities to obtain great photographs and the Park Service as not offered alternatives such as higher fees for “off-the-road” driving as previously done in the past in Ngorongoro Crater. This will definitely impact considering a return to Tanzania; hope is only temporary.
What about the photographing experience?
Nothing beats East Africa for photographic safaris; even with the recent limitations, there are always great opportunities. All the equipment worked without failure during this trip; left Tanzania with 122 Gigabytes or the equivalent of 15,842 RAW images and added 1755 kilometers to the Land Cruiser. No hassles with my 40 pounds bags while going through the security checks at the various airports; as a bonus came back in better physical shape for carrying and handling the all that photographic equipment