Our Safari was the highpoint of adventure on our trip so far. We stayed at:
Plantation Lodge just outside the Ngorongoro Crater
A tented safari camp on the Southern Serengeti
Lamai Lodge in the Northern Serengeti almost on the Kenya Border.
Our trip was absolutely incredible as was our guide Philip. We all agreed that the people, food and most of all the animals all exceeded our every expectation. Thank you to Nomad Tanzania for providing such a wonderful experience. We wanted a real journal for this part of the trip so instead of our normal format for checkpoint pages I have broken down the images and description of events by day.
Plantation Lodge - Ngorongoro Crater
Day 1 - Kilimanjaro Airport to Plantation Lodge
We arrived at the Kilimanjaro Airport after an overnight flight from Rome to Ethiopia and then a morning flight from Ethiopia to Kilimanjaro. The first thing we had to do after we arrived was to go through Ebola screening, which was simple, but still a little awkward. After screening and a quick trip to an ATM to pay the $400 visa fee - cash only - USD only, we were met by our guide for the week Phillip.
We jumped in our safari modified land cruiser and were off to Lake Manyara preserve for our first game drive. The poverty of the country was immediately apparent and while we were all prepared for it, there is nothing like seeing it. We had to stop along the way to pick up some safari hats, and because of our late start we did not arrive at the preserve until late in the day. We were thrilled to see some giraffes, zebras and baboons right away. Within a couple of days, sightings like these would become nearly boring as we chased more and more adventure with each drive.
We arrived late at Plantation Lodge, but were warmly received by the staff and were informed we were their only guests. It turns out Ebola had scared many people away and their bookings were WAY down and cancellations WAY up. The lodge was simply stunning and we were thrilled to be in a beautiful oasis for the next couple of days.
Day 2 - Ngorongoro Crater Drive
Our morning started very early at around 5:30. We had spoken with Philip the evening before and made a game plan for the day. This would soon become our evening ritual just before dinner. The plan was to get up very early so we could be down in the crater (about an hours drive) in the early morning while the animals are most active. Philip had the kitchen prepare us a breakfast for the road, but we requested coffee and hot chocolate before heading out. Once we made it into the crater we got a much better taste of what was in store for us.
Our first sighting was of some male buffalo above us on a hillside. Philip told us he calls them the retired generals. They were kind of far away, but with the binoculars we could get a decent view. Then we saw an ostrich off in the distance and thought - thats pretty cool. Finally we ran into a heard of buffalo and zebra up close and we thought that was amazing - we were such amateurs at this point. While we stood transfixed taking hundreds of the same picture, Philips attention was elsewhere. He said to us - "I think something is happening up ahead - let's go". We did not know Philip very well at this point, but reflecting now, he was more excited than we ended up seeing him for the remainder of the trip. He told us to hold on and floored the LC. Within 45 seconds we were 15 feet away from two female lions and four cubs trying to take down a female buffalo. Take a look at the pictures - it was a sight to behold. Philip kept telling us this was very special - and we agreed - although Lea hated it.
The last picture above was at the end of the attack when the lions gave up. The two females did not have the strength to take down the buffalo and she eventually got away - Lea was thrilled.
After the excitement of the attack we went to have our breakfast near the hippo pond. Breakfast was great and near the end we had some elephants wander in for a drink about 100 yards away from us. It kind of felt like this whole thing was scripted.
The remainder of the day confirmed we really did have a special guide in Philip. He had amazing eyes like I am sure most guides do, but he also clearly had a passion for what he was doing. He was patient, calm, funny and incredibly knowledgable. We had the ability to meet several other guides while we were on the trip and were SO thankful we ended up with Philip. In the remainder of that day we ended up seeing a Black Rhino, Baby Warthogs, tons of Gazelles, countless birds and some monkeys, what a day. We made it back to the lodge later in the afternoon and the kids went for a swim while Stacie and I relaxed.
Day 3 - Drive from Plantation Lodge to Serengeti Safari Tented Camp
Day three was another early start. Philip wanted us on the road by 6:00 because it was going to be a long day. We would be driving from Plantation lodge to the Moru Kopjes in the Serengeti. While the drive was only 160 kilometers Philip expected it to take us nearly all day because we would be making it a game drive as well. The day started off easy enough, we were in Masai country and there were small Masai villages all over along with warriors and children and women herding their cattle, gathering water or just walking. Philip let us know that in this area, the Masai have become very commercial and it had badly deteriorated their culture. He was open to stopping for them, but encouraged us not to, so we heeded his advice. We were able to get some photos, but not up close, because they wanted to charge us for the pictures and it did not feel right.
We carried on around the rim of the crater and then descended the other side and got our first glimpse of the Southern Serengeti - it was stunning. Just as we came off the crater Philip started spotting things again for us. One of the amazing things he found was a little Common Weaver building a nest, the pictures below of the yellow bird building the bright green nest are some of my favorite from the trip. On the remainder of the drive we started to get a sense of the scale of the Serengeti and what we were going to see with the migration - thousands upon thousands of wildebeest and zebra and an ecosystem which followed and surrounded them and thrived off of them.
As we were getting closer and closer to the camp the sky was getting more animated and we could see huge thunderclouds around bringing lots of rain. Philip pointed to one and said - "that is right over our camp - they are getting wet". Along the way we saw more lions, a hippo out of the water, a cheetah and her cub, and many giraffe, wildebeest and zeebra, but most of all we saw a stunning landscape all of us were quickly falling in love with.
When we were nearing camp the sun started setting and we were treated to our first Serengeti sunset - it was stunning. We would later come to expect these, but the first time we saw one, we were all captivated.
We arrived into camp tired and hungry. We were warmly greeted by the camp staff. "Jambo" - the traditional Swahili greeting was offered to all. We were welcomed with a drink and shown into our tents. We had arranged for a "family tent" which we thought would be one big tent with two rooms, but in reality was just two tents pulled close together. Because we were in the family tent we were at the very end of the tent line, the furthest away from the kitchen and from the guides and staff. I am not normally all that scared about sleeping in the wild, but this was REALLY wild. We had to be escorted to and from our tents and we were made very aware that we should be careful not to wander. Being in the last tent in camp did not add to my sense of comfort.
The tents were amazing. Beautifully furnished with running water, eco-toilet, hot showers, small electric lamps, and a very comfortable bed. All of this in the middle of nowhere in a canvas tent. They have clearly been at this for a long time and know how to make someone comfortable. After a nice hot shower we all met back at the campfire and were introduced to the other guests, a pair of couples from England who have know one another for years. We had a nice glass of wine and then a wonderful dinner before heading back to our tent for our first real night out in the bush.
I will be completely honest here, I was not at ease being in the last tent out in the middle of an area teaming with buffalo, elephant, zebra, wildebeest and it's own resident lion pride of about 50 lions. I knew intellectually we were all safe, but my fear center was buzzing and I could not stop playing The Ghost and the Darkness over and over in my mind. I would have been fine if it was just me, but having Stacie and the kids out here put me on high alert. I went to sleep fine, but woke up in the middle of the night with something right outside our tent. The noise that woke me up was tree branches breaking. In the silence of the night it sounded like small explosions every 30 seconds or so. I was completely gripped by fear. Next to me Stacie was sleeping like a baby. She would move occasionally and I would think - "thank god I can talk to her now", but a couple of grunts and she was comfortably asleep again, not a care in the world. I could not believe it, we were seconds away from being trampled or eaten and she was dead asleep - crazy. After about an hour, whatever was out there decided there were green pastures elsewhere and headed off. Once the noise died down I fell back asleep and lived to tell this harrowing story.
Day 4 - Serengeti Safari Camp - Moru Kopjes
Philip wanted another early start, so we were awoken at 5:00 by one of the camp staff bringing us coffee and the kids hot chocolate. While it was early, it was a really nice way to wake up. We headed out immediately after getting ready with a breakfast packed into the Land Cruiser. As we loaded into the LC Philip told us it was a herd of Buffalo that was in camp the night before. We were no more than 50 yards out of camp when we ran smack into a big herd of elephants, there was even one who had climbed up on a rock and was posing for us. They are majestic animals and you cannot believe their size until you are face to face with them. They were no more than 20 feet from our truck - it was an amazing start.
We rambled along for a short time, and needed to be more careful than usual because the rain had made the roads soupy and slippery, but again Philip was up to the test. We got some great pictures of the sunrise and some Giraffe's before heading around the Kopjes and down towards the river. We were sliding along when suddenly Philip stopped the car and pointed to a tree about 50 yards away - in it was our first Leopard. It was beautiful and seemed to be posing for us.
We were all mesmerized by the Leopard. The big cats are the hardest to find, and when you do they are typically asleep. Lions sleep 20 out of 24 hours in a day. This cat was up and on the move. Philip was not sure if she was hunting or protecting her area, but something had her attention. She climbed down out of one tree and sped quickly along though tall grass. We would catch a glimpse here or there, but she was difficult to track, for us anyway, Philip seemed to always know where she was going. We quickly found out what had her bothered, there was another female in the area. Leopards are solitary and territorial, so she was protecting her area. Philip was a little excited and warned us that if these two cats fought it would be brutal. We tacked the two for as long as we could, but they disappeared into the long grass away from the road so if there was a fight we missed it. However, we did have another problem, our truck did not want to start. We had been starting and stopping a ton and there appears to be something wrong with our alternator. So instead of going somewhere for a nice breakfast we decided to eat on the roof. It was a fun change and we all enjoyed the view and the beautiful morning. Philip could not connect with camp to send a truck out for a jump, so we improvised. We all got out and pushed the LC up a little hill and then Philip jumped in and we pushed it down the hill hard while Philip popped the clutch and the LC sprang to life. Nothing like a little improvisation out on the Serengeti.
We explored some additional areas and then headed back to the camp for lunch and an afternoon break. These afternoon siestas were a wonderful way to break up the time in the car and get some rest. You are going pretty much non-stop and as silly as it sounds, getting jostled around in a car all day can be exhausting.
Around 4:00 we loaded back into the LC and headed out for an evening game drive. We headed in the other direction and within 10 minutes we were smack in the middle of a large migration pack. There were Zebra and Wildebeest everywhere. Shortly after we made it through the migration Philip found three female lions lounging on some rocks. They were posed nicely for us so we took some shots and then decided to move on. We went a little further and were captivated by a hawk hunting in the waining light of the day. We had expected to go further, but we were losing light and needed to be back in camp by 7:00 - Serengeti rules. However, as we went past the area where the lions were lounging we all noticed they were gone. Lions don’t really move unless they have a good reason and in this case the reason was dinner. The light was fading, but we found the Lions across the road in the tall grass moving slowly towards the migration - they were on the hunt. Watching these animals hunt is just incredible. They were al working together to try and peel off one of the Zebras or Wildebeest. Philip thought the hunt was going to take a while and because of the time he did not think we would be able to stay for the entire hunt, but then things started progressing quickly and even he got excited. The girls had moved to within about 50 yards of the migration and were patiently waiting for the right opportunity, my heart was pounding, it was incredible to watch. One of the lions made an attempt at a Wildebeest, but failed. The migration knew something was not right and starting running at a breakneck pace. The girls were patient and we were out of time. Philip assured us they would be eating tonight, but also assured us he would be getting in trouble if we did not head back right now. He cranked up the LC and we were off like a shot, weaving through the migration at high speed - what a night.
Day 5 - Serengeti Safari Camp - Moru Kopjes
We had arranged the same agenda with Philip the night before so we awoke at 5:00 with coffee and hot chocolate. The nights sleep was much better because I decided to use earplugs and did not hear a thing.
We headed out to another beautiful sunrise and quickly made our way back to the area where the girls were hunting. We first saw one of the lions up on a rock to the right with a big belly, which was our first indication last nights hunt was successful. Sure enough, about 20 feet off the road the two other lions were lounging next to their kill - a wildebeest. Lea had decided Zebras were her favorite animal by that point so she was quite relieved to learn the lions had not taken a zebra. Not much was left, but the lions were not done with their kill quite yet, that is why they were laying close to the kill. A pack of hyena were surrounding the lions and vultures waited in nearby trees for their turn. The scavengers wanted in on the action, but the girls were having none of it and would chase off anyone who got too close. By this point in the trip we had seen most of the big animals, but we had also come to the realization that seeing the behaviors of the animals was much more interesting than ticking down a list of animals to see. The only major animal we had not seen up close was a Rhino and we were going to attempt to do that later this afternoon.
We watched the girls for a while and then decided to head out to a new area and see some of the areas the Masai used to inhabit before the Serengeti became a national preserve. We immediately ran into some beautiful Giraffes rubbing one another's neck, a sign of affection, and then carried on to our breakfast spot.
We arrived at our destination about an hour later after seeing plenty of wildlife, including another leopard. The breakfast spot was a large Kopje (set of massive granite boulders) overlooking the migration. Philip ran up to the spot he wanted us to have breakfast in order to make sure it was safe and was back quickly waiving us on. On our way up to the rocks I looked to my right and was staring face to face with a beautiful Barn Owl. It was about 10 feet from my face directly at eye level. I fumbled quickly with my camera and was lucky enough to get a couple shots off before he flew away. I love owls, so it was a neat experience. We could see forever and the migration seemed to be an endless ocean of Wildebeest and Zebra stretched out to either horizon.
We had another wonderful breakfast on the rock while Philip explained to us the significance of the place for the Masai and showed us where the young warriors would spend their time banging rocks into the granite while making music. Then Philip spotted a mother lion with her cub. They were near another fresh kill about 300 yards away. We watched them for a while and decided to go hunt for Rhinos before heading back for lunch. We never did find Rhino's on that drive or any other after our first day in the crater, and that one was a LONG way off.
We made it back to the camp and had a nice restful afternoon with a huge rainstorm providing us with a good reason to lay down and take a nap.
That evening we went to see if we could find our leopard again, but we did not make it that far. The roads were really bad and we decided to turn around after just a little while. However, the sunset was the best of the trip, so we took a bunch of pictures before making it back for another wonderful dinner.
Day 6 - Travel from Southern Serengeti Camp to Lamai Lodge
This was certainly the longest and most difficult day of the safari. We needed to drive almost the entire length of the Serengeti to get to our next camp. In hindsight we should have flown because it would have taken us about an hour. Instead it took us all day and we did not see anything of any major consequence. However, when we arrived at our new camp we found ourselves in heaven. The Lamai camp is owned by Nomad Tanzania and is simply spectacular. This is not a tented camp, but rather a series of semi permanent buildings perched on a Kojpe high above the Serengeti looking out across Northern Tanzania all the way to the Masai Mara in Kenya. We were warmly greeted and then shown to our room, which was incredible. Our view, the furnishings, the hot showers, everything was perfect - except for the REALLY fast spider that I kept trying to kill but kept failing. We later found out it was highly poisonous - so that was smart.
We had a wonderful dinner and then went to bed early because of course we had another early early start the next day.
Day 7 - Lamai Lodge - Peter's Birthday
It was Peter's birthday and we were all hoping something special would happen. We got up early as usual and were out the door quickly. Another beautiful sunrise greeted us and provided some amazing light for early morning photographs. The first thing we saw was a single giraffe loping along the horizon. By this point in the trip Peter had really started to enjoy photography so he was in charge of the camera for the day. He nailed a great shot of the giraffe silhouetted against the horizon.
We then parked the LC so we could scan the area. Philip really wanted us to see a Cheetah up close as well as a Rhino. By this point we were all getting a little better at spotting game, but the birthday gods were shining on this day and it was Peter the spotted a Leopard on a rock about a half mile away. It was a great sighting and quickly we were off. Fortunately we were able to get VERY close to the Leopard and Peter was able to get some amazing shots. At our closest I think we were no more than 15 feet from this beautiful female.
After a spending some time with the Leopard we decided it was time to move on. We drove for about 10 minutes and ran smack into a big pride of lions. They were lounging on rocks having an easy morning when we arrived. Peter took a bunch of pictures and then let me take some. It's so hard to stop shooting photos even though you know you have taken the exact same shot 10 times already. Soon after we arrived the pride started getting a little restless and looking down the valley. As we followed their gaze we found a small herd of Buffalo heading right towards us - things were getting interesting. As the lions started paying attention we started getting excited. Every time one of the large lionesses moved our pulses would rise as we were thinking about the possibility of seeing another attack. After 20 to 30 mins the buffalo were getting really close to the lions and we were all tense. As we were waiting a big male elephant decided to come over the ridge behind the lions and walk right past our car. Philip thought he might chase after the lions, but he just strolled through.
Then one of the buffalo saw or smelled the lions and the gig was up. The buffalo started herding close together and coming right at the lions, saying "you want some of me? Bring it on". The lions knew they were outmatched, even though there were about 20 of them, and quickly retreated further up into the rocks where they would be safe. It was incredible to see.
Once the lions retreated we knew the gig was up and we were on our way to breakfast. Philip had a spot picked out and we move quickly to get there. He parked under a large Acacia tree and we set up breakfast overlooking the Mara river all the way to Kenya, it was a beautiful spot.
Once we were done we headed down to the river to see some crocks and hippos. They were pretty easy to spot, but because it was getting hot we did not want to stay too long. It was time to head back to camp for a swim and some relaxation.
After our rest we headed back out for our evening drive. We wandered around and did not see much until we started heading back. We found the pride we had been watching earlier resting on some other rocks. Philip saw a male elephant heading towards the lions and again expected some action. Sure enough the elephant started running at the lions and trumpeting, clearly not happy they were anywhere near him. The lions scampered up on to the safety of high rocks and resumed their resting position.
We started working our way back to camp and the sun began setting, it was going to be stunning. I wanted to take some pictures of some baboons on a rock with the sunset in the background, which Philip allowed, but was he was clearly getting anxious. He told us we really had to get back to camp because the rangers would give him a ticket if we were out past 7:00. He started driving like a bat out of hell, which is very unusual for Philip.
We soon found out why he was so anxious, we were late for a special birthday event for Peter on "Sunset Rock". Philip pulled up and said "welcome to your new home". We all looked at each other like - "what the hell is going on". He led us around the back of a large rock and we found a full bar set up just for us with a stunning view of the Serengeti Sunset laid out in front of us. The kids grabbed a soda and we had some wine and enjoyed our last night on safari. It was a very special way to end our trip and Peter's birthday. Even though Peter had not received one gift on this birthday, he turned to us as the sun was setting and said "you guys are going to have to work awfully hard to top this next year!"
The lodge actually had one more surprise up their sleeves. After dinner they brought a cake out for Peter and sang him the traditional Happy Birthday song. It was a special moment none of us will soon forget.
Day 8 - Travel Back to Arusha
We had a 10:30 flight from Lamai back to Arusha, so we needed to get moving fairly early. We had a nice breakfast, packed up, took some pictures of the lodge and loaded into the LC for the last time. The trip to the airstrip was only about 45 mins so we were there pretty quickly. None of us had traveled in a small plane like this before, so we were all a little nervous, Philip assured us we would love it. We arrived at the airstrip on time and were getting our things ready just as our plane arrived. Then it came time to say some very sad goodbyes to Philip. He was an incredible guide and we all felt like he became a friend over the past 8 days. Then we met our pilot and he told us we had three stops to make on our way back to Arusha. These backcountry airlines have no set plans. If they have a passenger they will fly a segment, if not they will move to the next stop, in our case we had more stops than any of us initially wanted. WE loaded into the plane, with Peter and I right up front behind the pilot and the girls behind us. As we taxied down the runway we waved goodbye to Philip one last time and then we were off. It was very cool to be able to watch the pilot fly our Cessna Grand Caravan. We all ended up really enjoying our flights and most importantly we made it back to Arusha safely.
Once we landed and were met by our driver we started preparations for visiting a local orphanage. We wanted to do something charitable while in Tanzania and Philip recommended this as a good way to help. We stopped at a local supermarket and loaded up on some big bags of staples; rice, sugar, flour along with some toys. We drove another 10 minutes and were at the orphanage.
As we got out the kids and the managers came out to meet us. Our driver explained what was going on and the managers were very happy to hear we were bringing a donation. They welcomed us into the building and an office where we all introduced ourselves. They did not speak a great deal of english, but we all understood each other. One little girl attached herself to Lea and followed us into the office - it was very cute. They then gave us a tour of the facility, which was basically a small collection of cinderblock buildings. The kitchen was probably the most stunning. The cook showed us where she prepared meals for all 40 kids. The room was probably 15 by 20 feet with one large wood fired stove that was not vented, so the entire room reeked of smoke Half of the room was twigs and wood used to fire the stove. How anyone could prepare a meal in this, let alone three meals a day for forty people was beyond our comprehension.
We then made our way back out to the front of the buildings where the kids were still waiting patiently to get their hands on the toys we brought. We had purchased a couple rugby balls and we started tossing the balls around with the kids and had a good time seeing them laugh and play.
The visit ended after our game of catch and we said goodbye, knowing that we did a little, but would really not change anything about their lives, which is sad.
We headed towards the airport quietly, just reflecting on the visit. We had to stay at a hotel by the airport because we had a flight at 6:00 the next morning meaning we would have a 3:30 AM wake up call.
As we sat at dinner that night at the hotel we all agreed this part of the trip far exceeded our expectations in nearly every way. The people, the animals, the landscape, the food and the country in general will always be remembered as one of the absolute highlights of the world tour.