Jan 31, 2012
Leaving this evening at 6:20 PM to Newark on Continental. Hopefully left no hanging chads behind- we started packing 10 days ago and hopefully all last minute stuff was anticipated and dealt with. Too late now. Stayed at Fairfield Inn at Newark Airport. Nice room, lousy bed.
8 AM flight to Heathrow on Virgin- our first (virgin?) Virgin trip. Booked premium economy which is about half the cost of business. Seats are definitely bigger, pretty comfortable although they don’t retract much. Food was edible to good except for breakfast on route to Nairobi. Everything was on time, very smooth, although the connection took 45 min in Heathrow just because. We only have an hour on the ground on the way home, so it better be better then. Watched “Cowboys and Aliens”, “Horrible Bosses”, and the new “Planet of the Apes”. All are keepers. Turned off “Bad Teacher” after about 30 min—really dreadful.
Landing in Nairobi was on time- zebra grazing in the field next to the runway told us we were not in Kansas any more. Connected to Arusha on Precision Air; did not see Kilimanjaro because it was clouded in. After getting through the visa process, we were met by Nataaya from ADS for the ride to the hotel. They put us up in the Mt. Meru hotel, which is clearly an upscale, new hotel- very, very nice. We were in a beautiful suite. Hotel actually faces Mt. Meru, which at 15K ft is the second highest peak in Africa. The countryside is just littered with (hopefully) extinct cinder cones and craters. Nataaya went through our itinerary in detail, and gave us a cell phone and list of contact info. The cell phone had some international minutes in case we wanted to call home, but we had brought our international phone along so never used it. But we thought it was a very nice touch.
Nataaya and Charles picked us up at 8 AM and took us to the regional airport where we boarded a small plane for the flight to Serengeti. The drive took us through southern Arusha, which according to Nataaya is about a million in population and growing fast. I could spend a lot of time here just watching and taking pictures of the people on the streets- lots of colors, smells, hustle. Flight was about 45 min- went right over Ngorongoro crater, saw Massai villages on the rim but not much else- pretty barren looking from 2000 feet. The flight was quite smooth, very clear day. We landed near Ndutu and met Arnold (full name: Arnold Yahaya Mushi) who will be our guide for the rest of our stay. Arnold has been a Serengeti guide for 12 years, 5 with ADS. He is a big, sturdy bear of a guy with a big smile and a loud but pleasant presence. We headed straight into the bush – saw zebras, tommies, grants, dik-dik, giraffe, and at least 2 dozen birds especially eagles. And lions— we came on a pride feeding on a fresh wildebeast kill. The pride had two groups of cubs, with the 4 youngest around 6 months or so according to Arnold, who we watched as they crossed the road in front of us with full bellies quite evident to get a drink in the lake.
And cheetahs- we found a mother with 4 very young cubs (2 months or so), clearly on the hunt. We watched them for quite a while and I took a gazillion pictures and an hour of video- all this before lunch! We stopped at the Lake Ndutu lodge for lunch, where we will stay for 3 nights (cabin 7). Food wasn’t bad (although it was overall the worst of all of the places that we stayed on this trip) and Serengeti beer wasn’t bad either. That evening back in the lodge we were entertained by lovebirds in the bushes outside of our cabin and in the evening the resident genet cats appeared in the lobby. The genets are beautiful small nocturnal cats not much bigger than a typical tabby but much sleaker and with gorgeous spotted coats. I suspect that some of the scratching and sniffing noises at our door at night were these little guys.
What a day. We were up and out at 5:15 am and on the road before 6. Watched the sunrise over the plain and saw golden jackels, tommies, other critters en route to Naabi Hill. We got our permit and entered the park.
Migration! It really is something to see. Also lots of non-migrants- elands, cape buffalo, oryx, Coke’s hartebeast. But the highlights of the day were 1. The leopard hunt- what a show; and 2. Lions hunting zebras in the tall grass.
The leopard was hunting a group of impalas in the shade of a tree about 40 yds from our car at about 11 o’clock. The leopard was across the road from the impalas, a little to our right, about 20 yards from us at about 2 o’clock. We watched as he/she worked her way along side of the road, looking for a place to cross without being seen by the impalas. She came to within about 15 ft of our car and positioned a shrub between her and the prey to screen her crossing. This was amazing to watch- she belly-crawled inch by inch across the road to behind the bush; took her at least 10 min to get across. Once there she started around the bush away from us, but apparently thought she might be seen so came around to our side (10 ft in front of the car!!!) and started creeping up on the herd. She got to within about 25-30 ft from the herd when some bozo pulled his car around off the road and came pretty close to running over the leopard. He also spooked the impalas, and the leopard tried to grab one that ran by but missed. Lots of pissed off guides and tourists.
The lion hunt was possibly more successful- we will never know because they went out of our sight before the lions got close enough to attack. We were driving along when I spotted a lioness peering above the grass to our right. Arnold stopped, and we saw what she was focused on a group of 4 zebras crossing the road about 100 yds ahead of our car, going right to left. She made a little noise and two more heads popped up, and after a few seconds they all started moving. What was apparently the leader crossed the road in front of us, while the other two crossed right behind our car, using the car as a screen. We were able to see them do a pincer maneuver as the zebras trotted off to our left and eventually away down a little slope and out of sight. We could see the lions moving very quickly through the grass- the black spots on the back of their ears really stand out. Whole show lasted about 15 min before the lions dropped out of site too.
Little more info on Arnold: wife is Brenda, daughters Cynthia and Sylvia. They live in Arusha; Arnold is working to build a new house for them. He told me that he is using material from termite mounds, which makes great bricks.
Signature joke: Why is a giraffe’s head so far from his body? Because it has a long neck. Caught this one (with embellishments) on video.
Other typical Arnold quotes: “Don’t sleep! Don’t sleep! Don’t sleep!” and, “Is everybody happy?” and “Going fishing, fishing, fishing…” and “How is Everybody?”—constant chatter, great fun. Our contribution to the joke pool: How can you tell how many wildebeasts/zebras are around? Count the legs and divide by 4 (Arnold liked it- I hope is using it with his newer clients).
Long, dusty day in south Serengeti. The rains were late, so everything is dry and all of the animals ready to drop calves are looking for water and food so the herds are moving north to the rivers. Even though the animals were moving out- we still saw some great stuff. Arnold heard a couple of lions in the night, and he found them on edge of the lake- two young males, probably brothers. We also found the cheetah with her young cubs- same group, and she and the kits had clearly fed. Got some great videos of the family group playing and horsing around. It was very cool. Also found 3 fresh kills, already turned over to the vultures and hyenas. Arnold spotted a bunch of white feathers along the road and stopped to investigate- it was a white stork kill, and he spotted a lammergaier on the ground about 100 yds away. Apparently storks are their favorite prey. Arnold got quite excited, because they are quite rare (the lamergaier, not the storks), and he planned to report the sighting that evening. Other critters we saw:
Baboons on twin breast peaks
Lots of eagles
Spotted eagle owl, spotted by Usha in an acacia.
Up very early to meet our ride to the balloon, Usha’s birthday. Company is called Serengeti Balloon tours, pilot was named John. We rode with a couple from Chicago, Tom and Xiang Adolfsson, and Hawa-san from Japan. It was a bit breezy so we launched astronaut style. We stayed low over the trees, with lots of eagles and rollers flashing below. Got a pretty good look at elands, although they still kept a good distance. After landing, we had the customary champaign and an excellent breakfast. On the way back we spooked some ground owls- tawny colored with darker brown head and wings (African grass-owl). Arnold then picked us up at the meeting place and we headed for the marsh. Lots of lion activity- several kills, fat and lazy lions, cubs, beautiful light. We came on a pair of lions mating and watched for a while- Arnold said they will go at it every 10 min for 2-3 days. Whoa. We spent the rest of the day crusing the area west of Ndutu including Hidden Valley. Everything is absolutely bone dry and dusty. Arnold was very concerned, because normally even in dry times hidden Valley has water. Not this year.
We ended up at our private camp, our lodging for the next two nights. Talk about blowing away expectations! The staff was Nema, Kelvin, Praygood and Gerald (chef). Kelvin had set a couple of chairs and a small table next to a small wood fire, which he started when we settled in. There we watched “bush TV” to the west and a truly spectacular sunset with a glass of wine in hand and some peasant conversation with Nema and Kelvin both. Gerald fixed a great meal and baked a birthday cake, and Arnold gave her a Massai necklace which is now on our wall at home. I think Usha had a pretty good day all in all.
Lots of catching up to do. We’ve been too busy (or tired) to journal the past few days so I hope I don’t forget anything. 2nd and last day at the private camp was just as wonderful as the first, and if we could afford it this would be the only way we would stay next trip. Early in the morning we came upon a family of bat-eared foxes who had not yet settled in for the night. They pretty much ignored us, running around and under the car, playing and putting on a good show. By 6:30 AM, however, they were tucked in their holes. Also saw several lion kill sites, and got some great pictures. We saw 3 leopards in the same tree with what looked like a Grant’s gazelle hanging in the branches. Probably a mother with two fairly mature cubs. On the evening of the 7th chef Gerald fixed us a traditional African meal- okra, plantains, stews, sweet potato, lamb, chicken, rice. Info on the private camp staff: Nema is a delightful young lady with a bubbly personality and just the best smile. She is a treasure. Kelvin is quiet, attentive, tried very hard to make us comfortable. Gerald is a fine cook and has a very good sense of humor. Praygood was extremely shy, so we didn’t have much of a chance to speak with him at all. Overall, very nice group. We left our tip with Nema to distribute to the rest of the staff.
On the 8th we drove to Mbuzi Maue lodge. Passed a hippo pool en route and almost passed out from the smell- we did not linger since Arnold told us we would be seeing more hippos later. The lodge was decidedly more upscale than Ndutu; Arnold had forewarned us that we were going to run into a different clientele here. Good news is that this group generally liked to sleep in and have a sit-down breakfast so we were out on the road hours before them each day.
Two memorable episodes during this 3 day stretch: 1. witnessing the birth of a wildebeast, and 2. lion pride using our car for a nap. Just an amazing day, with another gazillion pictures. The wildebeast- I spotted a pregnant mom along the road with a pair of forelegs sticking out back- pretty clear sign that she was in labor, don’t you think? We kept an eye on her from a distance, and when she wandered off with a couple of wildebeast attendants under a big shrub we gave her about 15 min and then worked our way around for a look. The baby was on the ground and just a couple minutes old. We watched while it struggled to its feet, fell a number of times, tried repeatedly to nurse, and after 20 min or so was finally able to stand and walk. After about a half hour we left mom and baby alone once the baby was relatively steady and feeding. Later on as we were driving along the river we saw a pair of young lions in a tree about 40 yds from the road and stopped to watch. It was about 11:30, and Arnold suggested we get out our lunches and watch for a while. After a few minutes big, battle-scarred male popped up from the tall grass and walked right past the car, where he lay down about 15 yds to our left and repeatedly stuck his snout into a clump of grass followed by some hilarious faces and grimaces- Arnold thought he was smelling the urine of his females looking for one in heat. After 15-20 min the two in the tree came down, and were joined by a couple others who also popped up from the high grass- we couldn’t see them until this point. They all wandered over to our car, which they must have decided was a good shade spot to avoid the mid-day sun, and lay down. One lioness just settled her head on the running board and all of them went to sleep. We had 5-6 lions under and on the car, and were stuck there for a good hour or so while they got in their noonday siestas. Got a really great photo of the lion resting its head on the running board reflected in Arnold’s outside rear view mirror. It was a really cool experience, and we were all glad that none of us had a serious need to go pee at that time.
We also saw more leopards, and a baby warthog with parents who had apparently escaped a predator attack with several cuts and gashes on its rump. We had dinner back at Mbuze Maue with two couples from Pittsburg and Seattle- nice people, who were blown away by what we had seen. Fortunately I had downloaded my pictures to an ipad and had it along to show them the photos or I am not sure that they would have believed us. On the walk back to our tent (#9) after dark we spotted a giraffe feeding in a tree about 20 yds from our front flap. Never saw that in Kansas.
We were up early as usual, before sunrise. Saw 4 hyenas and a pride of lions laying in the road- we waited a good 20-30 min before they finally moved enough so we could pass. Arnold spotted two cape buffalo males, which he called “retired generals” because they were old and had been run out of their herds. Saw several elephants, a group of spotted hyenas and later black-backed jackels, banded mongooses (mongeese?), rabbits, etc. Lots of nightjars in the road- all before dawn. Today was hippo day at retina pool. The river has shrunk down to a few pools deep enough for the animals, who were jammed in. The smell was so intense that Usha held her breath for the duration of the visit and her skin turned brown. Arnold’s too.Water conditions in general are really bad- the herds have all started north away from the usual breeding area in the short-grass savannah to the south. Arnold is worried that it will be a very bad year.
We saw a lot of new birds- hammerkop, grey-capped social weaver, red throated frangolin, many more. We stopped at the lodge and saw some cliff springers in the yard (didn’t have my camera), and a pair of rock hyrax in the rock right next to our tent (got a good shot).
Arnold joke: how do you tell a male zebra from females? Males are black with white stripes, and females are white with black stripes.
Arnold let us sleep in a bit today and have a sit-down breakfast at the lodge. First thing in the morning we saw a pair of von der Doecken’s hornbills outside the tent. Today we drove to Ngorongoro and Oldupai. En route we found a leopard in a tree, who was very cooperative and came across the tree to just above our car. We watched him as he spotted a small group of tommies and went in pursuit. The tommies fooled him just as he was sneaking up by slipping behind some tall grass, and the leopard just sat there for a while trying to understand what happened. It was actually pretty funny.
Oldupai was cool, although the museum is very small for what must be the most famous archeological site in the world. We spent a couple of hours there and ate lunch while we listened to a lecture on the history of the site. We then went on up to the rim of the crater. The Ngorongoro Serena Lodge is just plain stunning- one of the most astounding architectural designs I have ever seen. Our room has a small patio which looks out into the crater. Spotted a sunbird in the tree outside of our room (purple banded? Not sure but I have a picture) and several other small birds. Frangolins on the ground below. That evening we watched a show by a local group of musicians/acrobats who were really good.
Full day in the crater. Its really had to fathom the crater until one is down on the floor. Animals everywhere- it is really a unique and frankly weird place. According to Arnold hyenas are the dominant predator in the crater, with lions following them around to scavenge. So many cool things- warthogs laying in a puddle along the road, hyenas, zebra males fighting, many birds including crowned cranes and flamingoes. And rhinos- saw two from a great distance and three more much closer (although still a ways away). The density of wildlife in the crater is difficult to grasp- there is just so much.
That evening at the lodge we were entertained by local massai performing a traditional dance. It was quite a show.
We left the crater behind and headed south. First to Lake Manyara where the Rift Valley escarpment is very clearly evident. Saw hippos on the move, flocks of storks, pelicans, blue monkeys (forgot to mention that we had seen vervet monkeys along with baboons in the Serengeti, so this completes our monkeys list). Went on to Tarangire NP. While stopped at the entrance, Usha saw what she thought was a yellow bird fly by and followed it back into the trees. Turned out to be yellow-winged bats, which are quite rare and a good find. Got a few good pictures. Tarangire is quite different landscape from the Serengeti, with many more trees including baobabs and huge euphorbias along with the acacias. Lots of elephants, giraffe, buffalo, many birds. We stayed at Kikoti Tented Camp, which is a wonderful resort just outside of the park. Very, very nice.
The highlight of this day was being surrounded by what must have been at least a thousand buffalo. This was probably the first time I felt a little uncomfortable. We also found a pride of lions under a tree, and it was clear that these lions did not have the same tolerance for our car that the Serengeti prides had. At one point I turned around and noticed that a little brown bat had gotten one of his toes caught in the mount of the antenna at the back of the car and could not get free. We don’t know how long he had been stuck back there- could have been all day up to this point. I used a towel to get hold of him and lift him up a little until his toe came free and he flew off. That was clearly a first for Arnold too. The tsetse flies were particularly bad in Tarangire- these critters are just plain evil, and bug repellant is useless. They make no buzzing/whining noise like most flies; instead they just seem to appear from nowhere and usually you know they are on you when you feel the bite. We headed back to Kikoti mid-afternoon for a late lunch and a little rest. Later we went for a walk guided by Thomas, who is a Massai on the Kikoti staff. We walked about a mile or so to Kikoti Rock (Kikoti means “meeting place” in Swahili; this was a traditional Massai meeting spot), which we climbed and sat watching the sunset. Below were go-away-birds in the trees. The sunset, which was our last sunset in the bush, was really gorgeous. That evening we invited Arnold to join us for dinner and had a great time. Entertainment was provided by a guitar-playing Massai in traditional dress who had an interesting repertoire, including “Ring of Fire” among others. He seemed pretty pleased when I called him the Massai Johnny Cash.
Spent the morning in the park before we headed back to Arusha. The route home (about 2.5 hr drive) took us through a few good-size villages and towns. We stopped at one for a cold drink and to eat our box lunches. BTW- every day we pooled all of our leftovers from lunch and breakfast, which were always more than we could eat, and whenever we passed a Massai village we stopped to give the food to the kids. We always had chocolate bars, yogurts, fruit, chicken, other stuff depending on the day, enough to give something to 6-8 children.
Once we got to Arusha Arnold took us to a gallery which sold tinga tinga paintings and we bought a few. Arnold then took us back to the Mt. Meru hotel, where we were thoroughly de-briefed on the trip by another ADS staff member. We were both very impressed by the interest in getting fresh feedback. They put us back into the same suite; we had a nice dinner and a restful last evening in Africa.
Arnold picked us up early- I think it was around 6 AM- and took us to the airport, which is a good hour’s drive outside of Arusha. We (I) almost made a really stupid mistake right up front. The Precision Air flight from Arusha to Nairobi required that we check our bags (by the way, this time Kilimanjaro was beautiful). I just had them checked to Nairobi instead of all the way to Newark, thinking we could pick them up in Nairobi and carry them on since they were just a couple of roll-aboards. Stupid. I almost had to apply for a visa in Kenya to get our bags and go through customs and security to get back in to catch our flight. Fortunately, Kenya airlines staff were very helpful even though we weren’t flying with them, and they sent one of their bag attendants through customs to get our bags off the carousel and bring them back to us. If this had been in the US, they would have just taken the bags out back and blown them up. Good thing we had a 3 hr layover so we had time to work all this out. Other than this little self-inflicted fiasco, flights home were on time and uneventful. Except that I made one more stupid mistake, which was to buy some African liquor in Nairobi duty-free. It was confiscated when we went through security in Heathrow to make our connection. I was informed that I could check it in my luggage, but recall that we had a short layover on the way home and missing our flight was a poor trade for a bottle of booze. I hope the airport security folks enjoyed it. We stayed in the same hotel in Newark when we got to US and flew to KC next day.
There are a lot of things about this trip that were memorable. We saw well over a hundred lions, hundreds of thousands of wildebeast and zebras, hundreds of elephants, giraffes, buffalo, antelope, etc. etc. At least 10 different species of antelope, dozens of leopards, some really spectacular visits with cheetahs, so many birds- at least a hundred new species, maybe more. We put our trust in Arnold’s hands and he delivered the best trip of our lives, and we have traveled a lot. Arnold really made the trip memorable- he entertained us, taught us, kept us awake and alert, and was just a joy to be with. I also credit him with at least 50% of the success in capturing some really outstanding, professional-quality photos- we showed our pictures to a professional photographer who is a friend, and he was frankly blown away. Arnold got us into position, I clicked the shutter. And ADS is a class act, start to finish- the best service we have ever had from a tour agency, starting with our US agent (Dawn Anderson) and continuing through all that I have named earlier. I give their name out all the time to friends who are thinking about Africa in their future.
Can’t wait to go back.
Michael and Usha Rafferty