Saturday, August 16, 2008

Safari in Tanzania

We spend the last week in Tanzania, visiting a few of the major parks of the north. It was the dry season (so no mosquitoes, and lots of dust.) The whole thing started poorly, with a full day of waiting at Nairobi airport for the "delayed" Precision Air flight to Kilimanjaro. This was going to be our only logistical mishap on that trip, which is pretty much exceptional for African travel, so no complaints here.
After landing at Kilimanjaro international and meeting our guide, we drove to Lake Manyara, our first Park. We got there late at night, so our first "Game Drive" was to happen the next morning. The first game drive is a thrilling experience, because every sighting is a huge excitement (human nature, the amazement wears off after the 30th time you run into an elephant.) We saw a lion sleeping in a tree which is a strange behavior this park is known for. It really does not make much sense for me to describe things, you just need to check out the pictures.
In the afternoon we drove to Tarangire, our second park. We stayed at the Swala tented camp, incredibly luxurious. The food was exceptional (some dishes were decorated with fresh strawberries (!!), this is a tented camp in the middle of the bush. Craziness. There is an artificial
waterhole in the camp, which attracts elephants that spend their time hanging out in the camp. Turns out lions get thirsty, too, so at night a pride of lions came by and tried to convince the three large male elephants to let them have a sip or two. No luck, as the elephants did not bulge. Instead, one lioness decided to go for the herd of impalas that was grazing right next to our dinner table (needless to say we were eating outside: no fences, no walls...) As the impalas dispersed, the unsuccessful lion seemed to hesitate for a second to go for our plates of lamb shank (or was it our own shanks?), but then trotted back to her pride. Exciting. All night we heard the confrontation between lions roaring and elephants trumpeting, in the morning the positions were unchanged, the elephants were drinking and the lions had retreated into the tall grass.
After Tarangire, we visited Ngorongoro (long drive!), which I don't recommend during peak season (it's a zoo for dutch and french tourists) followed by Serengeti. During the drive to Serengeti we encountered an elephant in musk. This was by far the scariest encounter and you can check out this video of us ducking inside the Land Cruiser as the big male tries (and succeeds) to intimidate us. Another cool video shows a cheetah jumping off a tree it had climbed onto, which is not supposed to happen (cheetahs can't retract their claws, so they are pretty poor climbers). And here is a big cat scratching its back. Our most amazing sighting in Seregeti: Vincent Boone, a good friend from Belgium, in the Land Cruiser right next to us stopped to see a bunch of elephants tearing down trees. Small world...

Many, many game drives later we were heading back home with a ton of memories and vivid images of the amazing fauna of East Africa. We ended up spending 6 days on safari, and that is way sufficient. You sit in a car all day long, so even though the scenery and the sightings are amazing, you get tired of it at the end. Mixing it up with some physical activity like climbing Mt. Kili is probably a good idea. I hope you get to do this, it's truly amazing.

A few tips we gathered:
We can't speak from experience since this is the only place we went on Safari, but from our pre-trip research it seemed that Tanzania has some of the least spoiled national parks, as the Safari industry has developped later than in South Africa or Kenya. Not sure how true this is, but in any case we found the Parks to be immaculate and developed in a very respectful manner

When to go
August is the middle of the dry season. This has a few advantages (no mosquitoes, no rain) but it also means you won't see the large herds of wilderbeest (=gnus) and zebras in the plains of the Serengeti. You will see these animals, just not the huge numbers you can see there in January.
From discussions with locals, it seems that February is an interesting time to go, as there are many calves and cubs, and the grass is green, so it is much easier to spot the animals that are optimized to blend in with the golden grass of the dry season (most big cats. gazelles, etc.)
If you want to experience the migrations of 1M+ wilderbeest, you should go to Serengeti in May when they start their movement northwards. You may be treated to a "river crossing" although there is a lot of luck involved there, as the crossing times are pretty random.

Medical stuff
Before you go to East Africa, you probably need to update your immunizations, and possibly take prophylactics while you are there. Check the CDC website for requirements and recommendations. We were there during the dry season so although I took Malarone (a no-side effect antimalarial drug), it was probably useless as there were barely any mosquitoes. We also brought DEET and stopped using it after the first two days. This may be different if you are going during the rainy season, however.
For personal comfort bring lots of sunscreen, and I wish I had brought saline solution for my eyes and nose. It is very dusty, and rather windy during the dry season, so your nose and eyes dry up badly.

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