Cat House

Nancy Vandermey, Author
Tanzania Trip March 2010

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lion cheetah lion cheetah

Videos (youtube/new page):
  • Elephants in Manyara NP
  • Zebras in Manyara NP
  • 3-cheetah coalition, Ndutu/Serengeti boundary
  • Wildebeest in Ndutu (Ngorongoro Conservation Area)
  • Elephant in Ndutu (Ngorongoro Conservation Area)
  • Baby Giraffe in Ndutu (Ngorongoro Conservation Area)
  • Lion couple, Serengeti/Ndutu boundary
  • Cheetah and cub, Serengeti NP
  • 7 lions in a tree, Serengeti NP

    We had talked about going to East Africa for several years, but we knew it would be quite a different trip than our previous volunteer trip to Botswana or our self-drive across South Africa and Botswana. Since this would be a straightforward tourist jaunt, I remembered our friends Nagin and Earl mentioning once that they would like to go to Africa with us so I invited them. I wanted to see the wildebeest migration in the Ndutu area, and being partial to shoulder season (less crowds!), that led to March as a timeframe. The last two weeks fit well in my work schedule, and so the planning began. Having read the TripAdvisor forum for years, I had a pretty good idea of the itinerary I wanted and shopped it to a few Arusha based safari companies. After a few iterations, I chose Basecamp Tanzania and this itinerary:
    Arrive (AMS-JRO) late Sunday March 14, Ilboru Safari Lodge
    Arusha NP (canoe, bush walk) , Ilboru Safari Lodge
    Manyara NP, Migunga Forest Camp
    Ngorongoro Crater (afternoon drive), Sopa Lodge
    Oldupai Gorge and to Ndutu area, Serengeti Savannah tented camp
    Ndutu area, Serengeti Savannah tented camp
    Ndutu area, Serengeti Savannah tented camp
    To Serengeti NP, Seronera Wildlife Lodge
    Serengeti NP, Seronera Wildlife Lodge
    Serengeti and then drive to Sopa Lodge
    Ngorongoro Crater (am drive), to Tarangire, Whistling Thorn tented camp
    Tarangire NP, Whistling Thorn tented camp
    Tarangire NP am drive, to Arusha/Ilboru Lodge, late JRO-AMS flight Friday March 26

    Planning for this trip was a breeze compared to our last few big vacations: settle on an itinerary, send money to Africa, and book a flight. As there was only one nonstop LAX-AMS flight a day, and it landed 30 minutes after the only AMS-JRO flight, we decided to take advantage of that and have a day in Amsterdam on the way to Africa. The open-jaw flight didn't cost any more than not having the layover. After a quick stop at the Tesla store in Santa Monica, we arrived at LAX to for our first flight. We booked a hotel using Priceline (NYOP 5-star, Bilderberg Gardens)The day in Amsterdam was cool, we enjoyed the Albert Cuyper market and flower market and general sightseeing. The flight to Tanzania was spent watching movies on the IFE and hoping for good views from the window, but it was cloudy mostly. On arrival at JRO we were met by our driver Yuda from Basecamp and driven to Ilboru Safari Lodge, where they expected us to eat a huge 7-dish Swahili meal. We were dead tired, but it was tasty. After a breakfast buffet Yuda took us to some ATMs in Arusha so we could get schillings (my card only worked at Barclays) and we were off to Arusha National Park. Yuda was an incredible guide for our 12 day trip, he could spot animals very far away and was enthusiastic about finding them for us. Giraffe were our first non-bird wildlife as we entered at the Ngongongare Gate. The top was popped up on the jeep for the first time, and we took turns finding our favorite positions. We saw many giraffe, as well as buffalo, bushbuck, baboon, waterbuck, dik dik, zebra, warthog, and hippo. Views of Mt Meru and distant Mt Kilimanjaro were clear. Black and white colobus monkeys were a new one for me. At the crater we saw buffalo and baboon on the crater floor. Next we went canoeing on Little Momella lake from 2-4 pm, seeing birds like bee eaters, several hippo and a buffalo herd. After our box lunch we did a bush walk with ranger Caroline and enjoyed many relaxed giraffe, including a large herd, and buffalo. We went to a waterfall, saw more giraffe, then on returning saw two young hyena that ran into the bushes. At dinner that night Achmed from Basecamp Tanzania stopped by to meet us, and we enjoyed the Swahili dinner again with a better appetite.

    After breakfast we were off to Manyara NP, going through Masai villages along the ways, with views of the Rift Valley and several giraffe crossing the road. Large termite mounds shared the bush with the Masai's cows. At the Manyara gate, blue monkeys groomed overhead. Soon into the park we saw our first elephant of the trip, a male right next to the road. Soon after we saw a family group with a young baby. Several large baboon troops were seen, often on the road. Bushbuck and impala were hanging out with them. Vervet monkeys rounded out the primate life, while dik dik were surprisingly not shy and didn't hide as we photographed them.

    We had our box lunch at a picnic area on a hill overlooking the lake, full of flamingos. Many mixed species were in sight. Barbets and superb starlings were the local pest birds. We enjoyed comparing the different jeep styles, and concluded our stretch pop-top was by far superior ;) A group of baby impala caught our eye on our way to the lake, and we walked closer for better flamingo photos, watching many fly with storm clouds in the background. There was a lot of game along the plains near the lake, with good zebra herd and foal [video] and elephant sightings [video], and many birds - crowned cranes, francolin, ground hornbill, barbets, guinea fowl, hammerkop, starlings, black bishop, and weavers. We saw one distant lioness on the open plain, with no way to get to the prey nearby. We headed to the hippo pond near sunset and saw many hippo, crested hornbill, yellow bill stork, pelican, spoonbill, Egyptian geese, gray heron, and pied kingfisher. After sunset we drove back through town and to the Migunga Forest Lodge, our tented camp for the night. The tents were very large, with a nice bathroom, and there weren't many bugs around. Meals were OK. We listened to African night sounds but were close enough to town to also hear dogs, and chickens in the morning.

    On Wednesday we were off after breakfast, heading towards Ngorongoro. The local town Mto wa Mbu had many banana sellers and many street peddlers trying to sell you things at every stop, including cloth with Obama's picture and tinga tinga paintings. We did have Yuda buy us some red bananas. There was a nice stop with views of Lake Manyara and the rift valley, with an elephant down below to boot. We stopped at one of many tourist shops and quickly realized their "starting price" was quite ridiculous, about 5-6 times too high! I had no desire to haggle at those prices so we left with no purchases. The entrance gate to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area had a very Jurassic Park feel to it! We stopped at the great view of the crater from the rim and did standard tourist photos and panoramas. We could see rhino and much other wildlife through binoculars. The road to the descent road went past many Masai areas, with mud & thatch huts and cattle, and also plenty of wild game. Once in the crater we saw many mixed species - eland, buffalo, wildebeest, Grant's gazelle, Thompson's gazelle, warthog, ostrich, red hartebeest, zebra, elephants, and black rhino. One lion was seen sneaking around a rock under a tree full of baboons, which ran off shrieking. The Lerai forest was full of butterflies and elephants, with hippo and waterbirds on the other side.

    We did see two cheetah but they were quite distant from the road. At the hippo pond picnic area Eric climbed the tree. We saw lots of wildebeest with many calves and hyenas, and more crowned cranes and gazelle, many near the lake. Two golden jackal pups were very cute, with more elephant nearby and a rainbow. On the way out, we saw a tree full of vultures, and nearby was a dead buffalo with hyenas, black backed jackal, maribou stork, and vultures surrounding it. Yuda knew just how long we could stay and take pictures - he got us through the exit gate at 5:59:59, with the guard giving us a thumb's up as we zoomed past in the nick of time. On to Sopa Lodge, with great views of the sunset and very nice rooms. The African stew for dinner was tasty, and the giftshop was more reasonably priced than the one we stopped at roadside!

    We were in no rush Thursday morning, we enjoyed Sopa's breakfast buffet and views and then left about 10 am. There was a lot of wildlife outside the crater in the Masai area, many hartebeest and zebra and eland and a group of 81 giraffe, many sitting down. We arrived at Oldupai Gorge at lunchtime and listened to a talk about the history of the area and visited the small museum. An agama lizard was photogenic. In the surrounding Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), there were many wildebeest herds and zebra and gazelle - the migration had not moved on yet! There were many 1 month old wildebeest calves, and the zebra acted like rugby players! The plains were fairly dry, we saw kori bustard and secretary bird. We passed the entrance to Serengeti NP and saw a pride of 4 lion along the road - a collared female and her three, 2 to 3 year old offspring, 1 female 2 male. There were many hyena everywhere we went in Ndutu, with more flamingo in the lake and zebra alongside, and of course more wildebeest herds running around and Grant's and Thompson's gazelles. There were also many wildebeest carcasses. As the tented camps are seasonal, Yuda had to check at a few to find the right one, Serengeti Savannah camp. They were closing at the end of the month, and we had the place to ourselves for 3 nights! The tents and dining area were very nice, with only a few flies around - no biting insects. After a quick bucket shower, we sat by a campfire and looked at the stars before & after dinner.

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    On Friday we had breakfast at 7 and were off to the open plains, first passing hartebeest and secretary bird. With only a few trees on the plains we scanned them to find cats and it worked, we found a coalition of 3 cheetah males (see slideshow above, and video). At first only 2 were visible, the 3rd was laying in the bushes. They yawned, rolled, greeted each other, and looked around as more jeeps came over to see what we had found. All 3 of the cats were very fat, looks like they had a good dinner. They all headed to the nearest large tree and settled in for a nap. Continuing through the plains, we saw more hyena and golden jackal and scrub hare and vultures on a wildebeest carcass. Heading back to the forest we saw a jeep at a tree and investigated - there was a leopard hiding high in the acacia tree! Back to camp for lunch and a siesta. Back out at 3, we started with some very cute bat eared fox, then 2 male elephant at a mud hole (the younger, smaller one with enormous tusks) [video], a chameleon, and then...lion! A mating pair, but no action while we watched despite the female doing her best flirting with the gorgeous male [video]. Serengeti NP rangers came by, oops we were in the park, not the NCA. US$50 fine, could have been $250. Heading back to camp, we found banded mongoose and black backed jackal and a large wildebeest herd. At sunset we came across a hyena den and eventually counted 14 hyena in and around it. The curry dinner was great, and we looked at the stars for a few hours that night safe atop our trusty range rover.

    We departed camp at sunrise Saturday, looking for cats, but had to settle for more bat eared foxes. A bush breakfast made a nice stop. Giraffe were picturesque again, as well as a eurasian roller and lovebirds and more herds on the plains. Out on the plains, a blind eland and lost wildebeest calf were probably doomed. We drove through a roadless bushy area looking for serval - something dark ran away fast, perhaps a honey badger. Leopard were around, judging by an old carcass in a tree, but we only saw leopard tortoise. Watching a large group of zebra in a waterhole swimming and drinking was fun. A very cute young giraffe still had its umbilical cord attached [video]. Back to camp for lunch, yummy lasagna. Short thunderstorm at 2 pm, a herd of wildebeest ran past camp afterwards. Back out at 4 and watched an endless number of wildebeest run down a hill [video] and into a growing herd bunching up near a reedbed. Not too smart, these wildebeest. Another fun drive through the plains full of wildebeest and zebra, being able to drive off road in Ndutu is a lot of fun. Heading back to the woods we saw multiple jeeps in the dry riverbed. There was one lioness laying flat waiting for the herd to come closer, while a second lioness hid in reeds nearby. Some wildebeest did come close but she ran in too early (a cheetah might have succeeded) and looked sheepish at her failure. A vulture nearby looked like he was waiting with a bib on. Turns out the first lioness already had a wildebeest calf carcass in the grass and started feeding on it as the sun set. Luckily Yuda tried to move and discovered the jeep wouldn't start before we were alone. Another jeep blocked the lioness from our view so Yuda could go work on the engine (corroded battery cable). We got it started and headed in. It rained more overnight.

    Sunday morning the 21st we saw more wildebeest carcasses, vultures, eagles, baby giraffe, golden jackal, Tommies sparring, and a hoopoe, exploring Lake Masek and the plains again before heading to Serengeti NP. The same pride of 4 lions were in the same area, drinking from a puddle in the road and finding bushy patches to lay in (no trees nearby). The gravel road to Naabi Hill was smooth but noisy and a bit dusty, I could imagine how bad it got in the dry season! There were nice views from the hill of vast open empty looking plains - the herds were definitely all still in the Ndutu/NCA area. Flowers and lizards enriched the viewpoint. The road became very washboard. We took detours to check out rocks, waterholes, and Simba Koppies. Very little game until we headed west, then we saw elephants, korhaan, buffalo, giraffe, and a leopard!! In a tree. We were again happy for the poptop when a light rain fell. We saw our first topi just outside of Seronera Lodge, built into the rocks and with a nice viewing platform. Rock hyraxes were everywhere, and vervet monkeys too. Giraffe ran past the rooms. The remodeled rooms looked great, but the floors were noisy and the hot water a trickle. We rinsed out clothes and had a drink at the bar before dinner. The buffet had some tasty choices, the lamb tagine was my favorite, and watching the bats fly around was entertaining. It was Nagin and Earl's wedding anniversary, and Achmed had arranged a cake for them and everyone sang!

    Eric headed to the viewing platform before daybreak and saw hippos and hyena. After a 7 am breakfast we headed east, the drive to Masai Koppies was quiet, just birds to see. A few bat eared fox popped up further east, and then out at Barafu Koppies was another jeep watching...a lioness on top of the rock! We took many many pictures from several angles, feeling like papparazi. Then we headed south, and Yuda's eagle eyes spotted a cheetah on a termite mound. If she wasn't enough, an uber cute young cub was hiding behind Mom, scared of the jeep but curious! A bazillion pictures later they walked [video] into the tall grass, rolled, and kept walking, so we moved on, and soon thought we had more cheetah, but no, it was lions on a termite mound! There were 7 total lying in the grass, 2 females and 5 older cubs. All this time, we were the only jeep around. Heading further south, we saw a herd of wildebeest and zebra - not a big herd, but the only we had seen in the Serengeti. As we drove up to a waterhole, a different animal caught my eye - another cheetah! It was a lone female, casually strolling along the waterhole, drinking, occasionally looking at the zebra intently watching her. She continued through the grass past a tree, crossed the road in front of us, over to another tree with a Martial eagle in it, and then up on a termite mound to look around. We headed back north past the same lions again. A single male lion was trying to nap at Boma Koppie, he briefly looked up at us. A guest in another jeep asked what we had seen, and sounded more excited about the zebra and wildebeest than the cheetahs, they hadn't seen any yet. Then, many jeeps under a tree.. multiple leopards? No it was lions, 7 of them in a tree! There were 4 females (1 collared) and 3 cubs, two of them only 4-5 months old. None of the lions were very good at tree climbing and some almost fell, the youngest cub looking particularly uncomfortable at being in the tree [video]. We were papparazi again, taking another bizillion photos. After all that we made it back to the lodge just in time for lunch and a quick swim in the incredible pool, heading back out at 4 pm. A crocodile in the river, another leopard posed in a distant tree, a large group of elephant walked by, then back east to another leopard in a tree. Hundreds of white stork were flying overhead looking for a place to roost for the night.

    Out at 6:15, a quiet morning at first, big herd of buffalo, sunrise, balloon, pronking gazelles, hyena, then Yuda saw tracks and followed them to lion - LOTS of lion, a pride of 14 including an adult male. About 6-7 adult females of various ages, 4 younger cubs, and a few subadults. They yawned and stretched in the morning sun before moving offroad. Another leopard in a tree and back to the lodge to eat and pack and head back out. A stop by the visitor center was interesting, although the gift shop needs work. Heading back to Naabi Hill we took the side road through the green hills, which was quiet until the waterholes. Lion tracks at one led to 18 lion at the next! 2 adult males, one with the best mane I've ever seen, very fluffy and rasta-looking. The other male was no slouch himself. We were only 5 minutes late to Naabi Hill checkout, Yuda is great at time management. There were many more wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle on the plains south of Naabi Hill than 2 days earlier. Back through the NCA, still plenty of herds there too. Back to the crater rim road, there was a leopard on the road in front of us! A young one (1-1.5 years) that ran off the road as we approached, couldn't get a picture! It came back out briefly after we passed but there was too much traffic. We also saw a pretty eagle that I didn't catch the name of. Back to Sopa Lodge, we had looked forward to a good hot shower here for the past week! It rained most of the night.

    On Wednesday it was still misty in the morning as we went through the gates at 6:15. An elephant crossed the road just before we went by. A herd of buffalo on the road, then a hyena research vehicle with several hyena nearby, including a youngster who was still all dark colored. 3 black backed jackal were also hanging out. We saw a male and female lion way off the road. A large herd of wildebeest and zebra on the road did not want to move out of the way! More hyena and two subadult male lions in the distance. We stopped for breakfast near 3 big elephant. A rosy-throated longclaw and Bateleur eagle were nearby. More rhino, golden jackal, hyena, kori bustard, flamingo and a lump of a sleeping male lion. Then two more male cheetah, this time close to the road, but not very active. Buffalo herd and augur buzzard then a return to the cheetah, with many vehicles now there and a hyena nearby. Lion still sleeping. Still misty and overcast, some hippos were out of the water near some elephants. 3 sleeping females lions snoozed near a pond. The picnic spot was crowded, and then we headed out the steep Lerai ascent road. At the view spot Yuda had to change a flat tire. Just after we started driving again, it started to pour rain! We passed through Karatu and stopped in Mto wa Mbu so Yuda could get the tire fixed. We shopped in the Masai market, with merchants expecting us to view the similar merchandise in each stall. They were all polite, and I did buy a few things, haggling in schillings and paying a little more than half their original offer. Nagin went down a side alley and found the local market area, buying a bean sorting basket while I bought a kitchen spoon. Turns out a second tire was flat too, good thing we stopped. Acacia thorns and high speed, I guess. On to the Tarangire area. Yuda knew a shortcut to the camp we were headed to but with the recent rains it was impassible. The main "road" was nearly impassible too, with several kilometers of super muddy ruts that had us sliding all over the road, but we made it to Whistling Thorn tented camp. The camp manager was out but a young "lost" Masai named Emmanuel gave us an interesting history and dinner and breakfast were good. The fancy porcelain toilets in the tents didn't flush correctly but that was fixed later. Overall this was a nice camp, and once again we had it to ourselves.

    On Thursday, we did get stuck in the mud while heading out of camp. Many Masai kids were happy to come help gather rocks so we could get out. On to Tarangire NP. The mud on our jeep drew MANY stares and comments from everyone. While this park is known for elephants, in the rainy season much of the game leaves the park. We saw decent mixed game, impala, giraffe, waterbuck, dik dik, and warthog. From a river overlook we saw a small elephant herd on the small hill and Yuda spotted a lioness under a far baobab tree. Many nice butterfly and bird sightings, including buffalo weaver, grey and red hornbill, pied kingfisher, hammerkop, grey lourie, and lilac breasted roller. When asked whether to have lunch or go 30 minutes more we opted to drive, which was a great choice - we watched a a leopard in a tree, which ran off when a noisy truck drove by. Turtles flirted by a pond, and dwarf mongoose played in a hollow baobab while baby lilac breasted roller chicks were fed by a parent. A black mamba slithered across the road, disappearing before I could get a picture. Then we went back to the Matete picnic site. Afterwards, there were plenty of waterbuck giraffe and baobab, but only one more elephant besides their tracks. We also saw lion tracks in the Small Serengeti plains. The road back to camp had dried out, no troubles getting back to camp. The staff performed a Masai dance, which we didn't realize Achmed had arranged for Nagin's birthday. The chef also made a cake. We learned how to say "thank you" in Masai, to go along with the 6 words of Swahili we had learned:
    Ashe Naling - thank you in Masai
    Asante Sana - thank you very much
    Lala Salama = good night
    Karibu = welcome and you're welcome
    Hapana = no
    Jambo - hello
    Kwahere - goodbye

    The pork chops at dinner were very tasty. We were scheduled for a night drive and it was starting to rain so we headed out. We saw lots of rabbits and zebra, and a scared genet, and then the jeep got buried to the axle in a mud hole. They got the camp tractor but it was too light to pull out the jeep. We loved watching the big lightning storm all around us, luckily it never really rained. We all collected rocks while Yuda jacked up the jeep and a road was built under the tire. They had us walk back to camp with a guide after a while, but it only took them another 30 min to get the jeep out.

    We heard lions roaring in the morning, our last day in Africa. Nagin and Earl went for a bush walk. No issues on the road out and back to Tarangire for the morning. It was a quiet morning, except for the tsetse flies biting us! At Smuggler's Rest (a hollow baobab), there was a distant Paradise Whydah, a longtailed colorful bird. We had our last lunch boxes at the entrance and then headed to Arusha. We had a day room at Ilboru Lodge to repack and take a good shower. Achmed met us there to talk about the trip. Then back in the jeep with Yuda one last time, to the airport for the long journey home. The icebergs off Greenland were interesting.

    Final cat count: 67 lions, 10 cheetah, 7 leopard!

    Money - Since the ATM exchange rate was 1350 TSch to 1 US$, it made sense to pay in schillings wherever possible since stores and lodges used 1000:1 as the going exchange rate.

    Glasses - I was glad to have large sunglasses for wind/bug protection for standing during game drives. A lighter-tinted (or clear) pair would have been helpful at dawn/dusk.

    Jeep - A stretch pop-top for 4 people was perfect. 6 people would have felt cramped, especially when standing. We stood for pretty much every minute of every game drive, unlike most of the other vehicles we saw. The flip-tops had no sun or rain protection.

    Face wipes - pre-moistened nonalcohol face wipes are one thing I wouldn't travel without, it was as good as a shower to clean off with those after a game drive

    Beds - What they call King size is more like an american Full. If your last name does not match your traveling companion's, they will set up your room with twin beds, have your safari agent tell them if you want a 'big bed'. Although if you are both tall the two twins may be more comfortable. While the beds were all pretty comfortable (except at Seronera it was rock hard), many of the pillows were not soft, I'm glad I travel with a down pillow.

    Souvenirs - The gift shops at the airport on your way out had the best prices, and no haggling. US$ only.

    Note on cameras: we had 5 cameras. A Canon 30D with 17-85 IS and 70-300 IS lenses, Panasonic Lumix FZ28, Sony W7 Cybershot, and our friend's 2 cameras. Most of the animal shots are with the 30D/70-300IS.