This is a companion report to my post two weeks ago on camping in Tanzania during twelve days in February, 2017 with ten companions. This piece is not an ordinary blog entry of 500-1000 words, but is instead a lengthy journal account of 5,000 words, so please approach with the knowledge that it’s a long ride, complementary to the March 9 post, and feel free to skip it until next week when I return to a more compact entry.
Did I say camping? Well, okay, it wasn’t hardship camping, but luxury camping, even at the most basic level, very comfortable and stress-free. In 26 years of nearly annual trips to see the wilderness and wildlife of Africa in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Tanzania, this was the finest experience, the most enthralling.
That accolade was earned thanks to the superb planning of trip organizer Robin Bedenbaugh, an expert wetlands consultant and lifelong amateur wildlife and bird sleuth. The trip’s success was also due to flawless execution by camping safari operator, Dorobo Safaris. Robin put this trip together as a favor to us all at no charge because he spent his first 16 years in Tanzania with his missionary parents and wanted to share his enthusiasm for African flora and fauna.
While on the trip I dispatched daily updates by email recording my impressions in real time, some of which were delivered several days after creation due to intermittent cell service in the Tanzanian wilderness. This post takes the form of a chronology of those messages strung together like a diary around the day-by-day itinerary description. I have mostly left my clipped verbiage intact, some written in the first person, in the daily email updates.
Unless otherwise noted, the stunning photos this week were taken by trip organizer Robin Bedenbaugh. Robin took along several digital cameras coupled to very long lenses set on the highest possible digital resolution, often on the “RAW” setting, which produces nearly flawless pictures, but makes for very large files.
February 7: Depart from the USA
Something I could never do when consulting: imbibe an early morning Bloody Mary. But flying in First Class to Philadelphia to catch my overseas flight on Qatar Airways in international Business Class to Doha and then on to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania, I can jolly well do as I please.
God help me, I do love traveling and never tire of it!
Flew business class on Qatar Airways from Philly through Doha, Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula and wasn’t mistreated or maligned by either Trumpistas or Middle Eastern citizens. Everything seemed like business as usual, but I was glad to be leaving the turmoil of American politics behind. [See my earlier post detailing the flights.]
The big, gleaming Arabian cities like Doha, Dubai, and Riyadh look just like modern U.S. cities except for the dual English-Arabic signage. If you squint, they look very like any up-to-date airport in America.
Unlike my trip through the Doha airport last year, Qatar Airways’ huge business lounge has a 90 min wait for showers. I have located a second shower room with a shorter queue and will have to hustle to wash and redress.
Now to find my connecting flight to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania.
February 8: arrive Kilimanjaro Airport – night at Ngare Sero Lodge http://www.ngare-sero-lodge.com/ Afternoon walks around the forest and lake beside the lodge. Excellent birding.
All eleven of us arrived safely and with our belongings, and all seem compatible. The Ngare Sero Lodge is reminiscent of Mas Villa where I once stayed in the inland tea hills of Sri Lanka: beautiful and tranquil.
Lots of birds and monkeys here, but nothing special in the way of very wild wildlife, though my companions are quite pleased by all the birdlife. Staff at the lodge is extremely nice—exemplary, and the food is good, if not memorable. Excitement beckons beyond the serenity of this temporary refuge, the perfect place to take a breath and shuffle off jetlag before we venture into the wilderness.
We’re totally exhausted and going to bed. I hope I’m so tired that I sleep through this first night. [I did.]
February 9: Visit Arusha National Park and climb into the crater of Mount Meru, afternoon at Momella Lakes – night at Ngare Sero Lodge.
This photo was taken in the Arusha National Park. Our group of 11, all proving to be collegial, was in the midst of a 3-hour walk way, way up into the Mount Meru caldera, the sister mountain to Mount Kilimanjaro. We hiked only up to 9000 ft elevation on the 14,900 ft Mount Meru. As usual for me, it was much easier going up than coming down. The steep and very rocky path, well-used by the many Cape Buffalo we saw, was treacherous and led to a number of cuts and bruises (though, luckily, not to me).
The Park Ranger accompanying us carried a high-powered rifle to shoot any aggressive buffalo we might, but did not, encounter up close. We did, however, spot a Leopard tail as the big cat disappeared into a tree canopy.
Took photos of a Jackson’s Chameleon, a rare species known only to this small area of Africa between Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru. I let it crawl over my hand and arm until everyone had pictures, then put the fascinating reptile back on the branch where it had been patiently waiting for passing insects when spotted.
It wasn’t easy trying to take the picture with one hand while the chameleon was busily walking up my other arm.
If you zoom in on the hi-res picture, take a close look at the characteristic splayed feet of African chameleons.
February 10: early departure to Arusha and on to Tarangire Safari Lodge – afternoon for wildlife viewing in Tarangire National Park – night at Tarangire Safari Lodge http://www.tarangiresafarilodge.com/
Today I send four photos emblematic of Tanzania’s many faces. These first is of a woman cutting cassava as she preps to roast it over her homemade charcoal stove by the side of a road. She will sell it once cooked to passersby. This type of individual enterprise is the rule in much of Africa. I wish we’d had time to wait for the finished product.
The second photo is of a typical Maasai herdsman tending his cows and goats which are just ahead of him. Maasai pastoralists like this fellow are seen everywhere around the country, and many continue to work barefooted. This man’s modern shoes are a concession, I suppose, to living in the 21st century.
The third picture is of a very ordinary set of small stores, the likes of which pervade the country and most of Africa. By Americans standards they appear to be crude and rustic; however, stores like this are invariably well-stocked and run by friendly proprietors. Note the satellite dish. This is out on the boonies, but most Tanzanians who want it enjoy electricity and have satellite dishes. People here almost always asked me about Obama when he was president and now ask about Trump.
The fourth photo is of one of the big national safari parks in Tanzania, Tarangire. I took this from our lodge in the park with a sharp focus on the pervasive African thorns one encounters here and the gorgeous plains full of acacia trees and Baobab trees blurred in the distance. Although not visible in the picture, we can easily see a big herd of elephants there, plus zebra, Cape Buffalo, wildebeest, ostrich, eland, Grant’s Gazelle, and giraffe out there.
The tourist industry in Tanzania is a crucial economic driver. Arusha, in NE Tanzania, is the heart of the safari business. Arusha is where folks take off for Tarangire, Serengeti, and the Ngorongoro crater and conservation area. Thanks to tourism, what’s known now as the Arusha Region has grown from 50,000 in 1978 to 1.7 million population now.
Last night at the Ngare Sero Lodge the co-owner of Dorobo Safaris, Thad Peterson, dined with us. I learned from him that Tanzania boasts 1005 species of birds. He challenged us to come back with a list of 250 bird species we had seen by Feb 20. Sounds like an impossible task, and yet today is our second full day, and we have already seen 78 bird species.
February 11: morning wildlife viewing in Tarangire (or Lake Manyara) – after lunch head to Ngorongoro Crater – night at Pakulala Tented Camp. http://www.suraafrikasafaricamps.com
Tarangire is known for its magnificent Baobab groves, tree-climbing lions (which I saw last year but didn’t see this time), and 2600 elephants. It also boasts gorgeous views.
From here in Tarangire we drive this morning to the Ngorongoro crater and likely no cell coverage, so am sending this early.
[late afternoon] 2/11 – Must have been close to 100 Fahrenheit today, and these safari trucks (all Toyota Land Cruisers) are the old type with fold-up canvas covering the roof holes where tourists stand up to take photos. More modern safari trucks have pop-up solid fiberglass tops that continue to provide shade. With this type there is no escape from the sun. For me that’s killer. I slather on tons of sunscreen and still get burned.
None of us has been getting enough sleep. So being tired and unable to escape the sun, I think I have developed sun poison and heat exhaustion. It’s been a very, very painful day for me with no escape from solar radiation.
Being over-heated is exacerbating my frustration at stopping to look at every tiny bird for long stretches of time. We have serious birders in our group! I share their fascination with African avian species, but my thrall is diminished today by the unrelenting, punishing Equatorial sun. It’s no one’s fault, just unfortunate for me.
Now late afternoon, and we are finally on the Ngorongoro crater rim at 7200′ elevation. After being over a hundred today, it will be well below freezing tonight. After today’s searing heat, I’m not complaining.
February 12: full day wildlife viewing in Ngorongoro Crater – night at Pakulala Tented Camp.
We had hyenas, zebra, and buffalo around the tents all night. I slept like a rock except to dispense the beer I drank at dinner. That’s when I heard the hyenas.
We came across a lioness on the road down into the caldera devouring a wildebeest. Her sister and a big male were not far away, apparently full and digesting. A bit further on we saw an Eland very close, which is rare. This large antelope is unaccountably shy.
Tomorrow we drive to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (a huge plains area adjacent to the Ngorongoro caldera and contiguous to the Serengeti plains) where we may find the two million wildebeest and zebra migration. Cell service is usually spotty to nonexistent, so I may be out of touch for a few days.
We enjoyed homemade crème caramel for dessert last night that was exceptionally delicious. They even serve Hendricks’s gin. Well, it is, after all, luxury camping!
I’m enjoying the people and the place enormously, but have digestive issues thanks to the near-heat stroke I suffered two days ago. My body is seizing up from the heat and am worried I may not make the entire trip. There are no cures for such issues here. We had a spectacular day in the crater, but it’s hard to stay upbeat when I am concerned my body is shutting down. Of course it’s natural when becoming ill in the middle of nowhere to wonder if I should not have come. But I am trying to tough this out as much for my traveling companions, fast becoming my friends, as for me. I don’t want to ruin their trip or my own.
[Note: My malady was later diagnosed as ileus, a sometimes dangerous condition characterized by the cessation of peristalsis in the digestive tract, in my case due to the severe depletion of electrolytes brought on by too much sun.]
February 13: to Kakesio area – southwest Ngorongoro/Serengeti ecosystem – camp at Loirujruj or edge of woodlands and plains. Afternoon walk – night in Dorobo mobile camp. http://www.dorobosafaris.com/
Sent 2/17 but written about 2/13 – Very long and arduous journey from the Ngorongoro caldera down to the plains of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and then later in the day ascending he ridgeline in the southwest corner of the Conservation Area where the Dorobo camp was well-concealed deep in the bush.
En route down the escarpment from the caldera we passed many Maasai assemblages—I hesitate to call them either villages or encampments, as they are somewhere in-between. Lots of Maasai men, women, and children were moving along the bumpy track. As we passed three teen Maasai girls we stopped to speak with them (our Maasai guides spoke Swahili, of course), and I was permitted to take their photo (see Part 1 post photo). I could see the potential with the light, angle, wisp of cloud, and the sheer natural beauty of the shy girls in their best outfits and jewelry walking to market. They were astonished at the photo when I showed it to them. The Maasai are known to be vain, we were told. They like to look at themselves in mirrors, both men and women, and given how beautiful they all are, it’s no wonder.
We passed the next two nights in the Dorobo camp surrounded by Maasai settlements and in the company of Maasai men on whose lands we were visiting. The elder slaughtered a goat and roasted it in our honor, a ritual ceremony we all witnessed firsthand. We also visited a nearby Maasai boma, a large circle of thorn fences enclosing several houses of sticks and a corral for protection at night of the cows, sheep, and goats that the Maasai famously herd. It was very peaceful, a simple world so starkly separate from the dense, twisted complexities of Western “civilization” that it was hard to leave. I knew I did not want to live that way—in fact, could not have adapted to the lack of creature comforts to which I have become accustomed—but I felt a strong pull of spirit to the utter simplicity of their lifestyles and its remarkable harmony with nature.
During those two days I painfully suffered through my bout of ileus, the suffering so extreme and persistent that I often wondered if I was going to make it. But I was not terrified; I decided it was okay if I died there. I knew that I didn’t want to expire quite so soon, but it seemed a good place for it. I even gave instructions to leave my remains for the animals if it came to that.
February 14: excursions Kakesio area – walks, driving, Maasai interaction – night in Dorobo mobile camp.
2/14 update – I am recovering. My guts still extremely sore from 3 days of racking pain, but I hope the worst is over. We will see. I am eating very little, mainly fruits and cooked veggies, no meat and little carbs. I did have some goat last night after the Maasai here slaughtered it for us. I have photos of them drinking the goat blood and eating the raw bloody kidneys. The goat meat was tasty but incredibly tough, like leather.
We leave this camp this morning, finally, for the Serengeti for 4 nights. This place is practically devoid of wildlife, just the odd giraffe and wildebeest and a few birds and lizards. It was a good place to be sick and then get well, though, as not much to do except hang out with the Maasai, which we did for 2 days. I enjoyed the cultural experience, but mainly was grateful for a chance to get well after the horrendous experience of the previous 3 days. It was a new and terrible pain that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
February 15: wildlife viewing through the short grass plains via Ndutu and to Naabi Hill – center of short grass plains. Wildebeest should be in this area along with Zebra and an abundance of other plains game. Lions often seen around the kopjes – night at Matembezi Classic Camp. http://matembezi.co.tz/accommodation/classic-camp/
Once we left the Dorobo camp and the ridgeline that defines the southwest corner of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which has elevation sufficient to sustain a weak cell signal, everyone in our group of Virginians and Marylanders (I was the sole North Carolinian) lost contact through our smartphones with the outside world. We have been in the southern reaches of the adjacent Serengeti ever since, enjoying the astonishing biodiversity that famously characterizes these great plains.
En route to the Serengeti, we came across 2 male Cheetah relaxing in a rare bit of mid-afternoon shade on the great plains of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
After crossing the Ngorongoro Conservation Area we entered the Serengeti National Park at a remote ranger station (after some bureaucratic difficulty) and made our way to Naabi Hill to the magnificent Matembezi Tented Camp on the western slopes overlooking the Serenegeti plains.
February 16: wildlife viewing excursions by vehicle in the Serengeti short grass plains. Wildebeest calving and lots of other wildlife – night at Matembezi Classic Camp.
We spent the day on game drives in the southern short grass plains of the Serengeti National Park, seeing birds and wildlife everywhere. Indeed, “Serengeti” is a Maasai word that means “endless plains.” Owing to the failure of the annual “short rains” of Oct-Nov (generally followed annually by the “long rains” of Mar-Apr-May), the short grass plains of the southern Serengeti are abnormally parched for this time of year, generating billowing clouds of dust and gigantic, impressive dust devils that tower to the sky.
The wind blows fiercely and always in the wrong direction when we’re driving, making it impossible to outrun our own clouds of dust. The dust envelops our Toyota Land Cruisers and layers in and on us. We’re hacking and coughing, but seeing the wildlife is worth it, and as we now move into the tall grass plains of the middle Serengeti plains, we’ll leave the dust behind.
Dust or no, it’ll be hard to depart the luxurious confines of the Matembezi Tented Camp on the west flank of Naabi Hill, the finest places I’ve ever stayed in the African wilderness, a universal sentiment among our group. Last night the Matembezi chef’s dessert was candied ginger root syrup over sliced mango, a simple yet inspired end to a great meal. If I ever return to Tanzania, it will include several nights again with Matembezi.
The two million-strong wildebeest and zebra are aggregating in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to form the massive herds that migrate north through the Serengeti to eventually cross into the Maasai Mara of Kenya as they follows the green grasses that sustain them. Some have already moved to the Seronera region of the central Serengeti where we are headed. We hope to see them today and tomorrow.
February 17: morning wildlife viewing excursions by vehicle in the Serengeti short grass plains, then game viewing drive north to Seronera – night at Serengeti Wilderness Camp. http://www.tanzaniawildernesscamps.com/index.php?q=con,33
2/17 Continue to pass zebra and a few wildebeest in the central Serengeti, a small herd among the 2 million wildebeest and zebra migration, as we make our slow way to Seronera. Stopped to marvel at a nearby lone cheetah patroling the Serengeti plains south of the Seronera River region.
Trip continues to be beyond spectacular. Now up near Seronera watching a Cheetah kill which we witnessed. I’ve been looking hard for reptiles, but we haven’t spotted more than two common Agama Lizard species.
It’s been a word class trip!
We’ve seen some amazing things today: so many lions on so many kills, including a lioness pulling a fetus from a wildebeest mama, and later a Cheetah actually bringing down and then eating a young wildebeest. Just saw another lion almost get a young zebra.
February 18: Seronera game viewing excursions Seronera Valley area. Some resident wildlife species not typically seen further south on the short grass plains, such as topi. Also best area in Serengeti for seeing leopard – night at the Serengeti Wilderness Camp.
2/18 Noted many safari trucks stalking the teeming wildebeest as persistently as a lion pride. Watched two lions mating.
A long and sleepless night for me as a lion pride killed and ate something not 30 yds from our tents. The snarling, growling, and bones crunching didn’t do much to induce sleeping. Today is our last day in the wild.
Most animals ignore the ubiquitous Toyota Land Cruisers all around.
Watched a Leopard in a tree above us chowing down on a nice young wildebeest it killed. Lots of blood and gore.
We are constantly up close because it’s possible to be literally in the herds. It’s thrilling!
The grass here is trodden by two million wildebeest, zebra, Cape Buffalo, and sundry other antelope species, not to mention the traveling show of lion prides, hyena families, buzzards by the thousands, Maribou Storks by the many hundreds, and jackals that all consume the tiniest leftover morsels of kills.
8000 wildebeest per day are born here for 3 weeks, 168,000 baby wildebeest in 21 days.
Back at our camp, people from other countries we meet keep asking if we have left the USA to escape our president. Haven’t met any foreigners from any country so far who claim to admire him.
The Seronera region of the Serengeti where we are now is named for the Seronera River which provides permanent water to this part (the central area) of the Serengeti.
The numbers of wildlife here of all kinds beats anything I’ve ever seen, even in Botswana. It’s spectacular, awe-inspiring, and unending. Our tented camp is deep in the peripheral woodlands, not in the great Serengeti plains, and even a half hour distance from the great herds we have many animals in the camp all the time, including wildebeest, zebra, and many lions nearby. I heard 4 different lion prides roaring last night. Also way too many hyena, including right around the tents all night. I didn’t sleep much last night.
I do not see how i will ever top this trip to anywhere in Africa. In addition to the astonishing numbers and variety of wildlife, cultural experiences, and geography, my 10 companions are all congenial and funny. I like them all very much and will miss them when the trip ends, as it will soon.
Tonight is our last night in the bush. We fly in a small plane at midday tomorrow back to Arusha for a final night there at the Ngare Sero Lodge where we began this journey. The following morning I take off for the Kilimanjaro Airport about 11am for my 230pm flight to Doha, then Philadelphia, then RDU.
The digestive issues I suffered were horrible, but I feel 100% now. Just the same, I want to get thoroughly checked over when I get home. Just grateful not to be in pain any more.
February 19: catch a scheduled charter flight to Arusha – departs at 11 AM and arrives at 12:10 – lunch and shopping in Arusha – spend night at Ngare Sero Lodge.
2/19 Survived another night of lions and hyena nearby. Leaving the Serengeti late this morning, sadly, to return to Arusha, then start the flights home tomorrow afternoon, arriving Tuesday late morning. Words simply don’t do these Serengeti wilderness scenes justice.
It was hard to board the small plane back to Arusha and even harder to watch the great plains of Equatorial Africa disappear among the clouds on the long, lumbering climbout.
2/19 – Back at the Ngare Sero Lodge in Arusha where we are staying tonight. My room has a magnificent balcony that boasts a fabulous view of Mount Kilimanjaro when the clouds permit, as they did in late afternoon.
This was a German farm built in 1898 and doubled as a German stronghold in colonial days. The thick walls with rifle slots speak of that competitive period. It’s now owned by a very old man who lovingly restored it and converted the old stables to more rooms. Ngare Sero is an oasis in the urban madness of the greater Arusha area, which has ballooned to 1.7 million people. The property is tens of acres. It has a spring-fed cold water lake rich in birdlife. The lake in turn feeds a trout farm. The property grows coffee as well. I recommend the Ngare Sero Lodge for its serenity and natural beauty as much as for its safe and comfortable rooms and good food. The staff is exceptionally warm and helpful.
Arusha’s burgeoning demand for housing is forcing change, as everywhere, but here no NIMBYs block it. For instance, on the west side of town, the Arusha Coffee Plantation, the oldest coffee producer in the country, is slated in the Arusha Master Plan (like our Comprehensive Plans) to be moved some 20-30 miles away and replaced by fancy residential development. No one complains of the loss of the oldest coffee plantings in the country, nor of the inevitable difference in quality of coffee to be made from the new plantings.
2/19 – Tonight is my 12th and final in Tanzania for this trip, and possibly forever, as these trips are very expensive. Because I suffered sun poisoning and then heat exhaustion on day 4, days 5 and 6 in the remote wilderness of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area were miserable for me. I was pretty sick in a place far from civilization, with only the Maasai for company. I didn’t know if I was going to make it for a couple of days. Spiritually as well as physically, those days were the toughest challenge I’ve had to face. After the worst had passed, it took the rest of the trip to regain my strength after losing about 10 lbs in 96 hrs, judging by my belt loops. It was sobering.
February 20: Spend leisurely day at Ngare Sero Lodge or sightseeing around the Arusha area, pack for late afternoon/early evening departure to Kilimanjaro Airport. Fly out on return trip.
2/20 – Sitting in the ninety degree heat of the so-called business lounge at Kilimanjaro Airport (JRO) waiting for my Qatar flight to Doha. This airport is a wreck of a place, but because Tanzania is so desperately poor, it’s hard to complain. Anyway, I really love this country and its people.
2/20 – I send this from Zanzibar, where my Qatar flight has stopped to pick up a full load of passengers for Doha after boarding just 19 at Kilimanjaro (varies by day–yesterday’s JRO/DOH flight was almost full). I gratefully ride in Business Class of this A320 after what I am just now realizing was the greatest adventure of my life.
Why greatest? I guess because getting really ill and having to face my own mortality in the remote southwest corner of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, very distant from anything resembling civilization, in the sole company of my traveling companions and a very welcoming Maasai tribe, made me realize how precious life is, especially life without chronic pain. I was prepared to succumb way out there, and I left instructions for them to drag my carcass out to be scavenged by the native wildlife, stripping off only my remaining money, passport, and wedding ring to be returned to my family. I really thought I was done for.
No one can appreciate how good it is to be alive and without chronic pain until having an experience like mine. As I regained my strength over the next week, every day was a miracle, sparkling with joy and radiating with alertness.
Surviving when you think you won’t produces a sensational feeling of gratitude. I don’t recommend the circumstances leading up to it. Yet here I am.
2/20 – Still in Zanzibar, Ironically I can’t help but notice the mundane as I contemplate my existence and how grateful I am to be alive: The Qatar safety announcement hasn’t changed since last year. It is very tired now and needs refreshing. Why do I care? I don’t know.
2/20 – In Doha airport. Doha boarding are up 20%+ over last year, straining the infrastructure here (I am connecting from JRO to my PHL flight). Gates are scarce, and our inbound had to park on the ramp again.
February 21: Arrive United States.
2/21 Great in-flight service for 14 hrs. Love the Qatar angled-in business seats at the windows. Feels private and real comfortable.
Landed 730am (15 mins early), off plane at 740am, through Customs & Immigration at 744am thx to Global Entry kiosks, by 750am had a boarding pass for an illegal connection at 845am to RDU and had passed thru TSA security, ran from international gate to C31 at Philly, a long distance, by 812am, and we boarded for RDU at 815am. Now I get home 2.5 hrs earlier than scheduled, thank God.
March 21: (one month later) Raleigh, back in the everyday busy routine
Tanzania? Camping? The wilderness among the Maasai and the wildlife? It all seems like a dream I had now. Glad I took notes to help me remember and reflect.
Life is short. Gotta grab hold of every adventure and hang on!