My partner and I have just returned from an 8-day safari in the Tanzania northern circuit. As I lurked and searched on this forum for months before the trip, and learned much from the combined wisdom of the Experts here, I wish to give a little back.
I will not give a travelogue and describe what we saw where, many others have done this more elegantly than I can. Suffice to say that it was fantastic, a real trip of a lifetime, and we saw 32 species of mammal and countless birds while in the parks. A return trip to Africa is definitely on the horizon (as an aside, on day 1, our driver asked if we had been to Africa before, and we said 'yes, Egypt'. A slight pause before he replied, 'that's not Africa' I think he's right).
Instead, I want to try to be a little more practical to help others with planning, so here is our itinerary and my observations.
Day 1, from Arusha to Tarangire, half-day drive in Tarangire.
Day 2, full day drive in Tarangire.
Day 3, drive in Lake Manyara, taking in Mto wa Mbu.
Day 4, afternoon drive in Ngorongoro crater (morning was ‘lost’ as a truck skidded off the road in the Ngorongoro preservation area and blocked all traffic until noon).
Day 5, 6 and 7, full days in the Serengeti.
Day 8, we flew out of Seronera at 11 am.
This was designed to give us maximum time in the parks and allowed a leisurely pace to see and photograph the animals we wanted to watch.
1. I had originally wanted to add the Maasi Mara for Wildebeest (this was the dry season) and the Maasi, but it wasn’t logistically sensible. But, hakuna matata, there are plenty of Maasi tending their flocks in Tanzania, the colourful robes are in abundance along the roads from Arusha to the parks. We were also lucky to have had some early rains and there were wildebeest in central Serengeti.
2. Go privately! There were two of us in the jeep, and it was the best way to go. We saw two other common safari ‘types’: jeeps/landcruisers with 6-8 people, in which only 4 (max!) could stand and look out of the top of the vehicle at any one time; and convoys of jeeps from safari companies that seemed to us to just hurtle along at great speed rushing to the next destination.
3. Choosing the safari company: there’s lots of good advice and suggestions here and in Lonely Planet. About 6 companies responded to my initial vague email, and I soon reduced detailed correspondance to two well-known companies. One replied via a representative in the north-eastern US, who was extremely useful in answering many questions, and we corresponded for a long time before I ultimately chose another. I feel bad about getting free advice from an operator and then dumping them (see ‘How to treat a tour operator’ thread by Brian_in_Brooklyn), but they did not give me a price until a near-final itinerary was established. By then I had received several (better) quotes from an Arusha-based company (BaseCamp), and Achmed was quick to amend prices every time I asked him to add or remove something. I’d also express my gratitude to Achmed for being very understanding about deposits – he booked my internal flights long before I could get any payment to him. I wouldn’t hesitate to go with BaseCamp again. Our driver was Victor - very knowledgeable, he answered every bio-hortico-geologico-political question I threw at him.
4. Accommodation. We stayed 1 night at Ilboru Safari Lodge in Arusha, 2 nights at the Tarangire Sopa, 1 night at Kudu Lodge on the way to Lake Manyara, 1 night at Ngorongoro Sopa, and 3 nights in a tented camp in the Serengeti. The Ilboru and Kudu lodges were nice – huge accommodations and a friendly feel. The Sopas were so-so - they were extremely busy and the dining rooms were packed; food quality and service suffers under those conditions. The Ngorongoro Sopa had the worst accommodation (cold, drafty room with water-stained carpet, poor restaurant service), but fantastic sunset views. My favourite by far was the tented camp in the Serengeti. There were only us and one other party there, dining was in the mess tent, and the staff brought the dishes and served onto the plates as in a posh restaurant. The food was excellent! But the quiet, the darkness, sitting round the fire at night and waking at sunrise to watch elephants skirt the camp – priceless! We spent the evenings with Victor at the camp, and enjoyed hearing his stories of growing up in a local village.
Next time, I'll go tented camps all the way.
5. The parks. Tarangire is a superb park, and two full days there is not too much. On our first drive, we almost drove into a group of massive elephants crossing the road – that was our first jaw-dropping moment. Most of the mammals we saw were seen here, up close and personal.
Lake Manyara and Ngorongoro were similar to each other, possibly because of the time of year, and both had very reduced bodies of water. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of vehicles in the caldera, it was not nearly as busy as I expected. We saw something different in each park, and both were worth a short (half-day) visit.
The Serengeti is something else again. The landscape is ‘Africa’, rolling plains studded with acacia trees. In the dry season the mammals were not abundant, but we added cheetah, kopi, eland and oribi to our list. The hippos and lions were easier to watch here than elsewhere. And I could have watched the soft dawn light play on the acacia trees forever. However, in the other party in the camp, who were there for 2 days after a Kili climb, there was a young lady who commented that she was getting bored with a second full day in the Serengeti. So, three days was great for me, but might be too much for others, perhaps especially so in the dry season.
6. Domestic flights. We opted to fly out of the Serengeti to our next destination, Zanzibar, to save a full days’ drive and additional overnight in Arusha. For $399 each, I’m glad we did. We ended up taking three flights on Cessnas on Air Excel; Serengeti – Lake Manyara – Arusha – Zanzibar, changing planes in Arusha. Great fun. No airport security (no airport, just loos by the airstrip in the Serengeti !), no check-in, chatting with the pilot, flying like I presume it used to be. Flying over Ngorongoro gave a great view of the whole thing.
Again, many thanks to all the experts here, and I hope this helps someone else.