Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater Safari

by Elizabeth

It seems that no trip to Tanzania is complete without going on safari.  Since we had come this far, and the famous Serengeti national park is almost in Kilimanjaro’s shadow, we decided that it would be a shame to pass up the opportunity to visit the Serengeti.  Our original plan was to hunt for a safari trip in much the same way that we found our Kilimanjaro climbing operator.  But as we visited places in Moshi before our Kilimanjaro climb, we learned that none of the budget safari operators had groups with spaces going out after we got back from our climb.  We figured that we would have better luck searching in nearby Arusha after our climb instead. 

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Looking down on the Serengeti from a small hill near the entrance gate.

In a last ditch effort, I sent an email to a local safari operator that had good reviews to ask if they had any budget safaris coming up.  The day before we left for Kili, I learned that they had no budget groups with availability, but they could set up a private budget safari for us and we could hope that someone else would join to push the cost down.  Or, they had two spots open for a safari staying in luxury camps (for the same cost per day as the private budget trip).  We decided to splurge.  We’d read a number of horrible online reviews from people who’d gone with budget operators and experienced numerous flat tires, mechanical troubles, and the annoyances of camping outside of the park boundaries and missing prime animal viewing times — and we did not want this to be us.  Perhaps we also anticipated how our budget Kili operator would turn out 😉  Of course, by the time all of this came together it was about 8pm on the evening before our Kili departure.  The owner of the safari company still needed to double-check availability at the camps and we would need to wire money in order to reserve our spot.  And the guesthouse that we were staying at had just run out of credit on their wireless account.  After an hour and a half sitting around nervously, while the guesthouse manager went down the road to purchase more credit and load it to the account, we were back online to Skype my parents.  Thankfully, they were able to step in to take care of all of the details while we were on our climb (thank you!!).  We would find out if everything worked out upon our return — and luckily for us, it did!

We ended up on a six day/five night safari through the central and northern regions of the Serengeti and a visit to Ngorongoro Crater.  On our first morning, we were picked up in Moshi (on time! — better start than for Kili) and met the Indian turned Kiwi turned Aussie couple that we’d be joining.  Then, it was off to the Serengeti, where we’d spend our first two nights in central Serengeti. The drive took much longer than I had expected it would — in part due to the long stops necessary at the gates entering Ngorongoro park (which we had to pass through) and Serengeti park.  Even before reaching Serengeti park, we began to see our first animals — zebras, giraffes, ostriches, gazelles — all hanging out with the Maasai’s grazing cattle. 

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The welcoming committee at the Ngorongoro gate.

We were so excited with each new sighting, little did we know…

Central Serengeti — So Many Animals!

Animals are seemingly everywhere in the Serengeti, especially in central Serengeti.  Even though our first day did not include a “game drive” per se, we couldn’t help but cross paths with tons of animals.  Driving through the park to get to our first camp, we stopped for hyenas running in the roadway, several lions lounging nearby, hippos hiding in the water, a serval cat running through the bush (small spotted cat), a bunch of elephants within view on a side road, and of course, lots of gazelles, antelope, and zebras.  What seemed crazy was the high density of animals — we didn’t have to wait long between each sighting, they were all over the place!

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Spotted hyena on the prowl from someone else’s fresh kill.  This guy was running right along the main dirt road.

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Being a lion is so tiring.

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A baby elephant!  Part of the first elephant family that we ran across on our way to camp.

When we finally arrived at camp, we were greeted with cold, wet washcloths and juice before being escorted to our tent.  It was huge and had the most magnificently comfortable bed.  The best I’ve encountered in months!  We took hot showers before being escorted to dinner by a Maasai guard — since the camp is not gated, wild animals can walk through camp and you are not permitted to walk around unaccompanied at night.

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The most comfortable bed ever.  Inside a tent in the middle of the Serengeti.

The next day, we went on a full-day game drive through central Serengeti.  The goal was to see the big cats — lions, leopards, and cheetahs.  Yes, we’ve upgraded from house cats to lions.  Right off the bat, we saw a bunch of velvet monkeys, antelope, hippos, baboons, wart hogs (actually called pumas in Swahili — The Lion King is real!), mongoose, and elephants. 

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Velvet monkeys spending some quality time grooming.

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One of many, many antelope that we would see.

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Hungry hungry hippos.  These guys would stay here all day and get out to graze in the middle of the night.

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This baboon owned the bridge, we passed under his watchful gaze.

Then we spied a bunch of safari jeeps lined up (because let’s be honest, we weren’t out there by ourselves), which had spied a leopard up in a tree.  Thank god for binoculars, because it was tough to see!  At this point, we’d already accepted that our camera’s limited zoom meant that some animals (like this leopard) would remain unphotographed. 

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Not the leopard.

Later in the morning, we came across a group of lionesses.  We pulled up right alongside them since they were near the dirt road we were on (and we were actually the only vehicle there for a while).  They couldn’t care less.  Nearby we spotted the men.  I couldn’t believe how close we were, seemingly without bothering them a bit.

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Nap time for this group of lionesses.

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The men were also busy cat napping.

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Looking very regal.

That left cheetahs.  We actually spent quite awhile going along a very dusty road in each of the elusive cheetah only to find ourselves turning up empty-handed on the cheetah front (and very dirty).  We did see a honey badger though, which apparently is fairly rare.  Our cheetah luck turned on a road quite close to our camp.  Off in the distance, we could see a mother cheetah and her two (fairly full-grown) cubs with their kill.  With our search for cats complete, and having seen more than I could have dreamed of seeing, we headed back to camp.  We missed the giraffe wandering through camp that evening, but the next morning we were greeted by a water buffalo as we peeked our head out of our tent.

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We headed our early our third morning as the sun was rising in the hopes of seeing additional animal activity around dawn.  Who should we find right off the bat, but the three cheetahs that we’d seen the prior day — and this time they were hanging out much closer to the road!

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Two of the cheetahs during a moment of alertness.  Michael named them Barry Bonds and Tom Brady… sigh.

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Contemplating the gazelles.

We hung around for a bit, hoping that they’d go after the gazelles in the distance.  The nearby hyenas had the same idea and even tried to round up the gazelles for them, but to no avail.  Then it was more baboons and elephants before we stumbled upon another leopard.  Looks like it was a good day for cats.  This time, the leopard was much easier to see with the naked eye (although how anyone ever spots them in the first place is beyond me).

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Can you spot the leopard?

 

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Now can you spot it?

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Morning snack for the elephant.

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At this point, we hadn’t even had breakfast yet and had already seen tons of animals.  We stopped at a picnic spot to eat our packed breakfasts.  As we were packing up, we could see a train of jeeps coming our way — apparently following yet another leopard.  This time, it jumped into a tree nearby and hung out for awhile before deciding it was a bit peckish.  We watched as it jumped back out of the tree and chased a small group of gazelles.  Unfortunately, both Michael and I focused on a gazelle that got away.  We didn’t quite see the moment when its friend was not so lucky, but we were giddy with excitement to watch the leopard drag the gazelle back to its favorite tree — with one graceful jump it climbed up the trunk of the tree, hung its prize from a branch, and then took a rest.  Again, our camera wasn’t really great enough to get a picture, but we did catch a clip (here) of the leopard climbing up the tree with the gazelle (just looks like a fat leopard climbing up the tree in the center with the v-shaped branches).  Still cool though.

Northern Serengeti — Wildebeest Migration

On the afternoon of our third day, we headed further north into the northern Serengeti.  The drive took a couple hours and it was interesting to see the change in landscape from the flat central Serengeti to the more hilly northern Serengeti.  We also seemed to pass through stretches with much fewer animals. 

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We did, however, start to see the wildebeests.  Pretty much the whole purpose of traveling into Northern Serengeti was to see the great wildebeest migration, which passes through Northern Serengeti during July and August of each year.  And the highlight of the migration is to watch a river crossing, which we’d be trying to see the next day. 

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The wildebeest and zebras were best buds — apparently the zebras have the better vision and the wildebeests the better sense of smell.

Due to our late booking, we ended up camped at a different camp from the other couple on our safari while we were in Northern Serengeti.  After dropping them off, we were dropped off at our camp, which was even nicer than the prior one.  Our tent was lighter and larger, and it was hooked up with indoor plumbing with a flush toilet (the prior one had a water sack that had to be hooked up outside for the shower and a chemical toilet)!  I find this sort of crazy since these are temporary camps that move around during the year based on the season.  The food was better too and at this camp we weren’t segregated by safari group, so we enjoyed talking with new people (instead of being segregated on our own).

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Another big, comfy bed.

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Zebra grazing in the middle of camp.  Apparently there were also some lions nearby… they were rather loud at around 4am.

The next morning was supposed to be an early start, but I guess there was a delay at the other camp (something about no running water and late breakfast and lunch boxes).  We enjoyed the sunrise while waiting to be picked up at our camp.  It turned out that we still had quite a drive north to get to the Mara River where the crossings occur.  Along the way, we passed lots of wildebeest, zebra, hippos, vultures, and even a few more lions.

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So many wildebeest!

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Lion crossing.

Once we got to the river, we could see a bunch of wildebeest on the other side, milling around.  More and more joined them, but still nothing happened.  We were told that as soon as one wildebeest crossed, the rest would follow.  Occasionally, a few would go down to the water, only to turn back again.  We sat on the opposite hill and waited.  And then we waited some more.  Wildebeest that had already made the crossing stood on the other side of the river, seemingly calling to their pals that they too should cross the river.  Still nothing.  And then a group of the wildebeest turned around and started to leave, only to turn back to the river again.  We tried another crossing spot for a while to see if maybe the crossing would occur there instead.  Still nothing. 

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There is a huge group of wildebeest on the other side of the river.  Yet none of them seem interested in coming down to the water…

After four hours of waiting, it looked like maybe we wouldn’t see the crossing after all.  Our guide asked if we wanted to head back or keep waiting — I voted to wait.  We went back to the first crossing location and within minutes it looked like the wildebeest might actually cross.  And then the first wildebeest entered the water.  As soon as the group started to cross, our jeep (and every other waiting jeep) rushed forward to get a prime spot on the river bank.  We ended up parked right where the wildebeest would run past as they exited the water. 

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The wildebeest finally decided to cross.  They typically cross single-file as a safety precaution — if they guy in front of you could make it across along that path, so can you!

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Wildebeest racing past the waiting jeeps, having just made the crossing.

The crossing was pretty amazing to watch (see a bit here) and lasted for several minutes as a couple hundred wildebeest made their crossing in single-file.  It seems that the hardest part was climbing onto shore after the crossing itself, as that is where the major slow-down occurred.  While we saw a couple wildebeest bodies floating in the river, it appeared that most made it across (if not all — our guide said that at least one of the bodies was already there).  The crocs and vultures remain fat during the months of the crossing.

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Finally, a group of hippos out of the water!

Content after having seen the day’s crossing (it must be absolutely amazing at the peak of the migration!), we headed back to camp.  Of course, we made the inevitable stops to view the elephants and hippos along the way.

On our fifth day, we slowly made our way back to Ngorongoro Crater, passing through central Serengeti and making frequent stops to view the animals.  We also stopped for a bit at a Maasai camp, where our travel mates got out to tour the camp (we opted to save the $50, which seemed a bit extreme and the setup made us a bit uncomfortable). 

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A huge dust storm came up as we waited outside the Maasai camp.

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A solitary Maasai walking across the plain.

At this point, we’d seen four of the “big five” — lions, leopards, buffalo, and elephants.  The remaining animal was the rhino, which isn’t around at this time of year in central Serengeti and only a few live in northern Serengeti.  We were told that Ngorongoro Crater was our best shot at seeing them.  Pulling up to our final accommodation, we were greeted by an actual lodge with amazing, sweeping views of the crater. 

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Looking down into the Ngorongoro Crater.

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The amazing view from our room.

Not only would we be staying in an actual room (without the threat of wild animals in the evening), there was wifi — a free 15 minutes each!  We promptly spent all of our wifi time setting up our appointments with the Russian Consulate in New York to get our Russian visas…  Our final evening was spent enjoying drinks with our guide and travel mates and partaking in an amazing buffet (real food choices for the first time all trip!).

Ngorongoro Crater — The Rhino Search

Our final morning we set off early with hopes of seeing rhinos.  As we descended into the crater (actually a caldera as our guide reminded us), the craters lakes and plains came into focus.  The crater is packed with wildlife — wildebeest, zebra, lions, elephants, flamingo (first time seeing them all trip), an array of interesting birds, ostriches, water buffalo, and a “pool” full of hippos.  Also, a purported 26 black rhinos.

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Welcome committee to Ngorongoro Crater.

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The morning sun attempting to peek through the clouds once we got down to the crater.

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A couple buffalo trying to decide if they were cool with our presence or not.  We’d actually been charged by a buffalo the day before!

As the morning wore on, we started to worry that we wouldn’t see any rhinos.  Passing each jeep, our guide would question the other guides as to whether they’d seen rhinos.  They hadn’t.  Or at least that’s what we were told (who really knows, I don’t speak Swahili).  It was a windy day, and our guide was concerned that if the rhinos had laid down in the bush we would never see them.

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A view of the “hippo pool” — apparently home to a couple hundred hippo.

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And we didn’t.  Sort of a depressing note to end our safari on, but nothing that we could do about it.  We finally ascended back up to the rim of the crater before heading back to Arusha.

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There were so many ostriches in Ngorongoro Crater.

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A serval cat!

Despite our lack of rhino sighting, we both really enjoyed our safari and left amazed at everything that we’d seen.  Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater are both jam packed with animals — it really was unbelievable and far exceeded our expectations.  It was also worthwhile to visit three distinct regions where we could have a different focus for our game drives (big cats in central Serengeti, migration and crossings in northern Serengeti, and rhinos in Ngorongoro).  Had we not had these differences, six days probably would have been too long of a trip.  You spend all day in a vehicle, often going over very bumpy roads.  By the end, we definitely got to the point where another lion, giraffe, or elephant wasn’t particularly interesting unless it was super close to the vehicle.  Sounds bad, but true.  If I were to do it again, I also would have brought more wet wipes.  There was so much dust.  As a contact lens wearer, my eyes hated me.  This probably would have become a major issue had we camped with a budget safari.

Overall, I’m glad that we took the plunge and splurged for our safari.  I arrived back in Arusha feeling content with everything that we saw and (perhaps most importantly for our budget) without feeling like I’d missed out on something and needed more time or to go out on another safari. Now we just had to figure out where to go next…

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