It always amazes me that just when I think I really know a part of Africa, in this case northern Tanzania, that inevitable changes occur and new properties are opened making me feel my knowledge is immediately out of date. And so I found myself back on a plane to Kilimanjaro, feeling like it was only yesterday that I last saw the mountain towering through the clouds.
My trip, travelling in part with Julia from our sales team, was taking in the standard ‘northern Tanzania’ safari areas of Tarangire, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro and the southern Serengeti. This path is well-trodden, but for good reason as these areas offer incredible game viewing, beautiful scenery, and, as I discovered on this trip, some very special cultural experiences too.
Tarangire was lush and green, more so than you would normally expect in early March, but the game viewing was excellent, especially the elephants and the birding. The drive along the edge of the Silale Swamp remains one of my favourite drives in Africa, though it didn’t throw up any leopards as it had in the past. Having dropped Julia at Oliver’s Camp, I continued to the wonderful Kuro camp where I had impala, reedbuck, waterbuck, baboons and zebra around my tent all night. My kind of camp!
Having explored the central region of the park we moved to the Chem Chem private reserve which links north-west Tarangire to Lake Manyara, and from there enjoyed a beautiful drive around the southern end of Lake Manyara, through villages and farms, before driving north through the park itself. Manyara can get busy but we enjoyed a wonderful drive along the lake shore with excellent sightings of flamingos, pelicans, yellow-billed storks and a variety of other waterfowl along the water’s edge. We didn’t manage to see tree-climbing lions, for which the park is known, but the general game is good and this area is always worth a visit when passing by.
As we climbed into the Ngorongoro Highlands, the cooler temperatures made a pleasant change. We hoped the brooding rain clouds would stay away long enough to allow us to make the most of our time. We stayed at two new luxury properties run by established safari operators Nomad Tanzania and Asilia Africa. Entamanu Ngorongoro is located on the crater rim and offers grand views out over the crater, whilst The Highlands is set on the slopes of Ol Moti volcano, about an hour’s drive from the Ngorongoro Crater. Both were excellent and very comfortable, offering different experiences of the region.
From The Highlands I visited the beautiful and remote Empakai Crater. It was fascinating to find myself looking down into the slightly mysterious crater whilst behind me the Rift Valley escarpment dropped steeply away, and over the treetops loomed the iconic silhouette of the active volcano, Ol Donyo Lengai. The Highlands is also superbly located for visiting local Maasai villages and seeing the people go about their daily lives in this surprisingly cold African environment.
From Entamanu we made an early start and enjoyed a superb game drive into the Ngorongoro Crater. The crater was carpeted in deep green and the wildlife was seemingly thriving, with hyaena and lion squabbling over an early morning kill, and black rhino browsing out in the open. Golden jackals and bat-eared foxes were still active, and plains game dotted the savanna. I have always said that my favourite time in the crater is first thing in the morning, when the predators are still active and there are few vehicles around. Again I felt a little bit like a ‘kid in a candy store’ as we descended the bumpy road to the crater floor in the early light, being caught between wanting to stop the vehicle to and scan the plains below and wanting to actually get down to where the action was taking place before it was over. It was a pleasant dilemma which reminded me I was game viewing somewhere special.
From the Ngorongoro Highlands we dropped down into the southern Serengeti region and having dropped Julia at the excellent and well established Serian Serengeti South, where I stayed on my last visit, I continued to the relatively new Mwiba Conservancy which borders the south-west Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Mwiba Lodge was absolutely gorgeous and by far the most luxurious property in the region. However it is a significant drive to get to the core open plains game viewing areas so this has to be considered when deciding whether to stay. The highlight of my stay was a magical morning with the Hadzabe, a hunter-gatherer tribe found only in this area to the west of Lake Eyasi. I explored the bush with a family ranging from grandparents to teenagers, and watched them go about their morning forage. The main prize seemed to be honey, which they found several times, and it felt like a very genuine experience when they completely forgot about the ‘camera crew’ and squabbled over the find. I have done many ‘cultural’ experiences over the years, but this was definitely one of the best.
Moving into the core Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation regions around Kusini and Ndutu, it was easy to see just why this area is one of Africa’s most iconic areas, and so productive for game viewing. We first watched a beautiful serval being chased and almost killed by three cheetahs, and later had a wonderful time with a lioness and her tiny cubs. In the backdrop were the migration herds in their thousands, and no matter how many times you have seen it there is something quite awe-inspiring about the sheer number of wildebeest, zebra and gazelles.
My favourite afternoon was travelling across the plains en route to Namiri Plains, a remote and stunning camp in the eastern Serengeti. Having come across a cheetah and her three cubs, and numerous lions on our way from Naabi Gate, we were suddenly caught up in a huge storm. The rain was so hard we had no choice but to back our vehicle into the horizontal downpour and sit it out with a cold drink. As is so often the case in Africa, no sooner had the last few rain drops fallen, the sun came out and the light was simply magical. As we passed through some rocky kopjes, that are typical of the Serengeti, and a young male lion walked out on top of one of the rocks to observe us, a stunning silhouette that couldn’t fail to make you think of Pride Rock in the Lion King. As we left the kopjes behind and passed over the brow of the next hill we were hit by the unbelievable sight of wildebeest and zebra literally as far as we could see into the distance. We drove for over an hour through the herds, with their gentle lowing and swishing of tails as they ‘parted’ either side of our vehicle. As the sun started to go down, and still surrounded by animals, we arrived into camp to be greeted not only by smiling faces of the camp staff and welcoming warm towels, but also by four male lions roaring enthusiastically just 100 years in front of our tents.
That afternoon in particular reminded me that no matter how much I love the raw wilderness and exclusivity of some of the more remote safari regions in Africa, it is always hard to compete with a good day in the Serengeti.