Tanzania, the Grand Finale

Tanzanian Sunset

The last stop on our Tour of Africa was the country of Tanzania.  If that’s all we had booked for the summer it would still have been a magical trip.  We definitely saw the real Africa there.  And we had two very special trips into the bush, into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park.

Cottage on an estate in Dolly Reserve

Our first three days we got a dose of life in Africa, from two very different sides of the picture.   We booked a stay in a cottage at an estate within a private game reserve.   Our host arranged for a taxi to fetch us from the airport and stop at a grocery store on the way to the cottage.  We would be quite a distance out of town, so needed to get all our food for 3 days.  

Snip from Google Earth of Usa River area

Usa River is a small town between Arusha and Kilimanjaro.  Both of those towns have small airports that service the safari camps in remote Tanzania.  This community is very much a picture of life in small town Africa.  Folks commute on cheap Chinese motorcycles or hitchhike.  There are zero tourist spots outside of the National Parks or Kilimanjaro.  

The polo club where we met our guide and horses for a ride

But between the towns is a gated private game reserve that contains large estates, a polo club and an 18 hole golf course and golf club.   It was such a case of the “haves and have nots”.  We stayed on the reserve, and visited both clubs, learning about life on their big estates.

Riding with wild game not so scary afterall

One day we took a horseback trip around the game reserve.   It was a little intimidating at first to be riding along with antelope and wildebeest and zebra, but we soon learned the animals were all super chill.  They have no predators in the reserve, and also are fed by the owners during the dry season.  So it was pretty easy for our guide to take us right to where he knew he would find a good quantity of game, right at the hay pile next to the watering hole.

The road on the ridge of the crater

After three days we caught a flight from the private airstrip in the reserve, and headed to our first Tanzanian safari camp.  It was on the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater, a two hour drive along an occasionally terrifying road on the edge of the crater.

Panorama of the crater from above

The main feature of the Ngorongoro Conservation Authority is the Ngorongoro Crater, the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera. The crater, which formed when a large volcano exploded and collapsed on itself two to three million years ago, is 2,000 feet deep and its floor covers 100 square miles. Estimates of the height of the original volcano range from 14,800 to 19,000 feet high. The crater floor is 5,900 feet above sea level. The crater was voted as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa.

The name Ngorongoro comes from the Maasai pastoralists, after the sound that comes from cowbells. The Maasai were relocated to the crater from their ancestral lands to the north when the British colonial government established Serengeti National Park in 1959. Then in 2009 the Ngorongoro Wildlife Conservation Act placed new restrictions on human settlement and subsistence farming in the Crater, further displacing the Maasai. We saw several small herds of cattle along the rim of the crater as we drove to and from our camp. The Maasai still live a very nomadic life in that part of the world.

A hippo pond in the crater

At the crater we stayed in a tent camp run by Sanctuary Retreats, and again Discover Africa made an excellent choice in safari providers. We had an all day marathon game drive, leaving after an early wake up call before dawn, including lunch in the crater, then back to camp in time for sundowners. It might sound easy getting driven around all day in a truck taking pretty pictures of wild game animals, but it’s actually quite intense and tiring. We were joined by a father and daughter from Germany and they were very good company.

Emmanuel and Rob in Serengeti National Park

Then it was off to our last stop, the amazing Serengeti. It is truly the quintessential idea of what an African safari will be. The name Serengeti is derived from a Maasai word meaning Endless Plains. The landscape was quite different than anything we had seen previously, and simply stunning. Our guide for 3 days at the Sanctuary camp was named Emmanuel, and he was one of the best guides we had all summer. We were lucky that the tourist quantity was still low, so we have the truck and guide all to ourselves for 3 days.

Cheetah brothers eating a wildebeest kill

When we take game drives, we always have zero expectations, and are grateful for everything we get to see. That doesn’t mean we don’t have hopes for something specific. And what was left that we hoped to find in the Serengeti was cheetahs. We had been lucky with lions and leopards, but nothing close for cheetahs yet. The first morning we drove out onto the plains and Emmanuel scanned with his binocs. Cheetahs catch their prey because they are extremely fast and can outrun everything else in the animal kingdom, so the wide open plains are a good place to look for them. And sure enough, there were two brothers with a fresh wildebeest kill. We approached with the truck and they were completely engrossed in their meal and did not care a bit that we sat and watched them for an hour.

Cheetah face wash

They finished up their food, washed each other’s faces, then strolled over toward the trees and laid down in the shade to sleep it off.

Cheetah still has a full belly of wildebeest

Later that night we came by again during the evening game drive and they were still there resting. It was really magical to get to see the last of the things we really wanted to capture in Africa.

See lion in foreground about to join the chase

But of course that’s not all there is to see in the Serengeti. We also enjoyed sightings of elephants, giraffe, zebras, leopards, lions, and a zilliion wildebeest. This is migration time, so there are wildebeest herds everywhere. We went to the river to watch for a crossing, and Emmanuel spotted a lion under a tree watching the herd. We could not tell it was a lion, even with the best binocs and long lens on the camera. Suddenly the entire herd was running as fast as they could, and a lion was in the chase from behind. We looked over and the lion under the tree was out and joining the chase also. They didn’t catch anything that time, and Emmanuel says that lions are basically lazy and if it’s not easy they won’t work for it. Must be nice to be king of the jungle.

Bush breakfast

One of the events the guides offer is for a “bush breakfast” or “bush lunch”. We had eaten meals during game drives previously and thought this was no different. Knowing that our last breakfast in Africa was out on the plains of the Serengeti sounded perfect, so we asked for that. We left camp early before sunrise with breakfast packed away in the cooler. After watching the lion chase at the river, we drove up into the woods. I was surprised to not be out in the open where we could easily spot predators, but trusted Emmanuel. He unpacked a full spread of breakfast onto a table and we all enjoyed the meal. There’s more to this breakfast story that I won’t share online, but will become a great happy hour topic.

Lazing leopard in Serengeti

The next day we got lucky and had two more leopard sightings. Both were up a tree resting. One was very shy and climbed up high so we couldn’t see her very well, but the other was lazing around on a lower limb where we got to enjoy watching him for quite a while. They really are spectacular cats.

Giraffe at sunset

Too soon it was time to go. We went on a morning game drive on the way to the airport, so it was one last early morning wake up. After breakfast we headed to the truck and enjoyed the magic of Africa one last time.

Here are pix from the Usa River Album

Here are pix from the Ngoronngoro Crater Album

Here are pix from the Serengeti Album