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Wednesday, August 17

Big Bucks in Tanzania

Brett: We did a lot of research on taking tours (“safaris”) into the Ngorogoro Crater, but it still ended up being cheaper to do it independently. The fees for 24 hours are: $50 each for entry to Ngorogoro Conservation Area, $30 each for camping in the public camp sites, $40 for a foreign registered vehicle and $200 to take your vehicle into the crater (crater fees would have only been $3 if we had been Tanzanian). A whopping $400 in total for 24 hours.  The drive from Arusha to Ngorogoro was very scenic – the area around Arusha is very lush tropical vegetation, which changes into typical dry savannah within 30km. As you climb up the base of the crater, you get great views of Lake Manyara and the salt flats. Entering the Conservation Area, the climb becomes very steep, through amazing forests until you reach the top and get fantastic views down into the crater itself. We were very lucky with the views (which are apparently often hidden in clouds) - it is still too big to capture with a 10mm wide angle lens!

Mary: We had to take a guide into the crater, which is quite a hassle, especially as they wanted us to pick up our guide from the tourist office at 7:30 or 8am the next morning (it would be a Sunday). We tried to talk our way out of having a guide at all, since we didn’t really have space, but it didn’t work. We left a few things at the tourist office, to make some space in the back for the guide. We probably could have repacked everything and made enough space, but we had deliberately spread our stuff out on the back seat to strengthen our claim of not having space. We stayed at Simba A Public Camp Site which is right on the rim of the crater and has great views. It was not as crowded or cold as we expected from reviews, but the facilities are very basic and someone came around to offer us fire wood “very cheap, only $10” which gave us a good laugh. We woke up at 5am and were ready to leave for the crater at 6am, when it was still pitch dark, with Brett going to check that our guide, Godfrey, had arrived. He came back with eyes as big as saucers and told me excitedly that he couldn’t see much but that Godfrey had a red blanket over his shoulders – maybe he was a Maasai! But alas he was not.
We were the 3rd vehicle to enter the crater and saw an amazing sunrise on the way down the very steep road. Within 5 minutes, we saw a pride of lions in the distance and soon after, another pair at close range that were calling to the first pride with their impressive deep voices. We did the circuit around the crater and it felt as it we had to ourselves for the first 3 hours. We saw a lot without driving very far, but the game wasn’t as dense as we expected. From a distance, all the animals look bigger due to the flat plains and sparse, small vegetation – we thought the lions were elephants from a distance, and what we thought were ostriches turned out to be some pretty small storks when we got closer. We had some great sightings of hyenas, wildebeest, buffalo, hippo and tons of nice birds (about 50 Kori Bustards and a number of big eagle-type things right next to the road). The setting in the crater is brilliant and the climb out was again very steep (low range required), giving more awesome views. Godfrey was a very nice guy and he told us a lot of interesting information about the crater and animals, but we would have seen the same stuff on our own and it feels like a slight intrusion on your space. We have also heard of people having to pay extra for the guide, but it is actually included in the $200 crater price. The tourist office had also said that tipping wasn’t required, so we didn’t.

Brett: With the 24 hour pass, we didn’t have enough time to see the other craters, Olduvai gorge etc which is a pity. The road to the Serengeti NP was very corrugated and rocky and we counted 15 breakdowns & flat tyres on the way – the breakdowns were mostly broken suspension on both Land Cruisers and Land Rovers, and the flat tyres were totally shredded. Although the roads are very corrugated, they were no worse than we have seen in many other places of our trip – I think the biggest issue was the speed the tour operators were travelling at, and poorly maintained vehicles. The 50km/h speed limit is totally ignored by the safari vehicles, and many seemed to be doing about 80km/h. It’s not just the safari vehicles as we were almost taken out by a truck full of rangers on our way out of the park, doing about 100km/h on a narrow corrugated road. Although maybe they were in a hurry to sort out of some kind of animal emergency! We stopped to help one guy who had broken down in an old battered Defender. It was overheating and he had lost all the water in his radiator. Another vehicle stopped as well and we managed to get him started.
The Serengeti National Park fees were $50 each for entry, $30 each for camping in public camp sites and $40 for a foreign registered vehicle ($200 in total for 24 hours). I think it is roughly 3x the price of Kruger NP for foreigners. The drive in was long and we saw very little – the park tends to be like that with concentrated areas with a lot to see and big stretches with not much at all. We stayed the first night at Pimbi Public Camp Site at Seronera which was very crowded and raucous. Mary was quite worried we might have trouble as two drunk safari guides/operators gave us a bit of stick when we arrived, but it was fine. We spent some time taking off a wheel to remove another piece of the handbrake self-adjuster that had come loose. We will hopefully get the parts in Nairobi and it looks very easy to put back together – in the mean time the handbrake is only a little worse than normal.

Mary: We headed to the north of the park in the morning to look for the tail end of the migration – we had planned to enter Masai Mara NP as we had heard it was possible to go in for 24 hours, but the border is actually closed to all except locals. The scenery in the park is amazing and changes from open plains to dense savannah. It felt like being in the Lion King, except for the horrible biting Tsetse flies. We saw some massive herds of wildebeests (about 10 thousand) on the way back, but that is apparently small compared to the migration which is around 2 million wildebeest. On the second night, we missioned a bit to get our permit extended and then stayed at Lobo Public Camp Site which was lovely (except for the smelly bathrooms with broken pipes flooding them). It is set against a lovely kopje with views over the plains, and is a lot quieter than the other public campsites. We met up with Brett and Ness (www.greenturkey.co.nz) who had come down from London and had lots of very helpful tips. We were told some nonsense about not being allowed to drive on the campsite grass and having to rather drive up a steep bank by some guides/safari operators, so we parked in the road at the front of the campsite and were rewarded with it turning into the perfect private spot with nobody blocking our view when the campsite got full. The large convoy of South African/Namibian vehicles that we had seen earlier were there too. Brett was feeling really ill from exhaustion, but after a snooze he felt better and we had a lovely spatchcocked chicken on the braai and proper chips.
We had seen a lot of Wildebeests the day before, so we decided to stay longer and explore the northern boundary of the park, being very focused on the Migration. With the unusual rains in Tanzania, some of the mega herd had broken away and stayed in Serengeti or were returning. We saw one very large herd of Wildebeests running in the direction of the Mara River (Wogakuria) which was fantastic, and we managed to stop in the perfect position for some great photos. We headed in the same direction along the smaller tracks in the park, which were much more interesting than the main roads. We reached the river near the airstrip but there were no wildebeest around, so we looked around for something interesting to photograph. There was a big truck trying to cross the river and it almost got washed away in the strong currents, which for some pretty good photos (we saw the truck again 3 hours later when they had managed to get across safely). We followed the river East following the road (more low range driving with steep banks and water/mud crossings) and could see where the mega herd had crossed – there were lots of carcases in the water being eaten by vultures and marabou storks. We spent a long time watching one heard of wildebeest on the far side of the river, gathering very close, with 2 leaders looking for the best place to cross back. It was amazing to watch even though they didn’t actually cross in the end, despite us sending them plenty of telepathic encouragement. We suspect they decided against it as the water was flowing pretty fast due to the recent rains, and several large crocs around. The drive back to Lobo was long (3.5 hours) and tiring along the rough tracks. As we reached the campsite, there was a beautiful big giraffe  right in the middle of the narrow road. There was no space to go round him and the sides of the road were too steep for it to climb out easily, so its only way was past us. We rolled back to give him plenty of space, turned off the engine and checked each other out. After a while one of the tour operators came racing up the road past us, but clearly didn’t feel like waiting for something as boring as a giraffe so drove straight at him. The poor giraffe had no choice but to leap out of the road as the car came racing by maybe a meter and a half away from hitting it. So much for eco tourism!

Brett: We felt really happy with the migration sightings we had, but felt disappointed that we hadn’t seen any cats in Serengeti. On the last day as we headed back to Seronera, I jokingly put in an order with Mary for a Leopard, Lion and Cheetah for the day. We saw nothing all morning, and then on the main road, we saw a safari vehicle that appeared to be watching a bush. We asked him what he had found, and he told us that there was a leopard, but we could only see the ear twitching. We waited patiently for about half an hour hoping the leopard would come wandering out, and just before we gave up the tour operator told us to get our cameras ready – he was going to flush it out. He went off-road (which is against the rules) and round the back of the bush, revving – I’d say he was within 1.5m of it. The leopard gave a huge roar and came running out straight for us – he was much bigger than we expected and it was hard to believe we had hardly been able to see him lying under the bush. He veered off to the side and out of sight. We got some awesome photos but it was quite shocking to see safari operators ignoring the rules and no doubt stressing the animals.
We were later stopped for lunch under some trees and Mary calmly looks over her shoulder and says “oh look, there’s a lion”. It was young and playfully chasing some zebras and then headed down to the river, chasing some birds. We watched it for a long time (with a large group of tour vehicles joining us) as nearly fell in the water trying to reach the carcass of a baby hippo that was just out of reach in the river. Amazing! 
We left the lion, heading for the Ikoma gate and saw many tour vehicles gathered watching a cheetah. It was walking around some reeds, and Mary saw some buck further off, so we guessed where it may end up and stopped the car quite far ahead of the other vehicles. We judged it perfectly as the cheetah ended up stalking the buck and was creeping along within about 8m of our car – we were perfectly placed. Mary took the cheetah photos from her side (getting burned in the process) while I covered the buck, in case it did end up in a chase, but it eventually gave up and conserved its energy. Luckily we had renewed our permit and they had given us an extra hour on our time limit, or we would have missed it. It was an absolutely fantastic couple of days.
We had a great time in the parks but it felt like they are not geared up for independent travellers. While a lot of the safari guides were friendly and we got a lot of compliments on the Beast, we sometimes felt like they don’t really like or understand independent travellers on a budget. We were really exhausted at the end from trying to make the most of it, getting to the camp sites after sunset and leaving around sunrise.

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