Tanzania February 2017
Tanzania. A country filled with spectacular places from the vast plains of the Serengeti, The isolated biosphere of the Ngorongoro Crater and the Nduto conservancy. With the great migration (almost two million wildebeest, zebra, gazelle and eland) passing during this season and the wildebeest pausing their endless pursuit to give birth, who wouldn't want to see this wildlife spectacle. This incredible 12 day trip was and to this day one of the greatest photographic safaris I have been on.
Deciding to add a couple of days beforehand in Zanzibar, gave me a chance to savour the African / Arabic culture of this tropical paradise, and photograph the endemic and endangered Kirk's Red Colobus Monkeys that reside in the forests.
I have been familiar with Bobby-jo's photography for some years and often exchanged communication through Facebook, we share a common love for photography and use the same guide when travelling in Uganda. The opportunity to shoot alongside Bobby-Jo was something I couldn't resist. Added the fact this Safari in a peak season was great value.
Two days in Zanzibar gave me time to recover from the overnight journey from Glasgow via Dohar to the spice island. The red colobus monkeys were great fun to photograph in the mangrove forests of the Island. Sun, sea, sand ahh...now I was ready for a Safari.
Flying in to Arusha I was met by our host - Bobby-Jo, Our guide Firoz and the rest of the guests - five lively Australians all were to become great friends and fun.
Lunch - a beer, introductions (maybe another beer) and a spot of birding at the friendly Lake Duluti Serena Hotel finished a relaxing day...and probably our last for the trip.
An Early breakfast and we set off. A fantastic drive through the open plains and hills of the Ngorongoro conservation area, where traditional Masai walked their cattle, and zebra mingled on the hillsides. Reaching entrance to the Ngorongoro crater, is where you know the fun will start. A brief lunch and photo stop on the edge of the crater, teases us of where we will be in the finale of this journey - clearly planning to save the best for last.
So on we go. Towards Lake Ndutu on the Ndutu region of the Ngrorongoro conservation area, adjacent to the infamous Serengeti National Park. Before reaching the Ndutu Safari Lodge that will be our home for the next 3 nights our first major sighting. Wow it was a special one. The elusive Caracal. A shy and beautiful lynx type cat. What a start, and what a photo opportunity. This set the pace for what was to be a truly amazing trip. As the light set a small herd or giraffe waited for us, drinking from the shallow waters, adorned with yellow-billed oxpeckers, to the backdrop of the Ngorongoro mountains.
Arriving in time for dinner this wasn't the end of the special sightings. A family of Genets had taken up refuge in the lodges roof and would come and join us for dinner, playing in the rafters.
3 Nights in Ndutu
Ndutu is a region in the heart of the Serengeti plain. Technically it borders the Serengeti National Park, and is part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. This is a protected area that wildlife and the traditional Masai tribes co exist. Often as we were to find out with consequences. Ndutu is home to the calving of the great migration - herds of 1.5million wildebeest come here with the impending rains to give birth. Ndutu allows off road driving which gives the ability to get the right positioning where ethical for the best photo opportunities.
So morning one...10 minutes before sunrise we head out. our first sighting is two prime male lions. These guys were handsome big cats. We followed and spent well over an hour and a half watching them cross the plains, rest, a little bonding and generally being active lions. No sooner had we left them to rest for the day, another of Africa's delights showed itself to us in the form of a Serval. Another medium sized cat and great images were taken. A cheetah trying to find some shade, golden jackal, white bellied bustards and tawny eagles were all in my camera sights. Cats cats and cats were the theme. Lunch time and early afternoons were spent with Bobby-Jo going through useful camera techniques and tips, but the birder in me always drew me away to watch the little guys by a small patch of water to photograph the superb, wattled and Hildebrandt Starlings, common and blue waxbills, mousebirds and weavers... We did wonder if we peaked too early with such wonderful sightings...err nope much more was to come.
The afternoon was an incredible bull elephant wandering the open plains. A great photo opportunity to get wide and low with this big boy. Wild dogs and 3 cheetah on the hunt were other highlights.
Our time in Ndutu continued to thrill with another first a pair of hyena mating. Clearly the jokes and tones from the group went to the gutter at this point haha! A wake of vultures, a cheetah cub feeding from her mother....lions, lion cubs and lioness everywhere. Wildebeest birthing and even a camouflaged chameleon in the bushes of the lodge. The pace never let up and at this point, I knew sorting through the images in just the first 3 days was going to be a task in itself.
As we checked out of the Ndutu lodge for a final game drive on our way to the other side of the dry lake to the Serengeti proper, we came across a the lake masek pride. These lions had taken one of the cows from the masai's herd. Watching this human wildlife conflict unfold as a single Masai Warrior interacted with the dead animal with the lions retreating. That is a whole story in itself.
The Serengeti - its vast open plains and rocky kopjies are infamous for it massive numbers of wildlife. Staying in the Serengeti Explorer Camp - glamping at it's finest we were treated to the nightly calls of Hyena, Lion. A wonderfully rustic camp and the friendliest staff. Evenings were spent having a sundowner around the camp fire before dinner and planning the next days activities.
Our first morning drive from the camp - was probably the shortest game drive ever, but one of the most thrilling and unusual. About 1/2 a mile from camp a pride of lions (9 in total) had taken down a fully mature hippo. It is not clear if the animal was ill or if the lions had just taken an opportunistic moment, but they were struggling to break its thick hide, and several hours in to the event, the hippo unfortunately was still showing signs of life. A brutal sighting, but a unique sighting showing Africa in the raw.
From here the sightings continued over the next 3 days to thrill, with herds of dazzling zebra, parades of elephants, wildebeest, buffalo and antelopes. Epic sightings of cheetah on termite mounds, lions draped one the rocks and leopards in sausage trees. Owls, eagles, rollers, storks and other birds were all over. Words really cannot express the abundance and uniqueness of the Serengeti.
The Ngorongoro Crater
The Ngorongoro crater is the show piece of Tanzania. So worth saving for the end. Despite the abundance and amazing sightings so far, this was still to be topped. The crater itself is about 2.5million years old, formed when a volcano collapsed on itself. About 20km across and about 600 metres deep contains a self sustained biosphere of wildlife, with only the elephants migrating in and out of the crater.
Before reaching this destination a stop off at one of the traditional Masai Villages was made. there are a number of very touristy villages, but with our guide, Firoz we experienced a more traditional village, where they showed us in to their homes, school and lives.
Arriving mid afternoon we experienced some amazing sights - the two that stand out most was a fantastic bull black rhino in amongst a herd of buffalo, and two bull elephants mock fighting in a display of dominance.
A night at the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge gave us the best start for an early morning descent into the crater - with its own road in. Dawn gave us another incredible lion sighting, a large golden maned male as the sun rose over him and then his brother and female mating. Black Kites, spike's weavers, fan-tailed widow birds, Grants and Thompson gazelles were everywhere. Then as if from the ice age a large bull tusker - Mammoth looking - greeted us with a close encounter as he passed within inches of our vehicle. Lunch we watched elephant play in the mud not realising a lioness was resting 100 meters from us. Baboons in the rain, jackals, wildebeest and buffalo were in the open, while hippos wallowed in the pools. The last few moments of daylight the sykes monkeys greeted us from the trees at the lodge where we spent our final night.
From here it would be off to Kilimanjaro in the morning and back home.
I would add before summarising this experience, that I enter Africa with the expectation of seeing nothing and enjoying everything. Wildlife is random and frankly you can never predict what will happen and what you will see. That said every day there was a first of something and the sightings were exciting and continuous. With over 50 trips to Africa it still continues to surprise me. I think this is part of what draws me back time and time again.
This Serengeti Photo Safari was simply outstanding in every way. It doesn't matter your level of photography, beginner, enthusiast or pro. Spending 10 days with Bobby-Jo on a photo safari will add to your skill base every time. It was not just the volume of cats and game, but the whole experience that made this incredible good value. It felt like my personal experience and just happened to share it with a great group of people.
Outstanding in the sightings and photo opportunities. Outstanding in the quality of Firoz's knowledge and guiding. Outstanding in the tips and knowledge insight from Bobby-Jo. Value for money and quality of the lodges and camps...but most of all the group was an outstanding bunch of people I am proud to have spent my time with, and call friends. Laura, Denise, Trevor, Mick, Lynette Firoz and Bobby-Jo made the trip special too.
Rest assured Tanzania, I will not leave it so long before I return again.
Image courtesy ©Bobby-Jo and Duma Safaris