For the tour operator Tanzania remains a unique and challenging destination. The more so because world travellers hope to find here a savanna Africa of their dreams. Yet with a little luck a well-planned safari here really should become that “holiday of a lifetime”. A safari here is always going to be expensive, on account of Tanzania’s unique blend of luxurious accommodation, set within vast and exclusive remote areas each displaying a diverse and distinctive topography. Hopefully our specialised Tanzanian wildlife safaris will never disappoint, neither the most avid world birder at one extreme, nor the more generalised nature lover at the other.
Our November tour started very well, after an evening arrival with KLM at little KIA lodge beside the airport, our minds fresh with the cold of the northlands. Just after dawn next morning, our little band of birders, only a little bleary-eyed, assembled beside the swimming pool atop an artificial kopje that overlooks the peaceful grassy expanse of Kilimanjaro international. Here we commenced a trip list that was set to soar to about 400 bird species, and over 45 mammals, seen by each participant.
The first hour of the safari set the pace for what nevertheless remains a ‘relatively relaxed’ bird tour. Scarce and seldom seen birds, such as a tail flirting Upcher’s Warbler, a winter migrant from the mountains of Asia Minor, obligingly popped-out alongside species that were to become our everyday companions throughout the safari. True African birds primarily, birds as diverse and enigmatic as the Colies, an Afro-tropical endemic order who are fronted by the undeniably comic Speckled Mousebird. Punky birds these, performing their acrobatic antics in the forefront of a broader scene populated by more cosmopolitan types in the shape of foraging Cattle Egrets flighting-in from their overnight roost.
Transferring quite swiftly after breakfast to Hatari Lodge, we were soon logging some more very special birds, exquisite Golden-winged Sunbirds beside equally wonderful Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters (again migrants from the Middle East) at the entrance gate to Arusha National Park. In the afternoon we watched the absolutely unforgettable display of tens of thousands of flamingos, feeding and wheeling in the air just in front of us, across the alkaline surfaces of Momella Lake. The next day at our picnic lunch here we were treated to our first of several ‘once in a lifetime experiences’ when we discovered a large and fearsome-looking, swimming Puff Adder who was being escorted off the lake right beside us, pestered by a noisily peeping flotilla comprised of over a score of Little Grebes.
Whilst at “Hatari” meals had to be taken indoors, not really because of the rain clouds that certainly threatened yet never properly materialised, but largely due to the persistent depredations of a resident troupe of Black-faced Vervet-Monkeys stationed up on the roof. Already we came to the realisation that we were truly only visitors here, and that it is the wild animals who are the true caretakers of these parcels of paradise, expansive fragments of wild habitat, land which the government of Tanzania is working hard to keep preserved. These became like gifts for us, lovely presents which we should open, on each and every day, of what rapidly shaped-up to become an epic safari.
In truth there were so many highlights to this safari that it must remain a personal matter for we the participants, to separate them out and pretend to rank them, for we were each witness to such amazing events. That being said there were some experiences, which all who shared in them would certainly agree, will stand out for ever in our memory. Watching two kills, each from start to gruesome finish, within the space of only four midday hours, down in the ‘gladiatorial arena’ of the Ngorongoro crater certainly has etched an indelible pattern of memory into our brains. The first involved a uniquely tragic encounter by a hapless wildebeest with a huge pack of hyenas and some very irate hippos. In the second two highly skilled lionesses brought down a zebra, in part by using our LandCruiser as the perfect blind.
In our second National Park, Tarangire, we received an initiation into the inner workings of the moist tree savannahs of the bird-rich Tanzanian-Zambesian ecological realm. This is home to two Tanzanian endemic birds, the Ashy Starling and Yellow-collared Lovebird. Here scattered giant ‘granny’ baobabs preside over a senescent thorn bush parkland to which, more than likely only this, our very privileged, generation shall bear witness. We watched elephant herds, as the matriarchs snapped and pushed down sizeable acacia trunks, revealing to us that these great animals, are both the architect and chief engineer developing the structure of this wonderful wildscape.
In terms of specific birds seen – a bee-eater, a gorgeous Red-throated Bee-eater, (and what’s more a national first), that we found one sunny afternoon in a cattle-grazed grove, within a stone’s throw of the gently lapping waters of Lake Victoria-Nyanza, has become for our few fortunate observers another indelible memory.
In terms of specific mammals – a mother Serval cat who was leading her kitten, in bright morning sunlight across a verdant smoothness, of those wildebeest-nibbled lawns that constitute the western Serengeti, is another memory to cherish.
The habitats again – well the freshwater marshes, at the hippo pools at Lake Manyara, out into which one can drive and then dismount to view from a specially erected wooden platform, were teeming with water birds, of over forty species. Those wildfowl and waders have ensured that the addition of this little national park, to the standard Sunbird-Wings Tanzania itinerary, will become a permanent feature.
Birds – an endearing African Broadbill, who continued to return to and weave its untidy pendant nest, seemingly oblivious to our admiring presence, almost right above our heads, along the track to the elephant salt-lick in the Endoro forest of the Ngorongoro crater highlands, has become for me at least another very special memory.
The List – finding all of the avian specialities of the western Serengeti in one delightful morning, to whit several Ruaha Hornbills, a flock of four Grey-crested Helmet-shrikes, two pairs of Karamoja Apalis, and a wealth of other scarce passerines, of male Montagu’s Harriers and numerous other raptors, is yet another.
In the course of this safari, in addition to seeing so many fabulous birds, and so many purely African birds, we were treated to a number of intimate experiences of ‘the greater natural history’. For example, we witnessed a stampede of lead grey wildebeest, whom we had heard approaching from afar, a sound like a distant locomotive, who then surged across the brown Grumeti river toward us and staggered up the steep and sandy banks to flow behind and around our solitary, stationary vehicle. Late that same afternoon we managed to rejoin this stream of countless thousands of migrating wildebeest. Seemingly we had immersed ourselves in this throng of wild creatures, whose ranks stretched away toward towering pewter thunder clouds that glowered above a rain drenched western horizon. Surprising to me at least, that the wildebeest were here at all, populating and undeniably grazing right down, a section of the vast Serengeti, a region where by rights, they should be only in May and June and certainly not in late November.
One other thing I must mention – on almost all of our game drives, and at all but one of our lovely lodges, we were almost the only guests in residence. So we could stalk about the grounds, especially at dawn and dusk, absorbed in this – our great passion, performing our eccentric duties, without ever suffering from even the slightest tremor of self-consciousness.
So, in summary perhaps, certainly for the two very lucky safari guides, this epic Tanzania tour will be best remembered for a certain sense of knowing, for a recurrent weird sensation, of just how blessed we few were, in the madding of this day and age, to have Eden to ourselves.