This classic nature tour has been running twice a year, in early March and in the second half of November, for ten years. Or rather it was running, prior to the Coronavirus global health crisis.
As a result of that crisis Sunbird (the UK ‘wing’ of Wings) has ceased trading, so that any enquiries should be addressed to myself or to Stephanie Schaefer at the Wings office in Tucson, Arizona.
The ‘Founding Father’ of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, long ago realised the importance of his nation’s wildlife and did much to ensure it was protected. Today, 25% of the country is given over to National Parks and various kinds of reserve, of which the most famous, in the north of the country, form the basis for this tour. Starting on the densely wooded slopes of Mount Meru in the lee of the much larger Mount Kilimanjaro, we’ll then wander among the giant Baobab trees of Tarangire National Park, before visiting two of the world’s most famous wildlife locations – Ngorongoro Crater and the vast Serengeti – and we’ll end our safari on the shores of the mighty Lake Victoria.
This tour is designed to offer the perfect introduction to the birds and mammals of East Africa, while at the same time presenting many new experiences to anyone who has previously visited Tanzania’s neighbour, Kenya and our aim is to set a relatively relaxed pace, allowing time to really savour all that these wonderful landscapes have to offer. This safari is set to become a classic tour for it provides the most comfortable introduction possible to that source of limitless wonder which is the East African wildlife experience. If one ever needed a reminder that our Earth is still a place of wonder, a place where mammals big and small follow unmolested lives, and where birds of every hue seem to queue right along the wayside, then this safari is a holiday made for you!
Day 1: The tour beings with transfers from Kilimanjaro International Airport to our lodge close to Arusha National Park. Night near Arusha.
Days 2-3: Strange noises and calls will wake us early and we’ll spend an hour birding around our lodge grounds getting to know some of the commoner birds of the region. We begin our safari proper by driving up to our next lodge perched on the lower slopes of Mount Meru. Our two days here, amidst peaceful surroundings and with elegantly-appointed accommodation, will be a wonderfully relaxing way to start our tour. We’ll spend some time on foot around the lodge grounds, which are dotted with yellow-barked Acacias, getting to know birds such as Hadada Ibis, Hamerkop, Blacksmith Lapwing, Crowned Hornbill, Olive Pigeon, Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, White-fronted Bee-eater, Yellow-breasted Apalis, the scarce and elusive Red-throated Tit, Red-winged Starling, Tropical Boubou, Chin-spot Batis, and Variable, Scarlet-chested, Bronze and Amethyst Sunbirds. Our first mammals are likely to be African Buffalo and Common Zebra grazing in the marsh that is overlooked from our lodge.
We’ll also venture out into Arusha National Park where we’ll encounter more mammals as we find ourselves among Masai Giraffe, Common Waterbuck, Bushbuck, Warthog, Guereza Colobus, Blue Monkey, and Olive Baboon. Hiding in the dappled shade of this magnificent evergreen hill forest we may also find a tiny woodland antelope, the secretive Suni along with the bay-coloured Harvey’s Red Duiker. If we are very lucky we may also catch sight of a Leopard or Serval.
There will be much to see and hear during our time here. Stopping in the lush forest that cloaks the edge of the ancient volcanic crater we’ll be looking for the massive African Crowned Eagle, as well as Ayres’s Hawk-Eagle, Mountain Buzzard, African Green Pigeon, Hartlaub’s Turaco, Bar-tailed Trogon, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eaters, Moustached Green Tinkerbird, African Palm, Horus, Alpine, Mottled, Little, and Nyanza Swifts, Black Saw-wing, Olive Mountain (Placid), Stripe-faced and Mountain Greenbul, Waller’s, Kenrick’s and, if we are very fortunate, Abbott’s Starlings, and Eastern Double-collared Sunbird.
Clearing the forest we come to more open areas of scrub and grassland where we’ll encounter a different set of birds with Rufous-naped Lark, Pangani Longclaw, White-browed Scrub Robin, African Moustached and Cinnamon Bracken Warblers, Trilling and Siffling Cisticolas, and the very local Taveta Golden Weaver vying for our attention. The ancient volcanic craters have created wetlands that will be alive with Lesser Flamingos and this is a reliable site for the normally elusive Greater Painted-snipe. Nights at a lodge on the slopes of Mount Arusha.
Day 4: Leaving early we’ll skirt the edge of Arusha town heading west. Our first stop will be the ‘Lark Plains’, a strange open area situated between Arusha and the border town of Namanga which is home to one of Africa’s rarest birds, Beesley’s Lark. This isolated form of Spike-heeled Lark is critically endangered with a world population of probably no more than 50 individuals. These plains, in the rain shadow of Mt Meru and Mt Kilimanjaro, are perfect habitat for larks, and as well as Beesley’s we’ll look for Pink-breasted, Athi Short-toed, Short-tailed, and Foxy Larks. The open landscape can be good for raptors with migrant Montagu’s Harriers, Lesser Kestrels and Amur Falcons joining the resident Greater and Common (Rock) Kestrels. In this distinctly dry habitat we can also find savannah species typical of the larger protected areas to the west such as Eastern Chanting Goshawk, African Pygmy Falcon, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Double-banded Courser, Crowned Lapwing, Abyssinian Scimitarbill, Red-fronted, Red-and-Yellow, and Spot-flanked Barbets, Ashy and Tiny Cisticolas, Purple Grenadier, Eastern Paradise and Straw-tailed Whydahs and Somali Golden-breasted Bunting, while mammals we might not have seen before could include Golden Jackal and Gerenuk, and with great luck, Lesser Kudu.
Later we’ll continue westwards to Tarangire National Park arriving in time for lunch. As we enter the park we’ll be greeted by a landscape dominated by majestic baobabs rising out of the acacia parkland, forming a perfect backdrop for the large herds of African Elephants wandering among them. Other mammals sharing this habitat range from Lion, and Black-backed Jackal, to Kirk’s Dik-Dik, Dwarf and Banded Mongoose, Impala, Beisa Oryx, Steinbok and African Hare. The lodge grounds are bound to attract a good variety of birds which could include roosting African Scops Owls and the endemic Ashy Starling. Night near Tarangire National Park.
Day 5: We have all day to explore this extremely bird-rich habitat. The variety of birds we may see include Maasai Ostrich, White-headed, Rüppell’s and African White-backed Vultures, Red-necked Spurfowl, Bare-faced Go-away Bird, Black-faced Sandgrouse, Lilac-breasted Roller, Nubian Woodpecker, White-browed Coucal, African Hoopoe, Magpie Shrike, Northern White-crowned Shrike and the endemic Yellow-collared Lovebird. This is good habitat for the handsome Bateleur Eagle, which will share the skies with numerous Tawny Eagles. Large Mosque Swallows will swoop around the Baobabs, while the dense scrub below is where we’ll find species such as White-browed Scrub-Robin, Green-winged Pytilia and, with luck, Bronze-winged Courser. The endemic Rufous-tailed Weaver is common here, and migrants from further north could range from Sooty Falcon to Rock Thrush. Night near Tarangire National Park.
Day 6: Today we begin our journey westwards, stopping for the night close to the small town of Karatu. Our lodge is situated on the edge of the extensively forested Crater Highlands and here we’ll be able to explore these wooded environments on foot where we’ll search for Ayres’s Hawk-Eagle, Narina Trogon, Grey and Purple-throated Cuckoo-shrike, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Black-fronted Bush-shrike, African Hill Babbler, White-tailed Blue Flycatcher, Grey-capped Warbler, Red-capped Robin-chat and Holub’s Golden Weaver among others. Night near Karatu.
Day 7: Today we travel to what is possibly Africa’s greatest wildlife location – the mighty Ngorongoro Crater. The sides of this vast caldera are now covered in a mosaic of highland grass and woodland and as we begin to climb we’ll be stopping to look for some of the birds that have made this their home. These may include secretive African Snipe, although much more showy are the numerous Red-collared Widowbirds, the males resplendent in full breeding plumage, as are the less common Jackson’s Widowbirds. Striking male Yellow Bishops will be buzzing over the grass trying to impress the females, and smart African Stonechats will share the bush tops with stunning Malachite Sunbirds.
Reaching our lodge perched overlooking the crater, we should have time for a walk along the rim where we may find Schalow’s Turaco, Golden-winged and Tacazze Sunbird, and the exuberant Hunter’s Cisticola. This is also a wonderful place to see various raptors such as Augur Buzzards riding the updraft from the side of the crater, giving eye-level views as they hang motionless. Night at Sopa Lodge.
Day 8: The Ngorongoro Crater is just one of those places that has to be seen – words alone cannot do it justice. Leaving our lodge we’ll drive down into what was once, many eons ago, the fiery heart of a huge volcano. Today this natural amphitheatre has a much more peaceful atmosphere as Wildebeest, Coke’s Hartebeest, Grant’s and Thomson’s Gazelles, and Common Zebra feed contentedly – or at least as contentedly as the ever present Lions and Cheetah will allow, although the Black Rhinoceros here will be less concerned about these predators. The bird life in the crater varies according to the seasons but during our visit we should see Grey Crowned Crane, Shelley’s Francolin, Abdim’s and Black Storks, Lappet-faced Vulture, Black-bellied and Kori Bustards, Fischer’s Lovebird, Hunter’s and Pectoral-patch Cisticolas, and Northern Anteater Chat among many others. Night at Sopa Lodge.
Day 9: Leaving Ngorongoro we drive west to the very edge of the vast Serengeti National Park and the area around lakes Ndutu and Masek. In this part of Africa mammals are constantly on the move and with luck we’ll intercept the large herds of Wildebeest and Common Zebra. There will be all kinds of other wildlife to look for, ranging from Bat-eared Foxes in the shorter grassland to Common Genets around the lodge at night. At Lake Ndutu we’ll watch both Greater and Lesser Flamingo feeding in the shallows, whilst Cape Teal appear to drift between their legs. Along the lake edge there will Chestnut-fronted Sandplover and Black-winged Lapwing, while away from the water Gull-billed Terns scour the plains from the air for grasshoppers and dung beetles, and Hooded and Egyptian Vulture patrol the skies. Night in the Ndutu/Masek area.
Day 10: We’ll spend all day in the short grass plains and acacia woodland where the eastern Serengeti blends into the Ngorongoro Conservation area. Taking a picnic lunch we’ll be free to wander this remote area, stopping to look at whatever grabs our attention. As well as more chances to study mammals, and to hopefully find some hunting Cheetahs, encounters with Lions and Leopards are distinct possibilities. There should also be lots of new birds for us in the form of Spotted Eagle Owl, Usambiro Barbet, African, Didric, Klaas’s, Great Spotted and Jacobin Cuckoos, Red-fronted and Black-throated Barbets, Silverbird, Schalow’s Wheatear and Cliff Chat among many others. Our stay here in such a classic African setting will be one of the tour’s highlights of the tour, an experience heightened by sitting around the camp fire at night listening to strident calls of Spotted Hyena and Common Zebra close by. Night in the Ndutu/Masek area.
Days 11-12: There will be time for some early morning birding close to the lodge and then, after breakfast, we’ll travel westwards across the southern part of the Serengeti to Mbalageti in the western arm of this huge National Park. Here we enter the Africa of everyone’s imagination – a wide open landscape of long grass punctuated by koppies (tall rocky outcrops), scattered acacia trees, and mammals and birds everywhere. We’ll explore the diverse surroundings of the perfectly situated Mbalageti lodge where endemic birds nest within the grounds. We’ll take game drives out into the wide valley of the river that gives this location its Maasai name. Here crakes and rails haunt secluded wetlands whilst kingfishers, orioles and gonoleks call loudly from pristine riparian woodland alongside the River Mbalageti itself. We’ll be looking for a variety of birds including Kori Bustards, Coqui Francolin, the endemic Grey-breasted Spurfowl, Brown Parrot, Yellow-throated Sandgrouse, Freckled Nightjar, Plain-backed Pipit, the endemic Tanzanian (Ruaha) Hornbill, Grey-crested Helmet-shrike, Rosy-patched Shrike, Karamoja Apalis, Buff-bellied Penduline-Tit and Steel-blue Whydah to mention a few. Among the many mammal species we hope to see are Cheetah, Leopard, and Topi, while Rock Hyraxes and Klipspringer could be found in the koppies and herds of Hippopotamus wallow in muddy pools. At night the calls of various crickets will mingle with the strange surrounds produced by Galagos and perhaps and owl or two creating a superb audio backdrop. Our time at Mbalageti will demonstrate why the Serengeti ecosystem arguably remains the greatest wildlife destination left on Earth. Nights at Mbalageti.
Day 13: One feature that fills the maps of this region is the massive Lake Victoria, our destination for today. As the we head for the seclusion of Speke Bay Lodge for a one-night stay, we pass alongside the Grumeti River where we’ll stop to look for giant Nile Crocodiles, relicts from a seemingly distant era, and of course there will be plenty of birds to stop for on the way as well. The quiet backwater of Speke’s Bay on the southeastern shore of Lake Victoria will provide us with an introduction to several more West African bird species and once there we’ll spend the rest of the day on foot birding in the lush grassland along the lake shore and along the fringing papyrus beds. Right within the grounds we’ll find Heuglin’s Courser and Square-tailed Nightjars roosting quietly in the shade, while brightly coloured Slender-billed and Yellow-backed Weavers feed among the flowers as Angola Swallows, African Paradise, and Swamp Flycatchers dart after insects. The lake shore attracts large numbers of African Open-bill Storks and huge flocks of Whiskered and White-winged Black Terns while wintering Ruff, Little Stint and Greenshank forage along the beach. Night in Speke Bay Lodge.
Day 14: We’ll spend the first part of the morning exploring the lodge grounds and lake shore. New species may include Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, Eurasian Nightjar, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Blue-headed Coucal, Black-headed Gonolek, Red-chested Sunbird, and Northern Brown-throated Weavers and of course no visit to Africa would be complete without a selection of those puzzling cisticolas and today we may find time to sort out the Rattling from the Zitting, Croaking, Winding, and Red-faced. Later we’ll make the short journey to Grumeti where we’ll connect with a local flight back to Arusha where we spend the night. Night in Arusha.
Day 15: On this last day of the safari we’ll explore some extensive dry Acacia-Commiphora bush-land that typifies what has become known as the Maasai steppe, a huge semi-arid plateau that constitutes the central zone of Tanzania. Here we’ll likely pass close to some seasonal wetlands stopping wherever we wish in order to explore this, and the intriguing savanna habitat on foot. With much of the tour having being spent in National Parks where we needed to remain in the vehicle, being out and about in the habitat will be a novel experience.
And as we wander through this dry habitat we’ll be looking for some special birds, many of them dry-country specialities that we may not have seen earlier in the tour. These will include birds such as Crested Bustard, the strikingly patterned White-headed Mousebird, and Scaly Chatterer, a scarce and skulking babbler. The soft-toned Fischer’s Starling should be seen, a bird in complete contrast to the utterly scintillating Golden-breasted Starling that is surely the most flamboyant of the African starlings, while other special birds could include the diminutive Pringle’s Puffback, pairs of delightful Pygmy Batis, active colonies of Black-headed Social Weavers, and the somewhat elusive Somali Golden-breasted Bunting.
We’ll also be hoping to see some species that are winter visitors or passage migrants to the Maasai steppe from their breeding grounds in the Middle East and distant Central Asia; birds such as the Pied Wheatear, Irania, Common Rock Thrush, and Eastern Olivaceous, Upcher’s and Barred Warblers, as well as the ‘phoenicuroides’ form of Isabelline Shrike. We’ll reach our hotel, close to Kilimanjaro International Airport, by mid-afternoon where the tour ends with transfers to the airport.