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Northern Serengeti October 2013

PART 1: INTRODUCTION

It has been a few years since my last visit to the Serengeti in Tanzania.  Previous visits had taken me to the southern short-grass plains in the Ndutu area, to Seronera in the Central Serengeti and also to the Grumeti area in the Western Corridor.  This was a first: a few days at a couple of Nomad Tanzania properties in the far northern Serengeti, close to the border with Kenya and just south of the Mara where I had spent a few days in June this year.

After just 4 days in the area three things stood out:  the Northern Serengeti is visually one of the most arresting bits of real estate likely anywhere in Africa.  There is just no way to do justice to this mosaic of grass, sky and rocky hills with a photo or description.  You just have to see it yourself.  A  soul-pleasing place where civilization as we know it ends and the primeval beauty of nature in the raw takes over.  Every now and then I felt like just stopping for no reason to let my eyes linger on the beauty around me.  Is there really a place like this where one massive grassy plain merges into another one, where one series of hills on the horizon vies with another to be more like the Africa you had come to see?  Yes there is – but don’t wait too long to get on a plane to Kogatende to experience it for yourself.  Already, there are quite a few mobile tented camps in the area and several permanent camps, with more to come.  It is not nearly as popular – and crowded – yet as the Masai Mara, but it won’t be long.

Which brings me to the second thing that struck me:  the game-viewing.  Even though our trip came right at the very end of the season, in late October, the quality of the game-viewing was of such a standard that even the most demanding ‘big cat only’ aficionado would have given it the thumbs up.  A first-time visitor would have been blown away by the diversity and the sheer numbers of animals.  By Day Two we had seen the Big Five (black rhino, lion, leopard, buffalo and elephant) and by Day Four we had notched up several game-viewing experiences which belong firmly  in our own personal hall of fame of best game drives ever.  More about that later.

Our third impression was of course the friendly and gracious reception we received from the management and staff at the two properties we visited and the range of accommodation options available in the area.  We spent a couple of nights at two very different yet both authentically African properties, namely Serengeti Safari Camp and Lamai Serengeti, both operated by Nomad Tanzania.

Serengeti Safari Camp is a rustic mobile tented camp which moves several times during the course of the year to be as close as possible to the wildebeest migration.  It recreates the style of an old-fashioned safari without too many modern trappings:  comfortable and a lot of fun with direct contact with the wilderness.  You expect to have some camp followers in the form of a herd of wildebeest stare at you as you exit the tent just before dawn to retrieve a welcome cup of coffee or tea.  You’re mildly disappointed if you don’t hear lions, hyenas, owls or other wildlife kicking up a bit of a fuss outside the tent at some or other time during the night.   And with a bit of luck you are treated to repeated doses of the Burchell’s zebra’s distinctive – almost birdlike – braying call, one of the most unmistakably African sounds of all.

Lamai Serengeti is no less authentic of an African safari experience than Serengeti Safari Camp- it just comes with nicer rooms, an expansive lounge and dining room area and likely the best view of any safari lodge in Tanzania.  The camp is located almost totally within the confines of a prominent rocky hill with a commanding view of the surrounding plains and toward the escarpment, the Mara River and the Masai Mara National Park.  It makes absolutely the most of the location.  Lamai has a few more rooms than Serengeti Safari Camp but it retains contact with the environment in a pleasing and effective manner.  Sit at a particular table for lunch and you’ll have a rockface a couple of meters to your right, and a massive expanse of plains, riverine valleys and hillocks, right in front of you.

We popped into two other properties in the area namely Mwanga Moto mobile tented camp, also in the Kogatende area, and Sayari, a beautiful and very stylish tented camp located on an elevated spot close to some reliable wildebeest migration crossing points on the Mara River.  Both of these would be perfectly fine choices for a visit to the area as well.  The tents at Mwanga Moto had a quality feel and appearance, and with a bit of color and some nice touches in the bathrooms it would make for a very comfortable tented camping experience.  We liked the small enclosed porches a whole lot.

Sayari was quite stunning: both the rooms and the common areas were replete with pleasing design elements.  Clean and uncluttered yet oh so stylish. On the day there were many pesky flies (regular ones, not tsetses) about, mostly because there was not even a whisper of a breeze in the air.

PART 2: BACK TO THE BEGINNING

Many Africa trips of course don’t start in Africa, and neither did this one.  It started two days earlier on a nice fall day in Houston, with the usual brusque treatment from the TSA, and the equally predictable late take-off on KLM bound for Amsterdam, in the same aging Boeing 747 Combi, as in June 2013.  This time without the race horses in the back.  We checked.

This time around the flight was a lot more bearable, dare I say enjoyable, due to an upgrade (which we paid for) to Economy Comfort.  This will be our default choice of seating on KLM, Delta or Air France from now on.  Price-wise it comes at a bit of a premium but nothing like the insane business or first class fares.  And what do you get?  Well for one thing as much as 4 inches of extra legroom and let’s face it when you’re flying, 4 inches is huge.  You can opt for a 2-seater section and on a flight that isn’t too full (like ours) you might even get lucky with an aisle and window in a 3-seater section.  Add a’ private’ toilet, a dedicated flight attendant and a very quiet section of the plane (towards the nose) and you have yourself a real bargain.

Despite taking off more than 30 minutes late out of IAH, we were in Amsterdam right on time due to a strong tailwind.  At times the aging B747 was zipping across the Atlantic at well over 700 miles an hour.   That’s about as fast as anybody has flown commercially since the demise of the Concorde!  Of course that is ground speed – the plane itself was flying at its usual cruising speed of around 560 mph, we were just being pushed along by a very strong tailwind.

Amsterdam was sunny for once, the concourses were just as busy as always, with lots of chintzy clogs and pretty flowers on sale, for not much more than the price of a hot tea and a cafe latte.  Somehow we whiled away three hours and then strapped ourselves in for yet another 8+ hours to Kilimanjaro.  The on-board food was so-so, the movie selection totally uninspiring but I found (in the CD collection) a nice selection of opera music.  So the next few hours were spent in the delightful and supremely talented company of Maria Callas and Anna Netrebko.  Nothing makes time fly quite as well as the late Ms. Callas’ rendition of ‘Je Suis Titania’ from Mignon.  Or pretty much anything sung by Ms. Netrebko.

But back to matters at hand.  On the flight from Amsterdam to Houston we were in regular economy class.  Even though we wanted to, we were unable to upgrade to economy comfort upon checking in at IAH.  Airlines are their own worst enemies when it comes to pursuing profit.  Making it difficult for your customers to spend their money is never a good idea.  Right? So it ended up being a very long and rather tiring flight – all of 8 hrs 30 minutes, watching a couple of movies (‘Heat’ was not too bad) and doing a little reading.

RIVERTREES COUNTRY INN, ARUSHA
We already had our visas for Tanzania but even so, it was a very slow process filing past the surly immigration official who preferred to make hand signals in lieu of speaking. Eventually we made it out to the luggage area, picked up our bags and headed outside where a Nomad Tanzania driver was waiting to take us to Rivertrees Country Inn which would be our digs for the night. By now it was just after 9pm and we were tired and maybe even a bit cranky. A very pleasant meal with a peppery carrot soup, a local bean dish, brown rice, beet salad, a fruit salad and fresh bread revived us somewhat.

The lodge is located amongst very pleasant surroundings, with a lovely garden and spacious grounds with a large deck from where there is a view over a riverine forest, some huge trees and various flowering plants.  There were lots of bird calls on the morning of our departure.

The room is large and comfortable and there is a double bed with mosquito net – we needed it.  The lighting was rather poor -it felt like we were already on safari.  A hot bath was very welcome.  There was a bit of a drainage issue when some water from the bath bubbled out onto the bathroom floor.  Another minor issue was the fan only working when the generator is on.  We could have used it going to bed.

SERENGETI SAFARI CAMP
We were up quite early on Oct 24, and enjoyed a good breakfast at Rivertrees: porridge with soy milk, toast and a selection of fresh fruit. Then on to Arusha Airport, where after a minimum of formalities and a maximum price for a cup of coffee, we boarded a Caravan for the flight to Kogatende in the northern Serengeti. The first stop was a Lake Manyara and after that Grumeti, making it a 2-hr flight in total.

On arrival at Kogatende we were met by our Nomad guide Philip who happened to have been our guide at Nomad Tanzania’s Sand Rivers Selous back in 2008.  Nice to see you again Philip! Philip drove us to nearby Mwanga Moto mobile camp for a camp inspection and lunch.

We looked at a couple of the tents at Mwanga Moto (Firelight) and liked what we saw:  spacious, nicely equipped and functional, particularly the bathroom and shower setup.  Lunch was nice too with chicken, potatoes, avocado salad, a mixed salad with peppers, onions and cucumber.  Camp manager John was clearly quite happy to have us.  The lounge and dining room areas were quite cozy and colorful.

PART 3: LAMAI SERENGETI

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