Africa Stories and Tips

Safari Day 18: The long “road” to Serengeti, Tanzania!

Kilimanjaro Photo, Tanzania, Africa

Traveling days are rarely a delight. Getting everything in order, checking out, wolfing down breakfast, making the flights. Traveling with less luggage and sending souvenirs and dirty laundry back to Nairobi with Frederick made the ordeal easier. Having a private Safari with no fellow passengers to negotiate with also helped. I had pondered over this part of the journey for several months. The distance between Serena Mara lodge and our destination in Serengeti was about 75 miles. To get there, we had two options. We could take several flights over five hours covering 450 miles (a slightly higher-cost option), or we could drive. Driving seemed the better option, but Vintage (and others) advised that the roads are rough, slowgoing, and impossible if it rains. We would then have to exit Maasai mara, drive near Lake Victoria to a border crossing (with specific hours of operation), then cross into Serengeti national park for a long drive to our lodge. Both options result in a change of guides in Tanzania.

We took the conventional wisdom and flew the semi-circular route. So this day ended up feeling incredibly long because of the multiple plane flights making multiple stops, heat and cramped quarters aboard the small aircraft. Once in Serengeti, I was very content with the animals and scenery I saw, but I was also getting weary of the same animals, dust, biting insects, heat, food precautions, constant moving, and lack of diverse entertainment options. My wife and daughter were very much enjoying the experience and holding up very well.

My bed faced in the direction of the Mara river far below. I could hear the morning ritual of the hot-air-balloon-filling. I laid in bed and watched it slowly rise. Instead of its usual course south, it seemed to be coming straight toward the lodge. At first, I thought it was going to hit the hill just below, but it gently rose. As it did, it headed straight for me! I grabbed my camera and took several shots as it barely missed. The people onboard smiled and waved as they passed just feet away. A little while later, my wife and daughter awoke, and we finished packing. I settled the bill, and we ate breakfast. We told Frederick we preferred waiting at the air strip rather than sitting in the lodge lounge, inhaling secondhand tobacco smoke.

The morning was clear and beautiful. There was a herd of zebra wandering back and forth over the airstrip. Our plane was about an hour late, which, I am told, is typical for Airkenya. We parted company with Frederick and found a seat on the Twin-Otter. We made one more stop in the Mara. The hour-long flight took us over beautiful, wavy, golden savannah grasses. Along the way, we saw circles of Maasai villages. We flew over green farmlands, then large palatial estates, then some slums, then Nairobi landing at Wilson Airport. As soon as we left the plane, we picked up our bags and were escorted into a small waiting area. The ground staff gave us box lunches delivered by Vintage. It was nice of them, but we had missed our flight, the next one was in six minutes, and we were not hungry, so we gave the lunches to the ground reception. We went through a very quick Passport Control, then back to the waiting area. We boarded a four engine plane for a comfortable 45 minute flight over the border to Kilamanjaro International Airport near Arusha, Tanzania. It was mostly cloudy along the route but occasionally I could see the arid landscape below. For a short time the clouds parted revealing the grand snow capped peaks of Kilamanjaro. As we landed I searched, through my plane window, for the city of Arusha, but it appeared that the airport was in the middle of nowhere, with no signs of civilization anywhere near.

The airport was surprisingly modern. We were met by an airport escort who showed us through Passport Control, then around the front of the airport and back through to the domestic side. We went through x-ray and metal detector screening. Then another x-ray and metal detector. I wondered if this was because of the recent terrorism in Egypt (Tanzania’s population is half Muslim). We boarded a tiny twin-engine plane. In this cramped plane, we flew south and landed somewhere, then changed to another cramped aircraft. We landed at Lake Manyara, then took off again, heading west. The land below gave way from dry and desolate to lush, thick forest and mountains. We flew over Ngorongoro crater. Before long, I could see flat, dry grass and herds of zebra.

We landed on a dry, savannah strip called Seronera. We were promptly met by Richard from a Vintage Africa partner. The vehicle was the familiar Toyota LandCruiser with a canopy shading the hatch. This part of the Serengeti plains looked different from that of the Mara in its flatness broken only by Kopjes (large rocky protrusions). Scattered about were the unique Umbrella Acacia giving this savannah the quintessential African look. It was hard to believe that any animal could hide in such low grasses. It was beautiful, and looked every bit right out of the movies. The air temp was wild and slightly humid. With the canopy cover we were shield from the tropical sun. After a short distance we found female Lions sleeping under a lone Acacia. We saw a few Zebra a little further. Most of the herds had moved north to the Mara. The ones left behind are resident animals. That was fine with me as we had been on an unusually long Safari and have seen pretty much everything we came to see. I am now more interested seeing scenery, unusual things, perhaps a predator vs. prey scene.

No sooner than I casually asked Richard if the area had Tse tse flies then I was bitten by two! Obviously the answer was “yes”. I had studied about the diseases these insects carried in a tropical medicine section in school. I had to remind myself that acquisition of Sleeping sickness also depends on the filarial organisms being present which might, indirectly, be measured by a known epidemic. Nevertheless, I quickly got out the DEET. This helped a great deal and so did my Buzz Off Ex Officio shirt. But the clothing I treated with permethrin did nothing to deter the Tse tse flies from biting. My daughter went nearly hysterical over the Tse tse flies and bundled up under a jacket. Richard killed a fly to show us what they looked like and to not be scared. He rightfully reminded my family that if they were carrying disease, he and others would be dead by now. The fly was fascinating and looked a little like a streamlined house fly but with scissor-like wings. I really could not feel the fly until it bite me and its bite was surprisingly painful. The flies can race a moving car, land in the wind, and bite through jeans.

We traveled along a very bumpy, dusty road into an Acacia forest. We spotted a Leopard in a tree a great distance away. We saw several trees loaded with Vultures and occasional Eagles. There were some very colorful Love Birds, Guinea fowl and several other birds I cannot name. We drove about 10 kilometers along dirt trails toward the Serena Lodge. Along the way we saw a very beautiful orange sunset with a magnified sun setting into the savannah. Shortly after we saw a herd of Elephants literally cracking trees in half while they ate and dug for water. We drove to the top of a tall hill to the Serena lodge.

The lodge compound was multiple, separate rondoval rooms shaped in the traditional manner with thatched, pointed roofs, stone walls, ornate wooden carved pillars and a veranda overlooking the vast Serengeti plains below through a thin Acacia forest. The room, however, was disappointing and mediocre. Certainly not as bad as the run down room at the Samburu Serena but not nearly as nice as the Serena Maasai Mara. Basically it was four walls with some hint of sparse African architecture. The dinner room was very ornate. Same type of round, thatched structure as the rooms and with tall wood carved pillars and stands of traditional spears. Very classy. We registered, changed some money, cleaned up, and ate dinner. Like the other lodges, the meals were buffet style. The food was presentable but bland. The beers, Serengeti and Kilamanjaro, were outstanding (so was Tusker beer in Kenya). An Asian family was serenaded by about 20 staff for their child’s birthday. As we were leaving one of the staff was quietly, but aggressively explaining to the father that each member of the staff expected to be tipped for singing the birthday song. That left a bad impression with us.

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