Northern Tanzania Feb 22—Mar 09, 2008
This was my 17th Northern Tanzania tour, and it was every bit as exciting and inspiring as my first. In fact, I think I enjoy the tour and the country more each time I return. Our group included mostly people I had traveled with before, and mostly people who had never been to Africa; as a result, the tour emanated great companionship and tangible excitement throughout. "Best tour ever" was an oft-heard comment.
Our itinerary has worked so well over the years that I stayed with this "tried and tested" route again in 2008. We started in Arusha National Park, and then flew to the shores of huge Lake Victoria, steeped in explorer's history (and all sorts of special birds we would find nowhere else on our tour). From there we worked our way back overland in two comfortable, specially adapted Land Cruisers with excellent local driver/guides—through the mythical and legendary Serengeti (a massive, intact ecosystem the size of some smaller U.S. states) and famous Ngorongoro Crater, to the lesser-known gems of Lake Manyara and Tarangire national parks.
As always, the tour produced some remarkable, easy birding with many spectacular, bright, and easily seen species for those less interested in all the wonderful complexity of the "LBJs" that we also recorded. This was our best year ever with 423 species seen, four of these found for the first time. Our cumulative bird list, over 17 tours, now stands at 595 species. The birding is so easy, so prolific, and so varied, with different treats at every new destination. But it is so much more than just "listing" and numbers. It is a truly varied and all-encompassing wildlife tour, with plenty of time and options to watch animal behavior.
We did very well with cats this year, recording all six possible species: lions aplenty, a single elusive leopard, good views of the much more rarely seen African wild cat, serval, and even caracal. But the cheetahs were popping up for us everywhere, with many family groups with all ages of cubs. The elephants in Tarangire were magical again, with many family groups with tiny babies, making us all far too soppy and anthropomorphic than was good for us!
But perhaps the centerpiece of our tour must be awarded to an unlikely star: the very awkward-looking brindled gnu, or wildebeest, purely because of its sheer numbers and its effect on the stunningly large, intact, and vibrant Serengeti ecosystem. Our 5–6 days in the vast Serengeti plains were, at times, dominated by this famous, yet strange, seemingly inept, yet stoic and determined creature. We spent whole mornings slowly driving alone over trackless, flat expanses of grasslands. Small dots on the horizon materialized into unbelievable and uncountable numbers of wildebeest grunting and meandering in mile-long lines and dense herds. Once engulfed there in the midst of tens of thousands of wildebeest, zebra, and Thomson's and Grant's gazelles, we realized there was no place in this uninterrupted panorama where you could put your binoculars up, swing around a full 360 degrees, and not have masses of wildebeest in your field of view: justification indeed for the tour's "Greatest Wildlife Spectacle On Earth" epithet. None of us failed to be overawed by the sheer numbers, throng, noises, dramas, and panoply of life that was going on all around us.
Our lasting memories will no doubt include all the fantastic birds and the overwhelming array of big game, but I'm sure there will be a place for the smaller incidents and the quirky and unusual: the sad memory of wildebeest taking fatal "short-cuts" across lakes and becoming stuck in the mud; the industrious dung beetles rolling tennis-ball-sized spheres of elephant dung; the odd sight of a Barn Owl disturbed from its roost and being plucked out of midair by a marauding Tawny Eagle; the time spent gruesomely fascinated by the interactions and fights for supremacy by five vulture species, Marabou Storks, black-backed jackals, and spotted hyenas at kills and carcasses; the extended family of absurd Southern Ground Hornbills feeding their overgrown young with frogs as they meandered through Tarangire's grasslands; the half-hearted attempts at hunting wildebeest by lions and hyenas already with full stomachs; the dazzling, noisy colonies of weavers making their intricately woven nests; and the wonderful clouds and stormy evening light at the onset of the long-awaited rains. So many stunning images—and so exciting for me to anticipate experiencing more in 2009!