Northern Tanzania Feb 22—Mar 10, 2009
This was my 18th tour to Northern Tanzania and, as every year, it certainly lived up to expectations and left me eager for my next safari in this magical, well-organized, friendly, and stable African paradise. I am so lucky to be able to visit annually and get to know the country so well, seeing the subtle differences from year to year.
This year, with the rains slow in coming, we experienced much drier weather than usual. This meant that the vast calving wildebeest herds were more scattered and tricky to find. But we did have a memorable morning when just our two vehicles wandered miles, mostly off-road, out on the flat vastness of the short grass plains of the Serengeti. Our brilliant driver/guides edged us quietly in towards substantial herds of gently grunting wildebeest—females with many tiny calves—numbering many, many thousands, if not the hundreds of thousands that must have been out there somewhere. In some ways it made the experience even more mind-boggling—knowing we had driven 20 miles across endless plains, yet that there were a million wildebeest "out there somewhere," "hiding" in a huge ecosystem that is bigger than we can possibly imagine.
Despite the drier conditions and rain or no rain, the "usual" extravaganza of over 400 bird species was recorded (out of a potential 600 now noted on this tour). Such easy birding with such large, special, distinctive, and colorful species, along with some occasional more challenging forest birding for smaller species requiring more careful identification, always makes this tour a winner. There is something for all levels of birders, from keen listers to first-timers and keen photographers. The flamboyant, the bizarre, and the bright (some all rolled into one species!)—bustards, rollers, hornbills, Hamerkop, Secretary-bird, eagles, barbets, weavers, sunbirds, guineafowl, parrots, and turacos—were a constant glorious backdrop for scanning and searching for those wonderfully obscure warblers, apalises, and cisticolas (especially the cisticolas). We had lots of the hoped-for specialties showing up where I usually find them (like that Hueglin's Courser in the same few square yards every year!), and another species added to the list—the Marsh Tchagra in the papyrus fringes of Lake Victoria.
The mammals were magnificent. On an especially noteworthy morning, just after leaving the lodge, we enjoyed stunning views of the rarely seen caracal, followed by a much sought-after leopard lounging in a splendid yellowbark acacia tree, then numerous lazing lions and two groups of cheetah families. African safaris can't get much better than watching four superb cat species in one morning, all before our return for lunch!
With such a keen and compatible group of traveling companions, it was easy to keep attentions alert and interest high at all times, whether it be the fun of amassing those long bird lists or spending "quality time" with huge elephant herds (some of the group will be able to regale their friends with indelible memories of that bull elephant's close inspection of their Land Cruiser). Such a great mix of habitats from mountain, forest, open savannah, acacia woodland, and fresh and soda lakes meant that right up to the last morning, as we reluctantly returned towards Arusha, everyone in our group was keenly looking for (and finding) the last few new species, and savoring final impressions of giraffes, zebras, and elegant impalas passing by—all of us desperately trying to capture that last moment before we had to leave it all behind, like a wonderful dream.
One couple's comments adequately sum it all up: "Such an absolutely phenomenal trip! It exceeded all our expectations and was truly the trip of a lifetime. Travel through the Serengeti was just like being in a movie; it was hard to believe that we really were there amidst all those animals. We enjoyed all the different lodges, the travel in the Land Cruisers, visiting the Maasai village, and of course all the birding. We got some especially good photos of the cheetah with the gazelle kill, and also the leopard in the tree. We ended up with probably something over 350 new life birds."