By Bert Duplessis
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.
Then it was on to Serengeti Safari Camp. We were in Tent #4 (of 6), which was spacious enough with a comfortable bed and good pillows. We enjoyed an excellent dinner with Philip and a young couple from Hong Kong. In addition to a braised leg of pork the chef prepared a special vegan bean stew, together with carrots, potatoes & broccoli – finished off with dessert.
On the way to the camp we had been experiencing superb game-viewing, despite the fact that we were driving in the middle of the day, usually a very quiet time. We saw hundreds of wildebeest, zebra, Thompsons gazelle, impala, eland, Coho reedbuck, giraffe, elephant, warthog, topi, and some interesting birds. Other additions to the list over the next couple of days were hippo, crocodile, Defassa waterbuck, Olive Baboon, yellow-winged bat, black-backed jackal and spotted hyena. And lions – plenty of lions.
The first lions we bumped into (on the next morning game drive out of SSC) were members of the Gadenja pride – a female and three 4 to 5 month old youngsters. Not long afterward we came upon a group of 10 females and youngsters with another three lions a distance away. Our lion tally for the morning: 18. We spent an hour or so just sitting and waiting for them to possibly take an interest in a group of wildebeest, but no luck.
By noon, we were back in camp for a lunch of vegetarian calzone, pea salad and a mixed green salad. Time for a shower (on request at this bush camp), and then a short nap.
On the afternoon game drive out of Serengeti Safari Camp we made several major additions to the trip list including buffalo and black rhino. There were wildebeest everywhere, huge groups of them of several thousand moving through the area, possibly on their way back to the Mara. The Migration!
Seeing a solitary black rhino in the fading afternoon light was electrifying. It was already too dark for a good photo but it really didn’t matter. Seeing such a rare animal moving about confidently in an open area reminded me of what it must have been like all over Africa, decades ago. Sadly, there are now very few places in the world where you can see a Black Rhino in a totally natural setting.
I was fortunate to get close to some young jackals in very good light this afternoon, for some of the best pics of the trip to date.
SERENGETI SAFARI CAMP – HOUSEKEEPING NOTES
Being a mobile tented camp, SSC is quite basic but I think most visitors would be happy with the overall level of comfort. There is plenty of hot water (on demand) for a bucket shower pretty much any time you want it. Hint: the shower has two settings – trickle and flood – so adjust the rate of flow to your preference. Here is how to make sure you don‘t get stuck all soapy with no water left in the bucket: get yourself totally wet first, lather & shampoo next (turn off the water while you do this) and then rinse.
We would have liked to have some type of running water other than the bucket shower, for brushing teeth and washing one’s face in the morning. The room attendant puts out a couple of jugs (one hot and one room temperature) in the morning but a small spigot on a metal or plastic tank would be a great addition.
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