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Africa has always been near the top of my “bucket list” so when Jeanne Dubi asked me to co-lead a tour with her to Africa for Sarasota Audubon, I jumped at the chance.
With so many fantastic countries to choose from, we settled on Tanzania. Famous for great birding and big game watching, it was an easy choice.
We started our adventure with a grueling nine hour trans-Atlantic flight to Amsterdam. After a brief rest and a layover we continued for another 9 hours to Kilimanjaro airport in northeastern Tanzania. After securing our visas at the immigration booth, our guides from Masai Wanderings met us, loaded our luggage into two, six-seater Toyota Land cruisers for a 45 minute night ride to our first digs at Arumeru River Lodge near Arusha. We were treated to luxury accommodations and a buffet breakfast first thing in the morning. Before that happened though, most of us were awakened at the break of dawn by unfamiliar bird song. The lodged boasts 12 acres of manicured gardens that attracted Hammerkops (first bird of the trip for me) African Goshawk, Speckled Mousebirds,Variable Sunbirds and our first mammal, the African Dik Dik.
Though it was difficult to pull us away from such a comfortable birding we had miles to cover before reaching our first dedicated safari spot at Tarangire National Park. Our first disappointment was being told that our comfortable lodge at the Sopa Lodge was canceled due to road conditions. We were re-routed to Tanrangire Safari Lodge tent camp. Tent is a bit of a misnomer. The tents are 400 sq ft with separate bathroom and wash basin, shower area and main bedroom. The view from the huge patio area overlooked thousands of acres of the Rift Valley and the Tarangire River with Elephants, Giraffe and Gazelles, Waterbuck and birds galore. Disappointment quickly turned into utter amazement. Although Tarangire is world famous for large herds of Elephants, it is also a birders dream. Our first outing into the park yielded a family group of Elephants grazing not ten feet from the vehicle, with the young elephants exploring our scent with their inquisitive trunks. Although one is not allowed out of the vehicle, we had pop up roofs that allowed us to stand up for great viewing and photo opportunities. Pygmy Falcon, Lilac-breasted Rollers,Hornbills, Bustards, Bare-faced Go-away-birds, Sandgrouse, Spurfowl, Weaver birds, parrots and Barbets kept us busy as well as killer looks at Warthogs, Impala and Giraffes. It was simply overwhelming and exceeded my wildest expectations. At night, a few lucky participants saw an African Scops Owl, our only owl of the trip and one that constantly eluded me.
One could easily spend a full week in Tarangire, but we had two other major stops to make in a short ten days.
Our next adventure was a World Heritage Site that encompasses the worlds largest intact volcanic caldera. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area covers some 3,200 square miles and shelters and feeds around 30,000 mammals that include Blue Wildebeest, Common Zebra, African Buffalo, Hippos, Gazelles, Lions, Bat-eared fox, Spotted Hyena, Black-backed Jackals and the critically endangered Black Rhino. As luck would have it, we were fortunate to have extended views of two Black Rhinos while in the crater.
But mammals were not the only residents there. Tens of thousands of Greater and Lesser Flamingos painted the alkaline Lake Magadi pink with their gaudy feathers. Pipits, Larks, Wheatear, Cistacolas. Longclaws, the amazing Secretarybird, and at 44 pounds, the heaviest flying bird in the world, the Kori Bustard. Raptors were also in evidence here with Lappet-faced, white-backed, Ruppell’s and White-headed Vultures as well as Bateleur and Tawny Eagle. We were once again spoiled by staying in what appeared to be an old hunting lodge, replete with huge hand hewn beams and tile floors and a stupendous 180 degree view of the Ngorongoro Crater. To add amusement to amazement, when someone opened the front door to the lodge, a huge Maribou Stork walked out. The Maribou is the ugliest most amazing looking bird that I have ever seen and sports a wing span that is over ten feet, making it one of the widest wing spans of any land based bird.
Next stop was a cultural awakening at a local Masai village. we were entertained by both the women of the village in traditional song and garb and the men who separately engaged us with a chant of their own and a vertical leaping contest. None of us were brave enough, or for that matter capable enough to accept their challenge to join them. A small hut made of Acacia tree limbs, a dirt floor, three wooden benches and a chalkboard made up their school house. Most of the young would be educated until 10 years old and then sent to work the herds of cattle and goats that made up the bulk of their industry and provided their sustenance. After emptying our hearts and a good portion of our wallets in support of the community, we headed for the world famous Oldupai Gorge. We were quickly reminded that Olduvai was the spelling the British gave the gorge and was not used by the Tanzanian people any longer.
The Oldupai Gorge is well known for the discovery of Lucy, the Ausrtalopithecine hominid that revolutionized thinking on hominid evolution. The actual site is protected and was off limits to the visiting public. We were treated to an in depth lecture on the site and its history as well as a self guided tour to the museum, also dedicated to fossils discovered by the Leakey family and other scientists.
Last, but by far the best, was the spectacular Serengeti. The name means Endless Plain and endless it seems when gazing across the almost 6,000 square miles of protected habitat. A mix of grasslands (lush in the rainy season) Acacia woodlands and rocky outcrops ( great vantage point for lions and leopards to look out on the plains for game) stretch for as far as the eye can see. When the dry season sets in, up to two million Wildebeest and Zebra migrate to the Masai Mara in Kenya where rains fall and the grass is indeed greener on the other side. Though we didn't see two million, we did, on one occasion, find our vehicle in the midst of 50,000 stampeding Wildebeest and Zebras as they headed north to Kenya.
Our camp for the next four days was Nasikia Central Camp located in the center of the Serengeti. A mobile tent camp, run entirely by men, we each had our own large three room tent, complete with huge beds surrounded by netting, solar lights, and fully screened doors and windows. A separate community tent was erected for socializing and provided an area to recharge our batteries and laptops. We ventured out every day at the break of dawn, sometimes returning for brunch and sometimes carrying our lunch with us. Although we did not have professional BIRD guides, we did have professional guides that were not only amazing spotters, but friendly and entertaining. Dust and tsetse flies were insidious and were the only things that kept the outing from being 100% perfect. But hey, this was Africa!! The whole staff at the camp and our guides gave us 5 star service and an experience none of us will ever forget.
While in the Serengeti, we tallied four Cheetahs, two Leopards ( one with a Dik Dik hung in the tree it lounged in) eleven lions and a nice variety of ungulates. In all, we also counted over 250 species of birds in ten short days. One of the hardest places to leave and definitely one of the places that I hope to return to some day soon, the Serengeti is both surreal and magical and hopefully protected forever.
We finished our tour in another luxury lodge in Arusha, providing all the comforts of modern technology. While it was nice to wash the Serengeti dust off with hot running water, the essence of Africa and the Serengeti, Tarangire and Ngorongoro will remain firmly in my mind and soul for years to come.

Be sure to visit the Africa Gallery to see this years highlights.