As an avid nature and wildlife lover I have done the Masai Mara circuit in Kenya a few times and was now all set to visit Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Mnyara - all by myself.
Ground work and tweaking the plan
I immersed myself researching on how to get there, what and when to see and at a cost that would not dent my modest savings. I steered clear of travel agents since they are at sea when it comes to working out safari details or for helping give you true value for money, I opted for the "I will work my own itinerary" plan. So, I did use the agent, but one who did more my bidding than I his. Essentially knowing what you want to do and figuring the days you intend spending in each park help as initial information to the agent before the to and fro happens to crystallise the plan. The agent shared my travel details with his counterparts in Africa and got me rates. This was time consuming but then for a trip to Africa, patience has to be kept in good abundance. I also scoured the net for the best rates offered by various lodges located in Mara and Serengeti, reading Traveller Guide and Trip Advisor feedback about the lodges I planned to stay; undertaking comparisons and finally zeroing in on the Serena Lodges which are safe, well staffed with reasonably good food on offer. Most importantly, they are located inside the park, providing opportunity to see a dozen Impala, right at your doorstep.
Tip: Make sure you don't pay more than what you have to. For example, park entry fees is only $30 which a gullible tourist may end up shelling out $50-100. Also, inspite of making a booking for two days for the lodge in the game park you may actually spend only one and a half days, for rest of the time you are driving through the game park. So, negotiate rates accordingly.
Getting There: Ngorongoro & Serengeti.
I took a direct flight to Kenya, then a connecting flight to Tanzania- Kilimanjaro airport before driving through Arusha- a congested town. Even though the journey is scenic, it can be back breaking. In hindsight I feel it would be better if one were to land in Ngorongoro or the Serengeti directly, since both have their own airstrips. Also, the aerial view of Africa is spectacular. On offer is a balloon ride for $500 with a champagne breakfast on descent, which to me is a tad over priced. As for overall safety, Tanzania is as safe as your friendly neighborhood back home, unless you decide to leave your camera unattended and flash your dollars, inviting undue attention.
The Serena Lodge where I stayed is in the Nogorongoro and is 335 kms from Arusha.
By road: transfers by road from Arusha take approximately 5 hours to Nogorongoro and from there to Serengeti add another 4 hours.
By air: The airstrip is adjacent to the lodge and a 'meet and greet' and transfer service is offered.
The rooms at the Serena lodges were large, modern and comfortable. Staff is helpful too.
It is quite spectacular sitting on your balcony overlooking the Savannah watching the sunset over the vast Serengeti Plains over a cup of coffee. The African coffee is lovely and it beats both our own Nescafe and the Columbian versions hollow. This hotel, like most Serena Lodges, has a similar theme, built on a cliff overlooking the African Savannah Plains.
The Serengeti Serena Lodge
The location of the hotel is its best feature being right in the middle of Serengeti which is in the Seronera area. The views from the thatched rondavels (holiday cottages) are stunning with wildlife literally at your doorstep. Like other Serena's where I've stayed in Tanzania, the rooms are scattered around beautiful grounds, while the food and bar are centrally located, offering outdoor dining with a view. From the cottages you can get an expansive view of the Serengeti plains. Watching Impala and other animals just a few feet away is soothing and exotic. However, the occasional grunt of a large cat is a stark realisation that you are very much in lion country.
Within the lodge, do not resist the staff's assistance as they escort you to and from rooms, especially when dark, since elephants tend to saunter in regularly and the roar of the lions is like just in your backyard. As for food, for the buffet breakfast, there is a plethora of choice with waiter service for lunch and dinner. The local chilled brews are Kilimanjaro or Serengeti and an assortment of fresh fruit is a treat you can keep indulging in. The dinners are excellent with large African menus to choose from. Its hard not to enjoy the crackling fire place (given that Nogorongoro can get pretty chilly), in the bar lounge and being serenaded by a local guitarist belting some mind blowing African music by local performers. The gift shops have nice souvenirs and bric-a-brac though you would find a wider variety and cheaper prices on the street bazaars
What you can expect to see
Africa offers myriad possibilities but it's not physically possible to see most of it in a day or two. The full day safari is a better option than splitting the day in two shifts. Where fellow tourists are concerned, my advice is to stick to groups of four. The 'more is merrier' principle may not work here, since it is unlikely you will encounter like minded people who share the same passion. Imagine at a picture perfect moment when you are completely stilled by the sight of a lioness staring you right in the eye, and someone gets hysterical, shattering the magic of the moment and distracting the animal and before you know, she has sauntered off.
Start early and make sure your guide is a sharp guy. Once he realises you are a nature lover he will try and be as accommodating as possible. Pick your guides' brains and be largely observant. Be generous with the tip. A dollar a day keeps them all lit up and a $50 tip at the end of the two-day safari is good enough.
On an average you can end up seeing 8-10 cats a day depending how lucky you are, although there's no guarantee. One sees a lot of birds and other wildlife and the Rhino is quite elusive and so is the Leopard. On the game drive make sure to carry water, dark shades and a cap for the African sun can be merciless. Other must carries are an insect repellent because the African Tsetse fly can be a hazardous, warm jackets because the mornings are chilly as are the nights and a small torch.
Getting out early morning offers the possibility of witnessing a kill as opposed to when the sun is high and the animals are resting.
What I saw was Nogorongoro Crater: 'Africa's Eden'
Here you can expect the unexpected. Unmatched for its natural variety, you realise this is one of those places where tremendous diversity of landscapes exist. Apart from wildlife, the region has significant archaeological importance, with remains of some of mankind's earliest ancestors. The crater, which formed when a giant volcano exploded and collapsed on itself some two to three million years ago, is 610 m (2,000 ft) deep and its floor covers 260 kms. It is home to the "big five" of rhinoceros, lion, leopard, elephant, and buffalo.
The sheer enormity, beauty and stunning landscape of the place hits you whilst you descend into the crater. Surely, a day to think inspiring thoughts and write uplifting prose and a day to expect the unexpected. Each sight, is a picture postcard. Landscapes rich with spectacular wildlife viewing opportunities in what must be one of the greatest natural wonders on the planets, you are most likelty to run into the endangered Black Rhino, since a small population still thrives in this idyllic and protected environment. Unfortunately, we couldn't get a sighting simply because the animal was shy and elusive - much like the leopard. Howe