The Prelude – When Cindy Bailey and I first started dating now going on five years ago, one of the subjects we explored was travel goals. Close to the top of the list was my telling her she had to get to Africa before it disappeared. I had been fortunate to have traveled to Kenya and to South Africa and each trip had been magical. We also talked about travels to South America. She had not been to either area and we agreed to make them early travel priorities. We found two trips that greatly appealed: a trip to Tanzania with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT) and a birds and wine trip to Argentina and Chile with Field Guides. Given that Cindy was not a birder, these at first seemed like a bit selfish on my part, but the sale was easy. It was the wine that made the Field Guides trip easy and as for Africa, it was my assurance that even avid birders quickly forgot about the birds when there were cheetahs, lions or leopards to be seen.
We committed to both trips and then…Covid. Both of those trips were wiped out as were possible trips to Cuba and to Charleston S.C. and Savannah, GA. Two years of exciting travel disappeared as the world isolated and tourism vanished. When a comfort level with travel finally returned, the trips we had planned were no longer available. I was desperate for a great birding trip and Cindy just wanted to travel somewhere new. So we traveled to Ecuador – a top birding destination and a trial run for other travel later. Ecuador was great and even though there was maybe a bit more birding than Cindy would prefer, she loved the nature, the people and the place and even many of the birds, especially the colorful tanagers and hummingbirds that visited the many feeders at fun lodges. OK Africa was back on the agenda – even a “birding” trip. When we found two spots open on the VENT Tanzania trip for February/March 2023, we signed on. It was months ahead and when Cindy had her fall on some ice in November 2022 and tore her rotator cuff, there was a possibility that we would have to cancel. The surgery went well. The recovery went well; and we were good to go. In this series of blogs, I will share the rest of the story, in Cindy’s words, “a life changing trip.”
All told our trip was 20 days – leaving Seattle of February 13th with an 11.5 hour flight on Qatar Airways from Seattle to Doha, Qatar. an 8-hour layover and then a 5.5 hour flight from Doha to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, reversing that with a somewhat shorter return to Seattle on March 5 – with an 11 hour time difference making that 28 hour trip seem a lot less. I probably could write an entire blog post about flying on Qatar Airways (not as great as advertised) or our two layovers at the Doha Airport – otherworldly and not necessarily in a positive way. We had “economy premium” seats. Basically that meant a few extra inches of leg room – same food as economy and that’s it. Before we left, we had seen a list of movies on the Qatar Air entertainment system. Not the case. They advertised 4000 options. Maybe so but the sound quality was poor, the picture not much better and, understandably, many of those thousands were either Arabic or Bollywood movies. Maybe three of the movies that had caught our interest earlier were available, the rest ones we had barely heard of. On an 11+ hour flight, anything to kill time is welcome. We did watch “Rear Window” and that was about it.
The flight was smooth and did leave and arrive on schedule. Flying into Doha is quite an experience. After miles/hours of nothing, we could see the bright lights of the City of Doha – almost a Disneyland of architecturally flamboyant high rises. Cindy likened it to the strip in Las Vegas. The airport is over the top as well. It is humongous. We got off the plane down a stairway that was brought up to the plane. Then we boarded a bus and had a fairly long ride around the tarmac to get to the terminal itself. Then, even though we had obviously cleared security to board the plane, we went through even more stringent security to get into the terminal itself – as connecting passengers. I think it was around 5 in the evening local time and the terminal was busy but not crowded. There were helpful guides around to direct people to wherever they were going. (“Go the giant bear and turn right” was our direction.) We were going to a lounge where we would spend the next 7 hours until our flight to Kilimanjaro. This was no ordinary terminal shopping place. A partial list of stores includes Harrods, Jimmy Choo, Apple Store, Samsung Store, Swarovski, Duty Free, Coach, and Michael Kors among others. A simple magazine shop? Not really. The lounge was nice although somewhat crowded. For the entry fee of $55 each, we got nice seats, free drinks, some decent food (a great soup) and access to a very limited sleeping area with some horizontal seats that were ok, but the room was too small and too noisy (including people talking out loud on their phones – really?!!??). We each got maybe an hour of sleep once sleeping spots opened up. Our departure was set for 1:30 a.m. on the 15th. We left the lounge at midnight and OMG, there were thousands of people in the terminal. Definitely a mix of folks from everywhere, Africa, India, Europe, America, and Australia. Surprisingly not many East Asians and no noticeable Hispanics. Not too many were shopping except mostly at the duty free shop. It was a LONG walk to get to our gate, but we were there in plenty of time and boarded for the next flight which at 5 hours seemed a dream after the previous one. No improvements on the entertainment system, but adrenalin and excitement was kicking in and despite so little sleep, we felt pretty good when we arrived. Tanzania is 11 hours later than Seattle so we left on the 13th and arrived on the 15th. Altogether, we had flown almost 10,000 miles.We were ready.
Tanzania is in East Africa, largely south of the Equator with an area of 364,900 square miles, almost 900 miles of coastline on the Indian Ocean and a population of 64 million. As points of reference, that is 100,000 square miles larger than Texas and a population almost twice that of California with a longer coastline. It is only the 13th largest country in Africa – a big continent indeed, second only to Asia. Our tour started in Kilimanjaro – about 250 miles west of the Indian Ocean and basically was a circle route going west to Mwanza and then back with stops at 8 lodges – all way more than comfortable.
After considering other approaches, I have decided to write this in a similar fashion as other travel blogs, a mostly sequential log of what we did when although there may be some jumps or references backwards and forward. There will be a lot left out, but I am going to try to include places and birds and animals and peoples and stories and impressions without an absolute consistent linear connection. First though a continuation of this prelude for context if nothing else.
I had four main goals for this trip. First and foremost was for Cindy to enjoy Africa, seeing the animals I had talked about as well as some beautiful birds but mostly to feel the magic of a very special place so different from anything else she had experienced. Secondly I specifically wanted to add at least 37 species to my World Life List of bird species seen to get me to 3000 species. Third was to get pictures of some of the new birds as well as of species I had seen in Kenya or South Africa but for which I had no photos. The hope was to get photos at least 130 new photos to get me to around 1770 species hopefully on my way to more than 2000 someday. The last goal was to have both of us come away wanting more. This was not a trip to add that many species to my life list. Looking at the bird list from previous VENT Tanzania trips, even though the species list promised over 400 species, there was great overlap with my 2007 trip to Kenya and 2014 trip to South Africa, and at the very most it looked like maybe a chance for maybe 70+ lifers. Not going to make you wait for the end to find out. The final numbers were 432 species seen including 77 World Lifers. I got photos of 339 species including 150 new species photographed. (As a side note: when I returned home I had a chance to go over all of my photos from earlier trips – something that took well over 100 hours. I discovered I had previously unidentified photos of another 15 species including another 7 world lifers. So bottom line a very good listing and photography trip plus the trip-initiated review process resulting in more lifers in both categories. The official Ebird stats are a World Life List of 3040 species and 1810 world photos. Since I took almost no photos on many early trips and relatively few until fairly recently, I guess I am pretty happy – just wish I had taken photos earlier.)
In Africa Officially Day 2 – Arrival at Ngare Sero
I have friends that have undertaken international adventure travel on their own. We are not that brave. We did have to arrange our own air travel – a lot more challenging, a lot less fun, and a lot more expensive than it was even not that many years ago. But everything else was in the hands of VENT. I had excellent experience with them on earlier trips to Kenya, India and Texas and was pleased with the itinerary, the planned accommodations, the guides and office administration. The only moment of tension was upon arrival at the Kilimanjaro Airport, just Cindy and me, hoping that as we departed the airport, someone would be there holding a sign with our names on it – our secure entry into our adventure and transportation to our first accommodation, the Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge, where we would join the group, all of whom had arrived the previous night flying through Amsterdam. Thankfully, there he was, holding that welcomed sing: Bernson/Bailey. We were now officially “On Safari”.
Eco-tourism, especially the safari business, is a big part of the Tanzanian economy – over 10% of GDP. This is similar to many European Countries like the U.K., Italy and France but contrasts greatly with not even 3% in the U.S. And unlike those countries, the large majority of Tanzanian tourism is international. Accordingly the tourist infrastructure in Tanzania is highly developed, with many well-maintained National Parks, superb lodges and numerous travel companies. For example, all of the safari vehicles we saw had company signs/logos on their sides or on their spare tire covers at the back of the vehicle. We noted over 100 different safari companies. It’s a big business. That’s not to say the roads were all that great – except the main highways between cities, we almost entirely on dirt roads/tracks, dusty and bumpy. A surprising measure of that bumpiness was the “steps accounting” on the digital watches of many travelers. The watches counted the bouncing as steps and at the end of a day when we were barely out of the vehicles, total steps often were in excess of 12,000.
We encountered our first bumpy, dusty dirt road on our way from the Kilimanjaro Airport to Ngare Sero Lodge, our first home away from home. The Lodge is about 21 miles from the airport. The first 19 or so miles are on the good 2 to 4 lane T2 (Kikatiti) Road. The road provided our first glimpse into non-tourist Africa with commercial activity on both sides of the road and also agricultural fields. Shops were generally very small and constructed very differently from familiar development back home – mostly simple construction with materials at hand, adobe bricks, corrugated iron, some wood – not built for the long haul. The road was fairly busy with a mix of small cars, small trucks, jitneys, and many motorbikes. Fruits and vegetables were often being sold right at the curbside perhaps by the families that had grown them on small pieces of land. Intersections along the way were with dirt roads that headed off to small lots and small homes away from the highway. It was on one of these intersections that we left the pavement and headed off on dirt. One would not have guessed that a mile or so in, passing some very rundown looking properties we would turn onto a paved driveway and a gate that took us to our lodge – manicured lawns, beautiful plantings, a main building and lodge rooms which would be our very comfortable home for the next two nights.
All of the other members of the tour had arrived at Ngare Sero the night before, met for breakfast and had a first bird walk with VENT guide Kevin Zimmer early that morning. We arrived a bit after that first bird walk had finished and checked into our room and then walked the grounds, met some of the others and looked for some birds on our own. The first species I saw was a Red Headed Weaver, which I had previously seen in Kenya. The group reassembled and we walked around the grounds, the small pond and the little stream that were on the property. It was not the greatest look, but I quickly added my first life bird for the trip, a Taveta Golden-Weaver at its nest on some reeds in the pond. On that first walk we had a total of 41 species including additional lifers Little Sparrowhawk, Common House Martin, Kenrick’s Starling, and Gray Olive Greenbul. Some other highlights were Cindy’s first hornbills, Silvery Cheeked and Crowned, an African Fish Eagle, and a Tambourine Dove. I was happy to get several photos including of a very lovely Yellow-breasted Apalis.
Unfortunately a species we did not see was a Peter’s Twinspot. It was high on my target list and this was the only location where it was a possibility. It had been seen by two birders briefly at breakfast and despite looking for it with many eyes and at many times later, it was not seen again. There were very few disappointments on this trip, but this was one.
After lunch and then a chance to rest, we had another bird walk on the grounds in the afternoon which added a few more species although no lifers and then after dinner we reassembled and Kevin called in an African Wood Owl. There is a resident pair at the lodge. Unfortunately I forgot to bring my camera. The male perched in the open and with Kevin’s spotlight we had great looks. I borrowed Kevin’s camera so I could say that I took a photo. I have not received a copy of that photo yet so am substituting one from online and will replace it if I get one from Kevin.
The tally for the day was 47 species with some lifers and some new photos. Missing the Twinspot hurt but I at least thought there was always tomorrow. And tomorrow meant into Arusha National Park – great birds and our first African mammals. Sleep came easily.
One thought on “Africa Again — Finally”
Glad you finally got to do this amazing trip
It’s a dream of mine to go to Africa one day and seeing the mammals is a dream