A National Geographic Expedition to Tanzania and Zanzibar

September 2008

I had co-led such a safari a few years ago (Dec 05) with Bob Caputo the well known Nat Geo photographer so I knew the score - I knew this type of safari was not my favorite type to lead.

This time I was asked to be the Nat Geo expert and the expedition manager, thereby earning two salaries, so yes I did it for the extra money! Last time I had written a long and detailed report listing my suggestions on how to improve their safari ‘expeditions’ and I am happy to report that some of my suggestions were incorporated into these high profile and obviously popular tours.

I am afraid that calling them an expedition is, in my humble opinion, stretching it a bit! There are some excellent aspects to these very organized safaris but I have to re focus whilst leading them as the tight and detailed itinerary doesn’t allow much time for improvising, something I do all the time on safari.

For me the highlights are always the lectures by the guest speakers, but this time I had to lecture a few times as well-something I found both challenging and highly rewarding. These ‘expeditions’ stay at the Serena Lodge chain of Hotels and for their size (over 150 beds) these lodges do a good job indeed, but I can’t help feeling hemmed in and not in touch with the wilds. Two of their smaller properties feature in these trips and they are my favorite parts of the safari and I think the entire 23 safari goers would agree.

Our group in the Ngorongoro CraterOur group in the Ngorongoro Crater

We met at KIA airport and spent our first night at the Serena Mountain Village near Lake Duluti. After I gave an hour long briefing, the next morning we drove on to Serena Manyara for lunch and an afternoon game drive into Lake Manyara National Park. The bird life at the hippo pool was a real highlight.

That evening was my first lecture and I was a little nervous - I had picked 'advice on how to take photographs whilst on safari', as my theme, and the lecture went down very well indeed. Hidden amongst the guests was a pro (he had won this trip in a photo competition) and he taught me a great deal during our time together.

Maasai Village welcomeMaasai Village welcome

After an early morning’s game drive in Manyara we drove on to Ngrongoro and to one of those ‘set up cultural bomas’ for a visit. It was great fun and I’m sure the many dollars that gets spread around helps the Maasai of this area. The evenings lecture was by a Maasai leader and his wife and it was fascinating. Of course we discussed polygamy and as always I asked if these leaders think it has a future! 4 wives to each man mean 3 poor guys without in my reckoning, but he disagreed and sought comfort in his belief that more daughters are born in Maasai cultures than in non polygamy cultures!

After a hectic day in the crater, where thankfully we didn’t see too many other vehicles, we walked the crater rim for a couple of hours before meeting Meave Leakey for her lecture. Since the last trip Meave had expanded and introduced more up to date findings on our human origins, into her lecture, and I was thrilled to introduce her and marvel at her descriptions and insight. For me her lecture was the highlight of the trip without a doubt. The next morning we went to visit Olduvai Gorge and Meave gave us another talk at the ‘ZINJ’ site. We searched for, and found, fossils; we discussed what is presently known and, as a person that is fascinated by the origins of his own species, I was enthralled.

Our lecture at Olduvai with Meave LeakeyOur lecture at Olduvai with Meave Leakey

At the ZINJ site OlduvaiAt the 'ZINJ' site Olduvai

Meave departed and we drove the long day’s journey across to the Serengeti’s Western Corridor in some haste. It had rained heavily and the ‘migration’ was nowhere to be seen! At these rare moments when visitors have traveled thousands of miles and spent hard eared money to witness the famous Serengeti migration – and it is no where to be seen- my heart goes out to them.

The Serena Kirawira Tented camp makes up for it a little, the lions and crocs and hippos were performing, but where were those beasts? It had rained so much the day before we had arrived that tens of thousands of migrating animals had literally moved on overnight!

My second lecture was on the birds of Tanzania so my comfort zone whilst speaking returned and the news that the migration was pouring into Seronera (our next destination before heading to Zanzibar) made me relax more. And oh yes – some of the guests went for a balloon ride.

After two nights in the Western Corridor we drove into Seronera and the wildebeest suddenly took over our lives. Their presence in big numbers and all around you dominates the day. Our lecture by the Serengeti Lion Project that afternoon was fascinating and the large Serena Lodge was busy indeed. Again I felt hemmed in. That evening the sight of a very fat Maasai man in traditional dress walking around the dinning area whilst strumming a guitar singing old Elvis songs, drove me to bed early and I awoke at dawn hoping that the flights to Zanzibar via Arusha would go well.

The Kirawira Tented camp at breakfastThe Kirawira Tented camp at breakfast

The lobby at kirawira Tented Camp Western SerengetiThe lobby at kirawira Tented Camp Western Serengeti

    And so it was we left the Ngorongoro and Serengeti areas having experienced the dry and wet season, the migration at Seronera, the croc and hippo infested Grumeti River and a thousand other wonderful experiences with people and wildlife.  Seronera airstrip is very busy these days and we only waited an extra hour for our flight there, and then an extra hour in Arusha, so we got to the Serena Inn in stone town at a reasonable hour in the late afternoon. It could have been much worse if we had suffered the kind of recent delays I have heard of.

The next days walking tour was well organized and as Jombi (my assistant) and I could now relax just a little, having other ‘experts’ around, I really enjoyed learning more of Zanzibar’s history and unique buildings. After lunch the group split into two – one group to visit the spice growing areas of this island and the other to seek out the unique Zanzibar Red Colobus monkey.

A Red Colobus in Jozani Forest ZanzibarA Red Colobus in Jozani Forest Zanzibar

The pool at Serena Inn ZanzibarThe pool at Serena Inn Zanzibar

The Ocean Paradise Resort was our final stay on this ‘tour’ and it was my first time there. These huge 100+ roomed beach resorts are not my scene and as I talked to the staff I realized that none of them, except perhaps for a few dancers and musicians, were from Zanzibar Island. They were either Christians or main land Muslims that seem more tolerate of westerners stripping off their clothes and wearing swimming trucks or bikinis and drinking alcohol all day and night around the pool. It’s sad but true that these resorts hardly benefit many local Zanzibar people. I’m sure locals provide the food supplies but I can’t help thinking that something is wrong here. The two days here passed very quickly and I was glad we went to snorkel the nearby coral reef. I didn’t attend the disco but certainly heard it as I tried to sleep. Am I getting old and boring?  I just don’t get these places. We could have been anywhere in the tropics.

We flew out of Zanzibar in the late afternoon, dined at Dar es Salaam Airport’s Flamingo restaurant and said goodbye at 8pm to 23 very nice safari guests, mostly Americans that will hopefully vote for Obama. My assistant Jombi Kivuyo, a 32 year old Maasai man, was a pleasure to work with, as were the four driver/guides and also I think that both the Arusha office and the Chicago based office provide excellent back up, support and advice. I would still change quite a few things on these trips but this is not my market or style so I will leave such ‘expeditions’ for others to organize!

Best wishes