A safari to the Southern Highlands - late February and March 2011 Part 3: Mikumi and the Coast

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Reluctantly departing The Udzungwa Mountains we travelled to Mikumi National Park and a few check in problems occurred at their main and secondary gates. Firstly we were booked into a camp that was now closed! No one had told us of course. Thankfully this ‘company’ has a sister lodge in another area of the Park. This ‘Hills Lodge’ is perched high on the beautiful Vuma Hills and the resulting breeze was very welcome. Sadly these types of lodges are a bit run down, have uninterested managers and the food can be quite awful. Even to get a decent cup of coffee was difficult.

Our second issue was the sleeping guard at the entrance gate, this fine young lady, once woken proposed marriage to myself and after I declined refused to let us into the Park! Once convinced that I wasn’t a threat to national security and that marrying a stranger wasn’t such a good idea, she let us drive on. Anyway our attitude to adversity is to just get on with the birding and for that Mikumi is excellent. We needed some ‘bush’ birds to get our trip numbers up but we also found a few lifers for some of us. We really enjoyed birding the Vuma Hills and a future trip to drive via this forest habitat to the Selous was planned.

hornbill Mikumi characters

The drive to the coast was uneventful, the new gravel roads well maintained, so our arrival at the entrance to Saadani National Park came by mid afternoon. The Park’s staff here couldn’t have been more professional or more welcoming. We discussed the mammals, plants and birds on show and I found their knowledge level to be quite high. We had booked into the ‘luxury’ Saadani Beach lodge for two nights but this impressive building sits on a uninspiring beach. Once again huge money had been thrown at a project but some silly design features and staff incompetence let’s the overall experience down. One forgettable morning as rain lashed down we awoke to sheets of sideways rain lashing into the rooms. This rain even reached me in my bed and I panicked to make sure my camera equipment wasn’t getting damaged. Just after this on the same morning an askari/waiter set off along the beach (after I had reminded him) with morning coffee for my  2 guests. He not only didn’t find their room, the place was a maze of ill planned beach huts, he just wasn’t seen for 45 minutes as he wondered the beach trying to find the one room other than mine (out of 20) that was occupied!

Once again the birding made up for the lack of lodge quality.  A boat trip up the Wami River and exploratory drives inland gave us plenty of good sightings, but to each pay 600$+ for a room here per night is ridiculous.  On to a better experience at Emayani. Let’s go!

African darter Little egret

Emayani Beach lodge is a fraction of the price of Saadani beach lodge, the beach is better, wilder and the birding is excellent. And everything works! The service and food and cold beer always welcoming.  So on arrival for our 4 nights here we were full of expectations. I had decided to try and photograph shore and sea birds in flight and here are a few of my more successful attempts.

common sandpiper sooty gull

Turnstone

Little tern small tern

Little terns wimbrill

A day out snorkeling and birding the Maziwe Island is wonderful, as are the dawn coastal forest drives. Even the Sisal Plantation social club came up trumps.
We arrived there one evening to watch an important football game only to find the premises completely locked up. All the lights and the TV were on and peeking through the window blinds we could see our game was about to start. ‘The key holder will be here soon.’ I said. We wandered over to chat to his wife who was watching us from a doorway 75 meters away. She had an answer. ‘He’s not there? He’s off with that girl again!’ She called him by mobile phone and he duly arrived within 5 minutes to open the doors. We had only missed 15 minutes of our game and the exchanged looks between the key holder and his wife entertained us as we grabbed a cold beer and watched the action unfold.

This safari of over 23 days travelled from Mbeya to Pangani and I must say that everyone we met, with the exception of the beautiful ranger girl at Mikumi, was truly delightful, helpful and interested in us eccentric birders. The sheer variety of landscapes, back roads, foot paths and accommodations  we encountered made for a memorable Southern Tanzania to the coast at Pangani safari.  I departed for the UK on the last day of our trip, my mind full of images and wonder. Culture shock at Amsterdam Airport lay ahead.

Curlew sandpiper group