Tanzania Wildlife 2020 Trip Report

By John Shaw on Mar 10, 2020

The rain happened a few weeks before we arrived.  I should say the “deluge” happened, as this was no gentle rain. Roads were flooded and washed out, grasses grew higher and thicker than usual, and normal patterns of behavior—of both people and animals—were disrupted. By the time our group had assembled the worst was past…but many of the unpaved roads and tracks still had deep mudholes with monster ruts where safari trucks had been stuck. This made backcountry travel difficult, and at one time or another each of our five trucks became temporarily bogged in the mud, but quickly extricated thanks to sturdy tow straps and radio contact between trucks.

Our group met at a lodge located on the outskirts of Arusha, about halfway between the town itself and the aptly named Kilimanjaro International Airport. Kilimanjaro itself, the highest mountain in Africa with its summit of 19,341 feet (5,895 meters) lies not far away. Up close photography of a pair of lionsIn fact, from our lodge we could just see the top of the mountain in the distance, rising above the surrounding trees.

Our first destination was Tarangire National Park. About half of the group had never photographed from a safari vehicle, or worked with long lenses supported on beanbags.  Consequently, our first game drive was in some ways a shakedown cruise in preparation for the rest of the tour. The very first subject we encountered was a group of cooperative elephants, allowing everyone to get comfortable with photographing from the vehicles.

Elephants gathered at waterOur second photo location was the Ngorongoro Crater which became one of the highlight locations for everyone. While the Crater is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s not really a crater but rather a huge volcano caldera with its floor covering roughly 100 square miles. The word Ngorongoro supposedly has an onomatopoeic origin, after the Masai description of the sound of a cowbell (ngoro ngoro). 

There are no lodges within the crater itself and camping is no longer allowed on the crater’s floor. Around 30 years ago, when camping was allowed, I did so…which says something about my current age. On that camping trip, about day two of a five night stay I realized that there was no refrigeration for the food, so you can imagine the results a few days later. Today the only lodging is on the crater’s rim, where there are several very comfortable tourist hotels. The descent from the rim to the crater’s floor is about 2,000 feet, so we took box lunches and did all-day game drives. Silver-backed jackalThe recent rains had left some of the tracks impassible, but our guides knew every twist and turn of all the smaller tracks, allowing us to avoid most of the problems. The rain also created large “ponds” of standing water, providing us multiple opportunities to photograph zebra and wildebeests splashing through. One facet we did notice: the thick grass nourished by the rain seemed to have encouraged silver-backed jackals to use the roads as we encountered one jackal after another. Several times one or two would simply sit by the edge of the road and watch our trucks slowly drive by just a few feet away.

From the Crater we moved to a smaller, more intimate lodge in the southern Serengeti plains, but still within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. On our way to this lodge we stopped at Olduvai Gorge, the site of pioneering excavation work by Mary and Louis Leakey. Their efforts in the 1950s resulted in the earliest known specimens of the human genus, Homo habilis

Lion in treeDuring our stay at this lodge we had two unique experiences. Twice we had the opportunity to photograph tree-climbing lions. Lions are not natural tree climbers like leopards and are certainly a bit awkward ascending and descending. In past years this behavior was known from only two locations in southern Africa, but in recent years it has become slightly more widespread. Be that as it may, we had two very good encounters, spending well over an hour at each site.

We also got to watch from start to finish a cheetah stalk and make a kill. Two of our trucks happened across the cat as it was stretched out and half asleep. Just after the rest of our group arrived it suddenly stood up, fastened its eyes on a distant gazelle, and immediately started a long stalk. We positioned the trucks so that we would not interfere in any manner and watched. While cheetahs have a hunting success rate of around 50%, it’s not often that one gets a ringside seat for the entire event.

Wildebeest with newborn calfOur final stop was at Serengeti National Park. At the entrance to the Park, we spent time with a huge wildebeest herd. We were in Tanzania at wildebeest calving time, and we watched several births happen in the herd, with the new-born calves trying to stand on extremely wobbly legs just minutes after entering the world. Within an hour the calves were running alongside their mothers.

We made two all-day game drives while in the national park. Our first morning started with a cheetah, not more than 15 minutes from the lodge. Then we saw giraffes, elephants, zebras, and lions using the billion-year-old granite outcroppings called kopjes as lounging/lookout spots. We celebrated our final field day with a buffet lunch served under a spreading acacia tree in the middle of the plains. A great way to end a great trip!

Tanzania 2021 With Jeff Vanuga