by traveler Regina McNulty from Geneva, Illinois
My husband and I did an 11-day Birding Safari in Tanzania with Nature’s Wonderland Safaris out of Nairobi. We flew into Nairobi and spent two nights with one day devoted to sightseeing and some birding before taking a shuttle bus to Arusha, Tanzania. We had an amazing time and the whole trip went flawlessly. We would recommend Nature’s Wonderland Safaris and Joseph Mwangi without reservation. We ended up with a list of 316 birds and saw an amazing amount of wildlife.
We flew to Zurich from Chicago and spent a half day touring the city. We stayed at the Ibis near the airport as it was cheap and had a free shuttle. The room was tiny but fine. It was a few blocks walk to the tram station and we zipped into the city centre and walked around enjoying the Christmas decorations (much more restrained than our American ones!) and the interesting old buildings. We walked along the Banhoffstrasse and then along the river to the lake. We picked up five life birds along the way. The sun was shining and snow capped mountains were in view.
Great Crested Grebe
We left Zurich on the 9:25 am flight to Nairobi. We arrived on time and made our way onto the waiting buses for the short trip to the arrivals area. This went very smoothly and we had our visa and were collecting our luggage in 30 minutes. We were never asked for our Yellow Fever cards at any time during the trip but we were glad we had them! On exiting the terminal, our guide Joseph of Nature’s Wonderland Safaris was there to meet us. After a year of talking via email it was great to meet him. Nairobi was the part of the trip we had worried about the most. However, we had no issues and enjoyed our time there. Cannot say enough good things about the Sarova Stanley Hotel. Security was very tight. We had to go through a metal detector each time we entered the hotel and there was security on every floor. All the staff were very friendly and helpful. We enjoyed our meals in the restaurant and felt quite safe. We had a quick drink in the Exchange Bar and fell asleep in a matter of seconds.
We had arranged with Joseph for a full day’s sightseeing and he and his driver picked us up at 8:30 and we headed to the Karen Blixen House. We did some birding in the grounds before we were turned over to Edgar who gave us a private tour of the house and grounds. Next we headed to the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage for their public hour. We had adopted a baby elephant last May and had followed his progress with interest so we were really looking forward to meeting him and all his friends. Thoroughly enjoyed this. All the babies introduced as they came running in from the bush. It was amazing the speed with which they emptied the giant bottles!
We headed to the Utamaduni Craft Centre for lunch and shopping. We had a nice lunch here on the patio even managing some birding while eating. We were the only guests who had binoculars glued to their faces during their meal. Had a nice Pin-Tailed Whydah here and our first cordonbleus. Then it was back to the elephant orphanage for the foster parent’s hour. This was very different from the public viewing. We were standing right there as all the babies came running in. Then we were able to go visit them all in their stockades. The littlest ones were quickly fast asleep in the straw under their blankets.
We had decided to see some of Kenya by taking the shuttle bus to Arusha. This was an adventure. The trip was about 5 hours. The border was chaotic. Lots of people selling things outside and inside very slow moving clerks. Joseph had arranged for our driver, Max, to meet us as we were heading directly for lunch at Shanga Shangaa’s River House. Max is a freelance driver. He was a great driver and very patient with our many stops to look at birds. Shanga Shangaa was very enjoyable. We had a delicious lunch in the thatched building looking out at the lush forest and the monkeys playing in the trees. We did some shopping and enjoyed watching the artisans. Checked in to our hotel, the Impala.
The following day we did an all day trip to Arusha National Park. It was a beautiful breezy day and we got some great birds including perhaps a million flamingos. This was awesome to see. Also got a fleeting glimpse of Kilimanjaro and great views of Mount Meru. There was not a lot of game in this park but the colobus monkeys were very entertaining and we also saw zebra, buffalo, baboon, hippo. This park was beautiful and very different than any of the other parks we visited.
The following morning we headed to Tarangire and Whistling Thorn Camp. This was definitely off the beaten track. Our tent was just as advertised. Loved it! We were served a tasty lunch before we headed back out to explore Tarangire. Tarangire was quite a contrast after lush Arusha. It was very dry but so iconically Africa with its huge baobab trees and its herds of elephants. We saw our first Ostrich here and the only cheetahs of the trip. All we saw of them was some ears and a tail and that only with the aid of our scope which we were glad we brought along. Since it was only the two of us, plus Max and Joseph in an 8 passenger Landcruiser, we were able to set up the scope in the vehicle. Let me say here that Joseph was an amazing birder. We would be driving along some rutted track in a cloud of dust and he would signal Max to stop and back up all the while explaining that there was a Winding Cisticola or whatever on top of a weed. He was always right too. He made sure we didn’t just see the bird, he would take a picture and enlarge it so he could show us the field marks we should look for and what made two similar species different. He was awesome. Any birds we missed were our fault not his.
We awoke to zebras and giraffe grazing a few yards away. Wow! Headed back to Tarangire. We spent all day in Tarangire, stopping at a river overlook picnic area. This area had lots of monkeys stealing food right off tables. We had been warned about this and had a table well back from where they seemed to congregate. In the afternoon, we were concentrating on looking up a palm at a Pygmy Falcon when we heard a sound and there were two elephants cavorting in a puddle right next to the car. How distracted can you be not to hear two elephants approaching? We enjoyed sharing stories with the others in camp that night over drinks and dinner. The following morning we had a Pearl Spotted Owlet near our tent which was exciting. We loved Whistling Thorn but it was time to move on to the Crater.
On the way to the Crater, Joseph had arranged a surprise. He had a local birder meet us at the Endoro gate in the Ngornogorno Conservation Area for a bird walk. We set off up the hill looking down on coffee plantations. We were looking for Schalow’s Turaco which finally gave us decent looks. We really enjoyed getting out of the Landcrusier and walking. Back down the hill and we bounced down the mountain. The road was amazing with switchbacks and ruts and rocks galore. After awhile we began to get glimpses of the crater. Wow! At last we arrived at the Sopa and were shown to our lovely cottage/hut. We birded the grounds a bit with Joseph getting Tacazze Sunbird, Purple Grenadier and Eastern Double Collared Sunbird. Then it was drinks overlooking the crater. We loved this place. The staff was so friendly, food was good and the restaurant was beautiful with the high ceilings and fireplace. It gets quite chilly on the rim and we were delighted with the hot water bottles in our bed.
We were up early to descend into the crater. The scenery was amazing and we immediately started seeing hyena, giraffe, buffalo, warthogs and jackal plus many birds. The lake was filled with flamingos and zebra grazed along the shore. We saw two black rhino! Lunchtime was at the picnic area by the hippo pool. We had been warned about the Black Kites so ate our lunch inside the vehicle while watching others get dive bombed for their chicken legs! After lunch we spotted several lions. We watched two secretary birds hunting and several Kori Bustards. We loved the crater. Once back on top, we birded around the lodge picking up some new sunbirds and a Hunter’s Cisticola. That evening there was a performance by some of the local masaii which we enjoyed along with an excellent dinner.
Next morning we hit the road to the Serengeti. The drive along the other side of the crater past Oldupai Gorge was beautiful. On our way we did some birding around Ndutu seeing African Hoopoe, Black Lored Babbler and Kittlitz Plover before continuing on to the Serengeti Sopa. This lodge was a lovely oasis. Our room was on the second floor and we had a superb view of the Serengeti. Dinner here was very good and we met our waiter Baracka who served us every meal for our 3 night stay. He was so kind and helpful. That evening there was a local dance/acrobatic troop that performed. They were very good.
In the morning we headed out to explore the area near the lodge. I was fascinated by the kopjes and searched each one for big or little cats. No luck. We saw lots of interesting birds. We decided to take a few hours off and go back out at 4. It was lovely to sit by the pool. We went back out heading in a different direction and immediately saw impala, baboons, hippo, giraffe and zebra. In addition we saw some interesting birds including Flappet Lark and Croaking Cisticola.
Headed out for an all day drive. Almost immediately we came upon huge herds of wildebeest. Then we saw other vehicles parked and there was a group of lions munching on an ex-wildebeest. This group was quite far away, however, the next group we came across was right by the roadside and we could hear the bones crunching. About 10 hyena lounged alertly around the bush biding their time. Further down this same track we came upon two lions sleeping in a tree. We also saw a distant leopard in a sausage tree and were very glad of the scope. We had lunch at the Serengeti Visitor Center which had nice clean bathrooms and a selection of dwarf mongeese dashing about under the tables hoping for crumbs. After lunch we took a different track and found ourselves in the middle of a herd of 60 elephants. It was amazing. We just sat there while they grazed all around us. Quite a few little ones. Eventually they drifted away. What an awesome experience! That evening the lights went out in the restaurant and we thought it was someone’s birthday but the music and cake were heading for us. What the…? A cake with candles was deposited in front of me with the word Kwaheri on it. I recognized that word. Goodbye. The manager, Charles, came over and explained that they really appreciated when guest stay longer than one or two nights so on the third night they get a cake. Such a nice touch. Baracka was delighted we enjoyed it so much!
We were very sorry to leave the Serengeti. However we set off to Lake Manyara. We stopped along the way to tour Oldupai Gorge which was interesting but the information was a bit sparse. Then on to Lake Manyara Wldlife Lodge. This place had a beautiful setting high up looking out over the Great Rift Valley. The grounds were beautiful and we enjoyed a refreshing few hours in the pool. Our room was very nicely appointed. There was hardly anyone staying here which was a big change from the Sopa lodges.
In the morning we were awakened by the baboons using the roof below our balcony as a race track. A novel alarm clock! For our last safari day we explored Lake Manyara and continued to add new birds to our list. Mountain Wagtail was our 300th bird! Pangani Longclaw, African Spoonbill, African Fish Eagle, Silvery Cheeked Hornbills and Crested Guineafowl. We also saw elephant, giraffe, wildebeest and more baboons than we could count! Joseph was worried we hadn’t seen enough birds so he came back at 4 so we could bird the grounds. He managed to get us on to a few more new ones. Quite an amazing man.
The following morning started our very long journey home. Drove to Arusha where we had lunch at the Impala while waiting for the shuttle bus to depart at 2. Said goodbye to Max who had been so patient with our bird mania. He was a great, safe driver. We recommend him highly. Onto the shuttle and 5 hours later we arrived at Nairobi Airport. Joseph looked out for us superbly through the entire trip. He was not only a great guide but he made every change to the itinerary I requested right down to the celebration for my husband’s birthday. I can’t say enough good things about him.
The less said about 18 hours in economy class the better. We got home eventually and were glad to have missed Chicago’s polar vortex. This truly was the trip of a lifetime for us! Thank you Joseph!
Great White Pelican
Common Ringed Plover
Northern Red-billed Hornbill
Von der Decken’s Hornbill
African Gray Hornbill
Eastern Olivaceous Warbler
Kenya Violet-backed Sunbird
Eastern Olive Sunbird
Eastern Double-collared Sunbird
Western Yellow Wagtail
African Pied Wagtail
Kenya Rufous Sparrow
Northern Gray-headed Sparrow