Serendipity

On Location in Kenya with Parts Unknown

In March 2018, Kili McGowan, Next Adventure’s Managing Director, accompanied the Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown crew during their time on Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. This is her story and photos from that experience.

In the yellow WACO biplane over Lewa

In the yellow WACO biplane over Lewa


 

It was a rainy day.

Surprisingly, the day I met Anthony Bourdain – on safari – was fraught with an unseasonal rain storm that lasted for three months after a 5-year drought. The flooding was so bad in Nairobi it made headlines briefly in the US. We were sitting inside by a fire in the cozy main living room of Lewa Wilderness, a family-owned safari lodge on Lewa Conservancy.

You might say it was when I really met him, because in truth, I’d been introduced to Anthony the day before, just prior to the rain starting. It was arrival day for the shoot and while chatting with my dear friend Kamau Bell who had just arrived from the noise of Nairobi, Anthony walked right up and said hello as if it was just any other day for him. Easy, comfortable and casual…humble, and unlike any other celebrity encounter I’d had before.

A legacy

Anthony and Kamau were at Lewa to shoot what we now know to be one of the final episodes of Parts Unknown, the famous travel series that invites people to see the world through the lens of Anthony and his exceptional crew. Of course, Anthony had been to Africa countless times, but now the seasoned traveler “was dying to see how Kamau handles the heat, the spice, the crowds, the overwhelming rush of a whole new world”.

They started in Nairobi looking for examples of community empowerment and uplifting aspects of Kenya’s pride, politics and creativity. Naturally, they wanted a safari to match this perspective, and they were looking for a story at the intersection of tourism, conservation and local Kenyan engagement.

This perspective – one of hope, creativity and resilience – was a perfect match with one of our beloved destinations, the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Northern Kenya. Established in 1995 by the Craig family, Lewa was originally a cattle ranch that has since grown to be one of the most successful rhino conservation projects in the world while also providing medical services to nearly 50,000 people.

northern rangelands trust lgoAs a conservation model, this patchwork of ranches has inspired the Northern Rangelands Trust which includes 35 community conservancies and 18 ethnic groups spread over 42,000 sq. kms. of Kenya’s wild northern frontier. Lewa is an epicenter of conversations about land and wildlife management, anti-poaching strategies, and secure, sustainable development. Lewa embodies a radical innovation of Kenya’s most foundational structures, and the lesson from Lewa is clear: to protect wildlife, you have to build clinics, support schools and empower local communities.

Uncovering the Story

We knew Anthony and his crew would find what they needed at Lewa. It just so happened that at the time of their visit, presidential politics were extremely precarious, and tensions were also growing in Kenya because of a 5-year drought the country had been experiencing. Managing and monitoring the needs of the communities as well as those of the animals and the sometimes constricting laws that surround land and water usage created desperate situations that were complex and palpable. Although a complex and sensitive issue, we knew that Parts Unknown was interested in capturing some of this story, and certainly how it was impacting the nation overall.

Travel – and the unforgettable gems that result from it – can be tricky. The ‘magical’ moments that travelers seek can be elusive in spite of the best laid plans. Our first sundowner shot with Anthony and Kamau, for example, was enshrouded in streaky grey clouds, but, rather than hang onto that disappointment, we proceeded with our schedule…capturing intimate audio from Anthony that perhaps today carries a bit of comfort that he knew his life was well-lived.

Seventeen f—ing years. As soon as the cameras turn off and the crew will be sitting around, we’ll be having a cocktail, I f— pinch myself. I cannot f— believe that I get to do this.

As luck would have it, magic did manage to find us the next day. In an almost prophetic way, there was a sighting of a male and female lion together on a hilltop where they’ve been spotted before…except this time, they almost immediately sauntered down the hill and walked directly toward our vehicle with Tony and Kamau following behind. After that fortuitous sighting, we continued on to Il Ngwesi Community Ranch for a celebratory lunch that was simple and profound. And then, it happened.

An Unexpected Gift

Coming from a direction that even the Maasai elders didn’t expect was an unlikely storm in an atypical month. Kenyans generally experience the ‘short rains’ in December, and the ‘long rains’ in April and May which is when the bulk of the precipitation happens, but this was March 2nd. The direction, the timing and the dramatic ending of Kenya’s drought was electrifying the country…in that very moment. And, it was captured by and with Anthony Bourdain. The entire community, the crew, even Kamau…everyone…was dancing in celebration of the unexpected gift.

This is how I ended up in front of a fire with the sound of raindrops on the roof, chatting with Anthony. Not surprisingly, we talked about travel. I was curious if there was a destination he found most surprising, and he told me about Iran…he said the people were kind, welcoming and embracing. We talked about respecting cultures and how when someone you just met offers you something to eat, you absolutely eat it. For Anthony, the first and final frontier was a culture’s food, and, to have an authentic adventure, one must be completely immersed in it.

That visit, now documented in one of his final episodes, will certainly be held as one of my most treasured memories. The rain we had was certainly symbolic of how his visit brought so many gifts to this hopeful place; from his company around that fire to the light that this episode will bring to Lewa and the surrounding communities and certainly to the ongoing story of Kenya’s beauty and resilience.

Learn more about visiting Lewa

Special thanks to Dawn Shalhoup at www.prpotion.com for helping tell this story.

Kili & The Snoring Rhinoceros

In the quiet pre-dawn, our small group huddled together around the tea and coffee that the camp staff had so beautifully laid out. There was a ripple of excitement among my colleagues and fellow members of Safari Professionals–we were seeing a rhino receive a veterinary field check-up and be fitted with an electronic tracking device today! For some of us, this was a first time close encounter with the ‘nitty gritty’ of conservation work. We were thrilled to see conservation efforts we’re so passionate about in action! All of us support the incredible work being done by Map Ives and Rhino Conservation Botswana, and we couldn’t have been more grateful to the entire team from Wilderness Safaris for facilitating this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

When the time came, like the quiet creatures we were setting out to see, our group slowly moved toward our waiting helicopters. As the helis zipped us along to the rendezvous point, I marveled at how anyone could find a rhino in the vast landscape that is the Okavango Delta. Waves of hope and undercurrents of despair washed over me–hope that conservation efforts like these were having a positive impact for rhinos and despair that the situation is so dire that these operations are essential to the survival of this extraordinary species.  

We touched down, and our small group met with the team of veterinarians who had identified a large adult male White Rhino for darting. It was an individual who had been relocated to Botswana some 20 years ago. The vet expertly tranquilized the rhino so that he could be fitted for his electronic monitoring devices. The veterinary team would also measure and check his overall health to document his condition. As we approached by vehicle and then on foot, I had to gasp at the sheer size of the rhinoceros. He was massive and lying peacefully as the vets quickly got their samples and measurements.

In the awed silence while watching them work, I could hear the rhino’s slow rhythmic breathing and watch his chest expand with each inhale. We could examine his enormous horn closely–even seeing the tiny fibers which make up this valuable commodity. We were able to touch the soft skin of his underbelly and his coarse mud-covered back.

I was filled with hope and my eyes teared up as the vets efficiently set the tracking devices in place and revived the rhino. Within a minute, our rhino stood and carefully scanned the area before sauntering into the nearby bush.

Get in touch to learn more about hands-on conservation safaris


Magical Mashatu – Kelly’s Trip Report

We got to watch these elegant cheetah brothers move through the beautiful countryside, standing up on massive boulders for a better vantage point – every position was taken with great intention. I was humbled while observing their instincts at play, with all of them watching, always looking in separate directions to optimize hunting opportunities and to continually ensure the safety of their clan.

Kelly mountain biking in MashatuIn the last week of April, I traveled to the Northern Tuli Block in far eastern Botswana, which contains southern Africa’s largest private game area, the Mashatu Game Reserve. I had never been to this region of Botswana before and I was awed by the natural beauty and incredible wildlife that I discovered while staying at both Mashatu Tent Camp and Mashatu Main Lodge.

I flew into Johannesburg, South Africa and stayed overnight at the clean, comfortable, well-priced and conveniently located Citi Lodge business hotel, a short walk from the customs and baggage area at OR Tambo International airport.

After a hearty buffet breakfast at the hotel the next morning, I walked over to check-in for my Angel Gabriel charter flight to the Limpopo airstrip. The Angel Gabriel representative met me at an upright banner near gates 60-65, checked me in and a host escorted me, along with a few others on the flight, through to the boarding area. It was a quick and easy 1-hour flight to Limpopo and the plane buzzed with excitement of a group of women from the UK and France who were arriving to do an overland horseback riding safari.

Mashatu MapUpon landing at Limpopo, clearing customs into Botswana was about as easy as it gets – I simply walked up to the customs window for a stamp. My Mashatu driver, Spike, was waiting for me and within 10 minutes of landing, we were headed on a 45-minute drive towards my home for the night, Mashatu Tent Camp. It started to rain on the drive to camp, so I layered up in my gore-tex and Spike gave me a Mashatu poncho, which I layered on top. My turnaround time at camp was very fast, as afternoon tea was already under way when I arrived. I grabbed my camera gear, had a quick bite to eat and some tea before departing on my first game drive at Mashatu. It was quite wet out there, which is unusual for this area. We stopped to admire giraffe before driving on to a site where an python had been spotted earlier that day. The python had moved on already, so we drove on, taking in the stunning scenery while Marty, PJ and I started getting to know each other. By lucky coincidence, we happened to be staying at Mashatu at the same time, so I got to spend a bit of time in the bush with Next Adventure travelers! We found a huge male leopard just before sunset and got to spend time with him and enjoy a very close sighting before he started moving on. It was a beautiful sight to watch this leopard move through the bush, elegantly hidden by his mesmerizing spotted coat. A hot shower was very welcome before dinner – the canvas tents on raised platforms at Mashatu Tent Camp are cozy and comfortable and have a classic safari vibe, with an outdoor shower and separate bathroom attached to the back of each tent. This is an intimate camp with a welcoming atmosphere, as all guests gather for dinner around a common table for dinner and share stories from the day.

The next morning was cool and crisp – we huddled comfortably under wool blankets in the vehicle as we left camp before sunrise. Our morning was filled with incredible wildlife sightings, beginning with a young injured elephant whose trunk had been caught in a snare, most likely in Zimbabwe, and was now only about 3/4 of the length of a typical elephant trunk. The elephants in Mashatu often times drink water by placing their trunks down through the deep gravel sandbanks in order to filter river water through the earth to ensure greater purity. This poor injured elephant had to kneel down on her knees in order to access water. She was surviving, but clearly her life is far more difficult following this injury and one can only imagine would be shorter than it would have been without this devastating interference of man.

We left our highly adaptable elephant friend and rolled onward, encountering herds of wildebeest and marveling at the giant Mashatu trees, which are the namesake to the area. Mashatu is known as “The Land of the Giants,” which comes from this massive Nyala berry tree and also the many giants of the wildlife kingdom that call Mashatu home. We passed the gorgeous lilac breasted roller (Botswana’s national bird) and stopped to admire this colorful little beauty before driving on to an elusive sighting that our incredible tracker, Goms, was able to spot from a long distance away at the clearing or the edge of the forest – a bush pig! I’ve included a picture below… this was the first time I had ever seen one. Before long, we were treated to some time with a massive black-maned male lion, who is honestly one of the most gorgeous specimens I’ve ever seen. He is eight years old and does not have any notable scars on his body or his face, which is quite rare, as males must fight to defend their territory, sometimes to the death. This male shows such prowess that he has maintained this territory for many years. A hush fell over the safari vehicle while we all sat gazing upon this magnificent creature. He showed such a gentle command of the land, while at the same time exuding extraordinary power and grace.

Mashatu Tent Camp

Very shortly afterwards, we encountered a beautiful, young female leopard. Our guide, Justice, drove expertly through challenging terrain so that we could follow her and watch her move through the wilderness. She walked immediately next to the vehicle and I found myself transfixed, marveling at her intricate coat. We drove through the stunning countryside spotted with acacia trees herds of zebra and black-backed jackals, running alongside their lifelong mate through the grasslands. We came upon a herd of elephant and were able to watch them feed and got to observe the adorable, tiny youngsters following their mothers. I have a soft spot in my heart for all wildlife but eles are one of my favorites. I always take time to study the texture of their skin and to gaze into those soft, gentle, intelligent eyes. Within the herd, there was a massive bull elephant in pursuit of a female – he wanted nothing to do with us and displayed his dominance with loud trumpeting and head swinging. We knowingly quietly drove away, out of respect for this massive and beautiful creature. Our morning drive came to a close and we headed back to Mashatu Tent Camp, where I quickly packed my things and met Justice for the 45-minute trip over to Mashatu Lodge.

I arrived at Mashatu Lodge in time for brunch and was well-fed before settling into my new, quite luxurious room for the afternoon. Mashatu Lodge has a different feel from the tented camp and is a good match for guests seeking more creature comforts and a larger private space to enjoy while at the lodge. The rooms are spacious and very well-appointed, with a sitting area, spa bathroom with double sinks, a soaking tub and a generous shower with waterfall showerhead, along with a full walk-in closet and dressing area. The lodge has a main covered patio overlooking a very active waterhole where breakfast and brunch are served. The food is fresh and delicious with an impressive amount of variety and many healthy choices. The lodge grounds feature a swimming pool, an internet lounge, a curio shop and my favorite – the Gin Trap – a festive gathering place where safari stories are shared over drinks prior to dinner, which is served under the stars, in the glow of torch light in the outdoor boma.

While at Mashatu Lodge, for the majority of the time, I was very lucky to have a private vehicle with Kaiser as my exceptional naturalist guide and Goms as our keenly aware tracker. We had an incredible time together and definitely became friends over the course of those three days…it’s hard not to bond while sharing in such magnificence. Our first sighting that evening was of the same giant male lion that I had seen earlier in the day. We encountered him walking down dirt tracks where safari vehicles had passed, so he was fully visible – it was a special sighting indeed, as he walked directly towards, adjacent to and beyond our vehicle. Our evening ended with a sighting that was particularly special to me – just before dark we got to spend time with a mother cheetah with three female cubs. I had not seen cheetah since my first safari in Kenya, 17 years earlier, so I was thrilled at the chance to spend time with these elegant cats once more. The four of them were lying flat in a clearing on the grasslands. We stayed with them until dark and then drove to enjoy sundowners and getting to know each other a bit more. On the drive home, due to the expertise of our spotter, I got to see a family of African Wildcat, which is quite a rare sighting. The kittens were tiny and peering out of the bush with innocent and curious eyes.

Checkout this 24/7 live feed video from Pete’s Pond on Mashatu

The following morning started with a long-distance sighting of a leopard crossing the massive, dry riverbed that we were driving through. As the sun continued to rise, we followed her on a seemingly impossible driving route up the very steep riverbank and into the heavily wooded terrain above. Kaiser thought that there was a possibility she might be moving her young cub, which would’ve been really exciting to see, but it turns out that she had apparently already moved the cub earlier in the day. We stayed with her for a while and drove a carefully executed route that our tracker recommended, in order to follow her through the bush. Our sighting culminated with the leopard starting to hunt an impala that was just off her track and out of sight. The leopard determined that the impala was too far away to be worth expending so much effort, but we did get to watch her position into a crouch and begin the process of what would have been a hunt, had the conditions been more favorable. Thrilling!

After this very exciting start to our morning, we continued through the beautiful landscape and came upon a mother cheetah with three sons. The young males were playing with each other and exploring the area for a bit before the mother got up and prompted them to follow her, at which point they all walked off through the bush. Almost as soon as we left this family of cheetah, we came upon another family. The Mashatu terrain of open grassland, dotted with acacia trees, which provide shade and excellent cover, is perfect hunting terrain for cheetah so they thrive in this area. We watched this family under a tree and I was just mesmerized by their markings and their affectionate behavior with each other. After a full morning of cats, we stopped in yet another beautiful spot for coffee and fresh baked goodies, surrounded by ostrich walking in the distance, paired off with their mates.

Kelly Mountain Biking SafariDuring my stay, I had a unique treat in store – I got to mountain bike with my guide Mario, riding on the ancient elephant trails that cross the reserve! This was such an exciting adventure and a beautiful way to experience the area. In some ways, it was even more intimate being on a bike, as we peddled across the landscape with herds of impala running through the bush, crossing in front of us and running alongside as we peddled. On our ride, we encountered a herd of elephant almost immediately, so Mario and I stopped and admired them from afar (with my heart pounding), making sure that we weren’t causing them any distress before turning to ride the other direction. One of the unique qualities of staying at Mashatu and being on the private reserve, is that you do have the option to ride mountain bikes and also to choose walking safaris, providing a huge amount of flexibility and variety to your experience. Mashatu is an excellent option for travelers who are interested in being more active while being on safari. At the end of my mountain bike adventure, Mario and I met up with Kaiser and Goms and the vehicle. I said goodbye to Mario and my bike and drove off to end the evening enjoying sundowners and listening to the call to the calling lions. We followed the calls of three females and spent sunset and the transition to complete darkness next to the pride listening to this beautiful, resonant and utterly primal sound.

One of my most memorable sightings at Mashatu was following a coalition of three mail cheetahs who have been together since their birth and are now 15 years old. They look very healthy and are obviously so bonded to each other, it was really heartwarming to see. I’m sure this brotherly bond is one of the reasons for their success as a coalition of hunters and for their long, successful life together. We got to watch these elegant cheetah brothers move through the beautiful countryside, standing up on massive boulders for a better vantage point – every position was taken with great intention. I was humbled while observing their instincts at play, with all of them watching, always looking in separate directions to optimize hunting opportunities and to continually ensure the safety of their clan.

Mashatu Main Lodge

My final wildlife sighting at Mashatu was extremely special, especially for me, because it was the first time I have seen a pack of wild dogs. I am a self-professed “dog freak,” and it was such a joy to see this newly introduced pack of seven wild dogs, who appeared to be thriving after just two months on the reserve. Mother nature seemed to be celebrating with me, Kaiser and Goms when she delivered an absolutely stunning sunset to close our days together on safari at Mashatu. A magical time, indeed!

A Crash of Buffalo on the Serengeti

Sorting through the Serengeti

Lion Cuddles in the Serengeti

Lion Cuddles in the Serengeti

With so many truly spectacular natural wonders within relatively close proximity, it’s no surprise the Northern Circuit and Tanzania’s Serengeti plains are such popular first-time safari destinations. Along with that popularity comes the crowds and an overwhelming array of options to consider:

  • What are the best camps and lodges for each season?
  • Why are some camps so expensive while others seem too cheap?
  • What order of destinations makes the most sense?
  • What is the most efficient way of getting around?
  • Where are the best guides or the best chefs or the best activities for kids?

Of course, the answer to all these questions is, it depends. It depends on you, your preferences and interests and how you envision your ideal safari. That’s why the team at Next Adventure invests so much in educational and familiarization trips throughout East and Southern Africa, and all of our safaris feature custom arrangements based on long running partnerships and our first-hand experience.

In November of 2016, Next Adventure’s Managing Director Kili McGowan spent 3 weeks on a comprehensive tour of some of Tanzania’s best camps and lodges. Read her trip report below, flip through her photos, and get in touch to find out what we would recommend for your safari on Tanzania’s Serengeti plains!


Serengeti – A Swahili word for Endless Plains or Extended Place

Just the sheer number of safari camps and lodges in the Serengeti is daunting, but, when you add that fact that many of them move locations with respect to the seasonal migration, the options can be dizzying. In mid-November, most camps that are not in permanent locations move toward the Ndutu area so they are in position for the expected wildebeest migration, one of Earth’s truly remarkable wildlife wonders.

Typically, the ‘mobile camps’ open in December on the Southern plains. It is quite difficult to predict when the herds will arrive as their movements are very dependent on the rains and other environmental conditions. If one is planning travel during the shoulder season, we highly recommend combining two different regions in Serengeti to maximize your chance of spectacular sightings of the migration.

Southern Serengeti

I visited several properties in the Ndutu / Lake Masek area, most notably the new permanent property Lake Masek Tented Camp, which offers large spacious tents at a mid-range price point. Of course, peak season is December through March when the wildebeest migration and all of the accompanying wildlife drama are at its best, but Lake Masek offers guests year-round big 5 off-road game viewing in the shadow of Mount O’ldeani. Even though I was a bit early for the herds to have arrived, I was treated to an incredible sighting of three bull elephants hanging out in their ‘bachelor herds’ while dwarfing the rest of the animals around them.

Besides the seasonal herds, the Ndutu and Kakessio areas (further southeast from Ndutu, near Lake Eyasi) are well known for decent sightings of wild dogs. Two of our favorite mobile camps in the area are Alex Walker’s Serian Camps, Serengeti South and Serengeti Mobile Kusini. Each camp dedicates a private vehicle to every distinct booking, and they employ some of the best highly trained guides. Guests can hope to catch a glimpse of cheetah on the plains as well as other predators like lion, hyena and wild dog, especially when the herds are in residence (Dec-Mar).

Central Serengeti

Following my stay down south, my guide and I made our way to the Central Serengeti’s Moru Kopjes area. This region is strategic for catching the migration this time of year as it is between Seronera and Ndutu. My home for two nights was Nomad’s Serengeti Safari Camp, a fantastic mobile camp nestled in the kopjes (large rocky hills lying on the flat plains). This part of the Serengeti is just beautiful, and we were very lucky with our lion sightings here. It seemed like we kept finding different prides on every drive, and we even saw a wild black rhino–a rare sighting indeed! The camp itself, like Entamanu Ngorongoro, has a relaxed atmosphere, lovely public areas, and six well-appointed ensuite tents.

For a slightly larger and more permanent option, guests might enjoy the ten-roomed Serengeti Pioneer Camp. Also situated in the game-rich Moru Kopjes area, this lodge has a pool, individual dining, and an unbeatable view from its perch on top of a kopje. Another noteworthy camp in the Moru region is Dunia Camp, which has the unique distinction of an all female staff. The warm manager, highly trained guides, and each team member make a supreme effort to provide the best guest experience possible…and they succeed! Overall, visitors to the Serengeti will find the central area near Seronera/Moru excellent for high density game viewing year round, but they will have to compete with a lot more vehicles from other lodges as well.

Far from the crowds of the Central Serengeti lies the remote Namiri Plains Camp. A stay at this Eastern Serengeti gem makes guests feel like they have the Serengeti to themselves, as no other camp is within one hour’s drive of Namiri Plains. The flat open grasslands are prime habitat for cheetah and other big cats along with plenty of resident game. There is a coalition of six male lions nearby that make for exciting viewing and splendid photographic opportunities. Namiri is a year-round destination ideal for honeymooners and those seeking the hidden side of Serengeti.

Northern Serengeti

Moving North toward the Lobo area of the park, I had the chance to spend time at Elewana’s Serengeti Migration Camp. Don’t let the name fool you! This is a permanent ‘hybrid’ lodge that feels a little like a hotel and camp combined. The accessibility to Lobo airstrip, the delicious food, the swimming pool, amazing river views and plentiful wildlife activity make for an incredible Serengeti stay. This camp might be one of the best choices for families looking to spend time in the park.

Further north along the Kenyan border lies the Lamai wedge, a visually stunning landscape blessed with resident wildlife in the path of the migration. This area, along with Kogatende, typically sees the migration pass through in late June through August and then again when the herds come back from Kenya in late September-October. For travelers who are looking for good value in the Lamai region at a mid-range price point, the modern and fresh Lemala Kuria Hills Lodge is an excellent option. One of my favorite lodges in this area is a luxury camp, Lamai Serengeti, which discreetly blends twelve rooms into the nooks of a kopje. There are long walks between the rooms and the lodge, so this place is not ideal for people with mobility issues. The lodge itself offers simple hearty fare and feels like you are spending time in your friend’s living room…it’s that comfortable and relaxed. There is a resident lion pride right at camp and leopard sightings are common on game drives.

Adjacent to the Lamai Serengeti property is the private villa, Mkombe’s House. This is an ideal family property with two ensuite bedrooms juxtaposed with children’s rooms. Four adults and six children can comfortably occupy the house. Exclusive use of a guide and vehicle, a private chef, and pool are just a few of the amenities of this space. Flexibility is paramount, and there is no age limit for children. Mkombe’s House even provides car seats and high chairs for little ones!

As I flew away from the Serengeti on the long journey home, I had to marvel at the high quality service that Tanzania as a whole delivers to safari travelers. The people I met were very proud of their heritage and language, and they were warm, hospitable and eager to learn about the bigger world. The Highlands at Ngorongoro provided one of the most genuine culture interactions I have ever been part of, and the Serengeti offers a dizzying repository of wildlife diversity as it faces developmental challenges with new properties coming onto the scene each year. The robust lion populations and other cat sightings were highlights as well as the black rhino at Moru Kopjes. After this visit, I feel more invigorated and confident than ever to help Next Adventure travelers find the rare gems within the mainstream bustle of tourism in Tanzania.


With all these choices, which camps and lodges would I recommend for you? Call me to start planning your safari or to hear more about mine!

Read Part 1: Tanzania’s Northern Circuit Shines

Ele eating in the crater

Tanzania’s Northern Circuit Shines

Across the Ngorongoro Crater Floor

Across the Ngorongoro Crater Floor

With so many truly spectacular natural wonders within relatively close proximity, it’s no surprise Tanzania’s Northern Circuit and vast Serengeti plains are such popular first-time safari destinations. Along with that popularity comes the crowds and an overwhelming array of options to consider:

  • What are the best camps and lodges for each season?
  • Why are some camps so expensive while others seem too cheap?
  • What order of destinations makes the most sense?
  • What is the most efficient way of getting around?
  • Where are the best guides or the best chefs or the best activities for kids?

Of course, the answer to all these questions is, it depends. It depends on you, your preferences and interests and how you envision your ideal safari. That’s why the team at Next Adventure invests so much in educational and familiarization trips throughout East and Southern Africa, and all of our safaris feature custom arrangements based on long running partnerships and our first-hand experience.

In November of 2016, Next Adventure’s Managing Director Kili McGowan spent 3 weeks on a comprehensive tour of some of Tanzania’s best camps and lodges. Read her trip report below, flip through her photos, and get in touch to find out what we would recommend for your safari on Tanzania’s Northern Circuit!


Arusha

Touching down at Kilimanjaro Airport, I was full of excitement for the epic safari that lay before me. First, I needed to rest, and the nearby Rivertrees Country Inn provided just the right blend of understated luxury and comfort for my first night in Tanzania. The staff was attentive and full of Tanzanian hospitality. The restaurant welcomes a refreshing mix of Arusha residents and international guests, and the feel of the lodge is very local. I had a restful stay and believe that this is the perfect beginning or end to a safari in Tanzania – a mix of refreshment and convenience enhanced by plentiful birdlife and monkey antics in the gardens. Some of our other favorite places to land in Arusha are the Arusha Coffee Lodge or Lake Duluti Lodge.

Tarangire & Manyara

On my first morning, my private guide and I bumped along to Tarangire for about two hours, taking in the undulating hills and plains that welcome you to Tanzania’s Northern Circuit. Given that we know the Tarangire area quite well and our favorite lodges, Sanctuary Swala Camp and Oliver’s Camp are operating at the highest standards, on this trip I decided to investigate a private concession just outside Tarangire. I arrived at Little Chem Chem set amidst the Baobabs and overlooking the shore of Lake Burunge later that day. This intimate vintage safari camp is the perfect setting for big game walks, tracking animals across the plains, or visiting the village school where you can interact with students.

I enjoyed my chance to stretch my legs after being on the long haul flight and in the vehicle. This area between Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara National Park is home to elephant, buffalo, lion, cheetah, and plentiful plains game species. Seasonally (Dec-Mar), you can view flamingos and hopefully catch zebra and wildebeest calving. Game drives into Tarangire are possible from Little Chem Chem in addition to walking safaris on the private concession.

Sharing the concession to the West is Chem Chem Lodge, an elegant safari lodge known for exquisite culinary experiences and outstanding sundowners on the edge of Lake Manyara. While game drives can be arranged, Chem Chem is best for those who want to set out on foot with their Maasai guides and naturalists. Giraffe, zebra, and many bird species are often your companions on wilderness walks. Meaningful visits to community projects are often considered highlights by many guests. Both of the Chem Chem accommodations embrace the ‘slow safari’ concept where the sensual discovery of the wilderness is paramount. This location is an ideal reprieve from the busier mainstream wildlife viewing destinations and a chance to unwind in the natural beauty of the area while delving into the culture of the Maasai.

Ngorongoro Crater

Climbing the Great Rift escarpment into the higher altitudes of the Ngorongoro highlands, my next destination was Lemala Ngorongoro Camp, located on the crater rim in an Acacia forest on the Eastern side of the crater. This homey mobile camp has spacious tents with heavy duvets, hot water bottles, and gas heaters to combat the chilly evening temperatures. Along with fantastic service and escorted walks in the forest and along the rim, Lemala Ngorongoro offers quick access into the crater at Lemala gate. We were the first car through at 6am to explore the wonders on the crater floor while most other groups did not arrive until an hour later, allowing for excellent photographic conditions and a bit of uncrowded wildlife viewing! Although it can get congested with visitors, Ngorongoro Crater always delivers incredible wildlife sightings of elephant, hyena, eland, zebra and sometimes rhino. This little microcosm of the Tanzanian plains set against that dramatic crater wall is definitely a sight to behold!

Following a full day of exploring the crater, we headed deeper into the foothills and other craters of the region. Approximately 45-minutes north of the Ngorongoro Crater lies a new camp focusing on the culture and natural history of the area, Asilia Africa’s The Highlands at Ngorongoro. Exclusive and remote, The Highlands is an architectural wonder that maintains coziness and luxurious comfort for active travelers in a truly unique setting. The location of the camp, nestled along the Ol Moti Crater, has steep walks between the guest tents and the main lodge. Wood burning stoves keep the domed tents toasty warm and comfortable. Exemplary hosting at family-style meals makes everyone feel welcome and involved in whatever conversation is being held. This camp feels removed from the bustle of Ngorongoro Crater and offers many options for curious travelers looking for something a little different.

Whether trekking around the Ol Moti Crater or descending into the scenic Empakai Crater with it’s tiny lake dotted with flamingos, the naturalist guides at The Highlands are experts on the local flora and fauna. Perhaps the biggest strength of The Highlands is the unobtrusive and genuine village visits. These manyattas are not your typical commercial cultural experiences but authentic opportunities to learn about the Masai lifestyle from the villagers themselves. A guest might participate in bringing the herds into the boma or hearing a local legend from an elder. No matter what your experience, it will be unique as visits are spread among many surrounding backcountry villages.

Another new experience in the Ngorongoro Crater area lies on the Western rim near the Serena access road at Entamanu Ngorongoro, operated by Nomad Tanzania. Although it feels more ‘traditional’ than The Highlands with its proximity to the Crater itself, Entamanu delivers in every way. Without question, the camp has the best view of any crater property–gazing out over the expansive plains of the Serengeti. With no surrounding forest to obscure views, guests are treated to a 180 degree panorama of one of the most famous landscapes on earth…and did I mention the sunsets? Just stunning…on a continent where marking the end of the day with a cocktail and exquisite bites has become a truly important daily ritual, Entamanu shines.

The cushy barefoot luxury of the camp is evident in throughout all 6 tents as well as the huge main area that feels like a big cozy living room. The camp maintains the highest standards of environmental care–and it is completely removable. The design considered ‘leave no trace’ to be a very important theme of the camp while not sparing any creature comforts for guests. Again, the Nomad management and guides provide outstanding hosting, and they make the family-style meals and excursions truly memorable as guests are welcomed as members of the ‘tribe’. The activity focus of Entamanu is bush walking with armed Ngorongoro Conservation Area Rangers and the Nomad guide team along the rim which can be just as exciting as drives on the crater floor. Relationships with the nearby villages are blossoming and soon will be integrated into the guest experience.

An advantage to the Entamanu location is the nearby access to the famous Oldupai Gorge, where paleo-anthropologists Mary & Louis Leakey’s ground-breaking archaeological discoveries changed the way we think of our earliest ancestors. Following a quick breakfast at camp, we were able to be at Oldupai by 8 A.M., well before any other visitors arrived at the museum. Plans are in place for new facilities to open at Oldupai in the coming year. Once we toured the museum, there was ample time for a visit to Shifting Sands, the fascinating crescent shaped dunes of volcanic ash are a rare scientific phenomenon. From there, we continued down the escarpment and onto the vast plains of the Southern Serengeti National Park near Ndutu.


Get in touch to find out what we would recommend for your safari on Tanzania’s Northern Circuit, or continue reading Part 2: Sorting through the Serengeti

 

Lions in South Luangwa, Zambia

My Private Zambia – On Safari with Allen Bechky

Elephants of all sizes were splashing in the mud, rolling in the goop, lying in it from side to side, splashing with their trunks. A less than one year-old calf was the only one who didn’t go in. She just ran about, ears flapping, trunk lolling, without a clue how to use it. — Allen Bechky


In June Allen Bechky led a couple on an extensive, privately guided safari to Zambia’s finest wildlife viewing destinations. Read Allen’s trip report below to see why he keeps returning to Zambia! All photos by Kili McGowan.


Busanga Sunrise

Busanga Sunrise

Another fantastic trip in Zambia. June is the start of winter down there, so the weather was Goldilocks-good. Not too hot, not too cold. Travel was easy as we flew from park to park. Guides, vehicles, accommodation and food were all exemplary.

After a night at Latitude 15 in Lusaka, we started at lovely Chiawa Camp on the Zambezi River. This year is drier than normal, so we were constantly dodging elephants in camp– something that is an every-day occurrence from September through October. My clients, Missy and Clint, are very serious photographers so we focused on game drives, with a few boat cruises on the river. We did not avail ourselves of the opportunity to walk or canoe, or to go fishing.

No worries, we had marvelous wildlife experiences daily, especially elephants. The best came when we were on a boat cruise and parked ourselves on the riverbank right next to a mud hole where a big family group of eles were enjoying a spa. Elephants of all sizes were splashing in the mud, rolling in the goop, lying in it from side to side, splashing with their trunks. A less than one year-old calf was the only one who didn’t go in. She just ran about, ears flapping, trunk lolling, without a clue how to use it. After the mud bath came scratching on trees as only elephants can do: straddle a fallen tree trunk and rub the belly, back up to a tree for the bum. Then the inevitable dust bath. Two young males tangled trunks in a perpetual sparring contest. All this was happening at once. Sure, I’ve seen it all before, but it is always fun to watch. A privilege, really.

On the Busanga Plain in Kafue National Park, we were at the higher altitude of Zambia’s central plateau. Nights were chilly here, but nothing that hot water bottles and cozy duvets couldn’t cure. I expected top notch lion watching here, but, alas, the resident Busanga pride– for years a large and reliable group– had fallen on hard times. The old males died or got pushed out by new guys, and a succession of litters were casualties in the war for territory. It’s a rich one at the marshy center of the seasonally flooded plain. There are always abundant lechwe and puku– both large enough antelopes to make a meal for a couple of lions. A buffalo kill is a feast for an entire pride, but the big herds of black bovines are highly mobile. Many mouths to feed necessitates changing pastures. This time the buffalo were away. Busanga is one of those places where lions regularly climb trees, but we missed it this year, and we could not find the resident cheetah. Not to fret, we had incredible up close (like under the boat) hippo experiences on the swampy little river at the center of the plain and got plenty of cats at our last park, South Luangwa, where we spent a week.

 At Shumba Camp, we found two male lions who were resting. There were vultures on a nearby tree… but we didn’t investigate. When we went back to checkup on the lions in the afternoon, we found they had eaten a male puku. We conjectured that a leopard had killed it and had been there when we first arrived (hence the vultures were off the ground) but had left because of the lions. Of course, we could have been wrong, or the leopard may have left before we arrived. Unsolved mysteries… and who does’t like a good bush who-done-it?

Yup, we were short on kitty shots by the time we got to Luangwa Valley, but we made up for that every day. Between Tena Tena and Kaingo, I think we saw 8 different leopards, with multiple sightings of Malaika, a resident female, and her almost grown daughter. Malaika is a relentless hunter. We watched her stalking, then trying to grab low-flying Guinea fowl from the air. She also attacked an adult male bushbuck. We followed the local lion pride as they began an evening hunt. We could have stayed with them, but we opted to return to camp rather than continue into a night safari. We caught up with the lions again the next morning as they were devouring a buffalo bull.

One of the safari highlights was provided by an unfortunate hippo who had died in the Luangwa River. Its swollen carcass was continually gnawed on by a cauldron of crocodiles (my own collective noun). Hundreds of crocodiles fed on that hippo. They were much more polite to each other than the lions, which growl and fight for their place at the table. With crocs it was more simple. The big guys took turns using a spiraling roll to tear off chunks of meat. Then it was time for a sunbath on a convenient sandy beach, allowing the females and smaller crocs to come in. Someone counted 187 crocodiles there at one time. This croc banquet continued the entire length of our stay at Kaingo Camp. Grisly, gruesome…fascinating.

Zambia never lets me down, and I’m looking forward to returning in June and October of 2017.


ITINERARY IN BRIEF

11 June Arrive in Johannesburg, AtholPlace Hotel (2 nts)

12 June At leisure in Johannesburg, AtholPlace

13 June Scheduled flight to Lusaka, meet Allen Bechky, Latitude 15 Hotel (1 nt)

14 June Scheduled flight to Lower Zambezi, transfer to Chiawa Camp (3 nts)

15-16 June Activities in Lower Zambezi, overnights at Chiawa Camp

17 June Charter/scheduled light air transfer to Kafue via Lusaka, transfer to Shumba Camp (3 nts)

18-19 June Activities in Busanga Plains, Kafue; overnights at Shumba Camp

20 June Light air & scheduled flights to Mfuwe (via Lusaka), transfer to Tena Tena Camp (3 nts)

21-22 June Activities in South Luangwa, overnights at Tena Tena Camp

23 June Game drive transfer to Kaingo Camp (4 nts)

24-26 June Activities in South Luangwa, overnights at Kaingo Camp

27 June Scheduled flight to Lusaka, transfer to Latitude 15 Hotel (1 nt)

28 June Departure from Lusaka


Get in touch to learn more about specialist private guides, safaris in Zambia, or traveling with Allen Bechky.