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How to Book a Serengeti Migration Safari

A Safari across the endless plains of the Serengeti in an unforgettable experience; it touches something deep within us; creating experiences that will be never be forgotten.  A trip through the Serengeti in Northern Tanzania is both intriguing and exciting, shaped by the fascinating balance between the wildlife, the landscapes and its people.
The great migration is a year round migration sometimes the migration is scattered over a large area other times the animals are concentrated into a huge mass of over a million animals.  It is the last remaining big migration left on our planet and as such many people want to witness this great event. 

The rains are the key to this never ending migratory cycle; and as the weather is unpredictable so is the migration.  Many people try to predict the whereabouts of the animals; if the rains are on time and long enough then on past experience the predictions are accurate.  However, in recent years the rains have not been on time or they have even failed leaving some safari-makers with clients in the wrong area of the Serengeti. 

How to solve this problem involves a little work on your part.  To research your subject and book with care; bellow are a few simple steps to act as a basic guideline.

If you book your safari from late July through to the end of September then it is necessary to book well in advance.  This time of year is madness.  If ever you hear stories of overcrowding in the Serengeti the chances are the safari took place between these months; and most probably the safari was in the Seronera Valley in the central Serengeti.  This area of the Serengeti has a good reliable concentration of animals year round.  Many safari companies are lazy and send there clients to this part of the Serengeti only.  Ensure your safari includes two areas of the Serengeti one should be the south or the north of this huge park depending on the time of year. 

Any other time of year I would leave the actual booking of the safari until a few weeks before your departure.  If it is low season, March to end of June then the safaris [accommodation and to a less extent transport] are at bargain basement rates.  Keep checking on the whereabouts of the migration and then book your accommodation accordingly. 

How, is it possible to keep a check on the whereabouts of the migration may be easier said than done.  There are many sites that claim to have regular updates but they can be two years since the last update.  CC Africa has the best site for updates on the migration but at the time of writing this page was three months out of date.  I would suggest keeping in touch with two or three ‘boutique’ tour operators in Tanzania – they have vehicles with drivers who are returning from the Serengeti every week and so know the movements of the animals.  Most safari companies will keep you informed as it is their job to do so; the more helpful they are the more likely you are to book through them. 

To make life easier there are now several semi-permanent tented camps in the Serengeti.  Do not let the tent bit put you off; they are huge tents with double beds and furniture and even en-suite bathrooms.  Some boast of private butlers for each tent.  They are small camps and have an intimate feel about them.  They are semi permanent because they move several times per year so as to be close to the migration.  To book with one of these camps ensures your safari will be both special and close to the migration.

Take care and put some thought into your safari – the planning is a part of the expedition.  Research a little and make sure your ground operator in Tanzania is willing to make your safari special.  Some are rather sadly only bothered about money and each client is a number only and they are not willing to make changes to itineraries.  Beware of such companies as Tanzania and the Serengeti are amazing; make sure your safari experience is as amazing.

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The Selous, the Buffalo and the Gnu

One of the best places to see animals in Tanzania is in the Selous Game Reserve. This huge reserve has high concentration of animals and a low concentration of tourists. Animals such as lion and leopard and elephant are present in huge concentrations. This is also true of the hoofed animal; the buffalo population stands in excess of 110,000. Waking in a morning, in your tented camp, to witness hundreds of buffalo and gnu coming to drink water from the Rufiji River is one reason among many to make Tanzania you safari destination.

The female Buffalo carry horns as well as the males and often the female horns are wider than the males, although they are usually slimmer then the male buffalo. The digestive system of the buffalo is the most efficient of all the herbivores allowing the buffalos to survive on plants other grazes cannot digest. The lion is the main enemy of the buffalo; the lion is very fond of buffalo meat.

The buffalo have a reputation to be bad tempered and dangerous to humans. This ferocious reputation is a little unfair as like most animals they tend to avoid humans, unless harassed or wounded.

The Selous wildebeest or also known as the Nyassaland gnu has a grayish-yellowish body colour with a black beard and tail. As its name suggest it was first found in Nyassaland [now called Malawi] Because of disease that swept through the whole of Africa in the early 1900’s this animal was almost wiped out and now the Selous is its last stronghold. This subspecies of the wildebeest is clearly different from its cousins in the rest of Africa. An interesting fact is that south of the Rufiji River this subspecies has a white inverted chevron across its nose. North of the river, in the tourist areas only a very small percentage carry this marking, but they are all the same sub-species.

The medium sized impala is probably the most graceful of all the antelopes. They occur in small bachelor herds or in breeding herds consisting of male and female with young. In the Mgeta River area just before the rains start bachelor herds can be seen up to 1,000 animals strong; a most remarkable sight. Impalas are easily spotted in the day and are tremendous jumpers especially if they are startled. When disturbed the males emit a short series of snorts and then takes off in a wonderful spectacle of leaps and bounds.

Mixed herds of impala, wildebeest, zebra and hartebeest are a common sight; as there is safety in numbers. Other animals to be seen are the large Kudu with their distinctive spiraled horns. They are well disguised and will need a keen eye to spot them. The Selous has huge herds of sable antelope and estimated 10,000 of them although they are rare in the tourist parts of this huge reserve.

The largest of antelopes is the Eland which can grow to a staggering 700kg and is able to jump up to two meters from a standing position. They are gregarious creatures, moving through the Selous in herds of up to 100 animals. The Selous Eland bulls are known for their massive horns longer than all the other East African Eland.

The Rufiji river is the southern most limit of the giraffe in East Africa; and as the national symbol and therefore the giraffe cannot be hunted anywhere in Tanzania.

Wart hogs are common in the Selous and are often seen running in lines with their tales up or kneeling on their front legs feeding on short grass, roots or fruit. They need water daily so tend stay close to water. Old males can grow enormous tusks with are used as weapons against predators.

A Selous safari is the ideal place to experience Africa and to see animals in huge numbers. The Northern areas contain the few tourist lodges of the reserve and to choose a camp close to the Rufiji River will be a safari experience unsurpassed anywhere in Africa.

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Orchids on a Remote Plateau

A huge carpet of ground orchids bloom quite unnoticed, every year, in a forgotten corner of Tanzania. This area is the beautiful Southern Highlands of Tanzania, where the country borders with Zambia and Malawi. It is forgotten as possibly it is as far away from the Serengeti and Kilimanjaro as you can get and still be in Tanzania. Although it is a pity it goes so unnoticed but maybe the lack of people helps protect this delicate ecosystem.

This high plateau called the Kitulo Plateau and here high above the madding crowd is a secret sea of orchids. This National Park of wild flowers in all its glorious color is a delight to anyone who appreciates and loves the orchid in its natural setting. The Kitulo Plateau became Tanzania’s fourteenth National Park because unlike the Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater, this park was not created for the protection of fauna but for the protection of the flora and in particular the orchid.

To get to Kitulo travel from Mbeya on the road to the Zambian Border – at a place called Chimala turn south; this is about an hours drive from Mbeya town. Then travel up the escarpment and pass through Matamba and arrive at the plateau.

There are not many amenities here and to be self sufficient is the beast option. There are a few local places to take up boarding close to the park. However, the best option by far is to camp on the plateau itself.

This area, heralded as a botanist’s paradise, is the larges and probably the most important plateau grassland in East Africa. The best time to visit this area is from January through to May, during the long rains. The area is transformed by the rains with the flowering of over 45 species of Orchids many of which are endemic. Even-though this is Africa be prepared for cold on this highland; May to November the temperatures can become quite cool with occasional frosts.

The Tanzanian Government in 2002 declared 402 square kilometers of the plateau to become a National Park to ensure the protection of this special area. This now helps to protect the wild flowers on from agricultural encroachment.

The are also important breeding colonies of birds in this area including the blue swallow, Denham’s bustard, Njombe cisticola and Kipengere seedeater. The striking variable reed frog is common on the plateau, with the very rare butterfly the Neocoenyra petersi seen in January and February.

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Udzungwa Mountains in Southern Tanzania

General Information: This park is a National Park without roads. After arrival the visitors must get out of the safari vehicles and walk. This is a National Park with a difference and is best visited in the dry season; as the paths and trails in the mountains become quite slippery in the wet season and crossing the swollen mountain rivers can become dangerous. It is required to take a guide and or an armed ranger on the hikes. A guide come ranger will cost US$ 10 per group per day.

There are many trails to suit different abilities, from several half day trails to longer more demanding hikes taking several days. There are no lodges in this park and camping is the only option. The sites are basic and it is essential to bring your own camping equipment; or alternatively hire it or use a tour operator that will provide the equipment.

Park Regulations: Leave only footprints and take only photographs. There is no hunting allowed in this park and plant samples are not allowed to be removed. In Tanzania vehicles must keep to the roads in the parks, and similarly hikers in this park must keep to the trails. This is strictly enforced so don’t be tempted to leave the paths. Camp fires are also not allowed. As with the other National Parks in Tanzania visitors must leave by 7 pm; campers must be in the campsites by this time or make arrangements with the Park Warden. The park encourages, wherever possible, for visitors to support the local community.

Access to the Park: Driving south west from Dar es Salaam takes about six hours to reach the park gate. Turn south off the main Dar / Iringa Road at Mikumi town and follow the signs to Ifakara and U.M.N.P. Crossing the Ruaha River the tar road becomes a gravel road, continue for 24 km and at Mang’ula the Headquarters of Udzungwa are signposted on the right. The park is also accessible by private charter flights from Dar es Salaam, train and a regular bus service.

Bio-diversity: The park protects 2500 plant species and 160 of these are used locally as medical plants. There are over 300 animal’s species including 18 vertebrates only found in the Eastern Arc range of mountains. If you are lucky you will be able to spot the recently discovered Sanje Mangabey and the Iringa Red Colobus high in the tropical rainforest.

The park has a rich social and cultural history which is possible for visitors to explore; including the abandoned Mbatwa Village and the Mwanaluvele Salt Caves. These sites demonstrate the shifting patterns of human settlement in the North West area of the park.

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Health Issues on a Tanzanian Safari

When on a walking safari, mountain climbing or walking round the camp, it is advisable to be aware of the following guidelines on health and safety in the African Bush.

Altitude related Illness: These illnesses can kill you and every year tourists die from altitude related illnesses. Higher altitudes are colder even in Africa; there is less oxygen and to walk slowly is essential especially for hikes or climbs above 1,500 to 3,000 meters above sea level. You should be breathing easily with no panting and no extreme physical excursion. Drink water regularly and eat a light diet with lots of carbohydrates. It is essential to keep warm.

Hypothermia or exposure: this is life threatening condition with a lowering of body temperature and can occur with a temperature as high as 10 c [50 f]. Usually caused by cold wet clothing or simply poorly clothed for the conditions. The signs/symptoms include clumsiness, stumbling, apathy, lethargy, confusion, disorientation, and eventually unconsciousness. Treatment for this is to immediate warm the patient in a warm dry environment - a sleeping bag is ideal with one or even two people inside the sleeping bag with the patient. Warm energy rich drinks help as does rest with a return to camp as quickly as possible.

Acute Mountain sickness: This affects many people above 2,050 meters [or 10,000 ft] signs/symptoms include headache nausea fatigue, malaise, loss of appetite, restless or no sleep. The treatment is to slow down, remain in camp, drink water, and rest your body. It is important to adjust to altitude slowly. In case of severe headaches, loss of coordination, breathing difficulties evacuate immediately for medical attention. This condition kills tourists every year in Tanzania!

Hiking in hot or sunny weather often causes heat exhaustion the signs/symptoms are weakness/fatigue, headache, vertigo, thirst nausea/vomiting faintness high body temperature. The treatment is to lay flat in shade, remove clothing to cool the patient, soak the body with cold water, re-hydrate patient and monitor body temperature

Heat stroke is more serious with the signs/symptoms being delirium, coma, rapid pulse, rapid breathing; skin hot and dry, body temperature above 40c [104 f]. Treat as for heat exhaustion but this condition can be fatal so seek medical assistance quickly – evacuate if possible.

Wildlife; try to avoid interaction; normally the wildlife will try to avoid you. Buffalo or elephant may attack if surprised or provoked. When hike in forest or dense bush clap often or call out if met by an aggressive animal; at all times follow the instructions of your armed guide. Never feed wild animals with baboons and monkeys being highly dangerous and they can steel by force as they have learnt to get food from the tourists.

Weather in Tanzania has a rainy season November through to May with sometimes a dryer season January to March dividing the season into short and long rains. It never rains all the time. The dry season June to October, the coldest month being July with high altitudes reaching temperatures bellow freezing.

If you get lost remain where you are; your guide will look for you and find you quicker if are on the trail – this sometimes happens in fog or dense forest. A day pack should include instant body shelter, warm clothing and a water proof jacket, matches or lighter, a mirror or whistle for signaling, food and drink [esp. water] basic first aid, torch and a compass.

Some areas have stinging nettles, no shorts in these areas with stings causing temporary but painful irritations. Safari ants are small shiny brown ants move rapid in columns across trails – they are common and carnivorous, they crawl up your trouser legs and start to chew. Tuck trouser into socks and watch where you step and especially where you stand.

Acacia thorns “cat claws” of the wait-a-bit thorn tree rip skin and clothing – the thorn is long and straight and can pierce soft soled shoes and even car tires so take care and try not to wear sandals. Ticks may be found long grass, to remove a tick grasp head and jerk out of skin.

Snakes will usually avoid humans; one exception is the puff adder. This snake is sluggish and slow to move. When moving around in the dark use a torch to avoid a most unwelcome encounter with the puff adder. Scorpions lurk in the dry country under rocks, behind bark and sometimes climb into boots, clothing or equipment left out at night. The sting from a scorpion can cause severe pain for several hours.

In conclusion to protect yourself – dress right and drink right. Climbing in mountains or highland prepare for extremes. Watch your self day time temperatures can reach 35 c with little shade and may well be freezing at night at higher altitudes. Fine weather can turn into fog or rain quickly. Always carry a waterproof and dry clothing in a plastic bag to keep warm wool and synthetics are better than cotton or down – to keep cool cotton is the better option. Protect yourself from the sun with a hat, sunglasses, skin protection also drink plenty of water and eat a diet high in carbohydrates for energy. Avoid alcohol at high altitudes.

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In search of the Chimpanzee

The Mahale Mountains Park and Gombe Stream are a mixture of grass, woodlands and forest, although it is mostly forest with the majority of its mammals being primates. These forests are lush and green rising up to 15,000 meters above the waters of Lake Tanganyika.

With over twenty years of research, the chimpanzees have become habituated to humans. However, this does not make it easy to find them. Trekking through the forest, which can be quite dense, with steep and often slippery sloping terrain, can be strenuous, dirty work. It is well worth it though to get to see the chimpanzee in their natural habitat. You must expect to walk for three or four hours per day in search of the these primates.

Lake Tanganyika is in the remote west of Tanzania. Getting there is not easy and flying is by far the best option. There is a rail link but it can sometimes take days and is not reliable at all and not really recommended for tourists. From Kigoma there are no roads into Gombe and to hire a boat is the only way to get to Gombe.

The camps in this area tend to be small and are often [charmingly] rustic and eco-friendly. The lake, unusually for Africa, has no crocodiles and many traveler swim in the clear waters. Sunset cruisers and tourists go hand in hand and this destination is no exception. A sunset cruise here is especially enjoyable as the sunsets over the Lake and Eastern Zaire spectacular.

As this park is remote and as the Government is anxious to keep tourism to a minimum, [so park fees are high] getting here and into the forests to spend time with the chimpanzees is expensive but you are in the wilds of Africa.

[primates in this small park which was created especially for the thousands of chimpanzee are : chimpanzees, yellow baboon, Sykes monkeys, red tailed, savannah, colobus monkeys and 2 species of galago] The bird life is also spectacular as are the fish with over 90 species in the lake making snorkeling a safari in itself.

The Tanzanian Tourist Board recommend visiting here between May and October.

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