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Trip report - Tanzania Southern Circuit - June 2003


GovernorPhil
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26th / 27th June

We left Heathrow 40 minutes late, but the pilot made up time and we covered the 4,644 miles incident-free, arriving at Dar es Salaam early on Friday morning. After clearing customs and changing some currency, our driver and Geoff Fox himself met us. The drive to Mikumi National Park took over four hours, during which Geoff whetted our appetites for the holiday ahead by telling us lots of stories about the people we would meet and the places we would see.

 

The safari lodge at Mikumi is a series of medium-sized tents set on wooden platforms, with steps up to the verandahs, which had a small table and two canvas director's chairs. The views from these vantage points were of wide, grassy plains, dotted with acacia and baobab trees and the occasional elephants. We quickly unpacked a few items from our luggage, washed and then headed off up to the bar to have lunch. There were 105 steps for us to climb each time we made this particular trip and so we made quite sure we hadn't forgotten anything before setting off. Geoff introduced us to Tim, his lodge manager and chief guide.

 

After lunch, Tim took us on our first game drive. We saw lots of new birds, a small herd of very annoyed elephants and then, Ruth spotted a lioness with its' kill - a giraffe. The kill appeared to be about two days old according to Tim and it was very smelly.

 

A few tsetse flies were encountered on our drive, but they were not as numerous as we'd expected. Their bites however were quite painful, rather like a hot, blunt needle.

 

We drove back to camp in pitch black; Tim had the headlights on main beam and the thirty-minute journey was very eerie. There were strange, hidden sounds and the flickering headlights created shapes that resembled all sorts of weird and wonderful beasts, guaranteed to make the imagination run riot.

As we were the only guests that evening, we sat with Geoff and Tim for a very enjoyable dinner. Once finished at about 9:15pm, we went straight off to bed, as we were both exhausted.

 

28th June

I was woken at 4:15pm by a lion moaning somewhere in the camp, although Ruth managed to sleep right through it. This sound was followed by a cacophony of screeches from some bird. And then, suddenly, total silence. I lay awake for ages, waiting for other sounds, but gradually drifted off to sleep.

 

Following a very pleasant breakfast on our own we met Tim, who drove us 80 kilometres to the Udzungwa Mountains. We were stopped en route by a policeman who insisted that Tim should have a PSV license in the jeep. Despite the fact that we did not require such a document he still fined Tim 10,000 TSh (about £6). Naturally, he would not issue a receipt. Tim explained that this was a regular occurrence and that the alternative to the bribe was a lengthy legal argument, which the Foxes may lose in any case.

 

We climbed through 750 metres of rainforest before arriving at the first of three Sanje Falls, where we had lunch. By this point I was drenched in sweat, my clothes clinging to me.. A further 100 metres hike took us past a second waterfall and finally on to the highest and most impressive fall of the lot - quite awesome. Our guide and trackers took photos of us and we then spent half an hour or so absorbing the atmosphere of the falls, surrounded by massive trees with overhanging foliage that you could reach out and touch at some points. The walk up to the peak was quite tough, especially when the trail became very narrow and the drop was clearly visible. Still, we managed it without major incident or injury. The descent worried me, since I would be able to see the sheer drop at almost every stage of the journey. However, it wasn't that bad, although it was very hard on the feet and legs, having to hold yourself back from running down the hill (no fear of doing that deliberately though). We spotted a few interesting birds (shrike, sunbird, manikin) but no colobus monkey. We could certainly hear them shrieking in the dense tree foliage, but they were not willing to show themselves to humans today.

 

Returned to camp at 5:30 pm. We are the only guests staying here tonight and dinner was excellent. Once back in our room, Ruth spent a good deal of time with the torch on, looking for whatever creepy crawly was lurking within the room. Having finally discovered that our visitor was a gecko, we both

managed to drift off to sleep.

 

29th June

Following breakfast we set off for a full day game drive with Geoff and Tim. We really are getting the V.I.P treatment so far. The weather was disappointing this morning, lots of cloud cover and quite chilly. Fortunately we both had warm fleeces to keep out the cold, which is exacerbated by the open design of the jeep when traveling at any speed over twenty miles an hour. We had lunch by a hippo pool then went to have afternoon tea at the attractive Vuma Hills Lodge, another of the Fox properties. This lodge, as its' name suggests, is set high in the hills and has superb views from almost every part of the complex. We were back at our camp by late afternoon and were spared the agony of the 105 steps by being served drinks on our verandah (double G&T for Ruth, bottle of Kilimanjaro for me).

 

 

30th June

Today required an early start as we left camp at 8:15 for the airstrip.

 

There was an amusing interlude as Tim (with Ruth in the passenger seat) drove the jeep up and down the airstrip to scare off wandering impalas. The exercise had to be repeated twice more, as the animals trotted back to their original positions as soon as the jeep had passed.

 

We cleared the way for the incoming plane and were introduced to Peter Fox. His plane, a six-seater, had only just been bought, so it was his toy and we were his first guest passengers. The first twenty minutes or so of the flight were great fun, following the Tanzam Highway and then the Great Ruaha River.

 

Once we reached the Udzungwa Mountains however things became a bit scary. We were carrying a lot of weight (particularly Geoff's cases) so Peter had to negotiate the range at 8,500 feet, rather than the 10,000 feet he would have preferred. We were thrown about somewhat but everything turned out OK and we made an excellent landing at the Brooke Bond Estate strip in Mufindi. This and other flights were bonuses for us, since we expected to make the transfer journeys by car. There is no doubt that much traveling time was saved by this change of plan, but I do wonder if I actually prefer being transported the old-fashioned way. You probably see more sights of interest overland and spend less time worrying about weather conditions, weight limits and wind speeds.

 

Following the flight we had an hour's car journey to Foxes Farm, a magnificent place set in the midst of the Southern Highlands, about 60 miles south-west of Iringa.

 

Our chalet has a magnificent view of the escarpment, with forests in the distance and two man made lakes, one of which is allegedly stocked with salmon. All this land belongs to Geoff and he has already marked out the spot that he wishes to be his final resting place - lucky man. Geoff gave us a guided tour of the farm, showing us with particular pride the gardens, which have been created by two of his female farm workers. Work is still progressing on tennis and badminton courts and a small bowling green with stupendous views of the hills and forests. It was at the farm that we were introduced to Jennifer Coxall, a young South African who had been managing the place whilst Geoff had been back in England. Her job title is unclear, but she appears to do everything, from organising the building of a new family guest house to managing the stables and teaching some of the local workers basic English phrases. Sitting here now, in front of a roaring log fire, with large G&Ts and an enormous bowl of mixed nibbles - heaven. We ate a nice roast lamb dinner, engaged in good conversation and finally turned in at 9:45 pm. Not quite the end of the day - we had to go though Ruth's cabaret spot. Tonight her hot water bottle had burst, so at about midnight we had to strip the bed, turn the mattress and then remake the bed.

 

1st July

Breakfast was arranged for a civilised 8:30 am. Ruth went horse riding with Jennifer, whilst a proud Geoff gave me a guided tour of the working farm. We chatted with many of Geoff's workers and he showed genuine interest in the suggestions they were making to improve the work. I could only understand some of the conversations, since the poorer people do not generally speak English and my Kiswahili is non-existent. We all returned to the main lodge for a very welcome beer and an excellent cold salad lunch. Late afternoon we all met up at the dam for a few hours of fly-fishing. We didn't catch any fish, but had a great time anyway. It was fully dark by the time we arrived back at the bar, so after a few drinks and some amusing conversation we had a late dinner. Tonight's entertainment was rounded off nicely when I lost our chalet key and we had to call out the night watchman to let us in.

 

2nd July

This morning we had a fairly late breakfast before being picked up for a tour of the tea plantations. The drive was pleasant enough, with Geoff giving us a potted history of the two tea companies (Brooke Bond and Mufindi). We continued on to the edge of the escarpment, and then walked for a while. The views were beautiful, but low cloud prevented us seeing as much as we would have liked. We returned to the farm for lunch and had the afternoon to ourselves. Having decided to go down to the dam where we had fished we set off briskly to walk around its perimeter. There were so many different birdcalls that our walk slowed considerably, as we strained our ears to distinguish one call from another. The highlight was seeing Livingstone's Turaco, which is endemic to this part of Tanzania. A black crake and several little grebes were also on the water, whilst all along the banks were giant cobwebs with enormous spiders, which, if you weren't careful, would entangle themselves in your hair. For some reason, Ruth decided we should pick up our pace before it became too dark to find our way.

 

Dinner was for four, including Jennifer and Geoff and we chatted happily over a simple meal before going back to our chalet around 9:00 pm.

 

3rd July

We left the farm at 9:30 am, about two minutes before Peter's plane arrived at the airstrip. We made our warm farewells to Geoff and took off, accompanied by Jennifer this time as she is normally based at Ruaha and she was therefore excited at the prospect of returning "home”. It was a short and uneventful 30-minute flight (I am very glad to say), following which Peter drove us for another half an hour to the Ruaha River Lodge.

 

This is a simply fantastic location, deep in the heart of the Ruaha National Park. There are three separate camps, all self-contained so that the feeling of exclusivity is maintained whilst allowing sufficient numbers for the operation to be profitable.

 

Our banda (hut) is next to the dining banda and bar, some thirty feet from the riverbank and with breathtaking views for miles around. What could be better? We had a couple of hours to relax before our first game drive, so we settled down on the verandah to watch a playful family of mongoose on the opposite side of the river bank. We also saw a Goliath heron and marvelled at how still it could stand whilst waiting for the moment to plunge into the shallow waters to scoop up a tiny fish or other morsel of food. At the appointed time we were introduced to Esau, our guide for the next few days and Abraham, our driver for today. The drive was enjoyable, although there were few large animals to see. We did however see lots of birds, including an impressive tawny eagle. We returned to camp late in the afternoon, had a couple of drinks then dinner with Jennifer, who gave us a lot of useful information about the camp and what we would probably see during our time there.

 

4th July

We went for a morning game drive with Esau and our driver Abraham. Spotted mating lions (twice), a roan antelope (very elegant), along with several greater kudu. Our bird count is rising rapidly, since Esau is very knowledgeable and greatly enjoys the fact that two of his "clients" are keen on bird watching. There was a major sighting about an hour before dusk - an adult female leopard in the bush. We followed her for about half an hour and at no time did she attempt to leave the area, which suggested to Esau that she had young cubs very close by. It is an amazing feeling simply to sit in a jeep and watch such an animal in its natural territory, knowing that this same animal could quite easily kill if we were to place it in a position where it felt threatened. We returned to camp early evening, had nice hot showers and G&T's in the bar then went to the dining banda.

 

5th July

We left camp early for a full day game drive,

Highlights of the game drive included: Slender mongoose, Great owl, mating fish eagles, post-mating (allegedly) elephants, courting hippos, Verroux’s eagle, Saker falcon (very rare according to Esau), Tawny eagle taking sand bath, baby elephant and parents having mud bath, D’arnaut’s barbet with nest on the ground, Bat eared foxes (1 dead, 2 alive and running and finally the wide-open spaces and the vastness of the sky - incomparable

 

 

We headed back to camp at late afternoon and had a cup of tea before returning to our banda. At 6:00 pm we met Jennifer, who took us up to the bar at Camp 2, high up on the kopje (a small isolated hill). Jennifer told us that the chef's two-year-old son had just been badly bitten on the arm by a yellow baboon. There was no transport available for two or three hours, so the poor boy had to wait to be taken to hospital at Iringa, a couple of hours away. After drinks we returned to our usual dining banda, at which point Jennifer spotted a spitting baby python. She could not chase it away, so she promptly killed it by hitting it with a mallet. She then calmly picked it up and took it out to the campfire and burned it. She is a brave girl.

 

6th July

We left camp quite early and had a really enjoyable morning. The main highlights of the drive were:

Roan antelope, little kudu drinking in Sand River, teaching Esau about “twitchers” and of course the Sand River itself.

 

Conversation with Esau is fascinating. When he talks about his land and the birds and animals he is clearly well read. However, his facial expression becomes childlike when we tell him about England and how we live. I will never forget his dumbfounded reaction when I described to him the passenger cabin of a jumbo jet. It was good to feel that he was possibly learning as much from us as we from him, even though he doesn’t believe he will ever set foot in an aeroplane.

 

Lunch was devoured back at camp, and then we had a relaxing afternoon before returning to the bar at Camp 2 for pre-dinner drinks. Ten Americans have arrived today, so to avoid being swamped, we decided that the Brits (including Jennifer as an honorary) would dine together. It was a very successful arrangement and one we would follow for most of the remainder of the holiday.

 

Monday 7th July

Left camp at 6:00 am for a bird walk with Esau. It was very educational, for Esau knows a great deal about the birds and he enthusiastically explains their habits to novices such as us. My favourite twitches on this walk were: Pearl spotted owlet, Arrow marked babbler and Crowned hornbill.

 

Breakfast was at 7:30 am and we ate heartily; fresh pineapple, Spanish omelette, toast and coffee, then we were off out again on a game drive, which proved to be our best so far. Amongst the many animals and birds that we saw were: Vultures fighting jackals over remains of an impala, a family of elephants, with baby of the group playing in the mud, several roan antelopes roaming as a group, Goliath heron and mating lions (again)

 

We enjoyed an excellent lunch back at camp, and then rested for a couple of hours before setting out on our last game drive of the trip. Although we had no new sightings, it was enough just to be out there in the bush. The scenery is breathtaking, very raw and wild, with little or no signs (yet) of man making his mark on the environment. As a final experience, we met up with Jennifer at a hippo pool three kilometers from camp and enjoyed three large sundowners whilst watching the hippos and talking to Jennifer about her future plans. This short time was perhaps the most memorable of the whole trip, since it encapsulated the essence of our time in Tanzania; the stunning countryside, the primeval nature of the wildlife and the genuine friendship we had struck with someone from a very different part of the world. The onset of darkness forced us back into the jeep and back to camp.

 

8th July

We were ready and packed by 7:30 am, had our last breakfast at Ruaha River Lodge and said fond farewells to Jennifer. We were taken a very circuitous route to the airstrip so that Esau could show us a beautiful lake filled with crocodiles and hippos. We stayed for about half an hour, taking photos and soaking up the atmosphere of the bush one last time. Our flight with Coastal Airways left early, so we had a twenty-minute stop at Jongomero to collect other passengers, before we continued on our way to Dar es Salaam. The flight took two hours and for the first and last legs was quite bumpy. We landed at Dar es Salaam where our driver was waiting for us. We were driven through the very unlovely outskirts of Dar, then on a fast road to Bagamayo, before finally making a twenty minute boat crossing to Lazy Lagoon, our home for the next three nights. Thee days of relaxation, reading, a few drinks and some pleasant company, allowing us to recharge our batteries for the journey back home to England.

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I am going to say 'welcome' right here since I did not say so on the intro thread.

 

What a very refreshing read. I loved it. Like the others, I would of course enjoy looking at your photos as well, but your writing is very descriptive and your calm acceptance of busy days interspersed with quiet days is very instructive and sheds a whole different light on the safari experience. Thank you for sharing this.

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Nice report, thank you for sharing it with us.

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Oh good man! You go straight into Game Warden's good books.

 

Interesting (given all the changes elsewhere) you could still do that same trip today. I wonder if it would be much more crowded now - probably a little, but not much.

 

Completely irrelvant but vaguely amusing..... I was scrolling back through the report doing a bit of a speed reading thing, when I read lunch.... devoured .... slender mongoose. Now I can't get it out of my head. I decided I better read it again at normal pace. :o

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