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Self-driving through Northern TZ parks Trip Report

Of Mara crossings and lions in camp,
Of camping trials and tribulations

Hello all,
I'm posting this report in the hopes that it may provide some assistance, guidance, and ideas to people who are thinking about going on a self-drive safari in the Northern parks of Tanzania.
We have previously done self-drive safaris in Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa and absolutely love camping out and enjoy the freedom of being in nature among the wild things. So it was a logical extension to see some of the famous Tanzanian parks, by camping and driving ourselves, especially in the Serengeti, that holds such allure and mystery. Just saying " camping and game driving in the Serengeti" gave me goose bumps, wow, is that even possible? Has anyone even done that?
Answer: yes and yes. I was especially taken with two trip reports posted by a courageous Canadian couple who seemed to fully relish the experience of driving around the various parks, camping out, and taking exquisite photographs. I was also inspired by a German friend and avid poster who had done two successful Tanzanian self-drive Safaris with the same provider we ended up choosing.
Ok, so we decided in the spring of 2014 that Tanzania would be our next Africa self-drive destination. And so the planning began.

Planning:

See the photos below Of the resources I have used in planning this trip:
At home, we spent a few hours plotting our route and marking waypoints on Tracks4Africa. We recorded many more waypoints than where we planned on being. It is also advisable to enter all public and special camping spots, as there may arise occasions when you need to deviate from your plan and go camp at another spot.
During the trip, we wished that we had bought a paper map for overviews of each park from a determined but pesky street vendor in Arusha. We did print out maps of each park at home with all the way points we had entered into Tracks4Africa and then uploaded this to our Garmin GPS.
This proved to be a good substitute for a store-bought map. Do not expect each park to give you a map like it is common for US National Parks. You may get a general brochure with some photos and a teeny map, however, that is not suitable for driving and does not show game driving tracks.
We were happy with the guidance by T4A on our Garmin and I think the only point not marked was our special campsite Lobo 1.

Our Safari Operators:

My main criteria in renting a 4x4 vehicle was that, besides being a reliable vehicle, its cool box needed to run on a separate battery, so that's why I eliminated Fortes rent a car. Their price per day per vehicle was $240, which was more than we were willing to pay.
Another choice, Shaw Safaris, offered dual battery system, but were eliminated because they wanted $280 per day per vehicle and would not offer any discounts for renting two vehicles for three weeks.
My sister, located in Switzerland, then found a representative partnering with Serengeti Select Safaris. The price per vehicle per day was a minimum of $100, or $1 per each km, the cool box had a dual battery system, and the camping equipment was $6 per person per day. It sounded almost too good to be true. Was it? More about that later.
The rep's name is Daniel Staub and his business and website is Tanzania Pioneers, located in Germany. He caters mainly to German speaking clients and works for commission with SSS. He agreed to correspond in English with me, so that my husband could understand our mails as well. He was polite and answered my questions promptly, asking Nathan at SSS when he did not know himself.
We eventually settled on self-driving around the Northern Circuit and he proposed an itinerary which I researched, made many changes, before Daniel arranged and completed all the bookings, including dealing with TANAPA.

The problem was that Daniel was not very business-like and I had to press him to send me an itemized spreadsheet with all the costs and his services. After most of the bookings were done in November 2014, we sent $2000 as a down payment to cover the booking costs.
Here is the itinerary we eventually followed, but in practice, there were some changes. I will talk more about those changes as I go on.

August 1-2: Planet Lodge Arusha
August 3: Arusha NP Public CS
August 4-5 Tarangire NP, Mbweha special CS
August 6: Tarangire NP, Public CS
August 7: Moivaro Tented Camp, Lake Natron
August 8: Serengeti, Lobo Public CS
August 9-10: Serengeti, Lobo 1 special CS
August 11: Serengeti, Lobo Public CS
August 12-13 Serengeti, Seronera, Sero 6 special CS aka Kubu Kubu
August 14: Serengeti, Twiga Guesthouse, Seronera
August 15-16: Serengeti, Moru 4, special CS
August 17: NCA, Rhino Lodge room 14
August 18: Mtowambu: Panorama CS
August 19: Lake Manyara NP, Public CS
August 20: Lake Manyara NP, Bagayo A special CS
August 21-23 Tarangire NP, Public CS
August 24: Arusha NP, Ngongare special CS
August 25: Fly home

Some of you may notice that there are quite a few one-night stops. True, but when you travel with a RT, you have to pack up everything anyway, and we are using our table and chairs for eating BF and lunch, therefore our campsite will look empty anyway. So it's no big deal to sleep at a different location. One of our goal was to see the most wild life in different areas, therefore the different locations on the Serengeti.

The Route:

After visiting Kruger Park in SA for two week, we flew from Johannesburg to Nairobi and on to Kilimanjaro airport, where we arrived on 1st of August. We had a full three weeks to see all the Northern Circuit parks and for that reason included Lake Manyara and Arusha NP, two parks that could be eliminated during a shorter trip.
My German friend wisely advised to go east to Arusha NP first in case we needed to stop back at Nathan' depot for any reason. That was a good call!
Also, we chose the Lake Natron route in order to make a loop route and to avoid having to cross the NCA twice and pay the fee twice.
In retrospect, I would probably leave out Lake Natron, as the roads were beyond horrible and dusty and the landscape, while stark and dramatic at places, did not compensate enough for the rough driving conditions.
There were fees to pay on this route as well, so no significant savings. More about that later.
Another reason for choosing the Lake Natron road was to enter the northern Serengeti at the earliest possible time as we were keen to see at least part of the migration around the Mara river. Did we catch the migration? More about that later.
In the Serengeti, we wanted to see the Lobo area with its rock outcroppings amidst the savannah, the Central Serengeti where game was said to be most plentiful, and the Moru area, where our Canadian mentors had many memorable sightings. The Grumeti area was on the itinerary, but got dropped as we heard there was not much game around other than fat crocs.
The Ngorongoro Carter is always advertised as a must-see, one of a kind destination, so we were really looking forward to this and hoped it would be the highlight of our trip. Was it? More about that later.
Tarangire NP was included because of the different river environment and because we wanted to see ellies by the hundreds. Did we? More about that later.
Lake Manyara was included because we had enough time and we just could not resist to maybe see lions in trees and flamingos by the thousands. Did we see lions in a tree? More about that later.

Accommodations:

I have posted reviews of the lodges we stayed in on tripadvisor.com. Other than that, we used Public Campsites and Special campsites.
An explanation: on a Public CS, you will have toilets and hopefully cold water showers, a water source to fill washing water, (no drinking water!) but no trash bin and you will share space with others campers, many maybe be overland trippers who may want to party all night. This pleasure will cost $30 per person per night.
A Special CS will cost $50 per person per night and you will have NO facilities and need to be fully self-sufficient, including digging a hole for your toilet, or use the Pubic CS toilets. The advantage? You are by yourself on a beautiful location (special!) and will have peace and quiet, unless hyena or lion come to visit. Did they? More about that later.

 

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You pose some teasing questions. Here's one more.

 

What was the flamingo situation at Lake Natron? I noted you'd skip it next time.

 

Your self drive tips, hints, and answers to the questions you pose will be very helpful to anyone who is considering following in your footsteps.

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Hi, we could not see any flamingos at Lake Natron, in fact, we could barely see the lake itself from the road. It was a disappointment, really.

Or maybe we should have spent a day there. Have you been?

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This sounds like it's going to be not only an interesting read but educational for people who may want to do the same, thank you for making the effort I'm looking forward to more.

 

Of the guides you have shown above was any one of them a stand out or alternately not worth getting in your opinion?

Edited by Big Andy
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@@KaliCA

 

I have posted reviews of the lodges we stayed in on tripadvisor.com.

 

 

And now you can post them here on Safaritalk in more detail for us to read :)

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@@KaliCA - i am really looking foreward to the rest of your TR, since I am going on a more or less selfdrive trip to Ndutu and Serengeti next year in feb - March. My friend and guide is a specialist in the southern parks, not the Greater Serengeti.

Cheers.

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Hi Kali

 

Good start, and leaving us with several cliff-hangers :) I´m very much looking forward to this. I think many more then me enjoy the thought of self-driving the Serengeti.

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Please would you give some details on the Twiga guesthouse in the Sero. Where is it and how did you book it and was it any good and what is it?

 

Also keen to know about Natron flamingo's as I understand the water level has risen at Nakuru and the huge numbers are no onger there and were thought to be at Natron.

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This promises to be another cliff hanger report. Cant wait. Hope you don't tease us by keeping us hanging at the end of every (trip) day as the dutch couple who travelled across DRC did.

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F

This sounds like it's going to be not only an interesting read but educational for people who may want to do the same, thank you for making the effort I'm looking forward to more.

 

Of the guides you have shown above was any one of them a stand out or alternately not worth getting in your opinion?

Still don't know how to quote!

Anyway, if you are driving, I can recommend the Bradt guide as the author will tell you how to get from A to B with coordinates even, maps, what to expect, lodging with prices, camping etc. very helpful.

The map, too, will give you a nice overview of the country and smaller maps of each park, those however, are not good enough for self-drivers, you will need a GPS program and T4A worked nicely for us.

The Roodt Serengeti guide is very old, maps are useless as trackers and labels are soooo small. Has some basic Flora and Fauna description, but not much of guiding help.

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@@KaliCA - i am really looking foreward to the rest of your TR, since I am going on a more or less selfdrive trip to Ndutu and Serengeti next year in feb - March. My friend and guide is a specialist in the southern parks, not the Greater Serengeti.

Cheers.

Hope my tale will be of some practical help to you! When are you going, as you know some information is season-dependent.

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@@KaliCA - i am really looking foreward to the rest of your TR, since I am going on a more or less selfdrive trip to Ndutu and Serengeti next year in feb - March. My friend and guide is a specialist in the southern parks, not the Greater Serengeti.

Cheers.

;)

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Two weeks in Kruger was only a prelude to this epic itinerary? Truly this should be an amazing trip report! :)

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Two weeks in Kruger was only a prelude to this epic itinerary? Truly this should be an amazing trip report! :)

Well, you are putting me under some pressure here!

The Kruger visit was tacked on since we still had a valid Wildcard and we were flying so far anyway, so we try to make the most of it, with two trips into one, crossing a continent and an ocean and another continent. BTW, turns out that in Kruger we had more "intimate " sightings than we did in all of the TZ trip, if you know what I mean.

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This promises to be another cliff hanger report. Cant wait. Hope you don't tease us by keeping us hanging at the end of every (trip) day as the dutch couple who travelled across DRC did.

I'm not planning on it! Working hard on pic selection and then will start with the daily tale.

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Please would you give some details on the Twiga guesthouse in the Sero. Where is it and how did you book it and was it any good and what is it?

 

Also keen to know about Natron flamingo's as I understand the water level has risen at Nakuru and the huge numbers are no onger there and were thought to be at Natron.

Twiga was booked by our operator. It is $30 pppd, but we ended up NOT sleeping there, but preferred another night on a special CS with prior arrangement with the couple who was booked there. Will explain in Seonera section of report. We never even looked at it. Twiga is somewhere close to the staff store in Seronera.

Never saw any flamingos at Lake Natron. Water level was way down in August.

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Hi Kali

 

Good start, and leaving us with several cliff-hangers :) I´m very much looking forward to this. I think many more then me enjoy the thought of self-driving the Serengeti.

 

I know what you mean. For us it was just a nice thought for a while as well. But I was fortunate to have had two mentors who did it and relished it, so I was following those two pioneers.

PS. Europeans are much more familiar with self-drives than Americans ever will be. If you can read German, you may want to check out the Namibia CH forum.

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The "Canadian Couple" is very much looking forward to following along. You write such wonderful blogs and your photos are always lovely. More please! Patience is not one of my strong suits! :)

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The "Canadian Couple" is very much looking forward to following along. You write such wonderful blogs and your photos are always lovely. More please! Patience is not one of my strong suits! :)

Thanks, Canadian Robin, I hope to live up to your excellent reports!

 

Here goes the day by day and some pics.

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Here is the day-by day account of our adventure

 

August 1 and 2, 2015

 

On July 30, in Skukuza, Kruger Park, we are checking our email, and I find an email from Daniel Staub, telling us that the Defender assigned to us had been in a turn-over accident at the crater rim and so we would receive another Defender this one with the steering wheel on the left side. I write back saying my DH prefers to have the steering wheel on the right side to drive safely in left side traffic. He sends me a mail with a price quote by Fortes for $240 a day, no dual battery system! So our agreed-on price of $100 a day, just shot up to $240, not acceptable. Bad business practice not to keep to the agreed-upon price. This leaves a really bad taste in my mouth. A sign of bad things to come?

Well, we write back that never mind, we will deal with the other Defender assigned to us.

 

We arrive at Kilimanjaro airport at 11:30PM, about an hour late. There is a window for "Need a Visa"so we stand in line, ready with the visa application forms we had completed at home. We pay $100 for US citizens, get finger-printed, get the Visa glued into the passport, and we are in! No one even asked for the Yellow Fever Certificate. We easily find our driver and reach Planet Lodge just after 1AM. We crash into bed under the mosquito net. We are happy to be in Africa again and let the adventure begin.

My sister and her husband, our travel companions, get in almost two hours later.

 

It's Sunday today that means there is no free shuttle to Arusha center. We meet and greet my sister and brother-in-law (referred to as BIL) then have a long breakfast together. It's nice here, many fruit trees, green grass and flowering bushes. We each have a big rondeval and the room is comfortable enough, would maybe rate as 2 1/2 star in the USA.

We decide to take the lodge's taxi service (fee) into central Arusha to exchange money and do our dry goods shopping at the Nakummatt store.

Many stores are closed today, but our driver brings us to a bank where we buy TZ Shilling, and then drops us off at the Nakumatt. We use our ready-made shopping list and pile things into baskets. There is a basket full with just about all the drinking water we will need. The manager is keeping our baskets in a corner until tomorrow when we will come back to buy dairy, meat and other perishables. Nice of him.

Just as my German friend said, I can buy Dove shampoo and conditioner here, as well as Nivea body lotion. (Three very heavy items I like to buy on location rather than bring along in my suitcase).

We check out the local market across from the store. I don't feel very safe there and it looks dirty and unappealing. A few men latch unto us and keep following us wanting to guide us. After a few minutes we return to the main street, but one fly catcher is still walking with us until we find a place to sit and have lunch.

Our ride is ready at 3pm and we return to an oasis of peace and quiet at the Planet Lodge after the hustle and bustle of Arusha. We rest and enjoy the pretty grounds and sit by the pool until dinner, then go to bed early, because of jet-lag. The food, by the way, was only ok, nothing amazing, although the service was outstanding.

 

August 3 Defender take-over day and Arusha NP

 

We meet at 7:30 for BF ( breakfast) as we are expecting to be picked up by 8AM. No one shows and after a phone call to the depot, Patricia, the secretary, tells us that our Defenders are not ready yet, maybe at 10. My heart sinks, and I'm thinking, not a good beginning. Well, it's 11 before the driver shows up and drops us off at the depot of Serengeti Select Safaris.

We meet Nathan for the first time, a very nice American man who has lived all his life in different parts of Africa. He is very friendly, but extremely inefficient in his dealings with us. I keep having to ask"So, Nathan... what about...?" many many times, but it's hard to get mad a friendly person. He is trying... But alas, very unorganized.

We see the Defender assigned to us, but my sister's car is not even at the depot as they were installing their roof tent (RT) at another place. Well, rather than idly waiting around, we ask for a car to get our shopping done and off we go, back to the Nakumatt in a silver Defender.

Surprise! there is no electricity just now, something that happens to different sections of town frequently or so we were told, so the store is quite dark and it's difficult to see unfamiliar items. Many sales people stand guard at the aisles, I guess to prevent theft?

We put our cell phones on the flashlight setting and shop by flashlight. A new experience. "Sorry, no more eggs today", other than that we find what we need, although not a big cheese or lunch meat selection. Canned Del Monte or Dole products cost $4 per can! Just as my German friend said, I find Dove shampoo and conditioner as well as Nivea body lotion, heavy items I rather buy on location.

We return to Nathan's depot with all our shopping done, (CC worked despite no electricity) and good news, my sister's car is in the lot with roof tent attached!

Time to get organized and move our belongings into the Defenders. Our car has lots of compartments but no back seats, so we decide not to take our suitcases at all, but store things in the cabinets and in the box in the middle. My sister's car does have back seats, but only one big empty space in the back with no compartments or drawers at all.

Where is the built-in water tank? Not there, but we get four twenty-liter plastic containers. My sister has space for those but we don't.

We load our pre-ordered frozen meat into the cool box and that's it, no more space for anything else! (That's the problem with pre-ordering, hard to know how much and if the order will fit into the cool box)

As per my request, Nathan had ordered chicken, steak, pork chops, and a boerwurst from the Meat King market and froze it for us as a curtesy. Nice!

We look at our camping gear and discover that Daniel Staub ordered it for 4 people sharing rather than enough gear for two couples each. So we end up with only one table and one Weber Grill, and one set of pots. Would that be a problem?

Turns out that most camping equipment was stolen when the Defender over-turned at the crater and Nathan had to go shopping for plastic bowls, tea kettle and pots and pans. Another camping table was not to be found in Arusha.

Would shared camping gear present a problem? More about that later.

We stored our bags in Nathan's office and proceeded to do the paperwork. Another surprise. All the vouchers for lodges and camping were done for 4 people and not two couples. So my brother-in-law (BIL) seems irritated with me, thinking I had booked that way, when in fact, I had made it clear to Daniel that our bookings needed to be separate.

Will the combined vouchers present a problem during the trip? More about that later.

Well, after having our picture taken with our Defenders, we are off much later than planned. It is now after 3PM when we finally drive east towards Arusha NP; my dear husband (referred to here as DH) is driving on the left, which he is used to from SA, but now he is sitting on the left, having a tough time judging the distance to the middle of the road.

After about 30 minutes and driving up the hill, we notice that BIL is zipping up-hill in third gear, while we are huffing and puffing in second, many times in first! What's wrong with our horse?

 

After driving uphill through some coffee plantation and green hills, the park is easy to find and we pay for our entrance permit. Cash or Visa accepted. This takes a while, but we are in just after 5pm.

 

Arusha NP

Fee per person per 24 hrs: $45

Vehicle fee per 24 hrs: $10 (TZ licensed)

Public camping fee: $30 per person per night (pppn)

 

 

We are immediately enamored by all the greenery and how nicely the buffalo and zebra contrast with that. We stop at the ranger station to get the bathroom key, before crossing a bridge to drive 2 km to the public campsite. It's a wide open grassy area, surrounded by tall trees and thick bush and Mt. Meru peeking out from high above.

Only the men's BR could be unlocked, but oh no, there is no water to flush toilets or take a shower. We discover a broken pipe...

Loud screeching brings us back to the grass and we observe some energetic Colobus monkeys chasing each other through the tall trees. We set up our roof tent (RT), and cook a simple dinner. We don't like to BBQ on our first night camping, as there is always a lot of organizing to accomplish. We can't manage to unfold our complicated folding chairs, so we stand and have dinner.

A car drives up and a man appears with a gun. "Whoa, partner!"Turns out, he is our guard and will protect us from buffalo, just in case any should appear. He brought a bedroll and will sleep in the kitchen house.

Our first night camping and it rains almost all night long. That's why everything is so nice and lush. Duh! We stay dry and cozy and go to sleep with monkeys howling through the wet night.

 

August 4, Arusha NP to Tarangire NP

 

We wake up before first light (jet-lag!) pack up the wet RT, observe two shy Dik-Diks, then go use the facilities at the Momela ranger station where we meet up with my sister. They like to eat before packing up, whereas we only make tea and eat breakfast between 8 and 9, depending on the animal sightings.

We drive up a very winding and steep track to reach Momela Crater rim where the best Kilimanjaro look-out is said to be. Not today. There is no view at all because it is all fogged in. Our car, again, has barely enough power and we think there is something wrong with its torque, it's a Land Rover after all.

We slip and slide off the wet mountain and visit the Momela Lakes area. Pretty landscape with ibises, and many giraffe in the distance, but it's cool and windy here. Then we drive to the Ngordoro Crater area and encounter zebra, giraffe, waterbuck and baboons on the way. There is a herd of buffalo inside the green crater and some more Colobus monkeys very close to the parking lot.

We then check out of the park and make our way back to the depot. Nathan's mechanic replaces the air filter in our Defender and it seems to help and he also slaps yet another government sticker on the back window. Another

last minute thing!

These small things I'm describing should give any potential client a pretty good idea of what could happen when renting from SSS ( Serengeti Select Safaris). But of course, I'm describing our experience, always a very subjective affair.

We stop at the Nakumatt store on our way out of town, searching for a second folding table, but there is none to be had. My BIL finds a cast iron pot next door to the supermarket and they will use it to bake bread in the fire.

We drive west on a very good tar road and finally, the chaos that is Arusha town fades away. Speed bumps signal to lower our speed passing through villages. After 2 1/2 hours we reach the Tarangire turn off and find some charcoal to buy from a road side stand.

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Planet Lodge rondavelpost-47216-0-19630500-1443910017_thumb.jpg

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Oops, gotta learn how to do this properly, again! Bear with me.post-47216-0-24799900-1443910332_thumb.jpgpost-47216-0-24799900-1443910332_thumb.jpgpost-47216-0-14667400-1443910352_thumb.jpgpost-47216-0-61859500-1443910383_thumb.jpgpost-47216-0-64446500-1443910406_thumb.jpgpost-47216-0-43448300-1443910443_thumb.jpg

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@@KaliCA, well I am just completely in awe of self-drivers on safari, the "hiccups" so far just reinforce that it's not for us, I'd be already having a meltdown at potential car troubles. Arusha Park looks just as I remember it, in fact I even recognise the spot where Buffalo and Zebra are grazing, all green and misty. The vehicle/camper setup looks great though, how lovely being up there with night sounds all around you.

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