LOVED IT, LOVED IT, LOVED IT!!! We had put off taking a safari vacation for several years for various reasons, but in the end it was definitely worth checking off the bucket list! The experience of being so remote and really connected to nature is one that is increasingly more difficult to find around the globe. We came to the selection of Tanzania on our own, but the travel company did a great job in getting us in the right region for the action (caught the end of the migration), advising us with how to be prepared, and telling us what to expect for all the scenarios we could imagine to ask about if it was not already spelled out in the documentation they provided.
Our travel planner was responsive and thorough when answering. She did a great job at keeping the pace without making us feel rushed to make decisions, and still managed to get it booked with shorter notice than we would have preferred to be working with, but at all the places we had wanted. She did a good job of listening to our feedback and making adjustments to get the proposal just right. There was even a snag with one of the rooms that was supposed to be held and suddenly was not after we had paid, which made us concerned about a bait and switch, BUT after addressing it with her, she was able to pull it off and get us the original lodge that we had agreed on, with no surprises or snags while we were in Africa.
We were extremely happy with the driver(guide) they booked. I am convinced it is extremely important to have a guide with a knack for spotting things from afar while driving on bumpy roads, and an ability for reading the animals' behaviors to anticipate when and where to stop, so you get the best experience (and a little quiet time to enjoy it before everyone else notices you are stopped and races to see what you are looking at!). Do not underestimate that...and it is better to have a quieter guy than a talker because you want him focused on what is outside the car, not what is in. Not to mention, spending 8-10 hours in a truck could be exhausting if the person is trying too hard to entertain you with stories/words when you have all that beautiful scenery around to enjoy. Also, driving skills are worth mentioning, as well as the vehicle maintenance. We were happy on both accounts. Some places looked like they put more on the appearance than engine and others vice versa -- we were happy to have the good engine! Our driver helped pull out another truck who got stuck in the mud because his 4WD did not work and he tried to cross it knowing he only had 2WD. Those who crossed the same spot right after him with 4WD had no problem.
We visited three parks/areas starting with the smaller park Lake Manyara (less than one full day) then on to Ngorungoru Crater (1 full day, I would not recommend less), then on to the Serengeti National Park (stayed 4 nights). We did this as 3 nights lodging and 4 nights "luxury tent". We did much of our own research on the accommodations to check that it would fit our style, but also listened to our planner to ensure we did not end up somewhere that had no animals/action. Luckily neither of us got sick, but if either had, we could have very comfortably survived the time at any of the accommodations we stayed. The food at all places was phenomenal, especially the hearty soups every night with fresh bread at dinner. Boxed lunches are what you would expect, not terrible, not great. We decided one day in the middle to go back to camp for lunch and that meal was also fantastic! Otherwise, we ate the boxed lunches every day and spent as much time as possible on the road looking for the animals.
One thing I would recommend is to drive instead of take the short jumper flight from the Crater to Serengeti area. Our planner had said it is doable, and we initially chose it for the sake of not losing our private driver and having to suddenly join other people in their vehicle. This was worth it for that reason (just two in a truck was ideal for maneuverability of taking pictures and seeing what was going on) as well as for the extra time sightseeing. There was a portion of the way that did not have too many animals, but the scenery was beautiful the whole way and much of it did have animals here and there. We took the short flight from Seregengeti back to Arusha at the end and once was enough! Our pilot was great, but those planes are tiny and if you are tall (my husband is 6'4") it is like being a sardine in a can.
Regarding the parks we visited, our favorite was Serengeti. Standing up while 4WDing and searching for animals out the top of the safari truck was awesome! Ngorungoru Crater took second place because it gave the opportunity to see the Big 5 and just get that out of the way to relieve pressure about what we had not yet seen, so when we ALMOST saw the Big 5 a second time in Serengeti it was a bonus. We did not catch sight of the rhino in Serengeti, but did see a Serval cat. And rhinos even in Ngorungoru were barely distinguishable even with binoculars, but still counts! ;-)
When reflecting on the highlights of the animal experiences, my thought is "all of them" were highlights. There were so many great things and surprises, from animal interactions with other animals to sounds things made that you have never heard to just seeing so many of one type of animal in one place. One of the cooler things we saw was a "mini river crossing", it was not THE crossing but there were lots of opportunities at smaller river crossings and our guide noticed the animals positioning to cross and we saw the whole thing unfold, right down to several zebra & gnu changing direction to abandon it and 5 hunting lionesses running in to ambush it (I was so happy to see nobody get caught. ha ha, apparently I am in the minority of safari goers to NOT want to see that part of the nature played out in front of me).
In general, I was amazed at the number of different lions we saw in the Serengeti over four days, easily 100+, more often active (setting up ambush, feeding on a kill that we did not see happen, etc) than not. Many people said all the lions they saw were always just laying around in cat piles. I credit our guide a lot, combined with luck for the right timing. Apparently you could do walking tours as well as horse back, both of which sound really intriguing, but I would say do a couple of days by car first and see if you really think you have the guts to walk or ride a horse after you see lions and cheetahs stalking through tall grass and leopards jumping down from trees. Glad we did not find out about that option before we booked the trip because we may have made a mistake of trying one, which I had no desire to do once we got there. Don't get me wrong, I did not feel scared at all of the animals while there, but you have to respect their space and don't be stupid.
It is not always possible to plan far in advance because of work schedules in the family, but if I were to do this over, I would have started planning earlier in advance to feel more confident that the prices received were competitve market prices. Usually I plan my own trips and do not go through agents. Even though I had put out a lot of feelers to get started, I ended up on Zicasso because of the positive reviews I found (and the US based company that could be checked against the BBB status) because this was the type of trip that really needs someone with experience of the area, the season, etc to make it the best it can be within your price range and expectations.
Overall, the experience completely met our wishes, but I could not help feeling we probably overpaid a bit because of the late start in getting quotes (4 months out). We had no disappointments on the actual trip, so despite the high price tag, there is nothing about the end results (accommodations, guide, etc) that we felt we would without a doubt change because we were unhappy. The only minor question if redoing the trip or recommending a friend would be that Lake Manyara could have been skipped in our itinerary. On the other hand, it was nice to have a comparison of small and large parks, each with its own flavor and not feeling like same stuff different place/day.
We did not see any "lions in trees" which Manyara seemed to boast as the standard thing to see when you go, BUT in the other parks we saw so many active lions on the rest of the trip that it was no loss. Manyara was like dipping your feet into the shallow end of the pool to test the waters and then the other two parks were diving headfirst into the deep end. So, as long as you do the smaller parks before the bigger parks, I think it works because you do not even know how good it gets! (Of course, it could be that we were just luckier in the larger parks and someone else may have had a much better more intimate experience in a smaller park than they found in the larger parks. It's nature, there is no predicting and no guarantees!
The only other thing that we would consider changing is to do the whole time in tented facilities because you felt more in touch with nature there...but you have to enjoy that type of adventure. If the dust in your face from driving with the top up while on safari is too much "roughing it", then you should probably stick to lodges. I loved the combination of camping life with a real bed and fantastic meals. For me it just added to the fun.
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