This trip was planned to get me to the plains of the northern Serengeti in September and off to see the primates in Rwanda for two gorilla treks. This trip could not have been more action packed from a game-viewing or experiential perspective.
PLAINS OF THE SERENGETI
I arrived into Tanzania and transferred to the Lake Duluti Serena Hotel. This is a great option after the long flights due to its cleanliness and proximity to the airport.
It was awesome to meet our AAC Tanzania guiding team member Mkenda at the airport and to catch up since we last met on his roadshow around the US.
The following morning I was on the way on the scheduled charter flight (a 12-seater) to the Lamai airstrip in the Northern Serengeti, with a couple of stops along the way. I saw from the plane a spectacular view of Mt. Kilimanjaro above the clouds – a mountain I climbed in 2011 (click here for that trip report)!
On arrival in the Serengeti I was met by Godsend, my guide from Kimondo Camp for the next two game drives. It was fantastic to be in Tanzania and have my game viewing experience from an open vehicle – one of the benefits of flying to the Serengeti versus driving!
The drive back to camp took about an hour and we spotted a fair amount of game including lots of antelope species such as topi, impala, eland and more.
We arrived in time for a nice lunch followed by our first game drive. We headed out with the sound of seasonal thunder constantly rumbling in the distance with those rain clouds sprinkling over on the Kenyan side of the border. Armed with ponchos and camera we headed out to the Lamai wedge.
This is a vast area with very few vehicles to be seen. The scenery was that of what one imagines the Serengeti being: sweeping views of open plains with wildebeest, zebra and other game roaming about. We saw elephants, giraffe, a large range of birds species, and a pair of mating lions.
As the day was drawing to an end, we got the call that cheetah had been spotted. So we left our amorous lions and headed to our next sighting – two cheetah were walking around and playing and chasing with each other with the speed and dexterity only a cat could have. These two brothers were sharpening their hunting skills while playing at the same time. Godsend had thus far delivered ½ of my wish list.
That evening back at camp we compared tales over dinner. One Indian couple had spent 5 hours sitting by the Mara River waiting for a famed river crossing. The stage was set, zebra and wildebeest were all congregated at the edge of the water, the crocodiles were all strategically positioned, the only thing that was missing was the one brave (and not so smart) zebra/wildebeest to take that leap of faith, but it never happened. Another couple echoed their experiences on the previous day whereby they sat for 4½ hours with nothing to show. Little did I know what was coming the next morning...
My stay at Kimondo Camp, a seasonal mobile tented camp in the Lamai wedge to the north northwest of the Serengeti, ideally situated for Migration game viewing for this time of year (September).
The next morning after breakfast we continued on our tour of the Serengeti, this time crossing over the Mara River into the northern Serengeti. It is amazing how much the landscape could change from wide open plains to the hills peppered with oversized boulders, canyons and hills. This is where we found our next lion encounter. This pride was about 20 strong with different aged lions in the group. They were on top of a rocky hill purveying the landscape and the multitude of wildebeest that were slowly coming closer to their domain.
On this side of the river I also saw the beautiful Sayari Camp with its Asian-esque flavor of wooden floors, sliding doors to the bathroom and an impeccable and luxurious setting from which to see the Great Migration!
We didn’t stay long enough to if this scene would play out, but shortly thereafter we found a beautiful leopard also amongst the rocky outcrops enjoying the sunshine and a stretch. Of course there was game all along the way, and after our leopard we were on a hunt for the rhino that was spotted the day before.
That was when we received the call: River Crossing! We quickly turned the vehicle around and got the river about 5 minutes before the first zebra jumped in. There were about half a dozen Crocodiles in the water, but only two that were really going in for a meal.
Over the next 40 minutes we watched zebra and wildebeest jump in and swim for the far side, we saw several attempts by the crocodiles to take down full sized animals, and eventually took down a young wildebeest. This is a very raw moment that shows the power and beauty of nature at its most elemental state.
PART II - PRIMATES
This had been an action-packed day in the Serengeti and from here I went directly to the airstrip for my charter flight to Rwanda – home of the highland gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park. The scheduled charter flight from Mwanza to Kigali was about 1hour 15 minutes with great views of Lake Victoria along the way.
In Kigali I stayed at the Kigali Serena Hotel which is a fine option. This business hotel offers a clean place, great dinner and breakfast options, swimming pool and everything you could hope for in hotel before heading out for a gorilla trekking experience. I also saw the Hotel des Mille Collines which is a step down that feels that has modern elements to it while still an older feeling hotel. Lastly, the Flame Tree Village is a great option for a more boutique hotel type of stay, with nice rooms (I definitely recommend the suites), pool area and bar.
The gorilla trekking was going to be the cherry on the safari cake for me. This is an experience that after having climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, was something that I knew I had to do at some stage in my life. The time had come.
We drove around the city seeing some of the different sights. What struck me was how clean everything was, only to find out that the last Saturday of every month everyone participates in a general cleanup clearing the streets and parks of any litter. I was also amazed at how much construction and development was going on. It gave a sense that Rwanda in general, but Kigali in particular was moving forward with its growth after a horrific epoch in its history with the genocide of about one million people in less than one hundred days.
The drive to the Volcanoes National Park area was about 2½ hours winding through the Land of 1000 Hills. Along the way you drive through eucalypt forests that were imported from Australia and have done very well in that wet environment.
My accommodations were at the Gorilla Mountain View Lodge which is a great our entry level option property for clients looking to use as a home base for the gorilla trekking. The cottages were large, as were the bathrooms, with enough hot water for two people and fireplace. It did have a little space heater that was sufficient enough to warm the room for sleeping. The main area of the lodge has two large fireplaces inside the lodge with chairs around for people to use while reviewing their pictures on iPads or conversing with other trekkers. Dining was in a large room that was served buffet style and individual tables.
Other properties I saw were Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, the luxury upmarket stay at a lodge with beautiful rooms, views and great taste in décor. It is as far from the park headquarters as Gorilla Mountain View. One thing to point out is that it is a steep climb from your vehicle to the lodge entrance, so be prepared.
Lastly, Jack Hanna’s House is a lovely that only has two rooms and feels like you are at home. The wood floors, lounge area with fireplace, long wooden kitchen table and more make this a comfortable option for a romantic stay for two or a homey stay for a small family. All three options are great and suit different styles of travel and budget ranges.
We set out on the short journey the next morning at 6:30am to the park headquarters where we would find out about the gorilla family we were assigned to. I had put in a request for the Susa group on the first day because it was the largest of the different gorilla families and as it was known as one of the harder treks.
On arrival there are singers and drummers filling the air with a festive spirit as tourists, guides and trekkers alike come to find where they will be trekking that day. It’s a bustling atmosphere where you can purchase souvenirs, use bathrooms, get coffee/tea and just enjoy the anticipation of what’s to come. I was eventually told that I got my first choice group… Susa. You can put in request, but it isn’t always a guarantee for many reasons.
I met our gorilla trekking guide, Patrick, and the rest of our motley crew. There are 8 trekkers per group. We were briefed and after some introductions and other general questions we headed off to the hike.
Our trek started alongside the forest where the farming land ends and the natural gorilla habit begins. Here we were briefed about the particulars in gorilla etiquette such as no pointing, no touching, no running, and of course, no flash photography. We started our way through a bamboo forest.
Once we were out of this unique setting we trekked into some pristine forest that opened up to green valley’s lush with vegetation, red ash trees and tons of foliage. This is where we came upon our first encounter after about 2½ hours of trekking. For the next hour we spent our time admiring the beautiful highland mountain gorillas in their habitat.
They were playing, sleeping, foraging, preening, and just being gorillas. We had ample time to photograph them and follow them around as they wandered. The experience was amazing and humbling at the same time. It felt like a privilege to be with these primates who were on the verge of extinction at one point. The whole day took us about 6 hours before we were back at our vehicles, but we were only going as fast as the slowest person.
The second day of trekking was a vastly different experience in almost every way. Our guide was the renowned Francois, one of Diane Fossey’s original porters. Our gorilla family, the Amohoro group, was much closer and the overall experience was much more laid back. The word “Amohoro” means peace and everything about this trek was just that.
Francois our park ranger, is such a large personality, someone who has been in trekking through these forests for the last 32 years amongst the gorillas. He is not bashful or shy and is engaging everyone and getting them out of their comfort zones by having them imitate gorilla vocalizations that means “good morning” or “every-thing is ok”. I saw him swinging from a bamboo, eating plants and roots just as a gorilla would.
The trek was shorter this time around only being an hour long and the gorillas this time were just hanging around then on the move. The lighting was much better as we were more out in the open and of the five silverbacks of the group we got to see four of them. There were babies, blackbacks (aka teenagers), mothers, young ones and of course the silverbacks. The whole experience would not have been the same if I didn’t have this second this second trek and really allowed to absorb the whole experience on a different level.
I was told that tourists don’t trek the same family twice in a row because the gorilla start to recognize them and feel comfortable enough to approach them. As Francois had been doing this for over 30 years I asked if he personally knew all the gorillas. His response in that moment encapsulated the whole history of gorilla conservation, research, tourism and everything in a single phrase. He said, “We know each other”.
Combining the Plains of the Serengeti with the Primates of Rwanda is, in my opinion, the best way to see East Africa and really get the best wildlife experience with a true adventure!