Tibby and I stayed for four nights from 21st November 2020 at Shamwari Private Game Reserve which is 80km from Port Elizabeth in South Africa.
Shamwari is an expensive reserve catering almost exclusively to foreign guests. At this time there are almost no foreign guests, so they have mothballed five of their seven camps and are offering heavily discounted rates to South Africans. We took advantage of that offer.
Shamwari is 25,000 hectares in size, slightly smaller than the Mountain Zebra National Park, 200km north. It is only 30km from the Addo Elephant National Park which is six times bigger. This area of the Eastern Cape used to teem with animals but they were largely hunted out in the 1700s and 1800s. A far smaller Addo Elephant National Park was created in 1931 to preserve the last seven elephants in the area. Today there are 600 elephants in the enlarged park. Shamwari was created in 1992 by combining several overgrazed farms and was extended over the years. Several other private game reserves have since been created in the area. This is an attractive game viewing area for tourists because it is malaria free. Shamwari has a full time ecologist who ensures that the diversity of game is maintained and managed. Animals are swapped with other reserves to avoid inbreeding. The area has experienced a drought for several years and thus large numbers of animals, including hippo, have been transferred off the reserve. Many of the female lions and elephants have been put on contraception to also keep animal numbers contained through this challenging time. Having said that game numbers are high enough for the tourists to be kept satisfied. I saw four of the big five within five kilometres of the main lodge. It is the philosophy of the Reserve that game drive vehicles can go off road to get closer to animals but not to the extent of stressing them. A distance is kept from the animals allowing them to move closer if they want. That does mean, that in general, the animals are not skittish and one can get close, especially to the large animals.
Our game guide
Because of the low number of guests we were assigned a guide who was our host for the duration of our visit. He is Timothy Donnelly who I rank as one of the best of the three hundred game guides that I have experienced. Timothy has an intense and deep love of conservation, has a detailed knowledge of a huge variety of conservation subjects, knows and loves the Shamwari Reserve intimately, was hugely sensitive to our interests and was a delightful and caring host. Our experience of the reserve was hugely enhanced by his guiding. I did seven game drives with Timothy with a total duration of about 24 hours.
Geography, topography and scenery
Shamwari is home to five of South Africa’s seven biomes making it a very enjoyable place to experience. One moves quickly from plains through scrubland to forests and from riverbeds through deep gorges and wide valleys to mountain ridges and peaks. The soil is white one moment, rocky for a while and a few kilometres later is deep red. This is an exciting environment to experience.
There are three prides of lion in the Reserve plus a few lone males. We saw members of the Southern Pride twice. The pride comprises a mother and four eighteen month old youngsters, three of which are female.
I had a game viewing experience that was completely novel. We spent time with two of the eighteen month old lionesses when Timothy expressed the view that one of them was interested in a nearby Angulate tortoise. These tortoises are very small and a fully grown adult is only about five inches high. He was correct and the lioness approached the tortoise and picked it up in her mouth. She tried to crush it with her jaws but the shell was too hard so she played with it like a ball for a few minutes. Her sister distracted her so they moved away from the tortoise. After a few minutes the tortoise made a run for it (not very fast) which attracted the attention of the original lioness. She repeated the process of capturing the tortoise in her mouth, failing to crush it with her jaws, playing with it and then being distracted. The tortoise decided not to move. Eventually we moved on and so I do not know what the outcome was, but I suspect that the tortoise eventually lived to tell the tale.
It is the prime responsibility of parents to prepare their children to be independent. This is even more true in the animal kingdom. The mother of the Southern Pride has been hunting alone since the birth of her children which must have been a challenge. She is teaching them to hunt but they still have a way to go. We have heard how one of them was very confused by a tortoise. On our last morning we saw more examples of the need for more training. Lions very rarely hunt giraffe because they are hard to bring down and can inflict serious injuries by kicking. When lions do hunt giraffes several lions are needed to bring down a giraffe. We were therefore amazed when we came across one of the young lionesses stalking three giraffes. The giraffes looked at the lioness with disdain, not believing what they were seeing but when she charged they were forced to canter for a short distance to rid themselves of this pesky nuisance. She then turned her attention to a more manageable group of impala which she herded, like a sheep dog, towards her sister. The impala were completely unaware of the sister lion near them but she did not have the nerve to tackle them and so they escaped. The last photo shows the lioness crouched just beyond the impala. The mother lioness sat higher up the hill, with a heavy heart, as she realised that lots more training was needed.
The father of the Southern Pride youngsters avoids fatherly duties and largely wanders by himself. We found him on the edge of a plain on the third day. He wasn’t bothered by us at all and deigned to raise his head for a short while.
Up in the north of the Reserve on the fourth day we were high on a ridge when we saw the male of the Northern Pride relaxing in a small clearing below us. We circled down and saw glimpses of other members of the Pride. And then a lioness called to her very young cubs and displayed them to us on the catwalk. There are four cubs but I could only capture three of them together. The Pride as a whole, including the four new arrivals, seemed to number twelve.
The reserve have ninety elephants in several separate herds. One sees elephants on most game drives. I like to focus on parts of the animal when I photograph.
On the afternoon of the fourth day we were making our way along a valley running from south to north. There was thick vegetation either side of the track so there was little place to escape. We rounded a corner to come across two white rhino blocking our way. We retreated a small distance and gave them time to escape from us. After five minutes we inched forward to find that they had disappeared. At that moment a young male elephant appeared coming down the track towards us. We had no time to move away. The elephant flapped his ears and trumpeted and hesitated in front of us. Timothy started talking to the elephant in a soft voice, asking him to calm down, not to worry and pass us quietly. We eased back and to the side of the track and the elephant passed by on the other side.
Shamwari has an undisclosed number, but a lot, of rhinos. A few have had their horns cut short to make them safe from poachers but the ecologist on the Reserve has concluded that rhinos with amputated horns behave differently and so they have suspended this programme.
All the above photos are of white rhino. Black rhino live in thickets and are more skittish than white rhino. On the last morning we came across a black rhino in a clearing. We stopped about one hundred metres from him but on his path. Rhinos have very poor eyesight so he continued approaching us trying to work out the source of the noise he had heard. About twenty metres from us he accelerated into a mock charge for about eight metres and then turned and ran into the bushes.
On the morning of the fourth day, in the north of the Reserve, we came across a herd of about thirty buffalo who were unconcerned by our presence.
There are two cheetah brothers on the Reserve. They are very comfortable with being approached by game drive trucks so one can get close. We saw them relaxing on the first game drive we did.
On the way back from the north on the afternoon of the fourth day, about 15km from the first sighting, we came across them again and photographed them in the setting sun.
Unusually the Reserve has both Impala and Springbok and there were plenty of both around. We also saw kudu, water buck, red hartebeest and mountain reedbuck.
Because of the drought there is very little water in the dams of the Reserve and the Bushman’s River only has a few stagnant pools so there is little space for hippos. Most have been moved to reserves out of the area, with dams. The water level of two dams in the north are maintained by pumping from boreholes. We were happy to see a couple of hippos in that dam.
We saw lots of giraffe, zebra, warthogs, monkeys, hares and dung beetles.
Leopards have a lifespan of fifteen years. Leopard tortoises have a lifespan of ninety years. I suspect this tortoise has seen a few generations of leopards.
I am not a birder but enjoy seeing and hearing birds although my camera lens is not long enough to do them justice. We saw surprisingly few raptors except for Fish Eagles.
Tibby and I both attended Bryanston Primary School in Sandton, South Africa. Their school badge displays a hoopoe, which is colourful bird found in that area. There were lots of hoopoes in the reserve which made us very happy.
Otherwise I photographed birds when I could, and most times they escaped before I could raise my camera.
Although my family has deep horticultural roots I am an ignoramus when it comes to identifying flowers, plants and trees. I do, however, appreciate their beauty. There were some beautiful flowers in the Reserve.
In my view Shamwari has a wonderful physical location and is managing its game very well. Our game guide, Timothy was outstanding. Tibby’s beauty therapist was one of the best of the many she has experienced. The rooms and communal areas are well appointed and very comfortable. I appreciate that these are difficult times, that the reserve was closed during lockdown and that guest numbers are very low. However, I feel that the front office, restaurant serving staff and the chef all need further training. They are currently not providing the five star service that they should.
We did a five hour trip from the Reserve to Grahamstown and Port Alfred and back along the coast past Kenton. We stopped at the 1820 monument near Grahamstown to find that it is a performance venue with very limited information about the 1820 settlers. We tried to access Rhodes University but were turned back. The rest of Grahamstown was a disappointment.
The drive down to Port Alfred was very attractive. The Royal Alfred Marina is very pretty. The beaches are impressive. We had a pleasant lunch at Tash’s with a lovely view of the river. It is clear why so many like this town.
The drive back was delightful.
Addo Elephant National Park
I did a six hour trip to Addo, entering in the north at the Main Camp, passing Gwarrie Pan, Rooidam and Harpoor Dam and then taking the main road to the Matyholweni Gate.
I have visited Addo and seen almost no elephants but normally I see a lot. This trip was the latter. Normally there are elephants at Harpoor Dam. This time there were none although as I drove for the next ten minutes, I came across herds moving in that direction. At every other waterhole, and in between, I saw elephants in huge numbers, including many babies. There was also a sprinkling of other game including a large herd of buffalo which were heading to the road. I did not wait for them because we had had such a good buffalo viewing that morning in Shamwari. Addo offers a comprehensive and easy game viewing experience.
The map of the park shows a coastal section, confusingly called Colchester, which is also the name of the southern part of the park. I tried to get access to this section but was told that the principal area of interest was the beach, with no other roads and access being through a private resort with a fee payable. I did not follow that route but then did a 50km loop off the R72 which brought me close to the back of very high sand dunes, but with no beach access. This is fertile land with big dairy herds.
From 15th October 2020 I travelled 1,200km over five days from Arusha to Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti Game Reserve and Lake Natron in Tanzania.
When I quote prices, I use the original currency. At the beginning of my trip the exchange rates to the GB pound were: South African Rand 21.50, Tanzanian Shilling 3,000, and US$ 1.3. I have used these rates throughout this report, irrespective if rates changed or the actual conversion rates differed.
This is a story of great sightings, but reader beware, it is also a story of my incompetence. On two occasions I blundered into a situation which I might have avoided if I had been more professional.
I had driven my car and trailer from Cape Town to Tanzania in February and March 2020 and had left them in Moshi, close to the Kenyan border. I returned home as the world locked down over Covid-19. Unlike most of the world, Tanzania did not go into lockdown. Their president said that they should pray instead, and I have met people who have told me that Tanzania was saved from the virus by God. Statistics of the impact of the virus in Tanzania are not available but what is clear is that most people are living normal lives with no serious health problem. The country has been affected by the lack of revenue from tourists. Tanzania has not imposed any restrictions on entry, which with the apparent low level of virus induced illness, is causing tourists to now return (as I have), albeit in far reduced numbers. I have stayed in campsites and hotels where I have been the only guest or where occupancy is less than 10%.
Tanzania has taken an extreme view of the tourists they want in their national parks. Unlike South Africa there is a small domestic market for the parks. Overlanders and self-drive tourists are also small in number. The real market are foreign tourists who are prepared to pay sky high prices for the safari experience. They either fly from location to location in small planes or drive in on organised safaris. To maximise revenue the government has leased concessions in the parks to lodge operators and has introduced the most expensive park entrance fees in Africa. This makes the safari experience very expensive for self-drivers like me (when compared to the other countries I have visited) and has meant that I have been strict about how long I have stayed in a park and been very conscious of not overstaying the 24 or 48 hour period. The daily fees that I paid with only myself in the vehicle, including VAT, are as follows:
Locals, quite correctly, pay a small fraction of these charges.
In a fight against corruption government officials are not permitted to accept cash. For foreigners this normally includes border charges, game reserve fees, traffic fines and even Covid-19 tests. In an ideal situation the relevant office has a credit card machine and payment is made quickly. This generally happened at the game reserve gates. Often, they have a credit card machine but no internet and so payment must be made elsewhere. The payee is given a transaction reference and ideally a payment or deposit is made at a nearby bank in the government’s account, using the reference, with a receipt then issued which is accepted by the official. If no bank is available, then payment can be made at a money changer or approved store. Most transactions quoted by government officials to foreigners are quoted in US dollars but are then actually charged in Tanzanian Shillings, often at a disadvantageous rate.
Besides government, hotels and western supermarkets almost all transactions are in cash including diesel, tyre shops and mechanics. The largest note in circulation is 10,000 shillings which is only worth £3.30. The effective maximum that can be drawn from an ATM per transaction is TZS400,000 which is £132. As a result, the traveller must make multiple ATM transactions in a city to carry huge bundles of notes into the country where no ATM will be found. Even more galling is that the local banks charge one 2.8% of the withdrawal amount as a service fee.
Elections will be held on 28th October for the presidency and General Assembly. Although the president has waged a war on corruption he is viewed as being repressive and careless of the rights of the people including charges of vote rigging. There appears to be a reasonable chance that the election may bring about a change of government. As a result, the political parties are fighting for peoples’ votes. One way that is achieved is using trucks fitted with large speakers that tour the streets spreading the message of their party. I spent a few hours, when I first returned, preparing my vehicle at the place where it was stored. A funeral was taking place over the road and one of these political loudspeaker trucks assisted with the funeral by broadcasting hymns. However, as soon as the funeral was over, such a large gathering of people was too much of an opportunity to not take advantage of, and so a political broadcast quickly replaced the hymns. Even now, on 22nd October, as I write this in my hotel room, I can hear competing trucks passing down the road trying to get their message to the people. (The election was won by Tanzanian President John Magufuli , with a landslide victory of more than 84% of the vote, which surprised many.)
Preparing to travel
I flew into Kilimanjaro Airport from London via Doha and Dar Es Salaam and was met by the taxi driver, Shabani, who took me the hour to Kilimanjaro House where my car was stored. The car had been left for seven months, which was longer than I had planned because of Covid-19 and I was sad to see mould on the seats, a flat front tyre and flat batteries, even though they had been disconnected. Shabani was recalled in an unsuccessful attempt to jump start my battery. Shabani then took me and my battery to an ‘engineer’ in Moshi who quickly declared my battery dead. That required us to buy a replacement which, when fitted, got the car going. I left some hours later than planned.
I now had to rectify that fact that I was not up to date with my payments of road tax. I had tried to pay for twelve months road tax when I entered the country but had been limited to three months. I was warned that the Revenue office in Moshi would become aggressive when road tax had been underpaid so I followed the car storage owner’s recommendation to travel an hour east to the Kenyan border at Holili. After some toing and froing, I found the correct office with an amenable official to correct my situation. There then followed agony as a transaction that should have taken twenty minutes took two hours. As far as I was concerned, I wanted to complete a single transaction of paying road tax for the period from last expiry to January 2021. My view was too simple as the official decided:
I should pay road tax for the trailer as well – transaction count doubled to two
The payments should be separated between the past and the future – transaction count doubled to four
Even though I was not leaving the country, my Carnet de Passages, for both the car and trailer, should be closed off as of today, and reopened going forward – transaction count doubled to eight.
I could not pay at that counter but needed to pay elsewhere, four payments in all, and return with receipts – transaction count increased to twelve.
Instead of completing a transaction he flitted between them and was interrupted by official and personal telephone calls, action on the TV on the wall (which I could not see), passing people and the need to print huge amounts in a room elsewhere. When he returned to the paperwork he would forget where he was in the process and redo and recheck. There were seven people in the room, three of whom were seated at desks who were working on papers, and four who appeared to be juniors or apprentices. The latter were left to their own devices and spent most of their time on their phones. At times all seven people were on their phones.
Eventually he declared that the point had been reached where I should pay. He then noted that as it was close to the 18h00 closing time, the payment clerk at the desk across the hall had already left for the day, so I should pay at the bank counter close to the exit. There the bank clerk was cashing up and was not going to allow me to threaten her departure time. So, I was sent 150 metres out of the border area to an exchange bureau/local store where payment was made on the second machine offered. I hastened back to customs hall to find that my official had gone to prepare for his departure. He returned, and when he realised that the juniors were about to leave before him, he created work for them. I emerged with my correct paperwork as daylight disappeared, with a 115km journey to Arusha ahead of me in the dark, on a road busy with cars, motorcycles, cycles, pedestrians, frequent 50km per hour speed restrictions and countless speed bumps. I was conscious that the connection to my trailer was defective and so I had no rear, brake or indicator lights on the trailer which was dangerous. Having had the previous night in planes I arrived exhausted at my Arusha hotel at 21h00, with a big consolation that the restaurant was still open.
The next day I:
Drew two million shillings in five ATM transactions
Found an efficient mechanic to repair the connection between my car and trailer to reinstate my trailer lights
Had my front tyre puncture fixed
Bought an additional spare tyre (to replace the tyre lost in Zambia)
Had the car and trailer washed
Shopped for food, water and wine
Filled my car with diesel
Had my shoes and boots cleaned (three pairs for TZS6,000 (£2) – ‘paid too much’ according to the hotel receptionist!
Arranged through the hotel to have a Covid test, on my return, to allow me to get into Kenya.
On my way out of Arusha I stopped at the farm home of Manfred and Maria Lieke to look at their storage facilities for cars. They have lived for fifty years in Africa but are currently selling their agricultural equipment business with a thought of retiring to Germany. They are therefore reluctant to commit to long term parking but agreed that I could park there until January. They have several storage buildings and car ports. Their facilities seem better than those I was using in Moshi and it is certainly more convenient to park in Arusha than Moshi.
I then had an easy run on good tarmac roads to the Lodoare Entrance Gate where I was the only party entering the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. I paid my entrance fees and entered at 15h00. The road beyond is a gravel road which climbs up to crater rim. I had to be careful to avoid the racing game drive vehicles exiting the park, presumably to lodges outside the gate. I set up camp at Simba Campsite A where the only other residents were a group on a mobile safari.
I was up early and leaving my trailer at the campsite, I proceeded cautiously through the cloud sitting on the crater rim, to the Seneto descent road, beginning my descent at 07h00.
The Ngorongoro Crater is the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera. The crater, which formed when a large volcano exploded and collapsed on itself two to three million years ago, is 600 metres deep and its floor covers 260 square kilometres. Estimates of the height of the original volcano range from 4,500 to 5,800 metres. The crater floor is 1,800 metres above sea level. The Ngorongoro volcano was active from about 2.45 to 2 million years ago.
For those who know the Pilanesberg Game Reserve in South Africa, that is also in a caldera about twice the size of Ngorongoro. The main difference is that the sides of Ngorongoro are far higher.
Approximately 25,000 large animals live in the crater. Although thought of as “a natural enclosure” for a very wide variety of wildlife, 20 percent or more of the wildebeest and half the zebra populations vacate the crater in the wet season.
The volume of tourists in Tanzania are dramatically reduced now and so I only saw about 25 vehicles in the five hours I was in the crater. All the vehicles were game drive vehicles from lodges on the rim of the crater or just outside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. I understand that in a normal peak season 150 vehicles generally descend each day. Traffic is somewhat controlled by the high access charge. I paid US$295 to access the crater plus a charge for the Conservation Area. There are separate one way descent and ascent roads which require four wheel drive but are not really a challenge. As you can see from the photos the landscape is varied. I saw a wide range of animals including lions with the biggest manes that I have ever seen and a pair of mating ostriches.
This is a unique game reserve.
I summited on the Lerai ascent road at 12h00, picked up my trailer at the campsite and travelled 82km to the Naabi Hill exit gate of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area which is also the entrance of the Serengeti National Park. The road is reasonably good but corrugated gravel. I was conscious of the time because I needed to exit the NCA by 15h00 or pay for a further 24 hours. This time restriction means that few people explore the Olduvai Gorge archaeological site, where remains of Zinjanthropus, the world’s first humans, were discovered by Dr Louis and Mary Leakey over 50 years ago. I reached the gate at 14h30 where an efficient service relieved me of the fees for the next two days.
The park covers 14,750 square kilometres which makes it a similar size to Hwange and 75% the size of Kruger. It is, however surrounded by five other game reserves and game management areas in Tanzania as well as the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. The park comprises the almost treeless plains in the south, the Western corridor of black clay soil which includes the Grumeti River and its forests and the Northern Serengeti of open woodlands and hills, ranging from Seronera in the south to the Mara River on the Kenyan border.
The Serengeti is not easy to drive to and is expensive to visit. The principal reason to visit the Park is to experience the migration of 1.5 million white-bearded (or brindled) wildebeest and 250,000 zebras. This migration is not to be confused with the migration of birds where they fly a long distance and stay at their destination for many months. This migration never ends and is a continuous 800km clockwise movement. About 500,000 wildebeest are born in February in the south east Serengeti plains when the rain ripened grass is at its best. The animals move through the Western Corridor and cross into the Masai Mara in Kenya in July and August. The migrating animals are then not seen in the Serengeti until they return from Kenya in October and November in the north east and make their way down the eastern side of the reserve. About 500,000 wildebeest die during the migration from thirst, hunger, exhaustion or predation. The most spectacular viewings are the crossings of the Grumeti and Mara Rivers in the northwest of the Reserve but that is also the point when the animals are at their most stressed. At other times the animals can be spread out in an area up to 100km long and 20km wide so one is likely to see herds of a few thousand every few kilometres in the relevant areas, rather than a single gathering of 1.5 million animals. Such a large gathering of animals makes for easy hunting for predators.
At this time of the year the migrating animals are returning from the Masai Mara and re-entering Serengeti in the north-east of the park.
It was 50km to Seronera, but I deviated from the main road on to smaller tracks. I saw two lions next to the road and a herd of elephants at a distance but otherwise the plains were empty.
Seronera is the headquarters of the Park and the main area for accommodation but do not envisage it to be a confined camp like Skukuza in the Kruger Park. The Park HQ, filling station, staff accommodation, campsites and some lodges are spread over a 10km wide area. The filling station had run out of diesel and I was directed to another station about 5km away which appeared to be mainly used by official vehicles and staff, but which filled me up. I set up camp at Nyani Campsite which was relatively busy.
Day 3 – Seronera, Serengeti via Lobo to Kogatende and back to Lobo 346km
The main road north from the central hub of the park at Seronera to Klein’s Gate in the northwest is slightly wider than a car and is in a reasonably good condition for a four wheel drive vehicle with the exceptions of surprising humps, dips and occasional broken bridges. All the other roads in the north are two spoor tracks with driver formed bypasses when the main track gets too wet or too bumpy. Often there are bypasses of the bypass.
I drove up to Lobo where I had a camping reservation but detoured into Lobo Wildlife Lodge. The lodge was built in 1970 in the style then of 75 rooms over three floors. I knew that it was quite run down but it still has a rack rate of $540 per room. The hotel seemed deserted, but I walked through an empty door and called out and eventually someone responded. The hotel had no guests, so I was able to negotiate a rate of $120 for dinner, bed and breakfast. I left my trailer at the hotel and departed there at 10h30 knowing that I had eight hours before darkness fell.
I did a 2.5 hour, 80km drive north west to the Mara River at Kogatende. I was now surrounded by animals. I was passing through the location of the migration and came across herds of a thousand wildebeest and zebra. It was difficult to adequately photograph the scene. I saw huge herds of buffalo and many elephants. I crossed the causeway across the Mara River but became concerned that some of the going was becoming challenging and that I was too exposed.
I returned across the Mara and drove into the airstrip where fifty people and guides appeared to be waiting for planes. I tried and failed to find something to eat. As I headed to my vehicle, I was approached by a couple who told me that they were from the Tanzanian Tourist Organisation and wondered if I would be prepared to be interviewed by a team from Clouds TV. Their website describes them as: ‘Clouds TV’s mix of locally produced dramas, soaps, and reality shows mixed with hard hitting news and insightful lifestyle productions has made Clouds TV a favourite in Tanzania amongst the youth which makes up 60% of the population’. I am not sure if my interview was intended for the ‘reality show’ part of the output or the ‘insightful lifestyle’ segment. I was duly interviewed and have no idea if any of the interview was ever broadcast. The original couple also introduced me to Michael Shirima, the founder and chairman of Precision Air. I should have taken his mobile number, which might have been useful a few days later, when Precision Air cancelled my flight without telling me.
I then made the mistake of following tracks east along the Mara River. I had not looked carefully enough at the map and accepted a guide’s view that I could follow the Mara River, turn right and would return to the main road. THIS IS A FUNDAMENTAL ERROR WHICH I SHOULD NOT HAVE MADE! Ninety minutes later I was very lost when the skies opened, and a huge storm turned the tracks to mud. The confusion was that game drive trucks wander all over this area so one minute there is a clear route taken by many vehicles and then it splits and splits again, and then sometimes stops at a place where the guides take their clients for a picnic. My satnav would tempt me with a route that starts a distance away and when I head that direction the route retreats. I had long stopped taking photos. Worryingly, as it rained, water entered the car from the roof above the steering wheel so suddenly I was getting wet. I reached for a towel and focused on my greater dilemma of being lost. I stumbled across a remote and basic mobile safari camp. The guide told me that the ‘main road’ was three minutes away and that it would take me directly to Klein’s Gate. When I expressed some hesitancy, he said he would lead me to the ‘main road’. On the way there he veered of the track which confused me until I saw that a dozen lions were lying on the track. After ten minutes he stopped at a two spoor track and declared that this was the main road and that if I followed it I would get to Klein’s Gate in two hours, most of that time in the dark. I was dubious of my ability to keep to the main track for all that distance. I decided, and he agreed, that the best course of action would be to return to Kogatende (which is not much more than the airstrip) but even that proved challenging. The route in red is from my satnav and shows how I meandered. I got back to the real ‘main road’ as it got dark and then had a 2.5 hour hard drive back.
As I drove, I wondered why I could see a thousand lights of a distant town and then I realised that I was being watched by 500 wildebeest. A little while later I had to stop quickly because two huge lions were drinking from rainwater pools in the road. I was pleased that I had negotiated a bed in the Lobo Wildlife Lodge so when I arrived there at 21h00 a warm, if unappetising dinner and a lukewarm shower awaited me.
I travelled 150km from Klein’s Gate in the north east of Serengeti, close to the Kenyan border to the village of Engare Sero on the shores of Lake Natron. My research had told me that this journey would take between six and seven hours. I met a Polish couple at Klein’s Gate. They were the first private vehicle I had seen since entering Ngorongoro three days previously. Besides Parks and logistics vehicles all the vehicles I had seen were lodge game drive vehicles. This couple had just arrived from Engare Sero and the journey had taken them seven hours.
The first 50km to Wasso took me three hours averaging 17km per hour. There had once been a decent road, but it has had no maintenance for years and erosion does huge damage in Africa. There are diversions around huge ditches in the road. Some bridges stand as monuments with all soil around them washed away so that the bridge cannot be used. Cattle, sheep and goats use the roads more than vehicles. On two occasions on a diversion I could not see the way forward and had to exit my vehicle to work out that I needed to backtrack to find the correct way. The advantage of travelling so slowly is that it is easy to interact with the local people and so I have a few interesting photos. I was sorry that the Maasai Honey shop in Ololosokwan Village was closed but was later fascinated by their website at www.maasaihoney.com. At one point a truck approached transporting water in 5,000 litre tank, tied to the back which was splashing out over each bump in the road. I do not how much was left by the time it reached its destination. Somewhere on this route my driver side bonnet hinge broke but my bonnet remained in place because of extra pins that I had fitted two years ago.
As I approached the small town of Wasso I was amazed to see a new tarmac road. I discovered that a new 200km tar road is being built from Wasso through Sale and Engare Sero to meet the B144 tar road running from Arusha to Ngorongoro. The first question that arises is whether such an expensive road is needed. Population numbers are low in the area and while a better road is clearly necessary that could be a properly maintained gravel road. It then becomes clear that the road is being built by Chinese contractors and that China is probably financing the work as part of their Belt and Road Initiative which makes it attractive to today’s politicians. I fear that future generations may rue the expense when they must repay the loan.
The second question that arises is why build the road from the point that is furthest from the existing tar road. All the supplies need to come from Arusha and hundreds of trucks are making bad roads worse whereas if they started building the road from the existing tar road, they could use the newly completed road to supply the road construction beyond.
The new tar road is only about 12km long and not yet open to the public. The whole road may well take ten more years to be built. I decided to focus instead on the unfolding views as I dropped into the African Rift Valley towards Lake Natron. I was intrigued to see that a view of mountains looked like a dragon in repose.
At some point during the day it rained and water, once again, cascaded onto my steering wheel.
The map shows my route as recorded on my satnav. Unfortunately, it provides no information about the villages en route. It took me 6.5 hours to do the route.
On arrival in Engare Sero I negotiated a good last minute walk in rate at Maasai Giraffe Lodge but was horrified, later, to find that $42 taxes were then to be added.
Day 5 – Lake Natron to Arusha 231km
I had coffee and rusks at 06h00 and then departed with a guide to Lake Natron to see the sunrise and the pelicans.
Wikipedia: ‘Lake Natron is a salt or soda lake in the Gregory Rift, which is the eastern branch of the East African Rift. It stretches south from just across the Kenyan border to Engare Sero in Tanzania. The lake is a maximum of 57 kilometres long and 22 kilometres wide. Except near Engare Sero it is difficult to access. It is less than three metres deep. Air temperatures at the lake are frequently above 40 °C. High levels of evaporation have left behind natron (sodium carbonate decahydrate) and trona (sodium sesquicarbonate dihydrate). The alkalinity of the lake can reach a pH of greater than 12. The surrounding bedrock is composed of alkaline, sodium-dominated trachyte lavas that were laid down during the Pleistocene period. The lavas have significant amounts of carbonate but low calcium and magnesium levels. This has allowed the lake to concentrate into a caustic alkaline brine. Most animals find the lake’s high temperature (up to 60 °C) and its high and variable salt content inhospitable. The lake is the only regular breeding area in East Africa for 2.5 million lesser flamingos, as well as many pelicans.’
The skyline at the southern tip of the lake is dominated by two volcanoes called Ol Doinyo Lengai (Mountain of God) and Gelai. (As the crow flies these volcanoes are 70km from the Ngorongoro Crater.) For the last thirty years Ol Doinyo Lengai has been in a state of near-continuous effusion and mildly explosive eruption of lava from vents inside the crater, sometimes overflowing over the rim.
I was lakeside to see the sun rise behind Gelai which was a beautiful sight. There were few flamingo present but thousands of pelicans.
I was accompanied by Isaya Melesi, a 26 year old Maasai guide. (The Maasai area extends from Kenya south to Arusha in Tanzania with the Maasai population being 1.2 million and 800,000 in Kenya and Tanzania, respectively.) He told me that he had completed four years of secondary school and attained his O (Ordinary) levels. He told me that he had then worked as a security guard for a family in Arusha so that he could complete a one year Tourism Certificate during which he learnt English. He aspires to earn sufficient to return for another year and complete his diploma which will hopefully get him his preferred job in government. His current savings are all going to pay the dowry of twelve cows for his 18 year old bride to be next year. Unlike some more modern people in Southern Africa, a cash alternative is not an option, and he must deliver the cows. He already owns four cows, hopes to acquire six more in December and hopes that his wife’s family will be prepared to wait for the last two cows. Cows normally cost about the equivalent of £100 each but drop in price to about £83 in December. He told me that while school is free, parents must still pay for uniforms and books and with the school year beginning in January many people sell cows in December to fund these items. Lots of cows for sale reduces the price to his advantage. When they marry, his wife will move from her home, 100km away, to his father’s home in the nearby village. He did acknowledge that he and his betrothed were modern in that they had chosen each other and had not had a marriage arranged by their parents. He told me that carrying a stick was a sign to all others that he is a Maasai and that he feels quite naked without one. He told me that the traditional Maasai robe is the Shuka and that after their circumcision, young men will wear black for several months. All other adults will wear a bright-coloured Shuka, predominantly red; red symbolizes Maasai culture and it is the colour believed by them to be able to scare off lions even from a great distance. (Post trip note: On 8th December 2020 I received a WhatsApp message from Isaya saying that his earnings a a guide have been low this year because of COVID induced lack of tourists and that he, therefore, could not afford to buy all the cows that he had intended in December. He wondered if I could help him. I liked Isaya a lot and so I sent him funds that allowed him to buy two cows.)
When we first arrived, before dawn, at the parking area, a woman was in place offering beaded jewellery. When we returned an hour later nine women were ready to sell me their goods. I asked Isaya to tell them all that ‘the early bird catches the worm’ which they laughed at, as I bought some trinkets from the original woman.
When I had unhooked my trailer on the previous evening, I had noticed that the tow bar was separating from my rear bumper. Isaya accompanied me to the village of Engare Sero and guided me to a man who did welding. John and Dennis (presumably English names because white people cannot pronounce their real names) tackled the task with enthusiasm. They crawled in the dust under the vehicle and began jacking it up at the base of the tow bar, in an attempt to use the weight of the car to close the new gap between the bar and the bumper, before welding it. That had limited success, so they supported the vehicle by inserting a pipe from the ground to the end of the tow bar. That extra leverage of 30cm did the job. That brought home to me that the extension that I had fitted to the tow bar (to allow the trailer more space on corners) had created extra leverage, when the trailer is connected, and which was probably the cause of the current break. With the metal tear closed the area was welded, I paid TZS60,000 and I was told to return if I had any problems. Thirty minutes later I returned as the weld broke the moment that I connected the trailer.
Further investigation revealed that the tow bar had also broken the original weld to the chassis. This break was located next to my secondary fuel tank. The fuel tank was drained and removed, the tow bar was welded back to the chassis, the fuel tank was replaced, and the tow bar was securely tied to the bumper with two additional poles welded to both. I wandered through the village while the work was being done. I negotiated with Dennis that I would pay an extra TZS100,000 plus they could keep the thirty litres of diesel drained from my tank. (I had realised that there was no filling station in the village. John and Dennis fetch diesel from Mto wa Mbu (110km away) and then decant it into one litre bottles which they sell to motor bike drivers.) I left the village four hours later than I had planned.
I was accompanied by Dennis, who was carrying two forty litre bottles, who saw this as an opportunity to replenish their diesel stocks at Mto wa Mbu. Isaya had also asked me to give a lift to Mto wa Mbu for his friend, Alan.
Ten kilometres from the village the road suddenly became very sandy. We could see that a truck was stuck in the sand 200 metres ahead. Dennis directed me to take a diversion and then told me to wait as he checked out the route ahead. He reappeared over a small rise and indicated that I should follow the track of other vehicles over the rise. AT THIS POINT I SHOULD HAVE CHECKED OUT THE ROUTE MYSELF RATHER THAN RELY ON SOMEONE WHO PROBABLY DOES VERY LITTLE DRIVING. I crested the rise to find that on the other side tracks went in all directions. Within 30 metres I was stuck in the sand. Dennis decided that we could be pulled out by an Oxfam Land Cruiser that was helping to pull the truck out of the sand. We all went over to the truck to assist. To my amazement the Land Cruiser was using his winch to pull the truck out of the sand. All my 4×4 training told me that a winch should only be used to pull the host vehicle out of a stuck situation and should not be used to pull another vehicle! Nonetheless with ten of us pushing the Land Cruiser pulled the truck out of the sand with his winch. The Land Cruiser then moved to my vehicle. I wanted to deflate my tyres and use my tracks, but Dennis was having none that. The winch was connected, I engaged low ratio of my four wheel drive, many people pushed, my wheels spun, and I did not move. Twice more this exercise was repeated with lots of shouted instructions, but still the vehicle did not move. Dennis and I agreed that we should disconnect the trailer from the vehicle. Huge manpower lifted the trailer off the tow bar. We turned to allow the Land Cruiser another chance, to find that the driver had had enough, and he was departing despite all entreaties. The crew and passengers of the truck decided that all hope was lost, and they abandoned us. A passing game drive vehicle refused to risk his vehicle in the sand.
And so, we went back to basics. We used the high lift jack to lift the vehicle and pack stones under three wheels. I insisted on placing my wheel tracks to provide a route out for two of the wheels. I also insisted on deflating my tyres. When all that was in place a huge truck stopped. We fitted a tow rope and the truck pulled me out without any difficulty. I reversed back to where I had been, and we reconnected the trailer. The truck pulled both out without any difficulty.
The truck driver offered to stay with me until we had cleared the next lot of soft sand, but we were delayed as I inflated my tyres. I could not understand what they were saying in Swahili, but I am sure that they were saying that the deflation of the tyres was a waste of time!
The truck was on a constant Ferris wheel route to Arusha to collect supplies for the road building near Wasso. He stayed with us past the next soft sand and then, after receiving something for his efforts, left us in a cloud of dust. I had lost two more hours.
I had planned to stay at Tarangire National Park that night and do a game drive in the evening and in the morning but I now realised that, having lost six hours during the day with vehicle issues, I could no longer get to Tarangire in the daylight and that my best course of action was to return to Arusha.
We eventually reached the B144 tar road near Mto wa Mbu at 18h30 as daylight was fading. I tipped my travel companions and bade them farewell and then drove a further 110km in 2.5 hours in the dark. My third night of African night driving in ten days – completely against all safe driving advice. I was delighted to arrive at my Arusha hotel at 21h00. The end to an exciting trip.
My priority in the morning was getting a COVID-19 test to allow me entry to Kenya. The front office manager of my hotel had agreed, before I left on my trip, to take me for my test. We walked ten minutes from the hotel at the Clocktower to a tent in a field at the back of the Mount Meru Regional Hospital. I needed to have my passport with me. I was told that there is only one testing laboratory in the country and it is a government one in Dar Es Salaam, so all the Tuesday samples were sent overnight to Dar. Worryingly the form I completed did not ask for my email address.
On Wednesday afternoon I received a reference number by text which I needed to use for a $50 equivalent deposit. By late Thursday afternoon I had heard nothing more and returned to the hospital to find the testing centre closed. (I then saw the advertised times as Mon to Fri 08h30 to 15h30 and Sat and Sun 10h00 to 14h30.) A notice gave the number of the overall coordinator (presumably for that hospital) Warda Kaita as +255 713 819 450. She promptly emailed me my certificate. It is not clear how I would have received my certificate otherwise. There was a suggestion earlier in the process that an online register at all airports would have all the results 72 hours after testing but I do not know if that is correct and if it is, if they will then print a certificate needed at one’s destination. I can add that there has been little sign of the virus on my travels in Tanzania with no one except airport officials and hotel staff wearing masks.
I parked in a back lot of the hotel and unpacked the vehicle and trailer, hung out wet items to dry, threw away what was not needed and repacked. I returned to the car wash and the shoe cleaner. I then dropped off both the vehicle and the trailer at Zee Suleman, the owner of the Pitstop Service Centre, for him to service both and attend to a list of issues, including replacing my bonnet hinge. I had also noted that the tongue coupler of neck of the trailer was bent.
I bought my 2010 Toyota Fortuner in 2014 with 76,000km on the clock from a single owner who had only used the car for commuting. I paid R300,000 (£15,000 then) for the Fortuner and another R200,000 (£10,000) on extras including new front and rear bumpers, extra fuel tank, tougher springs and shock absorbers, all terrain tyres, a second spare wheel, roof rack, winch, drawer system, fridge, camping equipment and recovery equipment. This was a cheap way to get an off-road vehicle. I know now that it was probably the wrong way. Toyota consider the Fortuner to be an SUV and even though it has four wheel drive and low range, they do not classify it as an off road vehicle like Land Cruisers and Prado’s. While the chassis is the same as a Hilux it is just not as tough as a Hilux. When I was in Maun, I had difficulty getting Fortuner parts because they are seldom seen there. Most people there drive Land Cruisers. I have done over 100,000km with the Fortuner which probably includes about 25,000 on bad roads and tracks. My Fortuner has incurred a lot of damage and after every trip I need to do repairs. I have been lucky that I have never had a mechanical failure in a remote place.
I have had my personal curse of my bonnet hinges breaking. Several Toyota service managers have told me that they have never seen a broken Fortuner bonnet hinge, and yet, I go through several hinges on every trip. I suspect that I incurred damage to the frame of the vehicle by overloading it with a very heavy roof box in 2016 on a trip through Botswana and Namibia. I now carry a larger stock of hinges than any Toyota dealer. Two years ago, I had two pins fitted at the front of the bonnet so that when both hinges have broken the bonnet is still held on the vehicle. Zee expressed the view that the pins were creating a tension in the bonnet that might be aggravating the situation. He investigated further than anyone has before and sent me disturbing videos. (I have tried and failed to upload the videos here.) They show that the frame of the vehicle, under the windscreen has come apart. This cannot be solved by fitting new parts because it is the core frame that is damaged. He is quite comfortable that he can weld the frame together again. I hope that he can.
I mentioned to Zee that water was entering the cab above the steering wheel. He started investigating the windscreen and remarked that most of the sealant around the windscreen was missing. And then in an incredibly scary manoeuvre he lifted the windscreen away from the frame! I had no idea how long the windscreen had been loose like that. Sealing and securing the windscreen was added to the task list.
As the worklist was going to take several days Zee agreed to finish the work and drop the Fortuner and trailer off at the home of Manfred and Maria Lieke.
Tanzania to Kenya
There are normally four or more flights each day from Kilimanjaro Airport to Nairobi but when I booked online, I only had a choice of one Precision Air flight at 06h50. My taxi driver, Steven, collected me at 04h00 from my hotel and expressed surprise that international flights had resumed from Kilimanjaro. When I was dropped at 05h00 at the airport it was in dark, but the security staff raised themselves and scanned my luggage. All check in desks, including those of Precision Air, were unmanned and no staff, who knew anything were to be found. Precision Air’s calling centre number told me that my call was important to them and that they would be happy to help me from 07h00. Tanzania Air came to life and checked in arriving passengers. One of their staff gave me a local mobile number for Precision Air which was not answered. The Precision Air website seemed to indicate that there were no flights to Nairobi today from either Kilimanjaro or Dar Es Salaam. By 06h00 I concluded that my 06h50 flight was cancelled. I consulted Mr Google who told me that it was 150km to the Namanga border with Kenya, and a further 150km to Nairobi, all of which should take six hours. Steven, suspecting that I would not get my flight, had not left the airport, and agreed to take me to Namanga for $75. Soon after 07h00 Precision Air returned my call to their mobile number and told me that they were rerouting me via Dar to Nairobi which I would arrive at by 18h00. I declined their offer and asked for a refund. On arrival at Namanga my COVID-19 negative certificate was certified by a Tanzanian official without reference to any other source – a useless job. I quickly passed through a quiet border post although the Kenyans insisted on seeing not only my COVID-19 certificate, but also my receipt for payment of the test. Presumably, this was their way of ensuring that the certificate was not a forgery. I emerged from Immigration to find that Steven had called his local Kenyan taxi driver friend, who was more adroit at bargaining, and agreed to take me to Nairobi for $100. I arrived in Nairobi by 12h00, far faster than flying via Dar. I am still waiting for my refund from Precision Air.
I learnt my lesson about cancelled flights so a week later I tried to confirm our flight from Nairobi to Cape Town, I called, emailed and chatted with Kenya Airlines without any success. I went to the airport to find that our flight had been cancelled but that they could deliver us to Johannesburg instead. When I asked for a pro rata refund, given the shorter distance, I was told that the fare to Johannesburg was now 60% more expensive than what we had paid, so I should consider myself lucky!
Descriptions of Accommodation
The assumption is that decent Wi-Fi was available in the bedrooms at hotels at no cost unless mentioned. Both lodges agreed a discounted rate for a last minute walk in.
Simba A Campsite in The Ngorongoro Conservation Area. $30. Very basic
Lobo Wildlife Lodge, Lobo, Serengeti National Park. $120 dinner, bed and breakfast. No wifi. Horrible food.
Maasai Giraffe Eco Lodge, Engare Sero. $70 dinner, bed and breakfast plus $42 local taxes. Pleasant.
Description of my vehicle and equipment
I drive a three litre, diesel 2010 Toyota Fortuner which I bought in 2014 with 76,000 km on the clock. At the beginning of this trip it had done 175,000 km. I have added the following: ARB front bull bars, Fortuner bash plate, Safari snorkel, enhanced coils, springs and shock absorbers, secondary battery system, 72 litre built in extra diesel tank, Rockshockerz purpose built rear bumper and carriers for two spare wheels reduced now to one wheel carrier), Front Runner roof rack, a pull out awning fixed to the roof rack, Front Runner stainless steel/aluminium camp table, two diesel jerry cans and a 60 litre Engel Combi fridge/freezer.
For when I get stuck, I carry a box of towing and snatch ropes, a high lift jack, two other jacks, an ARB portable compressor, two Desert escape sand tracks, a 9000-winch fixed to the front bumper, a spade and an Iridium 9575 Satellite Phone. I also have a C-Track tracker on the vehicle with the ability to send a mayday message (although did not know how to do it, when I needed it).
The Echo Trailer was bought in 2018 and did a return trip to Livingstone via Botswana in that year. I did not use it in 2019. The reason to use the trailer is so that I can accommodate more than two people on the trip. There is not enough space in the Fortuner to carry four people, all their luggage and all the camping equipment that is needed. The trailer has two cubic metres of general storage, a kitchen compartment containing crockery, food and a two plate gas stove, two gas containers, a 120 litre water tank, two diesel jerry cans and a bed on the roof with a tent that opens up over the bed and extends to the side of the trailer. I took the trailer to Tanzania so that it would be available when I travelled with four people in the area on subsequent trips. I did not need the trailer for this trip and should have transferred the few items I needed from the trailer to the Fortuner, and left the trailer behind.
Whenever I can, I stay in hotels or self-catering units, but if these are not available, I am ready to camp in relative luxury with an Oztent RV5 tent, camp bed, one sleeping bag for temperatures down to 7⁰C and another for temperatures below that, Oztent Goanna chairs, a selection of pots, pans and cutlery, braai grid and a sixty litre tank of fresh water.
Accommodation for the 4 nights on the trip
Diesel. I travelled 1,179km, consuming 180 litres, with an average consumption of 6.5 kms per litre. The average cost per litre, in £pence, of diesel, in Tanzania was 64p
Fees to enter national parks
Total of above for five days
Excludes: meals not included in hotel cost, tips, vehicle servicing, repairs, insurance and storage