Thursday, December 25, 2014

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!!

Ok, there were no tigers or bears in this park and in the end, we didn’t see any lions (though they do live there and apparently one ate a bicyclist the day we left the park but then I personally wouldn’t bicycle thru a game reserve) either, but I couldn’t think of a better title to start out our safari experience J.  First off, let me state that Saadani is not a Big 5 park, the Big 5 being the lion, buffalo, leopard, elephant and rhino.  We knew going into this part of our trip that certain animals were unlikely to be seen and some definitely not at all.  Saadani does have 4 of the Big Five, but up until 10 years ago, this area was poached, a lot. And it’s only been in the last 10 years that it has become a national park where the animals are protected.  And so, the odds of us seeing certain animals or even a big variety of animals were slim as a result since they are really just starting to make a comeback.  We spoke to some people later on in our trip that went to the Serengeti and it sounded like there was a significant difference in the amount of animals they saw - like thousands of wildebeest migrating versus the one (literally one) that we saw.  Live and learn but a great experience nonetheless - we now better understand the planning process and if we were to do it again, know exactly how we would change things up.

So why go here?  Why come all the way to Tanzania, home of the Serengeti and the
Ngorongoro Crater, some of the best game drives there is and instead go to Saadani?  Well, this trip originally started off as a beach vacation.  We wanted to go somewhere warm and by the coast so we could swim.  But when planning the trip, I asked the owners of the lodge we would be staying at, if there was an opportunity for us to do any game drives.

Her recommendation was for us to stay at the Tent With a View lodge ( for the nights of our safari.  While less than 2 hours away from where they are, game drives start before 6AM and Tent With a View is 10 minutes from the reserve and so it would make more sense for us to do that.  And then after our safaris are done, we would be driven to their lodge for the rest of our time in Tanzania.  It made sense to us and meant we didn’t have to fly to another location in Tanzania (which can be costly for such a small plane as well).  And so that’s how we came across the Saadani National Park.

The first item on our safari itinerary was a river cruise to see the hippos and hopefully some crocodile.  We would eat lunch on the boat while enjoying our view of the hippos.  The drive took about an hour for us to get to the river and along the way we passed Saadani Village, our first glimpse into the life here in this part of Tanzania.  While it was very disturbing to all of us (most especially to Aidan) to see people living in these conditions, we are assuming that the indigenous people here are not living unhappy lives, though there is no doubt that they are living a very tough life.  We also know that these homes are nothing compared to other parts of Africa and we learned a lot more about them during the rest of the trip.  While these homes were downtrodden, they looked overall clean and neat and the “yards” were kept in order.

Liam is ready to go!

The road ahead

The water tower being built that will mean the villagers don't have to walk 
great distances for clean water.

Saadani Village


Ramshackle homes built of mud.  No electricity as far as we can tell (we eventually saw power lines but they were reserved for only the salt plant area and for the government buildings) which leads me to believe, no indoor plumbing either.  I will admit, it made me feel very uncomfortable to be driving through the village (and other ones as well) in our nice Land Rover safari jeep while out on tours while these people live the way that they do, way below the poverty line.  But the people were friendly and waved to us and we waved back as well.  They didn’t appear to be angry at their living situation, though that is just how they appear, who knows how they feel.  Is it because they don’t know what else is out there?  Or they are just resigned to the fact that this is their lot in life and therefore just move forward because that is really all they can do and their focus is on survival?  I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to be able to move upward in life from these types of circumstances.  It would take a special child that perseveres through a lifetime to escape this type of life where there is no opportunity for a good education (and in some cases, none at all), no knowledge of what is beyond this life and finding the means to escape it for better things. 

More of the village

Grandma Rodney's Kitchen.... hmmmm.... I might pass on that one

The red tree in the background is called a Christmas Tree

Notice no electrical lines

Can you see the discrepancy here???

Josh ready for our game drive

The road and landscape constantly changing

These trees were covered in huge thorns... yet apparently the giraffes and baboons love them.

Another baboon

I’d also like to note that while I took pictures of homes and villages, I tried not to take pictures of people as I found it to be invasive.  So while you will see a few, you won't see a lot of them.  Aidan, especially, was adamant about this.  I tried to picture being at home in our neighborhood and having people constantly taking pictures of me and my family and I wouldn’t like it either.

As we drove past the village, we eventually came across a salt flat where there was another little village, obviously for the workers of the flats.  There is a huge discrepancy between the wealthy and the poor here and that much is obvious.  We asked our guide about the village by the salt flat.  He said, if I understood correctly, that this was not their homes but only where they stay when they are working.  Regardless of when they stay there, this was substandard living conditions and it made me incredibly angry knowing that the owner of the salt flats is likely very wealthy and chooses to pay these workers very little because they can.  I don’t know what the labor laws are here in Tanzania, so perhaps they are receiving the legal wage, but based on the living conditions, it is not nearly enough. 

Salt factory in the background

Temporary village for the workers

More of the worker village


Salt flat

Shoveling the salt into the truck

Group of workers waving to us


More flamingos

Fighting or mating????

We moved past the salt flats and eventually came to the river where we embarked on our tour.  The river was wider than I expected and very muddy in appearance.  Apparently it’s also not very deep which is why the hippos are attracted to it.  While they can swim, they are not great swimmers.  They spend much of their time in the water, but mostly wading around where they can walk along the bottom.  Our boat was a flat bottomed boat and maybe 15 feet in length.  Don’t think it didn’t go thru my mind that a very pissed off hippo could totally flip us over.  The guides told us that it doesn’t happen but that doesn’t mean I didn’t think about it.  However, we never approached the hippos to give them reason to get angry – though a few followed us here and there! 

Aidan walking to the river

Aidan had a bit of a headache during this part of the safari :(

Lodge type area by the river


Eagles - stunning!

The hippos travel in herds and only have one male we learned.  If a male is born into the family, the mother immediately takes him to live somewhere else as the adult male will kill him otherwise.  They are very territorial animals.  We also found out that several herds live along this river.  And when the tide goes up due to the ocean flowing into the river, the herd closest to the ocean must move down river – when they do this, they make a sound to signal the next herd that they also must move down and so on and so on.  We saw several herds along the way.  They are huge animals which is a little intimidating to see them in their natural environment and not behind the wall of a zoo. 

These little yellow birds make these little hanging nests on trees

I liked the contrast between river, trees and the sky


More eagles

In addition to the hippos, along the way we saw a plethora of birds including eagles!  They were breathtaking and so majestic looking!  We spent a few hours sightseeing along the river including our lunch break where we anchored maybe 50 feet from a herd of hippos that we got to watch while we ate.  The only thing we missed was the crocodile.  Apparently they don’t like the intense heat (odd since they live in Africa!) and are hard to spot.  Josh got a shot of one of them but the rest of us missed seeing him.


It's the elusive crocodile!

We made our way back to the jeep and started our game drive.  No rest for the weary.  Unfortunately we didn’t see much.  It was a bit of a disappointment but like with fishing, patience is key and some days are good days and some are not.  We did see a lot of baboon and some giraffe but not much else.  By the end of the day, we were exhausted and ready to head to the lodge, feeling a little defeated and yet at the same time, elated by the thrill of the chase and the opportunity to see some amazing animals in their natural habitat.

Driving back thru the salt flats

Elephant footprint!

On the lookout!




Road flooded on both sides

This was a type of pheasant - it was probably the dumbest animal we encountered and I was surprised it hasn't gone the way of the dodo...

Our driver looking for an alternate route with no water

Flooded "roads"

Our first giraffe!!!  These are Masai giraffes, only found in Tanzania

Four giraffes

Giraffe laying down

Female water buck

Baobab tree

Male water buck

More baboons

Lots of water buck

Cow??  Yes a cow.  There are Masai tribes that live within the park - they are nomadic and their herds of cows roam with them.

Some local people

The lodge… in one word.  Amazing!  Tucked literally into the middle of nowhere but along the Indian Ocean, you can’t see a single thing for miles in either direction other than the beach and palm trees.  We walked thru a small path to get to the main lodge which was open to the elements, no windows whatsoever.  The workers took our luggage and everything was 1st class the whole way.  We checked in at the main lodge and they had everything ready for us.  Unfortunately with the ebola scare (on the other side of the continent) they had a significant amount of cancellations and both nights, we were on the only guests.  Essentially we had an entire lodge to ourselves.  This lodge is already a semi private place with only 12 bungalows, so there was no way we would ever have felt it was crowded but to be the only guests, was something else, admittedly a little awkward having the staff waiting on just us, hand and foot. 

As it was already getting dark by the time we were checked in and had enjoyed our welcome glass of mango juice (we are mango'd out now - toooooo much mango in 10 days!), we went over to our bungalow.  Once it gets dark you actually need a flashlight to get to the main lodge as there are no streetlights or any kind of lighting along the way.  As a result, I've never seen so many stars in my life - never.  With no outside lighting, it was the most magical thing I've ever seen.  I tried to take a picture but no luck.

We had no internet at this place and it wasn't a bad thing - we had no choice but to disconnect for 2 1/2 days.  We had one power outlet to charge all of our electronics but were too busy to really worry about them.  With a hammock on our front deck and the Indian Ocean just meters away, it was paradise.  On the flip side, I should also make a note of the guards that carried guns - at first I thought that this was an issue due to attacks on the area, but it turns out that it was to guard against any animals.  And no, they don't shoot them, apparently they fire a shot into the air.  It's more so with the elephants who are accustomed to just knocking down anything in their path.  You don't want an elephant to knock down your hut while you are sleeping!!

We've arrived!

The main lodge - no windows, totally open to the elements

View right outside the lodge... that would be the Indian Ocean right there

Our bungalow

And our view and yes, also the Indian Ocean

Our stay at Tent with a View included all of our meals and they were all wonderful.  Josh and I found it amazing how they were able to source the ingredients given our very very remote location.  Apparently they often travel the 4 hours into Dar es Saalam in order to purchase certain products.  The challenge for me, being a picky eater, was not knowing what we were having at each meal but also feeling the need to eat all of it, not only to be polite but also knowing the extreme poverty levels nearby and the old adage, “there are starving children in Africa” rang very true and made you feel incredibly guilty when leaving a crumb on your plate.  No one made us feel badly but both Josh and I did, especially when the kids didn’t eat everything.  Later in the trip I spoke to a gentleman that lived here for 23 years and asked about that – he said none of it goes to waste.  Unlike what we would do in Europe and the US, they do not throw out the food you don’t eat.  The staff will eat it or they will send it to a village.  It still feels uncomfortable if we don’t eat everything, but I have a little more peace of mind about it now.

Being in Tanzania, no matter how luxurious the location and accommodation, it comes with a price.  That price has been electricity.  It goes out… a lot.  The Tent with a View used solar power but even that was a precious commodity.  It’s a very expensive luxury and so we were told that we could only use the (one) outlet in our bungalow to charge things up until 10PM at night, ideally no later than 6PM (we tended to be on the 10 PM side though since we had cameras, a computer and ipads to charge for 4 people). 

Our bungalow itself was huge.  Two good sized bedrooms and a full bathroom.  The bathroom was rustic, but to be expected and we found a bat stuck in between the screen and the outside of the house.  He scared the bejesus out of us every morning when we went to use the toilet – I’m sure we scared him too!  As it was necessary given our location, their were mosquito nets around each bed and each night they would come and spray the rooms and put down the nets.  It was like sleeping in a little cocoon. 

The boys' room

The much beloved hammock

Our view

Our room

The bathroom... we also had an extra "guest" that stayed in the bathroom.  There was a bat caught between the screen and the exterior of the hut.  He would flap his wings trying to escape any time we came into the bathroom...

Getting alone for the moment

Entrance to the lodge

Part of the dining area of lodge

View from inside of our bungalow

Liam loved being so close to the beach!

Both nights we were there, we were in bed by 9:30.  Sad but true.  But it’s one of those kinds of places where you are up with the sun and to bed on the early side.  Not to mention, we had to be up at 4:45AM each morning to be at pre-breakfast (coffee, tea and muffins) for 5:15 before our safari.

Our second day we broke things up a little bit better.  We were up at 4:45 to start our drive before sunrise.  But we would return to the lodge around 9 or 10 for our actual breakfast.  Then we would have a few hours to ourselves, have lunch and then around 3 we would go out for our second drive.

The second day was much better as far as animal sightings.  In fact, within 15 minutes of leaving the lodge we ran across an elephant in the road.  I’ve seen elephants in zoos but there is something incredibly intimidating about seeing one in the wild and this one didn’t seem to like the looks of us.  He was a large male and he was swinging his trunk at us from down the road, stalked into the bush and then came out behind our jeep and looked as though he was going to charge.  We got out of there quickly!  They travel in herds but we did not see the other elephants with him.

Imagine driving and right in front of you is.... an elephant!!

Notice his ears changed - he's now not very happy that we are there

And he charged into the woods... and then back on to the road behind us.  Thankfully he did not follow more than a few feet and stopped once he noticed we were going away.

So psyched he just saw an elephant!

This is the area where the green turtle eggs hatch.  Unfortunately we are about a month too early :(  It would have been so cool to see baby turtles hatching!

Beyond that, we saw lots of baboons, giraffes (who are just the most amazing, graceful animals and I could watch them all day), water buck, water buffalo, a wildebeest (apparently very few in this park so we were lucky to see) and more!  We truly drove thru the bush with the guide often following a trail that could barely be seen.  That in and of itself was quite exciting knowing that we were without a doubt off-roading.  There were times when the road in front of us was flooded out and the guide would need to get out and inspect which way he should go to go around the impasse.  Most of the time this was not a big deal to me, except when we went to lion country, because what happens if a lion decides that our guide is a really good and tasty meal???

Giraffe is in the middle poking his head up from the trees

Giraffes in the road

This form of fighting is called "necking"

Some landscape

And some more...

And now it's different - a bit more sparse

Male water buck

Buffalo - apparently one of the most vicious animals in this park which we never knew or would have guessed.  Even the lions steer clear for the most part...

Lots of animal tracks

Notice the babies on their backs - how cute!

A whole field of those spikey thorn trees

Josh insisted on taking this picture and that I post it here... so here you go.  

Female water buck

2km to our lodge!

"Using" his binoculars... backwards

Much better :)

Anyways, the morning was full of sightings and we were really energized by it all.  The previous afternoon forgotten and once again, we were reminded of how patient you need to be in order to get a chance to see these animals.

After breakfast back at the lodge, Aidan and I hung out in the hammock and on the deck relaxing while Josh and Liam took a dip in the Indian Ocean.  I kid you not, it was like bath water.  I thought that the Mediterranean was warm but it makes the Med seem like the Arctic! 

Liam on the path that leads to the main lodge

Happy for a fun morning

Now it's breakfast time (yes we did our safari that early!)

Heading to our bungalow

Our bungalow

Someone loves the hammock

Amazing views!

Loving the sand and beach

Josh and Liam taking a dip in the Indian Ocean which was literally warm as bathwater - and we thought the Mediterranean was warm!

Nothing but palm trees, beach and ocean

And the other direction

Liam in the ocean

We had a visitor for lunch ;)

Break time over, it was time to hit the road again, but this time we had a different guide.  Our first guide was great – he was very patient and explained a lot about the animals to us.  But he was also very quiet and much of our drive was in silence (not that we were super talkative either).  This next guide was full of energy and enthusiasm but he didn’t have the patience of our first guide.

No fences or anything like that - you know you are entering the park by the signs.  And that means the animals technically have no boundaries on where they go - since they obviously can't read.  But according to the locals, the animals know they are safe in this area and often don't roam far from the boundaries or more so, stay away from areas where there are people living.

He took us back to the area we had been in the morning (not sure if he realized we had already been there) and we had a chance to go up into the tower that Tent With a View owns that overlooks the park.  We had tea and coffee up there, again, 1st class service, before heading back out on our drive.  Our guide was determined to find the elephant herd for us so we could see a lot of them.

Liam and I on top of the tower, taking some pictures

Aidan really enjoyed using the big camera

Can I drink this???

We could see all the way to the ocean

Liam loved using his new camera and took A LOT of videos!

No more pictures!

Josh is loving this place!

Can I pour you a drink sir?

The view

Taking more pictures

So happy!

Me and Liam

We drove really fast (which is hard on non paved roads) and with a feeling of intensity that I didn’t really like.  At the same time, it made it feel more invigorating with the thrill of trying to track down this herd.  We drove until the sun was setting but had no luck… right up until we were about 15 minutes from the lodge, almost in the identical spot we had seen the male earlier that morning, we saw them.  They were at a bit of a distance and it was getting dark, so the pictures aren’t very good and the bugs were starting to come out so we didn’t stay long figuring we’d see them in the morning again.  In the meantime we saw more giraffe, baboon and water buck... even a wildebeest!!

Baobab tree - they can live up to 1000 years old!  This particular species is only in Tanzania.

Another buffalo

Giraffe running

Same buffalo got up out of the mud

Herd of buffalo

Closer up... 

Our guide checking his watering hole camera that's hidden in this tree

So this wildebeest was actually "playing" with the water buck pictured above.  Apparently they often "work" together feeding off of each other's strengths and weaknesses in order to steer clear of predators.  This was the ONLY wildebeest we saw (hence next trip would be to the Serengeti).

Excited to see the wildebeest which was one of his favorite animals when he was little!

Baby giraffe!!!

Into the bush!

More animal tracks

Finally some elephant!!!!!

You can just make out a baby one between the one on the far left and the 2nd one on the right

We met the owners of the lodge briefly before dinner.  They are both British but have been in Tanzania for quite some time and seem to love it here no matter how challenging the environment can be.  Once again, we were in bed early after dinner since we had to rise again at 4:45 for our last safari which would only be a half day, after which we would drive to our next destination, The Tides Lodge.

Unfortunately for us, the last safari was as disappointing as the first.  We saw very little.  We went out to lion country to try to track down some lions.  I can see why they like to live in this area.  As an aside, Josh and I were fascinated by the continuing change in landscape as we drove thru different parts of the park – from almost desert like areas with very little vegetation, to beach, to lush savannah, it changed within minutes.  Apparently this is due to the location of the park by the coast and that the very coastal areas grow little vegetation but as we increase in elevation (and it’s overall pretty flat), the terrain then changes.

It's not even sunrise yet and we're out the door! 

Another giraffe... as beautiful as they are, I'll admit, I'm tired of the pictures of them... what I wouldn't give for a zebra right now.

The tower we went to yesterday for tea / coffee.

Baby giraffe on the right!

I think this is Josh's favorite picture of the whole trip.  Not sure what kind of monkey this is, but he has blue balls.  Both he and the kids (though they didn't understand the full mean of blue balls of course) thought it was hysterical!

And for a change of pace... and antelope!

In the front you can see a baby antelope ahead of it's mom

I promise, this is the last giraffe picture... beautiful though, aren't they?

Masai village cows

And they are blocking the road

One final breakfast and then we are on our way!

One last shot at the lodge at Tent with a View

Heading out to our next adventure - the beach!

View of the ocean as we leave Tent with a View

But again, no luck with the lions which was a huge disappointment to us.  We did get to see some antelope which was fun, including a baby one!  However, we were a little saddened that our last safari would end on a down note.  Regardless, we had a great time at the Tent with a View and on the safaris.  I don’t know that we would ever go back to Saadani for a safari given it’s limited animals, however, for us, it was the perfect introduction on what to expect on such a trip.  Now we’re off to part 2 of our vacation – the beach!!!



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