Safari & trip report Sep/Oct 2015

Nicky Dunnington-Jefferson writes:

I have recently returned from spending five weeks in Tanzania, and thought that some observations and comments might be helpful.

I took the Bradt Zanzibar guide book with me, together with a copy of the Kilwa and the South Coast section of the Bradt Tanzania Safari Guide. Luggage weight was a real problem as I was on and off domestic flights where there is supposedly a 15 kg weight limit. I was overweight for sure but luckily managed to escape any excess baggage charges.

My first two weeks were spent on safari with two friends in the Selous, Ruaha, Katavi and Mahale. In the Selous we stayed at Lake Manze Camp. When writing about this camp it might be good to mention that you are escorted to and from your tents by a Maasai as animals frequently come into the camp. Also, although there is no electricity, at night you are provided with two kerosene lamps, a torch, and there are also candles in your tent. The birdlife in this part of the Selous is prolific, and there is a healthy lion population in the area which is encouraging considering the threat these big cats are under. Guests may choose to have a ‘bush breakfast’, or maybe stay out all day and enjoy a picnic lunch. One can also take an afternoon boat trip on the lake, where the birdlife is excellent and the crocs and hippos numerous; this is a lovely opportunity to enjoy a Selous sunset. And I must make mention of our excellent guide, Samwel, and his driver, Mhande, who together made a great team.

In Ruaha we stayed at Mwagusi Safari Camp. Despite its superb river setting this was my least favourite safari accommodation. The bandas were almost too big and I thought Mwagusi lacked the real bush feel of some of the other camps in which I stayed. In my opinion the catering tended towards trying to be too upmarket and fancy, when simpler fare would have been more acceptable. It didn’t help that the provision of hot water to my banda was erratic and one of the zips faulty. In fact I thought it was all rather over-the-top and I was much happier elsewhere. Yes, it’s all very well to dine in the riverbed but one almost felt it necessary to put on a dinner jacket. Also, I far prefer a smaller camp which cannot accommodate a big group and unfortunately there was a big group when we were staying; sadly leopard sightings were overcrowded. One morning we decided to have a ‘bush breakfast’ but our smart lodge staff forgot to include the cutlery. It is however amazing what one can do with one’s fingers and a few twigs! Even though Mwagusi Safari Camp wasn’t top of my list as far as accommodation was concerned, Ruaha itself was great.

Next we flew to Katavi, to stay at Chada Camp, about which I have nothing but good things to say. Simply put, I loved it, and so did my companions. Chada Katavi Camp is at present managed by an enthusiastic young Belgian, Julien, and he contributed hugely to the enjoyment of staying at this camp. Nothing was too much trouble for him and his friendly, helpful staff and the food was excellent – wholesome and tasty – and even the plates were hot – terrific. This was the Africa I love, with no frills, fancies or pretensions: pure, raw, real Africa experienced in simple but comfortable tents, with vervet monkeys climbing on the roof and lions roaring in the night. You order your shower ahead of time and hot water will be delivered to your shower bucket at whatever time you stipulate. You just have to remember that water is precious here in the dry season and you need to be careful about the amount you use.

We had an excellent driver/guide, Molel, and one of my lasting memories of Katavi is sipping gin and tonic among a large herd of elephants at sunset; Africa couldn’t get any better.

Our final destination was Mahale, where we stayed at Greystoke Mahale on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. As you will know, this camp, like Chada, is managed by Nomad. I was under the misguided impression that the camp was going to be smart and perhaps too pretentious for my liking – how wrong I was. It is the comparative simplicity of the design of the fabulous thatched structure with its real ‘wow’ factor as you approach in the dhow that really sets the pulse racing, and the beautifully appointed wooden bandas strung along the beach on either side of the main complex blend in perfectly with the forest. In a word, Greystoke Mahale is stunning. I don’t like your descriptive wording ‘Tarzan-goes-upmarket camp’ in your Greystoke Mahale write-up as I feel it makes out that it is far more ‘posh’ than in reality it is.

I am very pleased to report that I enjoyed two excellent chimpanzee encounters at Mahale. It would be useful to mention that hiking boots or really good walking shoes are essential for chimp tracking as the going is quite tough and steep if the chimps are quite far up the mountain, as they were on both occasions when I was there. Also, perhaps it would be good to mention that you are issued with masks before you come into close contact with the chimps.

I must mention the present added bonus to Greystoke Mahale in the form of Big Bird, a tame great white pelican, looked after by managers Kate and Cameron. This crazy bird provides huge amusement and always accompanies the dhow when it takes guests out fishing on the lake.

Incidentally, our Safari Air Link flight from Mahale to Zanzibar did not stop at Arusha.

I left my two companions in Zanzibar and from there travelled on alone. In Stone Town I stayed at the Dhow Palace Hotel, a stay that was disappointing to say the least. I gather that in the past this hotel was good value and recommended: not any more in my opinion and I do not agree with the write-up in your guide book. For a start, I had asked for an airport transfer and there was no vehicle waiting for me at the airport. Our flight had landed early from Mahale but the hotel should have checked the time of arrival and acted accordingly. I had to seek help from someone at the airport who kindly made a call on his mobile ‘phone and eventually my transfer vehicle arrived. Upon arrival at the hotel I was given a room on the ground floor which was small, hot and airless and the bath had no plug. The information in your Bradt guide does not say there is no bar; not good when one would like a nice cold beer so I went next door to the Africa House for a drink and dinner. I requested a room change, and was allocated a room up on the second floor, but fate was against me again: no hot water that evening. Despite my dissatisfaction with the Dhow Palace I have to say that at all times the staff were friendly and helpful and did their best to right any wrongs.

Based on the information concerning boat-building in your Northern Zanzibar section of the Zanzibar guide book (pages 217 and 241) I took a trip by car up to Nungwi, visiting various interesting places on the way there and back. Sadly, I saw very little boat-building activity in Nungwi and the harbour was most disappointing.

On page 184 of your Zanzibar guide you mention LIVINGSTONE HOUSE. The information makes no mention of exactly how to get there, and I must also mention that it is no longer the main office of the Zanzibar Tourist Corporation but is rather The Zanzibar National Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture. As someone with a great interest in David Livingstone, I was determined to find Livingstone House. This proved difficult, but eventually I met someone on the street who knew where it was and he offered to come with me in a taxi to find it as it is quite a way outside Stone Town. I accepted this kind offer and indeed we did find the house, and to my great interest I was privileged to be allowed to go into the as yet unopened small exhibition of excellent copies of Livingstone’s possessions etc.

This leads me on to the Princess Salme Museum, whose curator, Said el-Gheithy, is mentioned on page 209. I met Said outside the museum when he was talking to Judy Aldrick, author of a recent publication, The Sultan’s Spymaster, the story of Peera Dewjee of Zanzibar, and subsequently attended a talk she gave at Emerson Spice Hotel. The Princess Salme Museum is situated next to Emerson on Hurumzi, with its rooftop restaurant. This is not the same as Emerson Spice, which is however close by.

Incidentally, Said is also responsible for the up-and-coming Livingstone exhibition in Livingstone House, and for leading Princess Salme tours. He would be worth contacting for more information.

I had dinner at Emerson on Hurumzi. It was very expensive – Tsh.50,000 – and quite frankly I was very disappointed with the meal. And as for the boast that this is a good place from which to view the sunset – not so, as communications aerials completely block any good sunset view.

I would like to put in a big plug for Chumbe Island Coral Park. I stayed at Chumbe Island Lodge for two nights and thoroughly endorse what has been written in your guide book. All I will say is that unfortunately when I visited it was not possible to climb the lighthouse as it was unsafe and renovations were planned. The coconut crabs were fantastic and one evening, when I returned to my accommodation, I found an intruder climbing up one of the poles near my washbasin. Torch in one hand and camera in the other, I made good use of a close-up opportunity. Chumbe Island was the highlight of my time in Zanzibar. The staff were exceptionally helpful, the guides superb and the food excellent.

My next destination was Mafia Island, where I stayed at Mafia Island Lodge. I would not give this lodge such an unenthusiastic write-up as your do in the book. I enjoyed this lodge, and certainly did not stay in a ‘box-like room’ as I was upgraded to a ‘Superior Room’ which provided good, spacious accommodation. I had a quick peek into a ‘Standard Room’ and it certainly wasn’t in the box-like category. I do not agree that the rooms have ‘uninspiring interiors’ or that the garden is ‘rather featureless’; I found it most pleasing. The only downside to this lodge, in my opinion, is that children are welcome – and naturally that does not make for peace and quiet. I would also like to point out that when I desperately needed to use the internet I was grateful to the manager for allowing me to use his private computer as this was the only working facility available. I was very happy there and the staff were very helpful and friendly. The little shop is manned by a delightful Maasai who kindly altered and mended two pieces of jewellery for me. It is a big advantage that the dive centre is close by and can also organise any non-diving tours required.

During my time staying at Mafia Island Lodge I walked along the beach to explore further and to have a look at Pole Pole and Kinasi Lodge. At both properties I was warmly welcomed and shown round. I liked Pole Pole, with its pristine sandy beach, swept daily; Kinasi less. I thought Kinasi was over-the-top and pretentious. When I asked for a cup of coffee, to me a simple request, the service was very poor.

I also took a look at Chole Mjini Lodge after exploring the island. Without doubt this tree-house property is unique and most ingeniously designed, but in my opinion it is certainly not suitable for everyone. The fact that the loo is down a very steep flight of wooden steps would put off anyone who is not very mobile. And the lack of electricity certainly would not suit some guests. Your write-up in Zanzibar seems pretty accurate. Sometimes dinner is served in the ruins of the Hindu temple near which the lodge is built, no doubt making for a wonderful experience under the stars.

As a wildlife enthusiast I was interested to talk to the very knowledgeable manager of Mafia Island Lodge about the wildlife of the island. On page 375 of your Zanzibar guide book, under ‘Wildlife’, it states that genets are present on the island. I was told that in fact this is incorrect and that the animal is a small Indian civet, an introduced species.

I took a trip to explore the Kua Ruins on Juani Island and must report that the forest has taken over these ruins and very little attempt has been made to make them more accessible. Sometimes the stonework is only standing thanks to the supporting vegetation. A serious archaeological study is required here to help reveal more of the no doubt fascinating history of these old buildings. The whole place reminded me of parts of Ankor in Cambodia, although of course on a much smaller scale. Unfortunately the guides do not know much about the history of Kua, which is very frustrating.

Incidentally, upon enquiring, I was informed that there is now no visible evidence of the wreck of the Königsberg in the Rufiji Delta.

I will conclude my report with Kilwa. As there are no scheduled flights from Dar to Kilwa, it was necessary to drive the 300 km or so. I also wish to mention the Safari Inn in Dar, where I stayed for one night before setting off for Kilwa. This accommodation is ghastly. I needed somewhere in town to stay after visiting friends in Usa River, so flew with Precision Air back to Dar from Kilimanjaro Airport and had arranged airport transfer with Safari Inn when I booked the accommodation from the UK. Yes, the transfer was there to meet me, but I didn’t take to my driver one bit. And I certainly didn’t take to the Safari Inn; it is very down market. The staff had no change in dollars, there is no restaurant for dinner, and you are obliged to walk a short distance down the road, in a most insalubrious part of town, to a restaurant serving pretty average food if you want something to eat. The rooms are very small and sparsely furnished, the water wasn’t hot, the bed tiny and uncomfortable, and the mosquito net had holes in it. A very basic breakfast is served in what passes for a restaurant situated outside, and you have to pay extra if you want eggs. I do not recommend this place at all, even though it is very cheap: I paid US$18 for a single room with fan.

A word here about Precision Air. They should be renamed Imprecision Air. The timing of their flights is most unreliable and they are known for being very late and/or very early and it pays to reach the airport in very good time in case of a rescheduled early flight. I was warned about this by my friends in Usa River and sure enough I experienced exactly what I have mentioned above.

In Kilwa I had booked accommodation at Kilwa Beach Lodge, who also arranged road transport (US$300 each way) from the Safari Inn to the lodge. There is only one place to stop for a break, imperiously titled the Victoria Hotel and Lounge, which provides soft drinks, food if required and a squat loo. When needs must, this has to suffice. The traffic getting out of Dar is appalling and the journey takes at least five hours. A few words of warning when you cross the Rufiji River: I was apprehended and thoroughly questioned by ‘Security’ for taking photographs on the Mkapa Bridge which spans the river. It pays too that your driver should adhere strictly to the speed limit as there are many ‘sleeping policemen’ and police checks along this route.

Kilwa Beach Lodge (info@kilwa.co.tz) opened after your last edition was researched and it is well worth adding to the next one. I happened to find this lodge on the internet and the manager, Dave Henderson, was extremely helpful and this is why I chose to stay in this property. The lodge is situated about 4 km from Kilwa Masoko, down a sandy track, but when you eventually get there you are greeted with a lovely scene: sparkling white thatched huts situated right on the beach. My accommodation had been upgraded from a banda on one level to one on two floors. Actually I would have preferred to be on one level, but it was kind of Dave to upgrade me. I did criticise the design of my banda, which is apparently a new one, but this criticism did not detract from my enjoyment of staying at Kilwa Beach Lodge.

While at Kilwa I explored everything I possibly could, taking trips to the wonderful ruins at Songo Mnara, and also to the remote and not easily accessible ruins on Sanje Majoma and Sanje Ya Kati. Both these ruins are located way off the beaten track, necessitating long journeys by dhow, sometimes under sail, otherwise powered by a motor. There is no shade on the dhow so it is essential to take plenty of sun cream and a hat or cap. It is also advisable to have a pair of sandals/rubber shoes with you to change into as you are in for wet landings. As I am light, sometimes I asked my guide to carry me! I was the first guest who asked to be taken to these two sites and they were an adventure in themselves. To see the ruins you really need a machete to chop down the thick undergrowth – we didn’t have such a weapon – so there was a lot of scrambling involved and you have to be very careful of poisonous vegetation. The ruins are very overgrown, as at Kua, but more so. However, if you persevere, and are prepared to be hot and sweaty and possibly bleeding from encounters with hostile vegetation, you will find the ruins. A good guide is essential.

The best known ruins, those at Kilwa Kisiwani, are best visited in the afternoon, to take advantage of the light. My guide and I were the only visitors on the occasion when we explored this wonderful site.

My final stop at Kilwa was on the way back by vehicle to Dar, when, accompanied by a guide, I visited Kilwa Kivinge; the guide returned to Kilwa Masoko by bus. Kilwa Kivinge is a sad place, the traces of its history neglected, and its former German inhabitants forgotten in a ramshackle graveyard. The ruins are very poorly maintained; in fact not maintained at all. I came away despondent and disillusioned, with thoughts that so much history is being left to fade away, as in the physical disintegration of past glories, and, more importantly, in the minds of those in authority who should surely be charged to make every effort to preserve what still remains of a past that should not be allowed to vanish.

For my last night in Tanzania, I decided to cancel my booking at Safari Inn and to book into the FQ Airport Hotel (email: info@fqhotel.co.tz website: www.fqhotel.co.tz), which is situated very close to the international airport and not mentioned in your guide book either. For US$50 for a single room you get a spacious, clean room and there is a restaurant. I consider this a perfectly adequate place to stay if you want to be near the airport and avoid Dar’s terrible traffic. Dave took care of these bookings for me and he and his staff could not have been more helpful. The lodge has a nice restaurant overlooking the sea and the food is quite good.

 

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