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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Mikumi National Park - a review

SafariBookings asked me to write a review about Mikumi National Park in Tanzania. SafariBookings will match users, interested in booking a safari, with tour operators offering safari tours. They will help users decide where to go and when to go using easy to digest info and quality user reviews.

As a reward I could choose for $10 Amazon credit. But I was more noble and chose a $15.00 donation to the WWF African Rhino conservation project on my behalf.

Review of Mikumi National Park
Mikumi National Park is not one of the largest or best known parks. Or most visited. While visiting Mikumi NP you will encounter other tourists in their 4x4 and the occasional school bus - education is vital for conservation of wildlife. You won't see any overland trucks. At least: I did not. Never do you drive into a crowd. In Serengeti you just look over the vast plains for an aggregation of vehicles and then you know have to go to spot some wildlife. In the Ngorongoro Crater you just drive in trains. A pack of 10 lions surrounded by 20+ vehicles. In Mikumi you just wait until the one vehicle moved out before you move in to see what's happening.

The wildlife density is lower than in Serengeti. It's not so spectacular. When I went to Mikumi in the weeks before I already visited Maasai Mara (Kenya), Lake Nakuru (Kenya), Queen Elizabeth (Uganda), Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. So I was a bit spoiled already. Packed with a stack of wildlife fieldguides and multiple safari experience, I was able to recognize many birds and mammals - or look them up on the spot. If you want to see as much animals as possible, go to Serengeti. Serengeti is all about vast plains with migrating herds of wildebeests and zebras. Mikumi has much more shrub, higher grass and trees. It is not as open and dry. Just as hot or hotter. Still, Mikumi is worth a visit. There are a few tarmac roads, the rest is dirt roads. You can't leave the the roads. If you want that (awesome) experience, go to Selous Game Reserve.

From Mikumi town I organized a 4x4 for a one day safari with a Swiss couple. We were sitting on the benches in the back of the pickup-truck like vehicle. Make sure you have a sun roof! Also 4x4's where you stand through the open roof come with and without sun roofs. You need it in Mikumi to avoid a sun stroke. The driver / guide was in the cabin. Communication with the driver in such a vehicle is a bit more difficult. He spots something and pulls over, or we bump to make him stop. Our driver was more driver than guide and verbal communication with the cabin was less practical than just sitting in the cabin as well (as you do in 4x4 with just open roofs). Still, you have a good view. Luckily enough I had seen enough to serve as a bit of a guide for the Swiss. It was their first safari ever and they had a thrilling day.

Most safaris don't cover the complete park, just a small section north of the highway. And talking about the highway: it disects the park, so if you are on your way to Mikumi, be sure to have a look outside. It can be good for some impalas, buffalos, a duiker and some zebras, like I saw. One of the highlights is one of the hippo pools. There is a small peninsula that provides a lookout over the horse shoe shaped pond. In it are Nile crocodiles, hippos. In the tree you can spot some colourful lizards and birds, on the shore some waders or egrets. In the late afternoon we came back to the pool. Right on time. We drove through a huge group of Yellow Baboons. In the distance a group of about 40 elephants. They approached the pool and started running. Plunged in. Took baths, splattered, pushed each other. Ran out. And came back again. All on the other side of the pond. We could watch there safely, with these elephants at less than 50 meters. Truely awesome.

What to see in Mikumi? The 'standard' wildlife: zebras, impalas, wildebeests (note: a different subspecies than Serengeti, so get your cameras!), elephants, yellow baboons (in the northern parks like Arusha, Serengeti and Ngorongoro only Olive olive baboons), warthogs, giraffes. We also had several very good sightings of bushbucks and bohor reedbucks, better than in Serengeti. Furthermore several small groups of lions not to far. Including with a zebra kill. Seeing two adult elephants with a maximum two days old baby elephant at 20 m was great.

For birding, there are a lot of bushes they can hide, so keep your eyes open: helmetted guinea fowl, palmnut vulture (first time I saw it), fish eagle, white backed vultures, southern ground hornbills, oxpeckers, coucals, red necked spurfowl, crowned lapwing, hamerkop, lilac breasted rollers, long tailed fiscal shrike, secretary bird in flight, bateleur.

For lunch you just go to the Kikoboga Lodge in the park. On the terrace in the shade you have a low fence and a man made water hole closeby. It is a bit artificial, but a good chance to relax and observe normally shy bushbucks, buffalos, impalas, yellow baboons. And a skink if you explore the vicinity.

The top highlight for me was when we stopped for two lions under a tree. This was one of those rare moments. A lot of times you see a raptor flying over. You try to make a photo. It usually fails. The vehicle you are in is driving, you move your camera, the raptor is moving, you can't get it right in the frame, it's not focused, it's too far away. This time we stopped for a group of lions under a tree. I saw a raptor coming towards us. I started to shoot photos. Trying to focus while moving the camera. The raptor, a Martial Eagle, was coming down. Saw it land on the dry grass. Only then I saw the young impala fleeing after a short squeek. Turns out I have several pictures of the attack. The Eagle just missed the young Impala. The best photo I made in the series was with the eagle stretching its claws, wings spread and aimed at the camera, impala diving away.

A bit more about Mikumi itself. Don't go there for the town. Most people stay in one of the few luxurious hotels aimed at tourists. I stayed in a local place. I looked into it's logs and the last two months the only Wazungu (whites) staying there were two Germans and me. There are many (cheap: I paid 10,000 TSh a night) places to stay, but expect primitive conditions. I did have a (cold) shower and flushed the toilet with a bucket. Mikumi town is a truck stop town. Next to the road many shops, diners and hostels for truckers. Make sure you bring your Swahili phrase book as virtually nobody speaks any English. The town is scorching hot and dusty. Just as the park. It is not a place to hang out. If you want to meet other people go to one of the upmarket hotels or lodges.

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An annecdote about getting in and out of Mikumi on your own, by bus

In Mikumi - half way Dar es Salaam and Iringa or even further Mbeya - there is no office for the buses. The plan was to buy a return ticket from Mikumi to Dar before I left. Scandinavian Express won't just stop in Mikumi. And if it does, it for sure does not have a seat available. All seats must be reserved.
So, how to get a bus.
It starts with having faith.
You go on the bus from Dar to Mikumi on Wednesday. For that bus you have a ticket. Well actually you have a ticket to Iringa or Mbeya, just get out earlier. In Morogoro - at two thirds of the way to Mikumi - there is a Scandinavian bus stop with office. You get out. Talk to an older guy. Write down his phone number. You tell him that you want to return on Saturday. No, Saturday. You repeat Saturday about 10 times until he does not say Thursday or Sunday anymore. You are supposed to call him Friday morning. You get off in a hush hush way in Mikumi. All fine.
Friday morning you are in a Landrover crossing Mikumi National Park. You call the guy - have no name - and the line is really bad. You explain him that you want to go back from Mikumi to Dar on Saturday. No, Saturday. Repeat Saturday a few times. He tells you he has to check with people in Iringa. Ask for some confirmation. Bus leaves at 'white bridge' in Mikumi. Can't pick me up anywhere else. No idea where that bridge is. He hangs up. In Tanzania people don't confirm the end of a conversation. No 'ok' or 'bye'. Just hang up. Leaving me a bit puzzeled.
In the afternoon you just call the guy again. He actually confirms that I can go with the bus. Hurray.
Saturday morning you try to find the 'white bridge' - don't leave it to the last minute. There is none in Mikumi. There are no bridges here. However, there is a 'weigh bridge'. All the passing trucks and buses must be weighed. So that's where I'll have to be.
You make sure you are at least 20 minutes early at the weigh bridge. With all your luggage (or, as they spell it here sometimes: lukage).
Then you wait. At 13:00 there is of course no bus.
Finally at 14:25 there is a bus. You run along with the bus - it's not waiting, just getting weighed and move on - and a guy running with your heavy backpack trying to open a compartment in the meantime. You don't hop onto the bus until you are sure your backpack is stowed away and the compartment closed. You jump into the bus. The guy there escorts you right away to chair 44. He knew I was coming. The local girl that was sitting there is chased away (I reserved the chair for the complete ride: Iringa to Dar, so Iringa to Mikumi she was just lucky).
About 2 hours later you get off in Morogoro. So far I did not pay a shilling. The older man right away comes up to me.
You go into the office. The man knows you have seat 44. You pay for your ticket - full rate Iringa to Dar (well, that's 18000 shilling, as opposed to 15000 shilling). They swap around some carbon copies and you are off.
Apparently the whole chain works. Just requires some faith and trust that all will work out. In the end I was at 20:00 at the Scandinavian office in Dar. Not really a 4 hour ride, but hey, you are there. Only drove for 2 hours in the dark - something you'd want to avoid.

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