Most young people shy away from going on safari, assuming it’s ‘too expensive’ ‘too dangerous’ or ‘too difficult’ — I used ‘expensive’ as my excuse for years.
One day I actually did some research and found out that there are actually cheap safaris– with the $800 5-day safari I did in January not even being close to the cheapest option. You can drive your own car, without a guide, in parks in South Africa, or bike in Kenya, and only pay entrance fees.
You can even just drive around in Tanzania, without paying anything, and see the wildlife near the road. For the local Maasai people, seeing a zebra is like seeing a cow when you’re driving through rural Georgia. Pretty normal.
For my first safari though, I wanted a professional guide, and one of those semi-convertible 4x4s. I found ‘Meru Slopes’ tour company, inquired, and after a few emails I had everything booked.
It was, and I’m not exaggerating, one of the best, if not THE BEST, travel experience of my life.
The parks are national parks, the animals are all WILD animals, so when you’re paying more for a safari, you’re not going to necessarily SEE anything different– sure, your guide might be better trained or speak better English– but in the vast expanses of the Serengeti or the jungles of Manyara, none of that matters. It’s all chance.
Accommodation is what makes a Safari expensive, overall. If you stay at the Four Seasons, your safari might set you back $10,0000.. or more, if you’re flying in a Cessna from location to location. But, the main difference is, you’re sleeping at the Four Seasons and eating fancy food. If you’re on your honeymoon, go for it, get that private car. If you’re alone, you’ll enjoy the camaraderie of being in an open-jeep with 4-5 strangers from all over the world. Still, you’ll be out in the bush with the rest of us.
You’ll be game-driving from dawn til dusk every day, then eating dinner, then going to bed. Evenings in the Serengeti are COLD, meaning you won’t even get to use that pretty infinity pool unless you decide to skimp out on an hour of the actual safari. If you’re staying at the Four Seasons in Tanzania.. chances are you already have an infinity pool at home.
While I’m sure the food in nice hotels is of a higher caliber than what we ate on my ‘camping safari’ (we only camped one night), who wants to eat fettuccine alfredo when you’re in the middle of the African savannah? I was happy to eat Tanzanian food and get to know my chef, who traveled with us. It wasn’t anything to write home about, I didn’t even take any pictures of it–after a full-day in the sun, I’m ready to EAT, it doesn’t even matter what it is.
Despite being calling a camping safari, I had air conditioning, a hot shower, and a full or queen-sized mattress in my own room every night except the last night. The last night, we slept in tents on the rim of the Ngorongoro crater, which was INCREDIBLE.
Without further ado, here’s the full story of my safari.
Around 8am, my guide, Balthazar, picked me up in a classic tan Land-Cruiser, and then picked up the rest of our motley crew– A mid-20s Moroccan girl, a Ukrainian mid-40s couple, and two Russian bachelors. From Arusha, it was a 2hr drive out to Tarangire National Park, one of the four parks we’d visit on our 5-day safari.
Once we finally left the sprawling developments of Arusha (not the prettiest city), we began to see blue rolling hills in the distance. The plains were dotted with baobab trees and Maasai shepherds tending to their herds. January is the beginning of the short dry season in Tanzania, meaning there’s no rain for months, but the land is still wet enough from the last rainy season to be green. I was surprised by how green everything was, this is NOT the dry African bush of all those Discovery Channel documentaries we watched as kids. At least, not in January.
There were trees I’d never even seen before, the coolest being one that looked like a giant cactus (I later found out was a Candelabra tree, and if you touch it and then touch your eyes, you can go blind– yikes.)
Upon entering Tarangire national park, we were immediately confronted with a herd of impala. A magnificent rainbow bird perched on a branch near them, keeping watch. One of the impala had one horn twisted around backwards, he’d clearly lost a fight. Well, there’s no way to know– we didn’t see the other guy!
I was completely shocked by just being here, how nonchalantly all these animals are just living their lives. They’re not exactly comfortable with people, but most of the species know we aren’t a threat and don’t dart away— the best ones, however, do.
For the most part though, I felt as if they didn’t even notice me. I was merely a bystander in their world.
One of the best things I saw that day was a lioness and her two cubs, playing and rolling around the grass and she looked for prey. I was surprised to see how sturdy and proud they are, I expected them to be thinner and more agile, like cats. Clearly, these three had been eating well!
Through the reeds, I spied a group of pumbas (warthogs) played in the mud and a gang of mongoose scurrying about. The mongoose were adorable, and perked up when they noticed us, standing on their hind legs. A waterbuck (an African deer-like animal I’d never heard of) lumbered over to the watering hole, followed by a herd of hartebeest (a species of antelope).
The best part of the day though, was when we came around around a bend, and discovered 7 or 8 giraffes gracefully meandering around a clearing, stretching their necks to eat the leaves from the tallest trees. There were a few awkward calves, which, I didn’t realize, are much darker, with espresso-colored spots. It was so surreal to finally witness them in their natural habitat.
I could see their neck and shoulder muscles bulging through their short coats with every movement, that’s how close we were. Some of them were taller than the trees! I felt like a kid again, that’s the only way I could explain the excitement.
The funniest part of the day was seeing a horny elephant– this season is mating season for some species, and calving for others. The elephant’s penis was so big, we all did a double-take, thinking it had 5 legs!
Around 5pm we ended our day and began the drive to our camp. I stood up the whole time, feeling the sun on my face, eager for the days to come.
In the morning, we left for the Serengeti, a 5 hour drive, with lots of stops– and while a 5hr drive might not sound great, Day II was actually one of the best days.
Before we even left the campsite, we saw a troop of olive baboons, one had stolen something from the kitchen and made a run for it, shrieking furiously as our chef chased him with a wooden spoon.
After about a hour, we arrived at the rim of the Ngorongoro crater, a 100 square mile caldera (a giant volcano bowl) with unspoiled grassland and a saltwater lake in the center.
Continuing towards the Serengeti, we finally encountered a herd of wildebeest, thousands of them, part of the never-ending ‘Great Migration’ between northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. A few elands, a massive cow-like antelope I’d never heard of, were mixed in with them, grazing.
We were surprised with an impromptu visit to a Maasai village which was really interesting, but more on that in another blog post coming soon.
As we made our way towards our destination, the landscape began to change dramatically. Gone were the rolling hills, instead, nothing but fields, and bizarre boulders called kopjes, which stuck out like huge sore thumbs. Some of the kopjes had lions on top them, which our eagle-eyed guide was quick to point out.
The animals changed as well as we continued North. We began to see vast herds of zebras, as well as Thompson’s and Grand gazelles, and topi, another goat-looking antelope, related to the hartebeest. Really, hundreds and hundreds of animals just standing around, grazing on the side of the road.
Zebras, I realized, are much more like donkeys than they are like horses: short and stocky. There were flocks of Egyptian geese, herons and, as well as a few stray Kori Bustards stalking the area. This wasn’t even inside any of the protected parks, so you could theoretically just drive up there for free and enjoy the nature.
When we entered Serengeti N.P., we were greeted by a smug lioness and her exhausted lover. When lions mate, the female doesn’t let the male eat until she feels he has performed his obligations sufficiently; they have sex up to 20 times a day, for up to a week.
We climbed up one of the kopjes near the visitor center, which made me realize just how expansive the Serengeti really is, hence the name, meaning ‘endless plains’ in the Maasai language. The kopje is its own ecosystem, I realized. With every step, 6-inch lizards lept in different directions, and rock hyraxes (a small rat-looking creature related to elephants, believe it or not) scurried off under, well, rocks.
Even in this season, the Serengeti was a bit dry, though not quite dry enough for prime viewing. I recommend visiting the Serengeti during the dry season, and for 2 full-day, 2 nights. 1 night and 1 1/2 days wasn’t quite enough to spot an elusive leopard, though we did catch a glimpse of one. It flashed by in an instant, down from the acacia tree and was gone, damn!
There were lovebirds in the trees at our ‘campsite’, which was really a hotel. I had a queen-sized bed, hot shower, a desk. Not exactly ‘camping’, though the dining area was open-air.
We had great weather, and ate surround by colorful birds and the sounds of probably thousands of insects, hidden in the tall grass. When the sun set however, it became quite cold, and we began noticing hyenas, a liiitle too close for comfort. One guy left his boots outside the door, and found teeth marks in them the next morning! (That’s not an experience you’d get staying in luxury accommodation! What a story to tell.)
At the crack of dawn, we left for a game-drive. Since we only had one full-day in the Serengeti, we made the most of it. It was freezing cold though, probably 50*F or cooler and windy, which, compared the 95*F I’d been enjoying the past two weeks, was brutal. I was wearing EVERYTHING I had packed: four shirts, two pairs of pants, three pairs of socks, and my hat, and was still cold. Had I known, I would’ve brought my Kilimanjaro coat and some earmuffs!
Our friendly local hyenas were still loitering around the campsite, so we hung out with them for a little while before heading in to the bush.
We saw one of the cutest animals ever, the dik-dik, the smallest species of antelope. With their teeny horns, trunk-like noses, and big bug-eyes, they look like some kind of fantasy creature.
There were guinea fowl (‘African chicken’ Balthazar joked) squawking, dangerously close to a motionless croc on the riverbank. Inside, a bloat of hippos bathed and played open-mouthed, revealing their dagger-like tusks. Above, baboons balanced delicately on thin acacia branches, next to ‘Superb Usteli’ birds.
At one point, a parade of 30 or so elephants crossed the road, surrounding our car. We could do nothing but watch in awe as they lumbered by, the babies skipping happily alongside their mothers. On the other side, they filled their trunks with water, and sprayed it into their mouths, demonstrating this skill to their young. They didn’t always aim well, which was entertaining to watch.
Around 5pm, we started heading back towards Ngorongoro. The Serengeti was cool, but actually probably one of the least interesting of the 5 days. Truly, it is best in the dry season, and with two days, you’re more likely to find rare cheetahs and leopards. At this time, and especially after the drive through the Ngorongoro region, it seemed somewhat devoid of life in comparison.
At the campsite, around 7pm or so, I befriended Samipi, part of our Maasai camp security. He took me to a viewpoint of the crater which was secluded, natural, and more peaceful than the one on the tourist route. Back at camp, a couple water buffalo were hanging out near the kitchen.
This was the only night I was actually camping, and it was great. Had it been safe to sleep outside every night, I would’ve. The stars were some of the clearest I’d ever seen, twinkling above, wrapped in swirling nebulas.
We left before sunrise and drove down the rim into the crater. It’s so big that from inside, you can’t even really tell you’re inside something. The animals might not even know. They’re ‘residents’, and don’t migrate like those outside of the crater do. And it shows– there are some pretty hefty specimens in Ngorongoro. There are predators here, but since the grass isn’t very tall, it’s nearly impossible to hide.
Everywhere you look, there are animals for miles and miles, it’s a bit overstimulating actually because there are so many different interactions going on all around you at all times. Everyone in the car was trying to get the driver to go in a different direction, to see this or that.
Ngorongoro was arguably the best, the scenery is so vibrant, I felt like my eyes were opened wider than ever before.
We saw 6 or 7 white rhinos, though at a quite a distance, they’re pretty scared of people.
We just barely missed a wildebeest giving birth, though we saw the baby with the cord still attached. We sat for a while to watch an impressive crane mating-dance. Crowned cranes are the national bird of Uganda, and easily one of the coolest birds I’ve ever seen.
The wildebeest birth was crazy because within minutes, the calf was walking, even skipping. Only 20ft away, jackals lingered in the tall grass, hoping to catch the mother off guard and steal her newborn. We were all on edge, wondering if it would live through its first hour.. many don’t.
In the forested part of Ngorongoro, we hung out with a mega-family of baboons and their babies, there were easily 50. We watched some of the youngsters climb trees for the first time, which was adorable but also nervewracking– your parental instincts really kick in!
Thankfully, we didn’t see the baby zebra get eaten. When we remerged from the forest, there were hyenas and vulture picking the bones. Another guide told us that a lioness had made the kill only 15 minutes or so before — it was already impossible to tell what animal it had been.
If you’re into gore, go in the Fall for a river crossing. I chose to go in Spring to see all the babies– but not to see those babies get eaten! I figured I’ll see THAT half of the ‘circle of life’ on my next safari.
On our last day, we visited Lake Manyara national park, which was interesting, but, in my opinion, could’ve been combined with another day/park, early in the morning or in the evening. The acacias trees here are a gorgeous purple color, and there are calabash fruits growing on the trunks of some trees, giving parts of Manyara a dreamy Dr. Seuss-like look.
The park is famous for its tree-climbing lions, which in Tanzania at least, can only be seen here. However, sightings of lions, especially climbing, are extremely rare here and Tsetse flies (think GIANT horsefly-like bugs that sting you through you clothes) are abundant. In this season, 1/2 of the park is flooded as well.
If there’s one park to skip, it’s this one, though it was still pretty incredible. I will say that, unless you’re a die-hard animal lover/photographer, you won’t last this long. Most people were sort of getting bored of seeing animals after lunch on Day 3.
Around lake Manyara, the foliage is lush, so unlike Ngorongoro and Seregeti, you have to actually LOOK for the animals and be quiet, which I actually prefer. It makes it more exciting. When you find them, they’re often drinking from a reflective pool, or bathing.
I saw lots of families: waterbucks, warthogs, baboons, elephants, blue monkeys, and more. I watched some zebras play for a while, and later, claiming their territory. Zebras ‘smile’ and stomp their feet to show dominance before peeing on their turf. There were hippos and buffalos rolling in the mud nearby to keep cool, they couldn’t be bother to ‘play’ in this heat.
Every large mammal has a ‘resident’ bird that cleans its back/neck, for the water buffalo it’s the egret, and for the giraffe, the oxpecker. It was amusing to watch these birds living on them, eating the pests off of them, while the buffalo and giraffe paid no attention at all. One giraffe had a 4 or 5 birds on his long neck! The more the merrier, I guess. I would’ve been happy to have a bird of my own, if it would’ve kept the pesky Tsetse flies away.
Around 5pm, we completed the Manyara loop, and headed back to Arusha.
If you’ve always wanted to go on a safari but have been too afraid to plan it, because of prices, safety, or just because it seems like a hassle— go for it. Safaris can be surprisingly affordable and easy to set up. Tanzania is also one of the safest places in Africa. (Much much safer feeling than any large American or Western European city. Tanzanians are extremely friendly if anything, too friendly).
A safari is the experience of a lifetime, and worth investing in– still, it doesn’t have to be expensive. With new air-routes opening up soon, East Africa will be more accessible that even for Americans. For Europeans, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump.
Would I take my mother on a camping safari? No, probably not. But if it was a cheap safari or no safari, I’m sure she’d agree.
I’ll be writing another blog shortly about safari tips and planning soon, so stay tuned for that.
For more photos, be sure to follow me on Instagram @tristans_expeditions !