A Little Adventure… Going on an Incredible Safari in Tanzania’s National Parks

A quick (and grainy) snapshot from the Kenyan-Tanzanian border. I had already been stamped out of Kenya but didn’t have enough cash to make it into Tanzania. Highlight: the kind Canadian I was about to beg from is in the shot.

Arriving in Tanzania started on a shaky note. I hadn’t realized someone robbed me of my cash my last day in Cape Town until I stood at the border between Kenya and Tanzania. I gutted my bag and found nothing. I sat miffed among my scattered possessions, wondering how my cash had vanished. The very cash that was meant to buy my Tanzanian visa. Others in my van had already returned with their visas, and I had only managed to scramble together $50 in three different currencies from my stashed cash in secret parts of my bag. But that left me still staring sheepishly at the border official when I proffered my passport, cash, and a weak explanation. I just didn’t have another $50.

To say he was unimpressed with my story is an overstatement.

No amount of further searching was going to come up with more cash, so I started phase two of the plan: charmingly beg.

I needed another foreigner—likely the only ones willing and able to lend me that much cash—but the border was fresh out of foreigners. So I sat. And my bus waited. And we sat some more. And I finally found a kind Canadian woman who assumed me a travel noob and graciously lent me a crisp $50.

For as much as it was a debacle for my confounded bus driver (he couldn’t understand why I would have gotten on the bus without cash), the event ended quickly once I passed over the cash. I profusely thanked the Canadian, promising I wouldn’t stiff her—we later met up in Arusha so I could pay her back.

Luckily though, that snafu at the border wasn’t a herald of my time in Tanzania. A spate of kindness and fun followed me throughout the country. With my focus on responsible tourism, I’ve use many of the stories here on A Little Adrift to share what grassroots tourism looks like on the ground, and the impact travelers can have on local communities when they use their tourism dollars effectively. And it’s still something I care about deeply, but sometimes travel is just about fun and the realization of a bucket list item. It’s about making it to the top of that dream mountain, standing in front of an architectural wonder, or—for me—hanging out of a safari car window treating a pack of lions to an enthusiastic photo shoot (clarification: I was enthusiastic… the lions were decidedly unimpressed).

And so, this story shares just that: the photos and anecdotes from my four days on safari where I bumped along the dusty red roads of the Serengeti and pretended I was on assignment for the likes of Discovery Channel or National Geographic. I joined a group of four Danes and split the costs with them. Together, we took a four-day budget trip through Tarangire National Park, Serengeti National Park, and the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area.

the serengeti

The Serengeti

Sunrise safari in the Serengeti

Dawn arrived over the Serengeti in blinding flash of color—slashes of fluorescent fuchsia and blue lit the horizon beyond the flat acacia trees as my truck rattled down the dirt road for our sunrise safari. The sun began to warm the land and the animals stirred. Us five safari-goers wrapped our jackets tighter against the chilly morning, our heads poking from the top of our safari truck.

We sped by herds of tiny impala—delicate of feature and gait—as they grazed.

Zebras and ostriches roamed the fields and high grasses. But we pressed on, our truck speeding down the straight stretches of ochre road past the small animals: we had higher hopes for our morning safari. The big cats prowl in the early hours and on day three of our safari, we were hoping for a sighting of a live kill.

Twenty minutes later, we jolted to a stop on what had looked like a passable road. Three of the safari truck’s tires were deeply mired in a gushy black mud. It was the first week of rainy season, so though not surprise, we had all hoped the rains would hold out.

But, of course, it’s not an adventure if something doesn’t go wrong. Our driver pulled tools from the back of the truck and attempted to create some traction under the mired front tire. It was a no-go. An hour had passed and we were still forbidden from leaving the safari vehicle; the four Danes and I passed the time by watching the sun crawl higher across the sky. The cool pinks of morning burned off and transitioned into golden tones and scorching light.

stuck in the mud getting out of the mud serengeti

Soon, another safari truck saw our plight and pulled over to help. Minutes later, they too were stuck in the mud, the couple in their car lamenting at their derailed safari. At that point, our two driver/guides decided we weren’t likely to get eaten if we exited the truck, so they let us out. Really though, they just needed our man-power. We banded together for the next 20 minutes, shuttling rocks and branches from a nearby rock outcropping to the holes dug into the mud underneath our mired tires.

With all the rocks and sticks we could find now under our wheels, the drivers floored it and with a cheerfully wet sucking sound the tires were free. We all chased after our safari truck, beating the mud from our feet before we piled into our spots once again. All told, it took about an hour and a half before we were once again rocketing down the road in search of animals. The morning hunts were over, but our driver had word from the other guides and he promised us a treat that would make up for our lost time.

He was right.

Lions in a tree!

a lion sound asleep in a tree

lions sleeping in a tree tree lions

And a lot of them. We counted six in total, though I am fairly certain a stray tail hanging down the back of the tree belonged to a hidden seventh. There morning jaunt tuckered them out, and didn’t do more than yawn and shift as we pulled up to their napping spot.

We continued our Serengeti safari, and I cooed with enthusiasm at each new sighting.

The water buffalo dotted the grassy fields with utter nonchalance, their only outward acknowledgement of onlookers being a brief flicker of their tail. We passed a watering hole for the local giraffes and watched one ungainly guy form a triangle with his legs as he bent to drink. Nearby, that same watering hole seemed to feed into a swampy area that looked straight out of a movie. Tall curved palms angled over a small pond filled with hippos submerged in the dull, muddy water.

Dark storm clouds in the Serengeti

Vultures crowd around a kill Giraffes River

Later, I squeed with fangirl levels of enthusiasm when we spotted a leopard. The leopard slunk around our truck for several minutes before meandering into the grasses along the roadside.

One of the more heart-stopping moments of the safari was watching that leopard pause about 100 feet from our truck, his spots pronounced among the hay-colored grass. Seemingly done with posing for our cameras, he shot us one last indolent shrug before sinking into the tall grasses. He vanished from sight without a trace. The tall grasses shrouded his body, and the soft breeze made all the grasses sway, effectively masking his disappearing act. They told us rule number one of the safari was “never, ever leave the safari truck,” and it wasn’t until that moment when I truly understood why our guide was so hesitant to let us help gather stones and rocks when we our truck was stuck in the mud.

Spotted leopard

leopard A water buffalo with a bird on its back giraffe

zebras running

hippo swamp

monkey Pied Kingfisher bird Ostriches Serengeti river

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Cool air caressed my face as the safari car took a soft right turn and descended into the Ngorongoro Crater, the largest volcanic caldera in the world. I pulled my scarf tighter, though the days were hot, the sun had yet to burn off the layer of mist settling over the gentle slide of green hillside.

We had camped under a giant tree on the rim of the crater, and I woke just before dawn to catch every moment of sunrise. And it was a beauty. Wisps of pink shifted into a deep red, and by dawn the entire campsite activated and began to ready for another day of safari exploration.

Sunrise on the crater rim

Camping on the crater rim Zebras at dawn

Formed two to three million years ago, the Ngorongoro Crater houses all the Big Five animals (lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo, and leopard) and most of the others too, thanks to its unique shape and range of climates. Rainforest covers one wall of this inactive crater, making a soaring backdrop to photos on the grassy plains and swamps in the center of the crater.

Politics play a role in this region of the world, as they do across most arable land in the world. The Crater used to be open grazing and living grounds for Maasai cattle, but now that the Tanzanian government has designated much of the region as national parks and protected land, the Maasai are allowed to graze their cattle in the open plains, but they have to leave the crater area by nightfall. We zigzagged the region for four days and each time we exited one of the parks, within minutes we would begin to pass small circles of huts, manyattas, where the Maasai were given rights to set up roots and graze their cattle.

Maasai in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Children tend the goats A local Maasai school near the manyatta Manyattas on the hillside

With less movement available to them, many Maasai in the area set up pop-in programs to take advantage of the tourism dollars zooming by in safari vehicles every day. Though I had plans to visit the Maji Moto Cultural Camp in Kenya a few weeks later, the group voted to stop at a road-side Maasai settlement, paying $10 per person to tour the huts, view their small school, and learn a little about their culture.

I found the experience contrived. Though their setting was stunning, it seemed the Maasai donned their tourist personas just for our 20 minute visit, then went back to their daily lives… an addendum to their lives now that seemed necessary for their survival, but also sadly out-of-place for their values and way of life. It would provide a stark contrast to the program that Salaton built at Maji Moto in Kenya, which creates an environment of respectful interaction between tourists and Maasai. Sating the tourist’s curiosity while using the funds to maintain the integrity of his culture and their values, and underlying it all, a cultural exchange for both sides.

All that being said, there is far more I need to learn about the region before I could give knowledgeable commentary on the politics between the government, the Maasai, and tourism.

What I do know, is that the Ngorongoro Conservation area is one of the prettiest places on earth, and I can see why the government has taken steps to protect the land, ecosystem, and animals.

Fields of white flowers Pink flamingos

We cruised for several hours through the grasslands, spotting a herd of elephants with the longest tusks I had yet seen. Poaching is a serious problem across Africa. Many of the tusked elephants I spotted in the other parks were younger, the older elephant’s tusks had been removed for their safety. But the unique shape of the crater allows the government to effectively patrol the area, and the mature elephants sported massive ivory dipping in a graceful arc from their face. Perhaps wisely, the oldest elephants maintained their distance—our vehicle wasn’t allowed to off-road so we glided past them in layer of damp morning hovering over the green landscape.

Within a couple of hours we found several lions lounging in the late afternoon sun. After giving them a full photo shoot session, we headed to lunch at the swamp near the Ngoitokitok Spring. Hippos belched and gurgled in the water. Birds soared. I could wax poetic, but suffice to say, it was pretty.

Lion

Lions near our vehicle tired yawning lion Friendly lions

Elephants Crowned Cranes Zebra reflections

A quiet picnic at Hippos at Ngoitokitok Spring

Happy, happy hippos at Ngoitokitok Spring Ngoitokitok Spring hippos

Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks

I booked my safari through African Spoonbill Safaris. As a solo traveler, I had few options on a budget and really no selection. I showed up at the hostel and asked them to help me find a tour to join. Within three days, Benson called me over, excited to tell me that four Danes had room in their safari car if I wanted to join their trip. So I packed up and headed out. Their tour included Tarangire National Park, which is one of the lesser known parks (I had never heard of it), but is famous for its elephants.

The park is full of baobab trees, a favorite of the elephant, and thus it’s easy sightings of large elephant families.

Elephants

Monkey Impala

Looking out at Lake Manyara

Rainbow over Lake Manyara Photo-opp on the rim of the crater

The safari days were like poetry, each one ending with a slow retreat. The animals stirred around dusk. Most began to make their way to hideaways far from the roads zigzagging their home. Our group pitched tents each night and we ate dinner by the dim glow of flashlight, sleeping to the roars of lions and snuffling of nearby buffalo.

Lions at dusk seregeti outlook

Elephants in Tarangire National Park

Quick Travel Tips

African Spoonbill Safaris: I used them and they were a very budget option, working to put small groups together interested in splitting the costs of the safari.

Green Living Hostel: A hostel outside of Arusha and very quiet. They have just the loveliest staff and were incredibly helpful. They also run a lot of local projects and can help arrange short and long-term volunteering in the area. There is a lot closer to Arusha’s city center, but this worked as a landing spot for a couple of days to arrange a safari, and would make a nice base for rural volunteering.

TPK Expeditions: Highly recommended for a higher-end safari experience. It’s woman-operated organization committed to paying their guides fair wages and giving them opportunities to further their education. I will use them to climb Kili next time I visit.

Other tips:

  • Though some budget travelers opted for a self-drive safari split with friends, they missed a lot of the great animals because they didn’t have the walkie-talkie network of guides sharing when the Big 5 were on any given day. I recommend having a driver/guide.
  • Camping on the rim of the crater was magical. Some higher end tours don’t include this, but I loved it because of the chance to see sunrise from the rim at that exact spot.
  • Longer tours (5+ days) go deeper into the Serengeti and they are more specific about making sure you see a live kill and that sort of thing.

And you can view all photos from the safari in this gallery.

dala-dala

A Little Story… This One’s for Africa

I stare owl-eyed into the waiting dala dala as 27 faces stared back. The minivan—for though it has extra rows of seats compared to the soccer-mom-mobiles of the US, it’s still just a minivan—is bursting full and a chorus of mzungu echoes though the car as a flurry of shifting takes place. An older Tanzanian woman, the grandmother type, pats the space beside her—all three inches of it—and gestures for me to sit. And though I’m thin, three inches just isn’t going to cut it.  With a confused gesture to my backside and those three inches, I try to tactfully indicate I will crouch-stand instead.

dala-dala

A hearty laugh erupts from her, echoed around the van as she exclaims in a thick East African accent: “You will fit. This is Africa”

The conductor nudges me toward the seat, his sharp rap on the side of the car signaling to the driver to continue driving. Indecision hits for a second and the old woman pulls my hips into the space, but really onto her lap, and we bump and jostle down the road.

A bubble of laughter forms as I adjust my wedged limbs to drape my arm around the old woman, settling into a comfortable position for the 45 minute ride.

Full dark settles and a parade of small, street-side cook fires pass below the lower third of the window, the only view I have from my high perch in the minivan.

Slowly the dala dala empties a bit, and as I gain a full window view I realize I have no idea if we passed my stop—the nondescript facades blend in the night.

I tap the handler and give him the only landmark I know near my hostel: “Arusha City Bar?”

I point, gesturing with a “which way” look on my face, trying to ascertain if the bar is behind or ahead of us. Baffled, the handler let’s out a steam of Swahili. Seeing my confusion, the women in the dala dala take to my cause and I hear mzungu, the name for travelers of European descent, bounce around the van once again as they discuss my predicament.

Finally, they incredulously decide I mean the dive bar another two minutes up the road and they all clamor for my attention asking me why on earth I am going to a bar miles outside of the touristy city center. At  least, that’s the gist of what I assume they asked me since it was all in Swahili and my only response was huge grin and affirmation that, yes, indeed I want to stop at Arusha City Bar.

At the bar, they enthusiastically eject from the van, the women giving spirited waves and huge guffaws as I turn away from the bar and walk down the narrow side road to my hostel. Just before I walk out of sight, I turn around once more to glance back at the minivan. They are still stopped, still waving, and all still riveted by the prospect of where in the world this crazy, friendly mzungu is going at this time of night. With a final thumbs up in their direction, I enter our compound. I can’t wipe the smile off my face.

It wasn’t a huge adventure. In fact, I just went into town to pay back the kind Canadian who lent me $50 at the border. But moments like these send bubbles of contentment to the surface to remind me why I travel. This wasn’t a moment on which many stake their travel dreams, but it was real.

As the kind woman told me at the beginning of the ride, this, this is Africa.

Kendwa beach in Zanzibar

A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Africa: From Sand to Safari

The sky is lit with fiery fingers of color, the dense humidity and the clouds pulling the saffron flames across the sky. Zanzibar does not disappoint. I arrived last week in the wake of my safari, I needed a base for two weeks to work on a few new assignments and all signs (and recs from readers) pointed here as the best option in the region. Thanks, it’s beautiful.

Kendwa beach in Zanzibar
There is just something meditative and beautiful about sailboats on the turquoise-blue waters off the coast of Zanzibar.

On Safari: Spotting the Big Five

My week, though, started in the north of Tanzania, and the prevailing chain of conversation centered on the wildlife and Africa’s Big 5 animals. Travelers suss out which national parks everyone visited and what they saw, all in the hopes of finding the elusive faces of some of the most magnificent animals on the planet.

As a lone traveler, I was afraid that traveling off-season was a bad idea. Not wanting a package tour of the region, I had the unenvious task of finding a group willing to let me tag along, otherwise the cost of the safari would be too steep.

Lady Luck was feeling friendly this month—and quite frankly that was a welcome respite after the spate of bad luck last month—with the perfect timing for me to join a group of four Danes visiting in a college field-work program. I donned my wide-brimmed hat and threw my lot in with them for the four days and three nights of safari-ing.

On the road between the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serenteti

Majestic baobab trees dominated Tarangire, the tree bark worn away from the park’s many elephants satisfying their itches on the tree trunks throughout the park.

Cheetahs and leopards stalked through the tall grass of the Serengeti, their bodies sleek and fit from mornings spent hunting the thousands of impalas and gazelles grazing the plains.

Giraffe, graceful and gorgeous, tottered into our paths, casually munching from trees both tall and short.

Lions rested in the shade of our vehicle, and buffalo stood stoic and unimpressed.

The safari was incredible and awesome in the true sense of both words. April is off-season and we shared the park with just a handful of other safari vehicles, all willing to brave the occasional rain showers for the chance to sight these beautiful animals in the wild. With 2000 photos to process, it took a while but I have a proper photo essay of my time in Tanzania’s wilds.

On safari at the Ngorongoro Crater

A rich and complex history in Zanzibar

These two weeks in Zanzibar are a study in the blending of cultures and religions as history chose to throw a wide mix of influence on this tiny island in the Indian Ocean over the past 100 years. The Arab slave trade converged on the island, with the historic Stone Town as a primary staging ground. Also making an appearance in the island’s history were the Portuguese, British, Persians, and Indians, among others. The result is a chaotic mix of narrow, intricate corridors, mosques jostling with buildings of British and Arab architecture, and giant wooden doors that will forever stand out as my strongest memory of Stone Town.

In present-day, the island is an eclectic mix that has created a fierce island pride native Zanzibari. Though they are Tanzanian by passport, rumblings around the island insist on a need to separate from the mainland and take back their farms, trade, and island identity.

Conversations hum with the laid-back cadence native to island life anywhere in the world, and locals are just as likely to share a cheery greeting as they are to pull up a chair and sit for a chat. A week into my time here and I have yet to find a resident who doesn’t smile with pride and ask, as they always do, “So you like Zanzibar?” A question for which there is but one answer they expect.

“Oh yes, you live in paradise,” I always reply.

Next Steps

I am traveling back to Kenya this weekend to visit a cultural project, the Maji Moto Masaai camp, which came highly recommended. Scarce internet means I haven’t yet compiled my planned guides to local projects along the way, but if you’re looking for an ethical safari or Kilimanjaro trekking company on a mid-range budget, TPK Expeditions comes highly recommended. It’s operated by a Tanzanian and Canadian women duo committed to paying their guides fair wages and giving opportunities furthering their education.

Speaking of Kilimanjaro, I am saving the climb—the highest peak in Africa—to trek with my dad. Traveling through Panama last summer, my dad mentioned he would love to start retirement by climbing Kili. I’m holding him to it and hopefully in the next few years we will make it happen!

More soon,

~S