It’s not easy to put into words what it feels like when one of your childhood dreams actually become reality. Being able to experience the Serengeti National Park in all of its incredible raw and awe inspiring beauty was one of those experiences for me. I am not sure if all Hungarian kids in the 80’s grew up with David Attenborough’s African documentaries, or if it was just another on of my grandpa’s legacy to me. In addition to camping trips in the woods and mushroom foraging.
Nevertheless, Serengeti, Kalahari, and the Namib have always been magical words to me. Words that filled my imagination with exotic animals and far-off landscapes I thought I would only see on the pixelated screen of our Soviet made black and white TV. In my young mind, you only got to see those places if you were a full time explorer or documentary film maker wearing a khaki outfit, funny hat (perhaps a moniker and a pipe), and had a perfect BBC accent. So when we first started researching the Africa portion of our trip and realized the long forgotten magic land of Serengeti could actually be on our Tanzania itinerary I was ecstatic. There were no longer any need for discussions on where we should do our Safari. Due to time and budget constraints, visitors usually have to pick between the Southern or Northern circuit of Tanzania for safaris. We, needless to say, had the Northern circuit locked-in.
After many hours of researching, Michelle found a local company, Peter Tours, that offered a five day/four night camping safari that covered two days in Serengeti, two days in Ngorongoro Crater, and one day at Lake Manyara. The tour was to be shared with another couple for roughly half the price of other (foreign) companies with similar itineraries and group size. We were stoked about the price and about being able to support a local business. About our experience with Peter Tours and on general tips on how to find a reputable yet affordable Safari company look for a later post from Mich. For now, here’s a recap of our five day safari.
Day 0 – We arrived to the town of Moshi a day early to get our bearings and meet up with Peter to go over our plans, logistics and itinerary. Moshi is neat little town, full of Mzungus and is more of a hub for Kilimanjaro hikes rather than safaris, as most safaris leave from the town of Arusha about an hour drive further up north. If in Moshi, however do not miss the Pamoja Bar and Cafe, probably the best local meal we had in entire Tanzania, and Union Cafe for western style coffee shop and surprisingly reliable wifi (to be purchased by the 1/2 hour at the internet cafe next door).
Day 1 – Peter picked us up at 6AM at our hotel (New Siesta Inn) and drove us to Arusha to meet our guide Frankie, camp hand and cook who was referred to as “Chef”, and our travel companions. We were lucky to got paired up with Martin and Ilse, a super nice and well traveled Dutch couple on a three week holiday through Tanzania.
Side note – as we learned, some companies that promote themselves as “tour operators” are simply booking agents or brokers that use other companies to handle logistics for their bookings. This did no seem to be an issue for us but worth mentioning our actual operator was World Tour Safaris who we had a good experience with…minus a constantly overheating truck of course.
After all the supplies and bags were loaded onto our 4×4 Toyota Land Cruiser we hit the road and drove about 8 hours to Serengeti National Park. The drive took us through cute little towns and actually passed by both Lake Manyara and Ngorongoro Crater. Our trip was planned visiting the furthest location on our itinerary first and work our way back towards the other sites before getting back to Arusha. The long drive was surprisingly pleasant, although a bit bumpy and dusty once you leave paved road.
I found a special delight in driving throughout Maasai country. Seeing some of the last remaining semi-nomadic people on Earth with their amazing braids, wrapped up in their signature colorful blanket, carrying a stick and spear was a special treat. Seeing the painted faces of young men awaiting initiation, out of the window of our fast moving car made it clear that we were entering a very special place. On the other hand it was hard not to think about how the livelihood and traditional way of these amazing people are being threatened by outside influences (read travelers like US) and a constantly shrinking territory. We were told, and saw first hand, how Maasai now are often forced to give up their traditional way of herding animals and move to cities to scrape a living together. People who have managed to live off the land for thousands of years in sync with their natural environment are now struggling to survive in our “civilized” society. You’re further reminded of this at every stop, as seemingly out of nowhere, Maasai appear asking for money, food, or your empty plastic bottles. Sobering. It was one of those experiences that stuck with me and made me feel helpless, knowing that if anything, me witnessing is probably only contributing to the problem rather than solving it.
Once, however you enter Serengeti National Park you leave any and all human civilization behind as no one (including Maasai) is allowed to live within the boundaries of the park. We reached deep inside the park right before sunset and immediately were rewarded with sites of zebras, giraffes, impalas, and hippos. After an hour or so of giddy excitement and a close encounter with a small but angry heard of elephants, we found our campsite, set up our tent and had some much appreciated dinner before passing out under the incredibly starry Serengeti sky.
Day 2 and 3 – Serengeti. Both these days were all about game driving and were ones that we’ll not any time soon forget. After a wee bit of restless sleep (I actually snoozed great, but Mich was a little disturbed by sounds of water buffaloes and elephants passing through our un-gated camp) we had some early breakfast of eggs and chapati (my new favorite dish) and set off for long drives to explore a wide area of the park. We only returned for lunch and managed to see dozens of species, most of which we were completely unfamiliar with.
Our guide Frankie was awesome. He was not only super knowledgable about ALL the animals and their behavior but could also spot them (who knows how) from miles away. He’s been guiding for a long time and it showed. He actually took us off the beaten path and away from the crowds. Safari trucks pass info to each other (by radio and drive-bys) on where the animals can be found and thus often hang out in the same area. For this reason, its not uncommon to see a line of 20-30 trucks cueing up to gape at the same sleepy-eyed lion. Not our idea of a great African safari. Frankie did a great job finding animals without having to get in line. Even when we ended up around other trucks, he seemed to be able to find a way to navigate our car closest to the animals. That is how we managed to see lions, elephants, zebras, giraffes and even a cheetah from only a few feet away. Also the same day, though from a distance, we saw three cheetahs take down an impala. Hard to believe that we got to witness something like this.
On our first full day in the park we had an incredible sunset drive and the following morning we had a very early rise and was treated to a sunrise over Serengeti. I’ve said it before that sunrises and sunsets in Africa are in a league of their own. Witnessing them with giraffes and elephants galloping across the horizon is something out of a high-def Natural Geographic movie. The intensity of the lights, the vividness of colors, and the size of the sun are somethings I can’t adequately put into words. Its surreal, magical, and something I wish every one could experience. The vastness of this unforgiving landscape is mesmerizing. It reaches deep into your core and touches your humanity. Like staring into the flames of a big fire. Without trying to be too weird or transcendental, I just have to say that its an experience that charged me with intense energy while calming me down at the same time. I surely will be carrying this memory with me for the rest of my life.
Day 3 and 4 – In the afternoon of our 3rd day (and last game drive in Serengeti) we packed up and drove a few hours to Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area. It is striking how different the temperatures were between the scorching heat of the savanna and the high elevation on the rim of the crater. After days of constantly lubing ourselves up with sunscreen, now we had to dig deep into our backpacks for long pants and base layers. After setting up camp on the rim we walked around a bit until sunset, had an early dinner and settled in for a good night of sleep without wild animals chumping away a few feet away from our heads.
Next day we rose early again for a drive into the bottom of the carter. And what a drive it was! Again, saying that sunrise over the crater was stunning is an understatement and hope the pictures we took manage to do somewhat of a justice to the views we were lucky enough to catch. The crater was lovely but seemed pale in comparison to Serengeti. I should have prefaced that statement by saying anything after Serengeti would have probably felt like a bit of a letdown. Also, I have to add that us visiting in the dry season could also be a factor in our experience. The crater and the rim this time of the year are both dry and brown and the wildlife is much the same (just less of it) as in Serengeti. Also, the crater covering a lot smaller area, it seems quite a bit busier with a lot more trucks compared to the vast Serengeti. The highlight of this day was the stunning sunrise, seeing a pride of about 30 lions (cubs playing and tumbling around included) at a watering hole, and a lovely lunch by a hippo pool. Btw, the hippo pool was our first and only encounter with National Geographic style animal copulation during our safari.
Day 4 and 5 – After leaving the crater early afternoon we headed down to the town of Mto wa Mbu and the lovely Twiga Campsite just outside of Lake Manyara National Park. Here we had to say bye to our friends Martin and Ilse as they had a ride waiting to take them back to Arusha as they had to a flight to catch to Zanzibar the next morning. At the campsite we took advantage the much needed and appreciated hot showers, went for a run with a flock of kids in school uniform in tow, and took a stroll into town before hitting the sack.
At dinner Frankie came by to inform us that he’s been drinking Konyagi, the local liqueur with the tagline “Spirit of the Nation”, that afternoon and to ask if his two daughters could come join us for our drive into Lake Manyara National Park the next day. Of course we were delighted to have them along and were excited to see them the next day all shy and dressed in their Sunday best.
Our day at Lake Manyara went by rather quickly by trying to find the flamingos that the lake is famous for. Again, this being dry season there was a little less to see then usual. One really neat thing about this park is the actual visitor center experience. As you pull up with your truck, you are immediately greeted by a tourism student doing their practical training at the park. Once you sign the guestbook they give you the historic background on the park and the resident animals, including the famous tree climbing lions. They show you around the old facilities that were destroyed in a devastating flood in the early 2000’s. Both Mich and I were both impressed, not just by our supper friendly guide, but also about the idea of this professional development program helping young people, particularly women who are often ignored as safari guides, transition into Tanzania’s tourism industry.
After dropping Frankie’s girls off, it was time to conclude our awesome safari and head back to Arusha. As we were settling in for a 3-4 hour drive Frankie kept giving the Land Cruiser’s thermometer some worried looks. We did not think much about it, as it’s been giving us trouble since day one of the trip, overheating at the slightest incline. This resulted in a rather annoying set of short delays, which we took as the small trade off for our half-priced Safari. The issue was usually fixed by the tried method of letting the vehicle cool off for a few minutes and poring some cold water into the radiator. Except that the usual fix did not work this time. After popping the hood, we quickly realized that the hose connecting the cooler to the radiator completely busted and there was no moving the car until the hose was replaced. As Frankie was making plans to hitch a ride to town for the spare part a friendly guide/truck pulled over to help us out. As it happened this truck had extra space and would be our ride back to Arusha. It was only carrying a young German couple back from a private safari.
As we were dropped off at our hotel, Richard the owner of World Tours Safari greeted us with huge apologies and a bottle of red wine (17 per cent alcohol I may add) for our inconvenience. A nice and unexpected touch we thought. We were not too concerned with the car breaking down on us, just were a little bummed that we did not get to say our proper byes to our awesome guide.