“What exactly is a safari?” ”What do you do?” ”Is it safe?” These are some of the questions we heard when we told people we were going on safari. Now, we have just returned from a week in Tanzania, five of those days spent on safari in Tarangire National Park, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and Serengeti National Park…and it was an absolutely amazing experience. I have over 1200 photos to filter through, and so many stories to share. But before getting to the crazy wildlife and scenery we encountered, I wanted to explain exactly what it’s like to be on safari…and then highly encourage everyone to have this experience!
First, a few specifics. We booked our trip through Adventures Within Reach, based out of Colorado (USA) and recommended to us by a friend. (Thanks Alec!) AWR then contracts the actual safari out to a Tanzanian operation called Tanzania Journeys. We booked our flights into and out of Tanzania, and AWR did the rest We picked a 5 day group tour, meaning we would be part of a group of between 2 and 7 people, that leaves on a set number of days every month - a cost savings over booking a custom tour. AWR then booked a hotel in the town of Moshi for the night we arrived and the night before we flew back to Kenya, along with transportation to and from the Kilimanjaro Airport. Easy!
You never know what or who to expect when you join a group tour, and we were quite lucky. We were a small group - only Doug and myself, a solo traveller from Germany - Thekla, and our fabulous guide Mansour. Here we are at the airport, dropping Thekla off at the end of our adventure.
For five days, the four of us spent most of our daylight hours in a specially designed Land Rover travelling between the parks and on game drives within them. While we did have a few wild animal sightings in transit, most of the action happens in the parks. These are not fenced in areas - the animals are wild and come and go as they please. But the boundaries of the parks were selected to encompass the native ranges of a highly diverse species population, and with hunting and farming off limits within the parks, this is where the animals choose to spend their time.
As soon as we would enter a park, Mansour would open the special pop-up roof on the truck, and we would stand up and look out the top like little gophers.
The roads are not paved within the parks (or even between them in some cases), and the travel can be bumpy and dusty. I have quite a few sore spots from holding on and bumping up against the edges of the truck. But as has been the ongoing theme in Africa…the annoyance is worth it. The 360 degree view from the pop-up roof, with the wind in your hair, is the way to go!
The game drives within the parks far exceeded my expectations. The blog entries to be posted over the next several days will go into the details of these adventures, but the variety, density, and proximity of the wildlife was incredible.
What also amazed me was the quality of our accommodations. All safaris are expensive, but we selected this group tour because it was on the low end of cost. The discount came not only from the group nature of the tour but also from the level of accommodations. We would be staying in a combination of “mid-range hotels and tented camps”. The only cheaper options were “basic camping” safaris, and there were “elite” and “luxury” levels above ours. I am so glad we selected what we did…it was just perfect.
We had four nights during our safari. The first night, after visiting Tarangire and on our way to the Serengeti, we stayed at the Rhotia Valley Tented Camp, on the edge of the Ngorongoro forest. Well off the main road, this camp has permanent tents with running water and electricity from a generator part of the day. The tents were larger than I expected.
And the bed was super comfortable…better than we’ve had in many of our travel apartments!
And the bathroom was very nice, with (limited) hot water from a solar heater.
We even had a really nice porch overlooking the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
The main lodge - a huge tent structure with a thatched roof - was a great group gathering point where we had dinner and breakfast, and sat around the fireplace with other guests, exchanging life and safari stories.
On our second and third nights, we stayed at the Serengeti Halisi Mobile Camp, in the heart of the Serengeti. This entire camp was, as the name suggests, mobile, and would move location every several months. I expected low comfort and primitive accommodations. Incorrect! Our tent was still quite large.
And once again contained a comfortable bed.
With no permanent infrastructure, we had no running water. But we did have decanters of purified water for drinking and some reserved in a hot thermos for hand and face washing, a very clean chemical toilet in the tent, as well as a shower. When you wanted a shower, you let the staff know, they would warm water over the fire, then fill a large container hoisted on a pulley system to provide a gravity-fed shower head in the back of the tent! There was also a very effective lighting system set up using portable solar lights. The whole camp was sustainable, using no generators - only solar power.
Our last night in the bush was spent at the most developed of our accommodations - the Rhino Lodge in Ngorongoro Conservation Area. No tents here, but more like a motor inn, with running water, electricity from a generator for part of the day, and another great bed and porch. The main lodge building was very large, with huge fireplaces to warm the cool mountain air, and a gorgeous view.
All three of these places had a great staff, friendly and willing to help, whatever your needs. Every evening, we were met with warm moist towels as we exited our truck - exactly what a dusty safari-goer wants! And the food was amazing! Doug kept joking that we would put on the “safari-15”. Elaborate boxed lunches packed for us, breakfast with fresh fruit, toast, sausage, bacon, and eggs made to order, and dinners like juicy pork loin or roast lamb with filling side dishes and dessert. We were so well taken care of throughout the trip, never more so than at the Halisi Camp, where the whole staff came out to wish us Bon Voyage on our last morning there.
These stays perfectly complimented our safari experience. Right in the heart of the wilderness, with no separating barriers, we could hear monkeys at the Rhotia Lodge, hyenas calling all around us at the Halisi Camp, and had waterbuck and a group of cape buffalo wander through the grounds of the Rhino Lodge. In each place, there were staff members, often armed, there to escort you wherever you needed to go after dark, and we always felt safe. I would not have wanted to stay at any of the “fancier” hotels - so sterile and removed from this wild experience.
An adventure like this takes some planning and the right attitude - getting the right vaccinations and visas, being prepared for a lot of last minute changes, delays, lots of bumpy and dusty roads, and the inconveniences that come with traveling in a developing country. In our case, AWR helped prepare us and appropriately set our expectations. Everything was so well planned around us, all we had to do was get our cameras ready, pop our heads out of the truck, and take in the live Discovery Channel Special going on around us.
What we experienced over this five day adventure was something I wanted to share with so many people. Even set against the round-the-world journey we have had over the past year, this safari was special, and I highly recommend it.
Stay tuned for more posts over the next few days with photos and stories of the amazing animals and landscapes of Tanzania!
My original plan for today’s post was to focus on the predators we saw on safari. But as I looked through my photos, I realized that our experience with lions alone justified a post all to itself! So, cheetahs and leopards and the rest of the meat-eating gang will have to wait…today the “king of the jungle” will take center stage.
Of course, we were not in the jungle…but we spotted a lion fairly quickly in Tarangire Park. Mansour, our guide, pulled the truck up to a dry river bed and pointed. There she was, our first lion, sprawled out in the river bed, camouflaged in the dirt.
We were pretty excited to see this great predator in real life, in the wild. Later, from the top of the hill looking down on the river bed we spotted her whole pride…the rest had been hiding around a bend in the river bank. Though quite far away and completely inanimate in their state of rest, it was still pretty cool to see so many lions together in such a picturesque setting. (Can you spot all eight of them?)
At the time we didn’t realize how much up-close and personal time we would get with these great creatures in the days to come.
It was not long after reaching the endless plains of the Serengeti the next day when, once again, Mansour pulled the truck over and pointed to some well camouflaged cats we would have missed without his expert guidance.
A short while later, we ran across a lone lioness, and this one we had not trouble finding, even with our untrained eyes! She was strutting alongside the dirt road and came right up next to the truck.
Several other safari trucks came by, and even with all these goofy humans gawking at her, the lioness paid us no mind. Not realizing how slightly she would acknowledge our presence, when she first passed an arm’s length from the truck, I have to admit to being a bit nervous. I’ve seen the athleticism of these animals, and I know if she wanted to, she could easily jump up on the truck and reach us from the pop-up roof. But my concern was unnecessary. Mansour informed us that in a park with such abundant food sources, adult lions accept that humans are more trouble than they are worth and are not aggressive. The only ones to keep an eye on are the juveniles, and even then only if you are outside the vehicle. Much like their human equivalent, the “teenagers” are very curious and will sometimes push their boundaries to see what they can get away with. Regardless, when this lioness looked back at us, no one had to convince me to stay tucked away in the truck!
Over our two days in the Serengeti we came to recognize that lions were not the elusive, shadowy predators we expected them to be. We saw them everywhere! We saw juveniles lounging in trees…
…and young cubs stashed away in a low tree branch while mom was out, probably hunting.
We even saw a male-female pair, separated from the rest of the pride for a little intimate alone time.
Our frequent lion sightings continued when we moved on to Ngorongoro Crater. Shortly after descending into the crater we spotted another lone lioness trotting towards our truck.
Oddly, she headed straight for the road, then proceeded to trot along the dirt path. Mansour pulled a quick U-turn and we followed her for about 20 minutes…she looked a little lean and hungry, and we were hoping to witness a hunt. While she never found the right prey to stalk, she was still a joy to watch. As she casually made her way down the road, we could hear her rhythmically emitting a low, subtle growling noise, almost as if she were muttering to herself. At one point she stopped, taking stock of the scene around her, and without any signs of aggression, showed us a little teeth.
I think she was just trying to show off - “Look, no cavities!”
On the other side of the crater we found another pride, spread out around the road. There were a few females lounging on a small knoll and a male and female snoozing in the tall grass. Then we spotted a second male not too far off. Two males in the same territory? Why were they not fighting? Mansour informed us they were probably brothers, who often pair up to depose a strong dominant male with a large pride. He decided to go for a stroll and gave us the best close-up view we had of a full-maned male.
Shortly after, we stumbled onto another group of lions. This time there were three females, and their crouched stealthy positioning told us they were on the hunt!
Just over the horizon we spotted the prey - three warthogs grazing. We watched this scene unfold for some time. The warthogs casually grazing, unaware of the impending danger, while the three lionesses slowly stalked them, creeping in the grass and flanking out around them. The stalking went on for a while, and they drifted farther and farther from the road. By the time the action hit, they were at the limit of visibility, even with the aid of binoculars and zoom. But we could still see enough to know that they were unsuccessful. The warthogs caught sight of them at the last second and were able to scamper away unharmed. (The two warthogs are on the left, two of the lionesses on the right.)
Our final lion encounter came at the very end of our safari, just before leaving Ngorongoro Crater. Up ahead on the road we could see a tight knot of several safari trucks, clearly huddled around something worth watching. As we pulled into the crowd we spotted them - a huge pride of lions (at least 8-10 females and 2 males) was clustered on the side of the road with a large buffalo kill.
Based on the state of the carcass, Mansour said the hunt and kill probably happened earlier the day before, and the smell in the air supported his theory. The pride had been here since, gorging on meat until they were all so fat and happy they simply flopped over in exhaustion. One of the females was laying on her side, motionless, in the middle of the road. We were concerned she was injured, or even dead. Mansour told us she was just full and resting. Sure enough, a short while later she started to roll and round and stretch on the road.
I know this feeling - I have experienced this lazy, contented fullness after a good Christmas or Thanksgiving feast. Fully satisfied, she slowly got to her feet and wandered around between the trucks, sometimes stopping to scratch herself on a bumper.
We witnessed this comfortable behavior with the lions throughout our safari. They truly are the kings of the jungle - or plains, as the case may be - and conduct themselves with a confidence that expresses a total lack of fear. They know they are in charge. It was, quite simply, awesome.
Lions aren’t the only big cats stalking the parks of Tanzania, nor are cats the only predators. We were not lucky enough to witness a successful hunt, but we did get to see a lot of predators in action.
Our third safari day, our full day in the Serengeti, we dubbed “Cheetah Day” as we had several encounters with the fleet-footed felines. Our first was bright and early, a mere five minutes after leaving camp after an early morning breakfast. A few feet off the dirt road, our fantastic guide Mansour spotted a lone cheetah, fully engaged in dining on a fresh kill.
We were the only truck there, and sat front and center to watch for a while. The grass was tall and we couldn’t see the prey, but we were close enough that we could actually hear the crunching noises as the cheetah worked at it. He/She would crouch in the grass, chomping away and only partially visible, then occasionally sit up, muzzle tainted with a touch of blood-red, to scan the surroundings. Cheetahs have such a distinct look, with the bold spots and black face markings, it was mesmerizing.
Our second sighting was just a short while later, in mid-morning. This time we knew something was going on by the knot of trucks built up in the road. We entered the fray and patiently waited for our turn to maneuver the truck for good visibility. The stars of this show were a female cheetah and three cubs, resting under a tree with a fresh gazelle kill. The grass made it difficult to get a good view of the cubs, but when they would pop up to become visible through the grass, an audible “Awww” would come from the gallery.
Our final cheetah sighting came around mid-day…three cheetah encounters in just a few hours! In the heat of the high sun, a group of five adult cheetahs was lounging in the shade of an acacia tree. Once again, the tall grass obscured a clear view, but splashes of spotted fur could be seen here and there. After staring into the sun-dappled stalks for a while, slowly faces would begin to emerge.
Occasionally one of the cheetahs would stand up and stretch, revealing their location. But this is how I will remember cheetahs - stealthily camouflaged in tall grass, in such contrast to the confident boldness of their lion cousins.
The other great cat predator of the Tanzanian parks is the leopard. Solitary hunters, the best place to spot them is usually sleeping in a crook of a tree, which is exactly where we had our first sighting.
When we first started, I was always looking for them in the first crook of the tree, low to the ground. But after Mansour pointed our the first cat, I realized they are capable, and comfortable, climbing much higher! Can you spot this one high in the branches?
We slowly learned the best way to spot them is to look for the dangling legs and tail. Or, look for a congregation of trucks!
Congestion in the parks is rare. Most of the time our truck was alone. Occasionally you pass another vehicle, the guides often stopping to briefly check in on each other and see if there are any hot tips on active areas. But once in a while word gets out on the radio of a stationary sighting, like a leopard in a tree, and many trucks make their way over to catch a look.
Our best leopard experience I was not able to catch on camera. On our last morning, in Ngorongoro, we were just setting off for the crater in a heavy pre-dawn fog. My camera was still packed up in its bag. Silently, out of the fog emerged a large leopard, right in front of the truck! This great cat slowly crossed the road, passed around the front of the truck, and paused for just a moment, staring up into the side window next to me. It was gorgeous. Then, as quickly as it appeared, it vanished into the forest and back into the fog. We were so excited!
That foggy morning drive also presented us with three hyenas loping down the bumpy road. We got a good look at them before they scattered around the truck and into the forest, but it was too dark for any quality photos. In fact, we saw several hyenas during our day in Ngorongoro crater, but they were fairly camera-shy, always hiding in the grass, slipping quickly out of view, or staying far away on the horizon. But even at a distance, their shape is distinctly recognizable.
Ngorongoro crater was also the site of our other canine predator during the safari, the jackal. Below is the black-backed jackal, but we saw golden jackals as well.
I took a liking to the jackal over the hyena, perhaps due to its smaller size, or maybe its fox-like appearance. Or maybe it was the way it pranced as it ran through the grass…I do love a good prance!
One predator I was really looking forward to seeing was the crocodile. In the dry season, with water present in only a few areas, we knew where to look and found several throughout the safari. As fierce as they can be, and as imposing as their giant armor-clad bodies are, I found them to be underwhelming.
We saw perhaps a dozen crocs over our five days, and not single one moved a muscle! Yawn…
The next semi-aquatic character is not technically a predator. Hippos are herbivores, eating only grasses and reeds. But with their size and reputation for violent and often fatal aggression towards humans, crocodiles, and even lions, they seemed to fit better with the predator group than with any other.
We visited “Hippo Pool” in the Serengeti, where dozens of these enormous animals wallow together. In the dry season, when only a few pools exist deep enough for the hippos to submerge themselves, they all congregate in one giant, stinky, mess. If you can tolerate the smell, it is impressive to see, and hear, all of them together, splashing around - click here for a short video (and turn up the sound!) But I still like our cleaner, less crowded hippos back on Lake Victoria in Kenya better!
Lastly, I wanted to include baboons in this predator post. Not exclusively a predator, baboons are omnivores, eating mainly plants, but also hunting small animals when the opportunity presents itself. But what we quickly came to learn was that for humans on safari, baboons represent the ultimate nuisance…they are crafty thieves! Our first encounter happened during our picnic lunch our first day in Tarangire. A small troop of baboons started to congregate along the edge of the picnic sight. They had their target - a large group of school kids half way through lunch. In a scene I’m sure plays out on many days, the baboons rushed the table, kids screamed and scattered, and the monkeys descended on the table to scoop up all the abandoned food, including some tasty hard boiled eggs.
Baboons are clever, and have learned that where there are humans, there is food, and they frequently stalk picnic spots and parking lots. Mansour was quick to educate us: guard your food, never leave the truck windows open, and beware of the large males. In the parking area outside the checkpoint into Ngorongoro forest, we saw their shenanigans on display again.
While waiting for Mansour to pay our entrance fee and process the official paperwork, we waited by the truck. A large troop of baboons came lumbering down the road, ready to inspect the silly humans for unsecured food. I was particularly amused by this pair of travelers. I’ve seen babies hitching a ride by clinging to an adult’s underbelly, but I’ve never seen one ride bare back!
One adult approached our tourmate Thekla, and as she focused her camera for a close-up shot, he darted in and grabbed a sleeve of biscuits right out of her hand! We were very glad that we had firmly closed all the windows of our vehicle as we saw the troop get comfortable and turn another truck into their personal playground.
They climbed over the whole thing, looking for any entry point they could find. They hung from the side mirrors, jumped up and down on the spare tire, pulled at the antenna, and one youngster even tried to eat the spout for the windshield-wiper fluid!
Growing up and living in cities and small towns in the US, we have come to think of ourselves as top of the animal kingdom. Run-ins with wild animals are usually restricted to accidentally hitting deer with a car or figuring out how to keep the squirrels from breaking into the bird feeder. Spending time in the parks of Tanzania is a humbling experience. It is a good reminder that our advantage comes from ingenuity and technology. In this wild world, we rarely have the upper hand.
As you could probably tell from the health of all those beautiful predators in the last two posts, Tanzania is teeming with ample prey as well. Animals on the dinner menu often come in the four-legged grazing variety, and we sure saw a lot to choose from during our safari.
The most abundant prey group throughout the Tanaznian parks are the many species of antelope. Commonly reffered to as “DLAs” (Deer-Like Animals), antelopes are actually in a different family as they do not shed and regrow their horns as deer do. Hard to remember when you see herds of impala, primarily the females, who look so similar to the white-tailed deer I grew up seeing in northern New Hampshire.
Like many of the large antelope species, impala live in herds with many female and a dominant male. You can always spot one set of those long spiral horns in the crowd…or sometimes actively herding the crowd!
Group mentality is a critical survival technique for many prey animals in wild. If you keep enough individuals around you, the chances that YOU are the one to get eaten are lower.
Many of the herds we saw during our safari were composed of mixed antelope - like impala, the Thomson’s gazelles discussed in a previous post, and the Grant’s gazelles who often graze with them.
We also saw some impressively large groups of African buffalo.
This herd of at least 300 animals stretched out on both sides of the dirt road. The sheer mass of these animals sets them apart from the antelope. When they are hunted, it takes a group of predators working together and will feed them for a while. Well, not ALL of the buffalo are huge.
But if you want the little one, you’ve got to stare down the horns of the mom, and the 300+ adults running around with them!
However, these are not the largest herds of animals in the Serengeti. That distinction belongs to a pretty famous group - the massive migration of wildebeest involves literally millions of individuals and covers vast distances between Tanzania and Kenya. As we visited the Serengeti in the dry season, the main herd had migrated to the northwest corridor of the park on its way to the Maasai Mara in Kenya and was too far off for us to witness. However, we still saw great numbers of wildebeest in all three parks we visited, and their migratory “follow-the-leader” instincts were on display.
We often found the wildebeest with their frequent travel companions and fellow herd species, the zebra.
Zebra also migrate to seek out the rain and more abundant food sources, and in turn also have a tendency to stay in line when traveling.
We learned some interesting zebra tid-bits from our guide, Mansour. In a herd, zebra tend to look like a big mass of stripes, thus confusing predators. But this can be confusing for the zebra as well. In order to identify individual animals, zebra look to the stripe pattern on the hind-quarters, where it varies the most dramatically. This group here is basically giving us a “Hello, my name is ____” greeting.
When a baby zebra foal is born, to prevent them from wandering off with the wrong female, the mom will separate herself and her foal from the group for the first week or two until the young one learns the particular stripe pattern for their mother and will know who to follow. So interesting!
Mansour taught us quite a few interesting factiods throughout our safari. For example the antelope species called the waterbuck is usually found in much smaller groups than their cousins, partially due to their lower ranking on menu. Waterbuck sweatglands produce a waterproof secretion that smells and tastes rather foul. So, they are not the prey of choice, and have the luxury of a slightly less dangerous lifestyle. Below is a solo male in Tarangire National Park, with an iconic baobab tree in the background.
Smaller prey are less likely to live in large herds as well. They are better off living in small groups and hiding from predators instead. We looked right at this rabbit for some time before seeing it was there…a much harder thing to do in a large group.
The same tactic, of course, would not work for large antelope, like these Hart beasts.
But hiding is the best strategy for the smallest of the antelopes, the dik-dik.
So, dik-dik live in monogamous pairs as opposed to large herds. We learned that when one of a pair of dik-diks dies, the other partner typically does not take a new mate, as territory and individuals are scarce. Instead, the widowed partner often dies, essentially of despair. Some even “commit suicide” by placing themselves in mortal peril, or consuming poisonous vegetation.
And on that heartbreaking note I will conclude this story of the prey animals of our safari experience! Next up will be the winged inhabitants of the Tanzanian parks, where more tales of success and heartbreak await…