Why we went
We wanted to go on an African Safari. The obvious choices are usually South Africa and Kenya. But consider that Tanzania, Kenya’s East African neighbor to the south, is actually home to most of the Serengeti and Mt Kilimanjaro. The variety of wildlife is second to no country. And the physically beauty is unequaled. We also wanted to see Tanzania’s Great Migration.
Tanzania is well served by KLM, which means if you can get to Amsterdam then Tanzania is just another 9 hrs away. If you’re coming here, you’re probably going to be staying at least 10 days. Getting around the country is usually done via bush plane.
When we went
May 2011 for a ten day safari. Flew from JFK to Amsterdam to Tanzania (slept 1 night in Arusha) – flew to the Grumeti River camp (slept 2 nights) – flew into the Serengeti and stayed at Serengeti Under Canvas (2 nights) – flew to Lake Manyara and the Lake Manyara Lodge (stayed 2 nights) – flew to the Ngorongoro Crater and stayed at the lodge there (2 more nights) – flew home to NY via Amsterdam.
What we did
Outside of our flights to and from Mt Kilimanjaro Airport our whole safari was organized by &Beyond, a luxury travel operator out of South Africa. They owned all the hotels we stayed at and organized all our transportation, meals, and safaris.
Each of the safari camps were all-inclusive and included at least one or two daily safari drives. The guides were outstanding, A+’s all around. This was not a cheap trip but was a once in a lifetime adventure and one we will never forget.
Getting to Tanzania involved a flight from JFK to Amsterdam, a brief layover, and a longer flight from Amsterdam to Mt Kilimanjaro airport at the base of the mountain by the same name. After some 20 hours of traveling we landed at an airport only slightly larger than our plane. When we landed we were met by an &Beyond representative who literally escorted us through customs and drove us into the nearest town, Arusha, which is home to a UN tribunal court. Many a brutal African dictator has faced justice in this little corner of the dark continent. &Beyond arranged for us to stay at the Arusha Coffee Lodge before our flight into the bush the next morning. We landed in the afternoon and didn’t get settled into our hotel until after dark. When we were finally alone, in our little villa at the coffee lodge, we had our first “pinch me I’m in Africa” moment.
Early the next morning we left from the little Arusha Airport and flew a small bush plane to our first camp; the Grumeti River Lodge, which was just outside the Serengeti National Park. The camp is semi permanent and only operates a few months each year. It consists of about 20 semi permanent structures along the banks of of the Grumeti river. Each tent in on a concrete base and has a wooden roof over head. Calling your accommodation a tent is a little misleading. Each one has a concrete walled shower with hot water and there was a crystal chandelier inside. This was not camping. This was glamping. There was an outdoor common area on the banks of river where you ate your meals and could take a drink or two. During the day large pool of hippos and even some crocodiles would sun themselves less than 50 yards away. At night those same hippos would graze around the camp, often times right on the other side of your tent’s wall. There is no electricity, the camps run on generators that are turned off at night. The tents are spaced out as well. At night it’s just you, the sound of rain, insects, and a 3000 pound hippo snorting as he eats ten feet from where you and your wife are sleeping. There are lots of monkeys around too. They’ve learned how to steal food and how to open zippers on the tents. For that reason each tent comes with a very important carabiner lock that must be utilized at all times.
We had our first game drive after lunch on the first day we arrived. Only minutes into our first drive we stopped to eww and aww over a small pride of lion cubs. Many safaris have well worn roads, where herds of land rovers jockey for position to see the latest kill the cutest new born. The Grumeti river camp wasn’t one of those. When we flew here we didn’t fly to a nearby town, we flew to the camp. There is nothing around here. Absolutely nothing. We did not see other people outside of the handful of guest staying at the lodge. Our game drives were one truck only, just a ranger and 6 six guests.
The first night we had sunset drinks and appetizers on a rocky bluff overlooking the vast plains below. Most memorable was the emptiness of it all. No buildings, no cars, to telephone wires, just greenish yellow plains dotted with trees and the occasional animal.
On our second morning we took a sunrise hot air balloon ride, a safari must do. No one else had signed up for that morning — so as luck would have it, we ended up getting a private balloon ride. From high above we silently glided over Africa. Below us you could see converging paths in the long grass made by animals as they moved towards the river.
The Grumeti River is famous for its river crossings; where hungry crocs wait for wildebeest to spring across to the other side. But we were there in May, just before the river begins to swell. We did see many a crocodile, patiently waiting for their yearly meal.
At Grumeti we got our first introduction to Tanzania’s wildlife. We saw hippos and crocs at the lodge as well as on the game drives. We also saw our first lions, giraffes, wildebeest., antelope, and lots of birds. The most memorable sighting happened at the end of our first safari drive. It was getting dark and it was starting to rain. On our way back to camp our ranger spotted the silhouette of a male lion, standing atop of hill. Not just any male lion but the head of the local pride. He was doing his nightly rounds, a confident strut across the plain, reminding all those who saw him that this was HIS territory.
Day 4-5 The Serengeti Under Canvas camp is the only lodge located within the bounds of the actual Serengeti park. There were no permanent or semi permanent structures, just canvas tents. And these tents didn’t have concrete bases or wooden roofs either, just canvas walls between you and whatever was lurking in the dark outside. The camp is magnificently located on a bluff with some of the most spectacular star gazing you’ll ever see. The roads around here were more crowded than Grumeti and by more crowded I mean you might have seen two other cars a day rather than zero.
There were lots of lions around here. One morning we found lion prints outside our tent. The guides initially told us they weren’t from a lion. However, THEY were the ones who had taught us what lion tracks looked like. Eventually they came clean but assured us that lions have no taste for human flesh. A few weeks before we had arrived another guest literally flipped out one night and decided she wasn’t comfortable sleeping in a tent with lions roaming around. Since there were no concrete structures (and the cars don’t even have sides), there was little the camp staff could do to calm her. Eventually they ended up building a wall out of chairs and tables around her tent AND promised to stay watch outside through the night. She was flown back to civilization the next morning.
It was at the Serengeti Camp that we got to see the great migration. Wildebeest, as far as the eye can see. Millions of them, gathered on the Serengeti plain to do what they and those before them have done for thousands of years, move in a circle from Tanzania, north to Kenya, and back to Tanzania. It’s hard to describe the sight of one of the greatest herds on earth. It’s just something you’ll have to see for yourself.
Favorite animal in the Serengeti: the herds of migrating wildebeest. They’re not cute, or fearsome, or even intelligent, but they sure were cool to look at in a group.
Day 6-7 Our next lodge was Lake Manyara Tree Lodge at Lake Manyara, a 127 square mile body of water that is no more than a few feet deep at any point. The lake is famous for its large flocks of flamingos that form a long pink stripe, like in the picture below.
The camp at lake Manyara was a collection of mahogany tree houses with one side made of wood and the other three just screens. The area is known for its elephants. You’ll see lots of them on every game drive. We saw so many baby elephants in two days and it never got old. The down side to having lots of baby elephants around is how they eat. They’re not tall enough to reach the yummy leaves so the larger ones will quite literally rip a branch or entire tree down for the youngsters to nibble on. This happened one night in front of our tree house. Like, literally 20 feet from where we were sleeping. I was up all night, completely convinced that at some point a lion was going to climb onto our balcony to attack the elephants, see me, and instead walk through the screen and eat me. Did I mention Lake Manyara is famous for tree climbing lions? Because it is. To this day I do not understand how the wife slept through that. Africa was awesome but of the eight nights spent in the bush I probably slept through two of them.
Lions certainly put the fear of god into me. So did the black mamba snake we passed one day, aka – the world’s second deadliest serpent. But neither of those, nor the mighty hippo scared our guides. Those hardened bushmen were only afraid of one animal…the water buffalo. Really, you ask? Yes, really. At Lake Manyara we got the chance to go out on a night safari. It’s the only time we went out for a drive where they guides were armed (AK-47s). They weren’t for lions or rogue hippos or even the rare honey badger, which we did manage to see. The guns were for the water buffalo. Every animal in the jungle gives you a warning before they attack. Some assume an aggressive stance. Some growl. Some will even fake charge once. Only one animal attacks relentlessly without warning…the water buffalo. During our drive we rounded a dark turn into a small group of buffalo that caught us by surprise. The fear in the eyes of our seasoned guides as they scrabbled to point their weapons was enough to convince us that what they told us was not an exaggeration. Luckily, that time, the buffalos just ignored us. But each year far more people die in the jungle from the water buffalo than any other animal.
Favorite animal in Lake Manyara. It’s a tough call. Despite keeping me up all night those baby elephants were really really cute. But I think I’ll give it to the leopard in the above picture. He was full grown but not old enough to leave his home yet. The picture above was taken while he was waiting in his tree for his mother to come back with food. That’s why he looks so apprehensive. He’s not sure what to make of us and he was totally alone. We both agreed that the leopards were the most beautiful animals we saw in Africa.
Day 8-9 The final lodge was the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge. Finally, our lodging had actual walls made of a material that could (probably?) stop whatever wanted to eat me. After six nights in the bush I finally got a good nights sleep.
You might have seen this camp in a list of the world’s most luxurious destinations. It absolutely deserves to be there. It’s also one of the most famous safari lodges in Africa. This was the only place where, on the game drives, we were in constant sight of other vehicles.
The Ngorongoro Crater is actually a giant caldera. That makes it like a naturally occurring game park because it’s basically walled-in. The lodge is along the rim. See the picture below. Those are the rooms (huts) and that’s the crater behind it. The view…magnificent!
Each little hut screams old world luxury. When you return to your little dwelling after dinner a fire is already burning in the little pot belly stove. You and your travel companion can sink into the leather chairs and discuss the days sightings over a glass of sherry and some Turkish delight.
After having been to the three other camps, where you didn’t know whether or not you would even see animals, going on a safari drive in the Ngorongoro felt like fishing with dynamite. Because the habitat is in a crater, it creates a natural “fence” all of the animals are easy to spot and don’t really roam outside of the crater walls. Every animal we saw at the previous three camps we saw here. We also saw a baby hyena, which believe it or not are totally cute when they’re babies. We also saw an elephant graveyard. Who knew that was real thing? Remember there was an elephant graveyard in the Lion King? What happens is that an elephants teeth wear down as they get old. They can no longer eat the same things that the rest of the group can. Instead they have to find softer greens, which usually grow in the marshy areas. Of course, the predators of the jungle have figured out that the elephants around the marshes are old and slow. The result…elephant grave yard.
Every &Beyond guide/staff/chef/etc. was super professional. At Ngorongoro we took a nature hike around the grounds Jaichim, who was very knowledgeable and proud of all things nature. He even started a plant nursery and the fruits of his crop were given to nearby Masaii tribes.
Favorite animal in Ngorongoro. I would have given it to the lion had they actually been able to kill something (see picture above). But instead I’ll give it to the baby hyena. Seriously, really cute. I think Lion King still gives them a bad rap.
After our time in Ngorongoro, and Africa in general, we flew back to Arusha, then to Amsterdam, and finally home. We had a long layover in Amsterdam and got to ride bikes and eat pancakes for lunch…still in our safari clothes.
- Bring sunscreen.
- Bring a decent camera WITH A ZOOM LENS. I rented my lenses through BorrowLenses.com.
- We bought several items of “safari wear” from Orvis.
- Go to a travel doctor beforehand and get all necessary vaccinations (Tanzania requires the Yellow Fever vaccination. We also got Hep A/B and tetanus shots.)
- As a precaution, ask the travel doctor to prescribe travel stomach bug pills. It’s better to be safe than sorry when traveling/eating in a third world country.
- Tip each of your guides.
Again, all of our accommodations were taken care of by &Beyond. We stayed at…
Arusha Coffee Lodge; Arusha (near Kilimanjaro Airport)
Grumeti Serengeti River Lodge; Western Serengeti
Serengeti Under Canvas; Central Serengeti
Lake Manyara Tree Lodge; just east of the Serengeti
Ngorongoro Crater Lodge; northeast Tanzania
KIA Lodge at the Kilimanjaro Airport. We spent one night here in order to catch an early flight out from Kilimanjaro.