Visiting East Africa is something I’ve been dreaming of for some time. My first experience of the region is 10 days exploring the northern circuit of Tanzania’s famous wildlife reserves and Zanzibar Island.
My first stop, Arusha, is reached via Nairobi (just four hours away from Johannesburg) on Kenya Airways and a short 1 hour hop to Kilimanjaro Airport. Timely connections, no delays and my luggage checked all the way through, made it all super easy and once through the yellow fever check and passport control, I’ve arrived.
My recognizable and friendly airport transfer driver whisks me away to my pre-tour accommodation and assists me with currency exchange at a good rate.
Ngurdoto Lodge’s host welcomes me with a cool juice, refresher towel and a brief orientation, before I catch up on some zzzz’s I’d missed out on during the overnight flight. Later on I check out the great atmosphere of the budget Meru View Lodge, which is right next door.
That night I headed out to dinner in jacket and jeans for the cooler evening that accompanies the altitude of the region. The Arusha office crew and my safari roommate Alex, prepare me for my adventure by teaching me a few Swahili phrases and providing an education on Tanzania’s beer.
Tarangire Elephants, Baobabs & Wild Things
The next morning around 09h00, after a full breakfast spread complete with earthy Tanzanian coffee, safari guide Anok collects me and three other safari companions.
The briefing by the head of operations is cheerful and thorough. Each group member is provided with a map and an explanation of expected road conditions, temperatures, traveling times/distances, animal sightings, highlights, park rules and etiquette; as well as details of meals, campsites and facilities. He also runs through a brief checklist to make sure that we all have a few of the essentials including: head torch, sleeping bag, adequate clothing and so forth.
With 10 minutes to get some last minute essentials, the fourteen strong tour group files into Nakumatt supermarket next door for toilet roll - a minimum of 2 rolls per person for 7 days – some alcohol for those inclined and snacks. I wish I picked up wet wipes and lip balm. Africa is dry, hot and dusty.
The group is split into two converted Toyota Landcruisers, fitted with an inverter for charging batteries, and a small fridge for drinking water, which is provided for the entire seven days. Seven people in a vehicle is full, but there is enough space for daypacks and there are plenty pockets to stash cameras, nibbles and guide books, as we drive out of the bustle of Arusha. Our bigger luggage is carried in a support vehicle with the camping equipment, which goes ahead to the campsite to set up before our arrival. We reach our first campsite Zion, some seven km outside of the Tarangire National Park in time for lunch – tabouleh, kofte ,chicken kebab and tahini is served in a lunchbox prepared and packed by the Arusha office is a special one. Most days we are treated to a more than adequate lunch of sandwich, eggs, piece of chicken, fruit and biscuits washed down with juice.
The afternoon provides our first game drive and Anok pops open the vehicles’ roof for better viewing, whilst reminding us about tsetse flies. I put on my hat and sunblock as the sun is strong with the open roof.
Tarangire is famous for high elephant numbers and we soon encounter a large herd, of two or three families enjoying an afternoon drink and cool down. Some parts of the riverbed are dry and we watch another herd using their trunks to dig for water.
We spot zebra, wildebeest, waterbuck, birds, giraffe, warthog and our first pride of lions, doing what they do best. The landscape is peppered with iconic Baobab trees. After a good drive we head back to camp, leaving behind a dusty African sunset and the pesky tsetse flies. We are all keen for a hot shower before dinner, where we are treated to fried tilapia fish, rice, peas and side salad. One of the camp staff fetches cold beer from the village and we move outside and enjoy Kilimanjaro and Serengeti lagers under the stars.
Scenes of Lake Natron & Ol Doinyo Lengai
We rise bright and early at 06h00 for a breakfast of eggs, toast and pancakes and begin a long drive to Lake Natron at 08h00. The bumpy road, providing a “bush massage” passes several small Maasai villages and harsh scrub landscape. We bombard Anok with questions about the country, customs. Our guide is happy to share his vast knowledge.
We stop for a view of Tanzania’s last active volcano and Maasai sacred mountain Ol Doinyo Lengai, which translates as "Mountain of God", unique among active volcanoes in that it produces natrocarbonatite lava.
We arrive at the campsite for lunch and are then introduced to a local Maasai guide for a 1 hour hike, through mountains to a waterfall. We swim and cool off before returning in the 35 + degree heat along a river to meet our vehicles. We drive to Lake Natron in the late afternoon to walk and view flamingoes. The lake is the site of Nick Brandts’ eerie images captured in the book Across the ravaged land, which depicts the affects of the water’s alkalinity on birds.
Serengeti - Land of the Maasai, Big Cats & Plains Game
On the third day, I wake up early to watch the sunrise and see an array of colours reflect on Ol Doinyo Lengai. We drive northwest to Serengeti National Park, passing several Maasai villages as we leave the concession area and enter through one of the lesser traversed gates.
Sightings are immediate and include mating lions and a bloat of hippos. Making good time the guides push on to the central Serengeti and Seronora areas in order to spend two nights deep inside the park. Arriving just before dark our set up camp is a welcome site as is another tasty dinner served under the African sky.
Our guides warn that an elephant is in the camp, rifling through the bins for snack, we are surprised that we didn’t hear a thing. A few hyenas also stray into the camp looking for some easy pickings. We are advised not to get out and use the toilets at night but are also assured not to panic if we hear animals by our tents and to keep still and enjoy the sense of proximity.
The morning game drive around the central and Seronora areas provides an abundance of wildlife in the vast plains. The big cat sightings were particularly impressive including two separate leopard encounters and plenty prides of lions.
The usual suspects – zebra, giraffe, elephants and buffalo were never far and the twitchers among us enjoyed spotting the Hoopoe, Marabou stork and numerous raptors.
After a hot lunch spread of pizza, beef, quiche and accompanying salads we had a couple of hours siesta and entertainment from a band of mongooses doing battle with a Marabou stork over a bounty of bin scraps. The afternoon game drive rewards us with a sighting of an elegant Serval cat.
Ngorongoro Crater - Wildlife-packed Showtime
On Day 5, our camp is packed up as we head onto the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. We see some scavengers at work with the leftovers of last night’s kill, this time a vulture and a hyena. We also spot shy cheetahs that keep their distance and are surprisingly in a small group.
The area hosts the world’s largest inactive but intact and unfilled volcanic craters, formed two to three million years ago after a large volcano exploded and collapsed on itself. It is 610m (2000 ft) deep and 260 square km (100 square miles) surface area. The Maasai bring their cattle to the crater for feeding and water but are not allowed to stay.
We camp on the rim of the crater at an altitude in the large Ngorongoro Simba campsite. At an altitude of 2400m, I’m glad to have my sleeping bag, warm clothes and hiking socks and beanie hat. Dinner is served in a canteen area and we all knock off to bed for an early rise.
At 07h00 we descend into the crater and the high density and constant sightings of the animals feels almost zoo like. Finally a black rhino, which attracts a lot of attention. Pelicans delight us with a graceful display of synchronized fishing and we spot Tanzania’s national bird the Grey-crowned crane. More lion action, a picnic lunch in the crater and we make our way out.
Leaving the crater rim we make the easy journey to a viewpoint of Lake Manyara and to an overnight camp which feels like civilization, complete with swimming pool for our final night of the safari. It is an opportunity to buy some souvenirs and grab a couple of cold beers at a local bar.
Zanzibar Island - Rich Culture, Aromatic Spices & Dreamy Beaches
On the final morning we breakfast and depart, arriving at Arusha’s Kilimanjaro International Airport around midday, where we go our separate ways. Alex and I fly with Air Excel on a 13-seater Cessna Grand Caravan, on a 1-hour 40 minute journey to Zanzibar.
On arrival in Stone Town I’m transferred to the beautifully decorated Kholle House. Not wasting any time, I get out on foot exploring the narrow alleys, markets and relics. Steeped in history, Stone Town has a wonderful energy and locals are friendly, laid back and helpful. The seafood is exquisite, kingfish, red snapper and octopus dishes are all laced with aromatic spices from the island.
My second day on the island is spent on the east coast at Jambiani, a picture postcard location with ubiquitous palm fringed white sand beaches turquoise waters.
There is a variety accommodation including Spice Island Resort, Bahari View Lodge, Casa Del Mar, Nur Beach Hotel all with a range of rooms that suit most pockets. Never fearing the reaper, I stay at Blue Oyster Hotel and spend the afternoon snorkeling (best at low tide) with Captain Zappy. After dinner, Alex and I head to the local Zombie Bar for some cold Kilimanjaro lagers and sharing reggae and dub tunes. We return before the tide turns and escape wet feet.
A spice tour by Spice Boys (Sporty, perhaps) en route to my final destination of Nungwi, was a great experience. An escapade into the heart of spice production on the island - the world number two producer of cloves. I learn how the spices are used for medicines, soaps, perfumes as well as food. I taste fruits, spices and fresh coconut water – collected by the Butterfly Man who sings “Jambo Bwana” as he climbs a palm! I buy a couple of soaps as a memento.
On the far north coast, Nungwi is more touristic than the east and the Z Hotel is a glitzy and luxurious end to my journey, especially sundowners by the pool. I walked into the local village to benefit from a better exchange rate and found good value restaurants on the beach. I decline offers of a party and opt for an early night ahead of an early start, I am already planning my next sojourn to the region as I retire to my room.