African Safari - A Trip on the Wild Side!
Updated: Mar 12
“There is something about safari life that makes you forget all your sorrows and feel as if you had drunk half a bottle of champagne – bubbling over with heartfelt gratitude for being alive.” – Karen Blixen
If you were to ask me what Africa looks like – I couldn’t give you a quick answer – as the majority of central and southern Africa are comprised of the Miombo woodlands, a vast region of tropical grasslands, savanna, and shrublands. The color palate varies between golden waves of grass to the shrublands which are a tangle of textured gray bark, and olive-green leaves. Having said that, once the rains begin, the landscape will transform overnight into a canvas of luminous shades of green.
However, if you were to ask me what Africa smells like – it would be in one word – woodsmoke. My first whiff of woodsmoke hit me the minute I stepped off the plane at Kilimanjaro Airport. It is a warm, welcoming, and pervasive smell from the wood fires of the Miombo wood used to cook the majority of the meals in the country. That particular smell of woodsmoke always whisks me back to the times I spent in Africa.
If an African Safari is not on your wish list – it should be. Not many natural places left in the world will provide such a magical and unforgettable experience. Africa is full to the brim of breathtaking moments, spontaneous adventures, and natural beauty all of which are surrounded by unique landscapes and spectacular wildlife.
Zebras and wildebeest framed by a flamboyance of flamingos lakeside in Ngorongoro Crater. The crater wall are visible in the background.
Where should I go on Safari?
Once you have decided that you are going on a Safari, how do you choose which country to visit? Africa is a huge continent with 54 countries, nine of which are renowned for the best safaris. The overwhelming majority of visitors that go to Africa depend on tour outfitters. Each country, tour outfit, and game lodge or tented camp has its own unique appeal, features, and attractions, that can be adapted to fit your version to fit your preferences such as the length as well as your budget. Choose wisely if you treat yourself and go on a guided safari. Your guide/lodge should promote conservation and sustainable tourism and follow sensitive and ethical wildlife practices and your guides should be fully trained and experienced.
An Implausibility of Wildebeest in the Serengeti's Great Migration
I chose (twice) Tanzania with Overseas Adventure Travel as it is the home to the Serengeti National Park, which includes the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The Serengeti is home to the largest and most awe-inspiring natural circular migration of over a million wildebeest and thousands of gazelles and zebras every year. Simba (of the Lion King) took his first glimpse of the world in a fictionalized Serengeti. Another magical place is the Ngorongoro Crater - an extinct volcanic caldera that is home to over 30,000 mammals, including the Big 5 – Elephants, Lions, Leopards, Rhinoceros, and Cape Buffalo. Ngorongoro is also known as the modern Garden of Eden. Early hominid footprints dating back more than 3 million years have been found in the crater. Olduvai Gorge is also part of this majestic part of the world and is one of the most important paleoanthropological localities in the world as it contains sites that have proved invaluable in understanding early human evolution. Another location that Tanzanian Safaris visit is Tarangire National Park, which has the most abundant elephant population in this area as well as the infamous baobab trees.
African Elephants heading to Happy Hour at the local Watering Hole.
How do I get there?
Quite often the tour company you chose, will give you an option to book your own airfare or they will book – of which the cost will be included in your tour. Booking your own flights will allow you to use your miles/points. You will also be able to compare multiple offerings from multiple airlines. If you include it with your tour, many of the companies have an entire department devoted to logistics that has previously reserved flights at wholesale prices. These tickets could be at a much better price than you can book on your own. Whether you book yourself or include it with your tour package – most Tour Operators keep up with your arrival times – as they usually meet you at the airport upon your arrival at the airport.
I am close to Houston – which has a major International Airport (IAH) and is a hub for United Airlines. My goal when traveling long distances is to have as few stopovers as possible. Fewer stopovers equate to fewer flight delays or cancellations. I can fly to Tanzania – Kilimanjaro (JRO) with one stopover. There is a United Flight from Houston to Amsterdam (9 – 10 hours). KLM has a direct flight (8-9 hours) from Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro (8- 9 hours). Be sure to have at a minimum or maybe longer a 4-hour layover in Amsterdam as you will need to go through security as well as stretch your legs and refuel. Other European cities that have direct flights to JRO include Zurich, Switzerland, and Istanbul, Turkey. In order to break up the long journey (and to alleviate any jet lag you may have) to Africa, consider spending a day or two in one of the connecting cities. That way, you will arrive fresh as a daisy in Tanzania.
You will most likely see Lion Prides at every Park or Conservation area during your Safari.
Most often your tour company (If you are flying into JRO) will meet you at the airport and take you by a van or small bus to your hotel in Arusha for your first night in Africa. As most flights from Europe arrive in the evening, you will have a light dinner (Overseas Adventure trips usually include most meals with your tour) – and get a good night’s sleep as the action starts in the morning. After a quite informative and thorough briefing with your guides – depending upon logistics that in turn depend upon where the animals are – you may go for your first game drive that afternoon to the nearby Arusha National Park. Games drives are conducted in 4-wheel drive Land Cruiser Jeeps or via 4X4 Tour Vans. Some are covered – others are not. It depends upon where your Safari is. Yes, your game drives are safe – that is as long as you stay in your vehicle and follow your guide’s instructions. The animals are wild but do not see everyone in the car as separate people. Instead, they see the vehicle as one giant beast that is neither predator nor prey. It is an annoyance to them, one that is easily ignored.
When is the best time of the Year for a Tanzanian Safari?
There is never a bad time of the year to visit, the best time to visit Tanzania depends on what wildlife you would like to spot or when you can get away. The country’s seasons and wildlife numbers are dictated by the rains, so there will always be a slight difference and price depending on when you chose to visit. Tanzania’s headline attraction is the Great Migration, which occurs year-round on the Serengeti.
The driest time of the year (when the animals are most visible) is from July – October. There will be warm dusty days and nice and cool evenings. Tanzania’s green season, which is cooler - between November and March – can be much quieter on the ground, but if you are a birder, the migratory bird species arrive from the Northern hemisphere in the thousands. At this time, you will also be able to see the Great Migration with their newly born calves. I have been to Tanzania twice, once in November, and the other in February. Which one did I prefer – both – as my expectations exceeded anything I could have imagined.
Your home away from home during your visit to the Serengeti.
Where will I sleep and what will I eat?
Your accommodations will be central to your experience and come in a wide variety of styles. Some of us want to camp in the bush, while others prefer a luxury lodge with the comforts of home. There are two types of accommodations, and during your safari – you will probably will have an opportunity to stay over night in both.
Game Lodges. These are as close to a hotel as you can get – but in the wild. They can have anywhere from 10 – 50 rooms and are permanent structures. There is usually a large eating and decking area. You will have hot showers, western-style toilets, plus electricity for some or all of the day. Most lodges offer Wifi service and phone network availability in a limited area of the grounds.
Tented Camps. These are glamping with a difference. They are simple and have everything you need. You can watch the stars come out as you enjoy a sundowner by the campfire, while a 3-course dinner is in the final stages of preparation. These camps are mobile and are moved with the migration to enjoy the best wildlife viewing opportunities. You can hear the animals all around you – especially at night. Don't be surprised if you find an elephant outside your tent when you wake up in the morning. Showers are limited to a bucket of water – which you will find is sufficient. There is a separate area in each tent that utilizes the long drop method for when you need to relieve yourself. Some tented camps have Wifi and phone network signals but don’t count on them as reception is limited due to the remote locations.
Most lodges and camps will prepare 3-course full-service meals served at a community table or a generous buffet, with plenty of salads and vegetables and grilled meats. You will also get treated to picnics when you are on a day-long game drive, as well as platters of delicious homemade snacks and tea-time treats. After a long day in the bush, you will come back to your lodge or tent – where sundowners are served.
Many of the lodges will partner with the local community by helping them set up vegetable gardens and chicken coops to supply the kitchens with fresh, seasonal ingredients. Items that cannot be procured locally – have to be flown in weekly. So, if you have a dietary restriction, let your tour company know when booking, as the chefs will go to the ends of the earth to delight you with their great food.
Maasai Men in traditional clothing doing their jumping dance.
Meeting the Maasai
A visit to a Maasai tribe is an important part of the safari experience. The Maasai is a special group of people in a world focused on urbanization and modernization, they have persisted with their traditional culture. They are known for their distinctive, bright red clothing and beaded jewelry. The Maasai men do a jumping dance known to them as “adumu” in ceremonies, where boys transition to men. The jumping also acts as a way for men to attract brides. The higher he jumps, the more of an eligible bachelor he is.
They are semi-nomadic people who seem to live with one foot in the past and one foot in the present. They subsist off their cattle (milk, meat, and blood). They practice polygamy and depend on witch doctors. They attend college, yet live without electricity or running water. They have Facebook accounts that they access at internet cafes. Usually, a half-day is spent with a Maasai tribe. They are very friendly and curious. They have as many questions about us as we do them.
From my time spent learning about the Maasai and Africa – the biggest lesson is that life’s joys come from relationships, with families and friends – not from material things. You will leave Tanzania enriched by a human experience that, hopefully, will accompany you for the rest of your life.