Travelled January 2020
We went on our honeymoon to Tanzania in January 2020 and I have spent nearly every day since thinking about how lucky I am to be able to have such a sentence to my name. It’s taken a long (long) time to piece together my notes, photos, thoughts and memories into something that resembles a cohesive blog; namely because for so many reasons I have not had the capacity to think longingly about travel and also because what even is time in a linear sense anymore. Simultaneously, thinking longingly about travel has carried me through these bizarre months and having time to watch the world shift in such a seismic way has brought a new level of appreciation for all the times before when we could just so nonchalantly arrive. Experience. Leave.
As the world opens up, I for one am reaching for all the inspiration I can on the places to absorb once time and travel allow. I’ve also come to realise that I don’t know if there will ever be a “good” time to talk about trivial travels but nonetheless, I hope that this insight into the mesmerising experience of a Tanzania safari can in turn inspire you a little too.
Planning & Safari Company
The planning for this safari excursion could have been an incredibly lengthy affair had we not found the incredible Wayfairer Travel who essentially did all of the hard work for us. We’ve never used a company like this before, namely because I typically adore doing all of the research, but on this occasion, it was the ideal option. We were travelling to an unfamiliar country and were planning to base our time around animals that might enjoy the option of a little snack to go, given half the chance. For reasons of safety, knowledge and all-around ease, Wayfairer were the perfect solution to all our organisational needs, both before we left and whilst we were away.
We compared several safari providers/travel companies, all of whom were offering fairly similar itineraries. We chose Wayfairer for their communication, expert knowledge and friendly and entirely flexible approach to the whole experience. Plus they’re based in Bristol which, as a West Country native, is always a bonus.
Knowing what we know now, I’d say the most important part of the safari is the actual tour company & guide on the ground. We couldn’t have asked for a better experience with ours but it was something that prior to the trip we didn’t give much initial thought to.
Several key factors in determining a “good” safari company would be the knowledge and experience of their guides, the safety of the vehicles and the fair and ethical treatment of the staff they employ.
The company that Wayfairer worked with in Tanzania were Duma Explorer and our guide was the inimitable Isack. More on him later. Duma Explorer has been established for 20 years and every one of the employees we met went above and beyond to give us the best experience possible. I cannot rate, or thank, them highly enough.
I would absolutely use Wayfairer again for another trip focused on exploration. All we had to do was get our appropriate vaccines, malaria medications, zoom lens and then, with our best safari-friendly clothes packed into our best small-plane-friendly soft sided duffel bags, turn up on time. The whole process made for the smoothest of safari experiences.
Our final itinerary for our two (ish) weeks in Tanzania looked like this:
Day 1 Arrival into Kilimanjaro. Overnight Rivertrees Country Inn.
Day 2-3 Lake Manyara Safari. Lake Manyara Serena Safari Lodge
Day 4 Morning activities. Drive to Karatu. Plantation Lodge
Day 5 Ngorongoro Crater Safari. Plantation Lodge.
Day 6 Game Drive to Serengeti. Chaka Camp
Day 7-8 Serengeti Safari. Chaka Camp.
Day 10-14 Zanzibar. Matemwe Retreat.
Day 15 Drive to/explore Stone Town. Zanzibar Serena Hotel.
Day 16 Fly home.
We flew overnight from London to Addis Ababa with Ethiopian airlines where we had a four-hour layover before boarding a flight to Kilimanjaro. Here’s what I’d do next time: fly 45 minutes from London to Amsterdam and then head directly to Kilimanjaro from there. It was probably slightly more expensive but to say Addis Ababa is lacking in facilities is being polite and stopping there for longer than necessary isn’t something I’d jump (nor crawl…slither…reluctantly roll) to do again.
I dread flights more and more these days and so the moment when the plane seemed to drop through a cloud on approach to Kilimanjaro causing a cacophony of shrieks from the cabin was a particularly cute moment for me and my heart rate. To our delight, Kilimanjaro airport was unlike anything we’ve ever been to. Once you’ve touched down and stepped out into the immediate and all-encompassing blanket of heat, it is but a simple hop, skip and jump from the steps of the plane across the tarmac and into the terminal. Not one other plane around! Just us and the other neutral-clothing-clad travellers ready to hit (or hike) the great open road.
We were taken from the airport to acclimatise at the Rivertrees Country Inn where we lazed by the pool watching hornbills fly overhead as monkeys swang from the branches below. Seeing hornbills in the wild was, well, wild. We took some blurry photos and excitedly asked one of the staff members to identify these magical creatures and he responded “hornbill” with about as much nonchalance as if someone had asked me to identify the common pigeon on the streets of London.
Aside from our first wildlife encounters, other highlights from our brief stay included wood-fired pizza, Tom’s first taste of local beer and the most incredible passion fruit juice that was served at breakfast the following morning. Passion Fruit juice is a common occurrence in Tanzania but none of the ones that followed compared to that first offering which was essentially nectar and one of the best things I have ever tasted. At the time I tragically only had one glass because “sugar” and oh if only I could have had a glimpse into the months to follow I would have consumed litres without a care in the world.
Always drink the passion fruit juice! You never know if it’s going to be that good again.
Dressed in our safari best and ready for the days ahead we were warmly greeted that morning by our guide for the week, Isack Msuya. During our time together we would soon learn that we could not have asked for a better companion during our first foray into Tanzania. A man whose knowledge and wisdom you’re immediately in awe of and whose words and presence you want to wholly consume in the hope that they will not only rub off on but better shape you.
The only thing more impressive than his 20+ years of Sarafi guide experience is his vision; he proudly explained how integral eyesight is and what a blessing it is to have it function so fully. I admitted that without contact lenses I would be unable to see beyond the safari vehicle window. “I’m sorry” he earnestly replied before pointing out a chameleon crossing the road in front of us. He expertly swerved explaining how we must protect all nature, great and small. We eagerly nodded, agreed and as we turned to get a better look of the triumphant lizard, it was soon apparent that the car behind possessed neither Isack’s sentiments nor laser-sharp eyesight.
Recognising our shocked faces in the rear-view mirror Isack, never phased, wisely proclaimed “circle of life.”
“Circle of life” we meekly agreed.
Our first two days were spent exploring Lake Manyara which is where we had some incredible elephant encounters. I really didn’t know what to expect when it came to the animals, would they just be hanging out at the side of the roads like sheep on the M4? Well yes, sometimes. However, Lake Manyara is a national park and the guide who greeted us with “Welcome to Jurassic Park!” was not wrong. Behind the gates is the most incredible protected landscape where woodlands and water come together to provide an incredible atmosphere for the wildlife to thrive. The most amazing thing is seeing all these creatures co-exist side by side. Just some zebra chilling with the wildebeest next to some warthogs whilst gazelles graze close by. I’m really trying to avoid overusing the Lion King stereotype but but but it’s just like it! Incredible!
During safari time, prepare for a lot of standing and quietly watching. I hadn’t really considered this much before our trip but the majority of the days are spent in a relaxed kind of silence just, well, being. I think it helped that unlike a lot of other guides, Isack relied solely on intuition for animal spotting rather than the radio system. It was actually a surprisingly zen venture and incredibly mindful, which are two words that I probably would have previously not associated with safaris. As it happens, for INFJ me there is truly nothing better than watching all these amazing creatures with no soundtrack but the great outdoors in a world that feels so utterly different from the one that you thought you knew.
If you’re looking for an entertainment/chatter filled honeymoon with plenty of alone time, a safari probably isn’t the best option. However if you find yourself with someone who will happily spend their days alternating between observational silence and elaborately narrating the imaginary lives of the animals around you, I couldn’t recommend it more.
I couldn’t believe how close we came to the elephants and how magnificent (and quiet) they are in the wild. We tried and failed to spot the elusive leopards of the area; another incentive for a return trip, in case we needed an extra one.
Our hotel for the Lake Manyara stay was the Serena and, as with all the places we stayed, we often found ourselves to be some of the only ones there. January was the perfect time of year to visit. The weather was beautiful, and warm with minimal crowds. The infinity pool at the Serena was a particular highlight; we enjoyed a day there in the 30-degree sun after a planned walking safari was cancelled and promptly declared never to spend January in the UK again.
The Ngorongoro Crater is one of those places that has to be seen to be believed. I appreciate this isn’t a great opener for a written paragraph but stick with it. After driving across the Tanzanian countryside it feels like all of a sudden the ground slips away and what’s left is this otherworldly ecosystem, encompassed by clouds and bordered by peaks that fill the landscape in a perfect panorama.
The drive down the hillside terrain into the crater is nature’s answer to a rollercoaster and once on the crater floor the expanse that felt entirely visible from above disappears into the horizon, the wildlife bowl now yours for the observation, like a minute ant discovering some lost and distant world in a past time.
This was our first encounter with Big Cats (lions) and it was every bit as emotional as I thought it might be. I think one too many BBC Earth documentaries have led me to believe that lions are always going to be hunting for a snack but we didn’t see that at all. In fact, we saw no drama of the hunting kind at all throughout our trip. Going solely on what we saw and therefore it must be factually true, Lions are in fact just oversized house cats who spend the majority of their hours curled up, asleep.
One of the most special moments of the trip happened in the Ngorongoro Crater and that was when we spotted four black rhinos, an elusive species who are classed as critically endangered. Thanks to impressive conservation efforts, their numbers are rising but the tragic impact of poaching is still there to be seen, not just here but throughout the country.
A flamboyance of flamingos. A dazzle of zebra. We weren’t short on exceptional adjectives to describe Tanzania but the official collective nouns truly describe how magnificent it is to be surrounded by all. Of. The. Animals.
Our base for two nights here was The Plantation Lodge, named after the coffee plantation it was built upon, which had some of the most immaculate and luscious grounds I think I’ve ever seen. A bumpy trip off the main road leads to the gated entrance where we were met with warm welcomes and cool juice drinks. No big cats to be seen here but the resident small ones brought (almost) as much joy. I wasn’t sure how vegan eating would go down in Tanzania but everywhere we stayed made such an effort and seemed really happy to learn along the way too. This was also the place I discovered vanilla tea which promptly lead me to question how had I wasted 30 years of life not drinking vanilla tea?
The Serengeti! The place I had heard so much about and yet still didn’t know what to expect from. The drive to the Serengeti takes us back along the ridge of the Ngorongoro Crater and then beyond, to the dirt tracks and grassy plains that lie to the west. Along the way, we pass wildebeest on their migration, grazing giraffes looking for lunch and the occasional other vehicle. Some transport supplies to the many camps that lie within the national park, some too are tourists taking it all in.
I think it’s hard trying to wrap your head around the sheer scale of the land and when you have absolutely no idea where you are; it feels absolutely impossible to understand how anyone knows where they’re going once out in the endless plains. Isack would magically navigate around the area finding different hidden treasures each time. From bat-eared foxes and mongoose to jackals and ostrich; the Serengeti is an out of this world, out of body experience for animal lovers.
Then we get to the tree-climbing lions. Isack had regaled us with tales of such lions and this unique behaviour and as we were partway into some casual lion mating observation, he announced quietly we were leaving and started driving towards the trees perhaps 500m away. Once we approached the trees the engine was off, a sure sign something good was about to happen, and we were instructed to look up. Sure enough, there was an actual sleeping lion. In a tree. I didn’t know what was more impressive in that moment; the lion or the aforementioned mega vision of Isack. My basically blind-without-contact-lenses self could not even begin to comprehend how he had spotted this with his bare, bare eyeballs from such a distance away when at any given moment it is a miracle if I can distinguish a lizard from a leaf. There’s definitely something to be said about use it or lose it when it comes to human functionality; less time looking at close-up screens! More time lion spotting in the Serengeti!
Another reason that we lucked out with guide Isack is that his knowledge of birds was as comprehensive as his perfect vision. Truly a believer in all creatures great and small, he pointed out every fascinating species to us and the trusty Birds of East Africa bible was on hand for any that needed further investigation. My favourite spot was the sleeping Verreaux’s Eagle Owl at Lake Manyara, so casually and peacefully perched in a tree without a care in the world.
What’s better than a picnic lunch? A picnic lunch on safari. Each day Isack was armed with our midday feast from whichever hotel was hosting us; this ranged from packed sandwiches and snacks to a full-on spread of hot food. Never without a tablecloth or flask of strong Africafe, we feasted in fields, dined during rain whilst watching hippos and pitched up atop of the safari vehicle whilst on the way to look for cheetahs. I was delighted that one of the days comprised of one of my all-time favourites – groundnut stew. Although we rarely finished the abundance of food that was presented to us, we were delighted with the thought that had gone into these memorable meals.
Speaking of Cheetahs…
It feels unfair to all the other animals to say that cheetahs were my favourite. So instead I’ll just say look at those tiny fluffy heads and soft, soft, spotted feet.
And huge teeth.
If you are unsure about whether camping in the middle of the aforementioned wildlife is a good idea, I am here to tell you yes. Yes it is. It is in fact such a good idea I wish we had spent more of our nights under a canopy and stars (oh the stars!) with the Serengeti chorus ready to regale and the ever-present small threat of a hyena perpetually thrown in for good measure. We stayed at Chaka Camps and were treated like the royalty we are not from the moment we arrived. Each morning we had a wake-up call featuring hot beverages and at night we were greeted with hot water bottles on the bed to help with the evening chill. Breakfast was plentiful (I can promise you that you will not go hungry on a safari) and dinners relaxed. It helped that during our stay we went from being the only guests to then being joined by only one other adult family. The staff, particularly Justin and Innocent, went above and beyond for us. From keeping us company around the “bush TV” (fire) and swapping music recommendations, to the bringing of hot water for a bush shower (which is both wildly fun and a wild experiment in washing long hair with limited water), to the guards who patrolled the camp overnight ensuring the lions did not sleep too close tonight. I think back so fondly on our time at Chaka Camp and cannot wait to hopefully do as the other family did and one day bring everyone along to experience the wonder as well.
A fond farewell
Following in the footsteps and flights of many others before us, once our Tanzania safari experience ended we boarded two tiny planes to whisk us away to Zanzibar for the remainder of the trip. We waved goodbye to Isack and flew out into the clouds. An initial birds-eye view of the Serengeti below beckoned complete with an ever-present reminder amongst the sprawling plains below of how inconspicuous we really are. Such great heights. Such affirming perspective.
It’s so hard not to fall into cliches but I’ve truly never experienced anything like a Tanzania Safari. It was such a privilege to visit and we couldn’t have asked for a better way to celebrate the beginning of married life. Tanzania is a place that captures your mind and keeps your heart. Turns out, every insufferable person who you’ve heard say that they were “changed by Africa” was probably onto something all along.