Tanzania: Parks and Paradise

Inside the Ngorongoro

It’s true that our initial introduction to Tanzania was less than positive, but I had my camera equipment back and I was prepared to continue along our Tanzanian journey with a positive attitude. Sometimes a bounce back from tragedy can renew your spirit or at least make you appreciate everything a little more and it certainly serves as a reminder of the inherent risks of traveling in foreign countries. In this post I will offer some suggestions about organizing a safari on the fly, make a recommendation of the operator we went with, and write briefly about where we went and what we saw. The last portion of this post I will dedicate to the two weeks we spent in Zanzibar and the excellent guesthouse we called home during our time in Jambiani. However, in an attempt to expedite my tardy blog posts from Africa, I will try to make the last couple of entries text-sparing and image-heavy… I hope you don’t mind!

Lets get on with it then…

There can be no doubt that one of the main motivations for us deciding to visit Africa, and Tanzania in particular, was to see as much of its incredible wildlife as possible. We had already visited Etosha in Namibia, Chobe and the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and Hwange in Zimbabwe. These are all elite parks and should be a first choice if searching for wildlife in those respective countries. But we were still itching for more animal encounters and what better place to scratch that itch than in Tanzania’s national park Meccas of the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater. However, in the aforementioned countries you can organize safaris or even self-drive your way through the parks all on your own and on a modest budget. This is not so much the case in Tanzania. As far as I know, you are not permitted to self drive in the Serengeti nor the Ngorongoro Conservation Area- and even if you could, it wouldn’t eliminate the requisite and exorbitant park fees which can be as high as $300 (US) per day.

Serengeti lioness

But if you want to keep costs down I do have some tips that will allow you to do just that. First, do not book your safari in advance, rather ‘shop around’ once you get to Arusha (the capital city of safari-land). You can often get far better rates or be in a advantageous bargain situation if you join other people and if you wait until you are there you may be the ones to fill-up the last spots on a safari that is leaving straight away. Another reason for not booking in advance is the simple fact that the smaller tour operators are not well represented on booking sites. Some small safari operators, such as the one we went with, operate out of a modest shop and do not advertise online. You can still do your research and check reviews on these operators on sites such as TripAdvisor but you are bound to get a lower price just because they want your business. Secondly, it will be cheaper yet if you share your safari with others- the more people in your truck, the cheaper the individual rate will be. But make sure you are compatible with the others in your group! The third money saving tip is this: go camping! Not only will you save a boatload of cash by going on a camping safari over an accommodated one, you will experience these parks the way it was intended… in the outdoors! Nothing is better than hearing the calls of nature while snug in your tent or answering the call of nature with prowling hyenas a few meters away! Yes, seriously! Fourth money saving suggestion would be to travel during the ‘off-season’. The off-season coincides with the months when the great migration of wildebeests is at a low and the probability of precipitation is at a high. We went in the beginning of April which is low season and we saw plenty of wildebeests and nary a day of rain during our week on safari. The last advice I can offer is this… sharpen your bargaining tools! A lot of people are put off by the ‘fly-catchers’ or tour touts that are swarming throughout the city of Arusha. We joked around with them quite a bit and if you can maintain that positive sense of humour with them then that whole nasty experience becomes less of a chore. Many of them can actually steer you in the direction of a good deal as well and always know which companies have a couple of vacant spots on their trucks. When you meet with the operators, tell them your budget and be firm on it. A day of pounding the streets of Arusha can save you hundreds of dollars.

This Serengeti leopard sighting completed our African Big 5

Goofin' around with the Great Masai gang

So, who did we go with and what did we see and do? We decided on a budget company that I can’t recommend enough… Great Masai Adventure. They are a family business located down a side street off Boma Road and man were they fantastic. Lota, Sidi, Eric and everyone at GMA are so nice and their professional hospitality is nothing short of impeccable. Sidi, our guide and driver, and Eric, our cook, were so much fun to be with and each did their job above and beyond our expectations. If you want an unforgettable safari experience and are on a budget, look no further than Great Masai Adventure. Your welcome! The first safari we took with them was a 4N/5D camping safari that took in the Tarangire NP, the Serengeti NP, and the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area. The guiding, the food, the accommodation (one night was at the Panorama camp where we stayed in mud ‘igloos’), the wildlife and nature were all exceptional. We were so enchanted by our time spent in the Ngorongoro Crater (not that we weren’t by the Serengeti or Tarangire) that we booked an additional 1N/2D trip with GMA the day after we got back from our first trip out to the parks. We spent one day in between our two tours in Arusha where we recruited a couple more budget backpackers to come with us, and in return, GMA charged only $150 for each of us for the next 2 days in the crater. Great people, great company! So what did we see? Well, in terms of wildlife and nature we saw simply too much to write about. I will let the following photographs paraphrase that for me, but, as per usual, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but they don’t do justice to the actual experience of visiting these majestic parks.

Zebras among the Baobabs in Tarangire NP

Lion cub, Serengeti NP

Leopard, Serengeti NP

Hippo pool, Serengeti

Male lion, Serengeti

Serengeti scene

Another Serengeti lioness

Scenes from the Serengeti and Crater

Bull elephant, Ngorongoro

Wildebeest, Ngorongoro

Another bull in the crater

After a quick stopover in Moshi for a fleeting glimpse of Mt. Kilimanjaro, our last 2 weeks in Tanzania were spent on the idyllic island of Zanzibar- a short ferry ride from Dar. For the first three days we just explored the labyrinth-style streets of Stone Town, Zanzibar’s economic and cultural capital. It’s quite a nice town to explore with friendly people, good food, strong coffee and plenty of historical sites and amazing architecture to check out. Then it was off to the beaches. It was our initial plan to beach hop around the island for 10 days, but instead we got very comfortable in a single location on the stretch of beach known as Jambiani- thanks to some fantastic home cooking, stunning accommodation, and a wonderful hostess named Lisa (along with her 11 cats and 3 dogs).

Enjoying the beaches around Jambiani

We found the Mango Beach House after being dropped off in Jambiani and walking along its stretch of sand. Many of the accommodation options were closed during the off-season but we happened upon the best and it was open for business. Mango Beach House wouldn’t normally fall within our backpacker budget, but it was low season and Lisa gave us a rate that we couldn’t refuse. The guesthouse is immaculately decorated with the objects that Lisa has accumulated over the years of combing the beaches and the whole place feels like an art gallery. What made our stay even more memorable, and the main reason we stayed for 10 nights, was that Lisa took us out on daily sightseeing trips around the island. This was an invaluable way to really see the island and with insider knowledge to boot! She took us to the national park, low tide swimming at some secret spots, and so many beautiful beaches that we wouldn’t have seen if it wasn’t for her. If you are looking for a low-key local beach experience then you can’t go wrong with Jambiani, and if you’re in Jambiani then I highly recommend staying at Mango Beach House. Tell Lisa and the guys we say hi! While Zanzibar is an island that is feeling the pressure that mass tourism has placed upon it, and one of those places you wish you would have had the pleasure of visiting 15 years ago, it remains a worthwhile destination to check out or maybe even linger in for a couple of weeks. After a few weeks of touring around mainland Tanzania, you will definitely appreciate it! We spent a couple more nights in Stone Town before catching an early morning flight back to Namibia via Nairobi and Jo’berg. Our second visit to Namibia and our return to South Africa would be the last leg of our trip to Africa. There would be some amazing experiences yet to come. One more blog post to go…

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Chobe & Hwange… our way!

A lion cub crosses our path in Hwange N.P., Zimbabwe

We had been in Africa for more than a month now and just completed a three-week overland camping safari that took us from Cape Town to Victoria Falls- a distance of more than 5,600 kilometers. The past three weeks had been hectic with little time to plan or prepare for our solo travels to come. Finally we had some time to do just that. We stayed on the Zimbabwean side of Vic Falls just one more afternoon after our tour had ended. There we went to the vast handicraft market to see what we could get in exchange for our two pillows that we had bought to make our nights camping a little more comfortable (our tour leader had previously told us that we could barter our unwanted stuff in the market of Victoria Falls once we were done with it… a fun and interesting solution we figured!) All the hawkers were pretty happy to see us and our pillows and the offers began immediately. After some time viewing each and everyone’s stall the negotiations were on. Hyo Jin warmed up to a giraffe made from bashed metal. We were happy to unload our two bulky pillows, but now a slightly scaled-down version of the world’s tallest animal was strapped to the side of my wife’s backpack for the duration of our trip! Hmmm. It was fun interacting with everyone at the market though. Other than the market and of course the falls themselves, there is little reason to linger in the town of Victoria Falls. It is a very expensive place to sleep and eat- especially for what you get in return. We were joined with one other girl from our tour and together the three of us walked from Zimbabwe to Zambia that evening, admiring the falls from the bridge as we passed. After clearing customs it was a short taxi ride into Livingstone. Livingstone is a much nicer base to explore the falls from with more amenities and sleeping options, at least for budget backpackers anyways. We checked into Fawlty Towers, a well-run backpackers in a convenient location in Livingstone. It has many nice dorms and private rooms, a self-catering kitchen, a great pool and bar, and when the Internet is on, it’s on! A nice place to unpack your bag for a few days, relax, and get a plan going. Our place offered free shuttles every morning to the Falls which we capitalized on once to check them out on the Zambian side. The falls are impressive from both sides but we did prefer the Zambian views over the Zimbabwean ones (refer to the last blog post for more details). Our backpackers was just a few shops down from the excellent Cafe Zambezi restaurant which we took advantage of on several occasions when we didn’t feel like cooking. Highly recommended.

Elephants making a splash, Chobe N.P., Botswana

After a couple days of rest and planning we were restless again. We were in Africa and we wanted to see some more animals. On our overland tour we had only enjoyed one morning safari and one boat cruise in Chobe National Park, and being in Livingstone we were still only 100 kilometers away. It was an easy decision on where to go. We caught a shared taxi to the border (about one hour and $5 for the both of us) and then a 10-minute ferry across the river and we were back in Botswana. We were at our accommodation at the Thebe River Safaris (a nice campground offering cheap safaris and river cruises) by noon, set up camp, went into Kasane to get some pula, and then booked our evening cruise along the Chobe River. The river cruise was once again beautiful and this time there were about 20 less of us on the boat. Our first sunset cruise was probably more spectacular in terms of wildlife numbers, but we still saw more than a hundred elephants, many hippos, and lots of other wildlife along the river’s banks to keep our excitements piqued and our cameras clicking. There is no such thing as a bad river cruise on the Chobe River. Back at the campsite we ran into another Nomad tour doing the exact trip as the one we had just completed the week before. This was a stroke of good luck for us. We didn’t bring along sleeping mats and our surrogate Nomad family was there to help us out. Once a Nomad family member, always a Nomad family member! The next morning we woke while it was still well dark, our morning safari began at 5:45.

 

Up close with a lioness, Chobe N.P.

While our second river cruise wasn’t quite as good as our first, our second land safari blew our first away! We saw so many more animals this time than just a week prior, but that’s just how the dice roll with nature. We saw many lions on this game drive and at least a hundred more elephants. It was just amazing at times how much ‘life’ was going on around us. We saw plenty of all the park’s grazers and most of Chobe’s predators as well, although we still hadn’t seen our leopard. Only the leopard had kept us from completing the African “Big 5” checklist (which are the lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo, and that elusive leopard). A spectacular morning game drive though to say the least. We were very happy with our decision to return to Chobe and now felt content with the time we had spent there. We were also very pleased with how inexpensively we could do it on our own. A safari in Africa can still be done on a backpacker’s budget. When we got back to our campsite there were a bunch of Rangers around attempting to dispose of a black mamba snake that had wandered through. They shot it multiple times until it hung lifeless from a branch. It was a beautiful snake, but the Rangers explained that they are far too venomous to keep alive in such close proximity to humans. That was the second snake we watched being put down by Rangers (the first was a spitting cobra in Etosha) and I still think that a greater effort could be made to keep these animals alive. Anyways, it was time to push forward and head back to Zimbabwe once again, we still had plans to visit one more park before returning to Zambia.

 

Hwange waterhole scene

A couple hours after leaving Kasane and we were back in Vic Falls. In town we befriended a very kind local who offered us the use of his 4X4 for the next couple of days so we could go on a self-drive safari to Hwange National Park, a three-hour (200 kilometer) drive south of Victoria Falls. We left early the next morning and were at the park boundary by 9 o’clock. But before we even entered the gate we encountered of first pride of lions. We watched as eight lions (including our first two lion cubs) crossed the road right in front of us (we had to slow the truck to allow them to do so) and stroll through the grasses to rest under the shade of a tree on the other side. We spent about an hour with them before carrying on into the park proper. We had later learned that we were once again very lucky since no lions had been spotted in or around the park for the past few days. We spent the rest of the day self-driving through the Park, searching for more animals. Each national park we had visited thus far had been so different. Namibia’s Etosha is predominantly dry except for the few waterholes scattered throughout the Park. Botswans’s Chobe on the other other hand is lush and forested thanks to the constant flow of the river that runs through it. Hwange is a cross between the two and at times even resembles the savannahs of the Serengeti. It is a nice blend of open spaces and thick forests, trees and grasslands. Self-driving is a completely different experience than being a passive passenger on a guided safari. You now have to find the wildlife and when you do it’s you who gets to decide how close you can approach it (for better or for worse). We probably missed out on some animals that the trained eyes of a guide might have seen, but I think we did pretty good and learned from our past safaris well. We saw all the park’s major mammals except for the very rarely seen cheetahs, and, yet again, the leopards. Even though we saw each and every species before, it still felt new and exciting because of the new landscapes we saw them in, and of course because we were the ones who found them. In the mid-afternoon we ran into an eccentric old man named Vincent who tended to one of the Park’s campsites. He was an interesting character who tipped us off about the location of a large male lion in the area. The male was a only a few hundred meters away but already fast asleep for the day somewhere amidst the grasses. We couldn’t wait for the cooler evening hours for him to move again (you are not allowed to drive after dark in the Park and we needed to get back to our camp), but the lead was a good place to start early the next morning.

 

This one nearly had a tire track tattoo

We were waiting at the Park gate the next morning when it opened and drove the 60 kilometers back towards Vincent’s campsite, allthewhile passing giraffes and zebras and the like. The whole time in Hwange we only saw a handful of other safari vehicles in the Park- it was after all low season (everywhere we had been in Africa so far) and Hwange does not see near the numbers of tourists as some of Africa’s more prestigious parks. Yet as we neared Vincent’s campsite we could see some other trucks (mainly research vehicles) circling the vicinity and we knew they must have been looking for the same male we had come to find. It didn’t look like any of the vehicles were having any luck and neither were we for that matter. We were almost out of time for the day (we had to be out of the park gate by 10 o’clock or risked being charged another full day) when we decided to try a small sandy track that forked off the main one. The sun was bright in the sky when my eyes strained to adjust to something in the shadows before us. Unsure of what it was, I instinctively hit the brakes. And lucky I did! Not three meters on the road in front of us, sleeping in the shade of a tree, was the large male we had been looking for. I couldn’t believe that I had almost hit the thing! It was yet again fortunate that just moments before we had stopped to admire a hornbill and I had not yet gathered up much speed. Anyways, there he was. And he remained dead asleep as the dust from our sudden stop settled around him. I maneuvered our truck into a better viewing position to the side of him (about 3 meters away), and only then did he wake. He stared at us for a few moments (completely unbothered by our presence) and moved to another tree on the other side of the track. And there we watched him for only a few minutes longer… it really was time to go. Once we reunited with the main road, we could still see the same trucks we saw earlier. Still circling, still searching for the male lion we just nearly ran over!

The beautiful male we found, Hwange N.P.

On our own we visited two national parks, each within easy reach from Victoria Falls. More importantly, we did them in a very inexpensive way. In both parks we saw a staggering amout of animals. Our time in Chobe cost us under $200 with camping, game viewing, and public transportation for the both of us. Hwange was only slightly more expensive simply because we had to pay for our own fuel and we opted not to camp. Either way, we had great experiences- experiences done our way. After we returned our truck we hopped across the border again, back to Livingstone. A couple days later we would take the ‘Golden Jubilee’ train from Livingstone to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital (a ride that was supposed to take 10 hours and actually took 18). There we would have to wait until Hyo Jin’s visa was processed for our next destination. Malawi here we come!

My own private waterhole, Hwange N.P.