Home to a fifth of Africa’s large mammals, the Great Migration, hundreds of thousands of flamingos, and much, much more, Tanzania is a prime destination for fans of wild things. More than 2 million zebras, gazelles, and gnu antelope (wildebeest) travel together in and around Serengeti National Park, venturing only temporarily into Kenya when looking for greener pastures on the other side of the alligator-infested Mara River.
“Mostly all of the big the game can be seen the minute you hit the national parks,” says Vaheeda Dawood, director of AlfaZulu Travel & Tours in Dar es Salaam. “Leopards, cheetahs, and lions have to be looked for as they are solitary animals most of the time. Zebras, giraffes, and elephants are an easy find. In fact, in one of the lodges I had zebras walking in the backyard: My own jungle pets!”
A Tanzanian safari is not, however, for the fragile or faint-hearted, particularly if you are travelling on foot or without an armed guard at night. Human tragedies do occur, even though Tanzania is one of the safer places in Africa. So travellers should take precautions. Last year elephants trampled an American doctor who tripped and fell while hiking in Tarangire National Park. And in 2012, thieves robbed a Canadian family in their encampment one night, and a robber killed a Canadian social worker.
Tips for Tanzania
- English is spoken widely, but try a little Swahili to be polite.
- Always respect local laws and customs.
- Seek advice and obtain vaccinations—before arriving.
- Hire a trusted local driver, particularly in wilderness areas.
- Take precautions to avoid mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, and germs.
- Bring cash: “Outside of Dar es Salaam and at smaller establishments, cash in either Tanzanian shillings or U.S. dollars is the preferred method of payment, particularly for hotel bills, domestic airline tickets and entry to national parks.”
Then there are the animals. Just seeing what they get up to can be unsettling. “Tourists have to be ready to see some gruesome sights, like [an animal] killing,” warns Dawood. “Vultures can make it a pretty bloody sight once a kill has been made and some clients I have known were not prepared for this,” she adds. “But it’s part of the life cycle and happens.”
Retirees Ken and Heather Harvey of Toronto found game for sale in local markets and happily ate it as they camped and drove with 13 others on a “voyage of discovery.” The Harveys set out in August. By October, they had arrived to watch the Great Migration and were in awe for about four hours. When they caught up with the herd as it crossed the Mara River from Kenya into Tanzania, they saw some sights that others might find alarming.
“You would see a huge cloud of dust, maybe a mile wide, then hear the animals’ hooves on the hard-packed savannah,” says Ken. “It was like the herd sensed trouble ahead. The older and feeble zebras and wildebeest were the first to cross [and] we could see at [the] water’s edge the crocs pulling multiple animals down.
“Then we followed the Mara River for about 15 kilometres looking for a spot to have lunch,” Harvey recalls. (They had hired a driver who also cooked, and a local tribesman as a guide and armed guard.) “As we made our way from the cliffs down to the river’s edge, there was a terrible smell in the air. A hundred metres ahead there was a dead hippopotamus on a sandbar; it looked like a giant deflated balloon. All the innards had been completely eaten. Dotted along the shoreline there were a lot of animal carcasses that had been washed downstream or were wounded during the crossing.”
Bargain hunters beware
The wilds of Tanzania can be hard on the bargain hunters, particularly if they don’t get expert advice. “Only the local (travel agency) operators know who is the best [to conduct safaris on] specific routes,” Dawood advises. “If the driver is wrong, then the whole safari is a waste of time.”
The cheapest travel options can increase the risk of danger and discomfort, whether you go to witness the migration, chill with animals in the cooling depths of the Ngorongoro Crater, climb the snowy height of Mount Kilimanjaro, or dance by the shallow waters of Lake Victoria, only second in size to North America’s Lake Superior.
Even before reaching Tanzania’s national parks, one must endure long flights. The less you pay, the more connections and delays you will have to endure. (A travel veteran from Ottawa suggests breaking up the trip with a stopover in Europe.) Once in the vast wilderness, expect rough terrain.
Imagine how trekking through a country that is roughly the size of Ontario or British Columbia can increase travel costs. Google Maps calculates that it takes 8 hours and 25 minutes to drive the 647 km from the capital of Dar es Salaam to Arusha in the Serengeti. There are buses, but you can be a 45-minute drive away from Arusha if you fly to Kilimanjaro International Airport.
Tourists would still need ample travel medical insurance to pay for medical care, and if necessary, evacuation to their home country. Make sure to look for coverage that would not exclude a claim if you decide to ride a hot air balloon, helicopter, or other small aircraft over a national park.
The distance from major hospitals will heighten the danger if someone is injured or becomes severely ill. Fortunately, a 40-year-old service operated by Flying Doctors Society of Africa helps to speed up medical evacuations in Tanzania, plus Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. For a mere $15 or $25 US, a tourist may purchase a two-week or two-month membership.
“All our members are entitled to unlimited air ambulance evacuations in case of a medical emergency while in East Africa,” says Daniel Mrema, the marketing assistant for the Arusha office. “Through our 24-hour radio room, we co-ordinate all emergency calls and evacuations, thus guaranteeing…a fast, reliable, and effective response.”
Tourists would still need ample travel medical insurance to pay for medical care, and if necessary, evacuation to their home country. Make sure to look for coverage that would not exclude a claim if you decide to ride a hot air balloon, helicopter, or other small aircraft over a national park. Travellers should also confirm that their safari leader is equipped to provide first aid, and to contact Flying Doctors in an emergency.
Five-star versus budget: One woman’s impressions
The cost of safaris and accommodation can vary substantially. “There are five-star safaris and cheap ones,” says Toronto Star writer Francine Kopun. She has sampled both. The cheapest tour operators will tend to have the worst vehicles, which could make a safari feel like it’s rattling your head off. Kopun’s memory of the pain—amid the wonders of Tanzania and the vacation of a lifetime—is still vivid nearly 20 years later.
“A contact in Nairobi, a Canadian diplomat I think, recommended the best safari in Kenya, in the Maasai Mara National Reserve,” Kopun recalls. “It was very expensive but we decided to splurge, [and] it was worth every penny. The entire experience was very ‘Out of Africa.’
“The accommodations were tents, but they remain to this day the most luxurious accommodations I have ever been in. We were awoken early each morning to go on a game ride. Staff would put some kind of cookie outside our tent. But, if we didn’t get to them quickly enough, the monkeys would take them! There were, I think, three ‘game rides’ a day, and we saw everything—lion prides, hippos, rhinos.”
“Then we went to Arusha [Tanzania] and booked a tour of the Ngorongoro Crater on the cheap. It was awful,” says Kopun. “The jeep that showed up had a plastic bag shoved into the gas tank [in place of a screw cap]. There were no shock absorbers left in it and the road (at the time) was pitted with craters. By the time we were halfway there, I felt like my head had come loose from my brain stem,” she recalls.
“The area between Arusha and the Ngorongoro crater [213 km] had at the time malarial mosquitos (click ‘Health’ tab). We were assured that our tent would be new and great, but it was an old pup tent, circa 1972. It wouldn’t even zip up. We sprung for a hotel room that night. The food served on that safari? Two slices of white bread with butter and a couple of slices of green pepper inside!”
“So Lesson 1: You get what you pay for. Lesson 2: Unless you are animal crazy, three days and two nights of going out in a jeep was enough for me. Lesson 3: Don’t let the monkeys steal your cookies,” warns Toronto writer Francine Kopun.
Some adventurers show no fear
Ken and Heather Harvey have driven and explored many foreign lands since graduation, first on their own and then together after meeting 25 years ago. After months of planning, they stitched together five different expeditions arranged through G-Adventures, a specialist in small group tours that was founded in 1990 by Canadian entrepreneur Bruce Poon Tip.
Reasoning there would be heightened security the year of the World Cup, the Harveys set out fearlessly from South Africa. They travelled in a large Mercedes-Benz truck with a seating area on top, camped in the bush for 70 days of their trip, and stayed in ‘homestays’ or two-star hotels the rest of the time. They were “packed like sheep” when they took a high-speed, but smelly, ferry from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar. “I was excited to be in Zanzibar City as Freddie Mercury of Queen was born there,” says Ken.
Repeatedly, they would risk venturing out at night, ignoring others’ advice. Once, in Zanzibar, Ken went out alone. After an hour of walking he stopped in to see a barber whose only tools were rusty scissors and a razor blade. “Now, here, I felt threatened,” said Harvey. “There were three guys, all packing guns. When I left (after a $20-US haircut), two followed. I thought I was going to mess my pants. I should have stayed away, but my curiosity got the better of me.”
Travel advice from a local expert
It is difficult to find detailed safari recommendations and current prices online or through Canadian tour specialists. So, on the recommendation of a Canadian who has been posted twice to Dar es Salaam, we turned to Vaheeda Dawood. She provided day-by-day plans, with price details for three different standards of accommodation. She also recommended four days in Zanzibar to enjoy the white sands and palm trees, or even whale watching.
“Tented camps are the best [for safaris], but there is a choice for all travellers depending on the budget they have. All accommodations, lodges or tents, have mosquito nets,” says Dawood. “Do not carry food in the tents or you will be sitting with a group of monkeys and his mates in the morning inside the tent: It’s an open invitation.
“Tourists are normally asked not to walk the paths alone at night unless they have an armed Maasai guard. Nothing should be done to annoy the animals as that can lead to a situation. Also, do not to leave the car at any stage in the national parks.
“Most important, I think, is for the safari specialist to get a good driver guide and a nice, open-rooftop safari vehicle; an extended Land Cruiser or Land Rover, as those are pretty comfortable. It’s also very important for the routes to be planned due to the migration because, if not, then some areas of the park can be very dry and that can become a very ‘soresome’ safari!”
Choose your safari guides carefully
Your trip to Tanzania should be planned well in advance if you want the best value and the safest experience, and it should be timed to see the most animals in the best weather. “Some tour operators sell safaris just for the sake of it, and sometimes even cheaper [than others charge],” warns Dawood. “That can lead to an awful time in the parks and can be very boring—ruining the whole experience.” But there are experienced travel agencies that have connections with safari leaders and hotels, both in Tanzania and other countries. “Most of the time, a safari can be a once-in-a-lifetime trip,” says Dawood.
Seeing animals in their natural habitat can make for a fabulous adventure—on any continent. The trek to remote places, and the animals themselves, will add an extra element of danger. We hope our Wild Things series has opened your eyes to the importance of following government-recommended safety and health advice, as well as relying on professional guides who offer suitable equipment and sound safety practices. And always remember to seek out the right travel insurance before a wild adventure like this one. Don’t let the trip of a lifetime be your last.
View the rest of the articles on Ingle International for more travel guides and tips.