In the jungle, the mighty jungle…
An East African safari should undoubtedly be on any traveller’s bucket list. I consider myself very fortunate to have the opportunity to return, for the 3rd time, to this naturally diverse part of the world. Whenever I visit this place, I find myself at a loss for words (yes, ironic for someone who loves to write about travel!). But I’ve established that this happens because even most eloquent texts fall short of relating the awesome thrill and raw beauty of this place, and because no amount of photographs or detailed descriptions can truly portray the feeling of actually being in East Africa.
Choosing where to go: Tanzania, Kenya or the others?
The East African Region comprises of 5 countries: Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda, each one offers a unique wildlife experience. Rwanda and Uganda are famous for their endangered gorilla population and dense, remote rainforests; while Tanzania and Kenya offer a chance to see the Big 5 in a “Lion King” like setting. If its your first/only safari experience its easy to say that Kenya or/and Tanzania are the must do’s. Having visited both Tanzania and Kenya in the past, and with only little over a week of holiday time for my most recent East African adventure, I had to choose between the two. Covering both countries in such a short time is too hectic and involves a lot of time lost in internal travel. So after much consideration, we decided to go with Tanzania’s Northern Safari Circuit. For my readers who also may need to choose, here’s why:
- While Kenya is also beautiful and more accessible, its popularity renders it crowded during holiday season. In many hotspots the “wild” experience is ruined by vehicular congestion, obnoxiously loud tourists and the resultant unwanted elements, which crop up in your photographs and videos.
- Furthermore, in my personal opinion, Tanzania’s Serengeti experience trumps Kenya’s Masai Mara, plainly based on sheer magnitude (Serengeti is about 9 times larger than Mara).
- Tanzania also has a variety of other exciting adventure options like: Ngorongoro (a national safari park inside the crater of an extinct volcano), Mt. Kilimanjaro (a spectacular snow covered, dormant volcano which you can climb), Olduvai Gorge (amongst the world’s most important anthropological sites that helped better understand human evolution), exotic spice island and scuba hotspot- Zanzibar.
- Timing is important while choosing between the two countries- Our trip was in January, the dry period after the “short rains”- a time of fantastic weather, which sees the famous wildebeest migration travel to southern Serengeti, from Kenya, following rich, green pastures.
With more land devoted to national parks and game reserves than any other wildlife destination in the world, Tanzania is one of Africa’s finest safari destinations and has much to offer. The Marine national parks close to Zanzibar and Mafia Island in the Eastern Tanzania, offer PADI certified scuba opportunities for marine life lovers. Western Tanzania is home to the endangered wild chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains and to Katavi’s hippos. Southern Tanzania’s Selous and Ruaha national parks offer tourists a chance to enjoy their vastness and wildlife, off the beaten track. The most popular tourist region is the Northern Tanzanian Safari circuit, which bids the best chance to see the all of the Big 5, fairly quickly. Here you can have the opportunity to hike up Mount Kilimanjaro, and view fantastic game at the Serengeti, Nogorongoro, Lake Manyara and Taringire National parks, all within few hours drive of each other.
Our trip Highlights
- Days 1 &2: Lake Manyara national park
Lake Manyara National park is a good starting point for safaris in the northern circuit. It is the closest park to Arusha International Airport and is en route to Ngorongoro and the Serengeti. The game viewing circuit is compact but it will get you into the safari mood. Use this as the place to get acquainted with: your photography equipment, a few of the Big 5, the flora, the fauna, the people and the terrain of East Africa.
o TNT recommends- Hotel: Lake Manyara Serena Lodge: A well priced, well appointed living option. Spacious & clean rooms, attentive service. Great location (especially enjoyed the infinity pool) overlooking the lake but the hotel a 15-minute drive away from the entrance of the park. The extensive buffet had tons of vegetarian options and the nightly entertainment makes it great for families. We spent New Year’s Eve here and enjoyed the excellent African feast, the champagne, the music, the dancing and the diverse show the hotel staff put on with local performers!
- Days 3-7: Serengeti national Park
There’s only one-way to describe this massive national park: simply spectacular! The Serengeti is the real thing: a jungle in all its majesty, which outdoes whatever you imagined of it. True to its name (meaning “endless plains”), at nearly 15,000 sq km, there is wilderness as far as the eye can see, ensuring that no 2 game drives need to be the same. There is a lot of ground to cover so no time is ever enough but 3-4 full days of game driving ought to give you a good chance of seeing all of the Big Five. Although the Serengeti is famous for all the action associated with migration season, which sees 1.5 million wildebeest, 250,000 zebras and their predators cross the lands, the non-migrating animals like the elephants and big cats provide plenty of thrilling game viewing opportunities all through the year.
o TNT recommends- Hotel: Serena’s Mbuzi Mawe Tented Camp.5 star-like luxurious tents make up this ideally located (on one of the main annual migration corridors) wilderness camp. Guarded only by natural granite rock towers, open to the roaming animals, the excitement of living here is escalated by the hotel’s policy of having an armed ranger accompany every guest who ventures out of his or her room after sunset. The staff is very helpful and the meals offer variety, but remember that the expectations of the quality & taste of the food needs to be put in perspective, to the remoteness of the location. An on-site swimming pool is soon to come and the in-tent massage option is blissful.
- Days 8-10: Ngorongoro National Park.
Ngorongoro is the icing on the cake. No park, in my safari experience, offers such a high concentration of animals with such unusually spectacular views. Get your camera ready, because even amateur photographers can take shots worthy of the National Geographic magazine. Where else can you get a picture of a pride of lions escaping the heat in the shadow of your van, while long-tusked elephants graze 200 feet behind them, against a lake filled with flamingos, with the crater wall and vast blue sky as added backdrop effects? The park is relatively small and less “raw” than the Serengeti, so the chances of you seeing wildlife up close are significantly greater. Unlike the Serengeti, the animals are better acquainted with vehicles and don’t bolt as soon as one approaches them!
o TNT recommends- Hotel: The Manor at Ngorongoro Elewana Collection. This hotel is one of Elewana collection’s 8 boutique luxury properties. It is truly unique in the East African safari circuit, oozing old world charm with impeccable hospitality. Set atop a 1500 acre coffee estate it is reminiscent of Cape-Dutch style architecture and has only 10 cottages with 20 luxurious suites. It is about a 30-minute drive from the crater’s entrance and is a perfect end to a safari trip, as it lets you feel removed from “roughness” of jungle, but not far away from accessing it. Excellent staff, personalized service and food that is comparable to that which is served in some of the world best restaurants, only adds to its setting and gorgeous interiors. The main mansion area made me feel like I had a personal invitation to some Royal’s lodge. There is a small spa, which is adequate, and a pool you can relax in. I suggest spending a day enjoying the hotel itself- have breakfast served in the study or go for a horse ride at sunset. A definite must visit.