We booked this trip in 2019, and paid our non-refundable deposit just before the Covid-19 pandemic saw the world fall apart. If there is something positive we can point to as a result of the pandemic it may be that African tour companies are now more willing to agree to refundable deposits. But back then, we were on the line for a significant amount of money and thankfully the tour company was willing to let us push back our trip until it was safer to travel; we were not disappointed!
We arranged our African adventure through Timbuktu Travel who handled all of the arrangements for our trip other than our flights to and from Calgary. Fantastic communication with them and we would certainly recommend them if you are looking at a trip to Africa. However, we discovered that our actual Tanzania tour operator was Albatros Travel, which is a Danish company with an office in Arusha. As our “boots on the ground” operator we could not have been happier with them (and our driver/guide, Masha, was outstanding) but I do wonder whether we might have saved money by booking with them directly rather than going through Timbuktu. In any event, to give you an idea of what an 8-day safari combined with six days on the Zanzibar Archipelago might cost, expenses for the two of us were $22k CAD ($17.5k US$, 16k€) for the Timbuktu tour, $3.5k for round trip airfare Calgary to Tanzania, and another $1k for additional expenses (tips, meals in Zanzibar, drinks, misc.). The tour costs included all accommodation in Tanzania, Zanzibar and on Mafia Island, most meals (dinner was not included with our Zanzibar accommodation), all safari expenses (including a private vehicle with guide), ground transportation to and from airports, in-country flights (Serengeti to Zanzibar / Zanzibar to Mafia Island / Mafia Island to Dar Es Salaam), and alcoholic beverages in the safari camps. We were travelling with friends which meant most of the “safari” expenses were shared between the two couples. Our safari accommodation would be considered mid-range, but we were not lacking for anything and would definitely recommend every place we stayed.
First a little background on the United Republic of Tanzania. In addition to being the ideal locale in which to find the “Big 5” (a term which harkens back to the 1800s colonization of Africa when the lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard were considered the most dangerous animals to hunt on foot), Tanzania is also home to the Olduvai Gorge, where the skeletal remains discovered by Louis and Mary Leakey in the 1950s and 60s lead to further and better understanding of human evolution. For the mountain-climbing enthusiast, Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa and the fourth highest summit in the world, rises above the Serengeti along Tanzania’s northern border with Kenya. On the economic front, agriculture is the cornerstone industry. Tanzania is the 4th largest producer in the world of sweet potatoes, 5th largest producer of sesame seeds, 6th largest producer of cashew nuts, and the list goes on and on. However, despite those numbers, Tanzania’s economy was only recently upgraded from low income to middle income. The second biggest contributor to Tanzania’s GDP is tourism. This rapidly growing sector has a huge impact on the standard of living for women in the country as 72% of tourism workers are female. We were happy to do our part for the tourism industry with our bucket-list trip.
Now to our AMAZING adventure …
We flew from Calgary to Arusha (connecting through Amsterdam), and I think this might be the first time jet lag worked in our favour. The time zone adjustment had us generally fading early in the evening and waking bright and early. However, this meant that we were always ready to set out on early morning game drives that were often better for animal action than the heat of the day might have been.
I’m not sure what exactly we had been expecting, maybe a bit like driving through the national parks back home in Alberta where you might spot a grizzly or black bear, and if you’re really lucky a moose in a bog, but the sheer volume of animals we saw was mind-boggling – and occasionally they were even on the highway!
There aren’t enough superlatives to describe our safari experience. We had a wish list of some very specific animals/activities we hoped to see: elephants, check; lions in trees, check; rhino, check; leopard, check; predator action, check; birth of a wildebeest, check; flamingos in flight, check; ostrich, hippo, hyena, cheetah, warthogs, antelope, zebra, giraffe, baboons, check, check, check, and while occasionally binoculars were required, generally all of these animals were right outside our Toyota Land Cruiser windows, sometimes just feet away. We were in awe every, single, day. (click pictures to view captions and better quality…)
Lake Manyara National Park – Located approximately 126 km south west of Arusha is the Lake Manyara National Park. In the early part of the 20th century the area was used for sport hunting, but in 1957 a game reserve was established and in 1960 national park status was granted to the area which covers approximately 325 square kilometres. Even with national park status illegal hunting continued, and by the late 80s/90s the elephant population was dwindling and the black rhinoceros in the Park had been completely wiped out. Fortunately, the elephant population has made a comeback and we saw sooooo many elephants in the Park. Interestingly Lake Manyara is not considered the best spot to find elephants but we saw very few once we left the Park. Troops of baboons were everywhere, along with giraffes, hippos and buffalo. Lake Manyara is known for their tree-climbing lions, although they can be a bit hard to spot in the tree canopies. Luckily we found a tree with several of the cats just hanging out – look at the size of those paws! We spent two nights in the Park with a 48 hour permit, and our guide timed our entry for later in the afternoon so that we had several hours for a game drive the first day, morning and afternoon drives the following day, and almost another full day of animal sighting on the day we departed the Park.
Our accommodation in Lake Manyara was the Manyara Green Camp. More like glamping than camping, our fully furnished tents with ensuites were on raised platforms, nestled amongst the trees along a river bank. During the day, the open-air ensuite attached to the back of the tent seemed charming, but when one needed to use the facilities during a midnight downpour it was less delightful. Excellent food and very attentive staff – they even cleaned our shoes after a morning walk along the Lake – good thing as I found myself sucked into mud up to my knee at one point!
Ngorongoro Conservation Area – We headed 180 kilometers west from Lake Manyara to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Again, to maximize our 48 hour permits for this Conservation Area, Masha timed our entry for late in the day so that we could make the most of the daylight hours. The Conservation Area is probably best known for the Ngorongoro Crater, the world’s largest, intact volcanic caldera and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa. The crater is 610 meters deep, covers 260 square kilometers and is FULL of animals, thousands of them actually.
Everywhere you looked, your eyes would settle on something amazing and we were treated to a lion attack on an African buffalo. Multiple lions were involved in the attack, many of which were juveniles, and Masha figured it was more of a teaching exercise rather than an actual hunt as the pride was not successful in bringing down the buffalo – regardless, it was breathtaking to watch through the binoculars.
The crater is also one of the places you might sight a black rhino. We were thrilled to see one (albeit with the aid of binoculars) as there are only a handful (around 20) still living in the crater.
We had two nights in Ngorongoro and spent our first day in the crater and the second day we roamed the conservation area outside the caldera, much of which was off-roading. Thank goodness we had a driver/guide; I cannot imagine trying to do a safari independently. Not only were the road conditions a bit dicey (especially with the thunderstorms which seemed to occur each night) but I don’t know how you would ever find the animals. The guides all talk to each other through their radios, and when one finds something he lets the others know. And we were mystified about how they could accurately explain where they were in the park as there aren’t any road signs (or roads for that matter) and all of the foliage looked the same to our uneducated eyes! But find animals they do, and we considered ourselves beyond lucky when Masha spotted the notoriously elusive leopard in a tree, with the added bonus that we could pull our vehicle right up beside the tree and admire this beautiful creature without the need for binoculars – Wow!
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area was also where we found lots of dung beetles – not necessarily on everyone’s wish list but definitely a highlight for one of our traveling companions. I’m not sure spotting these critters was particularly helpful information to pass along to the other guides, but Masha was more than happy to spot them for us and they are rather interesting insects who spend their whole lives rolling around a ball of poo.
We spent two nights in the Ngorongoro Serena Safari Lodge situated on the edge of the Caldera. Nice hotel, good food and after the bucket showers in the Manyara Green Camp, a traditional shower with consistent water pressure was very much appreciated.
Serengeti – Butting up against the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is the Serengeti. Following the short rainy season in November/December, the southern Serengeti is lush and teeming with life as the wildebeest migration settles in for calving season. If you aren’t familiar with the Great Wildebeest Migration, it’s the regular, circular route, wildebeest, zebras and gazelles (numbering in the millions) follow each year through Tanzania and Kenya in search of fresh grass for grazing. January/February brings the migration to the southern Serengeti; a movable buffet accompanied by many predators.
While we may have had to do more driving on the Serengeti plains in order to find animals, the sightings were no less impressive. We couldn’t spend enough time watching the lions on our self-proclaimed Pride Rock.
(click pictures to view captions and better quality…)
The sheer numbers of wildebeest and zebra as far as the eye could see was stunning. Hyenas were skulking everywhere. The secretarybirds were amusing to watch as they stamped the ground looking for prey.
We also spotted ostrich, hartebeest, hippo, reedbuck, flamingos, and on the last day witnessed a wildebeest birth. That was truly miraculous. Seven minutes after birth, the little guy was up on his feet and within 20 minutes was running with his herd – unbelievable.
On an earlier drive, we watched a coalition of cheetah attempt to bring down a young wildebeest but when they spotted a hyena lurking nearby they gave up; hyena are scavengers and being much stronger than the cheetah will often take away a “kill,” so as our guide, Masha, explained the cheetah will abandon a hunt if they see a hyena.
We were lucky enough to watch a successful hunt by a mother cheetah and three cubs when they chased down a Thompson Gazelle… although, not so lucky for the gazelle.
We “glamped” again on the Serengeti in the Kati Kati Ndutu mobile camp. Bucket showers again but we had flushing toilets which we thought was remarkable given these are mobile camps! A truly unique experience sleeping amongst the wildlife – zebra and wildebeest were right outside our tents, and as the sun set you could hear the hyenas yipping in the bush and hippos huffing in the nearby lake. In both Kati Kati Camp and the Lake Manyara Green Camp you had to be escorted to your tent after dark for safety reasons! Speaking of sunsets, I’m not sure I’ve seen a more spectacular sunset than the one from the dining lodge in Kati Kati. We were all impressed with the service and quality of food provided by this mobile camp, and during our three days here were provided with excellent bagged lunches that we enjoyed while “picnicking” on the Serengeti plains – I have to confess it was a bit disconcerting exiting our vehicle for lunch when we had just been watching a pride of lions a few moments earlier!
I had been a bit concerned about bugs while on safari (I don’t cope well with creepy crawlies) but other than the enormous spider we saw scuttling across the wall in our Arusha hotel the first night, or the dead giant scorpion along the trail to the Kati Kati camp lodge, we saw zero scary bugs!
Here are a few of our favourite faces from our safari drives (click pictures to view captions and better quality):
Zanzibar – From the Serengeti we took a 12-seater bush plane to Arusha, and then a commercial flight over to the island of Zanzibar. We had briefly debated doing a hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti but upon seeing the $1400 CAD/couple price tag quickly changed our minds. We decided we had definitely made the right call as we figured we got a similar “viewing” experience during our bush plane ride – the pilot even had to buzz the landing strip to clear the zebras.
Zanzibar was a hot, sweaty experience. Most people go there for the beaches and I can see why – 80% humidity, in 32°C+ heat, you’re wet all the time, why not be in the actual water! We opted to head to one of the smaller islands for the beach experience but did spend two nights in Stone Town first, getting a bit of a history lesson.
The island of Zanzibar, with it’s harbour at Stone Town, had long been a stop along ancient trading routes, but in the 16th century it was seized by the Portuguese and remained under their jurisdiction until the late 18th century when the Sultan of Oman ousted them. Thus began its sordid history as a lucrative slave port and there is quite a good museum in Stone Town summarizing this history, including a bit on the explorer David Livingstone’s time in the area. Coral stone is used in building construction (hence the name Stone Town) and gives the town it’s characteristic colour. Given coral’s friable nature a significant number of the town’s buildings are in desperate need of repair. Another distinctive feature of the buildings in Stone Town are the ornately carved wooden doors, reflecting either Arab or Indian influence. Just a side note – while Tanzania is a mix of religious denominations, Zanzibar is predominately Muslim so although it would be nice to wear as little clothing as possible in heat and humidity, if you are outside of the resort areas women should be mindful about covering their shoulders and knees.
Two nights, one full day, was plenty for us in Stone Town. If we had made Zanzibar our beach destination a day trip into the area would have been perfect, but otherwise we couldn’t really see the appeal of staying there any longer than the time we had.
Mafia Island – We were going to Mafia Island with high expectations for diving in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, as well as snorkelling with whale sharks and were definitely riding a high from our beyond expectations safari – unmet expectations are the worst!
It absolutely POURED rain, every day, until the morning we left when the sun returned in full force. The locals said this was very unusual, as the rainy season usually doesn’t kick-in until April. The only good thing that can be said about the rain was we weren’t hot and wet with sweat, we were just wet. The first night we “enjoyed” perhaps the loudest thunderstorm I’ve ever heard, and we come from Alberta which is known for spectacular summer storms.
After the evening storm, the first morning was just overcast so our whale shark excursion was still a go. Based on what we’d read, we understood the marine preserve surrounding Mafia Island was home to whale sharks which we expected meant sightings were easy. The reality was akin to looking for a needle in a haystack as we puttered around in a small wooden boat hoping to spot the “shadow” of a shark on the open water and then hope to get into the water before the shark swam away. About 45 minutes into our search the skies opened, to the point we couldn’t even see the shore, although our crew fortunately had a good sense of direction and we landed safely – somewhat soggy as the boat had little cover, but otherwise none the worse for wear. The forecast for the next day looked like we might manage a midday dive so we headed over to the dive shop only to arrive just as the skies let loose again – so much water in fact that we walked back to our resort through almost knee deep water on the path! You can certainly dive when it rains, but it was raining so hard visibility on the surface was impossible to navigate through. It did clear enough that evening that we were able to enjoy the sunset sail offered by our resort. On our third day we managed an afternoon snorkelling between rain showers, and while the visibility wasn’t great, we did spot several eels, an enormous lobster, and the back end of a turtle. We awoke the morning of our departure to brilliant sunshine, and our friends enjoyed a snorkel in warm, clear water. The rain also brought out the mosquitoes in droves – we were assured they were not malaria-carrying skeeters, but out of an abundance of caution all four of us had been taking anti-malaria medication. It really was unfortunate that the weather didn’t cooperate, but at least our accommodation with Pole Pole Bungalows was quite lovely; idyllic setting, spacious rooms and large lanais with a daybed (covered with mosquito netting) so I could enjoy reading outside, listening to the pitter-patter of rain and not get eaten alive.
Speech – Everyone we encountered in the tourism industry in Tanzania spoke English and spoke it well. Still, it’s always nice to know a few words in the local language which is properly called Kiswahili, but everyone just shortens it to Swahili:
- Tafadhali – Please;
- Asante – Thank you;
- Asante Sana – Thank you very much;
- Karibu – Welcome (you’ll hear this constantly and if you say Asante Sana, the reply will be Karibu Sana);
- Jambo – Hello;
- Tutaonana Baadye – See You Later;
- Kwa Heri – Goodbye
- Lala Salama – Good Night (literally, sleep peacefully)
- Ndiyo – Yes;
- Hapana – No;
- Samahani – I’m sorry or pardon me.
Despite the rain on Mafia Island, our Tanzania trip was perfect. We have done several trips together with our travelling companions, and I think we all agreed this won the “best trip ever” award. Expensive, yes, but worth every single penny.