Updated: May 28, 2020
Safaris are often something people save up for for years. I kind of fell into mine. A couple of 'feeler' questions among friends and a WhatsApp conversation later, I was booked into a 5 day safari though Tarangire, Ngorogoro Park and Crater, the Serengeti and Lake Manyara National Park with Adventure Makers Tanzania. As a budget traveller, when I say safari, I don’t mean the luxury tents and fine dining most people think of when they think safari. Budget safari looks a lot more like a basic tent and bed roll with a stranger you just met who will either be someone you can’t stand or a good friend by the end of the week. I got lucky and ended with a friend.
In true budget travel style, I started off my day with a cramped, rush hour dala dala ride to Arusha. Luckily, the Mamas that I buy corn from were on the same bus and made sure I had a seat with them.
Arriving in Arusha, I first met our guide, Max. Carl and Sophie were next, both solo travellers from the UK, then couples from Russia and Czech Republic. Everyone packed in and off we went. Being the odd one out in this scenario, I ended up in the front seat with Max. As it turns out, we are neighbours in Usa River so that served as a good bonding point to open up the conversation. Sitting in the front seat had its benefits too. While everyone else was chatting and waiting to arrive out our first destination, Max was already pointing out wildlife, Masai coming of age symbols and other interesting facts just for me. He also informed me of ‘The Big 5’. I thought the group was made up of the ‘coolest’ animals so I was surprised when cheetahs and giraffes weren’t on the list. The Big 5 are actually the five animals considered to be the most dangerous to humans; lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and rhino. After a couple hours of driving, we arrived at the main gate of Tarangire National Park. A quick stop to sign in and grab a coffee (yes, I got coffee to go on safari) and we were officially staring out on our adventure.
Tarangire National park
Tarangire is a mix of open plains and light forest areas in northern Tanzania. Starting off, I really didn't know what to expect. I hadn’t done any real research or been planning this as long as I had been planning my trip so I was just enjoying the ride. At first it was a little quiet, a few mongoose, birds, vervet monkeys and impala. The first bit of real adrenaline came from a giraffe and elephant sighting. Check #1 on The Big 5 list. There were a few of them a little bit away from the road, calmly going about their day. Little did we know, the next elephant sighting would be far more eventful.
Later in the morning, we came up on a larger herd of elephants grazing and playing in a small watering whole. As we sat and watched, an unfamiliar male bull elephant invaded the group. This changed the mood quickly as the rest of the elephants began stamping and trumpeting at his intrusion. His sheer size made all of this essentially irrelevant to him and he quickly went about mating with his choice of female. Fun fact: an elephant penis weights about 25 kg and releases 5 litres of sperm at a time. There were more than a few jokes made here. 5 legs anyone?
Find the fifth leg!
Park highlights: The large herds of elephants and towers of giraffes. Zebras are often seen here too but leave during the rainy season to find better food.
Ngorogoro Conservation Area
Moving farther north on the second day, our safari crossed the plains of Ngorogoro park and into the Serengeti. The first part of the drive took us through lush mountain sides with giraffes and zebra visible in small groups in the trees. Once we hit flatter ground and more open plains, a large tower(herd) of giraffes became the newest highlight of the day. We were actually able to get out of the truck a little bit to get a better view and were quickly greeted by a group of young Masai boys.
Rainy season in Tanzania usually lasts between March and May and also coincides with The Great Migration, the biggest migration of animals on earth. More than 2 million wildebeest and zebra, as well as many other animals move from northern Tanzania through Ngorogoro and the Serengeti up through the Masai Mara in Kenya. We drove for hours through these herds, stretching out as far as the eye could see in all directions.
Park highlights: The Great Migration.
Watching the sunrise over the plains of the Serengeti was one of those surreal moments in life that you can’t quite believe is real. I have never seen a sunrise like it. Up until now, it was the sort of thing you only see on TV or in a nature documentary and yet, there we were watching it burn over the plains.
The Serengeti looks almost exactly like I pictured, wide-open grass lands with a few distinct Acacia trees dotted around and rock formations right out of The Lion King. We got up before sunrise for an early morning game drive and were immediately greeted by giraffes, gazelle, impala, hyenas, buffalo and a ton of different bird species, all backlit by the first few rays of sun.
The excitement of the day continued with Max’s superhuman eye sight when he spotted a cheetah somewhere off on the horizon, approximately ‘three termite hills away’. I could barely see it with binoculars but sure enough, there it was. Next up, the lions — three cubs and their mother and two males watching a short distance away. #2 of the 5 complete. In the afternoon, we were able to catch a glimpse of a leopard lounging at the top of a tree and a small group of buffalo grazing. #3 and #4 checked off the list.
Park highlights: The incredible sunrise and the cheetah sighting.
The Ngorogoro Crater
Technically it isn’t a crater but a caldera, the large bowl-like depression left after a volcano collapses in after eruption, aptly named for the Spanish word for cauldron. Without question, this was my favourite day of the safari. We again arrived just as the sun was coming up and driving down into the caldera felt like being transported into a completely different world and era. The entire day felt like it needed the Jurassic Park theme song playing in the background. The landscape is stunning and the animals are abundant. We hadn’t even made it to the floor/grasslands before seeing elephants, buffalo, ostrich, zebra and wildebeest. The animals are fairly unfazed by the trucks so they are close enough to get some great photos.
Not too far into our drive, the unexpected happened. We actually checked the last of The Big 5 off the list. There are only about 2,500 black rhinos left in the entire world and the ones left in Tanzania often move higher into the forest in the rainy season. We were incredibly lucky to see it.
The second rare moment came later in the day when watching a pride of approximately 20 lions come down towards the lake. The number of cats alone was exciting but the real excitement came as we were watching a small gazelle wandering quite close to the group. All of a sudden, some of the lions took notice and then took action. That little gazelle didn’t stand a chance as the group took it down quickly and easily. To actually witness a lion kill on safari is rare. We just happened to be at the right place at the right time, thanks again to Max.
Park highlights: The incredible scenery and abundance of animal life.
The last day of our safari brought us back closer to Arusha and to Lake Manyara National park. This park is the most jungle-like of the places we visited so it made the animal sightings a little more difficult at times. We again came across fields of zebra and wildebeest but this time they were joined by baboons. Baboons turned out to be the most common animal of the day. Their numbers in the park are high and big families could be seen crossing the grasslands with the zebra, hanging out in trees and often blocking the roads. Hippos, elephants and flamingos can also be seen here.
Park highlights: Baboons and a must see for botany enthusiasts
Overall, the experience was incredible and I would absolutely recommend it to everyone. You will not be able to look at a zoo the same way ever again. For anyone looking to go, do your research on the tour company first. Safarireviews.com is a good place to start.
For all travellers, SERIOUSLY CONSIDER GOING ON THE EDGES OF THE LOW/RAINY SEASON! Here's why:
- Prices go down durning low season
- The weather is still good (it rained on us once but only at night)
- Even if the weather isn't great, the animals are still around and maybe a little more active because it isn't unbarably hot. You also might get a few more unique photos out of it
- The landscape is greener and you can catch part of The Great Migration
- Most importantly, there are WAY fewer trucks driving around crowding the animals. We rarely saw more than one other safari truck at a time and it made the experience feel way more authentic and much less invasive to the animals you are there too see