My Tanzanian Safari: Part One

Where we travel to Arusha, Tanzania, and visit Tarangire National Park

Elephant adding dirt after his mud bath in Tarangire National Park

To get from Nashville to the Serengeti isn’t easy. And there is no straight path. But dammit, I really wanted to go. So here is how I did it, with several stops along the way.

First, you should know this isn’t a solo trip. Nope, it is a family outing. Me, the wife of almost twenty years (hope she sticks around after this adventure!), and two preteen kids. So if I can do it, why the hell can’t you?

Next, you may be wondering why Tanzania? Well, that’s where the Serengeti is (and thus, Serengeti National Park). Plus, right nearby is the Ngorongoro Crater, which I’ll talk about in the next post. Oh, and Tanzania has a super stable government and no tribal strife. Over a hundred and twenty different tribes all get along in Tanzania.

So flying to East Africa was the first hurdle. It took three flights, which sounds tough, but I actually expected one or two more. I might have been able to get it down to two had I flown into Nairobi, but I didn’t want to go to Kenya. It isn’t Tanzania and, well, it is having some issues these days.

So turns out that Tanzania has Kilimanjaro International Airport. It sits between the cities of Arusha and Moshi, and yes, is very near Africa’s highest mountain (and the world’s largest freestanding mountain), which is in Tanzania.

We chose to fly Ethiopian Airlines via Air Canada. Not too shabby. Air Canada to Toronto is easy. Toronto to Addis Ababa isn’t. That’s a thirteen hour flight. Luckily, Ethiopian has very modern Boeing Dreamliner 787–8 jets with great seatback entertainment systems. Unfortunately, nothing they can do about crying babies.

Now, don’t expect luxury at Kilimanjaro International Airport. As you can see, no jetway. Also, no gate. You get off the plane and proceed inside to immigration. I suggest buying your visas before you leave by contacting the Tanzanian embassy in DC. Helped get us through faster.

Then customs is cleared and you are out of the airport! Of course, you are hot, as you have basically been outside the whole time, just with a roof over your head. All you need to do is find your ride.

Who the hell do you know in Tanzania to pick you up?

That would be your tour operator and their hand-picked guide. Ours was named Paul, and he is fabulous!

Look close and tell me which one you think Paul is.

So, I think some crazy folks can rent some cars and camping gear and go it alone across the Northern Safari Circuit of Tanzania (which is what we were doing), but that is just ridiculous.

You would still have to pay for a guide in the national parks, because you are not allowed to just drive around by yourself there. Hello? Poachers? Stupid people getting out of the vehicle to pet a leopard? Also, it is pretty easy to get lost, since Serengeti National Park is 5,695 square miles (that’s 14,750 square kilometers). Connecticut is smaller than the park.

Oh, and if you’ve never been before, you’ll need to know somethings like … where to stay? When to look for certain animals? And how to spot them in the wild from a moving Land Cruiser.

In short, you need to find a very good tour operator who will provide you with excellent advice, a great guide and a sturdy vehicle, and get you into the best (for your budget) accommodations. I spent months researching tour operators and contacted almost two dozen. Most were big outfits, some were medium-sized and a few smaller ones. I tried to stay focused on Arusha-based tour operators.

Why? Well, I wanted to work with a Tanzanian company. There are U.S.-based agents for Tanzanian companies that assured me that their pricing was the same as if I had booked direct with the company (that they were hawking for). So I just went direct to the company. I was going to Tanzania to see their country, and I wanted to support Tanzanian companies.

Long story short, I chose Earthlife Expeditions. It was the single greatest decision of the trip. They are a small outfit based right in Arusha (which is known as A-town or Safari Town) and had rave reviews on TripAdvisor and the forums on Lonely Planet. Plus, Deo (the owner) was patient and helpful in handling all my many questions. (I had a bunch.)

So there was Paul outside the airport holding up a sign like limo drivers do at the airport. Except we were outside the airport and our vehicle was a Toyota Land Cruiser.

Paul is super friendly and drives us to Arusha to our hotel. We wisely decided to spend our first night in Arusha to get well-rested before the safari, and Deo put us in a wonderful place called The African Tulip.

Before he departed, Paul and I agreed on our departure time for the morning, where we would drive on the blacktop out of Arusha to the entrance of Tarangire National Park.

Figured you all needed a picture of an elephant VERY close to our vehicle.

Quick word on Swahili (or Kiswahili), the language of East Africa. You pronounce each letter; there are no silent e’s, so it is Tear-an-GEAR-ee National Park.

Tarangire National Park is 1,100 square miles in area, which is bigger than Rhode Island. If you want small parks, go way west to Gombe Stream National Park; you can trek for chimps in its 32 square kilometers and maybe run into Jane Goodall (since that is where her research station is).

The morning drive was short and allowed us to see some rural countryside. We go into the park after Paul checks us in (there is always paperwork and permits at the park entrances).

Tarangire has three main things going for it: One, a large and permanent elephant population which can easily be seen on most game drives. Two, it is the best place for the iconic Baobab trees, which are weird and wonderful all at the same time. Three, it is pretty much on your way to the Serengeti.

You are not guaranteed to see ANYTHING on a safari. Are we clear on that? These are wild animals in wild habitats. They don’t keep to a tourist-friendly schedule or stick close to where they are most likely to be seen. You go on safari hoping to see various animals, and you need to be happy and grateful if you do find them. Well, Tarangire was going to be as close to a slam-dunk for elephants any real safari can provide. It did not disappoint.

We encountered numerous herds, saw several calves, and enjoyed the distinctive landscape. Giraffe and zebra were mixed in with ostriches and wildebeest. Plus, we saw some crazy-amazing birds!

Now, we are birders. We’ve never gone bird-watching. But we started a bird list to go along with our mammal list. Besides, Paul was an expert at identifying some great birds for us. We would switch back and forth from spotting a herd of elephants, to a mob of mongooses, to giraffe, to a Von der Decken’s hornbill or a Superb Starling or a Lilac-Breasted Roller. They were all astounding.

A Lilac-breasted Roller.

This was a wonderful first game drive on our safari. And it was largely due to Deo giving excellent advice on how to spend the day. Several forums thought visiting Lake Manyara National Park (the other option on the way to Ngorongoro and Serengeti) worthwhile. Deo explained why he thought Tarangire would be best for my family, but only after we had exchanged half a dozen or more emails so he knew what we were hoping for. On top of that, Paul commented how happy he was that we chose Tarangire over Manyara, too. It wasn’t the best month for Manyara, and the elephants were so close to us in Tarangire that the kids were blown away from the get-go!

We ended the day at our tented camp, which sounds like we were roughing it. It was HUGE inside, with three beds and a porch. Plus, it had an indoor sink, shower, and toilet, as well as an additional shower outside (surrounded by high walls). Again, we relied on Deo to select the accommodations and Tarangire Simba Lodge was top notch! We asked for mid-budget, paid for mid-budget, and got treated like it was luxury!

Aside from having the Maasai warrior escort you back to your tent after dinner (as predators roam more freely after dark, even on the grounds of the lodge), it almost felt like a normal night.

Then some strange sound woke us up in the night.

It was a guard. He was knocking outside the tent. It was our wake up call.

Next up: Ngorongoro Crater! Stay tuned!

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