A Little Safari… This is What it’s Like Spotting Lions and Giraffes in Tanzania’s National Parks

border-crossing-kenya

A quick (and grainy) snapshot from the Kenyan-Tanzanian border. I had already been stamped out of Kenya but didn’t have enough cash to make it into Tanzania. Highlight: the kind Canadian I was about to beg from is in the shot.

Arriving in Tanzania started on a shaky note. I hadn’t realized someone robbed me of my cash my last day in Cape Town until I stood at the border between Kenya and Tanzania. I gutted my bag and found nothing. I sat miffed among my scattered possessions, wondering how my cash had vanished. The very cash that was meant to buy my Tanzanian visa. Others in my van had already returned with their visas, and I had only managed to scramble together $50 in three different currencies from my stashed cash in secret parts of my bag. But that left me still staring sheepishly at the border official when I proffered my passport, cash, and a weak explanation. I just didn’t have another $50.

To say he was unimpressed with my story is an overstatement.

No amount of further searching was going to come up with more cash, so I started phase two of the plan: charmingly beg.

I needed another foreigner—likely the only ones willing and able to lend me that much cash—but the border was fresh out of foreigners. So I sat. And my bus waited. And we sat some more. And I finally found a kind Canadian woman who assumed me a travel noob and graciously lent me a crisp $50.

For as much as it was a debacle for my confounded bus driver (he couldn’t understand why I would have gotten on the bus without cash), the event ended quickly once I passed over the cash. I profusely thanked the Canadian, promising I wouldn’t stiff her—we later met up in Arusha so I could pay her back.

Luckily though, that snafu at the border wasn’t a herald of my time in Tanzania. A spate of kindness and fun followed me throughout the country. With my focus on responsible tourism, I’ve use many of the stories here on A Little Adrift to share what grassroots tourism looks like on the ground, and the impact travelers can have on local communities when they use their tourism dollars effectively. And it’s still something I care about deeply, but sometimes travel is just about fun and the realization of a bucket list item. It’s about making it to the top of that dream mountain, standing in front of an architectural wonder, or—for me—hanging out of a safari car window treating a pack of lions to an enthusiastic photo shoot (clarification: I was enthusiastic… the lions were decidedly unimpressed).

And so, this story shares just that: the photos and anecdotes from my four days on safari where I bumped along the dusty red roads of the Serengeti and pretended I was on assignment for the likes of Discovery Channel or National Geographic. I joined a group of four Danes and split the costs with them. Together, we took a four-day budget trip through Tarangire National Park, Serengeti National Park, and the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area.

the serengeti

The Serengeti

Sunrise safari in the Serengeti

Dawn arrived over the Serengeti in blinding flash of color—slashes of fluorescent fuchsia and blue lit the horizon beyond the flat acacia trees as my truck rattled down the dirt road for our sunrise safari. The sun began to warm the land and the animals stirred. Us five safari-goers wrapped our jackets tighter against the chilly morning, our heads poking from the top of our safari truck.

We sped by herds of tiny impala—delicate of feature and gait—as they grazed.

Zebras and ostriches roamed the fields and high grasses. But we pressed on, our truck speeding down the straight stretches of ochre road past the small animals: we had higher hopes for our morning safari. The big cats prowl in the early hours and on day three of our safari, we were hoping for a sighting of a live kill.

Twenty minutes later, we jolted to a stop on what had looked like a passable road. Three of the safari truck’s tires were deeply mired in a gushy black mud. It was the first week of rainy season, so though not surprise, we had all hoped the rains would hold out.

But, of course, it’s not an adventure if something doesn’t go wrong. Our driver pulled tools from the back of the truck and attempted to create some traction under the mired front tire. It was a no-go. An hour had passed and we were still forbidden from leaving the safari vehicle; the four Danes and I passed the time by watching the sun crawl higher across the sky. The cool pinks of morning burned off and transitioned into golden tones and scorching light.

stuck in the mud getting out of the mud serengeti

Soon, another safari truck saw our plight and pulled over to help. Minutes later, they too were stuck in the mud, the couple in their car lamenting at their derailed safari. At that point, our two driver/guides decided we weren’t likely to get eaten if we exited the truck, so they let us out. Really though, they just needed our man-power. We banded together for the next 20 minutes, shuttling rocks and branches from a nearby rock outcropping to the holes dug into the mud underneath our mired tires.

With all the rocks and sticks we could find now under our wheels, the drivers floored it and with a cheerfully wet sucking sound the tires were free. We all chased after our safari truck, beating the mud from our feet before we piled into our spots once again. All told, it took about an hour and a half before we were once again rocketing down the road in search of animals. The morning hunts were over, but our driver had word from the other guides and he promised us a treat that would make up for our lost time.

He was right.

Lions in a tree!

a lion sound asleep in a tree

lions sleeping in a tree tree lions

And a lot of them. We counted six in total, though I am fairly certain a stray tail hanging down the back of the tree belonged to a hidden seventh. There morning jaunt tuckered them out, and didn’t do more than yawn and shift as we pulled up to their napping spot.

We continued our Serengeti safari, and I cooed with enthusiasm at each new sighting.

The water buffalo dotted the grassy fields with utter nonchalance, their only outward acknowledgement of onlookers being a brief flicker of their tail. We passed a watering hole for the local giraffes and watched one ungainly guy form a triangle with his legs as he bent to drink. Nearby, that same watering hole seemed to feed into a swampy area that looked straight out of a movie. Tall curved palms angled over a small pond filled with hippos submerged in the dull, muddy water.

Dark storm clouds in the Serengeti

Vultures crowd around a kill Giraffes River

Later, I squeed with fangirl levels of enthusiasm when we spotted a leopard. The leopard slunk around our truck for several minutes before meandering into the grasses along the roadside.

One of the more heart-stopping moments of the safari was watching that leopard pause about 100 feet from our truck, his spots pronounced among the hay-colored grass. Seemingly done with posing for our cameras, he shot us one last indolent shrug before sinking into the tall grasses. He vanished from sight without a trace. The tall grasses shrouded his body, and the soft breeze made all the grasses sway, effectively masking his disappearing act. They told us rule number one of the safari was “never, ever leave the safari truck,” and it wasn’t until that moment when I truly understood why our guide was so hesitant to let us help gather stones and rocks when we our truck was stuck in the mud.

Spotted leopard

leopard A water buffalo with a bird on its back giraffe

zebras running

hippo swamp

monkey Pied Kingfisher bird Ostriches Serengeti river

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Cool air caressed my face as the safari car took a soft right turn and descended into the Ngorongoro Crater, the largest volcanic caldera in the world. I pulled my scarf tighter, though the days were hot, the sun had yet to burn off the layer of mist settling over the gentle slide of green hillside.

We had camped under a giant tree on the rim of the crater, and I woke just before dawn to catch every moment of sunrise. And it was a beauty. Wisps of pink shifted into a deep red, and by dawn the entire campsite activated and began to ready for another day of safari exploration.

Sunrise on the crater rim

Camping on the crater rim Zebras at dawn

Formed two to three million years ago, the Ngorongoro Crater houses all the Big Five animals (lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo, and leopard) and most of the others too, thanks to its unique shape and range of climates. Rainforest covers one wall of this inactive crater, making a soaring backdrop to photos on the grassy plains and swamps in the center of the crater.

Politics play a role in this region of the world, as they do across most arable land in the world. The Crater used to be open grazing and living grounds for Maasai cattle, but now that the Tanzanian government has designated much of the region as national parks and protected land, the Maasai are allowed to graze their cattle in the open plains, but they have to leave the crater area by nightfall. We zigzagged the region for four days and each time we exited one of the parks, within minutes we would begin to pass small circles of huts, manyattas, where the Maasai were given rights to set up roots and graze their cattle.

Maasai in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Children tend the goats A local Maasai school near the manyatta Manyattas on the hillside

With less movement available to them, many Maasai in the area set up pop-in programs to take advantage of the tourism dollars zooming by in safari vehicles every day. Though I had plans to visit the Maji Moto Cultural Camp in Kenya a few weeks later, the group voted to stop at a road-side Maasai settlement, paying $10 per person to tour the huts, view their small school, and learn a little about their culture.

I found the experience contrived. Though their setting was stunning, it seemed the Maasai donned their tourist personas just for our 20 minute visit, then went back to their daily lives… an addendum to their lives now that seemed necessary for their survival, but also sadly out-of-place for their values and way of life. It would provide a stark contrast to the program that Salaton built at Maji Moto in Kenya, which creates an environment of respectful interaction between tourists and Maasai. Sating the tourist’s curiosity while using the funds to maintain the integrity of his culture and their values, and underlying it all, a cultural exchange for both sides.

All that being said, there is far more I need to learn about the region before I could give knowledgeable commentary on the politics between the government, the Maasai, and tourism.

What I do know, is that the Ngorongoro Conservation area is one of the prettiest places on earth, and I can see why the government has taken steps to protect the land, ecosystem, and animals.

Fields of white flowers Pink flamingos

We cruised for several hours through the grasslands, spotting a herd of elephants with the longest tusks I had yet seen. Poaching is a serious problem across Africa. Many of the tusked elephants I spotted in the other parks were younger, the older elephant’s tusks had been removed for their safety. But the unique shape of the crater allows the government to effectively patrol the area, and the mature elephants sported massive ivory dipping in a graceful arc from their face. Perhaps wisely, the oldest elephants maintained their distance—our vehicle wasn’t allowed to off-road so we glided past them in layer of damp morning hovering over the green landscape.

Within a couple of hours we found several lions lounging in the late afternoon sun. After giving them a full photo shoot session, we headed to lunch at the swamp near the Ngoitokitok Spring. Hippos belched and gurgled in the water. Birds soared. I could wax poetic, but suffice to say, it was pretty.

Lion

Lions near our vehicle tired yawning lion Friendly lions

Elephants Crowned Cranes Zebra reflections

A quiet picnic at Hippos at Ngoitokitok Spring

Happy, happy hippos at Ngoitokitok Spring Ngoitokitok Spring hippos

Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks

I booked my safari through African Spoonbill Safaris. As a solo traveler, I had few options on a budget and really no selection. I showed up at the hostel and asked them to help me find a tour to join. Within three days, Benson called me over, excited to tell me that four Danes had room in their safari car if I wanted to join their trip. So I packed up and headed out. Their tour included Tarangire National Park, which is one of the lesser known parks (I had never heard of it), but is famous for its elephants.

The park is full of baobab trees, a favorite of the elephant, and thus it’s easy sightings of large elephant families.

Elephants

Monkey Impala

Looking out at Lake Manyara

Rainbow over Lake Manyara Photo-opp on the rim of the crater


The safari days were like poetry, each one ending with a slow retreat. The animals stirred around dusk. Most began to make their way to hideaways far from the roads zigzagging their home. Our group pitched tents each night and we ate dinner by the dim glow of flashlight, sleeping to the roars of lions and snuffling of nearby buffalo.

Lions at dusk seregeti outlook

Elephants in Tarangire National Park

Quick Travel Tips

African Spoonbill Safaris: I used them and they were a very budget option, working to put small groups together interested in splitting the costs of the safari.

Green Living Hostel: A hostel outside of Arusha and very quiet. They have just the loveliest staff and were incredibly helpful. They also run a lot of local projects and can help arrange short and long-term volunteering in the area. There is a lot closer to Arusha’s city center, but this worked as a landing spot for a couple of days to arrange a safari, and would make a nice base for rural volunteering.

TPK Expeditions: Highly recommended for a higher-end safari experience. It’s woman-operated organization committed to paying their guides fair wages and giving them opportunities to further their education. I will use them to climb Kili next time I visit.

Other tips:

  • Though some budget travelers opted for a self-drive safari split with friends, they missed a lot of the great animals because they didn’t have the walkie-talkie network of guides sharing when the Big 5 were on any given day. I recommend having a driver/guide.
  • Camping on the rim of the crater was magical. Some higher end tours don’t include this, but I loved it because of the chance to see sunrise from the rim at that exact spot.
  • Longer tours (5+ days) go deeper into the Serengeti and they are more specific about making sure you see a live kill and that sort of thing.

And you can view all photos from the safari in this gallery.

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86 Responses to A Little Safari… This is What it’s Like Spotting Lions and Giraffes in Tanzania’s National Parks

  1. Braai Brothers December 29, 2016 at 9:10 am #

    What a fantastic write up, I still can’t believe how green it is in Tanzania. Currently in Kruger it is bone dry. We have had some storms recently but up until then the animals have been struggling for water.

    Some fantastic photographs as well, I hope you had a great Christmas.

    • Shannon O'Donnell December 29, 2016 at 9:21 am #

      That’s too bad that it’s so dry! I was in very beginning of rainy season, so things had just started to really blossom and fill out. Hope you had a wonderful Christmas too!

  2. Caravan Holidays December 24, 2016 at 10:45 am #

    WOW! Simply stunning pictures and a wonderful adventure, despite the nasty thieves. I can only dream of going on safari so it’s great to read such a candid review of your adventure.

  3. Elias March 27, 2016 at 9:03 am #

    Thanks so much for sharing!!! Im heading this safari in summer, but im seriously thinking about working digitally so just planning how to set up my business just online. Please if you ever come to the south of Spain don’t hesitate to contact us: http://www.malagafoodietours.com if im not here (traveling the world) Ill make sure you enjoy it!! hehehe. Saludos!!

    • Shannon O'Donnell March 27, 2016 at 10:12 am #

      If you’re visiting for the Great Migration, then I am going to be super jealous. But it was a beautiful experience, and I hope you see all the animals! As for Spain, I may be in Southern Spain. I am going to walk the Camino this fall and will likely be housesitting in Andalusia beforehand. I’ll let you know if I make it to Malaga! :)

  4. Mahmoud January 23, 2016 at 7:59 am #

    Such a great article about African and what it can offer. Now you inspired me to think about visiting some time next year. Thank you for sharing

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 23, 2016 at 10:20 am #

      So glad that you enjoyed the piece Mahmoud and I hope you are able to make it on safari soon!

  5. Martin Aristia November 8, 2015 at 11:16 am #

    Hey! I’ve just discovered your blog. I love it! How come you haven’t come to Argentina yet? You’ll love it! :) I’m thinking about going to Tanzania as a solo traveler also. How many days/nights was your safari? Are there more things to do in the country other than safaris and Zanzibar? I like to just hang out sometimes when I travel, meet local people, etc, and seems that most travelers stick with those two alternatives. Keep up the good writing! Martin.

    • Shannon O'Donnell November 8, 2015 at 1:05 pm #

      Hi Martin! So glad you dig the blog and I would seriously like to get to Argentina, it’s on my list. I haven’t been anywhere in South America yet if you can even believe it. My safari was 5 days 4 nights and that was a good length of time to see the different national parks and also see the each of the major animals at least once. For things to do, most people tend to go to Moshi for Kilimanjaro as well. I didn’t go to Dar but there are expats there hanging out. There are expats all over the country. And there are some small towns in the mountains that could make a cool base and place to hang out and explore. I did the safari and Zanzibar, but I remember thinking I would come back another time and go into some of the less touristed areas with smaller towns. The overland route from Moshi to Dar, with stops, actually looked pretty interesting!

  6. Stephen Garone August 28, 2015 at 8:20 pm #

    Terrific photos, especially the sunrise on the crater rim. And the always entertaining giraffes!

    • Shannon O'Donnell August 29, 2015 at 5:40 am #

      Thank you Stephen, the giraffes were always up to some sort of antics. :)

  7. KM August 8, 2015 at 8:26 pm #

    This is by far the BEST post so far that I have read on your blog (but I just found your blog 20 min ago). I absolutely LOVE all the great shots and how detailed you were explaining your travels. I’m definitely subscribing!

    • Shannon O'Donnell August 9, 2015 at 12:38 am #

      Thank you so much, I really appreciate that and I hope you like the rest of the content just as much! Let me know if I can ever help you with anything! :)

  8. Claudia Luxembourg July 4, 2015 at 12:23 pm #

    I think it is time for Africa! My cousin has just been to Tanzania on her honeymoon and well, I also want to see the lions sleeping on trees!

    • Shannon O'Donnell July 4, 2015 at 12:26 pm #

      It makes for an incredible trip, I really do recommend you go out on safari asap if you can! :)

      • Claudia Luxembourg July 4, 2015 at 4:23 pm #

        Did you find it very expensive? Because… at the moment, it is all a matter of money!

        • Shannon O'Donnell July 4, 2015 at 10:16 pm #

          Well, that’s a hard question. It’s much more expensive to travel there than Southeast Asia, but still not western prices. The safari was by far the most expensive thing I did and it was a very budget end safari (though there are even cheaper if you find others and self-drive without a guide). Mine was $150 per day and included food and all park fees.

          • Claudia Luxembourg July 6, 2015 at 4:30 am #

            Mmmmm I see. Well, in any case I really can’t afford to travel at the moment. Perhaps I can contact you when I go, so you can recommend some good companies?

          • Shannon O'Donnell July 7, 2015 at 8:06 am #

            Sure thing! Definitely shoot me an email when you are heading that way.

  9. Shannon O'Donnell June 24, 2015 at 10:29 am #

    Thank you Nathan! It was a wonderful trip and so incredible to see all the animals!

  10. Nathan Argenta June 18, 2015 at 8:55 pm #

    WOW this is just incredible Shannon. For sure on my bucket list of travel destinations/adventures! Thanks for sharing your experience and hope you had a truly incredible/blessed time creating memories and more peak life experience!

  11. Roselyn Sahlan June 17, 2015 at 3:23 am #

    Wow, thanks for sharing your amazing pics! Another on my bucketlist!

  12. Christian June 16, 2015 at 5:56 am #

    Very nice images of Tanzania. I like the wilds and brings me back memories of my childhood. I’ll have this place be in one of my bucket list. Thanks for sharing!

    • Shannon O'Donnell June 16, 2015 at 8:49 am #

      So glad it resonated Christian, it’s a humbling and stunning place to visit in person, I hope you make it there soon! :)

  13. Shannon O'Donnell May 27, 2015 at 2:27 pm #

    So glad that you didn’t have anything bad happen while you were there. Africa was an inspiring place and I hope to go back. Best of luck to you!! :)

  14. kaitangsou May 27, 2015 at 12:44 am #

    Mother Afrika…she is sooo…gorgeous…

  15. Anita May 15, 2015 at 1:41 am #

    I am dreaming of safaris… I have to say that I am kind of jealous ! As an animal lover, I would love to see those majestic animals in their habitat! Very nice pictures, thanks for sharing :)

    • Shannon O'Donnell May 16, 2015 at 2:19 pm #

      Seeing them in the wild and really in this gorgeously open and preserved space was so wonderful, I was so glad to have experienced the safari and to have seen animals the way they were intended.

  16. Innocent Nathaniel May 14, 2015 at 5:51 am #

    that is real Africa Adventure and Great photos!

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