The thrill of a Safari in the Serengeti, the stunning backdrop of Ngorongoro and the Arabian allure and powdery beaches of Zanzibar all come together for an adventure of a lifetime.
You might be undecided about a trip to Africa. You might wonder if its safe. Are the vaccinations enough? What if you get some unpronounceable tropical disease and can’t get proper medical help? Do lions maul people on Safaris? Honestly I had all of these misgivings and in the end my friends, who were much more excited about the trip, organised most of the itinerary and persuaded me to join. For which I will be eternally grateful to them because Tanzania was hands down the best holiday I’d ever taken.
I wish I could describe it without dissolving hopelessly in a puddle of cliches. I’ve been a city girl all my life. I get serious withdrawal symptoms if I am TV-less for too long and the absence of a hot shower can bring out a fiendish side of me. But out there, coming back at the end of a long day spent in the vast open spaces of the Serengeti amongst its creatures big and small, fast and slow, cruel and gentle, and feeling the warm glow of the setting blood-red African sun on my skin, I felt such pure joy, such a deep rush of adrenaline as I had never felt before. With so much beauty around me I didn’t want to ever leave. I know its not uncommon to feel that on a holiday but I’ve never felt such a longing to go back. There is so much more of this amazing continent I have to explore.
Being there felt like going back a million or so years in time and witnessing the world as it must have been on the day it was first created in all its savage, untouched glory…
Tanzania Travel Diary Part 1: Tarangire
We flew into Mt Kilimanjaro International Airport and met the man who would be our guide for the entirety of our stay in Tanzania. His name was Sisty. He was a crusty old man – gruff, monosyllabic and as we later discovered, short tempered and a bit of an authoritarian. I was reminded of my grandfather, he certainly treated us like slightly irresponsible children to be shepherded around.
Yet we grew to be genuinely fond of him because it was clear he was extremely serious about making sure we didn’t miss a single detail of the incredible natural beauty and bewildering variety of wildlife his country had to offer. He also had an eerie sixth sense for knowing where to stop on a game drive for the best animal “sightings”. We would suddenly stop in the middle of an empty stretch of road and wait in silence. He would shush us irritably as we grew impatient and the minutes ticked by. Then something truly incredible would happen.
I am going to describe here one such experience. Years and years from now when I think about this trip this is the enduring image that will spring to my mind. So we were sitting in our jeep – Sisty had parked us by the side of an open expanse of dry grassland in the Serengeti National Park. In typical Sisty fashion he merely grunted and muttered something unintelligible when we tried to question him as to what it was we were meant to see.
A big part of Safaris is waiting. Waiting patiently and silently for the drama of daily life in the wild to unfold before us. I got an inkling of what life must be like for the paparazzi who stalk celebrities. They must also go to places where celebrities were rumoured to be going about their lives – walking their dogs, grabbing a coffee, stumbling out of a club – and patiently wait for that elusive “money shot”. And when you are rewarded with that shot on a Safari there is nothing like it. The air becomes heavy with anticipation and you literally hold your breath afraid the slightest disturbance might scare away the animals.
So coming back to where we were – waiting on the road in our jeep. Almost an hour later the tall grasses started to rustle. At some distance from us a lioness slowly emerged from the grass, looked around and stretched her limbs. Over the next 30 minutes or so, slowly and soundlessly at various points scattered around her in the grassy plain other lionesses started to stand up. Apparently they had been hiding there waiting for an unsuspecting herd of gazelles to wander by. Because that is a big part of the daily life of lions and lionesses – waiting for their prey. Technically gazelle can outrun lions so their only advantage is the element of surprise. But for now they had given up on this particular location and decided to move on. So they slowly rose from the grass and started walking towards the road – towards us! My heart started pounding as the lionesses started slinkily walking in a line towards us – they passed right by our jeep, some literally brushing past the side of the vehicle. Most of them didn’t even deign to give us a passing glance. A few small cubs were scampering around their heels. As we furiously snapped away on our cameras they crossed the road and entered the grassland on the opposite side dispersing across the field and settling in for another long wait. There was something so incredibly powerful, calm and regal about the way they walked. I realised then why people decided to call a group of lions a “pride”, and why they consider these creatures to be the kings of the wild.
Anyway, returning to some semblance of chronology. We drove from the airport to the first of the three game reserves on our itinerary – Tarangire. Its a great way to start a safari holiday in Tanzania as it lacks the breathtaking natural setting of Ngorongoro and the Serengeti and lets you focus on your first sightings of the wildlife.
Our first was a group of zebra grazing. Only their upper halves were visible above the grass – they have to be the most photogenic of all animals – their black and white stripes form an incongruous optical illusion amidst the browns and greens of their surroundings.
Our next was a pair of gazelle facing each other in a silent stand-off. They were so perfectly still they looked unreal- their slim muscular bodies were taut, the velvety brown sheen of their skin glistened in the sunlight and their horns curved backwards in a proud arch. I wondered why they were standing that way – perhaps it was just a way to kill the time, digest the last meal and soak up some sun.
We also got up close and personal with a male ostrich – a truly awkward looking creature. Its long skinny neck looked like someone had peeled a layer of skin off to expose an inner layer of pink flesh. Its shaggy black and white furry body looked like someone had thrown an old rug over its back. We passed the cutest little baby elephant grazing by the roadside causing a mini traffic jam as jeeps stopped and pulled over to capture its secretive smile as it soaked up the attention.
We saw a leopard curled up on the branch of a tree taking its afternoon siesta. After which we cautiously stalked a sleepy looking lion who yawned, stretched, and slowly loped down the road in front of us, then decided to park his ass right in the middle of it as if daring us to make him move. We waited. And got some incredible close-ups. With his mouth hanging open exposing his lower canine teeth he sat there for a while panting like a dog. The shaggy fur around his face had singed dark brown ends like it’d been lightly burnt in a kiln.
We saw some monkeys – their appeal is frankly lost on us Indians for whom they are and always will be a pesky menace – prone as they are to break into flats, steal food and terrorise children. When we reached our lodge it was almost dinner time. And in an excruciatingly sweet cliche a tonga-dancing line of Africans dressed to the nines in colourful printed kaftans and turbans serenaded the delighted diners in the restaurant with tribal songs. After breakfast the next morning we started on our drive to the Serengeti.
Tanzania Travel Diary Part 2: Serengeti
The word Serengeti is derived from a Masai word meaning “Endless Plains”. And I couldn’t think of a more fitting description. One of the most vivid memories I have is of our jeep hurtling across an endless field of gold under windswept clouds that darted across the clearest of blue skies. It is an area of extraordinary biodiversity. Lush forested woodlands, shimmering lakes, emerald mountains in the far distance, dusty swaying savannahs, marshy swamps buzzing with the dreaded tsetse flies, scorched deserts with large swathes of land burnt black where controlled fires had been set to control insects.
On the drive to the Serengeti we passed small settlements of circular mud huts with thatched roofs and figures dotted the landscape around these clothed in bright shawls of reds and blues. We also passed a lone cheetah completely unaware of the romantic figure it was cutting. Unfortunately despite our most valiant wishful thinking he did not streak across in pursuit of some unfortunate prey in powerful slow motion…
As we neared the campsite it was dusk and this offered some spectacular photo opportunities as the golden rays of the setting sun infused the haze around us – endless dusty haze broken only by the black canopied silhouettes of trees. The sun turned into a perfect pink orb that watched over us as we drove up to a group of large tents that were to be our home for the next two nights.
The tents were very basic with mud floors, a door flap that you literally zipped up behind you once you were inside, and a very rudimentary toilet. I slept terribly my first night because there was a constant shuffling sound outside accompanied by rising and falling shadows against the tent walls. I was convinced some terrifying creature had wandered into the camp and was trying to find its way inside and even contemplated blowing on the whistle the camp staff had given us to use in case of emergencies. I tried to summon up the courage to unzip the door flap and take a peek outside, but failed. As I sat in the darkness I felt a very primal sort of fear I had never felt before. After an excruciatingly long time during which nothing actually happened the realisation slowly dawned on me. The shuffling sound I was hearing was the wind making the tent rustle and shake and the shadows outside were the swaying grasses! I felt exceedingly foolish and finally got a few hours sleep… I decided I would not last very long in the wild.
The next day we set out with one aim – to spot the migration of the wildebeest. This would mean driving far into the reserve towards its borders with Kenya where the Tanzanian Serengeti ends and the Kenyan Masai Mara reserve begins. Sisty had an old fashioned wireless walkie-talkie with him with which he communicated with other guides out on safari in different parts of the reserve to get a sense of where the best views of the migration were that day.
Along the way we came across a lake full of slimy, muddy hippos half submerged in the water – these are not the most attractive of creatures. They stood huddled together in the swampy water with their greasy rolls of fat glistening and their tiny pink ears twitching. They may be the epitome of laziness and slothfulness but they are actually surprisingly fast and aggressive by nature.
Oh and we saw an actual ostrich mating ritual! It is the funniest thing. The female sits looking extremely bored while the male does a little dance around her. The black furry rug-like cover I mentioned earlier is actually a pair of wings with a white shaggy fringe which it flares and flaps as it pirouettes around in a valiant effort to get its mate in the mood before shuffling over and sitting on top of her shivering and trembling the whole time. We giggled, it was impossible not to feel a little embarrassed prying on them in their moment of intimacy. After he finished the female calmly stood up and walked away with as much dignity as she could muster – the universal walk of shame!
Also along the way to the migration in a green grassy valley we passed a herd or more accurately, a tower (yes look it up, a tower) of giraffes. They were just hanging out, standing around, staring into space. Giraffes have the most unintentionally funny faces with large chocolate brown eyes, a slightly silly placid smile and what appear to be two pairs of stick-out ears (the ones on the top of their heads are actually small horns covered with skin). You almost expect them to flutter their eyelashes flirtatiously at you and break into some sort of jig bobbing their awkward long necks in unison.
At last we reached the wildebeest. We stopped some way from the river in a vast undulating plain covered with dry golden grass. The first thing that hits you is the noise. There is a reason the wildebeest is also called the gnu. The air around us reverberated with a loud chorus of their grunts gnu-gnu-gnu-gnu-gnu. It literally doesn’t stop for a second – the sound of thousands of wildebeest grunting and snorting at each other. I wonder why they feel the need to make that constant sound – doesn’t it tire them out after a while? Or are they actually communicating and we just can’t understand them?
They look like skinny buffaloes except they have shaggy fur covering their heads and shoulders and funny greyish wisps on their chins that make them look like cantankerous old men. The grunting adds to that effect 🙂 Sometimes a pair would charge at each other, most of them just stood around grazing, some formed lines and walked across the plains. As we looked out towards the horizon we saw large swathes of them descending down a hilly plain in the distance looking like a swarm of locusts.
We drove back at dusk – the most magical time of day in Africa. This time large clouds completely hid the sun but its rays shone forth anyway illuminating the edges of the clouds with a silvery lining. Driving across the grasslands that evening and seeing the sun’s rays radiating down in swathes of rose-gold, I felt a moment of utter peace and awe. The heavens seemed a lot a closer out there.
The next day we got up close and personal with a leopard. Again it was Sisty who miraculously spotted him sitting on the high branch of a tree quite some distance away. When we finally focused our binoculars on him the sickening realisation dawned on us that the leopard wasn’t alone up on the tree. Next to him were the bloody remains of a gazelle he had killed and dragged up to feast on. A few jeeps had pulled up by now along the side of the road. And almost on cue after finishing his meal the leopard slowly climbed down the tree, wandered across the field towards us and found a little clearing to stretch out on and sleep. It was almost as if he wanted to graciously oblige the jeeps of eager humans desperate to get a clear shot of his beautiful spots.
Tanzania Travel Diary Part 3: Ngorongoro
I highly recommend anyone planning a trip to Tanzania to not miss a game drive in the Ngorongoro crater for the sheer drama of its scenery. Its a massive volcanic caldera that was formed after an eruption a couple of million years ago and the drive down from the rim of the crater down to the floor is pretty spectacular. The floor of the crater is largely flat grassland with a shimmering lake in the middle that looks like a shard of glass from the distance. Our Sopa lodges were perched on the rim of the crater and had a swimming pool and garden with fantastic views over it.
The day we drove down into the crater was cloudy and overcast. One of my favourite photographs from this trip was of a long line of wildebeest making its way across the dry brown grassland in front of us, with the velvety blue-green walls of the crater in the far distance and stormy grey clouds billowing across the skies and heightening the drama of the scene.
Near the lake we saw a flock of delicate pink and white flamingoes. The lake itself was dotted with many more of these, their reflections shimmering in the perfectly still water, but we didn’t get close enough to get better shots. Because at this point the wireless started crackling with cries from guides somewhere else in the crater causing Sisty to swerve around and start driving maniacally towards something with an expression of barely contained excitement – the closest we came to any sign of emotion in this taciturn specimen.
The “something” turned out to be a pride of lions who had just finished hunting and killing a couple of buffaloes. They were sitting around near a pile of rocks and feasting on their prey. A circle of jeeps slowly formed around them. There was something fearsome and cruel about the blood and guts smeared around their faces and dripping from their fur. It brought into sharp focus the reality of life in this place of breathtaking beauty. It also made you wonder about the nature and the fighting spirit of the Masai tribes that call this their home. This is the only conservation area in Tanzania which allows human habitation.
Tanzania Travel Diary Part 4: Zanzibar
It was very hard tearing ourselves away from the daily routine of game drives we had become accustomed to. Reluctantly we made our way back to the city of Arusha and took the flight the next morning to our last destination – Zanzibar.
The islands of Zanzibar used to be an independent country which merged with Tanganyika in the 1960s to form the republic of Tanzania. Before that for over 200 years it was part of the Sultanate of Oman and then briefly a British protectorate. Under the Sultans the ports of the Zanzibar archipelago flourished as an important link in the trade routes between the Middle East, Africa and India with its main “goods” being spices, ivory.. and slaves. Interestingly one of the reasons the British gave to justify intervening in its political history and making it their “protectorate” was to pressure the ruling Sultans to abolish slave trade.
There is an old Anglican church called Christ Church that was built in the late 1800s at the site of the old slave market, its altar was built where the whipping post used to be. There is a tiny musty cell you can visit with a stone platform all around it where slaves used to be held. The ceiling is so low they would have been hunched up the whole time. There are remnants of rusted iron chains still on a stone pillar – a stark reminder of the inhuman conditions in which these slaves were held before being auctioned off in the market or shot and killed if they couldn’t fetch a satisfactory price.
The hotel we stayed in used to be the family mansion of a wealthy Arab merchant. It was brimming with interesting bric-a-brac – antique clocks, intricate wooden models of ships, gilded mirrors, old gramophones and ornate Arabian lamps. We rambled around Zanzibar’s “Stone Town” for a day. It is a charming, sleepy little place all narrow winding alleys and Moorish-style buildings marked by their wooden doorways and balconies intricately carved with floral and leaf motifs.
That evening we found a rooftop bar and settled in on some divans sipping on cocktails as we gazed out at the “dhows” sailing slowly past across the turquoise blue sea. We spent our final days relaxing in a resort with a beautiful beach – all soft white sands and crystal clear blue waters – the perfect way to unwind and reminiscence before heading most unwillingly back to the real world.