There is no experience in the world quite like an African safari. It is one of those trips that one often hears associated with “bucket lists” and things to do before you die. But if a safari in Africa is part of your dreams, then you won’t want to wait until your dying bed because this is no once-in-a-lifetime experience; once you have participated in an African safari, you are almost sure to want to go back again. And I will admit that this was never really on the top on my list. I enjoy seeing wildlife, but my passion has always been more focused on experiencing new cultures and different people. But after my recent trip to Tanzania, I can certainly say that doing an African safari should be at the top of everyone’s list.
Having grown up hunting, fishing and visiting zoos, I think I had become a little desensitized to wildlife. It was only on those rare occasions that I spotted a bear, moose, or wolf in the wild that I felt the thrill associated with wildlife encounters. I had seen plenty of giraffes, elephants, zebras and lions; but in captivity these animals seemed to lack any great thrill. They lazed about in pens or cages while we gawked at them from a safe distance. Yet, this past week I discovered that such animals in the wild are a very different creature.
Arriving in Arusha, Tanzania in the low season was a great blessing for us. Our hotel was nearly empty and safari operators were offering low season discounts. Rachel inquired with several guide services and found a 5 night/6 day safari on Tanzania’s famous Northern Circuit. Even the reduced price was still far beyond our budget, but we had come this far and we were confident that it would be worth every penny.
One can imagine our excitement when our guide arrived in a 7-person safari vehicle for just the two of us. His name was Baraka and our first impressions were of a friendly, well-mannered man of 35 with a kind smile and funny lingering laugh. He was polite and knowledgeable, filling us in on information about Tanzania as we traveled a couple of hours to the first of three parks. The scenery was beautiful right from the beginning and the colorful Maasai villagers who dotted the landscape only added to our intrigue. Most interesting were the teenage Maasai boys who walked along the roadside dressed entirely in black with their faces elaborately decorated with black and white paint. They stood out in stark contrast from the richly colored landscape, their ghoulish decoration a sign of their recent circumcision and ongoing journey into manhood.
From the main highway we turned onto a dirt road leading to the first destination on our African safari: Tarangire National Park. Though almost unknown compared to nearby Serengeti, Tarangire was immediately impressive with its herds of elephants and wonderful baobab trees. I was in such awe of the landscape that I was filling up memory cards before the animals even appeared. Luckily, it would not be long before I was spotting impalas, ostriches, elephants, and giraffes. As African safari virgins, we fired off countless photos at distant animals as if they were the only of their kind we might see. We could hardly contain our enthusiasm as Baraka followed dirt roads to beautiful vistas where we scanned the woodlands and river ways in search of elusive animals.
The highlight of Tarangire would come at the end of the day when we discovered a herd of 20+ elephants, including several juveniles, grazing at the roadside, their bodies covered red from the mud in which they bathed. We shut off the vehicle and watched in amazement as they went about their business, seemingly unaware of the gawking tourists just a few feet away. I was filling up cards so fast that I had to set up a mobile computer station so I could download and empty cards as we drove. At one point, I was so engrossed in my downloads that I did not even notice when a full-sized giraffe appeared right outside our window. And while the setting sun lit up the sky with brilliant colors, we traveled back through the park standing up in our safari vehicle admiring the beauty all around us while the wind blew into the smiles that covered our faces.
We arrived at Tarangire Safari Lodge just in time to see the incredible view before darkness fell. The lodge was elaborate and nearly entirely open to its surroundings. Built on a hill overlooking the Tarangire River, one could sit in the lodge or dining room and gaze across a vast expanse of acacia and baobab trees where animals gathered in the dry season. It was during that time that visitors would flood into the parks, but during the wet season in which we arrived, we were the only guests at the lodge. We were greeted with wet towels to clean the dust from our faces and cool drinks to quench our thirst. Our bags were carried to our luxury tents by the attentive staff who also served us a three-course meal while we dined alone in the big empty room. I admit we felt a little silly with the entire hotel staff waiting on us, especially at breakfast when a huge buffet was laid out for just the two of us. But this was just a small taste of the luxuries available on Tanzania’s Northern Safari Circuit.
From the moment we arrived in Tanzania, we remarked at how well the system was set up in order to cater to its higher class clientele. From our fantastic accommodation in Arusha to that of the Serengeti, everything had been planned with high-paying guests in mind. Budget backpackers would find little here to suit their needs, with even basic tent camping safaris costing around $150/day. Granted, there are a wide range of services available, but by traveling in the low season we were able to stay in the classy hotels for the same price one could pay for a comfortable camping safari during peak season. Also, the weather was gorgeous, sunny almost all the time with beautiful and dramatic skies to accentuate the unforgettable landscapes. The little rain only added to the beauty by turning everything bright green and fueling the growth of wildflower fields across the savanna and especially on the floor of the Ngorongoro Crater.
Best of all, there were few tourists so we rarely had to share the sights with other guests, except when there was something really special and all the vehicles came pouring in. In those times, it became a bit of a madhouse with vehicles jostling for position and frustrations flaring; though had it been the high season, I would have found those moments unbearable. I could only remark, time and time again, how happy we were to have visited during low season when the weather was excellent and the number of tourists more tolerable. That being said, it was clear that Tanzania’s Northern Circuit safari route had been well-tuned over the years to satisfy almost all visitors that come this way.
Tarangire National Park might not be the most well-known of Tanzania’s parks, but this 12,500 sq mile park has the greatest concentration of wildlife outside the Serengeti ecosystem. It is a lovely and quiet park skipped over by many visitors who stop in for only a few hours or rush west in search of the acclaimed Serengeti. But the beauty of Tarangire can best be appreciated by spending at least a couple of days exploring the park which is best known for its elephant migration, birding opportunities, and quiet safari atmosphere. With a game viewing area that is roughly ten times the size of nearby Lake Manyara and concentration of wildlife that is expectational throughout the year (particularly between July to October), Tarangire National Park is easily one of the highlights of the Northern Safari Circuit.