Tanzania is an awesomely beautiful place. There's a reason it's world famous. To our surprise, it wasn't crowded!
Serengeti National Park
We started with a safari at Serengeti National Park, Tanzania's world-famous game park. We expected to see hoards of tourists chasing animals in Land Rovers in a park that couldn't possibly live up to its hype. Boy were we wrong! It was great. The Serengeti is a vast grasslands -- the word "serengeti" comes from a Maasai word meaning "endless plain". Imagine a yellow, waist-high, grassy plain that stretches to the horizon in all directions, with an occasional Acacia tree dotting the landscape. And although we occasionally saw 10 or more cars crowding around harder-to-find animals (like lions, leopards, and cheetahs), we felt like it was just us and the animals most of the time.
We were lucky to catch the tail end of the wildebeest migration, when huge herds head north in search of water. We also saw several lions playing and climbing trees, 5 cheetahs hunting gazelle (they made 3 attempts, but missed every time), and lots of zebras, baboons, elephants, hippos and such.
Next, we went on a 4-day hike through the crater highlands region just north of the Ngorogoro Crater. This region is home to the Maasai people, who have lived here long before tourists discovered the place. The government, instead of kicking the Maasai off the land in order to create a national park (which it has done elsewhere), is trying to protect the region with the people intact. Of course, that's easier said than done -- farming and conservation have conflicting goals! To hike in this area, you must be escorted by Maasai warriors and a park ranger. We hired 2 Maasai warriors and 3 donkeys to carry gear, and picked up a park ranger on entering the park. The ranger carries a rifle to scare off any animals you may run into on the hike (most commonly, stubborn buffalo). So the two of us, along with a park ranger, 2 Maasai warriors, a trekking guide, a cook, and 3 donkeys walked for several days through beautiful hills, up mountains, and down into craters. Along the way, we met Maasai children herding cattle, saw several Maasai villages, and even camped in one village's school field. My husband finished the trek with a climb of Ol Doinyo Lengai, which is probably the toughest 9500' peak he's ever climbed.
When we arrived in Arusha to hire a safari company, we were mobbed by touts (solicitors working for safari companies) who were anxious to give us a free lift into town in the hopes of selling us a safari (and collecting a commission). Once in town, touts swarmed around us wherever we walked, pitching us non-stop. Some even waited for us outside our hotel in the morning! It sounds insane (and it is in some ways) but it makes some sense when you realize how wealthy tourists are compared to most Tanzanians. Just about every tourist that waltzes into town is either going to Serengeti NP or climbing Kili, which means they'll be spending at least $90 per person per day for anywhere between 4 to 6 days -- about as much as a guide/cook earns in 6 months. Here, you look like a walking ATM, and just about everyone tries to figure out which button to press to get some money outta you. (FYI, more than half of the safari cost goes to pay national park fees!)
Plan to spend
as little time as possible in Arusha. You want to plan your trip here then move
on. You will be constantly surrounded by touts,
which can feel uncomfortable, but we never had a problem with any of them. You
will have no problem meeting up with other people looking to go on safaris once
you arrive and can probably head out the day after you arrive. You’ll hear this
a million times – do not go out at night.
Hotel in Arusha: We stayed at the Arusha Naaz. A solid backpacker place – clean and w/ hot water in the morning & evening. It's not a good idea to walk around at night, so it was nice to have a restaurant in the hotel and an internet café. $20 a night for a single – you can try to negotiate, but we didn’t find that there was much flexibility. There are lots of cheaper places to stay in Arusha ($5/night), but you will have to look around. The taxi driver who picks you up at the bus station will have his own ideas about where you should stay, stick to your guns.
Safari Company: We used Safari Makers. We went to Tarangire (1 night), Serengetti (2 nights) and Ngorongoro crater (1 night). A camping safari is the only way to do this on the cheap -- hotel accommodation in the parks is expensive. Your Safari company can provide a tent & a sleeping bag, but you may prefer to have your own. Barbara (the owner) is very reputable & our guide (Joseph) was very well trained. He used to work for Ker Downey – one of the premier Safari Companies. Juma Peters (our cook) was a great guy, the food tasted great, there was plenty of food, and everything was very clean. We felt it was worth the slight upcharge over other companies (maybe $5-10/day more). Barbara may be willing to negotiate a little on the price & you can reserve a date & safari in advance – she will look for other people to join in on your safari. You may need to pay with cash (or travelers checks) – find out in advance and come prepared. Other than camping at night instead of a warm bed in a hotel, you will have essentially the same experience and see all the same animals as people who pay much more.
Questions and Answers
I have two children aged between 8 and 9. I would really love them to experience all sorts of tours including the ones that you can do bushwalking through. Are there any tours that your can recommend me?
I am concerned with sanitary conditions, mainly that hotel rooms are clean.One other question is how safe are safari tents from mugglers?
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