Safari. It deserves a capital S. The experience is so different to anything I’ve ever done and one I’ll never ever forget. Here is an insight into what you can expect based on my time spent in Tanzania and Zanzibar.
Via the Turskish Delight of Istanbul we arrived in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial and cultural hub. «Dar» as you’ll learn to call it, is East Africa’s second-busiest port. Aside from the cargo ships you’ll also see plenty of dhows in the bay hauling their catch of the day to or from the bustling fish market.
Let’s just say things aren’t quite like in the UK at the domestic terminal. The boarding passes were written by hand, our luggage was transferred for us on a trolley from x-ray machine to weighing scales and eventually walked directly alongside us to our 12-seater plane. Feel free to ask if you can sit next to the captain, if the flight is full someone will likely have to anyway! The little prop planes are tight and warm, but a great experience. Gone are the seat back TVs and safety videos, the pilot simply turns round in his seat and points out the exits, tells you the flight duration, checks everyone is strapped in and ours genuinely said that the rest was ‘hakuna matata’.
In total we went on three of these flights and I never managed to catch the briefing as it was so short! Our flight led us further south towards an airstrip in the Selous (pronounced suh-loo) Game Reserve, the largest reserve in Africa no less.
You may have an idea of what an airstrip may look like… This is basically a long rectangular clearing, the surface is orangey dirt with straw-like grasses. Although some people were apprehensive, the whole flight was smooth, the views were great and we even saw a giraffe as we came into land. There were warthog and impala on the airstrip just after we landed – now I was really in Africa!
We were met by two open jeeps and our very friendly rangers who offered us a refreshing glass of juice in a gazebo at the side of the strip before we got our first experience of the dirt/sand roads to camp. The jeeps have no doors or windows so you climb up the footholes on the exterior then up and over into your seat. There is a canvas cover above you and the seats are surprisingly comfortable, it’s the bouncing and bumping which takes it out of you more than anything else.
Camp is a haven of tranquility. Your ears suddenly become very aware that they’re not hearing anything. Gone are the sounds of traffic, electronics and construction, replaced with birdsong, monkey cries and the occasional breeze through the tress… Bliss! We were right on the riverside and the word serenity was designed for this location. Our accommodation was luxury safari ‘tents’ on raised wooden platforms, with running water, toilets, showers, electricity, even a front door! The only thing reminiscent of a tent really is the canvas exterior. My room also had it’s own plunge pool overlooking the river.
Before embarking on a jeep safari I’d suggest a boat safari along the river. I felt myself slipping into a very zen mood, taking in the flora and fauna of the riverbanks and watching the sun slowly descend into the water. Again, here’s a little video trying to capture the mood. Sat there listening to the hippos, watching the heron rest as the orange orb descended behind him is a memory I won’t forget for a very long time. Aside from the crocs and larger animals, bird enthusiasts will also love this trip. I was particularly taken with the golden weaver nests and bee eaters’ bright colours diving in and out of little holes in the riverbank.
Safari proper is a very exciting time, especially for safari virgins like me. Our ranger was extremely knowledgeable, informative, patient and pleasant. No question was too banal, no amount of time required for photographing too long. We were out all day, with stops for ‘bush toilet’ breaks – as it says on the tin, you go behind a bush – tea and coffe by a lake, lunch under one of the iconic umbrella trees, an afternoon stretch of the legs by the hippos, etc. You really have to experience it to understand it, however I have taken plenty of snippets to try and convey things. Seeing my first lions in the wild, dozing under a tree, from about 3 metres away is a memory engrained in me for life. I was totally blown away by how close we were and how calm and nonchalant they were. What also slightly bemused me was the fact we drove for around two minutes (which at about 15mph isn’t far) and then stopped under one of the iconic umbrella trees for lunch and a cold beer!
Here are my top safari tips:
- Take a large memory card (you won’t believe how many pics you’ll take)
- Wear neutral colours, avoid bright colours but also whites will get ingrained with orange dust so beiges and khakis are best.
- Hats and suncream are a must – but hold onto them tight. I was topping up once and dropped it over the side so we all yelled stop and I climbed down and ran back to get it! With no doors or windows the sun beams in the side of the jeep so you’re in the heat for several hours.
- Keep drinking – most drives will come complete with water and coolers, just don’t forget to keep sipping all day
- If you have a large bust then a sports bra is a god send! At times it can be very bumpy. We names one particularly bumpy track the ‘bouncy boob road’. Enough said!
- Take a notepad and pen to note down the names of all the animals you see – you’re sure to forget some of the names otherwise
- Hand sanitiser can come in very handy
I’d suggest you mix boat safaris, walking safaris (the ranger will take a gun for this one), jeep safaris, village tours, fishing, etc to mix things up. After our second full day (8 hours) in the jeep I have to admit that was plenty for me.
During our stay in the Selous we also stayed at the stunning Mivumo River Camp. Twelve individual and spaced out thatched rooms on stilts peek through the trees along the riverside. Give yourself a day of pure relaxation here as well as the safari activities on offer. A dip in the crystal clear pool overlooking the river is the perfect antidote to a dust-filled day. I can highly recommend the sandbank sundowners, a great way to end the day. You’re taken by boat to a river beach which isn’t actually there during the rainy season and offered cocktails and nibbles as the African sun lights up the sky during its orange descent.
You will be spoilt for choice with bathing options in your room – from the free-standing bath in the spacious bathroom, to the outdoor shower overlooking the hippos, to the plunge pool (which takes just ten minutes to fill), you’ll be spoilt for choice. The only potential peeping Toms are the animals in the river below – bliss! The oversized bed felt very soft and inviting, whether the 8 hours in a jeep had anything to do with it I don’t know! Here’s a bird’s eye view: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6MW1NWaaxM
One other aspect I’d never even contemplated before was the presence of maasai at the hotels after nightfall. They are there to walk you to your room. At first I deemed that unnecessary, as the pathways were reasonably well lit. Then I noticed the stick they carried… and the fact they swept the torch to the right and left of the path into the darkness. I soon learnt that they are there to protect you from leopards, monkeys and even hippos who may be ‘out and about’ at night – surreal is an understatement. You quickly realise you’re in their territory.
After safari we headed to another airstrip and arrived a mere 60 seconds before our scheduled takeoff time! There was simply a gazebo, a windsock and a toilet in terms of anything resembling an airport, it was lovely! Then it was back to Dar, the scanning and x-ray ritual of the domestic airport, a quick check in on the free wifi then off again on a 20 minute flight across the Indian Ocean eastwards to the island of Zanzibar.
A quick transfer and we were at the Serena Zanzibar, a hotel right on the beach steeped in history. The change from the beiges and oranges of the game reserve to the striking turquoise of the sea is a vibrant one, but the presence of other beings not completely gone, as I watched dolphins swim past from my balcony! After watching the sunset from the pool with sundowners I’d definitely recommend a sumptuous seafood dinner on the roof terrace looking out towards Prison Island. The truly delicious food was accompanied for a time by enthusiastic musicians who I joined in dancing to the Lion King song to.
A walking tour of Stonetown should definitely be part of your itinerary during your stay in Zanzibar. The main food market smelt ripe but is well worth a visit. All kinds of exotic fruits are piled up, all shapes and sizes of meat and fish on offer, with no plastic food containers or hygiene sprays in sight! If you’d like to take photos, it’s fine for a group, but if it’s of an individual with their wears then it’s best to ask permission first. The former slave market for East African Slave trade is a sombering experience but indicative of the history of the island. Slaves were brought here to be sold. Those who were defiant and resisted the lashings without breaking down were sold for a higher price, we were told. The architectural style of Stonetown buildings is a unique mixture of various influences and cultures – look out for the Arabic and Indian influenced balconies. There are also some stunning examples of carpentry in many doors, commissioned to show that the home was owned by those with wealth.
The drive across the island from West to East takes in more markets, rural dwellings of mud huts and brick houses, open countryside and one avenue of note. The story goes that a young Princess planted mangoes along both sides of the road, one for each man she ‘desired’. There are some 500 trees lining the avenue, of a wide variety of species, making for a beautiful sight and quite the image of this princess’ life!
The hotels we stayed at on the East coast are all part of the Zanzibar Collection. Breezes is well-suited to families, although Tides restaurant – made for just two people, is highly romantic and the private beach bonfire you can have to compliment it is definitely honeymoon-worthy. There is a handy Swahili phrase guide in your welcome file in your room. The tide recedes quite a lot, so make sure you time your dips and bring your jelly shoes or similar. The sand is fine and as white as I’ve ever seen, great for engraving with messages and designs!
Next door is The Palms, a small property with just 6 rooms. Everything is centred around a lovely pool, and you get your own gazebo right on the beach.
Next is Baraza, voted number one hotel in Africa and part of the Leading Hotels of the World. It doesn’t take long to see why. The mosaiced pool exudes class and you’ll be brought unlimited iced drinks or coconuts right to your lounger. The Arabian style swathes the resort in a relaxing and luxuriant mood and the food is excuisite, offering plenty of choices without the overkill of many resorts these days. You can take out kayaks, learn to scuba dive, play beach volleyball, or just laze in your private pool or on the day bed at your private villa.
Finally we visited Zawadi Beach Villas, soon to open and just a few minutes drive away. This resort enjoys a stunning hilltop location with uninterrupted views of the Indian Ocean from each clifftop thatched villa. The style of this proeprty goes away from Arabian and is much more minimalistic, with neutral tones, sure to be a firm favourite with honeymooners. Booking are being taken from July onwards and they have people booked in from 1-10 nights so far. I feel sorry for whoever has booked just one night – they’ll definitely want more when they arrive!
If you’re looking for a honeymoon or holiday with a difference, combining safari with sun and sand, then please do get in touch for advice and offers.