Exploring East Africa: On Safari in Tanzania (and on to the Indian Ocean Beach in Zanzibar)

"Exploring East Africa: On Safari in Tanzania (and on to the Indian Ocean Beach in Zanzibae)", with photographs by Marcia Jacobson, The Syracuse Post-Standard Sunday STARS Magazine, Oct. 15, 2011, 14-15.

Addressing our guide Steven in the Ngorongoro crater, I excitedly ask: “What is that stopped vehicle looking at? Have they seen a lion, leopard or cheetah?

Stephen wryly responds:  “He is lost; he is looking at a sign for directions.”

Picture a pride of 18 lions—several of them playful cubs-- walking by your vehicle in the savannah of the Serengeti, each of them within 15 feet of you. Or think of finding the male lion of the pride courting a beautiful female a few minutes later. Or imagine watching a male lion seize the considerable remains of a hyena kill of a topi (a kind of antelope) and munch it while you watch—and hyenas, jackels, and vultures attentively await to scavenge the leavings.

Or in your mind’s eye watch four female lions prepare for a kill.  They stalk a warthog by sneaking through the grass foot by foot, while every other animal in vicinity stands at attention. As the lions prepare for the kill, other warthogs warn the oblivious warthog and the kill doesn’t take place.

Tanzania, elephants in the Serengeti
Finally, would you believe that you could be parked within a herd of elephants and see them walk no more than a few feet from your safari vehicle?

On our June Tanzania safari, a counterpart to one we took in Kenya last year, we enjoyed all the aforementioned and much more.


While I arranged our stay at Rivertrees Country Inn—an excellent lodge between Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru on the Usa river and one which uses its own homegrown fruits and vegetables--for two nights after landing in Kilimanjaro and our post safari stay at Baraza Resort in Zanzibar on the beach, The Africa Adventure Company and its African agent company, Asilia, capably arranged our safari and it met all our expectations.

We flew KLM which now belongs to the minimalist school of airlines, a category marked by indifferent if not rude staff, broken in-flight entertainment equipment for some or all passengers on three of the four flights, non working climate control accompanied by unresponsiveness to requests for extra blankets, food ranging from low mediocre to inedible, and arrogant responses from senior staff to passengers voicing complaints as if that were not permissible on KLM flights. 


Richard Leakey discovered the earliest evidence of human life (hominids) that lived 3.6 million years ago in Tanzania. What is now called Tanzania was a major center of the slave trade, especially the island of Zanzibar that was ruled by Arabs. Tanzania’s colonial past began in 1884 with German colonization of Tanganyika, but most of Tanganyika was given to British after World War I, although the districts of Rwanda and Burundi were given to Belgium. Independence Day was Dec 9, 1961 with Julius Nyerere the first President; something of a Marxist, he dominated Tanzanian politics until 1985 and even for some years after that was Chairman of the ruling party. The national language is Kiswahli, although government business is conducted in English.  In 1964, Zanzibar merged with Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania.

Now the fourth largest country in Africa with a population of almost 40,000, 000, Tanzania is beset by unemployment. Nevertheless, while one sees a good deal of third world poverty, it appears that everyone has enough to eat. We were told that private schooling is almost essential preparation for university education, but the latter does not ensure employment.

Tanzania is also notable for its corruption.  For example, police pull over cars and take bribes and kicks them back to senior police officials. An airport security person in Zanzibar flagged my wife’s luggage and then, after agreeing it was fine, asked for a “tip” after obsequiously apologizing for being a nuisance. People bribe doctors to get proper medical care. An American student doing volunteer summer work in an orphanage told me that the director steals money and food from the orphanage.

While I don’t have exact figures, it seems apparent that more Americans are in Tanzania on safari than in Kenya, a country that is on the US State Department list of places that Americans are advised not to visit. The safari tourist season begins with the dry season in June after the March-May rainy season when many camps close and lasts until October when another rainy season occurs. The wildebeest and zebra migration from the Serengeti to Masai Mara in Kenya occurs in the February-March period, while the reverse migration from Masai Mara to the Serengeti is in June-July.

The Safari Experience

Some people stay at private game reserves where they are more assured of seeing animals, but we choose to search for the animals, knowing we might be disappointed. Yet I am not such a purist as Steven who was our driver-guide for the first five days and whose specialty is birds, which while not our main safari focus, is an interest of ours.  Steven is an independent introvert who doesn’t like to ask other drivers what they saw, listen to his vehicle radio so as to stay in touch with other guides, or go where other safari vehicles are congregating unless there is a major sighting.  He thinks we should only see what we find ourselves and thus chooses to go it alone. Many safari drivers do follow other vehicles—that is, watch to see where they stop—the way hyenas follow lions to feast on the remains, but Steven disdained such a technique. I prefer the radio method and see nothing wrong in watching where other vehicles stop, since we are here eight or nine days and want to maximize our sightings. Technically, there is a limit in some parks to how many vehicles can congregate in one place, but I have never seen this enforced, even when rangers are present.

In the Serengeti, a savannah with trees, shrubs and grass where the terrain is rough, we were often one of few vehicles driving on dirt roads and sometimes off roads. Often we drove through high grass where there isn’t even a path, over rocks, up and down small gorgers.  After bumping along, often in the dust but sometimes through a foot or more of water, you may feel by the end of the day that you need a massage or a chiropractor. For greater horsepower and more seating capacity—although we never went out with more than a guide, a guide in training and two other passengers--safari vehicles in Tanzania are usually constructed from pickup trucks.

For experienced safari goers, the cats—lions, leopards, cheetahs-- are the focus, but still wonderful are the elephants, giraffes, zebras, warthogs, hippos, and multifarious varieties of antelopes from impalas, wildebeests, orobis, steenboks, klipspringers and kudos (lesser and greater) to elands, reedbucks, hartebeests, waterbucks, and topis. 

Lion Tanzania, lion in the Serengeti
Our truly unforgettable highlight was 19 sightings of lions, many for quite a while and quite close, and we saw 85 lions with virtually no duplication. We saw no leopards—for us, after three safaris, waiting for a leopard to appear is our version of waiting for Godot-- and only one cheetah at some distance.

Safaris are more fun if you enjoy birds because there can be gaps between the larger animals, especially the charismatic ones like lions.  Oh, and we had one sighting of our former governor and recently deposed CNN news personality, Eliot Spitzer, who stayed at the same camp we did in the northern Serengeti and whom we noticed looking at the same group of lions in a safari vehicle parked next to ours.

Just as there is a difference between fishing and catching, on safari, there is a difference between looking and seeing. This can be frustrating but also exhilarating. While on safari, nothing is more discouraging than coming back from your game drive and finding out that others in your camp saw cats when you didn’t. At dinnertime guides brag to each other and so do their clients about what they saw.  On occasion, exaggeration plays a role and some reported sightings turn out to be distant blurs seen only by the guide.

Not only the driver-guides—some of who are better trackers than others and are experts at following footprints, droppings, and other signs-- but also those of us who are on safari need a combination of persistence, perseverance, and optimism. We go out twice a day, from 6:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and then again from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.--or perhaps for a long day from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.  The cats supposedly sleep during the hottest time of the day and wander about early in the morning or close to sunset, although this time we saw lions moving about all day.

Signs are taken for wonders. Sometimes the driver-guide will see spots in the distance and tell you that they have sighted something wonderful like two black rhinos sleeping, but all you can see through your high powered Nikons are two black dots. Encouraged by ever optimistic driver-guides, you live by the credo that “If they are not here, they might be there; if they are not there, they may be hiding close by in the bushes.”  Thinking you have spotted something, you will see what guides smilingly call an “ALT,” which stands for animal like things, namely distant rocks or trees or large termite nests that at first glance seem—possibly—to have the shape of lions.

National Parks and the Lodgings

We began our safari with an afternoon drive in the somewhat mountainous Arusha National Park that is almost adjacent to Rivertrees.  I might mention that on our second night-- a cloudless night in the Southern hemisphere-- we saw a terrific eclipse of the moon.

We then drove to the savannah terrain of the Tarangire National Park, where saw our first elephants and lions of this year’s safari and did battle with tsetse flies. We stayed at Oliver’s ten tent camp for two nights. There we did what is called a walking safari. While we saw elephants in the middle distance and some animals in the far distance as well as some interesting birds. The highlight was our knowledgeable guide’s explaining the ecological systems and how animals live off one another as well as off plant life. Our next stop was Lake Manyara Park where we saw our first hippos of this safari, and we then proceeded to  Ngrorongoro Crater—the world’s largest caldera-- where we stayed on the ridge at Serena Lodge. There we had the Day of the Lion with eight lion sightings, many for half an hour or longer, plus a distant sightings of both a cheetah and black rhino.

After two nights at Ngorongoro, we flew on an eight seater from Lake Manyara airport to the northern Serengeti where we stayed at Sayari camp for three nights until we flew on similar small planes to Zanzibar by way of Arusha.  We left Steven behind and were picked up by Titus, a Masai who worked for Sayari. Like Steven, he had amazing vision and a strong understanding of wildlife behavior.  He was sometimes hard to understand but enjoyed sharing his knowledge of the bush. He should have had better binoculars rather than borrow our Nikon.

Tented camps vary but those such as Oliver’s and Sayari are quite comfortable with concrete floors, canvas walls and ceiling, toilets, showers and, quite often, even bathtubs.  After dinner, for protection against wandering animals, you are walked back to your tent by armed camp security,

Each camp has its own routines, but they all feature excellent service. Usually, before dinner there is a campfire where guests gather to exchange stories about the day’s experience followed by a communal dinner. The people one meets on safaris have often been on more than one safari; some are well traveled; others specialize in safaris. But on the whole they are cosmopolitan people who are interesting to talk to, especially about travel and specifically about safaris.

We do not go on safari for the food. The food at camps and lodges is decent but not comparable to good restaurants in major cities.  At the camps and lodges sometimes basic is better than fancy, although they often try for the latter. Excepting Rivertrees, lunch and breakfast were usually buffets or put in a box that you take with you.   Boxed breakfasts and-- on days when we drove to new venues-- boxed lunches (often with a piece of tough overcooked and perhaps ancient chicken) are generally minimal and disappointing. When I could, I asked that my boxed meals replace white bread cheese sandwiches with yogurt and fruit. 

At dinner at the safari camps, you get a set meal with possibly a choice of entree, and you can request vegetarian meals.  Overall I found soups good; the sweet deserts quite similar and unremarkable.  Sayari had excellent breads. The well-meaning cook does not always know western tastes and the wait staff is not always alert to serving coffee and desert when you expect it.   At lodges and camps, do not expect breakfast eggs "over easy" to be produced the way you order them or look anything like what you expect.


Consisting of many small islands and two large ones--Unguja (which we visited and which is often referred to, somewhat confusingly, as Zanzibar) and Pemba--Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous island with its own government, but it is also part of the United Republic of Tanzania to which it sends five of its 81 members of its House of Representatives to sit with the National Assembly of Tanzania. Mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar disagree on the extent of semi-autonomy.  Furthermore, with two contending parties, Zanzibar has experienced considerable political turmoil and violence.

The capital is Zanzibar City, the historic center of which is Stone Town. Stone Town is certainly worth a few hours tour, which we did on the way to our beach hotel. You will learn about Zanzibar’s horrible slave trade, see quarters where slaves were kept imprisoned prior to auction, and in the National Museum learn about some more palatable Zanzibar history.

Having had two prior safari experiences, we knew we would find quite sufficient eight days of safari with twice a day drives and some driving between --packaged tours are more leisurely--and that we would be ready for four days and three nights at a Zanzibar beach resort.

Our resort on the Indian Ocean, Baraza, was elegant, luxurious, beautifully landscaped, and featured excellent service that caters to the guests' every whim. Its combination of Arab and African architecture is based on the concept of a Sultan’s Palace. Our oceanfront villa had a bedroom, a living room, and a plunge pool. With few guests in June prior to high season and physical structures roughly similar to what we recently saw in Dubai, Baraza did recall that country’s overbuilt, excessive, and barely occupied construction. But we were assured that in high season Baraza was amply occupied.

Highlights for us were a “Thai” massage and a sumptuous private lunch served on the beach featuring some of the largest prawns I have ever seen. In general, the food ranged from respectable—the lunch buffets were not remarkable-- to exceptional.  The breakfast crepes were wonderful. The ocean could be better for swimming especially at low tide, but there are two fine pools, notably 25 meters one at the center of the resort. The Baraza owners also own Breezes on the same beach and that is much less costly but also quite nice. By our standards, the weather was hot and muggy. I do need mention that Baraza does not spray its property and, although we take Malaria pills, multiple mosquito bites were a comfort issue.

If you go:

Recommended: The Africa Adventure Company (http://africa-adventure.com; 1-800-882-9453); safari@africanadventure.com) is owned by Mark Nolting, who has written widely about African safaris. Price for private tours depends on specific camps and season.
  • Air Fare direct to Kilimanjaro ($2100 each, but air fares change daily)
  • Recommended (Prices vary greatly with season): Rivertrees Country Inn (Arusha); Baraza (Zanzibar)