A Tanzanian Safari - Why and How We're Doing It
Updated: Oct 27, 2021
Need to provide some full disclosure on our Tanzanian safari plans. Actually, we need to provide some full disclosure on how we paid for this safari.
Our stated travel and work goal was to keep enough cash coming in from remote work to cover our daily expenses - not wanting to raid our (limited) savings. But, remote work definitely wasn’t going to cover a safari. Jumping forward a bit, we met an awesome German couple who embraced an interesting philosophy: you don’t want to be the richest person in the graveyard.
Bottom line, we had a (maybe) once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go on safari, and it was well worth diving into savings to make it happen. Or, in a more American version of the above philosophy, you can’t take it with you!
Besides some Toto lyrics, we knew next to nothing about Tanzanian safaris before our trip. Where should we go? What should we see? Fortunately, looking at a map - and doing a little research - the problem solves itself.
We knew - both from popular culture and general background knowledge - that we ultimately wanted to get to the Serengeti. Not knowing much, we still understood that you can’t go on safari in Tanzania and not see these plains. Growing up in Buffalo, Ukraine, or pretty much anywhere else in the world, you watch National Geographic videos of lions, wildebeest, elephants, zebra and countless others roaming these plains. Clearly, we’d have to see Serengeti National Park.
But, as there’s more to New York City than the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty, there’s a hell of a lot more to northern Tanzania than this most famous of parks. And, we had the time and flexibility to see of some of these other places.
Back to the map thing. If you pull up Google Maps (played a large role in our planning) and move southwest out of Arusha, you get to Tarangire National Park. Let’s look it up… Turns out, this lush park traversed by the Tarangire River holds one of the highest densities of elephants in the world - and baobab trees! Add it to the list!
Immediately north of Tarangire - and en route to Sergengeti’s eastern access gate - you hit Lake Manyara, another stunning national park. Unfortunately, we were there during a rainy season, making the shores largely impassible from overgrown vegetation. Skip it.
Just beyond Manyara - and up the nearly vertical wall of the East African Rift - you get to Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Doing a little research, we learned this included Ngorongoro Crater (technically a “caldera,” but we wouldn’t know that for a while). Formed by a volcano millions of years ago, this geographic feature now serves as a natural enclosure, creating a unique, natural ecosystem of animals in extremely close proximity. Yep! And, logistically, you need to drive through Ngorongoro to get to Serengeti anyway, so it’d be stupid not to stop off there.
Last but most certainly not least, we’d spend the bulk of our time in Serengeti National Park. Bordered on the north by Kenya and its Maasai Mara National Reserve, Serengeti’s most well-known for the Great Migration, the movement of millions of wildebeest, zebra, and other animals across these plains. This would be our last stop before catching a “bush flight” out of the park and on to Zanzibar (spoiler alert: we avoided a Hemingway situation on this flight).
Jenna Stressing/Researching Safari Companies and Plans
We were definitely happy with the above plan. But, it’s one thing to sketch out some back-of-the-napkin plans. It’s quite another to put together the details to actually make it happen. And, it’s a good thing Chipp and Jenna have different approaches to travel!
Chipp, three weeks before leaving Turkey for Tanzania: “No worries, we’ll figure something out when we get to Arusha - tons of safari companies.”
Jenna: “Are you crazy? People normally plan safaris months - if not years - in advance. We need to figure this out now!”
Well, as with any good marital disagreement, we compromised and did what Jenna wanted. For the next week, she lived, breathed, and slept safari planning. She’d eventually contact eight different companies, reviewed detailed itinerary proposals from four of them, and probably read close to 1,000 online reviews.
A COVID Silver Lining
Overkill? Maybe. But, a week and an enormous amount of self-imposed stress later, Jenna had confirmed our safari company. Two weeks before getting on a plane for Tanzania, we wired our deposit (always nerve-wracking experience) to Bright African Safaris.
And, as with basically all of the Jenna-overriding-Chipp decisions, this was an awesome one – absolutely incredible experience with this company. Would we have had good experiences with anyone? Yeah, probably. But, it’s hard to imagine having a better time – largely a product of the company’s detailed planning and our unbelievable guide, Salim (plenty more about him later!).
But, back to the whole plan-a-safari-a-couple-weeks-out approach. In normal times, this would be laughable. Tour companies and lodges in the parks get booked ages in advance – zero chance we could’ve pulled the trigger on a safari so last minute.
It’s hard to call anything a good thing in the COVID era, so we’ll just call this a silver lining. With ever-changing travel restrictions, we couldn’t plan beyond the next leg of our trip. Sitting in Turkey, we realized Tanzania still allowed visitors – how about going on a safari? That’s how that decision-making process worked. And, this spur-of-the-moment, only-possible-in-an-era-of-COVID-disrupted-travel trip turned out to be one of the most incredible experiences of our lives.
Nor were we the only ones in this situation. We met a great cast of characters during our Tanzanian travels (and our entire time on the road!), and stumbling into a safari happened to be a pretty common back story. Two wonderful Texan ladies we met on our first night were initially planning a trip to Petra. When Jordan closed its borders, they decided on a Nile cruise followed by a Tanzanian safari. A German couple we met in Arusha then overlapped with in Ngorongoro initially planned on honeymooning to Madagascar. Same story – borders closed, and they ended up in Tanzania.
That’s the background. That’s how, three weeks before getting on a plane, we decided to go on a safari. Strange? Sure. But, we wouldn’t have changed a thing.
Meeting Our Safari Guide
Our last morning in Arusha, we woke up early, had a final Hotel Venus breakfast, and checked out. Bright African lined up the same driver who picked us up from the airport to bring us to their headquarters, a compound about 30 minutes west of the city center.
This’d be our first introduction to Salim, our guide and the man with whom we’d spend ~10 hours per day in a jeep for the next nine days. What an absolute rock star. In addition to being a consummate professional, it’s hard to remember a time during our entire safari when Salim didn’t have a huge smile on his face. He’s just one of those guys who A) obviously loves what he does, and B) spreads that enthusiasm to everyone around him. Later:
Chipp: “We really lucked out with Salim – awesome guy!”
Jenna: “Luck? How about a thank you for all the time and effort you put into researching this!”
In a number of the reviews she’d (obsessively?) read, Jenna learned about Salim, and she knew he’d be a phenomenal tour guide – once again, spot on!
And… We’re Off
Neither of us had ever been on a safari, and we didn’t quite know what to expect with the vehicle. As with everything Bright African put together, we were blown away by our “rolling stock.”
They took an extended cab Toyota Landcruiser, threw in pilot-style seats in the second and third rows, installed a fridge, and made the hard-top roof extendable – outstanding. It’s hard to imagine a cooler way to drive through such beautiful places – standing in the back with 360 degree views, and we had cold drinks, to boot!
Loading our gear into the back of the truck, we hopped into the second row and took off for Tarangire. It’d be a two-ish hour drive to the entrance – time well spent getting to know Salim and picking his brain about safaris, his background, and Tanzanian life, in general. Perfect way to start our adventure.