From Serengeti to Zanzibar - a Bush Flight Adventure
Updated: May 1, 2021
You can plan a safari countless ways. Some people fly directly in and out of Serengeti, some start there then work back east towards Arusha, and some do the east to west thing like we did. Having driven hours across the Tanzanian countryside from Arusha to Serengeti, we decided to skip the drive in reverse. Instead, we settled on a “bush flight” out of Serengeti to Zanzibar to wrap up our safari.
In 1954, Ernest and Mary Hemingway somehow survived two plane crashes on similar (also Cessna) bush flights in Africa. With this in mind, we chose not to broadcast this part of our safari plans to family until after we landed safely in Zanzibar.
A Final Game Drive - and the Worst Dik-Dik Husband Ever
After our final breakfast in Serengeti, we’d get a “bonus” game drive on the way to the airport.
Acacia - our camp - was secluded. While there aren’t any towns, per se, in Serengeti National Park, there are a couple administrative areas. Seronera sits in the center of Serengeti, and it’s the closest thing to a town in the park - a few research facilities, housing for the rangers and their families, a couple shopettes to support these folks, and an airstrip.
To get from our camp to this airstrip, we had to drive about 90 minutes through some pretty rugged country. So, while not technically another game drive, we’d have one last opportunity to see some animals and more beautiful terrain.
For Jenna, this couldn’t have worked out better! We’ve said it before, but she absolutely fell in love with dik-diks, the tiny antelopes that mate for life.
As we rounded a bend, Jenna let out a “dik-diks!” Slamming on the breaks, Salim (who by now recognized how much these tiny creatures made Jenna smile), threw the jeep in reverse. About 10 meters back, we spotted Mrs. Dik-Dik, frozen like the proverbial deer in the headlights. Mr. Dik-Dik, on the other hand, clearly had no issues ditching “the missus” and jetting away from us on his own. They may mate for life, but this guy was clearly the worst dik-dik husband ever - no problems leaving his wife behind to fend off the “danger” posed by Jenna’s cuteness-overload obsessions…
Officially, central Serengeti’s airfield is called Seronera Airstrip. It’s used to fly tourists in and out of the park, provide logistical support, and - in emergencies - allow for medical evacuations. And, it’s aptly named - far more airstrip than airport.
When we arrived, Salim linked us up with a rep from the airline, someone to make sure we A) got on a plane, and, more importantly, B) got on the correct plane. We hugged it out, tipped Salim, and said our goodbyes - absolutely incredible guy. (NOTE: safari guides receive a bulk of their pay via foreign currency tips, making guides - like people in the service industry as a whole - particularly hard hit by COVID-related travel restrictions).
Next step: figure out the flight. Our point of contact seemed particularly laissez faire about the whole process, taking our bags and telling us to just hang out inside until he came and got us. For Jenna, this relaxed approach didn’t work:
Jenna to Chipp, notes of stress in her voice: “But where do we check in?”
Chipp: “This doesn’t strike me as the sort of operation where one checks in for a flight…”
Instead, people just sort of mill about in a one-room waiting area, with small planes landing and taking off every 15 minutes or so. Naturally, Jenna entered full panic mode about missing our flight due to the seeming chaos of this system.
Sometimes Chipp’s everything-will-be-okay approach works, sometimes it doesn’t. This time, everything worked out just fine. After watching a few flights land, load up, and depart - with the right people somehow boarding the right planes - our man gave us a thumbs up. Okay, guess that means we should get on the next plane.
A single-engine prop plane wheeled up in front of the building, and we strolled out to board with a half dozen other passengers. Yep, definitely an airstrip - no paved runway here, just a dirt track. We asked for a “bush flight,” and we’d get it. Once aboard, the pilot taxied out to the end of the track, turned around, and began accelerating for takeoff. It’s a surreal experience feeling potholes and bumps on a plane, so we just kept our fingers crossed - quite a feeling of relief finally going airborne!
The First Leg - Seronera to Arusha
Our tiny plane wouldn’t make it all the way from Serengeti to Zanzibar, so we’d stop to refuel at Arusha Airport - the smaller, domestic airport just outside of the city.
Backtracking to Arusha would provide a few awesome “aerial experiences.” First, leaving Serengeti, we flew over the tail end of the Great Migration en route to Ndutu Plain. Incredible sight from above - looks like a narrow, meandering river, as it’s impossible to make out individual wildebeest.
Continuing east, we passed over Ngorongoro. When you’re at the base of this caldera - or even up on the rim - it’s hard to fully grasp the absolutely massive size. Flying thousands of feet up in the air, you quickly appreciate just how enormous this natural enclosure truly is. We couldn’t spot our lodge hidden in the trees on the rim, but we did find the pond with the picnic site next to it - one of the more picturesque places we ate during the entire safari.
Lastly, flying into Arusha Airport - as opposed to the larger Kilimanjaro International an hour outside the city - let us get a much better feel for Arusha itself. From the air, you see the sprawling city give way to shaded coffee plantations, rolling green hills, and - towering over the city to the northeast - Mount Meru and Arusha National Park. It’s hard to imagine when exploring the bustling city just how close you are to such stunning nature.
The Second Leg - Arusha to Zanzibar
We landed in Arusha (paved runway this time…), refueled, then took off on the second leg of our travels. From the city, we’d fly southeast over eastern Tanzania and, eventually, cross a narrow stretch of Indian Ocean to Zanzibar.
Once again, the flight provided some outstanding views of the Tanzanian countryside - gradually transitioning out of the highlands towards the lush coastal areas. But, this leg would also induce a little more Jenna stress.
During the refueling, we had to deplane. Loading back up, the pilot asked if anyone wanted to join him up front in the co-pilot’s seat. A Swiss fellow jumped at the opportunity. Turns out, he’d have more “stick time” than any of us realized. About 10 minutes into the flight, the pilot leaned over, provided some instructions, and let the Swiss “pilot” take over responsibilities - for the next 30 minutes! Seemed a little cavalier, but hey, we made it there eventually.
A Blanket of Humidity and Why Tanzania’s Called Tanzania
When we stepped off the plane onto the tarmac of Zanzibar’s international airport, it felt like an absolute blanket of heat and humidity draped over us. Wild how, in only a couple hours flight time, we left the dry air of Serengeti for the tropical, Indian Ocean climate of this island. Over the next three weeks, we’d never fully acclimate to this new environment, instead just accepting a layer of sweat as a fact of life in Zanzibar.
In a brief aside, we found the origins of the name Tanzania pretty interesting, too. Before 1964, two separate nations existed: Tanganyika and Zanzibar. The former gained independence from the British in 1961, with the latter receiving it two years later. However, Zanzibar’s independence proved short-lived, with a bloody revolution rocking the island in early 1964.
This revolution - and some other political considerations beyond the scope of this post and our limited understanding - led to the union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar. On 26 April 1964, the United Republic of Tanzania (Tanganyika + Zanzibar) was formed. But, calling this a united country is somewhat misleading. In reality, Zanzibar acts as an autonomous region, with its own Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar holding sway - and refusing to renounce the island’s sovereignty.
Driving North to Nungwi and a “Welcoming Cat”
Zanzibar’s airport is located just south of the capital - Zanzibar City. From there, we’d need to drive about 90 minutes north to the beach town of Nungwi, where we’d stay for the next three weeks. Fortunately, Bright African had contacts here, as well, so they lined up a driver for us.
Driving north through the tropical countryside definitely provided a different experience than our travels around Arusha. In addition to the lush vegetation, Zanzibar has a totally different ethnic make-up and heritage than mainland Tanzania, with 99% of the population Muslim and a significant Arab and South Asian influence. From architecture to clothing to the large number of mosques, we clearly felt as if we’d left one country and entered another - one we’d love exploring.
And, what could drive our (Jenna’s) enthusiasm for a new area through the roof more than anything? Cats! More specifically, a welcoming cat. After an hour and half driving through tiny villages and tropical countryside, we arrived at our new home in Nungwi - Highland Bungalows. As the host guided us to our room, Jenna let out another dik-dik-esque yelp - “oi!” Chipp now knows how to translate these little exclamations - “cat!”
Lounging in a chair on our front porch, Stevie the Cat lazily opened his eyes and turned towards us. To Jenna, this absolutely meant “welcome to Highland Bungalows and enjoy your stay!”