Jambo! Our Tanzanian Adventure

by Brian on September 5, 2008

in Just For Fun,The Old Country

The thing that will stick with me the most from our recent 12-day safari in Tanzania is the dirt. An ever-present coat of red dust settles over the entire countryside and soaks into everything – the tasteful khaki safari clothes we bought that are not supposed to display such discoloration, the insides of your shoes all the way down to the toes of the socks, even your nose – when you blow, it comes out crusty and tinged with black.

The dirt is a small price to pay, however, to experience the magic of Africa – at least the rarified colonial version of the continent that makes up the bulk of the average Western tourist’s safari vacation.

To be sure, this is not the Africa of the Masai tribal villagers who still live in mud and corrugated shacks the way their grandparents undoubtedly did and can be seen along the sides of every road, always walking (public transportation is nearly non-existent in rural Tanzania, and if it was, it’s doubtful the locals could afford it).

A full-fledged African safari is, by contrast, exclusively for visitors – most Tanzanians have never even visited one of the country’s numerous national parks and conservation areas – and the accommodations range from simple tented camps (essentially a big zippered canvass tent with a bed and porta-potty) to more full featured lodges and private plantations that are taken straight from “Out of Africa” (if you’re worried about being perceived as a pampered foreigner taking advantage of the locals, keep in mind that you’re supporting Tanzania’s economy which relies heavily on tourism).

Tanzania is probably Africa’s premiere safari destination (though not necessarily the best known – that award goes to Kenya). The country offers a wide range of landscapes and animals; its people are modest and accommodating (the welcoming cry of “Jambo!” is infectious), the service is consistently exemplary and the parks meticulously clean (all trash must removed from the park, a refreshing change from Israel’s garbage strewn outdoor attractions).

Our family of five flew into Kilimanjaro International Airport – a stunning way to start the vacation with the famous year-round snow of Mount Kilimanjaro peeking through the tops of the clouds. From there we met up with my inlaws and spent our first night at the relaxing Kigongoni Lodge just outside the bustling town of Arusha, headquarters to the tens of safari operators that trowel northern Tanzania.

We took a great Shabbat afternoon walk past coffee and banana trees where we learned that there are actually six types of bananas grown in Tanzania including sweet red ones – delicious – and another variety just used to make “banana wine” (apparently an acquired taste and not served to foreigners). We ended our walk with a visit to a bustling marketplace (the Tanzanian version of Mahane Yehuda), which was thankfully far off the regular tourist circuit.

Hotels in northern Tanzania typically consist of individual “huts” connected by lit pathways. Beds with mosquito nets can be found in most. In many facilities, you must be “escorted” to your unit after nightfall by a staff member who checks for game animals who may have wandered onto the hotel grounds.

Our itinerary covered four parks and seven facilities in just under two weeks. We drove north, practically to the Kenyan border, then flew back to Arusha for our return trip home.  Never dull, it was physically exhausting – our excellent tour guide and driver Joshua (from Unique Safaris) pushed us to get up at 5:30 AM, eat breakfast and be on the road most days by 6:30. One day, we arose at 4:00 AM for a hot air balloon ride. We wouldn’t return until 6:00 PM at night when we’d take a quick shower before dinner and an early bedtime before heading out again in the morning.

Tarangire National Park

We kicked off our trip in Tarangire National Park, a 2-hour drive from Arusha. Tarangire is known for its elephants, but we also saw a multitude of giraffes, gazelles, antelopes, warthogs (which we jokingly nicknamed “Hogwarts”), literally thousands of wildebeest and zebra, tens of exotic birds (including our favorite, the bright blue Superb Starling), not to mention even a few lions.

The park is filled with tall grass for the animals to feed on, small bushes (I guess that’s why they call it “the bush”), exotic Baobab trees (which look like they’re upside down with their “roots” sticking up) as well as indigenous “sausage” trees which feature a thick hanging fruit that resembles a fat hot dog (the fruit itself tastes awful).

We spent our two nights in Tarangire at the Kikoti Safari Camp which has each of its units raised up on stilts (to prevent animals from coming up to your door, we wondered?). When we arrived we were met by staff members bearing warmed wet wash cloths and glasses of passion fruit juice (a nice touch after a dirty day of driving). There was a performance of traditional Masai dance the first night we were there.

Lake Manyara

From Tarangire we continued to Lake Manyara, a very different landscape with thick forests filled with baboons (the largest concentration in the world) and tree climbing lions (we didn’t see any). A large alkaline soda lake dominates the view with its thousands of pink flamingos and yellow-billed storks. There is also a fresh water pool filled with over a hundred hippos. Hippos are one of the strangest creatures I’ve ever seen – enormously ugly and fast – even with their stubby legs they can outrun a person…and they will if you get between them and the water (hippos are the single largest cause of death among Tanzanian villagers, we were told).

We stayed one night at the Kirumuru Tented Lodge and another at the Plantation Lodge, the latter of which consists of a number of large private houses situated around a grassy lawn (the lodge reminded me of a Israeli kibbutz guest house – albeit much tonier).

Our dinner was typical of those we ate in Africa: hot bread and butter, a fresh salad, creamed soup (we had pumpkin, fennel and broccoli during the course of our trip), a main course (we opted for either fish or pasta) and dessert (the banana flan was pungent, but creative).

Lunches were plentiful but less successful: our hotels packed us up with to-go boxes which somehow consisted of, among other delicacies, identical cheese sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off, a hard boiled egg, some fruit, and (if we were lucky) a Cadbury chocolate bar.

Ngorongoro Crater

From Lake Manyara we continued on to our third park – the 8600 square kilometer Ngorongoro Crater and conservation area – which is where we witnessed our most dramatic animal moment: a very rare “kill” where a female lion sprinted into a vast herd of wildebeest and took down a young animal amidst a storm of dirt and dust from the fleeing herd.

Speaking of dirt again: in Tanzania’s national parks, there is no such thing as a paved road. The official reason is that it would disturb the ecological balance. In reality, it’s probably that it would be too expensive to pave and maintain such an extensive network. The result is that you absolutely need a 4-wheel drive vehicle to navigate your safari, and even then it’s an intensely bumpy ride with dust being kicked up at every turn. Our comfortable 8-seater had an open roof for optimal picture taking. It’s also a blast to stand on the seat while riding through the vast bush.

We spent two nights at the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge (where we found two large buffaloes camped outside our room) before continuing on to the world-famous Serengeti Plain.


The 14,763 square kilometer Serengeti looks the most like what you’d expect from Africa with flat vistas going on for hundreds of kilometers broken up only by volcanic rock croppings called “kopjes” which sprout up like mini-oasis’s. It was at one of these kopjes where we found our next amazing lion spotting – a large male chomping down on the bones from a recent kill, his paws and jaws still red with blood. Our guide drove in off road for a closer look: we couldn’t have been more than 2 meters from this (hopefully) satisfied king of the jungle.

The Serengeti is filled with large game animals: we found a coalition of young male cheetahs, the “usual” elephants, zebra and giraffes, plus some scary crocodiles along the banks of the Mara River. There were babies everywhere. The park is also the site of the annual wildebeest migration where more than a million animals make the seasonal journey to fresh pasture in the north, then the south, after the biannual rains (although not in August when we visited).

We divided our 3 nights in the Serengeti between the Mbuzi Mawe tented camp (where we were warned to lock our tents as the local baboon population has learned how to unzip them – Jody came face to face with a crafty monkey one morning!) and the more sparse Buffalo Springs camp which, in addition to the porta-potties mentioned above, had outdoor showers supplied by a hot water “bladder” (you open a valve and water flows; when it runs out, you refill the bladder).

So what was the best part of the vacation? The animals? The accommodations? Neither. It was the fact that we were entirely cut off from the world. There were no phones in the rooms, cellular coverage was spotty, Wi-Fi to check email non-existent. Israeli Prime Minister Olmert could have resigned (oh wait, he did that already) and we wouldn’t have known it. That allowed us to concentrate fully on the amazing experience.

In a hectic world, that was the greatest pleasure.

Getting there…

It takes 12 hours to fly from Israel to Kilimanjaro, frustrating given that a direct flight would be no more than 5. The itinerary on Ethiopian Airlines winds its way first to Addis Ababa (a short 3.5 hour night flight), then requires a 4 hour layover in the airport’s awful transit lounge (hard plastic chairs and not enough of them) before flying to Nairobi and waiting on the ground for an hour until continuing on to Tanzania.

We found tickets for $975 per person earlier this year, but depending on availability and soaring oil prices, fares could be double that.

U.S. visitors can fly via Amsterdam which has direct connections to Kilimanjaro International Airport several times a week, or via Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, which is served by many of the larger airlines such as British Air which connects to Dar from London.

We brought only carry on luggage – the Addis airport is notorious for losing bags – which was a challenge: Ethiopian Airlines has one of the lowest carry on limits of any airline – a paltry 7 kilos (15 pounds). But traveling light is a pleasure when you’re never in the same place for more than 2 nights. And most accommodations offer laundry service.

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