WE ARE DRESSED FOR THE PART; swaddled in shades of khaki, greens and browns, multi-layered against the chill of our early morning drive in the Serengeti. The sun has taken over from a starlit night in which we slept peacefully, with just the distant sounds of animals going about their night foraging. The fresh, quiet peace of this early dawn is outstanding. Donning our gloves and scarves, we grab our long-lens cameras and binoculars, and set off on what has become a daily adventure. It’s still early but we’ve had our coffee along with a hearty English-style breakfast. Our bellies are full and we are excited to head out on a game drive, anticipating all the animals and birds we’ll see. Our group takes several drives a day – in the morning and then later in the afternoon. We explore when the sun is not too high in the sky and while the animals are feeding and active. Our small Tauck safari squad is 19 strong and we are on one of their terrific Earth Journeys, created in conjunction with BBC Earth and tailored for small groups of less than 24. They have an adage with which we agree – “How you see the world matters.” As our trip unfolds, this becomes a truism for us all. During the week, we enjoy a number of video documentaries from BBC Earth, finding they truly enhance our experience of the trip. We’re accompanied by Siggy, our dedicated Tauck Tour Director and four extremely knowledgeable local driver/guides. We quickly become a “family” unit during our seven-day safari.
We ride in one of the four roomy jeeps (we all get a window and can easily stand – shoes off – to look out when the roof is raised) with various members of our group and a different driver each time. It’s the ideal way to encourage camaraderie and get to know our fellow animal enthusiasts. Ages in the group range from two 18-year old high school grads accompanying their grandparents, to some young people in their late 20s and 30s but most of the rest of us are in our 50s to late 70s. Our one commonality – a love for the wildlife we are viewing and a taste for a little adventure.
Fast friendships are formed and encouraged and it’s fun to share stories as day becomes night and we congregate for a sundowner cocktail before dinner each evening, perhaps with some entertainment or a BBC vignette.
It’s early June with great weather – not too hot during the days – and our Tanzanian trek has us on a full schedule. Our itinerary is such that we usually spend two nights at each of the three wonderful lodges we visit (described at the bottom of the page). We’re discovering the endless plains that are the Serengeti – or Siringet as the Masaii call it. We’re up early at the end of each stay, to head out for another, often dusty, sometimes bumpy, drive to the next location.
We have flown into Kilimanjaro airport and spent our first night in a local hotel before coming together as a group. Siggy is very organized and knows his stuff – as is typical of any Tauck trip leader. We’re well cared for, offered solid advice, given snacks for the road, along with bottled water and reminders about using every washroom we come across!
Our adventure of discovery is all about the search for the Big Five – lion, rhino, leopard, buffalo and elephant. Some of us have been to Africa before (two safaris in Kenya for me) but most are experiencing the dark continent for the first time. Excitement is palpable and smiles are wide.
We soon hear cries from the jeeps ahead of us – and in our own. “Zebras at ten o’clock!” and “Tommies (Thompson gazelles) at three o’clock”. And then we see a grouping of giraffes – called a ‘tower’ we learn – straight ahead on our path. We stop, everyone quietens and the only sound is the click, click, click of camera shutters. We gaze in awe at these gentle creatures and speak in hushed tones. They are elegant, sweet-looking and have no fear. One stops right by our jeep to munch on a delicious bunch of Acacia tree leaves which, we learn from our guide, is their favourite food. They are so close that we can see how different the markings are on each, and how their shades really do vary. We are absolutely entranced.
And so, it goes. We stay first in the remarkable Ngorongoro Crater National Park – a volcanic caldera that never filled with water and now provides a home for over 25,000 animals and a wide variety of species including flamingoes and many bird varietals.
We drive in and down to our hotel which is literally built into the rock rim on the upper side of the crater. Our room is wonderful with all the mod cons one needs and – a bonus – a remarkable view of the crater from our private terrace. It’s absolutely thrilling to be up high and gaze down on the animals below. The crater is about 20 km wide and filled with forest, varied grasslands, lakes and watering holes. The animals are safe – except, of course, from each other! There is no poaching here, which is wonderful, as that ache is ever present in our minds as we engage with these beautiful creatures. The crater is a must do on any Tanzanian trip.
Our game drive there is marvellous as we come to a hippo pool, leave our vehicles and get somewhat near to those big-mouthed, snuffly animals – called a ‘bloat’ – and see them submerging and lounging in the mud.
Driving on, we come to a small clearing where an expansive picnic lunch has been set up for us, literally in the middle of the bush. We feel privileged and the whole effect is magical as a buffet BBQ appears, along with drinks and wine. We love that we are off on our own, no others in sight and that this special inclusion is just a typical part of travelling with Tauck. Nothing but the best.
We are fortunate to see many lions, including a number of couples romancing each other. Is it mating season we wonder? But we’re told no, this goes on all the time. We just happen to be running into lions coupling and taking their time to do so. Apparently, they often take up to a week together – a sort of honeymoon, our driver Geoffrey tells us, to ensure the production of offspring. We see a few prides with cubs as well, mostly slumbering in the warmth of the day.
Our encounters with elephants were many and varied and we came so close to a herd that they – and we – were equally surprised. A few trumpets from the matriarch gave us fair warning and we quickly backed up, giving them their space and sat for many minutes watching. The other females surrounded their young and then, when they saw no threat, continued with the business of feeding and roaming to prepare for a night’s sleep. We were impressed by the way they each care for the other and prioritize the safety of their own family unit. Elephants are magnificent and this experience was one of our best.
The zebras – a ‘dazzle’ as they are called – were wonderful. We saw many but were particularly thrilled to see a mating dance occur. It was utterly fascinating, with both male and female engaging – the male kneeling on one leg as if bowing to her beauty, and the female placing her head on his back in a sign of submission, each biting and moving and literally dancing around each other in the most absorbing and enchanting way.
There were even two leopard sightings, which were a highlight for all. Our driver guides found them each time with their keen eyes, lolling up in trees, one with a kill – a rare and unforgettable sight. We also saw one lone rhino in the distance making it possible for us to boast about our Big Five sightings.
Other highlights included a balloon safari very early one morning across the plains. We sailed low to see animals beneath us and finished with a Champagne breakfast on the ground – included by Tauck. On our first full and busy day we visited a Masaii boma to meet the villagers; we danced a little, smiled a lot, and were privileged to be invited into their homes – very small huts made of earth, sticks and cow dung. The Masaii are wanderers by nature and will move villages with the animals as migration takes place. They can also take several wives and usually have many children.
We bonded with them, bought a few of their crafts and then headed to the next stop which is an important feature of any Tauck safari. We were taken to a school to meet the children, see their classrooms and also to give some gifts and make a contribution to help the school buy supplies. It was an eye-opening experience and reminded us of how very lucky we are here at home. The children were delightful, singing us a few songs and loving to have their pictures taken.
Africa is inspirational; it’s spectacular art on canvas – a huge painting of every colour imaginable, covered by an almost indescribable patina. It has depth and character, and yet is swathed in mystery. The colours on this canvas are punctuated by the crystal-like stars of a darkening sky as it follows the blood red of a full, fat sunset permeating the grasslands around us. It’s truly a masterpiece in every imaginable way.
WHERE WE STAYED
Tauck works with Serena Hotels in Tanzania and we stayed at two lodges and a tented camp on safari, for two nights each. All offered welcoming service and charming accommodations with Wi-Fi and basic in-room coffee/tea makers. Some were quite luxurious, each with a distinct style and décor.
Serengeti Serena Safari Lodge
This property has interesting ‘Rondavel” style huts clustered throughout the grounds with thatched roofs and a private terrace, each blending into the landscape of acacia groves and offering stunning views over those endless Serengeti plains. There are two units – upper and lower – in each hut, but privacy is maintained. The main lodge has a sense of a tribal dwelling and an indigenous aesthetic, with wonderful dark beams, huge wooden pillars with embellished carvings and a high domed ceiling which covers the two-level dining space. There are expansive stone terraces on which to relax – and there’s a pool and lovely terrace area surrounding it – the perfect spot for our group to savour an official Sundowner welcome cocktail and enjoy local entertainment as the sun set on another safari day. The spacious rooms have lots of wood accents, warm earth tones, a bathroom with shower, one sink and a desk. At night, one needs an escort to and from one’s room but it didn’t stop us spying a bush baby nest in a tree by our room! The food, with an expansive buffet offering for both dinners, was the best of the week.
Ngorongoro Serena Safari Lodge
Literally carved into the crater rim and built from local river stone boulders, this hotel, set within a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has amazing views from each room’s private terrace and from the main lodge itself. The rooms are reached by timbered walkways on several levels and offer very comfortable accommodations with great features and amenities, a large bathroom and locally inspired décor. Masaii carvings, painted walls, leather headboards and brass lamps all add to the authentic character. We did not require a guide at night as one could walk inside the hotel to the lovely, comfortable main lounge and the upper dining area which has huge windows for viewing.
There’s a fire going literally all the time, and a bar and terrace to enjoy that early evening cocktail. The whole place is utterly charming and a wonderful place to start a safari. There’s a pool, although in early June the weather was very cool at night, so not much outdoor activity took place. Our bush picnic lunch was organized by the hotel and Tauck and dinners were taken at family-sized tables with members of our group, with a mix of menu and buffet options and a comfort food sensibility.
Kirawira Tented Camp – Western Serengeti
This luxurious tented camp sits on a hilltop – and yes, again there is a spectacular view. Even the main lodge area and dining rooms are tented and you feel as if you are partaking of an “Out of Africa” moment with a colonial ambiance evocative of the Edwardian era. There was time to sip a Pimms on a campaign-style chair set on the terrace and relax on the chintz covered chairs and couches, enjoying the slightly old-fashioned and delightful feel. Each tent, set on a timbered platform with a spacious deck, is located a discreet distance from the others. They are splendidly luxurious with a separate, black and white tiled floor bathroom with shower and separate loo and two sinks and there are zippers for all “windows” and the tent entry. A comfy king-size four-poster bed, accents such as steamer trunks, leather pulls and more campaign chairs made this my favourite lodge. It’s an atmospheric spot with a large pool and terrace and fantastic bird life and a few monkeys running around on one’s tent roof. Again, after dark, one has to be escorted to and from the main tents.
GETTING READY FOR YOUR TANZANIAN SAFARI
- Organize well ahead of time. Canadians need a visa, so apply online early as it can take up to a month. You can get a visa when you land in Tanzania (TZ) but it’s not recommended.
- Visit a medical clinic specializing in African travel to see which shots you require. Although there are currently no occurences in TZ, you may need a yellow fever vaccination as well as other shots, depending on your age and health history. Malaria pills are a must but they may cause tummy upsets and diarrhea, so take Imodium and Gravol. Use bottled water – even for brushing your teeth.
- Take international or UK electrical converter plugs. Most hotels have wall-mounted hairdryers with phone charging outlets in their bases.
- Buy from people in the villages to help the local economy – mostly bracelets and small wood carvings. US Dollars are widely accepted and appreciated.
- Be prepared to wake early every day, not get enough sleep and know that free time is minimal.
- Don’t wear black, take a hat and dress in layers – it’s cool in the morning and at night but warm enough for a swim during the day.
- Tauck sends helpful information ahead of time and provides an app. At their suggestion we brought pens and notebooks to give to the school we visited and gave our Tour Director some US cash to pass along. Tauck generously makes a donation every visit and you may want to contribute, but it’s not obligatory. The children walk to school – sometimes several kilometers – and go home for lunch. The conditions are basic – but they’re happy! It feels good to help out.
LEADING THE WAY IN SUSTAINABLE AND RESPONSIBLE TOURISM AROUND THE WORLD
Tauck engages in many preservation efforts and extends grants to a number of organizations around the world. Their sustainability efforts start at their head office in the US and they are now rolling out eco-friendly conservation initiatives aboard their river cruises – many aimed at eliminating small, single-use plastics. Insulated reusable water bottles are now also offered on many tours.
Words by Vanessa Lee. Photography by Tim Boyles. Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of Cruise & Travel Lifestyles.