Writing from 3.387° S, 36.683° E
Recently I was lucky enough to get out of Arusha for a two-day safari to Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire National Park, both within 160km of my home base. It was the single most surreal experience of my life, and I’m thrilled that I’ll have the opportunity to go on at least two more during my time here in Africa.
Arusha is the starting point for many Tanzanian safaris, due to its close proximity to the Serengeti as well as other national parks like Ngorongoro, Tarangire, Lake Manyara, and more. Because I live in a house that is both for volunteers and hostel guests, we meet a lot of people who only stay for a night or two before or after their safari. While Arusha is a city that merits a stop of its own on any Tanzanian tour (stay tuned for a post on that later), it is very interesting to meet those who use it simply as a launching point or a rest stop after their game drives. We constantly get to hear all of their stories, opinions, and advice, so it was about time I got to see it for myself. Photos can describe the experience of a safari far better than any words, but here are 8 observations from my first time out in the wild:
1. Not all of the stereotypes about safaris are true, but some of them are.
For instance, you don’t just sit back and watch from the vehicle all day while countless lions sprint past hunting their prey. It’s much more common to have to drive around looking for the wildlife you want to see. People also don’t always wear khakis or olive green or clothes with lots of pockets (but sometimes they do). And, although it would be great to embody The Wild Thornberrys and drive at breakneck speed across the plains, for the most part (except on certain roads) the guides have to drive slower because a) the roads are extremely bumpy and b) they don’t want to disturb the wildlife.
2. It’s hard to imagine a more majestic sight than animals interacting in their natural habitat.
The first elephant we saw up close almost made me cry. When a massive male lion — tangled mane and all — walked right in front of us, I felt like I was dreaming. At one point, our car had to stop because a herd of zebras was leisurely crossing the road. I have never felt more patient. While I didn’t see much hunting since our game drives were during the day (most hunting happens in the morning/evening when it’s cooler), even the sight of animals napping in the grass took my breath away.
3. Many people are guilty of viewing their entire safari through a screen.
I wish I could say I wasn’t one of them, but it’s a hard tendency to avoid. With all these incredible sights surrounding you, it can be very difficult to pull your eyes away from the camera and just enjoy the moment — especially if you enjoy photography. I tried to remind myself throughout the day that pictures wouldn’t be able to fully capture the experience anyway, so I should do my best to stay present. At one point, our memory card got full so we couldn’t use the camera for the last few hours, and it ended up being more of a blessing than anything else.
4. A good guide is key to a good experience.
I have heard nightmarish stories of a bad guide making it almost impossible to enjoy a safari, even for very positive people. Because the guide/driver is with you from start to finish, and is also the one answering all your questions, simply hoping you end up with a good one may be a bit risky. Luckily, Wanyama African Safari partners with our hostel and our guide, Richard Wilson, was absolutely perfect. I’m even requesting him again for my December safari to the Serengeti.
5. The guides are smarter than you. Trust them.
Most safari guides have degrees in wildlife studies and have been on countless game drives. If they tell you to ask lots of questions, do it. They probably know the answers. If they tell you to be quiet and hold very still lest an elephant plow the car over, listen to them. If they tell you to watch your food at the picnic tables and keep a rock handy in case the monkeys get too close, heed their advice or a monkey will steal your banana (speaking from experience).
6. The Law of Diminishing Returns applies here, but try to resist.
As hard as we tried to not take any part of the experience for granted, seeing our thousandth zebra was just not going to have the same effect on us as seeing the first one did. The first received a welcome of jumping and screaming and 10 minutes of photo-taking. The thousandth one got an appreciative nod. This is all normal, but still try to fully appreciate every minute. It’s not just like any other day.
7. Safaris don’t have to be crazy expensive.
Someone told me once that they could never go on safari because it costs thousands of dollars. While it’s true that some are extremely luxurious, we partook in a midrange “budget” safari, aka all our park entrance fees were included, but we ate boxed lunches and slept in igloos. Some safari-goers stay in 5-star lodges and have a personal chef that travels with them during the day. There is a safari for every budget — you just have to find the right one.
8. It is a waste of time to focus on what you did not see during your safari.
During our two days, we didn’t get to see a rhino. Is this surprising? Considering their dwindling populations and endangered species status, no. Is it disappointing? Maybe. That being said, if I spent all my time being frustrated that we didn’t see a rhino, it would have distracted me from countless other things, like the two giraffes we got to see from 10 feet away, or the baby monkey clutching its mother as she jumped between trees, or the cheetahs taking a nap in the sun that looked directly at us. This isn’t a zoo, it’s the wild. It’s unpredictable. Enjoy what does come your way, and come back again to see anything you feel you missed out on.
Even now, a few weeks after the fact, what I saw at Ngorongoro and Tarangire doesn’t feel real. It was a chance to get up close and personal with animals I’ve only ever seen caged up in a zoo or a television screen. It was the perfect reminder of the wild that still exists in the world and the importance of (sustainably and responsibly) exposing ourselves to it every once in a while.