THE TROUBLE WITH BUCKET-LIST trips is they don’t always live up to the hype. With high expectations can come disappointment — not so on an African safari.
Picture the vast plains of Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, for example, with its eerily stunning topography. Flora with strange shapes, like sausage trees and flat-topped acacia, stand silhouetted against golden shrubbery that gives way to acres of green landscape after the rain.
Colorful, exotic birds flit about the landscape, living in harmony with giant, lumbering emus that look like they just stepped out of a picture book. Abundant herds of striped zebras move in large clusters, collecting by watering holes and stopping as one to stare quizzically at passing vehicles.
Cheetahs are known to sprawl in the road, enjoying a post-lunch snooze in the sun, only reluctantly moving when a safari vehicle comes uncomfortably close. Giraffes, sometimes singly or in small groups, stretch their necks to pluck their salad dinner from the tops of trees.
Hippopotamuses sleep the day away together in smelly watering holes, often with just their snouts showing, their gray hides smooth and shiny from the water.
You may also see seemingly endless lines of migrating wildebeest snaking their way across the horizon and graceful gazelles and impala dotting the landscape, while baboons might show up at your lodge in search of chocolate and fresh fruit.
The big draw, of course, is the so-called Big Five — the lion, the elephant, the leopard, the Cape buffalo and the rhino — considered by some the benchmark of a successful safari. If you’re lucky, you’ll not only spot them in the wild but, in some cases, up close and personal.
Even getting to the Serengeti is part of the adventure, especially if — as is likely — some of your transportation is via bush plane. Be prepared to see animals moving in herds below you as you enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the countryside. Depending on your route, you may even fly past Kilimanjaro National Park, whose mountain — Africa’s tallest — was made famous by Ernest Hemmingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
Another highlight of a safari in this region is the people you are likely to meet. The Maasai, in particular, who populate northern Tanzania near the game parks and are known for their distinctive red clothing, are often on hand to interact with visitors as guides. If you are fortunate, you may be invited to witness their distinctive jumping dance, accompanied by stomping, loud cries and percussive instruments.
A typical safari will last a half or full day, but it’s a good idea to plan for several back-to-back outings if you have specific animals you want to see. A good guide will not only know where the animals are likely to be at any given time of day, but they will also help you spot them once you are there, keeping in mind predators and non-predators alike may be hiding in plain sight. Spotting a leopard dangling from a far-off tree limb as it sleeps off its lunch can take some practice and a good set of binoculars. Lions, on the other hand, are sometimes eating or sleeping by the side of the road, not bothering to hide because few other animals are willing to take them on. Elephants are also known to stand firm as they tear branches and leaves with their trunks to eat or feed their young, even when approached by safari vehicles.
The first step in planning your safari is to realize this kind of vacation does require just that — planning, even for those of us who typically embark on leisure travel in a more freewheeling style.
Literally hundreds of tour companies specialize in Tanzania safaris, and they can recommend various types of accommodations and locations. If you hope to see migrations — your best bet for seeing animals in quantity — they steer you toward the best season and location for your great adventure. Generally, spring is the rainy season, and summer and early fall are considered the optimal times for game viewing.
Accommodations range from tented camps to safari lodges, and services usually include daily game drives, experienced guides, laundry and meals. Some also offer gourmet dining with wine pairings, luxurious linens and sundowners — evening cocktails at sunset.
Consult with your physician to make sure you comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for shots and malaria pills. You should also pack mindfully. Insect repellent and white and beige clothing, for example, are best for repelling tsetse flies, as are long sleeves and safari pants. Don’t be alarmed at these precautions. The goal is to keep you safe during your trip so you’re not distracted by insect bites or stomach bugs.
Keep in mind, also, if your trip includes a flight on a bush plane, the weight restrictions are strict, so leave the tiara and heels at home. The reason most safari lodges include laundry service is so you can pack light and enjoy a fresh set of clothes for your daily game drive without having too many clothes to transport.
Tanzania Info to Go
Flying to Tanzania for a safari is the definition of a long-haul journey. You will most likely fly into Kilimanjaro International Airport — İstanbul (IST) and Dar es Salaam (DAR) are popular connecting airports — then take a shuttle flight to the domestic Arusha Airport, located about 35 miles away. From there your best bet is to have your safari company or lodge pick you up. The good news is your safari really begins during your airport transfers, as you are likely to see some dazzling animals along the way.
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