Serengeti is a Maasai word meaning ‘endless plains’ and you couldn’t have a more perfect word really. The UNESCO World-Heritage listed Serengeti National Park spans 14,763 square kilometres and borders Kenya’s Maasai Mara to the north, Ngorongoro Crater in the south-east and touches Lake Victoria to the west. It was established in 1952 and is perhaps best known for the ‘Great Migration’ of two million wildebeest – give or take a thousand – hundreds of thousands of zebra and more Thompson’s Gazelle than you could count with the fingers and toes of your whole suburb. As a first timer in Tanzania, I learned a thing or two along the way, thanks to the experts at Nasikia Camps.
We had the lovely Henry Akeyo as our guide at Kaskaz Camp in the northern Serengeti and the unflappable Mohammed at the spectacular Ehlane Camp in the central Serenera section. Both looked after us so well, and managed to get us up close and smellable to a veritable Noah’s Ark of animals. We saw So. Many. Lions. Countless elephants, antelopes of all sizes and by the thousands, leopard, cheetahs, hippos, giant crocodiles and wildebeest that looked more like ants on the grasslands as there were so many of them. Henry’s skill allowed us to witness a ‘crossing’, where fervent wildebeests churned across the Mara River gambling that they wouldn’t be snapped up by a croc or a lion waiting for his turn at the buffet. Mohammed’s eagle eyes and knowledge of lion behaviour gave us a front row seat to a lion hunt and kill. Let’s just say their table manners are not great and that warthogs are more of an entree for a pride of hungry lions than a main course. Here are some of my tips on how to safari in the Serengeti.
Do a Steve Irwin and wear khaki
The grassland of the Serengeti is a mix of bright rain-fed green and straw-coloured star grass which is perfect for a lion or a serval to hide in. Everyone wears pale colours – beiges and off whites and greys and khakis. Bright orange or red and white stripes would stand out like baboon balls – and I do speak from experience here. You don’t want to stand out too much. You need to be at one with the environment. It is not until you see a lion stalking low in the grass that you realise how perfect their camouflage is.
Wear the right clothes
Wear covered shoes so you don’t tread on one of the ultra-sharp spiny prickles of the young acacias. Trust me. They hurt! Wear long pants (um – those pesky spikes really do scratch – and a long-sleeved shirt will protect your arms from the sun and any nasty branches that might come into the vehicle to say hi as you drive past them. The safari vehicles are open-sided after all. And while we didn’t see or hear or feel a single mozzie, the long pants and shirt are a good protection for them too. I recommend taking a scarf as they come in handy.
On the subject of what to take, you are going to have to be very strict with yourself as there are weight restrictions on the smaller planes that whiz safari goers from camp to camp almost like the all stops train from Parramatta to Central. And forget all about that lovely Samsonite hard-shelled suitcase with convenient wheels. You need to take a soft-sided duffel-style bag that can be squished into the limited cargo hold space. You will need a vest and jacket as the temperature can be cool for the morning drives that generally depart not long after the sun rises. Definitely leave your hair dryer or straightener at home along with your valuables, most of your makeup and your formal wear. You are on safari – you don’t need heels or designer dresses. No one will notice you are wearing the same khaki pants day after day and if you really want to wash them, the camps we stayed at do laundry for you at a very reasonable cost.
Bring several memory cards and photo storage
You won’t want to record your experiences just on an iPhone. Nothing against iPhones but when you are are not far from a journey of giraffes, a blubber of hippos (I made that up – the blubber part), a pride of sleeping lions or two cheetahs under a tree, your phone camera won’t cut it. I had a Canon 80D with a 28-200 zoom lens and it was absolutely fine. Others had point and shoot cameras with smaller zooms but they also were far better than a phone. And because you will take hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of photos, your memory card will fill up so you need to purchase a card with a lot of room on it, as well as a couple of spares. Keep them in a sealable glad bag and take them with you on every game drive. Make sure you charge your camera battery every night or you will regret it when you see something wonderful and uh-oh – the battery dies. I did take my laptop and downloaded pics to it every night but if you don’t want to do that, definitely go the multiple memory card route.
Be prepared to ‘check the tyres’
So you will be out in your safari vehicle for a long time. And because it is hot during the day you will have to drink water. So one and one adds up to an urgent need to stop. Henry said they call it “checking the tyres” and that is a cute way of saying it. And don’t go taking tissues with you and leaving them behind. I didn’t see one bit of rubbish on the Serengeti and it is vital to keep it that way. The ‘drip dry’ method works fine. And don’t leave it too long to let your guide know you need to “go”, as you just can’t get out and go behind any bush.
Go true safari style between the camps
It was recommended to us that we didn’t fly between the two camps, so we could get a feel for what the old safari style was – driving between camps. We spent two nights at Kaskaz Camp and could easily have spent three, and after we waved Henry goodbye we said hello to Mohammed who picked us up in Maasai Wanderings safari truck – it even had doors. We drove from the north of the Serengeti all the way down the ‘highway’ – a dirt track – to the Serenera. It was basically one giant game drive as we saw a huge herd of elephants cooling off in a river, lions, a hyena trotting down the road past the truck, a wad of hippos parked like Mack trucks in a waterhole, and a whole lot more. It was really interesting seeing the changing landscape along the way. We pulled in to our next camp – Ehlane Plains in time for a late lunch, a shower and another game drive, where we saw two cheetahs with kills in the first ten minutes. No kidding.
Credit cards are no good to you on safari so you will need cash. US dollars in small denominations comes in handy for tipping your guide and the camp team at the end – and you will want to tip them because they do an amazing job. Get the USD before you leave Australia. You can withdraw Tanzanian shillings at Dar es Salaam airport but it is about a zillion shillings to a dollar so you will need a small truck to carry it if you get too much. OK I am exaggerating a little. At the time I am writing this AUD$1 converts to TZS$1670. Your safari already includes meals and drinks and tea and coffee delivered to you in bed in the mornings and there are no shopping malls or towns or markets within cooee so the only thing you need cash for is tipping and maybe to purchase a locally made item from the camp.
Take a good first aid kit
I took pretty much everything just in case. I followed my doctor’s advice and took tablets for Malaria – for the record they didn’t give me any side effects whatsoever and should some determined mozzie take a liking to you it is better to safe than sorry. I took two tubes of Bushmans and used it once or twice in the evenings but as there were no insects around it was probably unnecessary. If you go further south in Tanzania then you can get some nasties like tse tse flies so you will need to cover yourself in Bushmans – especially at night. I took stuff for headaches, diarrhoea, nausea, a broad spectrum antibiotic, antihistamines, anti-itch cream and sunscreen. I didn’t need anything but the sunscreen but it was good to know I was prepared. Also – do get vaccinated for Yellow Fever. We weren’t asked to show the certificate when we entered Tanzania as we came from South Africa, where you don’t need it. However, when we went from Tanzania to Mozambique everyone on the plane had to show their certificate to be allowed entry. some insurances won’t cover you if you don’t it. Also, Nasikia has clean water in bottles in the bathrooms at the camps so you can use those to clean your teeth and they are safe for drinking. The showers (heated through solar power) are great. It was so good to come back after the afternoon game drive and have a hot shower to wash off the dust and reinvigorate yourself. The one at Ehlane Plains was as good as any hotel I have stayed at.
You will need to make sure you have emergency helicopter evacuation covered in your policy. So do read the PPS. I insured with Travel Insurance Direct and it was included. If you fall over a bush when checking the tyres and break something or your heart goes awry, there is no hospital anywhere nearby so an evac would be the only option. We booked our safari through Classic Safari Company and they give very sound advice as to what is required.
Learn a few Swahili words
The locals love it when you say a word or two in Swahili. Karibu means welcome, asante sana means thanks very much, sawa is OK, jambo is hello, habarigari is how are you and gonga is cheers. Whether you know it or not, you already know a few words in Swahili – the word safari is Swahili for journey.
When to go
The experts say that the dry season from late June to October is best as the migration is on then. I was there in the second half of October and it was a perfect time as you didn’t get the crowds waiting for the crossings like you do in June and July. The migration animals were in the north and in early November, would start heading back on the long journey for better grazing lands. The open plains around Ehlane were void of wildebeest when we were there but by mid to late November they will be there in great numbers hoovering the long grass. February is also a good time. But it depends what you want to get out of it so ask someone like Classic Safari Company who really are the experts.
Embrace the night
The tented camps are really nothing like the memories I have of camping as a kid. Both of the tented suites I stayed in through Nasikia Camps were beautiful, with a huge, lovely bed under a mosquito net, separate sitting area, big bathroom and a corner to charge camera batteries, phones etc. On that note – don’t forget adaptors! Buy a universal adaptor or two and you can’t go wrong. There is absolutely nothing better than lying in bed at night with the tent flaps open and just the fly screens closed. You can see out over the plains in the moonlight, hear the calls of hyenas or the roar of lions, and in the pre-dawn light, you wake to see the sun rise over the Serengeti. One night I could hear wildebeest eating and grunting outside my tent. It was such a thrill.
How to safari like me
I stayed at two Nasikia Camps – Kaskaz Mara Camp in the northern Serengeti, and Ehlane Plains in the central Seronera area. All were booked through Classic Safari Company who provided me with a wonderful itinerary and every possible bit of information I could need. It even told me what to expect getting my visa in Tanzania and then Mozambique. They had staff on the ground at the airports to assist and they were invaluable.
You can book Nasikia Camps and Maasai Wanderings safaris through: Classic Safari Company