Everyone has their own picture-perfect image of Africa. My own personal vision, no doubt inspired by ‘The Lion King’, consists of vast stretches of grassland, punctuated by acacia trees and waterholes, surrounded by grazing zebras, elephants, and lions. Majestic mountains soaring above the savannah, silhouetted black against a vivid red sky at sunset. The sound of birdsong, the smell of fresh fruit, the rhythmic beat of a million wildebeest migrating across the land.
You may think that these images seem clichéd and overly-idealistic. And maybe you’re right. But there’s only one way to find out – to see for yourself. And so I decided to make Tanzania (a country I knew very little about, bar that it was somewhere in Africa) my next destination.
The iconic snow-capped peak of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, as well as the pure, white sandy beaches of Zanzibar, the astounding Ngorongoro Crater, and the immense Serengeti National Park, Tanzania truly is the perfect destination for anyone travelling to Africa. And while this beautiful country may often be overshadowed by neighbouring Kenya or South Africa in the tourist-industry, this fact actually works in Tanzania’s favour: fewer tourists means greater opportunities to experience the real Africa – and to discover whether or not my Lion-King-inspired vision was reality or just pure, Disneyfied fantasy.
My first port of call was the small town of Kataru, where I’d be staying in the Kudu Lodge and Campsite. The lodge is situated amidst tropical, flower-filled gardens, and the Tembo cottages themselves are the epitome of lavishness – private verandas, fully-fitted en-suites, four-poster beds surrounded by mosquito nets. Unfortunately, as a backpacking student, my budget didn’t quite stretch far enough for me to actually stay in them. In fact, my research into Tanzania hotels had led me to the conclusion that the most affordable accommodation out in ‘the bush’ is your own tent and so, (grudgingly) forgoing luxury, I pitched my tent at the campsite instead.
With my tent pitched, I walked the 2km-long dusty road towards Kataru, where the local market was in full swing. The haphazard arrangement of charming, makeshift stalls, vended by the cheerful, brightly dressed locals, sold vegetables, hand-made crafts, and a staggering array of fresh fruits – figs, bananas, oranges, all grown in Tanzania. I even sampled my first jackfruit – an unusual, fleshy, tart-flavoured fruit – and it was here that I stocked up on some supplies for the next leg of my trip – safari!
Going on safari is the quintessential African experience, and one that I just couldn’t miss. And so, in true safari-spirit, I donned my khakis, laced up my hiking boots, and jumped into the back of a jeep, eager to reach our first stop: Ngorongoro Crater, a colossal volcanic caldera spanning an immense 20km in width.
Within the crater’s walls, we came across a flock of flamingos perched gracefully in the shallow waters of Crater Lake; a swathe of bright pink that stretched as far as the eye can see. Continuing onward, we saw herds of grazing buffaloes, a cheetah resting in the shade of an acacia, and – my personal favorites – elephants, sauntering casually past us on the road, their dusty trunks swinging languidly from side to side. There’s only one word to describe that experience: wow. Just…wow.
On our way out of the crater, we saw a group of local Maasai, easily recognizable in their distinctive red shukas (wraps) and elaborate beaded jewelry. They passed us by as casually as the elephants had done, unfazed by the attention of a jeep-full of camera-toting tourists. But despite their obvious nonchalant familiarity with the modern world, these are a people who have successfully resisted it; their ancient customs and traditions are still very much alive today, and seeing them walk barefoot across the crater-floor, laughing and joking amongst themselves as they herded their cattle through the long-grass, I have to say that I hope the modern world never manages to catch up with them.
Driving north-west from Ngorongoro, we headed into Serengeti National Park, a vast expanse of grasslands covering 14,763 sq km. This UNESCO world heritage site is home to some 4 million species of animals, and for much of the year it accommodates the million wildebeest and 200,000 zebras who make their annual pilgrimage from the northern hills down into the southern plains, and then back again, braving crocodile-infested waters, deep gorges, and flooding rivers. Hoping for good views of the migrating wildebeest, my group clambered up a giant, isolated outcropping, known as Gong Rock, and as I stood on the rock’s brim, watching what seemed to be an endless parade of mammals streaming out across the golden savanna, I was tempted to break into a rendition of Elton John’s ‘Circle of Life’.
I’m not claiming for one moment that my safari was an entirely picture-perfect experience. Each night my tent was invaded by cockroaches the size of tennis balls (I don’t want to admit how loudly I screamed the first time I saw one); despite drenching myself in insect repellent, every mosquito in Africa seemed intent on eating me alive; and, after a few nights of roughing it in a tent, I was really beginning to smell. But this was all part-and-parcel of the true safari experience, and the rest more than made up for it; the friendly locals, the stunning scenery, and the truly amazing wildlife.
For once, it seems, Disney actually got it right.
Have you been on a safari in Tanzania or elsewhere? What did you like most of it? Was there anything that dissapointed you? Share your experience in the comments section below, and this post too if you liked it!