Safari Experience: Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti and the Great Migration

December 2015, I had my first trip to the African Continent. I went to Tanzania. The highlight of my trip is to go on a safari in one of Tanzania’s famous national park, Serengeti. I have to admit that I was a bit worried traveling to Africa alone. Fortunately, I have a friend who was working in Dar Es Salaam (the capital of Tanzania), so I have a reason to visit her there. Although the national park that I want to visit is located in Arusha, far away from Dar Es Salaam.

 

Preparation

                There are two things that need to be prepared before going to Tanzania. First is Visa and second is vaccine. Tanzania offers Visa On Arrival to most countries (there are some countries or passports that is exempted from visa and there are others that is forbid from using Visa On Arrival). You only need to pay 50 USD and to bring your passport with some blank pages and make sure that it’s still valid for at least 6 months. Moreover, Tanzania is also endemic of yellow fever disease. So, make sure you had the vaccine for yellow fever at least 3 weeks before entering the country. All tourists entering Tanzania will be asked for the yellow fever certificate before you can apply for the Visa on Arrival. Thus, do not forget to have the vaccine. I had a discussion with my doctor about the vaccine and she didn’t recommend me to take it as the disease is only endemic in some part of the country and that I should be fine without having a shot of the vaccine. However, my friend who was working in Dar Es Salaam insisted that I took the vaccine. I’m glad I did because as soon as I arrive at the terminal building, the airport authority asked for my vaccine certificate before I can proceed to the immigration.

I flew from Amsterdam to Dar Es Salaam by Qatar Airways. I bought the ticket long before I made some research on how to conduct the safari in Serengeti and it was a mistake. To join the safari to Serengeti, Arusha is the nearest town to start the trip, but I will enter the country from Dar Es Salaam and as I checked on the map, Dar Es Salaam and Arusha is quite far. I have limited days in the country plus I’m gonna spend some days at my friend’s house in Dar Es Salaam and also will visit Zanzibar, neighbouring tropical island to the capital. Therefore, as I cursed myself for not doing my homework, I booked another flight back and forth to Arusha from Dar Es Salaam. If only I knew that the safari starts from Arusha, I would’ve bought my flight from Amsterdam to Arusha and skip all the hassle. Anyway, Arusha has two airports, Arusha and Kilimanjaro, so check before-hand to which airport you want to arrive. If you arrive from Kilimanjaro airport, you might get a chance to view the top of Mount Kilimanjaro as you descend.

The next preparation that I did is of course to find way to conduct the safari to Serengeti. Usually I travel with the Randomtravelers (my travel buddies, contributors of this blog), but since I was undertaking my master degree in the UK, I did this travel by myself. So, I have to find a group of people who are going to conduct the safari at around the same time as me and it is not an easy task. It is impossible to conduct the safari alone unless you are filthy rich because the fee to enter the national park alone is already over 100 USD. I have to find a tour operator and a group of people to share the cost.

I tried TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet to find fellow travellers that might want to share the cost for safari. I found a few, but as I contact them I didn’t get any reply. From what I read in the forums of the two website, the cost for safari can go as high as 1000-1500 USD. Geez, that’s a lot of dollars for me. The price can go lower if I travel in a bigger group, for example in 6 to 7 people. I asked my friend in Dar Es Salaam if there are better options to do the safari. She suggested to do safari at national parks that located near Dar Es Salaam, it’s smaller and there are some that can be done in just one day. That might be feasible, but I really wanted to visit Serengeti of all national parks in Tanzania. I almost give up on the idea of safari, but then again my purpose of went all the way to Tanzania is to do safari. Lol. Eventually, I found out that there’s a huge online market for safari in Africa. There’s a website dedicated for safari operators across Africa with ready itinerary complete with the price, called Safaribookings. In the website, there are also reviews from past customers on how the operator provide their services, so it’s really helpful for me to decide which operator that I will choose.

I immediately contacted an operator whose itinerary and price fits my interests. I was lucky as there is a tour that’s going to be conducted that fits my schedule. I ended up with 4 days and 3 nights of safari in a group of 6 people (2 girls and 4 guys, including me). To ensure that it is not a fraud, I asked if I can pay on the spot at the day we start the tour and they said it’s fine. So on the promised date, they pick me up at the airport and transfer me to my accommodation (airport transfer is usually included in the tour which is very convenient as taxi is not very apparent as I arrived in Arusha airport). The next day they pick me up at my accommodation and took me to the meeting point where I meet with the guy in charge (with whom I’ve exchange email about the tour) and paid the agreed fee in cash. However, I paid an extra charge for sleeping bag as It was not provided in the tour plan. So, if you don’t want to pay this extra, you should bring one.

 

How it goes

So, I ended up booking a 4 days and 3 nights safari covering Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro crater and Serengeti national park. Included in the package is tent, breakfast, lunch and dinner, a driver who also act as guide and a caretaker who took care of the catering and setting up camps. I went with 5 other tourists, 2 guys from Korea who just finished their climb to Mount Kilimanjaro, a Dutch girl who’s volunteering in Dar Es Salaam, and 2 Spanish guys who’s volunteering in Zanzibar. Yes, there are many foreigners doing volunteering work in Tanzania. They enter the country using tourist visa that are valid for 3 months and do volunteer work throughout the country. The Spanish guy taught Spanish language to the kids in Zanzibar, while the Dutch girl helped in local hospital (as she is currently studying medicine).

Birds-birds-zebra-baboons-elephant-giraffe-hippo… oh look another zebra! Lake Manyara is home to lots of wild animals. I literally lose counts after 15 minutes driving through the park in a jeep. Day one of the safari was great. There were only 4 of us for half day of the safari so the Jeep was pretty spacious for the 4 passengers.

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Inside the Jeep

 

It was dry season so the lake looked pretty small. Our driver took us to the supposed to be part of the lake but there was nothing there but dry sandy plain. He said, in the rainy season the volume of the water can get triple the size of the current lake or even more. He also took us to the hippo pool where we can watch many hippo taking a bath. From the Hippo Poll we can see The Great Rift Valley, a range of hills lining up as far as from Jordan to Mozambique! Awesome!

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Before going back to our camp just outside the park, we are reunited with 2 other guys who’s gonna join us for the rest of the safari. Now the jeep has become a little bit cramp with additional two persons. But hey, I’m going on a safari, who cares!

 

Our campsite is called Jumbo. It has bungalows and an area to set up camps. If you have more money, staying in bungalows could be a better option as it has its own bathroom plus you won’t get wet when it rains. In the evening, it was raining heavily. Electricity is only available after dark (but there was no light in the bathroom so it’s better to take a bath before dark), so you have to make sure that you charge all your cameras/phones for the next day. Bringing an extension cable might come in handy as all the socket will be full.

There was a cultural dance at night in the cafeteria of the camp site. It was interesting. They ask for some tip at the end of the performance, and they even sell music CD.

p_20151212_104610_pnIn the morning of the second day, we departed to Ngorongoro crater. Early noon we hit the camping ground in Ngorongoro that’s located on a higher ground. Ngorongoro crater is the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera. It’s 610 meters deep and its floor covers 260 square kilometres. It’s magnificent.

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I’m at lost in describing how pretty this place is. It is home to thousands of wildlife animals. Lions, hyenas, leopards, zebras, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, birds, impalas, you name it. I feel like being in the Disney’s Lion King movie. The crater is also home to some Masai tribes. Our driver told us that in the past, the Masai used to hunt for the lion’s head as proof of one’s bravery. As a result, the population of zebras, wildebeest, impalas and such animals grow significantly because the number of predator shrink. So the government forbid the Masai to hunt for lion’s head.

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We had lunch in a beautiful picnic area called Ngoitoktok. Our caretaker warned me for the eagle who flew above the picnic site as they love to steal food from tourists and it’s probably safer to have lunch in the jeep. I ignored him and proceed having lunch by the lake. He was right. As soon as I hold my chicken drumstick, an eagle attacked me. I managed to hold it in my hands, close my lunch box and return back in the jeep before the eagle attack me again. On the other hand, Gabriel, the Korean guy in our group wasn’t as lucky as me. He lost his chicken to the eagle and had to settle for egg and bread for lunch. As I ate my lunch in the jeep, I can see other people being attacked by the eagle in the picnic site. Well, it was starting to rain anyway so I’m content eating my lunch in the Jeep.

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The camp site we stayed in Ngorongoro is more remote than the one we have in Lake Manyara. There’s no bungalows, only tents. But this time we were accompanied by many other groups who also set their camp there. To prevent taking a bath in pitch darkness, I took a bath before dark. But this campsite’s bathroom has light so there’s no need to worry. However, since it’s highland, it’s so much colder than Lake Manyara. I remember waking up to the coldness in my feet early morning despite the fact that I wore my socks and securely tucked inside my sleeping bag. Staying inside the national park is a unique experience to me. Unlike the campsite in Lake Manyara that’s located outside the park, the campsite in Ngorongoro is located inside the park itself. I remember at night I need to use the bathroom and when I want to go back to my tent, a guide warned me that there’s a buffalo around my tent.

JpegA buffalo! A buffalo right in front of me. But I couldn’t see him as there’s no light in the camp area. The guide helped me with his flashlights so I won’t hit the buffalo while I walk back to my tent. I can hear the sound of the buffalo munching grass near my tent while I go back to sleep. To be honest, I was worried he will crush my tent while searching for grass.

On the third day, we departed to Serengeti. I feel so small being in Ngorongoro and then Serengeti. As the jeep drove towards the national park, I can only see long and straight road to the horizon, while on the left and right hand side I can only see the grass plain and the sky and wildebeests.

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Lots and lots of wildebeests! Serengeti means “Endless plain”, no wonder, the scenery speaks for itself. In fact, the time when I visited was the migration time of the wildebeest, zebras, buffalos (practically every animal) or also known as “the Great Migration”. It was the changing season of dry to wet so the rain moves further north. That’s why the wildebeest follows it because the plain in Serengeti will have taller grass for them to eat. I was so glad that I finally able to experience first-hand, seeing the Great Migration that I usually watch on NatGeo. Our Jeep is stopping by at times so that we can take pictures of the surrounding area. We can only take picture from inside the Jeep as getting out of the car will get us fined by the park rangers.

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At the entrance of the park, we took a seat together while our guide and caretaker took care of the permission to enter the park. From that discussion we found out that each one of us paid a different amount of fee to join the safari. The Korean guys paid the cheapest, the Spanish guys paid the most expensive, while me and the Dutch girl are in the middle. Turns out we book the tour from different company. Moreover, the tour that was currently serving us is also from different company. It seems like they hired a third party to serve their client on the safari. The Koreans booked from a tourist information in Kenya and they told them a black list of safari company in the market. They got the cheapest price compare to the rest of us with the same food and facility as us. I feel pity for the Spanish guys as they paid 3 times the price of the Korean guys while the only different of the service is, we got tent in Serengeti while they get to sleep at a hotel inside the park, but still with minimum electricity, just like us who stayed in the campsite. This could be a lesson for all of us to pick the company wisely and to do your research for tour company thoroughly.

The campsite in Serengeti is the worst of the campsites we have stayed in so far in regards of the bathroom and toilet. There’s not enough water for everyone to do their business at the toilet so some of us had to improvise and go “back to nature”. During the two days of our stay in Serengeti, it’s always raining. Our guide wasn’t lying when he said that the volume of water in Lake Manyara can triple its size during the rainy season. I saw it myself when a lot of area in Serengeti are turning into small rivers due to the heavy amount of rain. Our jeep even got stuck in the mud and had to be pulled by another Jeep that pass by. Our friend joked that we might run into a lion or leopard while being stuck in the mud. Thank goodness, we manage to get out of the mud before dark.

When it rains, we might find lions, cheetah or leopard on the trees. Like their fellow, the domestic cats, these big cats also hate getting wet. Therefore, we might get lucky to see one sleeping on a tree. And we did! We spot a leopard sleeping on the branch of a tree. However, we were not the only group that saw them. In the end, there were many jeeps lining up in front of the tree to catch a glimpse of the leopard. The big cat then woke up and move to a higher branch to escape the camera of the tourists.

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Sunset in Serengeti

Serengeti is the last national park in our list. The next day, we were transferred back to the city of Arusha where we will part ways. I can say that I had a wonderful experience joining the safari. Our driver did a great job. He managed to show us the highlights of the safari. I get to see all the Big-5 Game Animals (African Lion, African Elephant, Cape Buffalo, African Leopard and Rhinoceros). We also stop by at a Masai village on our way back to Arusha (I’ll keep the story for next time). However, there was a little problem before the group was dismissed. The night before, we already collected some money to give as tip for the driver and the caretaker. As tip of course we didn’t give that much as we already paid an expensive price for the tour. We were startled when we know that the amount of tip expected was 25 USD per person per day. Wow geez! That’s a lot of additional cost outside our safari cost. We then rejected the request (especially the Spanish guys who was already robbed so much since the beginning) and asked them to talk about it with the tour company. We then said good bye to each other and went our separate ways.

 

Despite the not so good closing of the safari, I had a great time with the group and an unforgettable experience. I was then picked up by the tour company that I used and transferred back to my accommodation. The next day, they pick me up again and transfer me back to the airport so I can catch my flight to Dar Es Salaam. All is well. (npa)

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