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Tanzania: Where the really wild things are

TANZANIA | Wednesday, 3 February 2010 | Views [2843] | Comments [1]

Tanzania: Australia’s devil-ridden island state, and homeland to the infamous vampire, Dracula. What a terribly perilous place! At least, that’s what I once believed. Until the clouds of puberty parted, and I learned that Transylvania, Tasmania and Tanzania were on three entirely different continents. The latter managed to retain my childish allure, by emerging as the home to the Endless Plains from which the Serengeti earned its name, and David Attenborough earned his stripes (and spots).

Why go?

Protected since 1929, declared a national park in 1951, and awarded World Heritage status in 1981 for the biodiversity and ecological significance of the area. The 14,763km² Serengeti National Park is famous for the 800km Great Migration which swirls 2.5 million animals across its land during the world’s largest mammalian migration. It’s believed the Serengeti attracts the animals because of the high mineral content of the soil, caused by the nearby crater of Ngorongoro, an extinct volcano. Annual rainfall draws the minerals to the surface, which triggers 1.7 million wildebeest to perform carnal knowledge on the ancient land, which spawns an estimated 500,000 calves (40% of which will fail to make it to four month’s old), which in turn attracts 90,000 snap-happy tourists a year. At the height of the migration season, the Serengeti sees the highest concentration of mammals anywhere on earth.

The wildebeest might be the majority hoove holders, but lest we forget the presence of the so-called “Big Five”; East Africa’s elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo are all present in varying numbers as well as an all-star cast of 200,000 zebras, cheetahs, giraffes, crocodiles, warthogs, a variety of antelope including 300,000 sleek Thomson’s gazelles plus 520 species of birds including ostrich, flamingo and vultures.

While you may imagine the Serengeti to be a sheaf of grassy flatlands, it’s made up of a much more diverse landscape: the southern grass plains, central savannah, hilly northern woodlands, black clay plains of the west and the encroaching Crater Highlands of the neighbouring Ngorongoro Conservation Area, all play their part in creating one of the most spectacular regions on earth.


Quick Safari Packing List

  • Plenty of camera gear spares: batteries, memory cards or for the nostalgic, film.
  • Anti-malaria medication: plan ahead, and always consult your doctor. This can often be a hefty financial investment, so budget for this.
  • A small flashlight. Handy for reading in the tent. Handier for finding the bush toilet.
  • Vaccination certificates. It pays to prove it.
  • Insect repellent: Again, do your research and avoid damaging the fragile plains.

Crossing borders

The paisley migration doesn’t contain itself to Tanzania; around July the wildebeest vanish across the Kenyan border in a cloud of dusty hooves, to the adjacent Masai Mara. Four months later they come cascading through the border’s curtain, like a beastlier edition of Challenge Anneka; they outrun the parks 2,500 lions, shimmy past its leopards, storm through 80-strong packs of 8,000 hyena and splash through crocodile-infested rivers, before returning to those aphrodisiac grass blades of the southern plains. Some inevitably take a tangent from the Circle of Life on the end of a glossy fang, or smarmy vulture’s beak.

Of course, with so many gnarly teeth, and stampeding hooves it pays to take care. The last lion attack in the Serengeti was back in 1965, but that doesn’t give you free reign to slam your 400mm zoom lens into the gape of a black-maned lion, or cuddle up to a baby zebra’s stripy hind. They’re as wild, and as predatory as ever and that’s the way they should remain.

Staying Safe on Safari

  • Keep your distance from animals and obey all instructions given to you by the ranger
  • Never get out of a vehicle - take all photographs from within the vehicle
  • Don’t take photos of locals without their permission.
  • Avoid taking photographs of military areas — even if they have a cute giraffe in the foreground.
  • Beware at the river’s edge. Wildebeest, podgy tourist — they’re all the same to a snappy crocodile.
  • Ensure your mobile phone is charged, and your SIM is loaded with credit.
  • If you need to go to the toilet, do not go behind a bush or thicket - a predator may be waiting for you. Go behind the vehicle, and where you can see for some distance in either direction. It is safer to wait until you return to camp or a picnic spot (which are usually secure).
  • At both the picnic sites and the campsites, be constantly alert for baboons. Never leave food alone or out in the open, make sure it is always securely locked away in your tent, chalet or vehicle. Baboons are often not afraid of humans, particularly women and children and have been known to take food out of a child's hand. If you see them coming, stand up and make a noise.
  • Never proceed unaccompanied by an unarmed ranger on foot anywhere in any reserve or safari park
  • Confirm with the rangers which picnic spots are considered safe. The campsite officials may have a map showing all picnic sites and the best routes to get there. Always remain alert in the picnic site and if you have any reason for concern, return to your vehicle.

Michael Theys is a Safari-addict, Twitter aficionado and editor of the popular travel blog www.AfricaFreak.com. Having visited over thirty of Africa’s National Parks he confirms...

The Serengeti has it all: endless plains, unique biomes and incredible wildlife. From the great wildebeest migration (that brings close to 2 million ungulates together), to the outstanding sunsets and flabbergasting scenery, you can only fall in love with one of the Earth’s last piece of Eden.

I have witnessed incredible sightings, and recall moments that I will cherish forever. However, nothing comes even close to what the Serengeti Park has to offer. There’s something about the atmosphere, the land, the nature, both fragile and plentiful... something rather mystifying”

Six Wild Alternatives

In the unlikely event that you’re not interested in any of the aforementioned — or the safety advice has made your whiskers twitch — the Serengeti and its surrounding regions offer today’s travellers a plethora of exciting alternatives.

  • Balloon Trips: Far from the madding crowd, high up in the sky. Could there be a more blissful spot to watch the unfurling scramble of sunrise, than the confines of a basket of silence?
  • Masai Culture: Although the pastoral Masai tribe were barred from their Serengeti land with the formation of the National Park, they’re still found on the fringes and in various recommend cultural villages.
  • Mount Kilimanjaro: While children as young as six have bounded up Africa’s highest peak (5,895m), it’s advisable to do your research, and come prepared before you tackle the 5-6 day hike.
  • Ngorongoro Crater Highlands: Neighbouring the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater contains Lake Magadi, Africa’s highest density of predators, and resident stands of lesser flamingo which in my mind, is literally fair game. The sizeable 8288km² conservation area attracts over 300,000 visitors a year, creating a kind of human zoo, and one that rarely disappoints. Not least, because of the opportunity to spot one of 20 black rhino in their natural habitat (the Serengeti has just 12).
  • Lake Victoria: The regal shorelines of Lake Victoria are a mixture of grime and grit. Travellers looking for a slice of the African underworld will discover all its chaotic forms in Mwanza, and neighbouring towns. Here, the trade in the lakes prized alien species; the Nile Perch allegedly goes hand in hand with the arms trade. Needless to say, caution should be exercised.
  • Moru Kopjes: Also known as “Islands in the Sea of Grass”, these granite outcrops rise like small mountains out of the Serengeti, providing tourists and predators alike the chance to gaze across the plains.

Golden Ticket, Yellow Fever (and Red Tape)

The Serengeti is infinitely travel friendly. The entry fee is a modest US$25 per person per day, and US$30 per vehicle per day.

Getting there is relatively simple, and the journey itself echoes of romantic adventure. Having secured your visa ($100 for US citizens; $50 for non-US) you can choose to fly into Kilimanjaro Airport near Arusha and connect ($135 one way) to Seronera Airstrip in the heart of the Serengeti, or Kirawira Airstrip in the park’s Western Corridor.

Naturally there are dozens of companies offering tours of the area, it’s well worth doing your research to get the right balance of “roughing it” and “seeing it” for your tastes.

Visitors to Tanzania are also advised to vaccinate against cholera and malaria, while visitors who are entering from any Yellow Fever endemic region (most of sub-Saharan Africa) are required to be vaccinated.

The Serengeti promises travellers an unforgettable journey, across ancient lands watched over by a million enigmatic eyes. Every footstep you follow will teach you, while every one you leave will teach another. Michael Theys concurs, “I have one piece of advice for you — go for it! The only way to really understand, is by living it and trying it out for yourself.”

However, this isn’t a trip to take lightly. While it is possible to rock up, and whizz round, you will be rewarded ten-fold by some pre-trip planning. Consult with other travellers, your doctor and your kith and kin. Ask all the stupid questions, and ensure the time you spend in East Africa stays with you for all the right reasons.

Written by the footloose Englishman, Ant; World Nomads very own guest blogger and the solo scribe of the charismatic travel blog Trail of Ants.com. Ant's currently drenching a thirst for travel during his third year of dragging a smudged and odorous backpack around the world.  You can occasionally track Ant down via his Twitter feed.

Have you visited the Serengeti? Share your experience in the comments below. Let’s give the world our secrets.

Tags: africa travel, ant stone, game parks, migration, safari, serengeti, tanzania, what to pack on safari


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