“A tower of giraffes saunter across the plain, their lofty heads bobbing with every step. A lion yawns; all tawny fur, muscle and a huge mouth packed with sharp teeth. An elephant drapes her trunk around her baby, her ears flapping to keep cool. A Serengeti safari in Tanzania is a chance to enter the home of these incredible animals.“
I have a tradition of treating myself to a unique travel destination every year on my birthday. I use this as an opportunity to visit a country that I’ve never been to before.
For my birthday last year, I went to Russia and had a fantastic time exploring Moscow with fellow filmmaker Alexandra Sazonova. This year, the inspiration for my trip came from a photo gallery posted on Reddit. As soon as I saw those amazing wildlife photos, I knew that I had to experience a Tanzanian safari for myself.
Turns out I’m not exactly Indiana Jones.
As someone who loves to shop for clothes, I got very excited at the thought of putting together the perfect African safari adventure outfit! I bought a bunch of khaki colored clothing, put it all on, looked in the mirror and realized I looked ridiculous!
The good news is that on safari fashion takes a backseat to comfort and when you’re comfortable you will have a far more enjoyable trip. So embrace the khaki and leave the jeans and t-shirts at home.
I have in a small apartment in Tokyo, so I live a fairly minimal lifestyle and don’t own a large amount of stuff. As such, I needed to buy all new clothing and gear for this trip, which added unexpected costs. To save money, I shopped on AliExpress, which is the Chinese version of Amazon. The goods I bought were not high quality and would not last a long time, but that didn’t matter as I only needed them for this trip.
I always thought that Africa was hot and humid and that I would need to bring a change of clothes for every day of my journey. However, much to my surprise and delight Tanzania didn’t turn out to be as hot as I thought it would be. In fact, the weather was almost perfect with an average temperature of 26 – 30 degrees and low humidity. Far better than the sauna that Tokyo turns into every summer.
I usually travel with just a carry-on and this proved useful when on safari. Many of the flights in and out of the parks are on small aircraft and there is a weight limit of 15kg per person for luggage. Soft-sided duffel bags are best for packing your luggage, as they will fit better on the plane. Most luxury safari camps offer a laundry service, so in the end, I didn’t need to bring a lot of clothes.
What to Bring:
- Sunscreen and a hat! I was worried about the flies and mosquitos but it turned out the sun was the thing I had to worry about the most. The breeze you feel while driving around on safari is deceptive and you can be burned quite badly – especially when you are out in the sun all day.
- You’ll hear that you should wear khaki clothing as the dark colors attract flies and mosquitos and the bright colors will spook the animals. However, I started to suspect that this is an inside joke made up by the Tanzanian people because the only ones I saw wearing khaki were the tourists. Many of the Tanzanians wore smart clothing in dark colors and even the native Maasai who live on the Serengeti, wore bright red colors. However, I was willing to do anything not to get bit by insects so I rocked the khaki from head to toe!
- There’s no need to bring fancy clothes, dinners at most of the lodges and camps are casual but be careful as dusk is when the mosquitos are most active. Bring clothing with long sleeves, long pants, and even long socks, as the mosquitos love the dark areas under the tables and will attack your ankles.
- It can get fairly cool in the evening, so bring a sweater or a jacket that you can cover up with.
- As you will spend most of your time on safari in a truck you don’t need a pair of heavy hiking boots, comfortable sneakers are best.
- A small flashlight is handy as some of the tents were a little dark inside. Also good to shine into your shoes to check for scorpions!
- A pack of hand wipes is good to bring as well because things will get dusty inside the truck when you’re out on safari.
Weighing up to 6000 kg and
measuring up to 3.3 m, the
African elephant is the world’s
largest land mammal.
Choosing a Guide
The right guide can make or break your trip.
As I began to search for a tour company, accommodation, and activities, I learned that when it comes to safaris in Tanzania the easiest way to do it is to choose the tour company first and have them organize all the other details for you. They can organize your itinerary, accommodation, activities and even any dietary concerns you might have.
With over 300 different companies running tours on the Serengeti, it can be difficult to choose the one that is good for you. I chose to travel with a company called Everlasting Tanzania – who was recommended by the photographer who had posted the photos on Reddit. I read all their reviews online and arranged for a Skype call with owner Rob Chekwaze to discuss my budget, what animals I wanted to see and level of comfort I would be happy with in the camps. Rob then put together a fantastic itinerary and the guide he chose for me was outstanding. No doubt that their hard work made my trip absolutely memorable.
My budget for a journey of 10 days through Tanzania was $5,000USD. This might sound like a lot for some travelers, but it covered everything on my trip including meals, park fees, lodging, transportation and more. From the moment I was picked up at the airport to when I was dropped off 10 days later, I didn’t spend any more money, (aside from tips for the excellent guides and staff).
Advantages of a Custom Tour
For me, booking a custom tour with a private guide was the best way to experience a safari in Tanzania. There’s really nothing like it. Of course, it is more expensive than going on a large group tour. However, it is worth the investment. When you are on a cheaper group tour you will go on safari on a large bus that follows a set route and won’t have the freedom to choose where you go or have the option to stay longer to watch a particular animal.
A safari in Tanzania is likely to be a once in a lifetime travel experience and having the right guide can make or break your trip. It’s worth making sure you vet your guide carefully so that this very special trip is as enjoyable and memorable as it can be.
A few of the reasons why it is worth hiring a private guide:
- You will have full control over what you see and do. On a group tour, I might not have been able to spend the day following the wildebeests as we waited for them to cross and therefore may not have witnessed that powerful moment.
- My guide, Solomon had spent the last 25 years leading safaris in Tanzania and other regions in Africa, so his local knowledge of vegetation, animals and the surrounding landscape was unparalleled. His understanding and ability to spot wildlife at a distance allowed us to get up close to them before all the other tour trucks showed up.
- Since it was just me and the guide, I could talk to him about the animals and the landscape. His knowledge of all the animals really made the trip more interesting.
- When it came to taking photos, Solomon was incredibly helpful and patient as he had previous experience in guiding the BBC camera crew. He was very good at lining up the truck carefully so that I could get the right angle for the perfect shot. Most important was that he understood the movement of the animals to position the truck so that they would be walking past or toward us.
So, what is life like at a camp in the Serengeti?
The three camps I stayed in on my trip were the Serenguetti Pumzika Classic, Chaka Camp and Lake Natron Camp.
All of the camps were much comfortable and luxurious than I expected, but the one that I loved the most was Chaka Camp. It is a mobile camp which moves between the North and South Serengeti twice a year. However, when you stay at the tents in Chaka Camp they do not feel like makeshift temporary shelters – they are incredibly comfortable and well designed. My tent was equipped with a comfortable king sized bed, a hot shower, a flush toilet and running water, all in the middle of the Serengeti! I don’t know how they do it but it was incredible!
The room is furnished with hand woven African designs and the furniture and decor were built by local artisans in Arusha. Morning coffee and tea were served on the tent’s verandah overlooking the Serengeti.
The Amazing Chaka Camp.
It also had electricity so I could charge my electronics and call the staff on the radio if I needed anything. Complimentary drinking water was available and I was even greeted with a welcome drink. The staff was wonderful – they took care of everything I needed and were friendly and welcoming.
I truly enjoyed staying at the luxury camps – it was great to have a comfortable place to relax and unwind at the end of every day on safari.
A Typical Day at Camp
My day started early at the camp – I would eat breakfast at around 7-8am and then head out on safari. I had the choice of bringing a bag lunch or returning to camp for lunch and heading out again in the afternoon, but I chose to take a bag lunch so that I would have more time on safari.
After a day of exploring far and wide across the Serengeti, we would return to camp at around 4-5pm. I would shower and relax until dinnertime at around 7 pm. After dinner, I would be tired from the early start and a full day of adventure, so I would be in bed by 9 pm listening to the sounds of nature outside of my tent as I fell asleep.
I was told that I shouldn’t go outside my tent at night alone as the camps are not enclosed and the animals are free to walk through at any time. One morning I woke up and saw lion paw prints in the dirt in front of my tent – it was thrilling and a little bit scary to know that a lion had been so close to me while I had been sleeping.
The thing that struck me the most about going to Tanzania was that there was always something new to see. Since the camps are lit with just lanterns I had an amazing view of the night sky absolutely loaded with stars. With none of the light pollution that you have in big cities, I was astounded by the clarity and sheer numbers of stars that I saw.
Once again, my tour guide went above and beyond to make my trip special. He saw me attempting to take a time lapse photo of the stars and he went to get something from his truck. He came back with a laser pointer to highlight the different planets, constellations and the sweeping trail of the milky way galaxy!
Getting up close and personal with the wildlife.
There’s nothing quite like the thrill of waiting and watching a wild animal, then pressing the shutter at just the right moment and capturing a priceless photo.
You don’t want to miss the moment to capture the perfect shot, as you may never get another chance to get that close to a cheetah, lion or wildebeest again. You can’t go back and get a photo once the moment is gone, so being prepared is very important. I’m not a professional photographer so when I knew I was going on safari I started watching Youtube Videos to learn how to improve my photography.
Here are some basic tips to keep in mind for capturing the best possible photos on your wildlife safari. (I won’t go too into the technological side of things in this article, as you may have a different camera than me so you will need to look up camera specific tips.)
Safari Photography Tips
- Contrary to what you see in many National Geographic films, not all the animals will be happy to get close to your truck and pose for you. It depends on a lot of what part of the Serengeti you are in but I found that many of the animals were some distance from us. Since the tour guides are not allowed to go offroad, you will need a long lens so that you can zoom in and capture the animals in detail.
- I suggest switching to manual focus instead of automatic focus when zoomed in on an animal. The camera will tend to focus on the point that is closest to it and for some animals, this can be the tip of their nose, which will result in a photo with the rest of the face out of focus. Instead manually focus on the eyes and you will have a tack sharp photo!
- Always bring along more memory cards and batteries than you think you would need. It’s better to have too many than to miss the moment because you ran out of memory or battery. For me, I took 4 batteries and I was glad I did as I found that I was using up at least 3 per game drive.
- You’re never completely steady when trying to hold the camera in your hand, so take a small pillow with you so that you can rest the camera on it and avoid blurry images. The neck pillow you used on the plane works well and is less cumbersome than a tripod. When you are zoomed in, any tiny movement in your hand will become magnified at the end of the lens.
- The safari truck has a pop-up roof that you can shoot from, but if you shoot like this all the time then all your shots will have the same angle. If you can, try to get to eye level with the animal rather than shooting from above. It will make the image much more striking. You can do this by rolling down your window, leaning out, lowering your camera and using your articulating viewfinder so that you can compose the shot.
Here are some of the YouTube videos I watched to learn how to shoot better photos while on safari.
- Safari & Travel Photography TIPS – Long lens shooting in Africa
- 10 Amazing Wildlife Photography Tips
- Safari Photography Tip | Eye To Eye With Animals
- Safari Photography Tips for Beginners
One last tip is don’t spend your whole trip looking through your viewfinder. It’s tempting to try and get that perfect Instagram photo but every now and then put the camera down and soak in the fact that you are surrounded by amazing wildlife and scenery of the Serengeti.
Beyond the Big 5
It’s not all about the Big 5. Sometimes smaller is better.
The Big Five is a term that was coined by big game hunters to describe the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot. However, the phrase has now come to refer to the animals that most travelers want to spot while they are on safari. However, don’t be so focused on the big five that you miss the other creatures.
Besides the Big Five the animals that interested me the most were the birds. What struck me the most about the birds I saw on the Serengeti was the sheer size of them, especially the vultures. They were much larger than I expected as they swooped and circled in the sky, before coming down to scavenge on the rotting corpse of a dead animal. I always had an image in my head that vultures were ugly but they have a certain elegance about them, even if they do like like Dracula’s pet.
It’s hard to miss the spectacular colors of the Greater Blue-Eared starling, with its striking blue, purple and teal plumage.
I’ve never seen a bird sit back on its hind legs like this before – it looks so strange and unnatural but it’s the exact kind of thing I expect to see in Africa.
Besides the birds, my absolute favorite creature on the Serengeti by far is the Thompson Gazelle. These adorable tawny-hued gazelles are only around the size of a large dog, with curved horns. They have the playful nature of dogs too, bounding in packs around the savanna. As the truck approaches them, they will run away but always stop to turn around and look at you – almost as if they are waiting for you to get out and play with them. I was enchanted by them.
Going on a safari to Tanzania doesn’t have to be a once in a lifetime experience.
One evening around the campfire I met a retired couple from Australia who told me that this was their fourth time to Africa. She said to me that although most people are worried about getting bit by mosquitos, what really bites you is Africa itself. Once you get bitten, you will want to go back.
Hearing their stories I realized that I had barely scratched the surface of what Africa has to offer.
Last year I spent my birthday in Moscow watching the opera at the Bolshoi Theatre, this year I celebrated on the plains of the African Serengeti. I wonder where I will be next year?
To follow my travels and see more photos, check out my Instagram account.