On Site: Tanzania: Roughing It in Style

Whoops. In my last blog, I said that a group of zebras is called a “journey.” I was wrong: It’s called a dazzle. A group of giraffes is a “journey”…because, y’know, you can’t say “group” or “bunch” or “a lot” when referring to animals. It has to be things like “dazzle” and “journey” and “school” and “pod” and whatnot. I think zoologists just make these things up to confuse the rest of us.

So, then. After a lovely evening at the Manor House (it’s so nice to come in to your room after dinner and find not only that all the lavender strewn about at check-in has been changed to rose petals…but that there’s a hot water bottle keeping the bed warm), we set off for the Karibu Fair in Arusha, with a quick pause for lunch at the Coffee Lodge, a cute boutique property with swank cabins hidden among coffee bushes. The more contemporary suites have outdoor showers and flat-screen TVs (but no phones), while the more traditional cabins have phones but no TV. (Trade-offs, you know.)

At the Fair, we met with Yvonne Baldwin of Precision Air (the airline that flew us from Dar es Salaam to Mt. Kilimanjaro), who mentioned that the company will be launching direct flights to Johannesburg soon. This will mean that visitors can fly South African Airways to Joburg, and transfer to Precision directly to Arusha or Zanzibar or Mt. Kilimanjaro or anywhere else in Tanzania without stopping first in Dar es Salaam.

Geofrey Meena and Geofrey Tengeneza of the Tanzania Tourism Board told us that the Board is looking to make the U.S. Tanzania’s main tourism market. To that end, they are focusing on promoting cultural tourism, and giving visitors a chance to engage with locals of various tribes throughout the country. Elirehema Maturo and Joas Kahembe, respectively the development officer and chairman of the Tanzania Association of Cultural Tourism Organizers, said that they are teaching locals how to share their culture and heritage with visitors, and are guaranteeing experience standards. “You have a chance to see things you only see in museums live,” Kahembe said, adding that the human contact can lead to mutual understandings on both parts.

Even better, Maturo said, the Association is looking to help alleviate the poverty affecting different areas. Membership fees from each of the 28 companies in the Association support local communities, and Kahembe added that visitors can help the villages by donating either money or their time (for example, helping to build a house or work on a farm). In this way, he said, they can see the direct value of their contribution.

Oh, yes, Karibu is the first outdoor trade show I've ever attended. And the first one where I've ridden a camel around. (I'm not laughing in the picture below. I'm trying not to scream. Those camels are high, and if you remember, I'm terrified of heights.) 

We spent the night at the Lake Duluti Lodge, a gorgeous boutique hotel with isolated private cabins tucked away in the woods. The Lodge is surrounded by an electric fence, so it's safe to walk around at night, and the rooms have complimentary Wi-Fi. (Bless them!) When we arrived, the soaking tubs in our bathrooms were already half-full of cool water and suds so we could wash off the day's dust before dinner--which was truly wonderful; with small portions of meat or fish and family-style side dishes. (The chicken and steak were delicious, though the fish got mixed reviews. We all devoured the samosas, though.)

The next morning, we caught a tiny Regional Air flight (we’re talking Twin Otter propeller plane that can probably hold about 20 people max) right into the heart of the Serengeti, where we drove for hours with Ephata and another guide, Leakey, who found us a leopard in a tree with a recent kill. As we drove across the plains, we also saw zebras splashing in watering holes, hippos fighting, lions napping (surrounded by zebras—maybe they weren’t hungry?) and plenty of wildebeests. The migration was in full force, and some areas of the plains were just covered with wildebeests marching in a line, or milling around under trees.

We had lunch at the Serengeti Explorer Camp, a semi-permanent tented camping experience that follows the migration throughout the plains. The tents had beds, running water and flush toilets, and we even saw how they turned a large metal box into an oven with some hot coals.

After lunch, we headed into the Grumeti Reserve and met our Singita guide, Saitoti Kuwai, who asked us to call him Toti. We said goodbye to Ephata and Leakey and headed over to Singita’s Faru Faru lodge, a very chic property overlooking a large watering hole where lots of animals come to drink. The cabins have outdoor showers, and all look out over the hillside, guaranteeing not only great views but absolute privacy.

We continued on to the Singita Explore Camp, which just formally launched a week ago. The Camp is a fully mobile camping experience that makes roughing it seem quite luxurious. The tents have some electricity (car batteries and solar panels keep a handful of lights burning, and other lanterns are battery-operated), as well as running water and even hot showers (though the hot water must be requested in advance). And, of course, they have killer views: Visitors can leave their tent flaps open to watch the sunrise from their beds in the morning. The food at the camp was delicious, and not just in the way that dining alfresco usually is. (Plenty of chicken, grilled beef,  stewed vegetables and other goodies were available.) Before dinner, we sat around a campfire and roasted some raw dough into hot bread, which we dipped in a nice chili sauce. (Soooo much more grown-up than marshmallows and graham crackers…though there’s nothing wrong with marshmallows and graham crackers either, come to think of it.)

A word about the tents: Bugs will get inside. It just can’t be avoided—this is camping, after all. But the beds are surrounded by zippered mosquito netting, and nothing got through that, so if your clients are squeamish at all, assure them that they won’t be bothered while they sleep, and that they will have a wonderful, world-class experience. (Seriously. I don’t think Hemingway or Teddy Roosevelt had it this good when they were on their safaris.)

Camp manager Retief Jordaan (pictured below) said that currently, the camp can be set up in a week, though he hopes to get that down to three days with practice. Visitors can reserve the camp for $1,300 per person per night, whether it’s just a couple (perfect honeymoon!) or a family reunion of up to 12 people. They’ll get a full staff to tend to whatever they need, guards to escort them around after dark, full board (including drinks) and game drives. It’s a tremendous value when you consider what goes into setting up all the tents (they are all fully furnished, and there are dining tents and lounge tents at guests’ disposal as well—and the lounge tents even have electricity for recharging camera batteries).

After a light breakfast around the campfire in the morning, we set off for another game drive as we made our way to the Sabora Tented Camp for an alfresco brunch. These tents are permanently installed, and might be a better option for those who want a camping experience without actually camping out. The tents have a very Victorian ambiance (dark reds and rich woods), and zebras will come right up to graze on the campgrounds. (Brunch, by the way, was delicious—who would have thought brie would go so well with French toast?)

Back out for another game drive, where we saw another leopard in a tree (deceptively cute—we dubbed him Fluffy) and a cheetah napping in the shade of a tree. As the sun started to set, we drove up a hill to the Sasakwa Lodge, one of Singita’s most opulent options in the game reserve. The cabins are decorated in a decidedly colonial style, and all have private plunge pools overlooking the plains. (Wonderful perk for North American visitors: Calls to the U.S. and Canada are free from the cabins.) As most of my group was assigned two-bedroom cabins to share, my roommate and I watched the sunset from the heated plunge pool and listened to the crickets chirping before heading off to a lovely lantern-lit dinner.

(NB: If you book Sasakwa for your clients, be sure to remind the reservations department that your clients want real privacy while they’re there. My group had some problems with doors being opened unexpectedly.)

Before sunrise, we gathered early for coffee on the verandah before heading out for one last game drive (our fourth of the trip overall), where we saw elephants, giraffes, zebras, Cape buffalo and yet more wildebeests. (Even Toti was impressed by the number of animals and the cacophony they made.) All too soon, we headed back and gathered up our gear to fly back to Arusha (Singita has an airstrip not 20 minutes from the Sasakwa lodge) and lunch at the Mount Meru Hotel, which was renovated last year and seems set to be the main business hotel of the region.

We hurried back to the Mt. Kilimanjaro airport (seriously, I had no idea Tanzania even had this many airports and landing strips!) and flew Precision Air back to Dar es Salaam, where we were smacked square in the face by urban culture shock after nearly a week in the wilderness and suburbs. We spent the night at the Kempinski Kilimanjaro Hotel, one of the top luxury properties in the area, and had a really wonderful pan-Asian dinner at their Orient restaurant. (Not that I’m complaining about the lovely African cuisine we’d enjoyed all week, mind you, but sometimes you just really want some sushi…and red Thai curry…and hot and sour soup. Pardon me, I’m getting hungry again.)

Which brings us up to this morning. I’m in the Johannesburg Airport right now, having flown here right at sunrise from Dar, and getting ready for the long flight back to New York. After a week in a very, very different world, and seeing things I never thought I’d see in my wildest dreams, the urban jungle of Manhattan is going to seem very strange.  


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