Safari in the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater plus the Big Five
By Shelley Seale
It is one of the quintessential travel dreams: an African safari in Kenya.
Seeing the “big five” exotic animals up close and in their natural habitats is on most bucket lists; well, perhaps some species would be better off not too close. Two incredible neighboring countries, Kenya and Tanzania, provide the perfect partnership for a safari experience.
Straddling the equator, Kenya packs a lot into its borders: wildlife, tribal culture, beaches, mountains, and deserts. Lonely Planet calls it “Africa in microcosm,” with a million different reasons to visit.
From the grasslands of the Masai Mara, up the Great Rift Valley, and even in Nairobi itself, the country is home to many of the world’s best national parks and game reserves.
Nairobi National Park is a unique ecosystem that is the only protected area in the world this close to a capital city, only seven kilometers from the city center.
Aberdare National Park
If you don’t have time (or the money) to go on safari in Aberdare National Park, the Masai Mara or Mount Kenya, this 117-square-kilometer park is home to lions, leopards, cheetah, giraffes, zebras, hyena and even rhino, one of Africa’s most endangered species.
Another popular attraction in the Nairobi area is the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, focusing on endangered species such as elephants and the Black Rhino. Well-known for their elephant orphanage, this is a great place to really learn about these animals and the conservation efforts to protect them.
Overnight Train to Mombasa
Once you’ve seen a bit of Nairobi, an epic adventure awaits the famed overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa, on the coast. The train itself is a little worse for wear, still outfitted from mid-century with just a faded hint of its former grandeur — but that of course just lends to its charm.
Waking up the next morning with the savannah stretched out before you, looking out the window and waving to village children who come to watch the thrice-weekly train go by, is worth the ride. Supposedly one can see wild game from the train at daybreak, but all I saw were camels.
When it comes to the true safari experience, into some of Africa’s best national parks, there is one magical name that beckons: The Serengeti. This UNESCO world heritage site extends from southwestern Kenya into Northern Tanzania, spanning some 12,000 square miles.
The Serengeti hosts the largest mammal migration in the world, a magnificent spectacle of more than 1.5 million wildebeests migrating each year along with zebra, gazelle and other animals.
From Mombasa or Nairobi, you can either fly or take a bus into Arusha, the main departure point for safaris into the Serengeti as well as Lake Manyara and the Ngorongoro Crater, two other magnificent wildlife destinations.
Coming in across the Serengeti plains for a landing in the small six-seater aircraft, I spotted a herd of something below. Gazelle? Impala? It was definitely some sort of antelope.
And in the midst of them, something raised its long and graceful head far above the others. My heart skipped a beat — it was a giraffe! I was seeing a real, live giraffe in the wild, in its natural habitat in Tanzania, with my very own eyes!
No Cheap Way to Safari
It only got better from there. Although there is no real way to do an African safari dirt-cheap — high park fees, transportation costs, and the necessity of hiring a guide all add up — you can arrange anything from a fairly economical safari to complete over-the-top luxury that makes one think of Theodore Roosevelt’s probably adventures.
On our high-end side, we went with andBeyond, a luxury outfitter who is also extremely dedicated to sustainability, taking their responsibility for a small footprint, nature preservation, and community impact very seriously.
The company’s Africa Foundation partners with communities around the conservation areas, for the benefit of both the people and the wildlife.
From the moment we landed and drove away from the small dirt airstrip with our andBeyond guide, Medson, we spotted wildlife. Within half an hour we observed hippos, baboons, more giraffe, and even a leopard napping in a tree before his evening hunt began. I was blown away — and we had only been in the Serengeti for a short time.
No Roughing It!
Medson then drove us to our tented camp, Serengeti Under Canvas. This was no “roughing it” camping. The spacious tents are equipped with a comfortable hardwood bed, rugs, and even a flush toilet.
We had our own personal butler, Edward, who was responsible for bringing us hot water for the outside shower, our meal services and, one of his most important jobs, escorting us to and from the main areas of camp after dark to make sure we remained safe from wild animals.
On an all-day game drive, we saw elephants, lions, buffalo, warthogs, zebra, impala, gazelle and even one of the rarest animals to spot, a cheetah making his way through the great wildebeest migration. A highlight was the wonderful picnic lunch we enjoyed, beside a salt lake where hundreds of vivid pink flamingos live.
From the Serengeti, we flew to the Ngorongoro Crater, a singularly exquisite ecosystem. The largest intact volcanic caldera in the world, the Ngorongoro Crater shelters one of the most beautiful wildlife havens anywhere.
A permanent population of more than 30,000 animals inhabit a mere 100 square miles, in the 2,000-feet deep crater. It is also the only crater on earth in which both animals and people — the Maasai tribe — coexist.
Because most of the animals do not migrate from the crater it has created a completely unique biosphere where many rules of the natural world do not apply.
For example, here the hyenas have become more of the hunters than the lion — who are generally the scavengers that live largely off the kills of hyena and other animals. In Ngorongoro, we also saw the last of the “Big Five” that we had not seen in the Serengeti: the Black Rhino.
The Ngorongoro Crater Lodge was completely different from Serengeti Under Canvas; a luxury lodge built in a combination of traditional Maasai, Western African, and even Asian influences, this is a beautiful property with one of the most magnificent views in the world.
It has been called the game lodge at the top of the world; with ever-changing views as mists swirl and clouds scurry over the huge wildlife cauldron below, the location is truly breathtaking.
After our magnificent stay in the lap of African luxury, we wanted to see what could be had when planning a safari on a more budget-friendly basis. A friend had recommended Amanda and Simbo Natai of African Scenic Safaris, offering some of the most budget and mid-range itineraries available for an African safari, which can easily be one of the most expensive undertakings in travel.
Path to Africa
The couple also runs Path To Africa, their nonprofit foundation that provides volunteers and donors with a way of accessing and helping local projects without going through a third body, thus ensuring all time and money donated goes directly to the projects intended.
The Natais donate a portion of their proceeds into Path To Africa, and many of their guests stay for weeks or even months at a time volunteering in their local projects such as a children’s center and a consulting project that helps teach basic business skills to locals.
We began at Lake Eyasi, staying at the Tindinga Tented Camp an hour away from the nearest town or paved road. Here, we had one of my most singularly unique travel experiences: a morning spent with one of Africa’s last remaining nomadic bush tribes, the Hadzabe.
The Hadzabe are an ancient tribe, with ways little changed from 10,000 years ago. They are nomadic hunter-gatherers, moving camp every two to six weeks to follow the herds of animals which they hunt.
I have been in some pretty remote villages and fairly primitive huts and living environments, but this was like nothing I had ever experienced. Human existence at its most elemental, and perhaps noblest, form. Men and women squatted around fires, cooking and preparing for the morning hunt.
Lake Manyara National Park
We also visited Lake Manyara National Park, which stretches for 50km along the base of the rusty-gold 600-meter high Rift Valley escarpment. The compact game-viewing circuit through Manyara offers a virtual microcosm of the Tanzanian safari experience and is perfect for travelers with only a limited amount of time or money to spend.
We stayed at the lovely Kirurumu Under Canvas, another tented lodge perched high
Views from our luxury tent were exquisite, and it was a very short drive down to the park for our game drives. Contrasting with the intimacy of the forest is the grassy floodplain and its expansive views eastward, across the alkaline lake, to the jagged blue volcanic peaks that rise from the endless Maasai Steppes. Large buffalo, wildebeest and zebra herds congregate on these grassy plains.
Manyara also provides the perfect introduction to Tanzania’s birdlife. More than 400 species have been recorded, and even a first-time visitor to Africa might reasonably expect to observe 100 of these in one day.
Lake Manyara is a scenic gem, with a setting extolled by Ernest Hemingway as “the loveliest I had seen in Africa”.
It was a lifelong dream to be able to take an African safari, and my experience proved that the experience can be exquisite no matter which end of the budget range you plan for if you get the right outfitter and guide.
Trip Planning Details
In Nairobi, stay at the Miti Mingi Guest House, situated in a little oasis of a private garden, at the very end of a long residential road. ($42-120 per night)
andBeyond operates 29 luxury lodges in 7 African countries: Botswana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zambia.
African Scenic Safaris can arrange for lodging from $105-400 per night, all-inclusive; and can provide discounts when booking a guided safari package.