Mike visited:

» Thailand
» Myanmar (Burma)
» Laos
» Cambodia
» Vietnam
» India
» Nepal
» Egypt
» Jordan
» Uganda
» Tanzania
» Malawi
» Mozambique
» Swaziland
» South Africa

View a map of his route.

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Tanzania Safaris: Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and Lake Manyara

I never thought we'd get so close to the lions. A small pride of females and cubs were resting beneath a tree beside the road and we just coasted right up to them and drew the Landrover to a stop.

The lions blinked at us disinterestedly. We were less than 20 feet away.

I was standing in the rear of the vehicle, looking out of the open, retractable roof. "I can't believe this," I whispered. I ducked down inside the vehicle to grab my camera.

curious lion
When I popped back up I caught the attention of a large, grizzled female. The lioness sprang to her feet, took a few silent steps forward. She had that blazing, passionate gleam in her eyes that is common to all cats, and she looked directly at me. She took a few more steps toward the vehicle and then crouched as if preparing to pounce.

I dropped back into the truck, hissing "Drive, drive, drive!"

My mother, seated next to me, looked out the window and gasped.

Alex, our driver, was already on the case. The truck sprang to life and we roared away from the scene.

"Don't worry, don't worry," Alex said calmly.

But I'd seen too many photographs of big cats standing atop safari vehicles to not worry. I couldn't help thinking about what would have happened if the lion had leapt atop the truck: her falling into the backseats – trapped, panicked – twisting around, lunging at us...

my mother and me in Dar es Salaam
Yo Mamma!
My mother had always wanted to see the animals in Africa, and she wanted to see what the vagabonding was all about too, so she joined me for a safari in Tanzania. (Tip: if you're looking for an unforgettable parent/child bonding experience, try navigating the mad streets of Dar es Salaam together.)

There are two main ways to arrange a safari in Tanzania:

  1. Buy a package from home. This method is expensive, but time-efficient and generally reliable.
  2. Show up in Arusha and choose a company firsthand. Quality, inexpensive safaris can be arranged this way, but you can pay dearly in terms of time and aggravation.

Armed with extra time, two recommendations, and a masochistic streak, I chose method number two and we headed up to Arusha.

Enduring Arusha
There are dozens of safari outfitters in Arusha who essentially offer the same service. Adding to this confusion are hundreds of touts: aggressive, commission-based hawkers.

The touts were on us from the instant we set foot in town. Three "greeters" carried our bags to our rooms, talking nonstop about their companies. One offered a free taxi for the entire day – provided that we check out his office first. Having developed extreme tout intolerance, I brushed him aside.

The first safari operator we saw was an upscale outfit with three different packages:

  • Basic camping (miserable, army surplus-looking tent, rented sleeping bags, pit latrines, prison-quality meals): $145 per person per day
  • Deluxe camping (dome-style tent, shower tent, school cafeteria-quality meals): $170 per person per day
  • Lodge (4 and 5-star hotels, nightly entertainment, swimming pools, American-style food-orgy buffets): $180 per person per day

We gasped at photos of the severe basic package, briefly entertained the deluxe camping option, then considered the small price leap to the lodge package. Food for thought. We left to check out our next recommendation.

The tout with the taxi was waiting out on the street. He pressured us to visit his company. We declined and caught a cab of our own.

The next company oozed competence and efficiency; they were less-expensive too ($150 per person per day for the lodge option). We thought it over for a short while and then plunked down cash for a four-day safari.

The (now creepy stalker) taxi tout was waiting again on the sidewalk. "You decided?" he asked.

"Yes, we have."

"Have a nice time," he said before sulking off. Had he been less pushy and pathetic, we might have humored him. But, as in dating and job interviews, desperation is a turnoff.

Alex, me, Mamma
A Happy Family
Although she introduced herself as Sandy, our safari driver Alex referred to my mother only as "mom" or "mamma" for the duration of the trip. Initially a little jarring, this was actually a show of respect, and the three of us soon melded into one happy family.

Originally from Kilimanjaro, Alex was close to me in age and very soft-spoken. He'd earned a degree as a wildlife guide, and was knowledgeable about the parks and animals we were about to see.

Serengeti National Park
It was an eight hour drive from Arusha to our lodge in the Serengeti, and only two hours of the drive were over paved roads. As compensation, the scenery grew more stunning as the roads grew more brain-battering and dusty.

We drove past pristine forest and rolling green hills near Lake Manyara; through rich, heavily-cultivated valleys; and up to the top of volcanic Ngorongoro Crater, where we stopped to have lunch.

The landscape flattened out after the Crater and began to look more like the Serengeti you see on television. Animals started appearing too. Alex alerted us excitedly whenever we passed anything on four legs.

big skies in the Serengeti
"Look Mamma! Zebra over there!"

"Mike, look! Impala."

"Look at the beautiful Thompson's Gazelles, Mom!"

The mostly treeless plains of the Serengeti are so vast that you seem to take in the whole world at a glance. Brittle bronze grass stretches over enormous open stretches. Low, hazy mountains loom on the distant horizon.

We saw our first group of lions on the drive into the park – a male and two females lounging under a dwarfed tree.

Serengeti lodge
Living the Highlife
Our lodge in the Serengeti was the most luxurious place I've set foot in in the past 10 months. A sprawling, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired structure built around giant gray boulders, the lodge had a pool shaped like a battle axe and a commanding view of the park. The buffet-style meals were top-quality, although I was hoping for a more adventurous selection on the barbecue.

Close Encounters
Our second day in the park was filled with incredible animal sightings. The plains were packed with hoofed animals: gazelle, impala, zebra, wildebeest, antelope. Ostriches hovered on the horizon like low-flying blimps. A troop of around 100 baboons paraded single-file across a road. Solitary giraffes sauntered through the scrub. And of course there were the lions.

lioness and two-week-old cub
Patience is paramount when observing lions. Initially, they did little more than yawn and slumber. But, given time, dramas unfolded. A mother returned from a hunt to be pounced upon by two adoring cubs. A pair of females spotted inattentive zebra in the distance and stole through the high dry grass. A female padded down the road with a tiny, two-week-old cub tailing her. Mother and cub plopped down in the center of the road. Fearless Alex drove us close enough to hear the cub mewing like a housecat. After a long rest the mother and cub rose and walked directly past our vehicle – less than three feet away – in what was literally the most frightening and exciting moment of my life. We all breathed a sigh of relief when they had passed. "Now that was dangerous," Alex admitted for the first and only time. "A new mamma can be very protective."

The best thing about the Serengeti is that you feel like you have it all to yourself. The park is so vast that we saw less than a handful of other vehicles throughout the day.

elephant near the picnic area
Ngorongoro Crater
Alex described the Ngorongoro Crater as the eighth wonder of the world. Making our slow descent to the crater floor on day number three, I could see why. The place is like a giant snow-globe packed with almost every species of animal in East Africa. Herds of zebra and wildebeest – 1000 or more strong – grazed docilely, hyenas slept in the mud, elephants tromped through the trees, baboons strutted around like they owned the place, lions dozed in the shade.

Compared to the Serengeti, the animals in the Crater seemed remarkably tame. Zebras took no notice as we approached them. Lions walked right up to safari vehicles – one big male even scratched his back on a Landcruiser's bumper. And two bull elephants wandered right into the picnic area, causing general hysteria; some people ran from the elephant, back to the safety of their cars, and some people ran toward the elephant to pose for photographs. A truckload of Indian photographers enhanced the excitement by shrieking, "Don't be crazy! You're risking your lives!"

Ngorongoro Crater felt crowded. Safari vehicles raced around in herds of their own – noisy, skittish beasts with white exoskeletons.

bathing elephants
Lake Manyara
Lake Manyara is the smallest game park in Tanzania and is completely different in appearance from Serengeti and Ngorongoro. Green trees and grass and shrubs dominate the hilly landscape. The lake itself sits in the middle of the park and is home to hundreds of hippopotamus.

Ten minutes into the park we spotted a giraffe and stopped to observe it. As it munched leaves off the high canopy of a tree, another giraffe appeared behind it. Then another. And another. Eventually, thirteen giraffe came out of the bush and marched across the road in front of us.

Lake Manyara is famous for its elephant, with more than two thousand in the park. I think we saw every single one. Huge extended families fed on the trees and crashed through the bush. Pairs of elephants drank deeply from the river and showered themselves cartoon-style with water from their trunks. Again, we were able to get incredibly close to the animals – near enough to hear them chew and snort and break wind.

fire under the hood
Fire Under the Hood
Our Landrover took a terrible beating on the roads that connect the parks; somewhere between Serengeti and Ngorongoro we blew half of the rear suspension. Things got really bad on the way out of Lake Manyara. The vehicle was reluctant to start and then spluttered suspiciously.

A short while later, smoke and fire blazed out from under the hood. Alex slammed the vehicle to a stop and ordered, "Stay in the car," as he hurdled out and opened the hood.

Stay in a burning car? Lions or no lions, Mom and I were already twenty strides away from the vehicle, bracing for an explosion.

The electrical system was shot; most of the wiring had melted into single black glob. So we waited. It was mid-afternoon. Other vehicles would come along. Hopefully.

Serengeti sunset
In a stroke of good fortune, the first vehicle to approach was driven by a man who'd fixed this problem before. He reached into the engine and yanked out the remaining wiring. "These older Landrovers are all mechanical," he explained. "This baby will run without any of this junk." He brought a small length of wire out of his toolkit and reconnected the brake lights and turn signals. He got back into his vehicle, gave us a push start, and we were on our way.

Mom and I applauded when we finally hit paved roads. Fraught with danger and intensity, beauty and tenderness, close encounters and mechanical failures, the trip had been a thrilling, extraordinary success. Tired and content, we sped back to the hustle and hassle of Arusha.

What do you think?

  • Ever been on safari?
  • Had any close encounters?

Posted on August 26, 2003 10:38 AM


Comments (post your own below)

Hi Mike-
It has been awhile since I've written. Always glad to hear you are doing okay and having a great time - wouldn't have expected anything but. Just wanted to let you know we are all thinking about you back in Chicago and look forward to throwing back a few beers with you. I'll make sure to bring a burrito for you.

Posted by: Angie on August 26, 2003 01:40 PM

Hi Mike,

Hope you enjoying your travel and Africa too. It was great to have you for our safaris and hope it will be a memorable experience for you and your mum.
Wishing you best of luck on your travels ahead.

Enjoy and take care.

from the team of : Bobby Tours And Safaris Arusha Tanzania

Posted by: Kassim Abdallah on August 27, 2003 01:01 AM

That "delicious little tropical fruit" from Zanzibar looks pretty much like a variety of pitahaya, from the hylocereus species. Glad to see you're eventually making it to Malawi. Have a safe trip.

Posted by: cave canem on August 27, 2003 10:05 AM

wow 330!
hey, this must be safari at night, maybe a flash woulda helped, but i guess that may have startled the wildlife.
am i the only one not getting the stills?
the Tanzanian daytime Safaris video was wonderfull - hello mum.
please don't let this man go home -ever - we neeeed him!

Posted by: dar on August 27, 2003 11:10 AM

Hey Mike,

It's Scott from the Petra excursion - just read your report on the safari and was wondering if you went with the company I suggested to you or a different one - glad it turned out well. For me, going on safari was just about the most amazing experience I have ever had! I am still on the road as well...expect to be home in mid September - uggg, job search. Keep on keepin' on -


Posted by: Scott Urbach on August 27, 2003 11:31 AM


First of all, I want to reiterate what almost everyone that has visited this site has said...awesome site! I would also like to add my name to the list of people that have been inspired by your journey around the world. I have decided that I want to do something similar now. Maybe not a year, but I think 6 months would be perfect for me!

I've enjoyed your stories and better yet, the pictures that accompany them. The pictures for this story aren't showing up though. I looked at your code and you left off the "/" in front of the path for your pictures. Just an FYI.

Keep up the incredible stories and pictures and enjoy this last month of your adventure!!

Posted by: Eric Ferguson on August 27, 2003 05:18 PM

thanks eric, i spent the day changing my settings (old newbie here)thought i was being left in the dark...ha

Posted by: dar on August 28, 2003 12:50 AM

Mike when are you going to post these as photos...In need of a new screen saver.

Posted by: on August 29, 2003 12:48 PM

Ahhhh, this brings back grand memories (and sadly, regrets of a crappy camera). A few years ago, I had the opportunity to stay in a camp on the other side of Mt. Kili from Tanzania - at the time, we were helping to build a church for a Maasai congregation. We drove through a wild game park (a smaller one near Amboseli) every morning on the way to the work site and had some amazing encounters along the way. One day, we spotted a lioness walking into a stand of grass and decided to drive after her (hoping for a good photo opportunity). The driver lost sight of her and we started to head out of the grass only to find that we were blocking her path. She lay down not 10 feet from our (open to the air and all the wild things that entails) truck and just looked at us. The details are etched into my mind - I can remember watching a little butterfly flutter past her snout as we all sat there taking photos (or trying to fix our cameras without looking in my case). After only a few seconds, she snarled at the butterfly and got up and stalked back into the grass. It was absolutely amazing, but my camera had died only a few minutes before. Figures. At least I know the memory will be with me forever - I can remember every little detail of that encounter! Thanks for sharing your fun. ;) I love reading your site - it scratches my itch to travel just right.

Posted by: Ste on August 29, 2003 08:01 PM

Thanks for getting the Safari pics up and running!

Posted by: Diana on September 6, 2003 06:08 PM

Hi Mike

I was also on the Thistle Gorm dive (Matts girlfriend), could help but steal your website and check it out.

So jealous, sitting in stinky, getting colder by the minute, London and just want to get back in the water and the sun quick!

Matt and I are on our way to Fiji in a couple of weeks, to do the big Australasian/South Pacific tour and paramountly go home and see my family!!

I see you spent some time in Thailand, any nice spots you would recommend to us?? We are heading there around Jan/Feb.

Hope you enjoy Zululand.

Keep us updated, looks like you are having a fantastic time.


Posted by: Anita Aston on October 2, 2003 05:29 AM

Hi Mike!
I like your site Mike and congratulation, your welcome again in Tanzania we loves you.

Posted by: Rose on October 3, 2003 05:14 AM

Brings back memories of my trip to Darwin, Austraila several years ago .... LandRovering LandRovering...

Posted by: hair accessory gal on October 3, 2003 05:34 PM

just wondering if you have still the contact of Alex your guide, i might think to contact him. Getting off in a week to kenya and tanzania.
Thank you so much, great website

Posted by: Susi on November 25, 2003 06:25 AM

I am going on a Safari in Tanzania in a couple months. This is my first time. I am going with THomson Safari who seem very very good. I'm nervous, but an excited nervous. Does anyone know whats going on in Zanzibar? I was going to go there for a few days after the safari but not sure how things are there right now. Thanks a bunch!

Posted by: Montie Anderson on April 30, 2004 04:25 PM

Comments closed.


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