While planning my 3-week trip to East Africa many people told me it was the trip of a lifetime. Immediately upon arrival I knew there was no possible way this would be the trip of a lifetime -- I have to go back, tomorrow would be great. I'm thinking it's more of a trip-of-every-five-years-or-so. There is no way I will let such an awe-some experience happen just once in my lifetime. People -- there were leopards mating (!) and we watched a live-action kill by a cheetah. Zebras were more plentiful than cows driving past a dairy farm. The first day, I started a tally of how many animals I was seeing, but by the end of the second, I couldn't keep track anymore, over 500 elephants, multiple prides of lions, cheetahs with cubs -- IN THE WILD.
After an absurd amount of over-researching [why doesn't anybody talk about how much a safari costs?], I curated about 15 quotes from different companies. We narrowed it down to 4 based on price point, and began negotiating specific activities and parks we wanted to see with all four companies. Quickly, we made our final selection base on customer service -- the thoroughness and transparency we received made it comfortable to really cater it to our exact wants. Our friends at Easy Travel we lovely from planning through execution. Originally, we were interested in adding a hike and boating safari. In the end, I'm glad we opted out this time around. Kate and I felt we could have driven around in the vehicle for a month, we were having so much fun. I think these extra activities are worth prioritizing if you are a birder, or get bored of looking at incredible animals in their stunning landscapes.
Things we knew we wanted when asking for quotes was to see Tarangire National Park, Central and North Serengeti, and Ngorongoro Crater. We wanted to be on the safari for 7-10 days, in a private vehicle and stay in schmedium accommodations. We also knew we were going to be there in low season in early October -- the tail end of the Great Migration and the very beginning of the wet season. Traveling with roommate Kate, we agreed to a shared room to reduce costs. Since same-sex relationships are not socially acceptable, we were sure to request separate beds.
I thought with a 5k safari budget, we would be sleeping in an REI Half-dome tent. Turns out, we were able to lower our budget safari to $2700 and stay in perfectly glamorous flush-toilet-in-tent, cold beer at dinner, wine with lunch camps for 8-days & 7-nights. Our flights were $816 round trip -- a really lonnnnggg round trip. Stayed in an AirBnB the first few nights in Nairobi, and then an eco-camp a couple nights in Nairobi at the tail end. Accommodations and ubers were very affordable and the food was delicious everywhere we went.
The season turned out to be perfect for our expectations. There were light showers for a bit in the afternoon most days and with it, a few inches of green grass blanketing the savanna in the southern parts, and all the tall grasses had died and fallen low to the earth. This made for optimum animal spotting -- we saw a cheetah sitting down from hundreds of meters away (and much, much closer too, but that's to a different point). The weather was comfortable each day in the mid-70's, the mornings were never very cold (for our San Francisco blood), dropping to the high 50's at night.
Our vehicle perks included an ice chest, binoculars, back of seat pockets for storage and most importantly, just the three of us, our tracker/driver (one person in our case), Kate, and myself -- this made it easy for us both to sit on the same side of the vehicle depending on the views/sun and to keep a seat in the front where it's less bumpy. Our vehicle also had an outlet to charge camera batteries/phones, but it wasn't particularly useful, the chargers jostled out quickly on the bumpy roads. We spent 90% of the time sitting in the front seats where the windows were bigger. Something that would have upgraded our experience is the windows -- ours rattled a lot (we envied the &Beyond vehicles with their soft roll-up windows).
One unexpected treat, was the knowledge our tracker had. Moses is a birder, and often goes on month long expeditions, waiting patiently for birds to approach. I never thought I'd be very interested in the birds, but there is so much to learn! It was a nice break in the day to stop suddenly and often to see a giant bird, a tiny rainbow bird and everything in between. So, if you have specific interests, be sure to say so. It's likely where ever you book your safari, they have trackers that have special skills.
Below is a brief description of the 3 parks we visited including highlights and recommendations for each and how long we stayed.
Tarangire National Park
Central & Northern Serengeti
Tarangire National Park
Tarangire wowed us. It was our first park, and at the end of the trip, our favorite park. Before going, it made it onto our itinerary because of the Baobab trees, and the elephant density. When we were there, it amazed us in so many more ways. Tarangire pulled out all the stops. The landscape of the park was ever changing, rock formations and hills, rivers and creeks, epic baobab trees, acacia and 'sausage' trees among other vegetation. We saw a leopard in a tree close enough I could have thrown it a treat (I didn't, nor was I tempted). We saw cheetahs and cubs, the leopard, a pride of lions, cape buffalo, zebra, giraffe and elephants. Although our guide assured us this was not a typical experience, Tarangire is also one of his favorite parks because of all the surprises it offers. Even if we hadn't seen all the cats in this park, the varying landscape made it a very enjoyable place to look for wildlife.
Central & Northern Serengeti
1-night central, 2-nights north, 1-night central again
Cats on cats on cats. The Serengeti was a completely different park -- the landscape was fairly monotonous savanna with occasional kopje rock formations protruding. The only trees were variations of Acacia, all mimicking the flat landscape. Fortunately, the park lived up to its reputation and we saw cats on cats on cats. And physically on -- the leopards and lions were both mating, every 7-20 minutes.
Since we had seen a lion and lioness mating in the morning, 3 times. We decided to spend the rest of the day looking for the elusive black rhino. Our guide assured us that we might not see 'anything' (he meant cats or rhinos), but we insisted to keep looking since we were satisfied with our cat sightings. Well, we saw many birds, and dik diks and various other deer animals, and a countless number of 'is-that-a-rhino' shaped rocks. Our guide was listening intently to the radio in hopes of a rhino siting -- he got really excited and we raced off. To avoid disappointing us, he wouldn't tell us where we were going, or what we might see next. Kate and I spent a lot of mental energy trying to learn their Swahili code words -- zero success. Well, it turns out there were cheetah brothers citied at the Kenyan boarder.
Originally, we were a little disappointed that the safari company only recommended a half day in the crater, but heeded their advice. I am so glad we did. Prior to arriving at the crater bottom, we had seen everything we had dreamed possible aside from the rhino. This park gave us the chance to see the elusive black rhino, 3 of them including a baby. The crater is sort of the last chance to see anything you may have missed -- the density of animals and the crater base's access and size, drastically increases your chances of seeing the big 5 (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and cape buffalo named for the 'trophies' they made). With that, there are large groups of safari vehicles crowding around a site unlike the solitary experiences we had at the other parks.
And now for an absurd volume of photos. If you scroll far enough, you'll find a photo of the lovely hopper lunches we had each day, roommate Kate standing on the seats hanging out the top of the vehicle (shoes off, rain or shine this was our norm the entire safari), the exterior of one of our camps, and a lot of animals, including lion cubs.