We booked our 6 day safari package with Mar Tours, the same company we used for Kilimanjaro and we were really pleased! We chose the budget option, which has you sleeping in tents instead of lodges, but we also had a private tour so it was just the two of us, our driver/guide Amadeus and our chef Severin.
A few quick tips before I launch into our safari adventure:
- Budget means budget. Don’t have high expectations and you won’t be disappointed. This means not having hot water (or running water at all), electricity or any of the other comforts you many expect from a hotel. This really only applies to the accommodation and not the entire experience which was fantastic
- Bring toilet paper and/or baby wipes. Many toilets don’t have toilet paper and in lieu of running water at least baby wipes can make you feel somewhat clean. Also hand sanitizer will be your BFF
- If you walk into a bathroom at a camp and only see squat toilets, don’t panic. There’s often at least one regular toilet (call me spoiled but I prefer my toilet bowl raised off the ground)
- Bring sandals. This may seem obvious, but it’s way easier at 2am to slip on your sandals when you go pee than to put on a pair of runners. I only brought my Toms and my Blundstones (which stayed in my bag the entire time) while James had flip flops that he wore all the time except for the hot air balloon
For the budget option with Mar Tours (which I can’t imagine varies much from other operators) the cost was $265 per person per day, so the total cost for us (excluding tips) was $3,180 USD. This included a night on either end at Parkview Inn, transportation with guides to and from Parkview Inn, all park fees, all food, water and snacks (excl. alcohol), gas, tent, pillows and sleeping mats. So while expensive, it’s all inclusive and the park fees alone end up being close to half of the total cost. For example, the cost for Serengeti was $450 USD for 2 days (including camping), Ngorongoro was $300 USD for one night and to drive to Serengeti – it was $70 USD just to drive through on our way back. Lake Manyara was the cheapest by far at $118 USD, but we were only in the park for a few hours. We were instructed to tip the guide $180 USD for the guide and $120 USD for the chef. The Serengeti Balloon Safari was an additional splurge of $540 USD per person. So, yeah, these tours aren’t cheap – even for the budget option!
Anyway, on with the adventure!
Amadeus and Severin met us at 8:30am at our hotel and we quickly packed up the car and were on our way. Our first stop was Tarangire National Park where we were guaranteed some pretty awesome elephant spotting.
The drive from Moshi to Arusha is about 2 hours and it’s another 2 to Tarangire. For this reason, many of the tours operate out of Arusha and if you weren’t hiking Kilimanjaro it would probably be best to fly in and out of Arusha and select a tour operator there.
Day One: Tarangire National Park
We dropped Severin off at the junction where one road leads to Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti National Park and also our campsite for the evening. He was going to meet us back at camp while we went for our game drive. We arrived at Tarangire around 1 and had some lunch in a picnic area near the parking lot while Amadeus bought our permit. Then we were on our way! Almost immediately after driving in through the gates we started to see wildlife, first an impala and then a few zebra. We were so excited! I think we must have taken 20 zebra pictures not yet aware that during the course of the 6 days we would see thousands!
After another few minutes we came across a small family of elephants. I couldn’t believe how close we were to them. I’m not sure what I expected, but I certainly didn’t think we would be close enough to see their wrinkled skin.
We continued our drive further into the park and came to an area with a small river. Since it is dry season, water is scarce and here we were able to see many different animals cooling off and taking a drink. The highlight of the day for me was watching a bunch of elephants take a mud bath – especially the babies!
Before we left for the day, we spotted a cheetah mother with its cub. Just as we were grabbing our camera we saw the mouth take off and chase an antelope. Because of the grass we couldn’t really see what had happened, but the antelope didn’t come back up and soon the cub was moving over to where it’s mother was, presumably to have some dinner.
We easily crossed off one of the ‘big five’ – a name given to this list of animals that are most difficult to hunt by foot. These include elephants, leopards, buffalo, lions and the elusive black rhino. Of course, there are strict laws in place now regarding poaching – particularly for black rhinos.
We stayed at Fanaka Camp site, which isn’t in any of the parks but on the way from Tarangire to Ngorongoro. While it felt a little like camping in someone’s backyard, the facilities were nice enough and you could buy cold beer to have with dinner, which was the perfect way to end our first day.
Day Two: Ngorongoro Crater
We had a late breakfast around 8, and then slowly packed up and were on the road. We drove past the entrance to Lake Manyara, which we would be seeing near the end of our journey. We reached the gates and held tight while the permit was purchased before heading in. On night two, we stayed at Simba A camp, which was right inside Ngorongoro National Park. We dropped Severin off and around noon started our descent into the crater.
The crater is the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfolded volcanic caldera. The crater was created as a result of an eruption causing the then volcano collapsed onto itself. I had no idea that was one way craters were formed! We assumed it was the result of a meteor. Pretty cool stuff. If the volcano hadn’t collapsed on itself 2 to 3 million years ago it is estimated it would have been 4500 – 5800 m high, so pretty close to Kilimanjaro. My mind was once again blown by the wonders of this world.
It’s not hard to see why land rovers or something similar are the vehicle of choice for many a safari operators. We definitely needed a 4WD as we came down the dirt roads!
As soon as we were inside of the crater, we started to see animals: zebra, wildebeest, antelope. And it wasn’t long before we spotted our first lion of the day! I could see why Amadeus told us it was kind of like a zoo – there was such a high concentration of wildlife!
It also meant that if you spotted something interesting, there were likely 5 or 6 other trucks around you. That being said, it does help you find things – like the elusive rhino, which was our big goal of the day. Ngorongoro has the highest concentration of black rhinos in Tanzania and there are only 24! But that actually seems pretty high when you consider there are only 67 in Tanzania (as Amadeus told us). He also told us that these rhinos are being tracked 24/7 since they are so endangered – a consequence from many years of poaching. Though he was at a fair distance, we did get to see a rhino which was a pretty big deal!
After driving around a little more, we came to a pond where a number of hippos were just lying about, with only their backs and the top of their heads exposed. Other animals, like the buffalo (another of the ‘big five’) were taking a drink from the pool. Before too long, a male lion made his way over there and was peacefully sitting on the edge. It took at least 5 minutes for one of the buffalo to notice the predator, and soon they formed a group making lots of noise to chase the lion away.
As we continued our drive, we saw a make and female lion lying together and Amadeus informed us they were mating (not at that precise moment, of course, I think James and I could have worked that out). During the mating season, a male and female will move away from other lions and spend a few days together before the male lion moves on and the female goes back to her pride. It was amazing how close we got to these lions, who eventually made their way up and walked right past our truck!
Before the day was through, we spotted a cheetah with a fresh kill. It was pretty graphic, when looking through our binoculars you could see the cheetah’s face covered with blood. But that’s the circle of life I guess – at least that’s what The Lion King taught me.
We made our way to Simba A campsite within the park where we were staying for the night. Amadeus had told us in advance that we were likely to hear and see some animals, and there were already a few zebra present among the tents. Soon, a few elephants walked by, keeping sheltered in the trees. It was all very magical until I woke up at 2am and had to make sure I didn’t run into any zebras or step on any poo as I staggered toward the bathroom.
Day Three: Serengeti National Park
After breakfast and packing up, we continued to head through Ngorongoro National Park toward the Serengeti. The trip wasn’t all that exciting, basically 2-2.5 hours on a super bumpy road before you reach the main gate. That being said, you drive past many Masai people hearing goats and cows which was pretty neat to see. The Masai are permitted to live on the land, since they are native to the area.
We reached the gate and had an hour to kill before we bought our permit. James and I did a very small hike up to a peak with a view of the incredibly flat land. We saw a few interesting lizards along the way.
Once we had our permit in hand, we headed into the park and started to get a sense of just how vast it is, particularly compared to Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire. As we drove along the main road (which is really just a larger bumpy dirt road) we saw a female lion who looked like she was out on a hunt. She was keeping low in the tall grass and watching for antelope. A few small herds went by, but she didn’t make an attempt. Amadeus let us know that the antelope are too fast for lions, so they have to be very careful and selective about their hunting technique.
We continued for another hour or so until we reached our camp for the next two days which, to be honest, wasn’t much to look at. But my expectations of the ‘budget’ option for safari luckily weren’t that high (and they continued to dwindle as the days went on). We had some lunch and a small rest before heading out on a late afternoon game drive.
Amadeus told us that the Serengeti is his favourite park, because you can get away from other people. And it’s certainly the case! We were off the beaten track and for most of our drive you couldn’t see another vehicle in site. We came across a group of elephants cooking off and couldn’t resist stoping to watch them play. And because we were so far from others, James had the opportunity to take his drone out for a short spin.
We continued our drive, spotting giraffe, many different kinds of antelope and zebras. We came to a rock formation that had one other vehicle. We pulled up beside to get a look and there were 2 grown female lions and 6 cubs! Amadeus told us they looked to be about a month old. They were really cute and we took our time watching them play fight with each other. As an aside, the random scatterings of rock formations throughout the Serengeti totally make me think there is some truth to Pride Rock. And, yes, all of my information of African wildlife does come from The Lion King.
On our way back to camp, Amadeus spotted a cheetah and turned off the main ‘road’ into the tall grass to give us a better look. I suppose this is another advantage of the Serengeti over other parks; it’s unlikely you would risk doing something like that at another park because there are so many other people.
Day Four: Serengeti National Park
We set our alarm for 4:45, and were being picked up at 5:15 for our hot air balloon safari. Shortly after 5:15 a van pulled up and we got in, still groggy. Two couples, presumably in their 60’s or 70’s asked where we were from and the one of them said ‘which tent is yours?’. I told him you couldn’t see ours from the car and his wife said ‘but is it the same size as the one in front of us?’ We shrugged and said it probably was and they all laughed and said ‘oh, I guess we’re being spoiled where we’re staying!’ 😐 Another couple approached the van to get in and as it turns out, it was a different company than we’d booked with so we hopped out and let the spoiled oldies get on with their day.
Our van arrived about 20 minutes later (I’m sure I missed when he said ‘5:15, African time) and we were on our way. We pulled up to a field where they were setting up 3 hot air balloons and waited eagerly for our instructions. Johnny, our pilot, gave us and the other 14 passengers for our balloon a quick briefing and some safety information and we were shortly on our way.
The only other time we’ve been in a hot air balloon was in Cappadocia in 2013 and I forgot just how smooth they are! It was such a treat to hover just above the sparse trees and watch the sunrise over the Serengeti. I think we both expected to see a lot more animals, and we did see some, but for us it was much more about taking in the beautiful scenery.
We were back at the visitor centre around 10:30 and met Amadeus for another game drive before lunch. We headed north and saw literally thousands of zebra! It was insane.
Everywhere you looked there were massive herds. We had also seen some herds running from the balloon and Amadeus told us there are 300,000 in the Serengeti. It’s no wonder we felt like they were everywhere. But that number pales in comparison to the wildebeest of which there are 1.5 million! We headed back to camp for some lunch and a rest before our evening game drive, but not before coming across a few of James’ favourite: monkeys.
We left for our drive around 3pm and it felt like we’d driven for hours without seeing much. Again, it made me realise just how big the Serengeti is! We came across more zebra, some ostriches and elephants. As the sun started to set the sky was breathtaking and we stood up in the truck to enjoy the view.
Just before we made our way back to camp for the evening we saw a few trucks parked on the road. We were in luck! There was a leopard (one of the big five) crossing the road. We had seen a few leopards earlier in the week, but always up in trees and from some distance. We had the pleasure of watching this guy walk around in the tall grass before climbing up a tree and then eventually back down it. We were hoping that it was looking to hunt but there was nothing much around other than zebra (which are too large for leopards, who like to bring their hunt back up into a tree when they are done).
We had some dinner and then watched an amazing lightening storm taking place in the distance. Because it’s so flat it was hard to tell if it was 25km away, or more than 100km. We couldn’t hear any thunder so we assumed it wouldn’t reach us, but it was an amazing light show! We fell asleep to the sound of hyenas in the bushes around our camp.
Day Five: Serengeti National Park / Travel Day
We woke up to no running water in the campsite, which unfortunately meant no showers and also some pretty disgusting bathrooms. Oh well, we were toughened up from a week of no running water on Kili! We had some breakfast and then watched baboons sneaking around camp looking for leftovers until Amadeus and Severin were ready to leave. We drove 1.5 hours to the gate, looking for game along the way. We saw a gorgeous female lion out for a hunt and watched for a bit before continuing on.
It was another 2.5 hours until we made our next stop at a picnic site in Ngorongoro for lunch (you use the same road to come into and out of the Serengeti) and then another 2 hours before we reached camp. It was a log day of driving for Amadeus on the bumpiest road we have ever travelled on. I started to understand why some people may choose to fly between the parks! We arrived at Fanaka camp around 3pm. It seems their power was down, which meant no hot water or wifi. I was content with a cold shower, so long as there was running water but the water was no so much running as it was dripping so I decided to call it a day and have some beer instead.
It was a quiet afternoon/evening and (much like the other nights) we were in bed by 8pm!
Day Six: Lake Manyana
Our last day was here. I’d already felt like we’d seen so much, we had no idea what to expect at Lake Manyana. After breakfast, we left the campsite and drove 1km down the road to the entrance. We started to make our way through the park and instantly saw a heap of baboons. They were pretty hilarious to watch and a few of them jumped up on the hood of the car. It was all well and good until one of them started scratching and Amadeus had to yell for them to get down.
As we continued we also came across a few different species of monkey, who looked like they were two hangs fighting each other but Amadeus assured us they were just being friendly and that they all play with each other.
We drove out to a clearing and saw thousands of storks, flamingos and other birds. Here’s what I’ll see about Manyana – if you’re a bird enthusiast, definitely go there! I think the vegetation is conducive to many different species of birds. But it’s also quite covered in forest, which makes it difficult to spot animals and can be a little disappointing, especially after experiencing some of the other parks!
We continued on, seeing more groups of monkeys and giraffes in the distance. Eventually we came to a larger clearing with a boardwalk and we walked out to take some pictures of the flamingoes.
We hopped back in the car and as we made our way to the front gate we saw a few groups of elephants, which is insanely impressive no matter how many we saw earlier in the week!
I was sad to be leaving all the animals behind, but also very excited to have a shower! 6 days felt like the perfect amount of time for a safari; as silly as it sounds you almost become desensitised a few days in. You know it’s bad when you see a lion in the distance and don’t even bother pulling your camera out! That being said, I am excited to go on more safaris in other areas of Africa as we continue this leg of our trip. It really is an unbelievable experience being so up close to the wildlife!