We like to go on a big trip around New Years, and as I’ve previously mentioned, I’d be happy with a chilly European trip each and every year. But flights from Algiers to Europe are at an all-time high right now. So, we had landed on South Africa – some place brand new for both of us. But then the first cases of extra-contagious COVID variant of Omicron were detected in South Africa thus shutting down travel to that country. Adam suggested the East African country of Tanzania and that’s where we went. The trip was epic, mostly for the very long and spectacular safari we went on, but also because of what a big role COVID played on this trip. Such an epic trip deserves some well-told recounting so this is blog post one of three on Tanzania. Stayed tuned for Tanzanian Safari Part II and a post on Zanzibar.
We began our trip with two rather long flights to Zanzibar (Algiers to Qatar and Qatar to Zanzibar). It was upon landing there that I almost immediately was greeted with “hakuna matata” and I thought it was funny that the Tanzanian people so wholly embraced the charming tagline from The Lion King. A few hakuna matatas later, I realized I had it backwards: The Lion King had taken a common Swahili phrase that means “no worries (for the rest of your days)” and popularized it for the rest of the world. It was always a popular phrase in Tanzania.
The 8-day safari portion of the trip started on New Years day, with a flight from Zanzibar to Arusha’s teeny airport, where your baggage is wheeled out from the plane, directly to you. We were met by our driver, which was organized by our tour company ETrip Africa. We drove along busy, bumpy streets to the oasis of The Researcher’s Rest, a cozy house owned by two British women. We had a nice glass of South African white wine, regarding the property’s tortoise and old dog, and read books for a while until dinner.
Went to bed early as we’d be up the following day for the first real safari day. Only I was up all night with a fever. Even though I had a negative COVID test from a few days prior, a requirement to leave Algeria, there was a lot of potential exposure on the plane. I hate to point fingers but mine is pointed directly at the Russian guy who sat next to us on the last leg and got in two separate fights with the flight team – one because he thought his girth entitled him to keeping his seat reclined on takeoff and one questioning the scientific validity of their repeated requests for him to pull up his mask to cover his nose. Regardless of where I may or may not have gotten sick, we had difficult decisions to make. Taking this dream vacation in the midst of a (never-ending) global pandemic felt like it may have been a mistake.
Day 1: Arusha National Park. Adam, who had no symptoms, masked up and went on the first day of our safari solo, just he and our guide/driver. I’d love to share with you what Adam saw, but I don’t really know. Lots of giraffes I think? What I saw was all of season five of Seinfeld. But first, I went to a nearby hospital for a COVID test. I awaited results in a fevered state. At least I was in a comfortable room (away from anyone else) with a photo of elephants that reminded me of all the animals I wasn’t seeing.
Day 2: Tarangire National Park. My fever broke around 4pm and I managed to get an okay night of sleep and I didn’t feel too terrible come morning, when we were scheduled to depart for the rest of our safari. I didn’t have the COVID results yet, and we ran through our options. Did we just admit I likely had COVID, abandon our safari plans and stay in the cozy house in Arusha in isolation the best we could in a guest house with other people coming and going? We consulted with our tour company, who had arranged all the logistics, and they spoke with our guide/driver. (Knowing that our guide was vaccinated made me feel a little better that if I did give him COVID, he’d likely not get too sick). Together they recommended, and we agreed, that we’d continue the safari. In part because our planned private safari wouldn’t put us any any crowds, or even groups. We’d be in a private van and and do our best to distance from others at the lodges where we’d stay. So continue on we did, even though I had a fair amount of guilt about this. I double-masked, and sat about 10 feet back from our guide, trying to direct my breathing out the open window.
I know I’m opening myself up for criticism by sharing I was on vacation and contracted COVID and continued with the vacation. I do think COVID is serious, I’m extremely pro-vaccination, and I don’t mean to be flip. But I want to share an honest account of our trip.
So, on to the animals. After a few hour drive, we entered Tarangire National Park and I soon saw my first animal: A zebra! And then another zebra and then a trillion more. And giraffes! Our guide was like “You don’t need to take a picture of that zebra far away. You will see more.” He was not kidding. Our safari took place during the zebra and wildebeest migration. They migrate together, side by side, in giant hoards (as we’d see much more of later in the trip in the Serengeti) That day, we also saw a ton of elephants, including elephants taking a mud bath, which was a lot of fun to see.
We checked into Tarangire Safari Lodge, which fit my romantic view of exactly what a tent on a safari should be. The tents (with comfy beds, toilet, and showers with hot water) all overlooked a great plain and a river. If you used your binoculars, you should see all sorts of animals – like zebras and elephants – drinking from the watering hole. And there were matching robes in fun patterns! The lodge also had a beautiful dining area and pool, both areas in which I avoided others. We sat off by ourselves for dinner. (Unfortunately, there was no option to bring food to the tents as it attracts animals).
Day 3: Tarangire National Park. When we met our guide in the morning, he had two pieces of bad news: One: he’d been up most of the night with a fever and Two: My test came back with the result “Test Again in Seven Days” which might be Tanzanian for “you have COVID but we don’t want to report it to the government.” I apologized profusely and suggested that we all just stay back and rest. Our guide pointed out that staying in hot tents all day wouldn’t be great and besides, it was just the three of us in the safari vehicle so there was actually less chance we’d contaminate anyone else if we just took our germs away from the lodge for the day. So, we departed for another full day in the Tarangire National Park, which was spectacular, despite the pall that hung over the trip.
We first saw lions that morning and it was truly incredible to be that close. The things is, lions in the park have never been hit by a safari van, so they don’t fear the vans. And they seem to have do idea a human snack is contained inside the vans. So us being there seemed to affect the lions’ behavior in no way. (Side note: The Swahili word for Lion is “Simba.” So, the Lion King named its lion protagonist “Lion.”)
That was also the day where we saw something rather harrowing which was two bulls fighting for the rights to rule the pack. Each pack of bulls has an alpha male in charge and every so often, another male will challenge the alpha for that role. Loser is banished from the pack and is forced into either a life of solitude, or, if he’s lucky, he’ll find some other loner bulls and they’ll form an all-male village of exiles. We were lucky to come upon this scene as I’d learn that actually seeing some action in the bush is sort of rare. Mostly animals are just walking around or sitting there. Despite my dislike of seeing animal drama (I can’t even watch a movie with an animal as the main character), we stayed and watched the bulls lock horns until one of them dominated the other and split his horn. That is not a sound I will forget. The onlooking group of female bulls turned and walked away from the injured bull, thus casting him out of the network forever. Nature is brutal.
When we got back to our tent, I napped hard. And and was so thoroughly stuffed up up while sleeping that night – packed nose, sore throat, snoring, aching ears – that I was one of the only people who missed the nighttime roaring of a lion who was pacing by the tents.
Day 4: Lake Manyara National Park. First, good news: Our guide was only sick that one night and then felt completely fine for the remainder of the safari. Adam and I admittedly planned this Tanzania trip very fast and half-heartedly, putting a lot of trust in the company we’d hired to do all the safari planning for us (and they did a great job). When we first looked at the itinerary, we felt like it was a lot of time in the car, when we generally like being pretty active on vacations. We asked “Aren’t there some hikes we can do?” to which our tour operator replied “Well you can’t really hike in the parks as they’re filled with wild animals.” Touché.
But he did schedule us a “walking safari” at Tarangire Safari Lodge. We met the owner of the lodge and a guide at 6am and I was a little alarmed that they both had rifles. So, yeah, a “hike” is not what this walking safari was. It was a little scary to traipse along outside trying to spot animals knowing that a lion could leapt out and eat me at any moment. The owner of the lodge assured us that no lion in the park has ever eaten a human. In fact, if a lion attacks a human, it will be killed so it doesn’t go and tell the other lions how yummy we are. Our guides spotted a pride of lions down by the water — prime hunting territory — and we watched them for some time. But really the coolest thing we learned on this walking safari was the story of termite. Termites in Tanzania build these massive mounds, bit by bit, from chewing wood and spitting a little back up. Each mound has a queen and various castes of termites who all do different jobs. If a section of mound breaks off and kills a whole group of say termites that were “construction workers” the queen will immediately lay a bunch of “construction worker” eggs. A queen lays up to 30,000 eggs daily. A queen can live to 45 at which point she is licked to death by her subjects. Anyways, I really could watch a whole documentary on termites and probably should. Everywhere we went, the landscape was dotted by these massive mounds, which are very sturdy and can withstand an elephant and other animals scratching themselves on it.
After the walking tour, we were back in the safari vehicle and en route to Lake Manyara National Park, an area known for its vast elephant herds, pink flamingos, and interesting birds. The lake area was not packed with as many animals as Tarangire, but it was a nice change of scenery.
And that night we we stayed at the very cute Karatu Simba Lodge, located in a lush agricultural zone. Our chalet overlooked a field of beans and it was quite pretty. I was still feeling not great, so when we checked in I took a nap while Adam I believe went and did a handstand workout by himself and then replenished his fluids with a Safari beer or two.
Okay, more in Part II and, really, the best is yet to come. I start to feel totally better, we take a hike, enter the Serengeti, which was lions galore, cheetah, leopards, and lots of sighting of adorable (yet deadly) hippos, and then to the majestic Nogorongoro crater in search of the illusive rhino.