Seeing the Big 5 in Tanzania; and I don't mean the animals!!
Being reunited with some of my family after 4 months was lovely; I was so excited waiting for them to arrive in Arusha at our hotel! Big hugs all round, especially with Mum who is the only other person in my family that actually loves a hug haha.
We had a quick catch up but it was late as they had got delayed at the airport so we saved it for the next day. We chatted over a buffet breakfast then set off for safari straight away at 8am with our guide Niko, for the 4 hour journey to our first park.
Excited was an understatement as over the next 8 days we saw so much wildlife! Some of the animals I had dreams of seeing since I was a little girl were right here in front of us. I have captured some of my personal highlights below and also the photos of some of the best parts. I had about a thousand pics and Lee made me be brutal and cut them all back, and thank goodness he did as it was getting crazy! But who isn’t snap happy when a lion is about a metre away having a lie down in the shade of their vehicle?
Sunrise game drives
Anyone who knows me, knows I am a sleep person so waking up, even to see a sunrise, doesn’t normally thrill me, but this was amazing! On our second day we did our first sunrise game drive, leaving by 6am to drive through the park and see what we could fine; and boy was this worth it! Our guide found 3 cheaters lying alone in the morning sun, and we were the frist to see it so got to watch them totally alone. Magical! We aslo raced across the park to see “something”, which our guide wouldn’t tell us so it was a surprise; it was a huge male lion, something we had all hoped to see. He was magnificent as he strolled through the park in the soft orange light of the sunrise!
We did a few other sunrise game drives and they were all worth it, it was actually nice being up before everyone and we finished the days earlier too so we had time to enjoy the lodges.
Our first Tarangire Safari Lodge in Tarangire National Park was a shock to us all of how luxurious a tented lodge could be. The tents were lovely, spacious, and had good bathrooms and beds. It also had fabulous views across the park to a river, which we could see from the viewing veranda too where they served us drinks and nibbles whilst we waited for dinner; this was the life!
Below: Baboons and birds in Lake Manyara National Park
Our third hotel , The Kubu Kubu Lodge, was one of the most amazing hotels I have ever stayed in, and it was also a ‘tented lodge’!! The rooms were enormous and although the sides were canvas, they were on a permanent base and had an actual bathroom, which again was enormous and amazing! The beds were also huge, with Lee’s bed being what looked like a double and a king put together! Even my ‘single’ bed was bigger than normal. The food didn’t disappoint either, it was a buffet and they had vegan options wahoo! Lentil curry and a chickpea stew, plus a whole table of salads, another for soups, and then all the extras that you have with your main; we were spoilt that’s for sure!
Kubu Kubu also had an infinity pool so we arranged to finish early after one of our sunrise game drives, and come back to enjoy the pool. Unfortunately the sun often went in a bit in the afternoon so it wasn’t as hot as it had been, but we enjoyed it anyway!
We enjoyed all of the other lodges too, very spoilt!
I loved ALL the animals we saw, but elephants have always been a big favourite of mine and after meeting some for the first time face-to-face at the elephant sanctuary in Thailand, I couldn’t wait to see them in the wild. And boy did we see them! We came across many herds and got particularly close to one herd in the bushes munching the trees. They even crossed the road in front of us. On all occasions that I have met elephants, I have always been blown away by their gracefulness; they are the biggest land mammal on the planet and yet make hardly any noise when waking, they walk as though they want to tread softly, and have an air of elegance, majesty and care around each other and us. I feel so blessed to have been able to get this close and share these moments with my family.
On route to the Serengeti, we visited a Masai tribe in a local village. The chief's son gave us a tour and also offered 100 cows to Dad for me because I was very blonde - Dad thought he was in; an eventful tour haha. He showed us into one of their huts, where they slept and cooked. It was tiny and very smoky. He told us that the women liked it to be smoky as it stopped the mosquitos. We also learnt that the women build the houses, so the men live and sleep outside until they are married, and then their wife builds them a hut. Hmmm I think a lot of couples would be homeless if this happened at home! He told us about their diet; the Masai eat predominantly meat and drink the blood from the cows. He told us that they learn how to bleed them so they don't kill the cow, and drink this as part of their staple diet. There wasn't a vegetable in sight, only ugali, which is maize flour that they cook into a mash, (the same way they do in Uganda but they call it posho in Uganda).
They also allowed us to join in some traditional dancing. The boys used to have to kill a lion to become a man, but the government stopped this as the lion numbers were reducing rapidly because of it, so they changed to doing a jumping ceremony to show their strength; they could jump so high! They dressed us all up in traditional clothes and led us women first to dance and sing, and then the men came in and showed us their jumping skills, Alex and Lee were really good at it, but Dad put his back out trying; it's lucky he is already married!
We then met the children at the tree where they do their schooling. They don't usually enter into mainstream schools, and so have an education within the tribe as they learn how to rear the cows and other animals.
We went on our way with some knowledge of how the local tribes live, and with some bracelets that they had made. We all thoroughly enjoyed it, but I for one could not be Masai and eat all that blood and meat!
We saw many prides of lions, which really shocked me; it got to the point where we almost weren’t shocked to come across a lion anymore. I was shocked because I didn’t expect there to be so many and they weren’t scared or shy of us watching them. They were even more amazing in the flesh than I had imagined and so each encounter was breath-taking. They are beautiful and so agile in the way that they move; every movement is smooth and flowing. I think we can learn a lot from animals about flowing with life and being in the moment. For lions there is no worry about what will happen later or tomorrow, they just embrace each other and whatever the current situation is. Watching them all relaxing together was something of dreams. They cleaned each other, nuzzled each other in greeting, lay close to each other or on each other and really enjoyed each other’s company and showed their bond. We even watched as some of the cubs teased one of the males until he roared at them to stop; kids will be kids eh?
I got some good shots of a lioness up close too. She came and lay in the shade of our vehicle and with the window open she was less than 30cms from us! This didn’t bother her in the slightest and she just lay panting trying to cool down whilst we watched in awe and got to be up close to the animal kingdom’s queen! She was bigger than I had imagined also, her paws were the size of my face!
The big cats and other carnivores were awesome and always get a lot of hype, but we have to also appreciate the array of herbivores that Tanzania holds! And I love a herbivore.
One of my favourites was warthogs or pumbas as they are named in Swahili (which is where the names of most of Lion King’s characters get their names from). They are categorised as part of the ‘Ugly 5’ but I didn’t see anything ugly about them. I found it hard to capture a photo of them as they are shy so every time we spotted them they would run off with their tails in the air, even the babies, which is part of their charm I think!
The zebras, giraffes and antelopes of all kinds were also wonderful to see. We were all excited whenever we spotted some. The giraffes were really unusual looking when you got up close, really quite amazing how they have evolved like that with their long neck and legs. The zebras were also great to watch and we even spotted some in their protective formation where they stand facing different ways so that the stripes confuse the predator. They were a marvel to see in herds all over the parks and often with their co-grazer friends, wildebeest. We also saw buffalo and elands (the largest species of antelope). AMAZING!
A few times we came across hippos in a pool, just relaxing, now this was cool to see! They were lay floating in the water and would slowly rotate themselves to keep cool and keep their skin out of the sun. The also splashed their tails to wet themselves and kept just enough out of the water to breathe, going under sometimes. We watched one baby lay on their back and letting their head bob up and down underneath the water. For on of the most dangerous animals on earth, they were pretty chilled!
We got to see plenty of baby animals and each sooo cute, even the baby pumbas! The baby zebras and giraffes were the sweetest things, staying close by to their mum’s for protection. I couldn’t hold in my excitement of seeing them and would whoop in excitement, which I think quickly became annoying, but they were just so sweet!
Aptly named ‘Endless plains’ in Swahili; miles and miles as far as you can see. It was so beautiful, the vastness gives it a magnificence that swept you into it. We drove on and on through the plains, the landscape changing and just when you thought you couldn’t possibly come across anything in such a huge place, we would see an enormous herd of zebras, a pride of lions, or a herd of elephants; it was incredible. The sunsets were something to write home about too, all the colours drifting across the grass-filled back drop.
The Big 5, The Ugly 5 and The Little 5
So the Big 5 was our main goal we were told by our guide Niko. These are leopard, lion, rhino, elephant and buffalo. Sadly this term is thought to have first come about as the 5 hardest animals to hunt in Africa, but is now used to describe the 5 most people would love to spot. Add onto this zebras, giraffes, warthogs, cheetahs, jackals, hyenas, hippos and mongoose, plus all the others, and you have a list of what I hoped we might see – and we did! Wahoooo! We didn't see a leopard well, but we spotted his spots (haha) in a tree. Lee got a great photo, which I will add when I get it off him.
The Ugly 5 (which I don’t think are ugly) are hyena, warthog, wildebeest, marabou stork and the vulture. We managed to see all of these too! They in themselves are just as impressive to watch, and marvel at their funny looks haha. Have you ever seen a marabou stork? Alex described it as a rotting piece of flesh (it’s head) with a metal axe head sticking out of it (it’s beak); kinda fitting I’m afraid.
The Little 5 are the elephant shrew, the buffalo weaver bird, rhinoceros beetle, leopard tortoise and the antlion. We saw all but the antlion. I would have liked a closer look at the rhinoceros beetle, those things are so cool! Almost as cool as a real rhino, which we saw from afar in the Ngorogoro Crater on our last day.
This was one of the things Mum had set the itinerary around. Most people do game drives to follow the migration, and this had decided where we would be for our safari. We heard that the herds had already moved on but Niko had an idea of where to try, and it paid off! We went towards one of the watering holes and as we got closer, saw teems of zebra and wildebeest all walking in lines from different directions through the water. I thought they would all just converge on the water and stay there in a huge group, but they keep moving. They have a drink and move on. It was incredible to watch, the sheer numbers was impressive, and this was a relatively small group compared to the mass herds that can be seen. Watching them close up was captivating, we sat in the van for over an hour just watching, all in silence, just taking in the beauty and honoured to see part of their amazing journey.
Sadly we saw a little baby wildebeest had been separated from it’s mother. We all hoped it would find her, and it even joined the groups at one stage calling out (followed by cheers from us), but then lay back down on the far bank as if giving up. Nature can be brutal, this really touched me; being able to do nothing for it was hard :-(
On day 3 we topped at the crater viewing point on the way to the Serengeti, it was breath-taking. Niko told us that the crater has a diameter of 19 miles and covers over 100 square miles of wilderness! It's a volcano crater and is thought the original volcano would have been almost as high, if not higher, than Mount Kilimanjaro before it erupted. We couldn't wait to go into the crater on the last day!
So when we finally drove down into the crater at sunrise on the last day, it did not disappoint, and was a fabulous last place to visit here in Tanzania. The animals were all calmer here, as if they knew they were safer. They didn't run from the vehicle and the scenery was lush and green. We all agreed if you were an African animal, this is where you would want to be!
We saw lions, zebra, elephants, wildebeest, and beautiful birds. Then Niko heard on his radio that a rhino had been spotted, so we raced across the crater on a high speed chase, which we enjoyed almost as much as seeing the rhino! He was in the distance a little, I would not have spotted him from that far, but Niko’s trained eyes saw him straight away. He stood very still the whole time and Niko told us that they graze close to other herbivores often and despite their size are quite nervous creatures. I couldn’t imagine this, but as we watched we could see he wasn’t relaxed and was keeping a watch out. It must be a lonely life living in solitude a lot of the time, made worse due to the dwindling numbers. He told us that there were only 30 rhinos left in the crater, only 30 left?! This was sad to hear but good that they were protected well and that the government had armed guards protecting the oldest rhino they had.
We stopped at a small watering hole in the crater for lunch, it was amazing how the crater hid things even though they were essentially all on the same level. We drove into what looked like nothing and came across thie beautiful spot, and it had hippos in the water, as well as toilets and people picnicking.
Our tour guide company - Soul of Tanzania
So last but definitely not least to mention is our tour guide company; Soul of Tanzania, and our wonderful guide Niko, who made it happen. We were treated like kings and queens! He could not do enough for us and the food was amazing! We would pull up to a picnic spot where everyone was eating the lunch boxes you get given at your lodge (which did look yummy btw, they even had veggie burgers) and Niko would get out the tablecloth and silver cutlery and plates; it was funny watching everyone's reactions. And the food was just wow. Vegan food on point! Stews with beans and chickpeas and some vegetable curries. Everyone enjoyed the veggie stuff too. Plus fresh fruit and tea or coffee with homemade biscuits!
Our guide Niko was fabulous too, so knowledgeable, patient and helpful. He even stopped a few times to help me find shorts (I had none of appropriate length lol, and in Uganda women don't really wear shorts!). He went out of his way to accommodate us, teach us about the animals and nature and was funny too. I would HIGHLY recommend him for your safari.
Time to catch a tiny plane
As we drove from the crater to the airport to catch our flight to Zanzibar, it dawned on me again that I was soooo lucky to have seen all this magnificent nature, and to share that with my loved ones was even better. A huge thanks to Mum and Dad for their hard work planning it, and for taking us all. We talked about this as a family trip since I was little and they made our dreams come true! And thanks to all of my hilarious family for making this trip awesome and fun; the days are always full of laughter with you lot around :)
Next stop - the paradise island of Zanzibar for some relaxation together.