Our beloved Land Cruiser (rented from Fortes Safaris) took us from Arusha to Manyara, Tarangire, Ngorongoro, and Serengeti.
THE DECISION TO DRIVE OURSELVES
At first, our trip to Tanzania looked like that of any other very lucky safari-goer. I’d done some enthusiastic Googling, and had worked back and forth with a few companies that offer semi-customizable itineraries. I’d settled on a top choice — a-10-day trip through three parks, staying in luxurious tent camps.
Then I ran it by Tom.
He said, “How do we get from place to place?” I explained that you fly in little planes from spot to spot and are met by a driver at each airstrip. “Huh,” he said, slowly. “Why can’t we just drive ourselves?”
Why indeed. Come to think of it, not one of the four of us liked the idea of being shuttled around and shown things. Better to stumble on something neat yourself than to be guided to something spectacular by somebody else. We wanted to explore Tanzania as a family, on our own.
And thus began the second round of Googling. Once I found a Tanzanian company called Fortes Safaris, the trip fell into place. While our request to rent a Land Cruiser without a driver was unusual for them, it wasn’t unheard-of. We checked into road conditions, crime conditions, and wildlife-encounter stories, all of which resulted in a basic thumbs-up. Then came the itinerary. I had a list of must-see parks, along with a list of fantasy options for where to stay. My phenomenal new email pen pal, Aruna at Fortes, managed to secure reservations using her connections that I never could have, resulting in a once-in-a-lifetime itinerary.
“Roads” like this were actually on the GPS chip Tom bought from Tracks4Africa, which is what made it possible to go without an official guide.
AFRICAN TENTS: ROARING IN THE NIGHT
The girls enjoying their morning wake-up tray of hot chocolate and biscuits at Manyara Ranch Conservancy. Our tent was perhaps 30 yards away. And yes, lions wander through the camp at night.
We built the trip around tent camps smack in the middle of the action, animal-wise. While it is a thrill to spot an elephant from your car, it is a thrill of an entirely different order to hear a snuffling outside your tent and wonder if it’s that same elephant. Thus our planning resulted, as designed, in the most fabulous sleepless nights. Well, fabulous for me, perhaps annoying for my husband, who kept being slapped awake by his exhilarated wife stage-whispering, “Did you hear THAT?!?”
- There was that first night in Manyara Ranch with a snort — just like a horse — right outside our tent. A zebra.
- There was the night of nonstop action at Tarangire, with the unmistakable sound of hooves (the little dik-dik couple we’d seen earlier?), combined with something (big?) brushing against our tent. All night. We opened our bedside curtains, straining our eyes in the darkness, even using Tom’s special night-vision green light, but still couldn’t see a thing. The morning poop examination revealed our friend to be a giraffe. No wonder we couldn’t see him — we probably thought his legs were tree trunks.
- There was the night in Serengeti Migration Camp, where I kept hearing a weird “squelch, squelch” footstep followed by the yanking of grass and loud chewing. I opened the curtains to see a hippo on each side of our tent, not even 10 feet away, calmly grazing in the moonlight. Deep intake of breath, followed by silent glee.
But of course the epitome of nighttime sounds in Africa is the lion. Before we move on, I beg you to Google “lion night sounds Africa” or some such thing, and watch whatever resulting 30-second video you find. I’ll wait.
No really, do it now. Because nothing I write here can possibly convey the sheer power, majesty and utter beauty of that sound. You will get chills when you hear it. And then I want you to click “play” again, close your eyes, and imagine you are in a tent.
Maybe normal people will find it scary. But here’s how it feels to me: It feels like an incredible gift. It feels like life itself. It feels like some kind of ancient call from the world itself. And it makes everything else seem inconsequential, in the best possible way. I want to just sit in that sound, in that moment, and let it wash over me.
This may be where you wonder if anyone’s ever called Child Protective Services on us. Yes, our beloved daughters (ages 15 and 12) spent a dozen nights where only a piece of canvas kept them from lions. Might as well give you the other bit of information to help you build your case: Grace and Claire always had their own tent.
So here’s how it works. After dinner, a (usually Maasai) guide escorts you to your tent, and zips you in for the night. There is an understanding that you will not emerge until you are unzipped in the morning by the guys who sweetly call “Hallo?!?” and deliver your morning tray of coffee/tea/hot chocolate. Apparently, the animals have agreed to this humans-zipped-in system, and they simply ignore the tents.
We were not eaten, nor were our girls, who by the way relished their sisters-only tent, strongly and immediately dismissing our offers to split up so that each girl had a parent sleeping with them. (Perhaps apples really don’t fall far from the tree.)
We found a pride of seven lions one afternoon just off the little dirt road we were on. We turned off the car and just watched for an hour.
A TYPICAL DAY
The days began to take on a certain shape — a delicious, once-in-a-lifetime routine. We’d hear that gentle “Hallo?” from outside the cozy tent. We’d enjoy our coffee either in our still-warm bed, or we’d venture to the tent’s porch to take in some extraordinary view or another. We’d meet up with the girls and head to breakfast (usually made-to-order eggs, toast, bacon, yogurt, fruit), having fun comparing the animal sounds we’d heard at night. We’d try to be on the road by seven or so.
We generally had a vague plan for where we were going, formed by either the need to get to a new camp that night, or some inside scoop we’d gotten from other drivers the night before. We’d head off in our Land Cruiser, each of us keeping our eyes peeled, cameras and binoculars at the ready. We’d pop the roof top, stand up in the wind, and revel in the full effect of being surrounded by the African bush.
Claire enjoying perfect views of the stunning Ngorongoro Crater thanks to the pop-top.
Each park had its own flavor and landscape, but what was consistent was that there was a mind-blowing abundance of wildlife and a delightful absence of other people. Sure, we’d see another car every now and then (reassuring on some level, and helpful as we’d exchange tips on especially good sightings) but for the most part it was truly just us and the animals. We’d round a bend, suddenly find we’re amid trees absolutely packed with baboons. We’d turn off the car, watch, and listen. Just us, hanging out in Africa, getting a glimpse of baboons being baboons. After we’d had our fill — 10 minutes, an hour, whatever — we’d move on, and inevitably find something extraordinary around the next bend. Again we’d turn off the car, and just sit, the four Callahans hanging out watching the lions nap, the zebras play, the impala graze …
Elephants, wildebeest, zebra, and warthogs all on display at Tarangire.
At some point it would be time for lunch, a happy little highlight of its own. These camps prepare amazing to-go lunches so that you can continue exploring all day. When you’re coming back to the same camp that night, the lunch often comes in a giant trunk. Tom bemoaned the space it took in the car, but I was a sucker for the Out-of-Africa feeling of it all: the china, the silver, the tea thermos, the little silver tins filled with things like ginger-pepper chicken.
After a few more hours of exploring, we’d call it quits and head to camp. After nice hot showers we’d head to the campfire, where we’d enjoy cocktail hour with the other guests, exchanging stories until it was time for the inevitably fabulous multi-course dinner. While it was often nice to meet the other travelers, the jaw-dropping stories always came from the guides and managers who had years of experience to draw from.
- There was Rob the strikingly knowledgeable guide who told of his friend, a dedicated conservationist who, while leading a high school trip on foot, was charged by a rogue elephant. Knowing elephant behavior so well, he elected to try to scare him off by waving his arms, rather than shooting. The elephant trampled him to death in front of the students.
- There was Robyn the camp manager from Zimbabwe who’d come home to find a young hippo hanging out on her slate patio, eyeing her as only a hippo can do. She gingerly eased around him and let him be. Thereafter, he came back every afternoon for a nap there as long as she lived in that house.
- And sometimes cocktail hour actually produced the stories we’d tell at future cocktail hours. One evening as we sat overlooking the hillside that 2,000 wildebeest had crossed that day, somebody said, “Excuse me please but what is that?” THAT was a stunningly sleek cat — a bit longer than a house cat — prowling around the deck, just feet from us. The delighted camp manager said it was the shy genet that lived there but typically stayed out of sight. She scampered around us for 20 minutes. (The manager casually followed up by saying there was a leopard that lived right there as well…)
SWIMMING WITH ELEPHANTS
There was one exception to our only-sleep-in-tents rule. Right in the middle of our trip, we strategically placed two nights at a real lodge. Just in case. Bilila, a gorgeous new resort in the middle of the Serengeti, promised real beds, hot showers, HVAC, wireless. In the planning stages, it seemed we might be sorely in need of all of that right about then.
The truth of it was that the tent camps had been so ridiculously luxurious that we weren’t missing any of those first-world pleasures. However, Bilila did have one more thing to offer that no other spot did: a watering hole that often attracted a herd of elephants. (The story was that the elephants had originally played in the hotel pool, which proved a bit much for the guests. So the hotel built the elephants their watering hole just beyond it. It worked.) We decided to hang out at Bilila that day with our fingers crossed.
We were lounging around the pool at noon when the elephants started to come. By the end there were 30 — THIRTY! — wild elephants playing in the water just feet from us. There were giant ones, there were tiny babies, and there was everything in between. They stayed for an hour, drinking, splashing, and goofing. The handful of guests on hand basically held their breath, exchanging “can you believe this?” glances. Then, just as casually as they’d arrived, the elephants headed back to the bush, leaving us with our jaws on the ground.
KIDS ON SAFARI
It’s possible that there would be kids who would find this trip anxiety-producing, boring, or somehow both. Ours were all in.
On the very first day we woke up in the bush, there was an opportunity to go on a horseback safari. Alas, only experienced riders were eligible, leaving just our 15-year-old Grace in the running. She cheerily waved goodbye and headed off with two guides to the stables. We later caught a glimpse of the three of them riding past zebra, impala, and giraffe. Afterward she excitedly reported that they had to change course because of a cranky elephant.
Teenager Grace went on a horseback ride, where she rode past impala, zebra, and giraffe.
Twelve-year-old Claire was just as engaged with the spirit of the trip. On maybe Night #5, we saw she’d fully absorbed the ethos of the cocktail hour campfire: she’d turn to the folks next to her, introduce herself, and start sharing animal-sighting stories. So adept was she at this that one night the man next to her assumed (in the flickering light) she was an adult married to Tom.
THE LION AND THE JACKAL
We decided to fly out of the Serengeti, rather than to build in the time to drive back to Arusha through the same roads we’d already traveled. We’d had a choice between the smaller airport just 15 minutes from our camp, or the larger airport two hours south. Months in advance, I chose the larger one, thinking we might want one more chance to view animals on our way out. The morning of our departure, however, it seemed a silly decision. We’d already seen so much, we felt rich with memories.
So as we set off our thoughts were on the fact that we were leaving, rather than on the fact that we were still on our adventure. Then, just feet from the road, perfectly positioned for us, there was a mother lion and her four cubs finishing off a zebra kill. Take that, jaded tourists. And if that wasn’t quite enough: a jackal was lurking around the outskirts of the group, just waiting for its chance. Okay, Tanzania, you win. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, there’s something more amazing just down the road. Even though we had a plane to catch, we watched for 20 minutes as one stubborn cub refused to relinquish the carcass to the jackal. Their dance produced some of the most dramatic shots from our trip.
It was hard to leave. (And not only because that was one tiny little 12-seater plane…) I wish this trip on everyone … while at the same time knowing this kind of thing just isn’t for everyone. In the middle of the trip, I suddenly laughed thinking of my brother, who is very funny and not animal-obsessed like we are, on Day 12 of this trip, rolling his eyes and saying, “Oh, lookie! It’s another zebra!” And I think about my mom, shuddering as she hears the way we crossed streams (Tom getting out first — looking both ways for lions — to check the depth and the quality of the mud). And I think about the reaction I get when I describe to friends that handful of times when the dirt tracks didn’t match our GPS, and it appeared we had taken our precious girls and gotten lost in the Serengeti. I think of those things and realize this trip, done our way, is not for everyone.
And yet … and yet. I can’t imagine anyone could be immune to the feeling of being alone with their sweet family — nobody else in sight — on the floor of the vast Ngorongoro Crater as the sun comes up to reveal the extraordinary wildlife within.
Timeless. Mind-blowing. Paradigm-shifting. Gratitude-infusing.
That’s a moment we four Callahans will have forever, and I do indeed wish it for everyone.
How To Prepare for a Self-Drive Safari
By Tom Callahan
People ask me if just anybody could do a self-drive safari through Tanzania. I generally reply that anybody who has the extremely good fortune to be married to my husband could. For those of you out of luck on that score, here are his tips for doing it yourself. –Kathy
Tom in the midst of the typical morning chat with the ever-helpful Tanzanian guides, who got a huge kick out of this guy trying to do it himself.
We brought along paper maps for backup and perspective but relied heavily on a GPS with a memory chip from Tracks4Africa. Based in South Africa, T4A collects tracks from adventurers all over Africa and updates the maps twice a year. I used a Garmin Montana with a windshield mount and 12 volt adapter for power, but any device that can accept a memory card (or a large download) will do. Most of the driving tracks across the four parks we transited were actually represented on the GPS, with the northernmost parts of the Serengeti the least well marked. (Interestingly, the area just across the Mara River border with Kenya was extremely well mapped.)
f you Google each location where you plan to stay and plug the lat/long coordinates in as waypoints ahead of time, you will at least be able to close in on your destinations by dead reckoning from the nearest marked road. Be aware that the specific location of a tent camp can vary a bit from season to season.
Borrowing or buying an inexpensive mobile phone with a local SIM card can make communications easier, cheaper, and more reliable than relying on your own phone, even if it gets international service. Mobile network coverage in many parts of Africa is surprisingly good, but on safari you will eventually lose coverage. We rented and brought along a satellite phone with 60 minutes of talk time pre-loaded, just in case of an emergency.
We identified a couple local points of contact that we could reach out to in the event of a major problem. One was the US Embassy Defense Attaché and another was a senior general in the Tanzanian military. (I’d met them both through work and they were kind enough to provide their cell numbers.) We also had the US Embassy 24-hour number as well as regular phone numbers, available to anyone via the State Department website. We filed our itinerary and passport information with American Consular Services before we left, also via State’s website, which reduces a lot of headaches in the event of a lost or stolen passport.
We printed several copies of key telephone numbers, and kept them in different places where each family member could access them.
Know your fuel capacity and range and plan accordingly. Our rented Toyota Land Cruiser diesel had dual fuel tanks – about 90 liters. We verified where along our itinerary we could refuel. Fuel is available for cash only, so we made sure to exchange $500 into Tanzanian shillings before we left Arusha.
Know how your vehicle operates. Our Toyota was right-hand drive standard shift. It had 4WD High and Low, as well as front and rear locking differentials. Spend time going over each component with the rental company to ensure you know how they operate.
Know how to change a tire and how to recover a stuck vehicle. Our car had two spare wheels mounted on the back and a high lift jack. I verified the jack was operational and that the tire iron fit the wheel lugs. I also borrowed a recovery strap from the rental company. That can be an extremely useful bit of gear but was not automatically included.
Pre-trip experience with off-road driving is definitely a bonus, and many courses around the U.S. are available. Pick one that emphasizes recovery techniques using basic equipment (like tow straps and high-lift jacks rather than electric winches). Also pick your season to travel: we were traveling in dry season; there were only a few boggy spots where the chances of getting stuck were high. Rainy season is a different – and more challenging – story. (If you can entice another family to go along, however, two vehicles traveling together increase one’s recovery options enormously and you can afford to be a bit bolder.)
MEDICAL AND SAFETY
We packed my basic survival kit, which includes knife, multi-tool, flashlight, compass, fire starter, line, and a few other odds and ends, as well as some basic first aid gear. We stocked up with two cases of bottled water in Arusha but also brought along a good water filtration device made by LifeSaver. The idea is to have with you what you need to deal with an accident, stay warm and hydrated, and call for help that may not come for a day or so. We also secured emergency medical insurance, which included air evacuation if required, for the duration of the trip. Thankfully, none of this was needed but well worth having for peace of mind.
LEARNING AS YOU GO
No matter how much you prepare and plan ahead, there is no substitute for experience. Local knowledge is abundant among the professional guides, and they were unfailingly generous in responding to questions. At every park entrance and departure point, we navigated the registration processes with help from other guides in line. They also offered tips on routes and game viewing sites whenever asked. One even showed me the trick to popping open a sticky rear door on a Land Cruiser – apparently a common problem on the dust-filled roads. (Remember Fonzi on “Happy Days” starting the juke box with one carefully placed whack? It’s just like that, but you have to know where to smack it!) Camp managers are also often fonts of local wisdom, and they have a strong interest in your not perishing on the savannah while their guest – it would be bad for business! The career camp managers we stayed with were invariably enthusiastic on our behalf and offered plenty of valuable advice and encouragement.