Taking in Tanzania

A trip to the East African nation and its semi-autonomous Zanzibar Archipelago is filled with yawning spaces, arresting wildlife, national parks, swamps, forests, craters and some luxe living conditions.

The bedroom at Tarangire Treetops. Courtesy: Elewana Collection
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"Rosie, enjoy your meal." By the time that I touch down at Kilimanjaro International Airport, it's dark and I've flown from Abu Dhabi to Nairobi to Arusha, a 12-hour trip, door-to-door. Luckily, the door through which I walk at the end of this trek leads to the Plantation Suite at the Arusha Coffee Lodge, one of six Tanzanian properties belonging to the Elewana Collection. Thanks to the local staff, who are some of the most outwardly cheerful and relaxing people I've ever met, I'm soon recovering. "Asante," I say to Grace, who, in addition to greeting me at dinner, balanced my large suitcase on her head as we went to the room. "Caribou," is the response – "you are welcome".

And caribou seems a good word with which to begin a week’s safari. Over the course of the next seven days, I’ll be touring four of northern Tanzania’s national parks. Although there will be more flights, they’ll each be a maximum of 30 minutes, and in a nine-seater Grand Cessna Caravan. There’s one check-in for the entire trip, meaning that on arrival at each new place I can go straight to my room and on departure there’s no check out.

On the lodge’s terrace, with the smell of freshly ground coffee and apple pie in the air and towering trees overhead, I meet two of my fellow travellers, a couple from Pittsburg, Chuck and Brenda. We hit it off immediately, which is good, as we’ll be sharing a plane and a game-drive vehicle for the week. After breakfast on the first morning, we go on a tour of the nearby Burka Coffee Estate. The oldest coffee plantation in Arusha, the 1,535-hectare estate has been in existence since 1899. Coffee, our guide tells us, was brought to Tanzania in 1893 from India by German missionaries; Arabica, seven varieties of which are grown here, thrives at higher elevations (we’re in the fertile foothills of Kilimanjaro) and requires more water. Today, all of this plantation’s coffee is bought by Starbucks – a fascinating insight into our everyday indulgence. “They have to provide housing and education, so the workers are well looked after,” we’re told by our guide, Paul. Labourers are paid about US$6 (Dh22) for picking a 20-kilogram bucket of beans, which are inside what look like berries. It sounds like a lot of work for the price of two small cappuccinos, but it still works out to be several times more than the minimum wage.

After tasting the coffee in the plantation’s scenic garden, it’s time to head to Arusha for the 23-minute flight to Tarangire National Park (by road, this would take about three hours). Our small plane has armchair-like seats, which make it feel like a private jet. Tarangire is a 2,850-square-kilometre expanse of protected land, bisected north to south by the Tarangire River. As we fly over the park towards the grassy airstrip in the centre, we see no other signs of human life – no roads and no buildings, save a small shack beside the airstrip. To my left, far below me, I can see a vast herd of elephants congregating on the red earth beside a stream. Most of the western part is dry scrubland, while on the eastern side is a huge series of emerald green swamps with hills in the distance. With a handful of lodges scattered in and around the park, no sealed roads and very few visitors compared to Tanzania’s more famous national parks, it’s prehistoric-looking.

We’re met at the airstrip by our first safari driver-guide, John, and he’s set out some fruit juice and snacks before our first game drive, in a suitably smart green Land Rover. John is a great communicator and hugely knowledgeable. Thanks to its swampy areas, the park is famous for its birds (it’s home to about 500 varieties, the most breeding species in one habitat anywhere in the world). With just the right amount of emphasis, John is soon pointing out guinea fowl, white-headed weavers, red-necked spotters, butler eagles and cory bustards, as well as common waterbuck, giraffe and “an impala with its harem”. “One male can have several women,” he says, in what is to become a familiar theme for the week, whether we’re talking about wildlife or the polygamous Maasai.

Termite mounds and candelabra trees tower either side of the dirt road, and vast herds of elephants, for which the park is also famous, roam. Compared to Kenya’s Maasai Mara, which looks like a scene from Out of Africa but is about half the size, the park feels gloriously desolate.

An immediate annoyance is the abundance of tsetse flies, for which the park is notorious, and repellent is only semi-effective. The flies, which can carry sleeping sickness, are attracted to dark clothes; unfortunately, I haven’t brought any white socks with me, so my ankles suffer the worst fate. All that we can do is keep moving and swat.

After a couple of hours, we trundle out of the park boundaries on the north-eastern side and into Maasai land, filled with ancient baobab and acacia trees and thickets of whistling thorn. Our home for two nights is Tarangire Treetops, a series of outwardly rustic but inwardly fairly luxurious tree-houses built into baobab trees on the side of a hill. The best thing about the property is its restaurant and swimming pool, which overlooks a wildlife watering hole; as I jump in after the sweaty game drive, I’m greeted at eye level by elephants.

Although we’re outside the national park, it isn’t fenced, and we’re warned not to return to our rooms at night without a member of staff carrying a light and, at the very least, a big stick. My room is vast and has a lovely balcony, though while it’s mostly sealed against the outside elements by strong gauze, I’m alarmed by some brown dust and a couple of black beetles dropping from the ceiling onto my bed. The constant sound of footsteps outside throughout the night – local Maasai patrolling – does nothing to aid my sleep.

The following morning, I’m revived by a delicious breakfast, which includes an African take on the full English, and strong coffee. John then takes us to a nearby Maasai village where, rather than being a tourist trap, we see people going about their daily lives. Then it’s time to embark on a tour of the park, in which we encounter only one other safari vehicle, even when we come across a group of more than 100 elephants crossing the Tarangire River (there are about 5,000 in the park in total). Next, we find a leopard sitting in a tree with her cubs (“No leopard, no tip,” I had told John), a pair of lions mating, several species of antelope, baboons, buffalo and a huge family of warthogs. “Look at their cute little butts,” says Brenda, as Chuck zooms in with his camera.

After a late lunch back at the camp, we set off to watch the sunset over a spectacular plain, where we meet three ageing Californian tourists who have just finished a cycling tour of Rwanda and are now staying at our camp. We observe rain in the far distance, over drinks and snacks. The skies to our right take a dramatic turn, as huge cloud formations reflect the last of the day’s light. It’s then time to head off on a night game drive with Mako, a 29-year old Maasai who sits on a small seat at the front of the vehicle with a powerful lamp. We don’t see much noteworthy wildlife, but when Paul takes us in to a dry river bed and switches off all the lights, we’re confronted with a sky of glittering stars.

From Tarangire, it’s another 20 minute flight, over Lake Manyara, to the Ngorongoro Crater. We’re staying at The Manor, a beautiful German-style lodge on a 3,000-hectare coffee plantation. With whitewashed houses, a grand but homely main building and an elevation of 1,760 metres, it reminds me of South Africa. The elevation gives us respite from most of the insects, but I find that I’m still being bitten by something.

We set out for the crater at 6am. Unlike Tarangire, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is firmly on most northern Tanzania tourist itineraries because of the sheer amount of wildlife. A huge caldera, the 2.5-million-year-old crater effectively traps whole herds of wildebeest, zebra, and, in peak season, tourists. Our 34-year-old local guide Lori, whose eighty-something father was a poacher in colonial days, wants us to arrive early to beat the crowds. It’s not until we ascend to a viewpoint on the southern rim of the crater and look down that we can appreciate its size. At about 300 square kilometres, the crater is part of a much wider conservation area, which links directly to an even bigger ecosystem that includes the Serengeti and Lake Manyara. The crater holds about 25,000 large animals and features a lake covered in clouds, swamps, forests and mini-craters within its natural boundaries.

In a $100,000 (Dh367,300), specially adapted Toyota Land Cruiser safari vehicle with two 80-litre diesel tanks, we drive along the western rim and descend down an unmarked road, gasping as we strain our eyes to see – “is that rhino or buffalo?” – in the distance. The presence of other tourists and vehicles – there seems to be hundreds of other vehicles on the day that we’re there, though they’re spread out – is compensated for by the geography and the great views that we get of the wildlife, which includes an enormous group of baboons (many with babies, playing so close that we don’t need our long lenses), wildebeest and gazelles worriedly eyeing a pride of lions close by, huge flocks of flamingoes and, yes, rhino in the very far distance (“This is the black rhino, which of course is brown,” says Lori); critically endangered, we can only see them properly through binoculars. It’s good to see that vehicles are restricted to a quite limited network of unsealed roads, and that relatively large expanses of open grassland remain wild.

We’re back at The Manor in time for afternoon tea, a swim in the pool and a great massage, before a candlelit dinner. We’re the only guests here, so we have the run of the place. My room is located across a grand, grassy lawn, so I’m always forgetting my camera, laptop cable, sunglasses or notebook, but Duncan, the assistant manager, seems permanently on hand to run to my room and retrieve anything that I need.

From Lake Manyara, it’s a bumpy, 45-minute flight to Lobo airstrip in the northern Serengeti. It’s Tanzania’s oldest and most popular national park, but most tourists visit the central plains for the annual wildebeest migration (known as “the migration” because of the fact that more than half a million “supporting animals” follow the 1.5 million wildebeest on their annual trek). On our visit, the migration has reached the southern plains, meaning that where we’re staying in the north has even fewer tourists than normal. We’re only 20 kilometres from the Kenyan border, beyond which is the Maasai Mara. With no open border crossing and no major roads, we feel like the only people on the planet. “Serengeti means ‘endless plain’,” says our third and last driver-guide, Moses; certainly, when you’re in 15,000 square kilometres of space, it’s easy to forget the world outside.

On our way to the luxurious Serengeti Migration Camp, a collection of 20 luxury tents set up close to the Grumeti River, John suddenly stops the vehicle and reverses. “Leopard,” he says. Only there’s no leopard. Hanging from the branches of a tree about 30 metres away is the dead, half-eaten body of an animal; after inspection through binoculars, it’s decided that it’s a warthog, its hind legs and tail eerily visible. It’s like being the first people to stumble upon a crime scene. Moses suggests that we return later; when we do, after a drive around some large kopjes, or rocky outcrops, we see the culprit: a female leopard slowly and calmly devouring every last piece of its meal.

Security is uppermost in mind when we arrive at our camp, and, with armed guards stationed on all pathways, secure is thankfully what we feel. Above the tents is a sensitively designed ensemble of tented dining room, swimming pool, open lounge and a deck from which to watch the sunset. Our rooms are both large and private, with thick canvas over a solid frame, complete with zip-up windows, solid wood doors onto a deck and semi-solid walls in the en suite bathrooms. There’s a powerful rain-bath shower with hot water and luxuries including hairdryer, work desk and a full laundry service. In an environment like this, it’s a tribute to the meticulous work of the staff that there are no insects or dirt inside the room at all. There’s a polished wood floor, foam pillows, bathrobes and slippers; the only downside is the noise from the hippo pool, which is sleep-disturbingly loud and seems to peak at 4am.

Our first morning’s game drive sees an 8am departure from camp. After about a 20-minute drive through bucolic meadows studded with ebony and flat-top acacia trees, Moses stops the vehicle again. It’s another leopard, in a tree, closer this time – about 15 metres away. Reversing back slowly and quietly, we manage to get good shots of the animal before and as it comes down from the tree and crosses the track directly behind our vehicle. It’s focused not on us but on some zebra about 100 metres away. Given that there are only about 300 leopards in the Serengeti, we’ve been lucky. “When the wildebeest are here, there’s more food for the leopard in the higher, isolated places,” says Moses, “but now, when they’ve gone, they have to come down here to find food.”

Next, it’s time to head down to the southern plains, partly in search of cheetahs. John drives at a breakneck speed, disturbing a family of warthogs having a mudbath on the road in front of us and sending Thomson’s gazelle flitting into the woodland. The soil here is black and the stubbly fields where the wildebeest have grazed give it a much harsher feel than the Ngorongoro Crater; ironically, the hard ash scattered by that volcano mostly settled here. We head down through the Togoro Plains, stopping for a gourmet picnic lunch at the national park headquarters before heading a bit farther south to see the Serengeti that we’ve all seen in pictures – open spaces where long columns of wildebeest seem to go on for ever, lions sit in isolated trees and huge numbers of tourists gather. It’s great to see, but we’re happy to head back to our northern retreat, even without sighting any cheetahs.

Our final morning sees us rising at 5.30am to go on a walking safari with an armed ranger and guide. At that time of the morning, the air is cool but clear and we’re able to walk down to the river quietly to take pictures of hippo and the surrounding landscape.

There have long been plans to build a road through the northern Serengeti, linking Lake Victoria and Arusha; hopefully, given that you still can’t even access nearby Kenya by road from here, it will remain only a plan. We leave with a feeling of peacefulness that makes the sight of other people and human influence seem ugly and somehow unbearable. I had started in the southern plains, when I saw packed safari vehicles cutting through groups of migrating wildebeest at high speed, confusing the animals and spreading noise and pollution. At least from the air, all of this activity looks inconsequential.

My onward flight to Zanzibar flies me over the central plains to two other airstrips, before I change planes at Arusha and head to Stone Town. Thankfully, the return to civilisation isn’t too much of a jolt. I’d worried that Stone Town would have been ruined by tourism, but much of the 17th-century fabric of the city remains.

A three-hour city tour with 32-year-old Nyang Omar takes me back 300 years to when the island was an Omani sultanate. Slaves were sent from here to destinations including Muscat, Salalah, Iran, Iraq and even the Caribbean after the trade was banned in West Africa, and continued until 1884. After a walk through the fly-ridden, medieval-looking fish market, where no concessions have been made to tourism, and the narrowest lanes of the old town in which large groups of men still gather outside around a single television screen and palm trees poke out from back gardens, my guide takes me to the site of the old slave market, where some unlucky groups were stored in an underground prison for up to five days before a sale.

Above ground, it’s a beautiful city and Unesco World Heritage Site with ornate mansions, mosques, churches, decaying palaces, a fort and scenic beachfront. Ironically, a brutal history has contributed to the formation of a genuinely multicultural population today, seemingly at ease with itself. As the sun sets over a bay filled with traditional sailing boats, trendy bars switch on their music systems and well-heeled visitors seek out tables in the best restaurants.

I’m heading north to Kilindi, a hotel originally designed for Benny Andersson from Abba. A collection of white, domed villas set into a hillside overlooking the ocean, the rooms feature fantastical bathrooms open to the elements, bridal-style netting beds and separate daytime lounging pavilions with their own private plunge pool. Spectacular flowers line the pathways down to the sea, where a working fishing village is stationed. The water is as clean and clear as the Maldives; the restaurant menu is a tropical fantasy. At night, bats fly overhead and the spookiest of birds call throughout the night. I have a butler called Vicky. Even Benny Andersson couldn’t sustain this long-term, but it’s a great place to recover from those tsetse flies.