Arusha is the place for organizing a safari to the national parks in northern Tanzania. Dozens of tour operators, some better, some worse, offer all kinds of tours to the parks.
How the safari finds you
We stayed at a hotel located one or two kilometers west of Arusha city center, where most of the tour operators are located. While walking there along the main road, not one person came to us and tried to sell us a tour. But as soon as we reached the clock tower that marks the city center of Arusha, things changed.
Suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded by “fly catchers”, as they call themselves; young guys that work for the safari operators and hand business cards to tourists and try to lure them into an office. We, the flies, however, went first to the tourism office to have a look at their blacklist, a booklet with business cards of unreliable operators. Tripadvisor – or a simple Google search – is also very helpful to see if an operator has a good reputation or not, but there are also lots of new agencies (or old ones that just changed their names) of which you can’t find any reviews online or at the tourism office.
We went to several safari tour operators to get offers for a two-day budget safari to Tarangire and Ngorongoro Crater national parks. A budget safari is, as the term suggests, the cheapest option for a safari but it’s still by no means cheap. What makes the safari so expensive, are the park fees: USD 45/person/day for most parks, Ngorongoro costs USD 60/person/day plus USD 250/vehicle/entry. To make matters worse, since mid-2016, all park fees are now subject to 18% VAT. Now you do the maths.
All other costs are kept to a minimum on a budget safari; you don’t get a driver plus a guide but a driver/guide, the food is average and accommodation is on a cheap campsite (around USD5 per night) outside the park. This, of course, is much cheaper than staying in one of the (incredibly expensive) lodges inside the parks but it also means that you miss the best times for wildlife watching: early morning and late afternoon, when the animals are the most active.
Taken aback by the high prices, we went to a café for an early lunch. Not even there we were safe from the fly-catchers; the moment we walked in, everybody seemed to notice we were looking for a safari. And everybody knows somebody that sells safaris…
After a sandwich and some thinking and calculating, we decided to do the safari. It’ll only get more expensive. We chose Crown Eagle Tours, gave the fly-catchers – they followed us everywhere – back their business cards so they could give them to the next potential customer, and booked the safari.
Tarangire National Park
After our first safari experience in Sri Lanka – which was nice but where we didn’t see a lot of animals – I wasn’t expecting too much. However, just a few minutes after we drove into the park, we saw zebras and giraffes. And then cheetahs, elephants, ostriches, wildebeest, impala, and gazelles and other animals I don’t even know the names of. Before we stopped for lunch, we saw a lion mother with two cubs, hidden in a bush, feeding on a dead zebra.
I couldn’t believe the sheer number of animals we saw and I’m still amazed at how easy it was to spot them. The vegetation in Tarangire is mainly acacia woodland, grassland, and baobab trees. In January, the land is very dry and the animals therefore easy to spot.
The night we spent at Sunbright campsite in the small town of Mto wa Mbu. The campsite is very basic but absolutely fine for one night. After dinner, a group of local guys played African music (including, yes, Guantanamera) and did some acrobatics. Not very professional, but lots of fun to watch.
Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area
Ngorongoro is completely different from Tarangire. And not only from Tarangire; it’s different from anything we’ve seen so far and it’s one of the most beautiful landscapes we’ve ever seen. Ngorongoro Crater is a huge, almost round crater with steep walls rising on all sides. Most animals that live there never leave the crater. There’s no need for them to migrate, they have enough food and water year-round.
Big herds of zebras, wildebeest, and buffalo graze in the crater. Elephants live in the woods higher up the crater rim. There’s a hippo pool, there are jackals, hyenas, and huge birds such as the secretary bird, the grey-crested crane, and the kori bustard, and we were even lucky enough to see two of the very rare and elusive rhinos.
There are many lions in Ngorongoro crater. Several male lions blocked the road we were driving on and made themselves comfortable in the shadow of the safari cars. It’s a very special feeling when a lion walks by a meter or so from your window. You could almost reach out and pet him…
As soon as we stopped for lunch, it started to rain. Within minutes, everything was under water and the roads had turned into rivers. But it hadn’t rained in a long time so the water was more than welcome.
All the animals suddenly stood still, like statues, and remained like that until the rain had almost stopped. Then, they started to jump and run around, obviously happy it had finally rained.
The safari, although expensive, was definitely worth it. We had a good guide who knew a lot about the animals and when to find them where. Tarangire was beautiful, especially because of the many baobab trees but Ngorongoro was something else – the landscape is of indescribable beauty and it’s a natural treasure and an important sanctuary for the animals. If you have the chance to go to Ngorongoro, do it. We’ve traveled to many places but we’ve never seen anything quite like Ngorongoro.