First timer’s Guide: Step by Step guide to planning your Tanzania Safari

First timer’s Guide: Step by Step guide to planning your Tanzania Safari

With a plethora of wildlife destinations scattered across Africa, Tanzania has long held a revered status among safari aficionados.  Thanks, in part, to the dramatic visuals seen in wildlife documentaries, many are familiar with the great wildebeest migration, spectacular landscapes and fascinating culture. 

What is an African Safari?

Before diving into it, it is vital to understand that going on a safari is nothing like going to a zoo or safari park.  The animals are absolutely free, their only mistress being the whims of Mother Nature – which can be brutal in its efficiency and most parks adhere to strict policies of non-interference unless humans are to blame.  

You will set out to find the animals, and although your guide might have contact with others and a superb understanding of animal behaviour, sightings of wildlife can never be guaranteed.  Sometimes you might see nothing for hours.  Here, the services of a professional safari operator and guide are invaluable.  Their experience, network and local knowledge is often the difference between a holiday and a life-changing experience.

At best, some animals may be habituated to humans, but they are wild and will defend themselves without hesitation.  Do not attempt to approach, feed, touch or chase anything… even if a monkey steals your water bottle.  Most unfortunate incidents occur when instructions or common sense are ignored.

Also, remember that wildlife documentaries take years to make and are often a composite of footage used to create a story.  In real life, lions, for example, sleep for 18 hours a day and miss 90% of their hunts – so manage your expectations and don’t expect drama from sunrise to sunset.

With the popularity of wildlife holidays, Tanzania has a well-developed safari industry, catering to a broad spectrum of interests, budgets and pursuits.  Nonetheless, if you’ve decided to visit Tanzania (or anywhere in Africa), it pays to do some research and planning beforehand.  Africa, as they say, is not for the faint-hearted, so having an idea of what to expect goes a long way to having expectations meet experience.

The so-called Northern Safari Circuit, incorporating  Ngorongoro Conservation Authority, the Serengeti, Tarangire, and Lake Manyara National Parks, among other worthwhile destinations, is the most popular and well-served.  The flip side is that it is busier and more expensive than other lesser-known parks to the south. 

For first-time visitors, this can all seem overwhelming, so we’ve created a guide to assist the first-time traveller in researching, planning, budgeting, and undertaking a successful safari.

Research

Like any trip, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.  And in Tanzania, with its unique cultures, customs, and social norms, not to mention cumbersome bureaucracy, it helps to know what you’re getting into.  What do you want to see?  Are you all about the wildlife, or interested in the culture too?  It is a good idea to check out the reviews on various tour operators before booking with them.  Don’t waste time with those who don’t listen to your preferences or adhere to your budget.  In general, if you plan to go in the high season, give yourself a years’ advance for booking.  For the low season, 2 – 6 months should do.

Budget

For many, a Tanzanian safari is a once-off experience and doesn’t come cheap.  First off, there are the return flights, internal flights and road transport.  There are ways of reducing costs but sometimes savings mean sacrifices.  For instance, if you’re planning a holiday, you’d best research the various tolls, camping fees, destination fees, entrance fees and more.  Tanzania loves a good fee.  

From this perspective, booking an inclusive package makes sense, as all but some items are covered (curios, expensive drinks, tips) and they eliminate most of the unexpected expenses and bureaucratic hassles, particularly in the mid to lower price range.  

Gratuities are considered the norm and you should add anything from $10 for general staff (kitchen and housekeeping) and $10 for your guide, per person per day

Accommodation options cater to all market segments.  At the low end, you would need to budget about US$125 per person per day.  At the upper extreme, numerous lodges charge thousands of dollars, with an entourage of staff attending to your every whim.  It is certainly possible to find somewhere that suits your pocket and your safari aspirations.  Remember, due to the environment you’ll be visiting, rules or limitations may apply to those with children.  Some places have special programs for children, who may not enjoy spending hours each day in a vehicle.

Be sure to inquire at your local travel clinic about malaria and vaccine requirements – and don’t forget to factor in travel insurance.

Where, when and for how long?

Next, look at where you want to go.  There are distinct high and low seasons, with prices to match.  It’s fair to say that the more popular the area, the more you will have to pay. So perhaps consider adding Tarangire National, and spend less time at the Ngorongoro Crater.  In all likelihood, the species represented will be much the same (and without the jostling traffic at sightings, a more relaxed experience too).  The high season runs from July to September and through December.

Likewise, you’ll have to decide whether you must see the wildebeest migration, for example, or are you happy to see the same species in lesser concentrations at a different time of year.  The seasonal rains may affect game viewing and accessing certain areas.  This is a relatively minor issue, for the most part.

The length of your safari will likely be determined by your budget and the time you have available.  While some sources suggest a week is enough, others suggest a fortnight or more, so you can visit more places.  A valid suggestion is to spend at least two to three nights at each lodge.  This gives you time to settle in, enjoy the amenities, relax, and most importantly, get a true sense of the destination and the wildlife found there.  

Aside from the changing landscapes, hopping from one lodge to the next in a mad rush will only cause stress, does not improve your sightings and reduces your viewing time (lost to travel).  A frequent refrain at the end of a safari is wishing there was more time.  Manage it carefully, along with your reasonable expectations, and you will savour the experience tenfold.

What to pack?

Luggage space and capacity are often limited, so choose lightweight clothing and layer it for warmth.  Early mornings and evenings can be surprisingly cold so take a good jacket and a beanie.  All manner of sun protection is vital – sunglasses, hat, sunscreen.  If you are doing a walking safari, good hiking boots are essential.  If not, a pair of trainers and flip-flops will suffice.  A travel raincoat is also a good idea, although camps often supply ponchos.

You’ll no doubt want to capture your memories, so invest in a camera with a decent zoom.   You will probably be disappointed if you think your cell phone will suffice.  If you are an avid photographer, do some research as to what gear to take.  Binoculars are provided on the safari vehicle, but you are welcome to bring your own if you prefer.

What to Expect?

Life on safari starts in the early morning.  By conducting activities in the cooler times of day, you are more likely to see active wildlife that might otherwise be resting in a thicket when it is hot.  Most camps offer game drives during these hours, although some do extended drives throughout the day.  Not all lodges allow night drives or offroad driving.  

In between activities, meals  – usually brunch, high tea and dinner – are served.  Depending on the area you visit, additional activities such as guided nature walks may be on offer, allowing you to learn more about the minutiae of the ecosystem.  Top-end lodges may even offer balloon safaris and helicopter flights.  If wellness is your thing, you will find lodges that offer beauty treatments, yoga classes and fitness centres.

As you’ve read this article, you’ll have realised that the considerations and variables could fill a book or two.  Bringing us back to the first point – research.  It’s your holiday, your investment, and your adventure.  Make it count!

Written by: jake@brandedafrica.com