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Tanzania: A step back into the natural world

Travel Expert Dominic looks back at his time in Tanzania, seeing the wild-side of Africa…

Last year as the winter was beginning to set in here in the UK, I was busy preparing for my biggest adventure to date. Pumping myself full of immunisations, queuing for visas, buying Malarone and topping up on my khaki. I was about to head off to Tanzania for two weeks of adventure, incredible wildlife and my first true taste of the Africa I had always longed to see. I wasn’t quite sure what I would find but having returned home I can truly say it was the most amazing place and surpassed even my wildest expectations.

The Serengeti is so vast, beautiful and untouched it really feels like a completely different world and a million miles away from my previous safari experience in South Africa. There I felt like the animals existed in a strictly controlled and protected environment within a very human world. In the Serengeti, I felt like it was truly their world as it had been for thousands of years and that I was the privileged intruder in it.

We did a full circuit of what Tanzania had to offer starting at Ngorongoro Crater Lodge one of the most iconic lodges in Africa, perched on the caldera rim of a giant extinct volcano. It was the perfect place to refresh after a long journey. Having taken in the incredible views at lunch, it was time to set off down to the crater floor, which is a unique habitat where nature has been able to flourish over millennia protected from the surrounding world. The density of game is insane with various antelope, elephants, hyena and buffalo at each turn.

From there, we spent a couple of days in Lake Manyara Tree Lodge. This could not be a more different and diverse environment. The Lodge is set in thick forest packed with an ever-curious elephant population that can be heard crashing through the bush almost constantly. Out of the forest, the land opens on to the banks of a glass like soda lake, home to breeding flamingos and myriad bird colonies. Surrounding one side of the national park, the giant escarpment of the Great Rift Valley wall rises into the heavens. It is an incredibly beautiful and dramatic landscape and the superb &Beyond guides at the lodge bring the whole habitat to life. The park is famous for its lions, which have adapted themselves to climb into the trees much as leopards do. It is not as unique a phenomenon as they make out and you may see lions in trees in other parts of Africa but it is great fun trying to spot them here and a wonderful bonus if you are lucky enough to stumble upon a full-grown cat lazing incongruously amongst the branches.

I was really here in Tanzania for one reason and that was to visit the Serengeti. It had been a dream of mine for years to see the Great Migration and whilst it was far from guaranteed in November, I was in good spirits as we made our way on the plane from Lake Manyara. The Serengeti is a huge national park which borders northern Tanzania and Kenya joining onto the Maasai Mara. It is this area that is home to the Great Migration of wildebeest each year. The herds travel from the south of the Serengeti up the Western Corridor in the first half of the year, arriving in the Northern section in July. They then begin crossing the Mara River into Kenya, where they will spend August grazing the plains of the Maasai Mara before heading south again back into Tanzania in October and November down through the Eastern Corridor. Fortunately, we were able to witness the herds returning south back into Tanzania from Kenya, it was not the height of the season but the numbers were still indescribable as we drove through rolling valleys studded by the black outlines of wildebeest as far as the eye can see. We were staying at Klein’s Camp, which is ideally located in the north of the park but within reach of the Mara River so that we could try to witness one of the dramatic crossings…

We set off early that morning stopping for a bush breakfast of bacon and eggs prepared by our tracker and served on the bonnet of the Landcruiser. We drove through huge herds of wildebeest and zebra and finally reached the river before lunch. At the first crossing point, there was nothing but silence punctuated by the grunts of hippos. There are 15 crossing points in total along the bank stretching all the way to Lake Victoria and we drove off in hope of more action at the next.

What happened next was completely unexpected. As we made our way to the next crossing point, our guide Massay spotted something in the distance and we veered off course across a great field. As we rounded the top of a hill punctuated by a lone acacia tree, we came upon a female black rhino and her young calf. Everyone was astounded as this was a very, very rare sighting in this part of the Serengeti. It was the first time Massay had seen one here and he was as excited as the rest of us, glued to his binoculars for a closer look as the rhinos lumbered along chomping on the low grass and wagging their tails nonchalantly. It was an incredible experience and proof that nature will always surprise even the most hardened of safari guides and enthusiasts. As we sat transfixed by the rhinos, the radio suddenly burst to life with a shout. A crossing had just begun close to us and Massay spring into action shouting for us to hold on tight as he sped off to the banks of the river.

We made it at the last minute as hundreds of wildebeest thundered up the opposite bank. One poor soul hobbled towards us injured by a crocodile, causing the rest of the herd to scatter off backwards past the vehicle sprinting towards the safety of the tree line. My heart was beating out of my chest as we watched as the poor wildebeest stagger away hobbling towards the rest of the herd. Injured, the animal would be unlikely to survive. It was in stark contrast to the joy we had felt with the rhinos moments before.

Our last stop in the Serengeti was in the very south of the park in an area known as the Grumeti Reserve. Here we stayed in a semi-tented camp called Grumeti Under Canvas. The rooms had canvas walls so fell asleep to the sounds of the bush and awoke to the grunts of hippos in the river at the end of your private deck each morning. This area of the national park is much flatter with great stretching plains making the game viewing exceptional. The highlight was a morning game drive; we kept pace with a pride of 17 lions stalking a herd of buffalo for over an hour. I had wanted to witness a kill for the duration of my stay in Africa and this was the moment that I expected it to finally happen. As I watched the lions wearing down the buffalo and all hope seemed lost as the youngest calf fell to its knees exhausted and surrounded by the pride, I changed my mind. It seemed too easy, too unfair. It was at that moment that the buffaloes once again asserted their dominance charging in unison and scattering the lions enclosing the young calf in their midst and standing defiantly in the face of the pride. The group of buffalo managed to successfully defend the calf moving in formation like a Roman legion using their horns as shields and charging the lions one by one until the pride tired and gave up in search of shade as the heat of the day became too strong. It was unlike anything I had witnessed before and will really stay with me forever.

That evening we were with the lions again watching as a mother suckled her young cubs and they played together in the setting sun perched upon a granite outcrop above the valley below bathed in golden light. It was an emotional moment, I knew I was going home and it would be a long time before I could return.

The thing that struck me the most about Tanzania was the diversity of the experience possible within one country. To finish the trip, I spent a couple of days in Zanzibar visiting Mnemba Island, a beautiful desert island paradise. I loved my time on my island but how I craved being back in the bush…

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