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Written by Sudha Arjun on October 14, 2017 Share on

Escaping into the wild heart of Tanzania and bringing back the magic

Our traveller Sudha Arjun went on an extensive exploration of Tanzania. From cosying up at Arusha to getting around Serengeti National Park to going on a safari in the Tarangire National Park, and finally unwinding at Zanzibar, here is Sudha’s word by word account of her tryst with Tanzania. 

Wondering where to go for your annual vacation is something that gets us excited all the time – Is it going to be a random place picked off from the map or will it be something from your bucket list? Whom will you travel with and when should you plan? Mountains or beaches?

And finally, the most important question – Do you want to be amidst the crowd or will it be just you finding your soul?

When I started planning a trip with my friend (let’s call her Ms.V) for close to a year now, I had all these questions in my mind. It was part celebrating a milestone in our birthdays as well celebrating our everlasting bond of friendship. When I heard that Ms.V was planning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, I immediately jumped on the idea. It seemed like a fabulous way to celebrate.

While Ms.V planned her climb, I zeroed in on Pickyourtrail – experts in customized travel planning. After a bit of browsing the net, a bit of asking around to gather information, and a bit of recommendation from travel experts, our itinerary was ready.

Related: The art of planning serendipitous vacations

Episode 1: Do not assume the standard airport timings work here as in other parts of the world. If you have the time, go well in advance to the airport!

Flying to Arusha, Tanzania

Landed in Dar es Salaam at 2 in the morning after a long and tiring 6-hour flight from Mumbai. I crashed at the airport hotel hoping to rise early and get a glimpse of the city before I leave for Arusha, which would be the start of our safari. Unfortunately, my eyes refused to open and I only had enough time to get ready and leave for the airport. The driver was a friendly guy, giving me a brief description of everything on our way as we drove along.

I reached the airport two hours prior to my 2 PM flight and expected to be sitting around in the tiny airport, either people-watching or getting bored. I went to the check-in counter as soon as I arrived, only to be in for a rude shock – the airline refused to issue me a boarding pass unless I provided a copy of the credit card and the passport of the person who had booked the flight. After a few frantic calls to the local and Indian travel teams, I got the copies printed and rushed to the check-in counter only to be told that boarding has closed!! It was barely 1 PM and the departure was at 2.

With a bit of persuasion, they issued the boarding pass and let me rush to the plane, with a young lad from the airline following me all the while assuring that I had enough time and the plane would not leave! I certainly was not convinced till I finally sat in the seat and took a deep breath!

Episode 2: When friendships are forged in childhood, 2 years are a mere blip in the time machine.

Cozying at the elegant Arusha Coffee Lodge

wild Tanzania
Image credit – Elewanacollection.com

Arriving in Arusha, I met our guide and driver, Malia who would be with us for the whole safari. Getting into the Landcruiser, I was driven to Arusha Coffee Lodge – a pleasant coffee plantation with cottages dotting the landscape.

My cottage was a beautiful en-suite room fitted with a large floor to ceiling glass window, offering a lovely view of the coffee plantation. After gradually soaking in the soothing atmosphere, I was finally able to mentally tune into vacation mode – leaving office stress and the humdrum of everyday life, 1000 miles behind.

Ms.V joined me in the morning for breakfast. It was wonderful seeing her again after 2 years. When friendships are forged in childhood, 2 years are a mere blip in the time machine and we were busy catching up on old and new memories.

Episode 3: I want to be a hippo in my next birth

Driving to the serene Lake Manyara

We woke up fresh the next day for our trip to Lake Manyara. It took us about 2 hours to reach Lake Manyara by road, with us coaxing Malia every now and then to give us the geographic and cultural lessons on what we saw. Poor Malia had to often repeat himself a couple of times as we puzzled over his words and tried rolling it off our tongues till we hit upon the right meaning! English accents are not restricted to the West and the East. There are lots in between too!

Arriving at Kirurumu Manyara Lodge, we were put up in tented rooms, set in a very picturesque location – the land seemed to stretch out infinitely into dry bush with not a single human or animal in sight. Just the silence and the stark beauty around won our hearts. An added blessing was that the ubiquitous internet was hard to find! It was truly a period to zone out of social media, the news and the zillion bits of inconsequential trivia which cluttered our normal world. This was pretty much the case for the rest of the trip. The right time to find our inner peace.

Lake Manyara disappointed us initially – we seemed to be continuously driving around endless bushes and trees with not even a single animal in sight. Finally, the lake burst upon us, serene and beautiful in the distance. We drove closer and got our first glimpse of the wildlife – what seemed to be over hundreds of different species of birds, each looking more exotic than the other. We got a glimpse of elephants, a few zebras, and wildebeests in the distance. The closest we came to animals were the hippos comfortably ensconced in their private pool- nearly 25 of them, practically on top of each other, basking in the sun and in each other’s company.

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Image credit – Sudha Arjun

They were fascinating. Nothing seemed to disturb their inner peace and there seemed to be nothing else they wished to do. Just the utter stillness of being in the middle of the pool with the sun burning down on them. Even the sight of one hippo getting up and walking to the edge of the water towards the grass was exciting. Well, I did consider wanting to be a hippo in my next birth.

The other delightful surprise in Lake Manyara was the hot springs. When Malia mentioned them, we were not sure what to expect. We had earlier heard of hot springs only in volcano prone land and Tanzania didn’t seem to qualify. However, when we actually touched the water and felt the steam rising up, it surely did amaze us!

Episode 4: Be prepared to be pleasantly surprised – it boosts up your vacation mood

Exploring the Serengeti National Park

I like surprises. Especially, when I am travelling to a new country. While did some basic research about the temperature in Tanzania and the ‘not to miss’ experiences, I left the rest to my itinerary. Of course, I did not add all the time spent watching Nat Geo, which lead me to put Serengeti on my bucket list.

Our drive to Serengeti National Park was really exciting. The dusty, rugged roads wound through chilly highlands and dry & dusty flatlands stretching out as far as the eye could see. On the way, we saw the Masai, a tribe that ignorant me had initially associated with Kenya.

On reaching the Serengeti, Malia had to produce all the required documents which permit tourists into the national park. While we were grateful for the smooth transaction, we were sure that our travel teams worked really hard behind the scenes to ensure that everything was just right.

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Image credit – Sudha Arjun

Soon after entering the park, we spotted our first Lion – a magnificent beast seated on a large rock which seemed like his throne. A whole lot of jeeps took positions around the rock, trying to get a clear shot of the Lion with the right camera angle. He didn’t seem the least bit ruffled by all the attention. Finally, when he got bored, he majestically stepped down and sauntered away.

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Image credit – Booking.com

Our lodge, the Serena Safari was nestled in the middle of Serengeti. There was a cluster of cottages housing a couple of rooms on two levels. Ours was on the ground floor with large glass windows opening into a small sit-out looking right onto the park.

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Image credit – Sudha Arjun

Early morning when we woke up, we found zebras and giraffes grazing right outside the sit-out. In the evenings once we were back from the safari, the dainty little gazelles and dik-diks welcomed us back to our room. It never ceased to amaze me that they were so familiar with humans moving around them all the time and yet when we tried to get too close, they scampered away.

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Image credit – Sudha Arjun

Spotting animals in Serengeti is part luck and part planning. You can plan your vacation bang in the middle of the migration but still may not get to see all the animals that roam the wild. Or maybe, you have to plan your holiday well past the migration because that’s when your boss can spare you.

wild Tanzania
Image credit – Sudha Arjun

My luck (or maybe Ms.V’s), we felt fortunate to have been able to literally spot every animal that had made Serengeti their home.

Episode 5: I desperately need a larger stomach

Satiating my appetite

Now before I move on to other exciting things, let me tell you about the food. Being a vegetarian, I was wondering what to expect during meal times. My experiences in other parts of the world were quite mixed and I was prepared to live on bread & salads. But I was in for a surprise.

There was a large spread of Continental, African and Indian cuisine at every meal. A whole lot of vegetarian choices, leaving me desperately in need of a larger stomach. As much as I would love for you to believe this was all especially for me, let me share with you more of my newly acquired knowledge.

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Image credit – Malingering/flickr.com

Tanzania is another country in Africa with a sizable Indian population. So, here I was having roti, dal, chawal, biryani, rajma, and baingan bharta halfway across the world! The truly local food in Tanzania is Ugali (steamed dumpling made with maize), Cassava, and Arrowroot prepared in various styles.

There was also sweet potato and several types of yam, cooked in the traditional way with lots of coconut milk or with groundnut. Added to it, there were local variants of doughnuts, plantain, and vegetable fritters, which were all very tasty too.

Let me skip the details on the meat front of which I am very ignorant – but I did see a lot of grilled meat as well as fish cooked in different sauces.

Episode 6: Cameras just can’t capture the beauty of nature!

Experiencing every bit of Oldupai Gorge & Ngorongoro Crater

The drive from Serengeti to Ngorongoro was a test of endurance – approximately 145Kms of rough gravel and stone roads across the land, as dry as a desert. My insides seemed to turn upside down by the time we reached Oldupai gorge, where we stopped for about 45 mins. Then came one more surprise from Malia.

With a vague description of an African museum, he let our imagination decide what would be in store. We hopped off, prepared to be surrounded by ancient African art and culture. We started our walk around what seemed like a ridge perched on top of a deep gorge. The terrain had a stark bare beauty, with different shades of earth layered over the horizon – shades of grey dust, brick red, and yellow sandstone.

My mouth opened in awe when I realized that this was the cradle of mankind as we know it. The first traces of the human species (over a million years old) was discovered in this very gorge about 100 years back. To quote wiki, “It is one of the most important paleoanthropological sites in the world”. So here we were, practically standing on the graves of our ancestors!

We had a brief introduction to the site by a very knowledgeable and a humorous guide, who also stressed to us with utmost passion that most people get the name of the gorge wrong – it’s not Olduvai as most books or references tell you but rather it’s Oldupai, which is the name of a plant in the Masai language. As the ambassadors of the site, he wanted us to correct the name whenever and wherever the gorge comes up – so here I am, doing my bit for humankind!

wild Tanzania
Image credit – Booking.com

After Oldupai, we were off to the crater, a drive that took us right up a rugged mountain path to the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge. Walking past the lobby to the outdoor pool, we came terms with a view that was simply breathtaking.

The crater seemed like a gigantic bowl filled with tantalizing shapes and colours with a cloud-capped rim – a translucent blue sky forming the perfect fabric to gently cover this gift hamper from heaven. One big lesson learnt on this trip, cameras just can’t capture the beauty of nature. All of our fervent clickings just could not reproduce the 3-dimensional magnificence of the sight before us. So we decided to just relax and soak in the beauty & the tranquillity of the place.

The lodge itself was very well designed and spacious, reflecting the core elements of the African culture. We had the added bonus of our delightful cottage room that came with an amazing view anytime we opened the curtains. I was particularly impressed with the dining space which was built in the shape of a gigantic Masai hut with huge wooden beams converging at the centre of the room like an arc.

The next day Malia drove us down to the crater early in the morning with a picnic hamper packed for our breakfast. We drove to a serene lake where we had a simple and a tasty spread of muffins, sandwiches, and chips with coffee. Our luck held doubly good here too, spotting animals and birds as we drove along.

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Image credit – Sudha Arjun

Two of my most unforgettable memories of Ngorongoro happened right here – watching a lioness and her cubs eat their prey (a wildebeest which seemed to have been killed just a few hours back) and absorbing a perfect tableau of what untouched, untamed Africa stands for.

wild Tanzania
Image credit – Sudha Arjun

The day ended with a quiet evening spent watching a beautiful sunset over the crater. Every few minutes the hues in the skyline changed from a radiating orange to a subdued, translucent amber as the sun dipped below the horizon while the valley beneath the rim of the crater dissolved into shadows. Gazing on this splendid beauty from our sun decks, my thoughts stilled and mind emptied of everything but the moment.

This was followed by dinner & dance by the Masai warriors. Some cultural lessons for the visitors from another planet – the one which had nothing but glass & chrome and endless city traffic & polluted air.

Episode 7: Set aside time to contemplate your day – it’s often got hidden blessings you might miss otherwise

Soaking in the wilderness of Tarangire National Park

From Ngorongoro, we started on the last leg of the safari to Tarangire National Reserve. After the sights in the Serengeti and the crater, I wondered what else was there to look forward to. We seemed to have seen it all, we even managed to sight the elusive leopard which tried to evade us.

Driving into Tarangire seemed to confirm our surmise – it did seem a repeat of all the animals we had already seen. But Malia told us to be patient as Tarangire often yielded the best surprises. He was right. This is where we saw a lot more of the elusive animals – a pack of hyenas (more than 20), jackals, and leopards on trees.

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Image credit – Sudha Arjun

Lionesses crowded around the river during the early morning Sun. With few clambering up their favourite trees for a snooze as we watched. We tracked yet another pride of lions with 6 of the cutest cubs ambling along, crossing our path – proud and majestic, not caring to even glance in our direction.

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Image credit – Sudha Arjun

And that’s how I will remember the end of my amazing safari. A cherished dream come true in the most vivid, vibrant colours of reality.

wild Tanzania
Image credit – Sudha Arjun

On our drive to the airport to wind up with a relaxing last leg of the vacation at the beach, we stopped when we saw some Masai boys, painted from head to toe in black with a contrasting white geometric pattern on their faces. This seemed intriguing and once again we turned to Malia for our cultural lesson. He explained that these boys had been sent into the wild to fend for themselves as part of their coming of age rituals. They would wander for 6 months in the desert and take care of themselves. On their successful return to the tribe, they would be circumcised and christened men.

Episode 8: Man is the most insane species. He worships an invisible God and destroys a visible Nature. Unaware that this Nature he’s destroying is this God he’s worshipping.

Unwinding at Zanzibar

The perfect beach vacation – that’s how it all ended. Sparkling turquoise waters and shimmering soft-white sand, endless food and drinks on the beach, while we lazed on sun decks under colourful umbrellas.

One night we attended an African themed dinner in the resort – decorated in a colourful village setting with a band singing beautiful Swahili songs. We didn’t understand a word but then music needs no language. The songs made us tap our feet and touched our souls. Listening to the music while eating authentic African delicacies, by the light of a lantern created yet another beautiful memory to be tucked away for unwrapping and reminiscing some other day.

We got to witness a few more amazing sunsets in Zanzibar against the backdrop of yachts sailing across the ocean as the humidity in the air changed from pleasant breeze to a slight chill. Standing on the beach, with the ocean lapping at our feet, we dreamed of sailing straight to India.

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Image credit – Sudha Arjun

It seemed so near, yet so very far in every way.

Finally, on the drive to the airport for my flight back home, I came across a profound quote by Hubert Reeves. It felt so apt as I returned from this slice of nature which seemed closest to God.

“Man is the most insane species. He worships an invisible God and destroys a visible Nature. Unaware that this Nature he’s destroying is this God he’s worshipping.”

Related: Of Serendipity and Spain – things to do on your 10 day Spain trip

About the author:

Sudha is glued to a staid corporate desk job when she’s not living out her fantasies as a travel junkie.


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