Summer sunrise fills the sky at Heathrow as I arrive at the airport for my trip to Africa on a two-week product recce, as we call it in our business! I hop to Amsterdam; it’s 20 years since I last transited Schipol, the airport here. It’s vast but easy to navigate, and soon I am on my way to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.
The plane touches down at 10pm. Dar airport is slightly chaotic but the odd visa system seems to work, although it is slightly unnerving to give your passport and $50 to an officer who takes it all away… eventually somebody calls your name out and you have entry. Comfortingly, the whole process only takes 50 minutes and as the normally chaotic Dar traffic is kind to me, before long I’m in the hotel, ready for tomorrow.
For the past few years I’ve wanted to find a safari holiday in Tanzania for our guests, then last year, I met ten of our travellers on our boat safari in the Okavango Delta. One of these intrepid adventurers had taken every single one of our African holidays and asked me: “Stuart, when are you going to introduce a Tanzania safari?”
I pay a great deal of attention to our guests, where they want to go and what they want to see, so, just a few short months after that conversation, here I am! Sadly, whilst Kenya is very safe to go to on safari, consumer confidence is low. Being on safari is one of the safest holiday environments, far from any extremists.
Today I’m heading to Mikuni National Park. It’s a pleasant enough drive with rural Tanzania passing by. I am making my way south as my plan is to look at products away from the ‘crowded northern circuit’ of the Serengeti in order to take in some more exclusive safari parks.
I arrived at Mikumi National Park at sunset last night. I am staying at a tented lodge atop a rocky kopje (a small hill). Beyond are the savannahs and distant hills that are the Africa you see so often in films like Out of Africa. I spend a more than comfortable night in a tent set on a deck, complete with en suite and solar heated water. Mikumi is a pretty park. Striking sights are large herds of giraffe and huge birds called Ground Hornbills that seem common here, though I believe they are endangered in South Africa. Of course, we see lion too. I inspect another lodge, also set on a hill with sweeping views of the plains. This lodge is also tented with some of the biggest tents I have seen in Africa, with room to swing a lion or two! If you haven’t been to Africa before, you might be nervous at the thought of spending a night in a ‘tent’, which is why I prefer to call them ‘canvas rooms’. They are always set on a solid base or raised deck; they usually have furnished verandahs for afternoon siestas, and the tents are equipped like a hotel. Safes are a norm, as is electricity, although hours of operation may be restricted. Normal bathrooms include showers, hot water and flush loos, so it’s like staying in a lodge, except the walls and ceilings are canvas. Common areas normally have views and are open thatch-roofed affairs with open-plan bar, lounge and dining, and very often they have a small swimming pool. I always feel that they offer a romance and authenticity that a conventional lodge does not always deliver. There’s nothing nicer than going to sleep with the sounds of the African bush as your lullaby!
Tonight there is much excitement at dinner. One of Africa’s nocturnal small cats is sitting on a rafter… it’s a genet, and very pretty it is too – not to mention a rather rare sighting! This whole area is historic and it seems unbelievable that just 150 to 200 years ago this was the slave and ivory route and that explorers like Burton, Speke, Livingstone and Stanley all passed just a few miles away.
Leaving Mikumi for the Southern highlands. Wow… what spectacle! I can see not only the beautiful distant mountains, but I also travel part of the way adjacent to the Ruaha river in a valley of Baobab forest. I have never seen so many! They are leafless at this time of the year, so they are dark grey hulks; however the sun reflects off their upper branches giving them an oddly metallic sheen. My journey later brings me into the hills and on to dust roads that for an hour climb to 6000 feet above sea level. Wow, I am transported to the tea gardens of India or Sri Lanka, with their rolling plantations and patches of forest. Spectacular views – not what you might expect of Tanzania!
Next, I find myself on a farm with guest accommodation. Here, amongst horses, cows and sheep is incredible trout fishing, walks and even croquet on the lawn. In the evening I enjoy another slice of Out of Africa, as fires are lit and roast lamb is served. Outside temperatures are decidedly chilly but the night sky is clearer than Waterford crystal!
I awake to mist rising between the blue ridges of the hills and a thick dew. It feels so un-African! Here in Mufindi, in the Southern Highlands, the farm owners do great work supporting the local community’s AIDS clinic and providing a home for AIDS orphans –I am overjoyed to learn that the number of orphans is falling due to the effectiveness of the treatments. After eggs and bacon from the farm I’m on the road again – or should I say dust track – back through rolling tea plantations with pickers hard at work. Only about an hour on tarmac today; along the way onions and tomatoes are being sold in abundance together with Baobab fruit… who knew that these could be used for the source of Cream of Tartar? The women dress in Kikoi, brightly printed sarong-style dresses. They cost about $4… I’m very tempted to buy my wife one! Off road again for two and half hours through dry African scrub, such a contrast to the lush tea plantations of a couple of hours ago. I am on my way to Ruaha National Park to stay in a charming lodge (stone and thatch bedrooms) set on the Ruaha river bank. Hippos wallow and waterbuck graze. I am just in time for a short game drive, which reveals crocodile and hippo pools, and a myriad of birds. Kingfishers fishing as the sun sinks are a particular delight. The sun is a huge red ball as it disappears below the horizon… it’s another spectacular African sunset.
The next installment of Stuart’s diary will be up on Navigator over the next few days – but in the meantime, why not find your own holiday to Africa?
Ruaha National Park is the biggest National Park in Tanzania, at over 22,000 square kilometres. The pleasure is that there are only seven camps and lodges, so it is far from crowded and surrounded by this stunning wilderness, it feels as though you’re almost alone. With only 24 rooms, the camp I am staying in is the largest!
It’s dry season and wow, the bush and grass is tinder-like. Amazingly, there are still three months of dry season to go, but it’s difficult to imagine it getting even more crispy and dry. Thank goodness for the life-giving Ruaha River. It’s a pretty, meandering river amidst rocks and sand banks, harbouring less-than-friendly crocs and hippos in abundance. The other wildlife therefore focuses in the open woodland on the banks. Unusually for Africa, rather than the usual pattern of early morning and late afternoon game drives, here they start at 8.30am and run until 4pm. Very civilised! What unfolds on game drives are dappled glades full of grazing impala (a mere canape for hungry lion!), tiny dik-dik, Grant’s gazelle, and the much larger waterbuck and kudu. Giraffe also abound with fabulous dark markings, along with huge herds of buffalo. On a day out birds also reveal themselves – I see African fish eagle hunting, vibrant lilac-breasted rollers sunning themselves and foraging bustards and hornbills. Ah, and how could I forget the elephant… lots of them in small herds make their way to the river in the heat of the day, it’s a majestic sight. The guide was very knowledgeable and we stumbled upon a lion kill where a pride of 14 were noisily feeding on a buffalo whilst vultures circled and black-backed jackal hung back, waiting for their turn at the dinner table!
Speaking of lions, there are big prides here, at least eight within the area, and up to 15 lions per pride. Another party staying at the lodge encountered a similar kill as well today, however the sad victim this time was a giraffe. No wonder I was awoken in the middle of last night to the sound of lions roaring!
Later, after catching the sunset, we drive back to camp. Just outside the camp impala are barking a warning, and in poor light we track their direction just in time to catch sight of a leopard slinking away, presumably disappointed that he didn’t surprise an unsuspecting impala. Better luck after dark, maybe!
No roaring lions last night, just hippos making occasional deep honking sounds, sounding to my ears like deep foghorns. The weather has been great here – about 28 degrees falling to about 20 at night. I travel back to the coast today, north of Dar es Salaam, but as I don’t have time to back track by road I will fly. It’s been interesting meeting some of the guests here in the lodge; a nice mix of nationalities and many in Saga’s age group. What is also interesting is that some of them are on their first safari to Africa. For the 25 years I have been involved in safaris, Ruaha has been on the list for people who have already travelled to the more popular areas. These guests are telling me that they chose it because it is far from the ‘madding crowds’, which further reinforces my idea that I should create a programme to Southern Tanzania for Saga guests – both Africa repeaters and first timers.
I bid farewell to the lodge and with some Swiss guests, take a circuitous route to the airstrip. Away from the river I see a huge rocky kopje, a hill made up of huge boulders the size of houses, impossibly balanced on one another. It is the home of klipspringers, small deer that have adapted to environment and are a source of food to leopards that like rocky environments in which to lay in wait. Sadly we see neither – but that’s how it goes sometimes! Away from the river the park is studded with hundreds of ancient baobab trees. They stand sentinel, each with their own character and form, like a rag-tag army awaiting a Harry Potter-type wave of the wand to bring them to life and set them marching. Amongst them are Candelabra Euphorbia, otherwise known as the Candelabra Tree, a cactus-like succulent growing to over 20 feet high. You sometimes see them growing from the top of baobabs, from seeds deposited by birds.
Before reaching the airstrip we spot a family of elephant with two youngsters standing in the shade of a baobab trunk, the only plantlife large enough in this dry area to give enough shade to such a herd. They have been stripping the bark to eat – although fascinatingly baobabs are not truly wood, they are made up of fibrous material. Several light aircraft come and go whilst I wait under a thatch roof. Many people link the safari parks in the south by taking small aircraft-hopping flights. I have to say though, my journey over the past days all the way by land has given me a great insight into Tanzania; from the Rift Valley to the cool highlands there has been some fantastic scenery along the way.
The aircraft arrives, a 12-seater caravan. We stop off at the Selous Game Reserve and sweep in over the Rufiji River with wetland areas that in places remind me of the Okavango Delta from the air. It’s an equally uncrowded reserve and looks stunning; I wish I had time to stop, but I have visited before. I know the river safaris are fantastic here and it’s a good place to try to see endangered wild dog, one of my favourite animals! I fly on, and as the sun is sinking, we sweep low over rice paddies and verdant green palms and touch down on a grass airstrip at Bagamoyo. Myriads of children from adjacent houses come running out to greet the plane, curious to see a man from such a different culture emerging!! In an extraordinary scenario that is only Africa there is actually someone to meet me with a small car. We bounce over the field and after a short drive through villages we arrive at a beach where a boat awaits to transport me to a small hotel on a peninsular set between the mainland and Zanzibar island – my resting point tonight.
Yesterday evening I did a beach landing to arrive here (no jetties, so shoes off!) on the tip of this peninsula, and was greeted by the manager and two friendly Doberman dogs. I was escorted to my banda along a path with jungle-like growth forming a tunnel and the Indian Ocean only about 20 metres away on each side.
This peninsula is nine kilometres long and only linked to the mainland at low tide. Just 12 bandas facing the ocean occupy it, so the beach is practically yours alone. On the horizon the tip of Zanzibar is marked by the lighthouse flashing, and in the other direction you can see the lights of the mainland villages twinkling in the dark.
The 12 bandas are simple rustic wood and thatch affairs opening directly to the beach, and with only insect screens at the windows they are breeze cooled. This is Robinson Crusoe stuff with no phones, TV or wifi!
Sunrise brings forth dhows (small, traditional sailing ships) passing and fisherman almost impossibly balanced in local dugout canoes. The tide drops to reveal crystal-clear rock pools. The entire peninsula and surrounding waters here are a marine reserve so conservation is key – guests are asked to not even collect shells from the beach. The public area is a lofty thatched building open to the breezes with a first-floor deck overlooking the swimming pool and the ocean beyond. The whole lodge is low-key in style and service, delivered by friendly and loyal staff who have worked here for many years. I have to weigh up, is this too rustic and simple for Saga clients or not? I think it might not suit everyone, but correctly described to our potential guests it would fit some perfectly and is a marvelous counterpoint to the dust of the African bush.
It’s been a morning to recharge, attend to the daily amoeba (!) known as email and make time for a short dip in the Indian Ocean. The young manager here is British, a wildlife enthusiast and trained safari guide. I admire him for escaping Essex to this tiny spot of tropical paradise in the Indian Ocean… not that it’s all fun and games! He has, for example, to co-ordinate the logistics of the delivery of all fresh water by boat from the mainland three times a day… proving there is more to stocking an Indian Ocean lodge than just ensuring the kitchen and bar are full!
Before long I am back on the boat, bags packed, and sailing past healthy Mangroves. I believe Mangrove trees are very sensitive to pollution so it’s good to see. Sadly once I reach shore I don’t have time to turn north to see Bagomoyo. I think it would be interesting as it was here that the expeditionary parties of the European explorers set off into ‘The Dark Continent’ to find the source of the Nile, having crossed from Zanzibar. It was the Omani Sultans of Zanzibar who ruled the island and this coastal strip, and so when I land I pass through villages where some of the men still wear the long kanzu and strikingly embroidered Omani skull cap.
The road takes me south to Dar where the roadside markets are bustling in the late afternoon light, and I check in to my city hotel just at sunset. There is a high proportion of Muslims within Dar’s population, and so the hotel has available a special sunset break of fast buffet. It is Ramadan, the holy month of fasting from sunrise to sunset, which ends with the sighting of the new moon – after a lunar month of this, the Muslims hope for that official sighting tonight!
After a week of solar-heated water, breeze-cooled rooms, limited lighting and the company of geckos, it’s great to have some air-conditioning and a power shower.
Tomorrow begins the second half of my trip as I head to Botswana and Zimbabwe, but I have no doubt that once back at base in Folkestone I will pull together something rather special for Saga guests to be able to explore Southern Tanzania later next year…