Serengeti Safari: What you really need to know

I’m writing this from my flight back to NYC (unsure when I’ll publish though), listening to Toto’s Africa on Turkish Airlines audio entertainment selection. Honestly I’m too overwhelmed by my experiences of the past month to write more than just a lite post on how to pick a Serengeti safari for anyone with half an inclination to do such a thing. Guidebooks for this part of the world are only updated every 3-5 years and it’s glaringly obvious that they don’t check much – some of their listings have been out of business for many years, and half the websites no longer exist.

African safari companies and hotels are the worst marketers on the planet. They change their URLs and are for some reason completely ungoogle-able beyond that old address. They rarely check email. For the most part, I took a chance and showed up hoping they had a vacancy – and then I’d see their new web address posted somewhere on the premises. Pretty f***ing useless. Emails change almost as often. Overall, 60% of email inquiries were ignored, 20% bounced back, 20% replied.

Don’t book a safari before you go. You will pay 50-100% more for the same quality.

My brother & I got on a scheduled (meaning anyone can join) 7 day/6 night budget camping safari covering Serengeti – Ngorongoro Crater – Olduvai Gorge – Lake Manyara – Tarangire for $1280 each (over half of that is the fixed game park fees-on-top-of-fees and campground charges). Very few safari company websites display info on that option and expect you to email or fill in a form, which they may reply to in a week or not at all. Okay, enough of my bitching about that…sorry, but it’s so frustrating! Anyway, it turns out no one else booked onto that week’s trip so it was an *awesome* deal for two. From what we could see, other people had the exact same tents, same meals, etc. though maybe a newer Land Cruiser. I got the info 4 days before our intended departure date and booked it 1 day before.

TOUR OPERATORS:  There are different ways the safari company is likely to be operated. For some, the guide and cook are hired and the company provides the equipment and program, so they’re employees. For others, as was the case with mine, the guide is freelance and everything (tents, vehicle, etc) was his, so the company I booked through essentially subcontracted, and we got very lucky.

My tour operator & guide: The company was Planet Kenya Safaris and our guide was the wonderfully deadpan Bariki – 10 years experience, neither too quiet nor too chatty, great English. It’s pretty obvious he’s well-connected on the Serengeti circuit, and he knew his stuff. We saw things no one else did, from the elusive black rhino to a kill (lion took down a zebra not 15 feet from our truck!!), and he’s great at spotting the unusual, like a dead impala draped over a branch by a hungry leopard.

Other tour operators I observed:  I noticed that Explore used the local operator Leopard Tours, and Good Earth Tours had newer, taller tents – most operators have standard tents with a dome of about 5’6″ in the middle, which worked fine for me. We did not see any operators that used camping cots (though I wouldn’t be surprised if Good Earth did).

VEHICLE:  The Toyota Land Cruiser is by far the most popular safari vehicle you’ll see. Ours was 20+ years old on the outside, but the parts were frequently replaced and maintained – our driver topped up tire pressure often, checked for loose bolts and stuff underneath, and all kinds of stuff daily. he also had cushions and slipcovers on all the seats. Our main concern was that it had a pop-top that stayed overhead as shelter – about 10-20% of the vehicles we saw did not and we cringed at the lack of protection from the equatorial sun. Note that things can get really stinky in the truck because the parks require you to remove your own garbage. So…you get the wafting aroma of your food garbage decomposing in 90-100 degree heat. Throw in a cook that didn’t shower all week, and you’ve got quite a bouquet going on.

CAMPING:  We did the budget option, which is different from “tented camps” – very luxurious and add $100-300/day to your costs (which is not a terrible idea if you’re traveling as a couple instead of with your brother who uses half of your supply of baby wipes to futilely clean his fingernails, grrr). Bring your own sleeping bag. Check that the operator you use supplies foam mattresses – they’re about 2″ thick and really help a non-camper like myself. We stayed at the Panorama Campground (great scenery and a bar!), Seronera Campground on the Serengeti (eh…but then I can’t compare it to any other options), Simba Campground on the crater rim (the only one on the rim so it’s pretty lively), and I forget the name of the one near Tarangire.

What the guidebooks have wrong: The campgrounds now have showers and electricity! They actually ship in water by the truckload, so be conservative because it does run out. And many people recharge their cameras and cell phones in the very limited supply of power strip outlets in the dining hut. Apparently both of these amenities are less than 2 years old, and boy were they welcome!

FOOD:  It’s not fancy but it’s decent, and it can often be too much food when you’re doing little more than sitting in a truck for 9 hours a day. Breakfast is usually omelet (just egg, occasionally with veggies in it); sometimes “sausage”, which is really a hot dog; toast (jam, margarine, peanut butter offered for spreads); a rolled up large pancake that I suspect is called a chapati there. 3 days you’ll get a boxed lunch, which are pretty consistently: chicken leg, boiled egg, veggie samosa, small hard poundcake-like muffin, triangle sandwich with a strange shredded carrot spread, mango juice, tiniest banana ever. Dinner and the other lunches start with soup and will have an abundance of either noodles or potatoes; meat is sometimes canned ground beef doctored up or a hot dog stir fry with the usual peppers/carrots/onions. Bear in mind there’s no way to get fresh meat once you’re on the Serengeti, though I think they buy meat from the Masaai who farm around the Crater area sometimes. Coffee is instant and tea is pretty good – milk comes powdered.

TIPPING:  I overheard a fair amount of debate on this topic, and we struggled with it too. All of the guidelines I read referred mostly to Kilimanjaro treks, which have more staff. We went with the $5-10 per day per staff member: $10/day for the guide and $7/day for the cook from each of us. I didn’t let the fact that our guide was an independent contractor affect tipping. And by the way, that’s about double what the Europeans tip them.

OTHER TOURISTS:  I’ve done some pretty adventurous trips like this in the past and noticed that, unlike past trips to Peru and Jordan, groups seemed to keep very much to themselves, and Americans were noticably ostracized by the younger groups. I found that really upsetting. I’d like to attribute it to crankiness from the heat, jetlag, and sever culture shock – I suspect many of the younger ones hadn’t travelled enough to be “ready” for Africa. Americans made up maybe 10% of the safari tourists we met, and in the rest of my travels I met a total of one (an ophthalmologist working at a Dar es Salaam rehab hospital for 3 years). Huge quantities of Scandinavians everywhere though, and boy do they stand out with their white-blond hair and Nordic paleness in Africa!

ARUSHA:  Arusha is the city (I use the word city loosely here) where most Serengeti safaris leave from. I stayed at 4 different hotels that ranged from $8 to $110/night because the $8/night place, the Arusha Backpackers Hotel, had two fatal flaws: the unbelievable amount of street noise 21 hours a day, and the showers. They always ran out of water by 7am and wouldn’t refill the tank for hours – which sooo sucked for the folks leaving for Kilimanjaro that day (no shower for a week). The Impala Hotel looks nice on the surface but their internet is a pain in the ass and doesn’t work in-room, their bathrooms look fantastic but most have flooding problems, and quite honestly for $110, they should have a/c. The two places that ran $50-60/night for a single/double with breakfast didn’t feel like they were worth $45 more than the $8 place for what I needed some of the nights I was there, but if you’re a light sleeper, it’s necessary. They were Le Jacaranda and Outpost Lodge (the Outpost was one of the main offenders for defunct website issues). Both had good restaurants. Outpost had fans and a pool, Jacaranda had better internet and was much closer to the main road if you felt like going anywhere…which wasn’t fun because of all the con “artists” – literally guys selling you paintings on canvas or batik for 4x what you’d pay in the airport. I preferred the Outpost, which has a really great restaurant with fancy coffee drinks if you’re jonesing for something other than instant.

Go ahead and ask any questions in the comments below… I’ll be writing about the volunteer experience in Bagamoyo next, so hold off on that.