The Big 5. The hall of fame in the African animal kingdom. Safari spotters dream to see them all. It’s like a real life game of Pokemon. You never know what you’ll see. And it’s something everyone should experience at least once in their life. I recently traveled to Kenya and Tanzania with G Adventures on their Serengeti to Zanzibar tour. We started in Nairobi, traveled to Arusha, visited Mto Wa Mbu, then did a 3 day safari through the Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater. We then finished up on the beach in Zanzibar. Here’s what you need to know to have the most incredible safari experience in the Serengeti.
We travelled by bus from Nairobi to Arusha. The journey took 7 hours, including the border crossing into Tanzania at Namanga.
NAMANGA BORDER CROSSING
Arguably the most unique land border crossing I’ve ever experienced. There are no signs anywhere, so you need to know what to do.
To start, you arrive outside the Kenyan border exit building. Here, you’ll be required to get stamped out of Kenya. Once you’ve been stamped out, you technically re-enter Kenya, and walk up the hill on the road. You must walk over the border crossing. Your bus will cross into Tanzania separately. When walking up the road, you’ll find a gap between the fence separating the road. Keep walking this way, and proceed across the other side of the road.
You’ll then see a white building. Here, you must prove that you have had Yellow Fever immunisation, as well as have a temperature body scan. I’m not quite sure if this actually does anything or not, but it’s mandatory. After you’ve done the health check, continue down to the next building to get your visa.
It you already have a visa, queue up at the first window. If you don’t, grab a form and start filling it out. You’ll then approach the window on the far right marked with a few USD bills stuck to the window with the form you just filled out and your passport. The Tanzanian immigration officer will take these and in return, give a receipt where you then need to go and pay for your visa. You don’t pay at the same window, and you do not get your passport back until you’ve paid.
To pay, you technically enter Tanzania and walk straight up to the tiny blacked out window next to the ATM. Slide your money in and the paper they gave you. For US citizens, it is $100USD. For everyone else, it’s $50USD for a single entry Tanzanian visa. A few minutes later, the paper will reappear with a PAID stamp on it. Now walk back to where you came from and hand over the paper. Your passport will then be stamped and they will write in a date of expiry date for your visa. Walk back down past the counter you paid at, and you are now in Tanzania.
It’s a bit of a confusing process, and leaving your passport behind is never a comfortable thing to do. However, this is how it is done in Tanzania. Your passport is safe with the immigration officers. The whole process will take about 30 minutes, of which you are apart from your passport for 5 minutes. Whilst the process may sound confusing, it’s not too bad. You may consider getting your visa arranged through a consulate prior, however I don’t think it’s necessary.
Getting back onto the bus to Arusha, on a clear day you may be lucky enough to see Mt Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa. If it’s not a great day, you’ll at least see Mt Meru, which is still very impressive at the 4565m.
From Arusha, it will take approximately 3 hours to reach the Ngorongoro Crater gate. In order to get to the Serengeti, you must drive around the rim of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Don’t worry, you’ll stop by the Ngorongoro Crater on your way back from the Serengeti.
Once you’ve reached the Ngorongoro Conservation Area gate, it will be another 3 hours until you reach inside the Serengeti gate. At the Serengeti National Park gate, there is a cafe and a rocky outcrop with a nice view of the African plains. This gives you your first taste of what’s about to come.
THE BIG 5
Everyone knows the saying, the Big 5. But when it comes time to actually see them, you could have that awkward moment when you realise you actually have no idea what the Big 5 exactly are. Or why on earth it is called the Big 5. Turns out, it’s all to do with poaching. The Big 5 have this reputation because they are difficult to catch.
The Big 5 are Buffalo, Elephant, Leopard, Lion and Rhino. These animals really are all incredibly powerful, and rule the African game parks. The Serengeti is lucky enough to be home to 4 out of 5, with only the Rhino found in the Ngorongoro Crater.
Somewhat of a gimmick, there is also an accompanying Small 5. These all either look like an animal from the Big 5, or are usually found with the Big 5. The Elephant Shrew, Buffalo Weaver, Leopard Tortoise, Ant Lion and Rhino Beetle are all a small little edition to the 5 family.
SAFARI IN THE SERENGETI
It’s not small feat that the Serengeti is a majestic game park. The Serengeti National Park spans 30,000km2. It’s absolutely massive. Within minutes of entering the park, we saw giraffes, hyena, gazelle and serval cats. Once you’re off the main road, the real adventure begins. We did a 2 hour cruise around and saw elephants and leopards before we had even gotten to camp for the night
As the Serengeti covers an expansive area, there will be times when you see no animals at all. You might go 30 minutes of driving, and only see grass. Rest assured, after those 30 minutes of nothing, you’ll then have moments of pure magic, running into herds of 30 Elephants chilling in a watering hole, or a pride of Lion eyeing off their lunch. And best of all, because the park is so big, you won’t have to share it with anyone else.
There will be times in the central areas where there are a lot of safari vehicles. In particular, any time there is a Leopard spotting.
I swear, the drivers here have an inbuilt heat sensor in their eyes, that can spot Leopards from hundreds of metres away, whilst driving. Their ability to spot animals is uncanny.
I feel that the best way to share the moments I had in the Serengeti is through photos. We encountered so many animals, multiple herds in different areas throughout the park. One thing is for certain, you won’t just see one of everything. You’ll definitely see A LOT! Take a look.
CAMPING IN THE SERENGETI
As a part of my G adventures tour, I camped at Dik Dik (a small antelope) camp ground for 2 nights. The camp ground is open, meaning there is no fence between you and the animals. This is a common scenario throughout the Serengeti and is not something that should be feared! If anything, it makes the whole experience so much richer!! I’m so glad I did it and have amazing memories from this camp ground.
You will camp in basic tents, enough room for two single mattresses, and just enough room for a 60L backpack each. The tents are waterproof and have mesh windows on each side, allowing for ventilation. Torches and headlamps in particular will become your new best friends. My tour was upgraded from a participation tour, meaning we had a crew to cook and pitch our tents for us. We also had actual mattresses to sleep on, which really took this to the “glamping” level.
(Pictured from Simba Campsite, Ngorongoro Conservation Area)
Now, you might be reading this going, that’s great, but seriously where’s the fence?!? There really isn’t one, and you really don’t need one. All you need to do is follow the principle rule; there is to be absolutely no food in your tent. Animals have a strong sense of smell, and can pick up even the smallest hint of an Oreo at the bottom of your backpack. Be smart, keep your food in the truck, and sleep safe and soundly.
The animals are close. When we arrived at our campsite after dark on the first night, we had hundreds of eyes looking back at us. Luckily they were just Zebra and Buffalo. After settling into our tents for sleep later on, we had a Buffalo come and do its business right out front our tent (haha!). In the morning, we had two Lioness walk down the road leading to our camp ground (the Zebra running in the other direction was a dead giveaway). So I’m pretty convinced that Lioness were probably in our camp at some point during the night as well, although that’s just a hunch! On night two, Hyena paid us a visit and had a really good sniff and howl. It’s absolutely nothing to be feared of, they won’t attack just for the sake of it. They are exposed to so many tents and cars, they are just curious!
What about after it’s turned dark? Do you have to stay inside your tent after sunset? Absolutely not! Dik Dik camp ground was fitted out with a kitchen building and an eating hall that comfortably fit 30 people. There is no electricity, so have your torch ready. You can peacefully and safely eat dinner in the eating hall (pictured below behind the tents), and then go outside and enjoy a peaceful campfire. Yes, that’s right. A campfire! Animals are scared of fire, so you’re pretty much guaranteed that animals will keep their distance while the campfire is lit.
(Dik Dik campsite with the eating hall)
What about the bathroom situation? Well, Dik Dik campground does have a bathroom block. The bathroom block is situated a little bit away from the main camp-site. For me, this was the most challenging part of the camping experience. Yes, potentially sleeping 6 hours with wild animals metres away, no problems. But walking to that bathroom block alone in the dark, hahaha yeah no! It was pretty much guaranteed to have some sort of animal like a Buffalo or Zebra along the way. Luckily, there are 3 ways to the bathroom block, so you could always navigate around them. Just keep your distance. If it looks too close, it most definitely isn’t safe. Just walk back and either do your business behind the tents, or wait for them to walk away. Don’t try to scare them away, you might scare them into a bolt straight at you.
The bathrooms are very basic. They don’t have electricity, so you absolutely need a headlamp so you can brush your teeth and see at the same time. No electricity means no hot water. The water that is here is ice cold. There are 2 showers and 3 toilets. None of the doors to the stalls closed properly (in either the ladies or men’s!). I opted to not shower for 2 days and don’t regret my decision at all. Take some fresh wipes and you’ll survive. Everything gets so dirty almost instantly that your shower is seemingly pointless anyway.
What if I need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night? Well, this is arguably the scariest part of open camping. It’s quiet, everyone is asleep, and you need to pee. For starters, establish if you really need to pee, or if you can sleep it off. If you can’t sleep it off, stay in your tent, grab your torch, and unzip your tent just enough to see outside. Shine your torch outside. Have a really good look outside in all directions. You are looking for animals.
There are 3 scenarios:
1: The coast is clear and you can’t see any animals. Unzip your tent, and pee right outside your tent.
2: You see an animal, that when the light is on its eyes are green or grey. Depending on distance, if the animal is far enough away, it’s safe. Slowly unzip your tent pee right outside your tent. If it’s too close, wait it out and try again later.
3: You see an animal that when the light is on its eyes are red. Zip up your tent. Turn off your torch. Lull yourself back to sleep and pray the pee gods away. Consider taking a jar into your tent for tomorrow night.
This is the unfortunate scenario. On my tour, one of my friends needed to pee in the middle of the night, every night. He had no problems. It’s more so to be aware than to be scared.
Rangers patrol some of the camp grounds. At Dik Dik, there were no rangers. However, this didn’t make me feel any less safe. It’s best to stick close to the camp, not wander off alone. During the day, you should have no concerns about safety – there aren’t many trees in the campground. No trees means no leopards or lions. At night, yes, the animals will come for a walk around, sniff and snort, but hey, you’re in their territory. You’re in the Serengeti!
Overall, the camping experience was really something special. It’s a bit of a shock at the start, but once you get over it, it’s actually really spectacular. We were able to be right on the ground, going exploring with ease. I felt I connected with the park a lot more because I camped. Having nature literally surrounding you is an unparalleled experience, and one I will most definitely never, ever, ever forget.
We had all our meals included while we camped. As I follow a Gluten free (GF) diet, my meals were always a little bit special, and I was always over catered for.
Breakfast was on rotation. Crepes, pancakes, eggs, toast, peanut butter, jam. It was simple and filling, and that’s all it needs to be. Tea, coffee and hot chocolate were always available.
Lunch was dependant on what we were doing. For example, from Arusha to Mto Wa Mbu, we had a traditional Tanzanian lunch cooked by locals for us. On the journey through the Serengeti, we had a packed lunch with some cold chicken, chips, banana, cake, fruit juice box. On days where we were on safari, lunch was either back at camp or on the road, and was usually a stew of some kind, rice, beans, chapati (none for me thank you), bananas and cake.
Dinner was always 3 courses. We always started with soup and bread. The soup was always some kind of vegetable: pumpkin, carrot, potato. I always had special GF corn puff breads made fresh, which was always a nice treat. For the main, we had things we were familiar with. Stews, Greek moussaka, and spaghetti bolognaise to name a few. Dessert was usually fruits (sprinkled with sugar) and the occasional cake when the crew had time.
The meals were good, not over the top but definitely tasty, leaving us feeling full and content after days adventuring. I was always given a GF option of the same meal if the groups meal contained gluten. It was really comforting knowing that the crew took intolerances and allergies very seriously. The crew really did try very hard and I am extremely thankful to them for all their efforts!
For those who think camping isn’t quite for them, there are hotels in the Serengeti! The one that caught my eye was The Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti. The pool here looks out onto a watering hole that sometimes has Elephants come and chill at. If you want to splurge, this is the place to do it.
HOT AIR BALLOON SAFARI
I choose to participate in the balloon safari over the Serengeti run by Serengeti Balloon Safaris which costs $539USD per person. The experience was absolutely incredible, unbelievably special and unique. As the safari is sunrise, we were picked up from our campsite as 5:30AM, to make it to the launch field by 6AM. The whole experience is very peaceful, drifting along the Seronera River viewing all the hippo’s from above. We got extremeley close to the animals, at some points I was convinced we would hit them we were so low. The Balloon had a great mix of high and low, meaning we could enjoy the scenery and the animals. We got to see quite a few animals like Hippo’s, Zebra, Lions, Vultures, Hyena, Gazelle, Buffalo, Wildebeest and Giraffe’s. The hour flies past insanely fast. You get to see so many wonderful views of the Serengeti, including the sunrise, which was spectacular!
After you land, you are then driven to another site where breakfast has been set up. You’ll then eat out in the middle of no where. We had Zebra just 50m behind us, just chilling. The breakfast was an English style. Breads, eggs and bacon, baked beans, grilled tomato, and as much champagne as you can stomach. You can also add a little mango juice to sweeten it. We all left feeling very bubbly and excited for the upcoming game drive.
There were 2 hot air balloons flying that day both with varying capacities. My balloon could take 16 people, 8 on either side, which was a good balance. Anymore, and it would have been way too crowded. Now, you might be wondering why on earth it costs so much! It’s to do with the permits that the company has to pay the Serengeti national park. They have a fixed permit for the launch site, however, they don’t have a permanent landing site, as it changes everyday with the wind. And in order to get permission to drive anywhere to pick up the balloon when it lands anywhere, it gets very expensive. Therefore, the company passes on this cost to the guests. It’s unfortunate that it costs so much, but I can appreciate it from the perspective that cars just can’t drive anywhere in the park. The animals are protected.
My hot air balloon experience was extremely lucky. We got perfect winds which took us over the Seronera River, and turned to a spectacular plain, floating over the tops of the animals. The wind had been good to us, which meant we could cruise for 1 hour. Had the winds been stronger, we would have been forced to land early. Our guide also mentioned that sometimes they don’t see any animals at all because the winds point them in the wrong direction. There is nothing they can do about it, and there are no refunds. It’s a risk. A risk that for me, paid off. However, I’m not sure I would recommend this as a must do in the Serengeti, purely because it is so expensive and there are no guarantee’s you’ll see anything. That said, I’m incredibly happy I took the chance and that it did pay off.
WEATHER IN THE SERENGETI
You’ll find the climate in the Serengeti temperate. Whilst it does warm up during the day, expect the nights to really cool down.
Dry Season is from June to October, and are typically the colder months. Temperatures during the day average between 20 to 28 degrees. Temperature at night can drop as low as 10 degrees. I had a handy Ultra Light Down jacket from Uniqlo that was the perfect companion for the conditions.
Wet season occurs in two seasons. “Long Rain” occurs from March to June and “Short Rain” from November to December. Daytime temperatures tend to stay a dry 30 degrees, and the nights around 14 degrees. I experienced a little bit of rain during my stay, which was actually quite welcome.
September is a fantastic time to travel to the Serengeti as there are significantly less bugs flying around. This means that there are less mosquitos – a huge benefit. Of course, I still covered myself head to toe in mosquito repellent, but I never felt like they were actually around. It also meant you could eat outside comfortably. Imagine when the bugs are in full season (around March) and swatting away a fly with every bite. The days were warm, the nights were fresh. The timing was perfect.
Tanzanian Shillings and US dollars will get you around here. In East Africa, you need to carry more than one currency. You’ll find yourself with huge bundles of Shillings as the currency is low value, so carrying USD is necessary to keep your wallet slim. Kenyan Shillings will not be accepted in Tanzania. Make sure your USD are no older than 2006, as they will simply not accept old notes.
You’ll find as a tourist, you’ll be given the price in USD first. Roughly, divide things by 2000 (1 USD approximately equals 2170 Tanzanian Shillings) and then adjust for your local currency. The price given will always be better in Tanzanian currency, so make sure you have some. There is nowhere to use your credit cards here. It’s cash or nothing.
When withdrawing money from ATM’S, Standard Chartered was the most reliable bank. You must take money out before you enter the Serengeti. There are no ATM’s in the Serengeti. The ATM’S only dispense Tanzanian Shillings.
You’ll find it difficult to get your hands on any Tanzanian currency before you arrive as it’s actually illegal to carry the cash out of the country. Make sure you exchange all your leftover shillings back to USD when leaving.
There are a few things to be aware of medically before going to Tanzania. Firstly, it is madatory for all visitors to have received Yellow Fever vaccinations before entering Tanzania. This can be arranged at a specialist travel clinic back home, where they can then provide you with the yellow fever booklet as proof of immunization. The vaccine is considered for life, so it’s a one off. The yellow fever immunization will set you back approx $100USD. Hepatitis A and Tetanus are also recommended vaccines. My advice should never replace that of a health professional.
Tanzania and the Serengeti are considered part of the designated Malaria zone. You must take Malaria medication. There are 3 main options.
I took Malarone for my visit. I choose to take Malarone because I’d had a previous bad reaction to Doxycycline. The dosage was one every day inside the zone, plus 2 days before entering the zone and 5 days after leaving the zone. Malarone has the least amount of side effects. Malarone should be taken at times when your exposure to mosquitoes is highest – dawn and dusk, and with food or dairy. I always took Malarone with dinner and was fine. Malarone is sold in packs of 12 for $80 AUD.
Lariam has to be taken only once a week, so is an effective long term solution for travellers. However, it’s earned the reputation as the “crazy” malaria medication. Not necessarily uncommon, Lariam can make some people crazy. This can be limited to just bad dreams, or much more serious reactions like hallucinations or paranoia. Because of this, Lariam must be trialled prior to your trip for 3 weeks, to ensure you do not have a bad reaction. If you do, you must not continue to take Lariam, and must use a different medication. To me, I wasn’t game to trial it based on information researched. However, you could be one of the lucky few who don’t react, and only need to take medication once in a week. In which case, lucky you! Lariam is sold in packs of 8 and costs $50 AUD.
On one of my previous trip to the Philippines, I took Doxycycline (Doxy for short). Doxy increases your photosensitivity. No that doesn’t mean you’re camera shy, it means your skin is more susceptible to burns. Aside from this, Doxy is a very cost effective medication as it has many purposes. I was unlucky enough to have an allergic reaction to Doxy. So unfortunately, no Doxy for me. Doxycycline is sold in various packages, costing approximately $15 AUD.
How long should you spend on safari? The choice is up to you. We had 2 days on safari in the Serengeti, followed by another in the Ngorongoro Crater. 3 days is enough time. Whilst the parks are massive, and you won’t get to see all of it, and you’ll have had enough by then. It sounds a bit ridiculous, but spotting animals and dealing with the elements is really tiring! Combine this with “African massage” roads – really, you will forget what smooth asphalt feels like.
Most people dream of going to Africa to go on safari. One of those “I’ll do it one day” type of places. Africa and more importantly the Serengeti in Tanzania is a place of pure magic. People always tell you that an experience in Africa is truly something special. I didn’t quite believe it. But all the things people say about going on safari are true. It really is that amazing.
One of the biggest things I realised was how it changed my perspective on life. I look at many things now in the western world and realise that they are so much more insignificant than I’d thought. I’m so incredibly thankful that I’ve experienced this at 23 years old. I can now continue to grow and learn with my new heightened perspective on life, and that prospect excites me greatly.
*This post was not sponsored by G Adventures. I genuinely like travelling with them 😛 *