On a recent five-day safari in Tanzania, I witnessed the Great Wildebeest Migration — when 1.5 million wildebeest travel across Tanzania‘s grasslands to give birth — as well as numerous lions, elephants, and giraffes.
I was incredibly lucky on my safari, as few people see as many animals as I did. My guide, Charles Nnko of Tanzania Experience, told me that many safarigoers don’t see half as much on safaris that are twice as long.
Nnko said that the biggest mistake first-time safarigoers make is expecting the experience of going on safari to be like visiting the zoo.
As I looked out the window driving back from the airport, the mountain’s flattened peak was visible behind the expanse of savannah grasses. Veins of snow flowed down the top.
He was laughing while he said it, but he wasn’t wrong. I was lucky.
Over a five-day safari to the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater, and Tarangire — the three parks that dominate Tanzania‘s Northern Circuit — I had seen no fewer than seven prides of lions, many herds of wildebeest, zebra, African buffalo, and elephants, giraffes, two cheetahs, and a leopard.
On the final day of my safari, my guide, Charles Nnko of Tanzania Experience, spotted a pair of rhinos — the last of the big five I hadn’t seen — a mile or so in the distance. Through binoculars, I watched them munch grass.
After close to a decade of guiding city slickers like me on their first safaris, Nnko said he’d dealt with all kinds of people. Without fail, the ones who don’t enjoy their safari are the ones who go in with expectations about what they will see. When it doesn’t happen, they leave dejected.
It’s understandable. Safaris are expensive — costing a few thousand dollars at a minimum — and a long flight away for most travelers. In an ideal world, you’d go on safari for five days and come home with tales of a lion lunging into a gazelle, an elephant mother nurturing her calf, and a stampede of a thousand zebras crossing a river.
Take, for example, my third day on safari, when I visited the Serengeti. After a few hours of seeing nothing but antelopes and zebras, we came upon a tree near the road where two cheetahs were lazing in the shade.
Within a minute of our arrival, one of the cheetahs stood up to stretch its legs, chirped at its companion, and walked off into the savannah. The second one followed soon after. If we had arrived five minutes later than we did, we never would have seen the cheetahs.
Less than half an hour after that, we came upon a leopard adjusting its position in an acacia tree.
If we had arrived even a minute or two after we did, the leopard would have already laid down on the branch and, Nnko said, it’s unlikely he would have spotted the animal. I didn’t see another one.
Therein lies one of the things no one tells you about going on safari. The Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater, and Tarangire have some of the densest populations of large animals in the world, so it’s not just finding where the animals are — it’s about being lucky enough to be there in the moment an animal becomes visible, from chancing upon a carcass that attracts hyenas to being in the savannah on the day the lion pride is ready to eat.
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