A herd of more than 100 wildebeest stands on the far bank of the Mara river, grunting nervously at one another. Like wedding guests around an empty disco dance floor, they are waiting for the bravest among them to break rank and make the first move.
It’s easy to understand their trepidation. Just around the bend, Ruppell’s griffon vultures and marabou storks stand in ominous huddles, while two huge crocodiles wrestle over one wildebeest that didn’t make it. There is an occasional, putrid whiff of rotting carcass in the air.
Far fewer wildebeest are killed by crocs during the famous Mara river crossing each year than by the creatures’ sheer stupidity. In their wild-eyed panic, several thousand might all rush down the banks at once, drowning hundreds at a time as they trample over one another.
From my safari vehicle on the opposite bank, I am mesmerised by the spectacle of this perilous final leg of their journey. As many as two million wildebeest migrate around the Serengeti each year, giving birth in the south of the ecosystem in February, then moving in a roughly circular motion up to the Mara river by August/September, and crossing into Kenya for a couple of months before heading south again.
“Kenya would have you believe the wildebeest migration takes place exclusively in Kenya, but the animals spend far more of the year in Tanzania,” claims David Guthrie, cofounder of Tent With A View Safaris, as we sit glued to our binoculars for two hours. “And on their side you can sometimes barely move for tourists.”
That’s why he settled in Tanzania instead of Kenya more than 20 years ago, and with his Tanzanian business partner has built a portfolio of boutique lodges and camps across the country. The latest, characteristically quirky, addition to the collection is the Bush Rover camp here in the Serengeti: former safari vehicles, which are driven into place for the season, and then magically converted into plush safari accommodation with a twist.
In the back of my Bush Rover Suite, I discover a beautiful wood panelled bathroom where the chassis ought to be, with a bath tub, sink and a bench covered in Masai-check fabric. The front passenger seat has been turned into a flushing toilet, while a wrought-iron spiral staircase takes me up to my bedroom, complete with four-poster bed and wardrobe.
The piece de resistance is the balcony which, from my vantage point on a hill, gives me an incredible view down to where wildebeest crossings take place. At night, hordes of wildebeest march right through our camp, so close to my suite that it sounds like I’m sharing my bedroom with several hundred heavy-snorers.
Creating intimate wildlife experiences is Tent With A View’s whole ethos, so we avoid those few vehicles that we do encounter during our game drives. The exception is when we excitedly join half a dozen other vehicles, which have spotted a female black rhino and her young – not seen here for many years. As we bounce around the dirt tracks of the park, we come across warthogs, zebra, giraffe, elephants, serval, buffalo, jackals, mongoose, baboons, hyena and the adorable little hyrax.
I also tick off more than 50 bird species, including eagles, ostrich, the secretary bird, and the gloriously coloured lilac-breasted roller – who looks like a toddler has painted-it-by numbers incorrectly. With its wide plains and ample game, the Serengeti is usually an excellent place to see lions and leopards too, though the safari gods are not shining down upon me during this particular visit.
When I spend my final evening relaxing in a bubble bath in the back of my Land Rover, however, and sipping red wine beside the crackling campfire to the tune of wildebeest, bullfrogs, crickets and a distant hyena, it doesn’t seem to matter.
My journey from the Serengeti to Zanzibar comprises three different light aircraft and five stops, operated with a level of cheerful confusion that makes the wildebeest crossing look efficient. It’s an hour-and-a-half drive from the airport on Unguja – the biggest island in the archipelago – to The Zanzibari hotel in the north.
The exotic scent of cinnamon and vanilla waft into the car from spice farms along the road, and muezzins make their mournful call to afternoon prayer from mosques in the towns and villages. Zanzibar was an important trading base for thousands of years, and has been ruled by Portugal, Oman and the British Empire at different points.
In Stone Town, a Unesco World Heritage Site, visitors can learn about Zanzibar’s cultural heritage and its cruel slave trade history, and potter in the labyrinth of bazaars. But perhaps the islands’ main attraction is its beaches: coral white sands, and reefs which teem with fish, turtles and dolphins, while humpbacks and even whale sharks sometimes pass through.
The Zanzibari hotel sits in beautiful gardens of palms, frangipani and bougainvillea, and is smaller and more authentic than some of the international hotels that have sprung up here. Guests are encouraged to take a sunset dhow cruise with a local fisherman, or a walking tour of nearby Nungwi village with the hotel’s assistant manager, Nzori.
Nzori grew up in the village, and in two hours he introduces me to his grandmother, mother-in-law and daughter. We visit a basket weaver, who tries to teach me the basic technique with much hilarity. We also visit dhow-builders and the fish auction, and I try out my rudimentary Swahili on everyone we meet.
As well as supporting local communities, guests at The Zanzibari can also help tackle the plastic waste crisis which threatens the world’s oceans: I pay a small donation to enjoy a special cocktail created by bartender Modest, with the money going towards a project which will see a dhow built from plastic bags sail from Kenya to Cape Town to generate awareness.
If the Serengeti is serious safari territory and Zanzibar is tropical paradise, then Saadani national park on the coast of the mainland offers something in between the two.
My first night is at Babs’ Camp, the little sister to Simply Saadani camp, and another example of Tent With A View’s ingenious approach. The “camp” is a five-storey tower, with a viewing area at the top – 20 metres above the ground. It sleeps just two-to-four, and a romantic dinner on the salt flats is a must. The camp fire is already blazing when we arrive at the salt plains at 8pm, with a table set for a candlelit dinner. I feast on soup, steak, and coconut parfait while the ranger keeps a watchful eye on the surrounding bush.
Being outside the national park’s perimeter means guests can do night safaris and walking safaris here. I set off on foot at 6.30am with an armed ranger on to the salt flats, where the soft salty sand is perfect for picking out animal tracks. We find the fresh prints of elephants, hyena, buffalo and lion – all thrillingly fresh.
Simply Saadani camp is a short drive away, on a long stretch of white-sand beach. The buildings are made from reclaimed wood and coconut bark, raised on stilts to protect the habitat.
Where the Serengeti has savannah, Saadani has vegetated bush, so while there are elephants, giraffes and lions to be seen here, they can be harder to spot. On one game drive I have a memorable encounter with a group of elephants right by the road, including a tiny infant around two weeks old. The grown-ups start flapping their ears at us after a few minutes, which is our cue to leave.
A boat trip on the Wami river gives me the opportunity to explore a different habitat, and spot cormorants, herons, Pied and Malachite kingfishers and the rarer Giant kingfisher perching on branches along the river bank. We drop anchor in the middle of the river for lunch, watched over by crocodiles and indignant hippos.
Tanzania’s tourism has struggled since last July, when the government decided VAT must be paid on park entrance fees, causing chaos for the industry. The resulting slowdown meant operators were forced to reduce safari prices, so rates on the ground are keener than they have been for several years, meaning it’s a good time to visit. The country is also on something of a great journey of its own, following the election of a new president last year. He is already coming good on his promise to stamp out corruption, which should mean more money for infrastructure and public services.
I hope the new government will invest more in tourism marketing too, to give agents and consumers in the UK a better understanding of everything the country has to offer – its unrivalled quantity of game, its tropical archipelago, its several lakes, and its iconic mountain, Kilimanjaro.
Before I leave, I visit a green turtle project on the beach at Saadani, which protects all nests built along the park’s coast. If the safari gods were against me in the Serengeti, they are on my side at Saadani as I watch two turtles struggle out of their sandy nest, and scurry 30 metres down to the sea.
Without the care of the rangers, only 1 or 2 in every 1,000 turtle eggs would make it to adulthood. I’ll be rooting for these two little guys, just as I will for Tanzania, on each of their journeys.
Book it: Tent With A View Safaris can tailor-make two nights in a Bush Rover Suite in the Serengeti, three at the Zanzibari, one at Babs’ Camp and two at Simply Saadani from a net rate of $3,718pp (sharing), including most meals, game drives, internal flights and transfers. Park fees (between $30 and $90pppn) are extra. Etihad Airways has economy flights from Heathrow to Dar es Salaam via Abu Dhabi from £526. Etihad flies thrice-daily from Heathrow and also flies from Edinburgh and Manchester. Tent With A View works with UK operators including Explore and Somak.
Simply Saadani: 11 tented “bandas” on the beach, including three family suites sleeping up to five. Nett rates from $315pppn sharing, including full-board and some excursions*.
Babs’ Camp: two rooms, accommodating up to four people. Nett rates from $440pppn sharing, full-board*.
Sable Mountain Lodge: 12 rooms including one family villa, and one rooftop room with “the best view in Selous”. Nett rates from $265pppn full-board*.
Little Okavango Camp: four tented suites, each sleeping up to four. Nett rates from $130pppn sharing.
Bush Rover Suites: Five in the Serengeti (moving to follow the migration); three in Selous; one in Saadani. Nett rates in the Serengeti from $485pppn sharing*.
Zanzibari: Eight standard rooms, plus two double-storey Frangipani suites which sleep up to five, and one family villa sleeping up to four. Nett rates from $205pn half-board.
*These prices include guided game drives; guests can also book full-board only and bring their own vehicle and guide.
When to go: Go in July- September for the Mara river crossing and turtle hatching at Saadani. Go in January-February for wildebeest calving in the Serengeti and lush green vegetation in the Serengeti and Selous. Avoid April-May when most parks shut for the rainy season.