The Fat 5
There is a big deal about seeing the Big 5: Lion, Leopard, Buffalo, Elephant & Rhino. Formerly, it was the goal of the big game hunters to get one of each of the Big 5. The guides now joke about the Small 5 (Lion Ant, Leopard turtle, Buffalo weaver, elephant shrew and Rhino beetle), and the Ugly 5 (wildebeest, warthog, maribou stork, vulture & hyena).
I’d like to propose the Fat 5. These are not animals. Similar in concept to the Freshman 15, the Fat 5 is the amount of pounds you gain while on safari.
The food is amazing and plentiful. I think they trick us on purpose by bringing out at least one more serving dish of food after our plates are overloaded with all the other multiple dishes we had to try. My plate looked like Thanksgiving at every meal. Compounding the overeating problem, there is zero opportunity to get exercise. Not only do you sit in a vehicle all day, but you cannot walk around the camp in the evenings because of the concern over wild animals. I’m not sure how to solve this other than we should not have done three safaris in 6 weeks. I’m swimming again, and I’ve added a whopping 10 seconds to my typical 100m practice time.
The tented safari camps
With one exception, the tented camps were all terrific. They really are tents, but don’t think you’re camping. They are big enough for a queen or king bed, some furniture, and all had an ensuite bathroom. Some camps had hot and cold water. Others only offered a bucket shower, where they would hoist a bucket of warm water up into the rafters and you had to have a complete shower through the hose connected to the one bucket.
All had solar power only. Sometimes you had to charge your stuff in a central area. Sometimes the solar power was enough to charge everything in your tent.
The staff were universally nice. Extra kudos to the
Mbugani Migration Camp staff in Ndutu for having better english skills than most, and having a terrific sense of humour. Also extra kudos to the Thorntree staff, who did a celebration every second night by delivering a cake to a table and singing Jambo Bwana at the top of their lungs while dancing in a conga line around the dining area. They were all having a great time and it was fun to watch. They picked (the gluten-free) Kirsten one night for their cake gift.
The one camp we were not that happy with was the Thorntree Camp in the serengeti. The issue was rats in the tents. Mark and Kirsten even had one up on their bed. Sarah had one in her bag and it munched its way through some of her stuff. The food and staff were great – it was just a rat issue. We can’t have been the first people to complain, and we would not go back there unless they confirmed there was no further issue, and I’d certainly read the tripadvisor recommendations to see if there is any mention of rats at any camp we were booking.
Fly vs drive
There are a couple of considerations on flying vs driving between the various camps.
- When you fly, you would use the guides provided by the camp where you are staying. On one hand, you would think that the local guides would know the areas better. On the other hand, you get a rapport with a guide if they are with you for the full travelling safari.
- The safari vehicles are different. The ones that travel on the highway are closed-in vehicles with windows and a pop-top roof. The windows open and the roof raises, but they are not as open as those vehicles that travel short distances from the camp to the local airstrip. This is not a major consideration.
- Some parks are very far from each other, and flying would be favoured. It was a two day drive from Selous to Ruaha vs a short (45 minute?) flight. Mind you the drive was very interesting, but I think I’d recommend flying to anyone doing the same thing.
- Some parks are very close to each other and would favour driving over flying. For example, the Serengeti/ Ndutu/ Ngorongoro/ Manyara/ Tarangere are all in a line so it probably makes the most sense to drive unless you’re very short of time
Conservancy vs National Park vs Reserve
Conservancies are on private land. The number of people using them are greatly reduced. In the serengeti national park, there were sometimes a dozen vehicles surrounding an animal. In ngorongoro there were even more. In the conservancies we visited, there was at most one other vehicle, so it is much more private. There were fewer people in Ruaha National Park too because of its remote location, but that meant less eyes looking for lions/ leopards/ cheetahs so it was harder to find them.
The other benefit to conservancies is that the drivers can go off road, while the drivers have to stay on the roads in the parks. In the Porini Lion camp, we were literally feet away from lions and cheetahs. We got to watch them do something other than sleep because the game drives were often earlier in the morning or later in the evening when the animals were active.
Reserves are somewhere in the middle, as the guide has some flexibility in leaving the road.
Which parks are best for which animals?
It’s not about the numbers, but here’s my guess on what we saw. You can use this as a benchmark of how you carefully you should plan your trip if you really want to see a particular animal.
Various birds _______________________ a gazillion
Wildebeests________________________tens if not hundreds of thousands
Gazelles (Thompson and Grant)___1000
Dik Dik _____________________________750
Baboons ___________________________ 500
Jackals _____________________________ 50
Hyena ______________________________ 50
Kudu (greater and lesser)_________ 25
Gerenuk ____________________________ 25
African Wild Dogs ___________________20
Eland (biggest gazelle) _______________ 4
Serval Cat_____________________________ 2 (very rare to see these)
Leopard _______________________________1 close, three in the distance
Rhino__________________________________0 close, three in distance
Best Lions/ Cheetahs – Porini Lion Camp. We heard good reports from people who were visiting the Porini Mara camp too. We saw lions in pretty well every camp we visited, however we could really watch them do something other than sleep in the Lion Camp.
Best Leopard – They are located everywhere, but are very hard to find. There is no one best spot. It’s like winning the lottery if you find one.
Best Elephants – You see them everywhere, but Tarangire was particularly good
Best Wildebeest/ Zebra – you see these everywhere but if you can see the migration in the Serengeti you really should go there.
Best everything – Ngorongoro . You just have to go. It is spectacular.
Best Rhino – We heard the Porini Rhino camp was amazing because you could approach the Rhinos quite closely. The only place we saw Rhino’s was Ngorongoro, but you need to be lucky there to see them up close.
Best Hippo – Hippos are everywhere there is water, but the best was the Hippo Pool in the Serengeti. We saw two newborns in Ruaha.
Best wild dogs – Selous is the only spot for these.
Best Crocodiles – Selous, although the biggest one was at Porini Lion Camp, with another big one in Samburu
Best Rock Hyrax – Ruaha and the visitor centre in Serengeti.
Best Kudu – Amboseli for lesser Kudu, Ruaha for greater Kudu
Jackals, Giraffe & Buffalo – They are everywhere. We saw the youngest baby giraffes in Selous and Ruaha.
Hyena – Serengeti wherever the migration animals are, but we did see them all over. Look for the vultures and you may see a hyena walking towards them.
Baboons -They are everywhere but the biggest troupes are in Lake Manyara.
Gerenuk are easily visible in Samburu, not quite so easily in Selenkay, and not at all anywhere else.
Masai village tours are available in multiple locations. The Hadzabe are only located in the area near Lake Eyasi.
Time of year
We enjoyed the Kenyan and Tanzanian northern safari very much. The rain was not bad despite being the little rainy season. Late November/ early December are the low season so prices are cheaper and it is not crowded for Christmas until middle of December. We would recommend going in early December, although we have not seen what the fuss is about in summer so we could be missing something.
Selous and Ruaha are better for animal viewing in the dry season. During December/ January, everything is thick & green and the animals spread out and are harder to find. However, Ruaha was also where we saw the youngest elephant, giraffes, and hippo babies, and I’d hate to have missed that.
A word about the guides
Guides are really the one key person for the success of your holiday. A bad guide would be awful.
We had a number of different guides and they were all good. The two we had for the two longest safaris were both excellent but different: Salim from Bright Safaris, and Fanuel from Breakdown Safaris. Bright Safari works out of Arusha and does the northern circuit. Breakdown Safaris works out of Dar es Salaam and does the southern parks. Salim seemed to have a better feeling of our family: what we wanted to see, and how long we wanted to see everything. Fanuel’s english was slightly better, and he was super knowledgeable about everything we saw. Both were good at spotting hard to see animals.
If we were to do it again, and our two main guides were not available, we would definitely ask the companies about the ratings of specific guides, how good their english was, and what their knowledge and experience. Tripadvisor might be helpful too.
Which safari to choose?
If you really just want to concentrate on lions, cheetahs and rhinos, then go the conservancy route that specialize in those animals. The national parks were good, but the conservancies were spectacular just for those animals.
If you want to see everything and not just the big cats or rhino’s then I’d do the northern safari in Tanzania again. The one thing that I may drop was Lake Eyasi, which was two half days of driving to see the Hadzabe tribe. I think we also could have done with one less day in the Serengeti too. We really enjoyed Selous and Ruaha, but the wildebeest migration in the serengeti, and the ngorongoro crater just can’t be missed.
One option may be to do the northern safari and then fly into one of the conservancies for a few days for the in-depth lion/ cheetah visit.
What should we have done differently in Zanzibar and Mafia?
You never expect a place to have rats, but I would not go to the Mafia Beach Bungalows until they clean their problem up. They really didn’t seem to be concerned about it.
Overnight room temperatures of high 20’s or low 30’s are just too hot for us, even with a fan. We should have looked at a forecast and got an AC room. Mind you, I think we tried and didn’t succeed because we needed three rooms to house all of us over the busy Christmas and New Year’s season.
An AC room may also help with the rats because the rooms would be concrete instead of grass or mud.
Tipping policies seem to vary between companies. A tip is expected in the tip box at each camp rather than tipping individual staff. And a guide is tipped handsomely at the end of the safari. The guidance varies from $10-$15/person per day, to the same amount per group per day. It would be important to understand the safari companies expectations as it will affect the total price.