Book ID 446
Seal, Jeremy Safari revelations in Tanzania, 1999
Extract Author: Jeremy Seal
Extract Date: 1999 May 29
Virgin Net Travel guide. Copyright 1999 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Our naturalist guide pointed at a sprig of wild asparagus in the half light. 'Tanzanian Viagra,' he proclaimed. But, at 6.30am, most of our walking group, still swallowing dawn-call muffins and tea, had our minds on things other than the saucier contents of the Serengeti's natural medicine cabinet.
The bark and leaves of flora such as acacias and combreta may combat everything from impotence and venereal disease to cataracts, labour pains and cattleworm, but the armed guard who had moved ahead of us to check thickets of deep bush for any lurking mega fauna served as a useful reminder - better to rely instead on a dose of caution, an eye for climbable trees and, finally, your guard's AK47 if it comes to about a ton of single-minded buffalo charging at you out of the dawn.
Tanzania may have arrived late in the play for the international safari market, but it has been quick to acquire a strong hand. While still lagging in the specialised markets - you'd probably choose Botswana for horseback safaris, Zambia for walking safaris, and South Africa or Kenya for private wildlife ranches and farms - the country has impeccable core credentials .
Its national parks, among the wildest, biggest and best- stocked in Africa, are also some of the least visited. The sort of Land Rover scrums that have recently been disrupting the hunting strategies of cheetah and driving them to the verge of starvation in Kenya's Masai Mara reserve (with its 36 lodges and tented camps) is not an issue in Tanzania's vast, adjoining Serengeti, which has seven such establishments in eight times the space - an area the size of Northern Ireland.
Tanzania is also largely free of the crime and ethnic and political unrest that Kenya, its East African neighbour, is currently suffering. Even the bomb that exploded in Dar es Salaam last August, taking 11 lives, was on a different scale to the devastation simultaneously wrought on Nairobi - and Kenya's tourism industry.
Our dawn walk was taking us across the same landscape I had savoured from my hammock during the previous afternoon's siesta: lurid purple Roupell's starlings and scented yellow flowering acacia trees which gave way to the Ndabaka Plains in the middle distance; a classic Serengeti expanse dotted with umbrella thorns, stately giraffes and skittish wildebeest.
This will do, I thought; my hammock was slung from the veranda of my raised tent at Kirawira camp, an unobtrusive hillside haven in the Serengeti's western corridor that confounds Tanzania's reputation for unremarkable bush accommodation.
Kirawira is a winning synthesis of eccentric Edwardian luxury, hammock simplicity and excellent food. There is a huge marquee of a bar, complete with library, comfy leather, armchairs and even an old gramophone which could play a 78 of Begin the Beguine if a frog had not interfered with the acoustics by moving into the megaphone.
My morning apprehensions soon faded as the only buffalos we encountered were in distant, docile, just-awoken herds. I was beginning to enjoy myself. We also saw wildebeest, impalas and giraffes, baboons, hyenas and even, briefly, an elusive serval cat loping for cover.
Derry Hanratty, from Worcester, who has safaried extensively in South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, was impressed. 'I've never seen such truly wild country,' he marvelled. 'Nor such quantities of game.'
'Then he should have been here three months ago,' said Julian Nicholls, camp manager at Kirawira. The Serengeti's annual migration, when wildebeest and other plains game follow the clockwise movement of the rains in search of fresh pastures, had been in August - later than usual because of this year's exceptional spring rains. 'For days on end,' Nicholls recalled, 'the plains around the camp were black with a million migrating wildebeest. The sound and smell was unforgettable.'
There were also wildebeest kills by the notorious 20ft crocodiles as the great herds crossed the nearby Grumeti River: a brutal if spellbinding spectacle seen by Kirawira guests on 35 separate occasions during the migration.
Among Tanzania's many attractions, the exotic island of Zanzibar is currently enjoying a feverish vogue. Then there are Ruaha and Selous, the remote wildlife areas to the south, currently attracting increasing numbers of visitors. Even the hard-to-reach chimpanzee sanctuaries in the far west are featuring on the more interesting itineraries. But the northern circuit - Lake Manyara, the Ngorongoro Crater, and the Serengeti - deservedly remains the country's prime attraction.
The Serena hotel group, which cut its teeth on the safari accommodation business in Kenya, moved into northern Tanzania two years ago. It built fine lodges at Manyara, Ngorongoro and Seronera in central Serengeti as well as the camp at Kirawira, doing much to enhance accommodation options in the area.
Our first stop, the Serena lodge at Manyara, is perched on the escarpment high above the Rift Valley, with memorable views of Manyara Lake and the adjoining national park, famed for its elephants and tree-climbing lions. The skyline setting of the ethnic-style rondavel huts may bear a bizarre resemblance to Don Quixote's La Mancha windmills, but the surroundings have been enchantingly landscaped with thick-trunked baobabs, desert roses, aloes and acacias, and there's a sublimely-sited swimming pool where crimson-rumped waxbills bathe and minature dik-dik antelopes come to drink.
We drove north across the Mbulu highlands and its scattered holdings of wheat, maize and coffee. Then we were climbing through the mist-fingered rainforest that clings to the outer slopes of Ngorongoro, a collapsed volcanic peak that has left a vast crater 12 miles across.
From the crater rim this great amphitheatre unfolded before us like a model landscape viewed in some developer's office. All Africa seemed to have been included; the fever trees of the Lerai Forest, the lake tinged pink with blooms of distant flamingos, a white-watered stream running through a swamp to a hippo pool, a rash of hillocks, and the plains running to the crater walls on all sides. With our binoculars, we could even make out a distant lion, a dark-maned male strolling across a bone-white salt flat.
It's not hard to see why Ngorongoro has attracted perjoratives for the simplicity it brings to game viewing. It's also true that the crater can swarm with safari vehicles, which can at the very least be unsettling in empty Tanzania.
Still, the sheer profusion of wildlife that we saw in the crater the following day - lions, hartebeest and elands, vervet monkeys strumming their flea-ridden stomachs at the foot of the fever trees, countless birds, including fish eagles, kori bustards, pelicans and flamingos, even a solitary rhino - caused the biggest gasps from the travellers in our Land Rover.
The long road north wound down from the Ngorongoro highlands towards the Serengeti. Groups of young Masai men stood swathed in black robes, their faces made up in white.
Their dress signified they were on the threshold of manhood, our driver explained. (Their roadside presence suggested they had also rumbled the dollar potential of their photogenic appeal.) Then the Serengeti engulfed us, board-flat except for the rocky kopjes, small hills rising like islands where lions sat, castaways vigilantly scanning the horizon for topi antelopes.
On our last morning at Kirawira, our Land Rover came across a straggle of plump lionesses leaving a recent wildebeest kill. Five jackals were quick to take their place. A solitary hyena, with a pronounced limp which heightened his natural lack of confidence, approached in a series of tangential hops until the jackals scattered and he reached the remains, the ribcage bright red and fanned like the feathers of some fallen Indian headdress.
True to his nature, the hyena hauled off the most unappetising piece, a hindleg from which the tail hung like a moth-eaten fly-swat. We were on our way to our own breakfast, a lavish bush affair of champagne and pancakes, eggs and bacon, taken in the shade of a huge umbrella thorn. An hour later, when we passed the recent kill, only the horns and a ragged hem of hide remained.
Safari revelations in Tanzania
Jeremy Seal travelled with Serena Hotels, S.A. Alliance Air and Southern Africa Travel. S.A. Alliance Air (0181-944 5012) flies to Kilimanjaro via Dar-es-Salaam in conjunction with Air Tanzania from £540 return including tax. Serena Hotels (00 255 57 41 58, firstname.lastname@example.org) has five lodge, hotel and camp properties in Tanzania. Full board starts at £120 a night.
Jeremy Seal's trip was arranged by Southern Africa Travel (01483 419133). A typical two-week package to Tanzania, including flights, accommodation and transport, costs around £3,640 per person. Nine-day packages start at £1,610 per person.
When to go: The Serengeti migration takes place in July or August - it is hard to predict exactly when. Rainy season is from December to May: the heavy rains, to be avoided, fall in March.
Health precautions: A yellow fever inoculation certificate is required for entry to Tanzania. Anti-malarial medication is also essential. Recommended shots - ideally starting several weeks before departure - typhoid, tetanus, cholera, hepatitis A and polio. Pack good sunglasses, high-protection sun cream and insect repellent.
Red tape: British passport holders require a visa (£38) from the Tanzanian High Commission (0171-499 8951), 43 Hertford St, London W1. Open 10am-12.30am weekdays.
Reading: The East Africa Handbook (Footprint, £14.99) is a solid and reliable guide (also available through The Times Bookshop for £13.99 with free p & p. Call 0870-160 8080). But there are also several books on Tanzania alone, such as the colourful Nelles Guide Tanzania (£8.95).
Further information: Tanzanian Tourist Centre (0171-407 0566); Serena Hotels' website at www.serenahotels.com