Lessons learned camping in Tanzania, part one

When I was consulting and on the road 48-50 weeks a year, the need to depressurize when time off rolled around was imperative for my sanity.  I strove to choose wisely when planning in order to minimize stress and maximize enjoyment.  I may not be traveling these days like I did for decades, but those principles still apply to vacation choices.

Sometimes I choose my trips poorly, and when I do, I try to learn from my mistakes. I certainly erred last year (early 2016) when on an initial safari to Tanzania, and I blogged about my blunder (see here).

Determined to have the East African experience I always dreamed of, I signed on to an alternative type of safari to Tanzania in February, 2016.  This post chronicles the contrast between last year’s disappointing trip and this year’s near-perfect one.

To recap, the safari in 2016 was a jarring mix of awe and disappointment, the downer part because of the nature of the trip I had booked. I discovered quickly that being tethered each night to immovable luxury lodges had the unintended effect of putting human comforts over animal viewing.  The daily game drives that started and ended at a stationary lodge were perforce limited to a certain geographic radius anchored to the property which didn’t always jive with where the animals happened to be congregating during the annual migration out on the great plains of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Serengeti National Park.  On the bright side, I took careful note of things I didn’t like while there last year and achieved pretty good in-country research to get smart about alternative types of safaris more suited to my temperament and tastes.

In early 2017, therefore, I returned to Tanzania for two weeks, sleeping each night not in lodges, but in what are called “mobile tented camps.”  In truth, the tented camps are not mobile in a nimble sense.  They are put up with the intent of remaining in one place for at least a few weeks, and sometimes up to three months.

A Blue Monkey dabbles in the water at the Ngare Sero Lodge, Arusha (Tanzania), where we stayed the first and last nights of our two week safari.

Just the same, the emphasis on “mobile” refers to the ability of the tented camps to move to choice locations close to, or not far from, the great herds of two million Wildebeest and Zebra that constitute the bulk of the annual migration.  Thus sleeping in mobile tented camps rather than in permanent lodges almost guarantees a rich daily panoply of African wildlife.

Our tented camp on the Ngorongoro ridge above the caldera.  At about 7,000 ft, nighttime temps often plummeted below freezing here, just two degrees south of the Equator. 

There are several hundred Tanzanian safari companies, large and small, almost all based in the growing town of Arusha.  The Arusha region is nearest to the big nature parks of NE Tanzania (Tarangire, Arusha/Mount Meru, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro caldera, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Serengeti, and Kilimanjaro) and is 45 minutes from Kilimanjaro Airport (JRO), which hosts daily international flights (e.g., KLM, Turkish Air, Ethiopian Air, Qatar).  Through a friend who grew up in Tanzania and who organized this trip, I was fortunate to have made contact with the best of Arusha safari companies, Dorobo (see here).

Dorobo is owned by the Peterson family, and we spent an evening with Thad Peterson when I arrived back in Tanzania. His company provided the most spectacular safari I’ve ever experienced in 26 years of travels to Africa.

A rare Jackson’s Chameleon walks on my hand at around 7,200 ft on Mt. Meru. Dorobo Safari co-owner Thad Peterson identified this unicorn-horned lizard after our Mt. Meru ascent.

I was privileged to be in the company of ten other adventurers, all but me from Virginian and Maryland. It turned out to be a most congenial group.  Amiability is a critical success factor in groups seeking to experience Tanzanian wildlife on a tented camping safari. Our assemblage agreed in advance to leave politics at home, and we nurtured and maintained good-natured spirit for two weeks living in close proximity.  We traveled in two Toyota Land Cruisers with open tops to stand up in and view wildlife, the SOP of East African safaris.  We were led by two highly expert Dorobo guides, Kisana Mollel and Killerai Munka, both Maasai tribesmen from Arusha.

Our expert Dorobo guides, Kisana and Killerai, with trip organizer Robin Bendenbaugh, who lived his first 16 years in Tanzania. Robin describes being there as the ultimate boy’s life!

I am familiar with very skilled wildlife guides and trackers in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia.  None compare to the natural world knowledge of Kisana and Killerai.  It was impossible to stump either one.  Whether fur or feather, Kisana and Killerai could instantly and correctly identify the specie.

This talent is particularly impressive with birds on the wing.  Tanzania boasts 1005 species of birds. Dorobo co-owner Thad Peterson challenged our group to come back with a list of 250 bird species we had seen by the end of the trip. Sounds like an impossible task, and yet on our second full day we had already seen 78 species (there were serious birders among us, Robin included).  By the end of the trip 212 or better bird species (lists differed) had been spotted.  Much of the credit for racking up so many was due to the eagle eyes and deep knowledge of Kisana and Killerai.

Continuing with details about the trip itself: The tents are not the rustic, do-it-yourself, Boy Scout kind of thing, mind you.  Tents are in place upon arrival and quite impressive in size and accoutrements.  They are set up by experienced camp staff who also cook, clean, and provide every chore one can imagine.

Closeup of our tent overlooking Ngorongoro caldera.

The canvas contraptions should be properly called—and sometimes are—”luxury” tents because the usual setup is very spacious with plenty of headroom and furnished with two single beds, solar-powered lamps and lights, various bed stands, shelves, and luggage racks.  Typically the tents have en suite ablution facilities behind the sleeping area consisting of a sun shower (using solar-heated hot water), a toilet, and a wash basin.  More solar-powered electric fixtures illuminate the back area, which is separated by canvas and mesh doors (flaps) from the sleeping area.  Tent front entry includes a deep canvas sunshade and two comfortable lounge chairs from which patrons can sip a Hendricks G&T in serene contemplation of the African veldt.

Inside a “luxury” tent, with a view of the washbasin in the rear.  On either side is a toilet and a shower.

Have I painted a picture of ease and tranquility?  I hope so, because my intent is to demonstrate that such accommodation, while not as cushy, classy, or comfy as a fancy safari lodge, gives the sense (and reality) of being literally cheek-by-jowl close to nature at little expense to security or comfort.

Luxury tents have lots of mesh windows for ventilation and big mesh screen flaps secured by zippers for ingress and egress.  Heavy canvas flaps can also be zippered shut tightly for extra refuge from things that go bump in the night, as things are wont to do in the Tanzanian outdoors.

Okay, security can be an issue, since even luxury tents are staked smack in the Serengeti wilderness, but the only worry is outside the tent, not in.  Lots of Cape Buffalo, Wildebeest, Zebra, antelope, and other creatures of the African plain wander through, especially at night.  So do the predators that feed on the grass-eaters.  Lions and hyenas are regular visitors to tented camps, but the beasts are normally in search of the usual species on their menus, which do not include humans.

Well, not unless you leave the tent at night, which is strictly forbidden.  Even if wandering about after dark was allowed, I don’t recommend it unless you want to bequeath to your family a dramatic close-up photo of a lion pouncing, massive jaw agape and razor-sharp claws extended in anticipatory embrace of an exotic meal.

Our less luxe but very comfortable tent in the SW highlands of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area where we lived for two days among the Maasai.

Even the East African safari genre described as mobile tented camps, however, can have considerable variability, as I found.  None were crude or primitive, but each tented camp had its own special character.  The least luxe but most mobile was the Dorobo tented camp in the southwest highlands of the Nogorongoro Conservation Area.  There we lived for two days and nights among the Maasai.  They slaughtered and roasted a goat in our honor in the ritual Maasai manner.

William, the Maasai elder who was our host when camping in the SW highlands of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Tents there were smaller in comparison to other tented camps, but still spacious enough to stand up in, and the beds were sturdy cots with foam mattresses rather than fancy beds with real mattresses.  However, I was very comfortable and slept especially soundly in those Dorobo tents among the Maasai.  In retrospect, the 48 hours we spent in that area is a favorite memory.

Our Maasai hosts in the SW highlands of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area slaughtered a goat in the traditional manner.  The boys collected and drank the blood and ate the raw kidneys, their portion rewards for skinning and butchering the goat to prep for roasting.

Many of the best niche tented safari operators based in Arusha cooperate with each other, and thus Dorobo handed us off to Matembezi Safaris (see here) at our next encampment, located on the gentle western slope of Naabi Hill in the Serengeti National Park.  The Matembezi tented camp was my favorite of the entire trip, in part because of the particularly gracious and efficient staff, in part because of the huge, comfortable tents, and in part because of the gorgeous location overlooking the shortgrass plains of the Serengeti.  Big herds of Wildebeest and Zebra moved back and forth across the horizon while we sipped late afternoon South African wine or a single malt Scotch after our game drive and a quick hot shower to shed the dust.  It was a real pleasant moment, one I looked forward to every day.

The glorious Matembezi encampment on the slopes of Naabi Hill in the Serengeti National Park.

The usual routine at camps was to arrive late afternoon from a game drive and disappear into our tents (usually two persons per) for a sun shower.  The staff would have lots of solar-heated water ready, mixed with cold water to get it to a non-scalding temp.  The water was plentiful for every person in our group of eleven.  We would then don fresh clothes and hand over the dirty laundry to the staff, who would wash and fold everything by the following afternoon.

The comfortable interior of our Matembezi tent. Behind me are the ablutions in the rear section (toilet, shower, wash basin). 

The cocktail hour then followed, usually with a good choice of beer, wine, and liquor.  I was quite surprised that Matembezi’s liquor stock included Hendricks gin and a decent single malt whisky.

Pretty elegant booze choices at Matembezi Camp in the middle of the Serengeti.

Only Dorobo and Matembezi included alcohol and laundry in their service offering at no extra cost; other tented camps charged us separately for booze, beer, soft drinks, and laundry, albeit not exorbitant prices.

Trip organizer and Tanzanian wildlife and bird expert Robin Bedenbaugh enjoying a sundowner at Matembezi Camp on Naabi Hill overlooking the Serengeti shortgrass plains.

Darkness comes fast near the Equator, and we were just two degrees south.  Even with daytime temps in the nineties, the Serengeti cools off after the sun sets, and we welcomed the nightly fire of deadwood as we downed our drinks.  Dinner followed, always a convivial affair with lots of variety in soups, salads, entrees, vegetables, and desserts.  Meals were always good, sometimes outstanding.

Matembezi meal tent set for dinner.

Nobody went hungry, and the evening repast was usually at an end by eight o’clock, after which we all turned in.  The relentless African sun left us knackered by early evening, and we slept most every night to the sounds of hyenas calling, lions roaring, and antelopes browsing not far from our tents. To me, the entire trip was heaven on earth every day and night, despite a serious bout of ileus which I’ll talk about in the next post.  Before signing off, though, I want to discuss picture-taking on safari.

Three teen Maasai girls on their way to market in the Ngorongoro highlands. Maasai girls often shave their heads because water is scarce for bathing.

Most folks in our group brought several serious digital cameras and long lenses, all stowed into heavy camera and photographic accessory bags.  I did the same for twenty years of trips to Africa before realizing that I cared more about framing, color, and composition than I did about capturing the fuzzy image of a leopard’s tail wagging on a distant tree limb.

A lone cheetah patrols the shortgrass plains of the Serengeti. All photos were taken with my Samsung S7 Edge camera.

So, instead of a big Nikon, I now use only my Samsung S7 Edge mobile phone for a camera.  The photos posted here were all taken on the S7.  I’ve been practicing with the Samsung phone cameras for several years as they have gradually improved to compete with iPhone cameras.  With the current top camera on the Samsung S7 Edge, they have surpassed iPhone camera quality.

A male lion rests in the midday shadows on the Serengeti near Serondela.

I first noticed that pictures taken on the Samsung S5 were as good or better than those on my Nikon SLR, the primary difference being that the Nikon boasted several long telephoto lenses that could bring the animals closer.  However, doing so often compromised picture quality, and the light had to be excellent to get fine detail in hi-res telephoto shots.  I came to realize that I was better off taking photos of animals and birds near enough that I didn’t require a telephoto.  I then sold my Nikon and all my equipment.  I was pleased to be rid of bulk, weight, and worry about taking all that stuff with me overseas.

Hippo pool in the Ngorongoro caldera.

When I upgraded my phone to a Samsung S6 Edge, I was flabbergasted that the camera quality had jumped several levels over the S5, which I considered so good that it had led me to ditch my big cameras. Just before I left on this trip, I upgraded again to the Samsung S7 Edge, and its camera is the pinnacle of perfection to date.

A cheetah on the lookout from a copse in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

The S7 camera has a lot of built-in options, too, including to shoot RAW photos, but I do not (takes up too much memory).  I stick with a high resolution 16:9 (9.1M) 4032×2268 setting, but there is a 4:3 (12M) 4032×3024 higher resolution before getting to RAW.  There are many modes to choose from, including Auto and Pro.  Pro gives the most control over individual pictures, but I have found that I can more quickly manipulate the focus and light onscreen using the Auto setting than using the Pro setting, so I generally leave it on Auto.  However, it takes only a second to change modes, so if I have the time to compose a picture, I will change to the Pro setting.  I also like the easy-to-use panoramic setting, though it is sometimes a challenge to keep the camera steady when capturing a panoramic image.

Some the two million Wildebeest and Zebra migration on the tallgrass Serengeti plains near Serondela “where the grass eats the sky.”

All the pictures posted here were shot using the Auto setting, albeit with a good deal of fast onscreen manipulation to get the light and focus the way I wanted (when I had time).  Getting that Cheetah walking (above) was difficult.  I took several pictures I wasn’t happy with until getting the one I posted.  All the photos were taken in about 8-15 seconds because that’s all the time I had before, for example, the Cheetah was not in the frame I wanted.

Baobab sunrise in the Tarangire National Park.

A general shortcoming of all camera phones is the digital zoom.  Ruins resolution.  So far there is no way to overcome that, but I look forward to technological advances that will improve the picture eventually.  Meantime, I don’t care, because I can get such great pictures with what I have using no zoom whatsoever.

Market day in Makuyuni, Tanzania, as we drove from Tarangire to Ngorongoro.

Next week I will post part two, which will include the day-by-day itinerary camping in Tanzania.

3 thoughts on “Lessons learned camping in Tanzania, part one

  1. A favorite memory of my ‘return to Botswana’ in 2010 was two only :<( nights in a tented camp in Moremi. I'd like to do that again.

    That said….I'm still hanging on to my 300mm Nikon lens and will lug it with me to VN next week….particularly for a trip to a Black Hmong market.

    Loved this blog. Thanks, Will


  2. Oh, thank you, Will Allen for this report.
    It took me right back to Arusha and Ngorongoro, and the Serengeti. I am so glad you had a better trip this year.
    Although most of our nights in Tanzania WERE in lodges, our last two nights were is a tented camp and that was great!! It was a permanent establishment but by far the most luxurious facility of our trip.
    Can’t wait for your second installment.
    Thanks. Joann Lamb


  3. I was a part of this great trip!! Dorobo did not disappoint and my expectations were certainly exceeded many, many times over. Great write up Will, you captured the magic.


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