Published Jan 21, 2012

Let’s lead off with my first suggestion here: definitely 100% you should go on a safari, and I highly, highly recommend Tanzania for that safari. It’s a place where there are amazing animals that you can get so close to; where there are friendly and happy people who will help you have an incredible time; and where you’ll likely find yourself imbued with magic powers, like my wife who always knew what time it was to within two minutes, despite not having a watch, and who always knew how to get where we wanted to go, even though, at home, her sense of direction isn’t good enough to successfully walk out the door she just walked in. We had an astounding time — truly the trip of a lifetime — and I’m confident you will too.

Why Tanzania?

We picked Tanzania for three reasons:1. It has the vast majority of the animals you’ll wan’t to see2. It’s quite safe and stable3. I’m a bit of an admirer of the “father of the nation,” Julius Nyerere

Number one was important to us because we like to settle down and really take some time to explore in each place we stop. This is a lot easier if you can spend at least two nights — which means a full day — in any destination, and that, in turn, is a lot easier if you minimize your overall travel time. We never took a flight much more than 2 hours once we were inside Tanzania, and that meant that, even on a travel day, we were able to fit in a safari first thing in the morning, before our departure, and in the evening, after we arrived at our next stop. That basically means we tripled the number of trips into the bush we could take, versus longer travel-time destinations.

Number two kind of speaks for itself. Tanzania is vastly safer than South Africa — which, near as I can tell, may actually be less safe than Baltimore or Palms — and somewhat safer than Kenya. You have noticeable crime in some of the bigger urban areas, but we didn’t have the slightest problem anywhere we stayed. That counts for a bit, especially with other plausible safari destinations including Burundi, South Africa, and Malawi.

Number three was a bonus just for me, although my wife’s embroidered initials, CCM, on her bag caused a bunch of second looks. I’d learned to admire Julius Nyerere in a college class on sub-Saharan African politics, and I was certainly glad to hear Tanzanian after Tanzanian tell me what a good job he’d done, especially in making them all feel like Tanzanians, rather than members of their tribe, first. I can’t lie, I enjoy going places whose politics I understand a bit!

What’s Tanzania Like?

Probably the hardest thing to get used to about Tanzania was that they’d say “hakuna matata” to you and mean it. Then there’s the parents taking their little tykes on safari: you see them point at a lion and say “look! There’s Simba!” and you just want to tell them, listen here, this isn’t some Disney movie, this is real nature, appreciate it for what it is, with the tragedy and violence, and stop lying to your kid there, ok? Except then you realize that the Kiswahili word for “lion” is “simba,” and the parents are just teaching their child a new language and helping them become a better citizen of our global society, and you’re the asshole in this one.

Oh, and Tanzania’s hot and sunny. So, so hot and sunny: even little doesn’t-tan’-doesn’t-burn me was wearing not my usual SPF 15 but SPF 50 to make it through the day. But the truth is that you hardly notice the heat when you’re 20 feet from a pride of lions. Excuse me, from a pride of simba.

Where Should I Go in Tanzania?

Short answer: anywhere. Long answer: we really enjoyed our stops — the Mahale Mountains, Ruaha, and Selous — that were a little bit away from things. In general, we found staying in camps and getting up early and going out tracking and exploring on safari with the guides there was an amazing experience. The solitude of being with just a few people in a small camp in the middle of nowhere really made me feel like I was closer to nature. Were we to go back again, I don’t know that we’d plan the Serengeti, which is much busier.

For mainland Tanganyika, we’d go to Kwihala in Ruaha, Selous Impala, or Nkungwe in Mahale again. In Zanzibar, we loved 236 Hurumzi, but it was very much a place you love or hate, so I recommend you do your research. Given the sand and water we saw, I can’t imagine any beach spot in Zanzibar being a bad choice (we chose ours based only on availability).

When Should I Go to Tanzania?

We went during the Little Rainy Season, which is a good time to go. From October through the end of December, you’re most likely to be rained out for a half day at most, or even just drizzled on, which is just fine. Also, not many people come during the little rainy season; we were the only two at in the entire Mahale Mountains National Park, and the only two at our camp in Ruaha during our first day there.

Many people come to Tanzania in the main dry season, late January through March, which can be a great time to see the big predators, but a tough time for the chimps — whereas we saw 20-30 at a time at an hour or 90 minutes from camp, the chimps go up into the mountains to seek out scarce forage during the dry season, so you’ll see at most a handful and that after four to six or even more hours of trekking. Our guides recommended August-October as a time that was good for seeing game and predators and also not too busy.

What Camera Equipment Should I Pack?

I was rather surprised at my photo experience at the end of the whole thing — the gear I’d expected to be the most-used never got touched, and the gear I left behind because I didn’t think it would be appropriate would’ve turned out to be tremendously useful.

Every single source I read said “bring a beanbag for your camera!” Perhaps because my longest lens was 300mm — the maximum length for hand-held shots in fairly bright daylight — I was able to do without. (My bad shots were bad, but they didn’t have motion blur in them.) Most of the angles I had to shoot at didn’t have a metal bar to hook my beanbag to anyway. So, I might’ve skipped that entire half kilo out of my 15-kilo weight limit.

On the other hand, I didn’t bring my very cheap but very long 500mm mirror lens. I figured it was slow; too long to hand-hold; and hard to focus; all adding up to something I couldn’t ever get a shot with. Well, I was wrong: those animals, they didn’t move as much as I thought they would. I’d had troubles shooting the dogs in the backyard with that lens, but lions? They’re lazy. Definitely take your long, cheap, slow lens to Africa.

And my nifty fifty? I brought that in case the jungle at Mahale was too dark and I needed that f/1.8 speed. Nah, my everyday 18-50 f/2.8 let in plenty of light for that at ISO 800.

So, I’d say: cover 24-as high as you can go and you’re fine. (The panoramas are so wide that you don’t need your wide angle to get that shot.) Don’t worry about having the fastest lens; cover your range. Oh, and don’t forget your circular polarizing filters, to catch the green vegetation and the azure water right.

What Should I Pack for My Safari?

I actually plan to write an entry on “how to pack” soon, based on experiences over the past ten years or so, but my advice for safari is:* Long sleeves to protect yourself from the very hard sun* About three times as much sunscreen as you think* A broad-brimmed hat, again for that sun* A safari vest. I bought the cheapest plausible one I could find, and guess what: I fell in love. Who cares about camera bags (I bought a neat new one for this trip)? Carrying your lenses in a vest? Filters, too? OK, that was my idea of heaven.* Oh, and little tiny toilet paper rolls. Not those, the biodegradable kind. For when you need to potty on safari.

What About Malaria Pills?

I had never taken malaria pills before, and had traveled all around the most malaria-ridden parts of Latin America without any worries, using this great stuff to keep me safe; but everyone told me “take your Malarone!” in Africa. Well, despite the repellent, I got bit up by old anopheles time and time again. Good thing for those magic red pills!

Where Should I Book My Safari?

We booked with Africa Travel Resource, and never regretted it for a moment. In fact, several of our guides looked at our itinerary and commented how great it was. And it didn’t even sound like they were blowing sunshine up our you-know-whats. They were helpful and got us the right vacation at the right price.

So that’s about it. The only other advice I can give you is: plan your safari now, you’ll never forget it!