Serengeti: Tanzania’s food chain up close and personal

IN THE SERENGETI, Tanzania—The lion isn’t sleeping tonight, and neither are most of the people around him.

Zebras and elephants graze in Tanzania.

IN THE SERENGETI, Tanzania—The lion isn’t sleeping tonight, and neither are most of the people around him.

The eerie calls of male lions echo throughout the Serengeti at night.

In a tent, even a luxury one, it is an unsettling sound, but the workers at the comfortable Kirawira Lodge in the western Serengeti smile reassuringly and insist that lions can’t work the zippers on the tent flaps. But even without opposable thumbs, there’s the matter of the menacing claws and sharp teeth that can bring down water buffaloes and tear wildebeest flesh from the bone. Canvas is no match for that, right? Tanzanians just laugh and reassure the wageni (tourists) that most lions don’t like the smell of humans.

This is Tanzania, where the wild things are.

The Serengeti plains are awash in curious sounds and amazing sights. During the annual, famed Great Migration, as many as 2 million animals make their way to greener pastures. The herds of grunting wildebeest and starkly painted zebras seek out plentiful water and rich grass, creating a noisy, roiling sea of hooves and hair all around the safari vehicle. These herbivores are closely watched by lions, leopards and cheetahs—carnivores looking to grab a lame animal or a newborn.

Flailing wildebeest trying to ford the rivers attract the snapping teeth of huge crocodiles that lie in wait in the muddy water. Vultures and hyenas bring up the rear, hoping to pick clean the bones.

All these parts of the food chain are monitored by camera-toting tourists and their safari guides. An adult lioness with a scarred hide and two fresh-faced juvenile lions have brought down a wildebeest and are gnawing on the carcass as five Land Rovers and Land Cruisers, necessary vehicles for the rough roads in the national parks, halt about 5 feet away, their occupants poking their heads out the pop-up roofs and frantically pressing the buttons on their digital cameras.

It’s best not to have unrealistic expectations about what will be on display in the wild, though. Every safari guide has an eye-rolling tale of demanding tourists who said their uncle/cousin/best friend went to Tanzania and saw a huge pride of lions dramatically kill an elephant, so “take us to that place, so we can see that.”

Amid all these amazing animals and glorious landscape, it can be easy to overlook the people. There are about 100 tribes in the country, many of them with interesting traditions and ways of life that go way back.

Around the Serengeti, the Datoga, Maasai and Hadzabe (also called Bushmen) are cultural highlights. Many safari companies can arrange for visits to villages where you can see the Datoga’s intricate jewelry-making and beadwork and the Hadzabe’s crude bows and arrows wielded skillfully by young men.

The Maasai live in villages surrounded by a thorny corral to protect their cattle at night. Cattle are everything to the Maasai; in fact, they believe that they are the true owners of all cattle in the world.

A visit to a Maasai village usually includes a welcoming song and dance, an exhibition of fire-making and a traditional contest in which young men, wearing sandals made of old tires, jump to win the hand of the woman they desire.

From the wide, grassy plains of north-central Tanzania, the land changes dramatically on the drive to cool, blue Mount Kilimanjaro near the border with Kenya. For those not up to huffing and puffing their way for days to the 19,340-foot summit, a day hike is just great.

A hike to the first camping spot on the Coca-Cola Route (so called because it’s so popular) is mostly one through lush trees, foliage and waterfalls, and offers many chances to view curious blue monkeys and colobus monkeys, which have wizened, old-man faces.

A short plane trip takes visitors to Zanzibar, the spice islands and home of azure water. Zanzibar, made up of two main islands, has a unique history and reflects a hodgepodge of influences.

The twisting streets of Zanzibar’s heart, Stone Town, display Moroccan, Indian and Arabic influences. Ancient carved doors and interesting shops stuffed with bric-a-brac are around every corner. Queen’s flamboyant frontman, Freddie Mercury, was born in Zanzibar, and many places claim a tie to the late singer, selling all manner of Mercury merchandise.

There are lovely coral reefs and colorful fish around Zanzibar, so a snorkeling or scuba-diving adventure is a must.

If you go:

Many things about visiting Tanzania are obvious and apply to most trips, such as not carrying large sums of money on the street, and leaving extravagant jewelry at home. Here are a few other tips for the Tanzania traveler:

Book your trip through a well-known tour operator or safari company.

A good company will handle everything, including providing a knowledgeable driver who speaks English and arranging airport transfers, hotel bookings, a flight to Zanzibar and a spice tour there. Here are a few reliable companies that offer an array of services and activities:

Thomson Safaris (thomsonsafaris.com), Abercrombie & Kent (abercrombiekent.com), Naipenda Safaris (naipendasafaris.com) and Good Earth Tours (goodearthtours.com). Rough Guides’ Tanzania and Zanzibar books are a great source of information about hotels, restaurants and sights.

International flights go into Kilimanjaro International Airport or Julius Nyerere International Airport, which is in Dar Es Salaam, the largest city. Kilimanjaro is convenient to the mountain and is about a one-hour drive from Arusha, the jumping-off point for safaris, so it’s an ideal place to land. For those going to Zanzibar first, the Dar Es Salaam airport would be the best place to fly into.

You will need malaria preventive, which is in pill form, and some vaccinations. Before you leave, visit a travel clinic, where you can get shots along with prescriptions for malaria preventive and traveller’s diarrhea pills.

You can get a tourist visa at an embassy before your trip, or have $100 in cash ready to give to customs and immigration when you land.

The latter involves waiting in a long line at the airport, however.

You can use American dollars in many tourist-friendly places in Tanzania, but it’s a good idea to exchange some dollars for Tanzanian shillings. Most hotels and large shops take credit cards, and there are several ATMs in the cities. It is perfectly acceptable to haggle in Tanzania, except in nice boutiques or shops. You likely will be quoted a high price at the tourist markets and shops and can counter with a figure of up to half as much and typically be successful.

Tourists travel via safari vehicles, usually Land Rovers and Land Cruisers. Safari companies also use some small buses. Be sure to tip your driver, your guide on Mount Kilimanjaro and anyone else who works hard for you in this poor nation. A set amount per day for your safari driver guide of $40-$60 (depending on the number of people in your group) is typical.

Be polite and patient. Rudeness and impatience are puzzling to Tanzanians. Relax and say, “Hakuna matata” (no worries).

Emily Rosenbaum is a Capital News contributor