I spent 5 days on a Tanzanian safari and saw wild lions, elephants, and rhinos - but it made me realize there are 2 factors that can make or break your trip

Safari African_Animal_Tanzania_Serengeti (47 of 57)Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider

  • Located in East Africa, Tanzania is home to some of the greatest conservation areas and parks in the world, including the Serengeti, an area spanning 12,000 miles of grasslands, forests, swamps, and woodlands teeming with wildlife.
  • On a recent five-day safari in Tanzania, I visited the Serengeti, Ngorongoro, a 3,202-square mile volcanic crater filled with wildlife, and Tarangire, a national park typically filled with thousands of migrating elephants.
  • In five days, I witnessed the Great Migration - 1.5 million wildebeest traveling across Tanzania's grasslands to give birth - as well as countless lions, elephants, and giraffes.
  • What the trip drove home for me was how important doing your research on the guide and the company is: A safari is only as good as its guides.

"Safaris are different in every country. But there is no safari like a safari in Tanzania."

That's what my guide, Charles Nnko, told me, after I touched down in Arusha, Tanzania last month. We were in a Franken-Land Rover, rumbling down a highway that inadvertently turns into a windy dirt road every few miles.

Nnko is a guide for Tanzania Experience, a company that organizes safaris, camping trips, mountaineering expeditions and beach holidays throughout Tanzania. Located in East Africa, Tanzania is home to one of the greatest conservation efforts on Earth. A full 28% of the country lies in sixteen protected national parks, as well as game and forest reserves, and other protected areas. Not even that is enough land to fully protect or accommodate the migration patterns of its unique mass of wildlife, from lions and leopards to cheetahs, zebra, wildebeest, and everything in between.

Those parks include Ngorongoro, a 3,202-square mile volcanic crater filled with wildlife; Tarangire, a national park typically filled with thousands of migrating elephants; and the Serengeti, where 1.5 million wildebeest migrate annually along a nearly 2,000-mile cycle in search of new grass, fresh water, and a place to birth their calves.

Nnko and Tanzania Experience had arranged for me to see a greatest-hits collection of a Tanzanian safari, including all three of the aforementioned parks. By the end of it, I was convinced it was the greatest experience I had had in a year of travel.

Here's what it was like.
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Tanzania is roughly divided into a northern and a southern circuit.

Tanzania is roughly divided into a northern and a southern circuit.

The Northern Circuit, the more popular of the two, includes the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and Tarangire National Park, all the places I was hitting on my 5-day safari. We started at Tarangire, roughly a three-hour ride from Arusha, home to the closest airport.

My guide for the trip was Charles Nnko, a Tanzanian who has spent the last decade leading safari tours through just about every route the country has to offer.

My guide for the trip was Charles Nnko, a Tanzanian who has spent the last decade leading safari tours through just about every route the country has to offer.

Most safari companies use Land Rovers or similar trucks.

Most safari companies use Land Rovers or similar trucks.

Like many companies, Tanzania Experience's vehicles have been modified by elongating the cabin for more seats, making the windows larger, and installing a roof that can be raised so passengers can stand and watch game.

Tarangire spans about 1,100 square miles of swamps, savannah grasses, and baobab trees.

Tarangire spans about 1,100 square miles of swamps, savannah grasses, and baobab trees.

As we drove around the park, Nnko explained the different behaviors of the animals. For example, impala typically live in groups consisting of one dominant male and many females, as seen here, or in a "bachelor" group of all males.

Source: Lonely Planet

The "Big Five" animals to see on an African safari are the buffalo, the black rhino, the lion, the elephant, and the leopard. Tarangire is the best place to check the elephant off the list.

The "Big Five" animals to see on an African safari are the buffalo, the black rhino, the lion, the elephant, and the leopard. Tarangire is the best place to check the elephant off the list.

Thousands of elephants live in its environs, with herds of 300 not an uncommon sight. It's very easy to get close to them; the elephant above was grazing a few feet from our truck.

In comparison to other parks we visited on the trip, Tarangire is relatively easy to navigate. I saw many trucks and cars rented and driven by foreigners, a sight I did not see later in the Serengeti or Ngorongoro.

In comparison to other parks we visited on the trip, Tarangire is relatively easy to navigate. I saw many trucks and cars rented and driven by foreigners, a sight I did not see later in the Serengeti or Ngorongoro.

But having a guide — and a sharp guide with lots of friends — is essential. Nnko had a radio in the car which he used to talk in Swahili to other guides, who gave him tips on animal sightings.

But having a guide — and a sharp guide with lots of friends — is essential. Nnko had a radio in the car which he used to talk in Swahili to other guides, who gave him tips on animal sightings.

It may be easy to spot herds of elephants, but there was no chance I would've seen this lilac-breasted roller, let alone known what it was, without Nnko. There are 550 bird species in Tarangire, which Tanzania says is "the most breeding species in one habitat anywhere in the world."

It may be easy to spot herds of elephants, but there was no chance I would've seen this lilac-breasted roller, let alone known what it was, without Nnko. There are 550 bird species in Tarangire, which Tanzania says is "the most breeding species in one habitat anywhere in the world."

Pro tip: In Tanzania, you are watching undisturbed wildlife in action, which is sometimes far off. Binoculars are key to being able to see the cool stuff.

Source: Tanzania Tourism

After a few hours of driving, it was time to stop for lunch. Eating was mildly hazardous thanks to a troop of vervet monkeys that hang out at the picnic area waiting to steal sandwiches from unsuspecting tourists.

After a few hours of driving, it was time to stop for lunch. Eating was mildly hazardous thanks to a troop of vervet monkeys that hang out at the picnic area waiting to steal sandwiches from unsuspecting tourists.

More luxurious safaris do game drives early in the morning and late in the afternoon, allowing their guests to return for a gourmet lunch at the lodge.

More luxurious safaris do game drives early in the morning and late in the afternoon, allowing their guests to return for a gourmet lunch at the lodge.

Since I was on a short safari — many people do 10 days or more — I opted for picnic lunches and all-day game drives.

The picnic spot overlooked the Tarangire River, which bisects the park. Most people focus on seeing big game like lions or elephants on safari, but the natural beauty is perhaps even more majestic.

The picnic spot overlooked the Tarangire River, which bisects the park. Most people focus on seeing big game like lions or elephants on safari, but the natural beauty is perhaps even more majestic.

As we drove through Tarangire, we came upon herd after herd of elephants.

As we drove through Tarangire, we came upon herd after herd of elephants.

Nnko explained that elephants live in tightly connected matriarchal families. Each elephant eats around 400 pounds of grass or trees a day.

The most exciting sights on safari are the surprises, like this warthog — Pumba, for those Lion King fans out there— and its baby, which scurried across the path in front of us before disappearing into the bush.

The most exciting sights on safari are the surprises, like this warthog — Pumba, for those Lion King fans out there— and its baby, which scurried across the path in front of us before disappearing into the bush.

It may not seem like it, but driving in a hot car all day is exhausting.

It may not seem like it, but driving in a hot car all day is exhausting.

By the time we reached Lake Burunge Tented Lodge a short ride from Tarangire, I was ready for a nap. From the lodge's terrace, I could watch flamingos on the shores of the lake and zebras graze in the nearby bush.

The lodge consisted of a central dining pavilion and several nicely outfitted huts. Walking between the two alone after dark isn't allowed. You have to ask one of the guards to walk you, lest you run into an errant lion that has picked your porch as a perch. That's not a joke.

The lodge consisted of a central dining pavilion and several nicely outfitted huts. Walking between the two alone after dark isn't allowed. You have to ask one of the guards to walk you, lest you run into an errant lion that has picked your porch as a perch. That's not a joke.

Safari is a Swahili word meaning "journey," the significance of which Nnko drove home when he told us we'd be driving for over six hours to get to the Serengeti.

Safari is a Swahili word meaning "journey," the significance of which Nnko drove home when he told us we'd be driving for over six hours to get to the Serengeti.

First, we passed the 3,202-square-mile Ngorongoro Crater, which contains a complete wildlife ecosystem that doesn't leave the volcanic crater.

We drove through many lands inhabited by Maasai, a local ethnic group of about 1 million living in Tanzania and Kenya. Many Maasai used to live in Ngorongoro Crater, but the government forced them to relocate to the surrounding areas, where you can see them leading herds of cattle.

We drove through many lands inhabited by Maasai, a local ethnic group of about 1 million living in Tanzania and Kenya. Many Maasai used to live in Ngorongoro Crater, but the government forced them to relocate to the surrounding areas, where you can see them leading herds of cattle.

Source: Ngorongoro Tanzania

Many Maasai now live in villages throughout the highlands of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The temperatures dropped in the highlands and the landscape turned to a deep, rich emerald.

Many Maasai now live in villages throughout the highlands of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The temperatures dropped in the highlands and the landscape turned to a deep, rich emerald.

The highlands are the perfect place to spot wild giraffes, which like to eat the many species of trees that populate the area.

The highlands are the perfect place to spot wild giraffes, which like to eat the many species of trees that populate the area.

We stopped for lunch before descending back down to the savannah. Each morning before leaving the lodge, there was a lunch station where you could pick out the various items in your picnic box.

I went for a lamb sandwich, popcorn, fruit, barbecue chicken, and a fruit juice. It was too much to finish, so we handed some of the snacks to two Maasai boys that wandered over to our truck.

Most visitors to Tanzania come to see the Great Migration, where 1.5 million wildebeest and half a million other animals migrate along a nearly 2,000-mile cycle. The migration happens year round, but different events are happening at different times.

Most visitors to Tanzania come to see the Great Migration, where 1.5 million wildebeest and half a million other animals migrate along a nearly 2,000-mile cycle. The migration happens year round, but different events are happening at different times.

In February, when I visited, it was calving season, the period when wildebeest and zebra migrate south from Kenya in search of new grasses where they can give birth. Nnko told me that wildebeest can hold their calves inside for weeks until they find grass they intuitively know is safe and good for raising their young.

For many, the highlands around the Ngorongoro Crater are the ending point. Because the wildebeest and zebra travel in something like a normal distribution, or bell curve, a few animals had already finished their migration and were giving birth.

For many, the highlands around the Ngorongoro Crater are the ending point. Because the wildebeest and zebra travel in something like a normal distribution, or bell curve, a few animals had already finished their migration and were giving birth.

Most, however, were far behind. We caught a small herd of zebras and wildebeest passing through Ndutu Lake in the afternoon.

Most, however, were far behind. We caught a small herd of zebras and wildebeest passing through Ndutu Lake in the afternoon.

Nnko said that zebras and wildebeest migrate together due to their complimentary habits. Zebras enjoy long grass, while wildebeest prefer short grass. Zebras have better sight and memory, while wildebeest have better hearing.

Source: Rhulani

Much of being on safari is luck. If we were ten or fifteen minutes earlier to the lake, we would've seen this massive herd of wildebeest crossing the lake. Instead, we found them gathering a half mile further into the bush.

Much of being on safari is luck. If we were ten or fifteen minutes earlier to the lake, we would've seen this massive herd of wildebeest crossing the lake. Instead, we found them gathering a half mile further into the bush.

Nearby, there were several giraffes feasting on acacia trees. One thing many visitors forget is that lions prefer different habitats than giraffes, which, in turn, prefer different habitats from elephants. You have to be in the right place to see the animal you are looking for.

Nearby, there were several giraffes feasting on acacia trees. One thing many visitors forget is that lions prefer different habitats than giraffes, which, in turn, prefer different habitats from elephants. You have to be in the right place to see the animal you are looking for.

Nnko got a call on his radio that signaled a small pride of lions was nearby. We zipped over to find the lions sleeping beneath this tree and in the bushes.

Nnko got a call on his radio that signaled a small pride of lions was nearby. We zipped over to find the lions sleeping beneath this tree and in the bushes.

Not shown in the picture are four other safari jeeps around the tree.

We ended the day at Ndutu Kati Kati Camp. Unlike Burunge, the camp is mobile.

We ended the day at Ndutu Kati Kati Camp. Unlike Burunge, the camp is mobile.

Depending on the season, the team sets the camp up in different areas of Ndutu. There are no permanent structures, though the tents are still very nice. When I was there, it overlooked a valley where many wildebeest were gathering.

Source: TWC Tanzania

The next morning we drove back out through the Ndutu area on our way to the Serengeti, the main event of our safari. Along the way, we spotted several marabou stork around a swamp.

The next morning we drove back out through the Ndutu area on our way to the Serengeti, the main event of our safari. Along the way, we spotted several marabou stork around a swamp.

There is little that I can do to convey the awesomeness of seeing several thousand wildebeest stampede through the grasslands at full speed. We stayed two nights at Ndutu and, by far, the most memorable sight was this swooping arc of wildebeest.

There is little that I can do to convey the awesomeness of seeing several thousand wildebeest stampede through the grasslands at full speed. We stayed two nights at Ndutu and, by far, the most memorable sight was this swooping arc of wildebeest.

The migration might consist of mostly zebra and wildebeest, but there are many other animals to see. Along the grasslands, we spotted half a dozen types of antelopes as well as predators like the jackal, which goes after small prey.

The Serengeti comes from the Maasai word "Serenget," which means endless plains.

The Serengeti comes from the Maasai word "Serenget," which means endless plains.

It makes sense when you are looking out and all you can see for miles are grasslands. But every once in a while there are kopjes, small rocky hills dotted with plants and trees. I hiked one nearby the Serengeti gatehouse to get this view.

Game viewing isn't as concentrated as it is in Tarangire, as the Serengeti spans 12,000 miles of grasslands, forests, swamps, and woodlands. One animal that's surprisingly not hard to find are lions. They like to lay in the grasses near the road.

Game viewing isn't as concentrated as it is in Tarangire, as the Serengeti spans 12,000 miles of grasslands, forests, swamps, and woodlands. One animal that's surprisingly not hard to find are lions. They like to lay in the grasses near the road.

The Serengeti is by far the most popular of Tanzania's parks.

The Serengeti is by far the most popular of Tanzania's parks.

Out of the 1.4 million visitors to Tanzania, 80% visit either the Serengeti, the adjacent Ngorongoro Crater, or Mount Kilimanjaro. That means, no matter the time of year, if there are lions around, there are also going to be many jeeps jostling for a view.

Read more: On my 5-day safari through Tanzania, a local guide told me the No. 1 thing that ruins the experience for tourists

For me, the most interesting part of being on safari was learning about animal behaviors, like how certain antelopes like standing on termite mounds to get a good view of their surroundings.

For me, the most interesting part of being on safari was learning about animal behaviors, like how certain antelopes like standing on termite mounds to get a good view of their surroundings.

Sometimes the game sightings come all at once. After a couple of hours of driving, we came upon two cheetahs lazing under a tree. Within a minute or two of our arrival, they got up and sauntered into the distance.

Sometimes the game sightings come all at once. After a couple of hours of driving, we came upon two cheetahs lazing under a tree. Within a minute or two of our arrival, they got up and sauntered into the distance.

Then, shortly after that, Nnko spotted this leopard walking on the branches of an acacia.

Then, shortly after that, Nnko spotted this leopard walking on the branches of an acacia.

Leopards are very rarely spotted, Nnko explained, because they spend most of their time sleeping on tree branches, which camouflage them well. Once the leopard laid back down, he blended right into the bark.

We caught these African buffalo in a pit coating themselves in mud to cool down from the hot African sun and to protect against biting flies. I had no such protection from the flies. They hurt.

We caught these African buffalo in a pit coating themselves in mud to cool down from the hot African sun and to protect against biting flies. I had no such protection from the flies. They hurt.

Nnko's eyes are so sharp that he spotted this Nile crocodile hiding on the edge of the swamp as he was driving.

Nnko's eyes are so sharp that he spotted this Nile crocodile hiding on the edge of the swamp as he was driving.

One of the most popular tourist sites in the Serengeti is Simba Rock.

One of the most popular tourist sites in the Serengeti is Simba Rock.

The Serengeti is widely considered to be the inspiration for The Lion King and guides say Simba Rock is the inspiration for Pride Rock, the setting of the movie. Simba means "lion" in Swahili.

On our way back to camp for the night, we passed the same pride of lions we saw coming in. They hadn't moved from their location, but it looked like one of the lionesses had hunted down a wildebeest. She was eating it as we passed by.

On our way back to camp for the night, we passed the same pride of lions we saw coming in. They hadn't moved from their location, but it looked like one of the lionesses had hunted down a wildebeest. She was eating it as we passed by.

The following morning, we were due to drive into Ngorongoro Crater, but first, we drove around the Ndutu area a bit more.

The following morning, we were due to drive into Ngorongoro Crater, but first, we drove around the Ndutu area a bit more.

Some guides told Nnko that a caracal cat was hiding in these bushes, but by the time we got there, there were too many jeeps around. The cat was spooked.

Half a mile away, we spotted our first mature male lion.

Half a mile away, we spotted our first mature male lion.

Typically, males hide out during the day while the females go out and hunt. This male was out walking around with a female. Nnko said it is likely because it is mating season.

One of the benefits of visiting the Ndutu area is that, unlike the Serengeti, jeeps are allowed to go off-road. Jeeps are still supposed to keep their distance from the big animals, but not everyone follows the rules.

One of the benefits of visiting the Ndutu area is that, unlike the Serengeti, jeeps are allowed to go off-road. Jeeps are still supposed to keep their distance from the big animals, but not everyone follows the rules.

As we drove out of the bush, we came upon a small family of elephants. There was a mother pushing a baby elephant that didn't even have its tusks yet and a couple of young males eating these thorny branches.

As we drove out of the bush, we came upon a small family of elephants. There was a mother pushing a baby elephant that didn't even have its tusks yet and a couple of young males eating these thorny branches.

The drive out of the Serengeti took us back through the highlands, where we got another look at the giraffes chewing up the trees. Giraffes eat for 16 to 20 hours a day.

Visiting Ngorongoro is a highlight for most safari visitors. The inside of the crater spans only about 100 square miles and is filled with wildlife, making it very easy to see all sorts of game.

Visiting Ngorongoro is a highlight for most safari visitors. The inside of the crater spans only about 100 square miles and is filled with wildlife, making it very easy to see all sorts of game.

The drive into the crater itself is exhilarating. You drive through a thick jungle down into a steep, winding rocky road.

The drive into the crater itself is exhilarating. You drive through a thick jungle down into a steep, winding rocky road.

The animals that live in the crater, whether wildebeest, lion, or elephant, don't leave the crater. They are not part of the Great Migration.

The animals that live in the crater, whether wildebeest, lion, or elephant, don't leave the crater. They are not part of the Great Migration.

When we drove through, many wildebeest had already given birth to their calves. Wildebeest calves can run at the same speed as an adult within two days of their birth.

They need to, with the number of predators in the crater.

Ngorongoro is home to 25,000 large animals, including close to 70 lions, the highest density of lions in the world. This lion was so close to the window of the jeep I could feel his breath.

Ngorongoro is home to 25,000 large animals, including close to 70 lions, the highest density of lions in the world. This lion was so close to the window of the jeep I could feel his breath.

Source: UNESCO

There are so many variations in climate and altitude in Ngorongoro that it has produced a variety of overlapping habitats, including grasslands, forests, woodlands, and moorlands. The clouds seem to hug the top of the crater like a lid.

There are so many variations in climate and altitude in Ngorongoro that it has produced a variety of overlapping habitats, including grasslands, forests, woodlands, and moorlands. The clouds seem to hug the top of the crater like a lid.

Each jeep is only allowed five hours in the crater to limit the environmental impact. That's not a lot of time to spot a black rhino, the last "Big Five" animal I hadn't seen.

Each jeep is only allowed five hours in the crater to limit the environmental impact. That's not a lot of time to spot a black rhino, the last "Big Five" animal I hadn't seen.

Because the rhino is critically endangered and frequently targeted by poachers, the number of rhinos in the crater is kept a secret. Nnko spotted two far in the distance on the right-center of the frame below the shadow. Most people never even see one.

Source: The Citizen

As we left Ngorongoro and started the several hour drive back towards Arusha, I was still struck by how lucky I was to see what I saw.

As we left Ngorongoro and started the several hour drive back towards Arusha, I was still struck by how lucky I was to see what I saw.

Few people see the entire "Big Five," let alone on a short five-day safari. For me, it came down to luck — and to my guide, Nnko, who spotted rhinos and a leopard when they appeared like specks to me.

If I had one piece of advice for a would-be safari-goer: do your research on the guide and the company. A safari is only as good as its guides.

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