In the spirit of full disclosure, I have a confession to make, and you should probably be aware of it before you read this essay. I’m an unabashed advocate for Tanzania. I believe it is one of the best places on earth, and I’ll very nearly walk across hot coals to convince you to go there, or at least to part with some of your money to fund education, health care, or women’s development in Tanzania. So, consider yourself warned.
Take note, I said Tanzania was one of the best places on earth. I didn’t say it was uncomplicated, innocuous, or easy because it isn’t. It is complex, gritty, demanding, and invasive. It is the most authentic and welcoming place you can visit, and no matter how long you’re there, it will seep into your soul in ways you can’t prevent. Let me explain.
I lived in a small community in north-central Tanzania in 1999 and 2000. I was there to teach English at a secondary school for Maasai girls. It was my first “real” job out of college. I was in my mid-twenties, just as naïve as I could be, and brimming with enthusiasm for women’s rights in the developing world.
It would be impossible and unfair for me to characterize this experience in 1,000 words or less, which is why I’ve written a book about it. Suffice it to say that I’m a different person than I otherwise might have been because I lived and worked among the Maasai. Over the course of the last 15 years, I have returned many times to Tanzania and I’ve no doubt I will return again as often as time and money allow.
I truly believe that you don’t have to live in Tanzania to be affected by it; even a short visit is likely to take your breath away. My advice is to save your vacation days, sock away a few bucks (okay, more than just a few), and spend at least ten days to two weeks touring the country. Alternatively, if traveling to Tanzania isn’t in your budget, or resides outside your tolerance for adventure, consider supporting education, health care, or women’s development in Tanzania through Operation Bootstrap Africa, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that has been working with Tanzanians for more than 50 years. Learning the story of a young Maasai girl who wants to go to school and then making that possible for her will connect you to Tanzania as much as, or more than, a trip to see its natural wonders. Or, better yet, do both. You won’t be disappointed.
Here are the country’s top destinations:
Serengeti: Consider a trip in January or February to catch the annual wildebeest migration, though the Serengeti is breathtaking any time of year. For a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, witness the sunrise over the Serengeti Plain from the basket of a hot air balloon.
Ngorongoro Crater: See the world’s largest volcanic crater, about 13 miles across, 2,000 feet deep, and brimming with wildlife. It is an ecosystem unto itself and one of the few places on the planet where you can see the “Big Five”—lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros.
Mount Kilimanjaro: Summit Africa’s tallest mountain at 19,336 feet, or merely stand in awe of Kili’s ethereal snowcapped peak as it rises from Tanzania’s coastal plains.
Zanzibar: Bask in the salty sunshine-rich air, walk on the beach, see Zanzibar’s famous Stone Town, or dive to one of the Indian Ocean’s most beautiful natural coral reefs.
This is not an all-inclusive list of places to see in Tanzania. The country has 15 national parks, two conservation areas, two game reserves, two marine parks, and seven sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List with another six under consideration. One of Tanzania’s many paradoxes is that it ranks as one of the world’s economically poorest countries, but it contains a plethora of culture, heritage, and rare natural environments. In short, there is plenty to see no matter how long you want to stay.
Here are a few tips for a successful visit:
Take your medicine: Several vaccinations are recommended (and sometimes required) for travel in Tanzania including hepatitis A and B, yellow fever, polio, and typhoid. Anti-malaria and anti-diarrhea medications, insect repellant, sunscreen, and alcohol-based hand sanitizer are all highly recommended. Check with your health-care provider at least one month prior to travel.
Hire a reputable guide: It is virtually impossible to visit most of Tanzania’s sites without hiring a driver/guide and a safari vehicle, usually a Land Rover. Take time to investigate the records of several companies and get multiple quotes on your itinerary. Most companies will create a quote that includes the driver/guide, safari vehicle, park fees, overnight accommodations, and food. Beyond this, you’ll need to pay for airfare, drinks, and gratuity for your driver/guide.
Don’t try to do it all: In ten days, you can do the safari circuit from Kilimanjaro International Airport (KIA), to Tarangire National Park or Lake Manyara National Park, to Ngorongoro Crater, to the Serengeti, and back to KIA. For a special treat, consider a stop at Gibbs Farm. An alternative would be to spend a week to ten days climbing Kilimanjaro and visiting Arusha National Park. If you choose to visit Zanzibar, you will fly into Dar es Salaam and could combine a visit to Zanzibar with a trip to Mikumi National Park, Selous Game Reserve, or Saadani National Park.
Mingle with locals: Don’t let yourself be intimidated by language barriers or poverty. You won’t be disappointed if you get to know your driver/guide as a new friend, visit a Maasai boma (traditional round, mud-and-dung home), or simply spend time talking to the Tanzanians you meet in lodges, hotels, and restaurants along the way.
In Swahili, there isn’t a word for “stranger,” and most people who travel to Tanzania find that this isn’t just an omission or an oversight in the language. It is a cultural concept that doesn’t exist. In Tanzania, there are no strangers, only wageni, or guests. Imagine for a moment what life might be like if you lived in a world where everyone was a guest and there were no strangers. There is such a place, and it’s only a plane ride (or two) away.
Safari njema doesn’t translate directly, but rather is a wish for a safe, happy, and worthwhile journey, and this is my wish for you. Safari njema!