Lioness in Tanzania

Photo by Carolyn O’Connell.

A muscular straw-yellow lioness suddenly appeared in the headlights of the old Peugeot, forcing us to a halt. She nonchalantly glanced over her shoulders with an expression of, “This is my road—not to be shared!” and snarled back at us. No lion’s share here. Slightly bothered, she growled, rose slowly and lumbered into the foliage and the dark Tanzanian night.

Excited, we drove on and around the bend of the road and, just a few hundred feet beyond this encounter, our friend Agnete walked towards us with her headlamp lit and an armful of firewood for our evening camp. Without further explanation, we stuffed her, firewood and all, into the back seat of the car and sped on to our primitive campsite. She obviously was surprised by our jittery behavior—and it was only later that we dared tell her that she had just been very close to one of Tanzania’s largest predators, alone at night, with perhaps a few dry small sticks for self defense.

Back at camp, we made a huge fire (the ranger told us that fires help keep wildlife at bay) and sure enough, that night we saw the reflections of many a pair of yellow eyes staring at us through the flames. We prayed they belonged to curious baboons scurrying about. But indeed, we all got very light sleep that night.

This memorable African wildlife encounter happened in the summer of 1979 in the Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania on the mighty Serengeti savanna. We were basically four happy-go-lucky-campers-cum-adventure-seekers in blue jeans with mosquito oil bottles in the back pockets. Our loose itinerary was on a shoestring budget and we explored some of wildest places in Tanzania, climbed Kilimanjaro without a guide, and sailed the Indian Ocean coast in a small Hobie-Cat sail boat—all with a “carpe diem” attitude.

From Arusha, Tanzania, we packed up the old sedan, threw the gear into the trunk, and headed down a red, dusty, pockmarked road that wound its way through herds of elephants and giraffes on the expansive east African savanna. We were almost alone among all that wildlife.

Great Migration in Tanzania

Photo © Greg Courter

We had time, were cocky and had our fill of adventures. We were charged by angry water buffaloes, encountered hostile Maasai warriors, and got severe sunburns from long hours sailing along the surf line of Indian Ocean. Above all, we encountered the most unbelievable wildlife, accentuated by traveling in a small group, seeing very few other travelers and not knowing what the heck we were doing!

We toured the vast expanses of Tanzania’s plains—a place where the flying carpets of pink flamingos covered the horizon and the herds of wildebeest, elephants, giraffes and zebras that intermingled with packs of wild dogs and hyenas. It was simply wildlife central during the Great Migration in Tanzania—with that feeling of infinite space and a natural place for all animals and visitors to share.

Now, almost 40 years later, safari tourism in Tanzania has changed a lot—the lions are not alone anymore! A 2012 World Bank study reported that tourism in southern Sahel Africa grew from a small base of 6.7 million visitors in 1990 to 33.8 million in 2012, and is projected to grow even faster.

Today, hundreds of safari lodges (some of them very high-end) have been built all over Africa, catering to tourists coming to enjoy the wildlife in Tanzania and beyond. In Tarangire National Park alone, there are now four luxury safari lodges and more than 15 campsites—up from a small lodge and two primitive camp sites (one of which we visited) in 1979.

Zebra Herd in Tanzania

Photo © Greg Courter

With the increasing number of travelers seeking a Tanzania safari, there are more potential impacts on wildlife, and a lot of work is being done to preserve the wild habitats and wildlife experiences while simultaneously developing the African tourism industry in a sustainable manner. There is still enough space and wildlife in Africa for all to enjoy—but it is becoming more and more important to be selective when looking for the right safari experience. You’ll likely visit Tanzania only once in your lifetime—make sure to do it right!

Natural Habitat Adventures offers some of the greatest wildlife encounters in Africa, including The Great Tanzania Migration Safari. Unlike many companies that operate the same standard Tanzania itineraries year-round, we tailor ours around seasonal migration events that determine the best wildlife presence and numbers. We also use private bush camps that allow us to avoid the crowds at the larger tourist lodges and stay closer to the wildlife. Particularly in the Serengeti, our private mobile camp moves seasonally with the migration, allowing us to be in the right place at the right time for peak wildlife sightings.

Though many companies travel with 20 or more passengers in crowded mini-buses, our maximum is typically 14 passengers—and we split that small group into separate safari vehicles, with each traveler enjoying their own window seat for uninterrupted wildlife viewing and photography.

While many operators rely on vans or cramped mini-buses, we charter Toyota Land Cruisers custom-designed for bush travel. From extra suspension to window seats with superior springs and lumbar support, to graduated seating rows with individual roof hatches (ensuring no one blocks your view), you won’t find a more comfortable or better-equipped vehicle for watching wildlife.

In short, there are still many great ways to share that magic place called Tanzania with the mighty lions—but be selective.

Lion in Tanzania

Photo © Greg Courter