Our guide waved at us to crouch down in the brush and stay still as the two bull elephants slowly lumbered by, flapping their ears and swinging their trunks. After they were a safe distance away, he gathered us around to discuss their behavior. Just as the guide started to talk we heard a deep, throaty growl that sent a chill down my spine. I looked over just in time to see the dark mane of a lion running (away from us, fortunately) then disappearing over a nearby ridge.
I came to northern Tanzania on my first safari as a guest of Asilia Africa. Over the course of my eight-day adventure I was able to explore some of the country's most famous national parks, see a truly stunning variety of wildlife and scenery and stay in properties ranging from private bungalows tucked into lush gardens to relatively basic but comfortable, well-appointed tents set in the plains of the Serengeti, miles away from any other property.
With so many tour safari operators to choose from, representatives from Asilia, which operates in Kenya and Tanzania as a destination-management company and also owns various properties, said that several things set it apart from the rest. They point to their support of the local schools and communities where they work as well as their efforts to help protect African wildlife, including the vulnerable populations of elephants, lions and rhinoceroses.
Anjali Shah, Asilia's East Africa sales and marketing manager, emphasized the location of their properties. She said, "When we select a new site, you know that a lot of research has gone into it."
Cheetahs were among the wildlife spotted at the Namiri Plains camp.
Nowhere is this more evident than at the Namiri Plains camp in the eastern part of the Serengeti National Park. The camp opened in July 2014 and is in an area of the park that had been a cheetah sanctuary closed to the public for 20 years.
Situated more than 20 miles from the nearest lodging, the camp provides visitors with an excellent opportunity to see the big cats and other game without the hullabaloo of dozens of other safari vehicles gathering around.
In two days there, my group, joined by a handful of other Namiri guests, was able to observe a large, male lion snacking on his recent zebra kill and catch a glimpse of the mating behavior of a pair of amorous cheetahs.
The first destination of my safari, the Asilia-run Little Oliver's camp, boasts an excellent location in a remote part of Tarangire National Park. Set a half mile from its slightly larger sister camp, Oliver's, the five tents at Little Oliver's give it an intimate, familiar feel. Tarangire itself lacks the crowds of the more well-known Tanzanian parks, but teems with wildlife. Driving to Little Oliver's we saw buffaloes, cheetahs, lions and dozens of elephants, not to mention herds of wildebeests and zebras and numerous other animals, from warthogs to giraffes.
Arriving at the camp, we had just enough time to settle into our tents and enjoy our first sundowner cocktail of the week before heading off for a night game drive, where the local Maasai guide helped us spy nocturnal animals, spotlighting the glowing eyes of the serval cat, the oversize ears of the bat-eared fox and the distinctive patterns on a highly venomous puff adder viper stretched across the road. Back at camp we gathered around the community table for dinner under the stars, the first of many nights of recounting the day's adventures and discussing what the next day would bring.
As I discovered throughout the week, at the various camps the term "tent" is used for everything from packable tents to permanent structures with multiple rooms and outside decks. With its concrete floor, wood-framed doors, walled bathroom with a flush toilet and indoor and outdoor solar-heated showers, calling my lodging at Little Oliver's a tent is like referring to a 20-ounce steak as a snack. But despite the comfort and relative permanence of my abode, lying in the tent my first night, listening to the roar of lions and the shrill trumpeting of elephants in the distance, I was keenly aware that the only thing separating me and what was outside was the thin canvas walls surrounding me.
The bedroom interior of a tent at the Namiri Plains camp, in the eastern part of the Serengeti National Park.
After the close encounter with the elephants and the lion, the next stop was the Ngorongoro Crater, a giant caldera consisting of a wide-open plain surrounded by nearly 2,000-foot-high walls. Descending the steep walls to view the wildlife that lives within the caldera, it's hard not to feel as if you are entering a lost world. Along with the lions, hippos and elephants, we spotted a black rhino in the distance, allowing me to check all the safari Big Five (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino) off my list.
Following a two-day stay at the Namiri camp, the last stop of the safari was at Asilia's Sayari camp in the northern Serengeti, close to the Kenyan border. The most luxurious of the Asilia properties I visited, Sayari brought glamping (glamorous camping) to a whole new level, featuring spacious tents with large, outdoor decks; Japanese-style sliding doors; and a stand-alone bathtub where you can soak after a long day of game-watching while keeping an eye out for any wildlife that wandered through the camp.
My first night at Sayari I was dropped off at my tent after dinner in the main lodge, only to find a large hippo grazing outside, and I was awakened the next morning by a Sayari staff member bringing me my morning coffee and saying that there were elephants out front. I slipped outside just in time to see them slowly plod away, disappearing into the early morning fog.