The morning was proving to be rife with possibilities. "What do you hope to see today?" our guide asked our group as we were about to embark on our game drive in the Serengeti.
"Zebras," said one of my fellow travel writers. "Hippos," replied the other.
"Cats," I said. "Lots of cats."
My reasoning: We'd seen endless herds of zebras a few days before in the Ngorongoro Crater and had a long, relatively up-close look at a hippo almost immediately after leaving the Seronera Airstrip to head to the Serengeti Pioneer Camp, the final safari lodge on our Tanzania press trip with the Elewana Collection.
Sightings of Cape buffaloes and elephants abounded during our previous game drives, but the rest of the Big Five (leopard, lion and rhino) had thus far proved relatively elusive. We did have a couple of distant lion sightings, including a pair who had apparently sought higher ground away from their pride for a little alone (read: mating) time that I could see only by pushing the limits of my zoom lens. (Feeling a bit like a safari paparazzo, I decided I'd hold out for a better photo-op.)
But on safari, wildlife encounters can happen anytime and anyplace, as our drive from the airstrip had proven. I don't remember if we spotted more zebras, but hippos, giraffes and more awaited us on our Serengeti game drives. And cats. Lots of cats.
Giraffes spotted on a walking safari at Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park, part of the Full Board Accommodation package. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya
'Iconic parks and timeless landscapes'
On our weeklong trip hosted by the Elewana Collection, I was impressed by the variety of the overall experience, from wildlife viewing to accommodations to meals, as well as the consistency in service.
We were invited to Tanzania not only to sample Elewana's accommodations but its SkySafari, itineraries "designed specifically to make it simple for you to book and enjoy an African safari holiday to Kenya and Tanzania, leaving you with time to relax and watch the never-ending circle of life unwind against the backdrop of East Africa's iconic parks and timeless landscapes," as the company puts it.
Time is a key selling point for SkySafari: According to Elewana, its use of a nine-passenger Cessna to take guests from lodge to lodge saves guests in Kenya 16 hours of travel time and guests in Tanzania over 10 hours. And I love a road trip as much as anyone, but I instantly understood the appeal of getting that much more time to spend on game drives or to relax (or work, in my case).
Some tips to make traveling to Tanzania a snap.
We touched down at Kilimanjaro's airport in the afternoon and made the hour-plus drive to Arusha. Typically at this point, guests would spend a night at Elewana's Arusha Coffee Lodge, but due to flight delays from the U.S., we were headed straight for our first safari stop: Tarangire National Park.
About a half-hour after takeoff, our Cessna landed at Tarangire's Kuro Airstrip. I'd spotted elephants just before landing, so I was already making progress on my Big Five checklist. As we made our way to the Tarangire Treetops camp, we spotted more elephants as well as waterbucks and impalas.
The sun had set by the time we arrived at our lodge, so we headed to dinner. Snacks and beverages were offered aboard our Land Cruiser, but after 18 hours-plus of flying I was ready for a hot meal, and Tarangire Treetops did not disappoint. I ordered chicken curry, which really hit the spot as we dined in the cool night air, warmed up considerably by a nearby fire pit.
A room atop a tree at the Tarangire Treetops camp, with a deck from which to watch animals from the comfort of rocking chairs.
As would be the case with the food at all our camps, I imagine most guests would find something that would appeal to their palates, and staff capably accommodated the vegetarian among us as well as other dietary restrictions and preferences.
After dinner, I was shown to my spacious tent about a three-minute walk from the lodge's main area and a short climb up a giant, ancient tree (hence the property's name) with the help of some wooden stairs. Within I found shockingly good WiFi and an exceptionally comfortable bed -- top priorities for a travel writer.
I didn't test out the shower till morning, but when I did I was pleasantly surprised by the water pressure. And it wasn't till morning that I was able to appreciate the view outside my tent, which had a deck enabling me to survey the lush landscape below and spot a few baboons from the comfort of a rocking chair.
That morning, we took a short drive before embarking on a walking safari (available as part of a Full Board Accommodation package that includes all meals and drinks, airstrip transfers, laundry and more). We encountered a half-dozen or so giraffes that appeared to be as curious about us as we were about them. As I learned from a previous safari experience, they likely would have run away if we had come that close in our safari vehicle. (For those concerned about the safety of such an excursion, I suspect that the guides' continual communication with each other helps them to prevent potentially dangerous encounters.)
A cottage suite at the luxurious Manor at Ngorongoro, which features a fireplace and a bathtub. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya
Another short Cessna ride would take us to our next stop. In many ways, our stay at Tarangire Treetops was the sort of safari experience dreams are made of. On the other hand, our stay at the Manor at Ngorongoro was posh in a way I would not have envisioned for a safari.
In the rainy weather we experienced during our December trip, it was a bumpy ride from the area's main highway, past coffee plantations, to the manor. But things went smoother soon enough. Much, much smoother. Built on a coffee estate in the style of Africa's Cape Dutch settlements of two or three centuries past, the Manor at Ngorongoro would be a true luxury experience in any part of the world. My cottage had its own fireplace and tub -- the staff will happily prepare them for a time of the guest's choosing -- and massages are available on-site.
Wildlife viewing in the Ngorongoro Crater was spectacular. From a distance, we spotted several rhinos. Far closer were the zebras and hyenas, the latter of which recently had, somewhat to the horror of our resident zebra-lover, made a meal of the former, as evidenced by the black-and-white scraps scattered nearby.
Ngorongoro offered our first glimpse of warthogs, the comedic relief of any safari, and we spotted scores of baboons upon entering and exiting the park. We saw lions picking at a carcass while hyenas hovered nearby, awaiting their taste. According to our itinerary, sightings of leopards and cheetahs were possible here, but alas, luck wasn't on our side that afternoon. Still, I was happy to head back to the Manor at Ngorongoro and console myself with a cocktail or two.
Accommodations at the rustic Serengeti Pioneer Camp, which pays homage to the mobile camps of the 1930s.
Besides, we still had our final safari stop ahead of us: the Serengeti, perhaps the only fitting finale for a Tanzania safari. Our accommodations at the Serengeti Pioneer Camp were the most rustic of the itinerary; after all, the camp was designed to pay "homage to the mobile camps of the 1930s, a time when an African safari was truly a journey into the unknown," according to Elewana.
Practically, what that means is no WiFi in your tent. Still, it's hard to say one is roughing it when enjoying an ice-cold Serengeti beer with an entree of sweet-and-sour fish, as I did during dinner one evening.
On our last game drive, we encountered a couple of male lions we'd seen the day before and heard from our tents at night. (Their roars reverberated mightily throughout our camp, but I was reassured by the knowledge imparted by our guide earlier in the day that a lion's roar really carries, and they're likely much farther than one might think.)
Having polished off a meal of Cape buffalo, the pair were lounging about when a herd of Cape buffalo began approaching, none too pleased at the sight of their fallen comrade. What ensued was a standoff that drew reinforcements in the form of some lionesses and even a few cubs. Eventually the buffaloes retreated, and some in the pride took refuge from the midday sun -- in the shadow of one of the dozen or so safari vehicles that had been watching the whole affair, spellbound.
Lions enjoy the shade from safari vehicles after a standoff with Cape buffaloes in the Serengeti. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya
In the end, the lack of a leopard sighting would mean my Big Five checklist went incomplete, but I had no complaints.
The trip ended with an overnight stay at the Arusha Coffee Lodge, which Elewana positions as ideal for pre- or post-safari decompression. My luxurious Plantation Room was certainly a change of pace from our previous days in the Serengeti. The room even had a TV, though I didn't turn it on; after all, what could have possibly compared with the drama, comedy, action and thrills of a safari?
Rates for Elewana's Classic Tanzania SkySafari this year range from $6,680 per person, double, during "green season" (March 30 to May 29) to $7,556 during high season (June 30 to Oct. 28 and Dec. 17 to 31). Visit www.skysafari.com.