A Tanzania Safari with Epic Private Journeys
Story & photos by Everett Potter
I don’t recall who shouted it first. There were four of us clutching cameras in the Toyota Land Cruiser, along with driver Michael Massonda and our guide, Rob Barbour. Maybe we all shouted, but it really didn’t matter, since we all seemed to see the pachyderms at the same time and get equally excited, in Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania on a custom trip with Epic Private Journeys.
A dozen elephants were slowly crossing the road about 50 yards ahead of us and we popped up through the vehicle’s open roof and began to shoot photos. That’s when I caught sight of more elephants out of the corner of my eye, emerging from the bush. A family of elephants. Well, make that two families. Or three, or maybe four families, all crossing the road, but now no more than 20 yards from our vehicle. They kept coming and coming. We were quiet except for occasional camera clicks and our deep exhales.
For nearly an hour, we watched them. We could observe, up close, their heads, their tusks, their skin that resembled think parchment or maybe old truck tires. They trumpeted and snorted and the little ones trotted by and the big ones swayed and moved with the gentle confidence of enormous beasts who know how big they are. By my rough count, we saw more than 200 elephants move past us and gather in a field below, a social mixer out of a Babar book that I might have read to my daughter.
Of course, those were only the ones I could see.
“There are about 1,000 elephants in Tarangire,” explained our guide, Rob Barbour of Epic, suggesting that there were likely many more in the bush.
By now, I realized that having this elephant floorshow before us was only somewhat due to serendipity. Rob knows the park inside and out. He had made sure we were roused at dawn at Oliver’s Camp, our lodging the night before, to get on this stretch of road at the right time. Stuff happens, to be sure, but you have to be there when the stuff happens.
Africa with Nothing Left to Chance
For nearly two weeks I traveled in northern Tanzania to the north and south Serengeti and to Ngorongoro Crater with Epic Private Journeys, a bespoke travel company that uses only seasoned local guides to offer an authentic experience of the continent. From creating a custom trip to witness the Serengeti migration, walking among gorillas in Rwanda or paddling the waterways of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, their insider’s knowledge is at the heart of every journey. They also take travelers to Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Himalayas, Indonesia and the Americas. Every trip is customized, depending on what you want to see.
Kenyan-born, Australian-reared, Rob Barbour has lived and guided in Tanzania for decades. He’s a medical doctor who served in Australia’s version of the SAS before running his own camps in Tanzania and eventually becoming a principal of Epic, which is headquartered in Brisbane, Australia but has offices in Arusha as well as South Africa and San Diego.
“We leave nothing to chance,” explained Rob, who is fluent in Swahili, brimming with knowledge and curiosity, and deeply aware of his surroundings.
Instead, credit strategic planning. Rob arranged charter flights at key points for our small group, accomplishing in 40 minutes what might have taken six hours of hard travel over rutted dirt roads. We saw the beginnings of the famous wildebeest migration as Rob took us cross country and off road on the southern Serengeti — “There’s plenty of space to play in,” he said — where we spotted hundreds of thousands of galloping wildebeests, packs of vultures devouring a kill, roving hyenas, herds of zebra and gazelles, and two very pregnant lionesses, each one lying in wait by a watering hole. In five hours, we never saw another human being or vehicle.
We first entered Tarangire National Park one afternoon around 4PM, which seemed late in the day to me. It turned out that our late timing was by design, since the lion’s share of safari vehicles were leaving the park to make it to their designated lodging before dark, when it’s too dangerous to drive. Epic, on the other hand, had secured tents at Oliver’s Camp for us, one of the few lodgings within the park. That gave us the benefit of entering at prime afternoon game viewing time as others dashed out.
We would, in time, pretty much have the main game viewing road to ourselves. In fact, the next 90 minutes proved to be remarkable indeed. We saw two cheetahs in the tall, wind blown grass, looking over their shoulders as a pair of lionesses and their cubs climbed an anthill to scan the savannah for game but failed to spot these young cats. Minutes later we located a leopard snoozing in an enormous baobab tree. We passed small herds of impalas and came across a pair locking horns, the repeated clacking noises of the horns clearly audible 50 yards away. We spied two black backed jackals eating figs under a sprawling fig tree, watched skittish packs of zebra and paused besides a trio of ground hornbills, enormous birds that reminded me of the now extinct dodo. We lingered to observe a crèche of half a dozen baby giraffes, attended to by watchful, loping parents. As the sun headed to the horizon, we came across a dozen elephants, blocking the road in the brilliant light.
In 90 minutes, we had seen a week’s worth African wildlife. I doubt that Sir David Attenborough could have orchestrated the hour and a half any better. By the time I fell asleep in my thatched-roofed tent at Oliver’s Camp, I thought I had heard and seen it all. That is, until I was awakened in the middle of the night by guttural roars outside. I had never heard lions in the wild before and I almost couldn’t hear them over my heart beats. It may have explained the presence on an airhorn beside the bed. Even if you’ve never heard a lion at night, you know instinctively what the sound is.
The next morning, over a breakfast of ripe mango and perfectly poached eggs, we compared notes along the lines of “Did you hear …?”
Rob may not have cued the lions. But he clearly knew where the wild things are in Tanzania.
There are really two components to any African safari: the game viewing and the lodges. Ideally, they should compliment each other.
“The secret of Epic is that we design trips based on what game you want to see and then figure out the best place for you to stay based on your budget,” Rob explained. “Not vice versa.”
We stayed at luxury lodges, mobile camps and rustic camps but they were all strategically located to maximize wildlife viewing. They included the famous Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, an over the top spectacle with décor that was a mash up of Alice in Wonderland, Salvador Dali and Karen Blixen. We also sampled the cool neo-Edwardian luxury of Singita Sasakwa Lodge, where most any CEO would be happy and where most guests, if they can afford it, are made to feel like CEO’s.
My favorite lodges included:
The newest property of Legendary Lodges, it feels like an Aman resort but even more exclusive, with just eight luxury tent suites. However, these are to tents what Aston Martin’s are to automobiles, luxury lairs well separated from each other, with a soaking tub, indoor and outdoor shower, a deck cantilevered over a rushing river, and air conditioning that, in green fashion, envelopes just the king size bed alone. Situated cliffside on an enormous private game concession with a private airstrip, it’s the latest property from Dan Friedkin, whose Friedkin Conservation Fund preserves large swaths of Tanzania. The nature of a private concession, by the way, is that you can go off road, by day or even on night safaris with a bright spotlight, and encounter no one else. Our night drive yielded a dozen bush babies in the trees, a curious hyena, a chameleon and fun if fruitless search for a prowling leopard.
Alex Walker is a charming and safari-savvy Tanzanian and his mobile camp in the south Serengeti, which eventually is packed up and moved to follow the Great Migration north, is a proper Out of Africa experience. Guest tents are enormous, with ensuite baths. The lodge tent has carpets, comfortable couches, a massive coffee table piled high with books and a drinks table ready to welcome. Alex has access to local Masaai bushmen and they took us on a three hour game walk. It finished with one of them showing his skill with a homemade bow and arrow, piercing a three inch acacia tree from 90 feet with the first shot.
Our most rustic accommodation, it consisted of five tents with pit latrines and buckets showers in enclosures behind each one. Wayo is set in Lake Manyara National Park, on a sandy watercourse and next to a cascading waterfall and the jungle clad walls of an escarpment. We climbed up the rocks alongside the waterfall, careful not to disturb the resident hippo in the pool below, and sipped a Kilimanjaro beer (slogan: “If you can’t climb it, drink it”) while a troop of baboons looked down on us from the trees above. In time, we dined at a table under the stars and found enormous hippo footprints the following morning, followed by an elephant encounter that rivaled the one in Tarangire.
Managed by a witty Brit named Nick and his adorable German wife Jana, this is Swiss Family Robinson redefined. Each private lodge is a one bedroom hut with a twig roof. Inside is Scandinavian-designed rusticity and simplicity. A floor-to-ceiling wall of screen makes you feel like you are indeed outside, with view to the hills of Kenya. If the night is cool, as it was during my stay, a hot water bottle will be awaiting in your bed. The lounge, with its fireplace and multiple sitting areas, is ideal for socializing, and we managed quite a bit of that in a short visit.
The great view of snowcapped Mt Kilimanjaro, some 50 miles distant, would make it worth staying here. But Marlies and Jörg Gabriel offer a charming and comfortable guest experience as well, and Marlies took me on a brief game drive in adjacent Arusha National Park, introducing me to warthogs, giraffe, Cape buffalo and hippos. This lodge was the backdrop for the John Wayne movie Hatari and Wayne’s co star Hardy Kruger later bought it and kept it as his farm. Set at the foot of Mt Meru, it’s not far from Arusha and the international airport, and therefore ideal for a first or last night in Tanzania.
A word on the food: overall, it was remarkably good, especially considering some of it came out of mobile kitchens. Most mornings began with French press coffee, eggs, fruits and pastries, while lunches could be packed sandwiches or multi-course meals in camp that invariably began with a variation on vegetable soup. Dinners were also multi-course, leisurely and often at communal tables, the better to share the day’s stories. Western comfort food, from steak and Caesar salads to fresh tilapia and fresh salads, prevailed at dinner, with an abundance of freshly prepared vegetables, homemade desserts as well as South African wines and Kilimanjaro beer at the ready.
If you go:
A classic nine day safari with Epic that includes seeing the migration in Serengeti National Park and game drives in Tarangire National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater begins at $600 per person, per day, land only.
Epic Private Journeys offers private trips throughout Africa, as well as in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Australia, the Americas, Bhutan and Nepal. www.epicprivatejourneys.com