Spiritual safari

It’s been less than an hour since our group touched down at Kilimanjaro Airport and we’ve already learned a Tanzanian proverb: Mwenye pupa hadiriki kula tamu (‘A hasty person misses the sweet things’). It’s a sentiment I’m planning to be guided by as I spend two weeks touring with Nomads Secrets, getting to the heart of one of the globe’s oldest inhabited areas. 

Our journey begins with a drive through Arusha National Park, on the slopes of Mount Meru. Our first treat comes shortly after we pass through the entrance gates – driving through the shadowy forest we see a small group of blue monkeys huddled together as if discussing our arrival. 

This is the first visit to Africa for all 10 members of our group and, in spite of our collective jetlag, we’re energised by experiencing a true taste of Tanzania so soon after arriving. That said, it’s just as thrilling to arrive at our accommodation.

Located on the northern edge of the park within acacia woodland, Hatari Lodge is a fabulous retro retreat. The ultra-stylish rooms pay tribute to the 1962 movie Hatari, with art deco furniture, African sculptures, minty shades of green and funky 1970s wallpaper working in perfect harmony. East African hospitality and breathtaking views of Mount Meru and the snow-capped peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro is the icing on the cake. 

A delicious African-infused dinner and deeply rejuvenating sleep later, and we’re off for a day in Arusha National Park with our cheerful trio of guides, all of whom have lived in the area their entire lives and are completed attuned to their environment.  

It’s surreal to see elephants, buffalo, warthogs, boars and baboons going about their business, giraffe heads peering from the tree tops and the flutter of a thousand pink flamingos rising above Momela Lakes – an awesome spectacle.

Observing wild animals in their natural environment is truly magical, but a long-held desire to spend time in the company of Tanzanian tribes is what brought me here.

Maasai guides lead the group to the most spectacular lookouts 

Day 3 & 4 

Today we are destined for Shu’mata Camp, deep in Maasai country. Translating to mean ‘above the clouds’, Shu’mata lies at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. Soon after arriving, we are introduced to our very tall, elegant and engaging Maasai guide, who leads us on an educational walking safari around this luxe tented camp. 

We admire the stunning scenery and learn of the medicinal value of local flora and the great respect the Maasai have for the animals they share this breathtaking wilderness with. It’s moving to simply be standing with this wise and gentle man on his ancestral land.

The walk ends at the top of a hill, where a group of Maasai men are preparing a traditional goat barbecue especially for us. It’s hard not to stare at the exquisite men before me. It’s not just that they are so physically striking and magnificently dressed in red, it’s that they seem to possess profound inner peace and have a zest for life that exudes from every pore. And they really can jump high, which they prove when we all have a joyful dance together!

As we enjoy our tender and tasty meal on this unforgettable moonlit evening, I marvel at the fact we have been so warmly embraced by these exceptional people. It’s a humbling experience that will stay with me forever.

Our fourth day brings a beautiful early morning game drive, another opportunity to learn from the Maasai. This time we see how a traditional boma (homestead) is made. Made of sticks, mud and cow-dung, with grass roofs, the round huts appear in clusters and are at one with the environment.

Day 5 & 6

We’ve just arrived at the small but charming Kisima Ngeda Camp, located on the shores of Lake Eyasi and renowned for its amazing sunsets (which I can vouch for). Today we visit a Datoga tribe, distinguished by circular tattoos around their eyes and attire designed to blend in with the environment.

Polygamous, resistant to change and far more timid than the Maasai, the Datoga live simply and admirably. They are pastoralists and skilled craftsmen, and observing a blacksmith slowly hammering a hoe into shape provides a chance to sit and enjoy a very sweet thing.

The next morning we spend time in the company of another tribal group – the Hadzabe. We have the honour of choosing from several cultural experiences, including learning Hadza – the Hadzabe’s complex click language. Four of my female travelling companions and I try our hand at jewellery making with a group of Hadzabe women. Shy but proud, these wizened, hard-working women generously show us how to make a neckpiece from tiny coloured beads, seeds and wire.

My new buddy Alana and I are in absolute awe of the skill these women apply to their work. The real lesson, however, is in gaining a greater understanding of the primitive hunter-gatherer Hadza culture, where men and women are treated equally, possessions have zero value and customs have remained the same for 10,000 years.

As our group gathers back at camp, we all practice the Hadza words we’ve attempted to learn throughout the day. It’s impossible to wrap our tongues around the language, but we have plenty of fun trying on the drive to Crater Lodge, Ngorongoro.

Day 7

Crater Lodge is a luxury game reserve where you can be lucky enough to see the ‘Big 5’ – lions, leopards, cheetahs, rhinos and elephants – in one spectacular location. The world’s largest intact volcanic caldera, Ngorongoro Crater was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978 and is a veritable Garden of Eden.

We’re here in May, at the very end of the rainy season, and the landscape is lush and teeming with life. I spontaneously burst into tears when I see black rhinos and hundreds of zebras and wildebeest grazing in the open grasslands. We spot several lions, three graceful cheetahs, plenty of buffalo and gazelles, and a majestic bull elephant with magnificent tusks.  

The beauty of this corner of Tanzania is overwhelming, as is our guide’s knowledge. By the end of the day we are all experts on the crater’s fragile ecosystem, along with all the big game animals residing here.

Back at the lodge I’m struck by the opulence of our rooms. The Maasai-style mud-and-stick structure is cleverly contrasted with chandeliers, deep red detailing and crater views from every window. The beds are so insanely comfortable that the only option is to dream the night away. 

Day 8 – 11

After a week of sunshine and moderate temperatures, it’s pouring as we drive to Central Serengeti. Although the rain is short-lived, it gives us an indication of the impact Tanzania’s two rainy seasons (March to May and October to December) must have on the people we’ve met to date. Everything is glistening and it’s a wondrous sight, but our driver is relieved it has passed, as the roads can quickly become treacherous.

For the next two evenings, we’re staying at Kiota Camp, opened just a week prior by Tanzanian-born Hezron Mbise and his American wife Stacy Readal. This dynamic duo has been operating Tanzanian safari tours since 2004 under the name Duma Explorer, and they call on their vast local knowledge to ensure everything runs to the highest possible standards.

Kiota (the Swahili word for ‘nest’) features super-sized tents with ensuites, furniture crafted by Tanzanian artisans and tasty organic food. The ever-smiling staff members are clearly passionate about their work, and in the evening Isaya and Godlisten regale us with stories of their close encounters with local wildlife. 

While we don’t want our encounters to be too close, it’s exhilarating to be scouring the Serengeti for leopards and cheetahs on another beautiful day. We get to see plenty of big cats but my favourite animal experience today is observing families of contented hippos splashing around in a giant natural pool. 

Making our way to Northern Serengeti and the Mara River area the following morning, we glimpse migrating herds of zebras and wildebeest in the distance. A leisurely day is on the agenda and we spend it at Chaka Camp – also owned by Hezron and Stacy and equally fabulous, this mobile camp follows the migrating animals and their predators. 

After a hearty breakfast, a drive around the river allows us to watch Nile crocodiles basking in the sun. They are enormous yet move with such agility that it’s easy to see how these prehistoric apex predators have survived so long. Dinner under the stars is the perfect way to end our final safari.

Day 12 

As someone with no natural talent for learning languages, I surprise myself by feeling right at home using the few Swahili words I’ve managed to retain. Maybe it has something to do with the sheer joy it gives the locals to see me trying. Tafadhali (please), asante (thank you) and ndio (yes) are such lovely words, and I find myself saying nimefurahi (I am happy) on a regular basis.

Today my happiness comes from being in Stone Town, Zanzibar’s soulful capital (an historic trade centre and UNESCO World Heritage Site). The mix of Swahili and Islamic influences has resulted in great beauty at every turn. As we explore the cobbled alleys our wonderful guide reveals all, including Stone Town’s dark slave trade history, thankfully shut down by the British in 1873.

We’re staying at Emerson Spice, where the plush rooms feature stained glass windows, antique Swahili beds, supersized stone bathtubs and ornate timber balconies. We make our way to the rooftop to hear the 6pm call to prayer emanating from the city’s mosques, enjoy sundowners (cocktails) and sit down to a sensational meal. Lobster is served on green papaya salad, coconut chilli king fish is baked in banana leaves and Tambi prawns are paired with grilled mango. Needless to say, nimefurahi.

Day 13

On another perfect African day we follow in the footsteps of the Arabian Princess Salme, rebellious daughter of Zanzibar’s first Sultan, Seyyid Said. Wandering around the artful remains of Mtoni Palace, built for the Sultan in 1828, it’s not hard to imagine the Princess gazing through the arabesque arches out to sea and dreaming of the distant lands she eventually left Zanzibar for.

A dhow (sailboat) whisks us away to Salome’s Garden, set in an early 19th-century mansion that belonged to Salme’s uncle and now serves as the Zanzibar Creative Education Foundation, where children follow Rudolph Steiner’s holistic approach to learning. We are privileged to spend some time with a group of gleeful youngsters as we take part in a traditional coffee ceremony and roam among the walled tropical gardens and orchards that roll down to the sea. 

This educational day ends at Mzee Yussuf’s spice plantation, where a rest house once owned by Salme’s brother remains. Mr Yussuf’s great grandfather purchased the plantation from Salme’s brother, Sultan Majid. It’s an opportunity to sample exotic spices and herbal remedies at the source. 

Much to our delight, Mrs Yussuf serves up a feast fit for a hungry Sultan – fish masala, roasted meats, spiced pilau rice, fragrant vegetable dishes, fresh juice and spice teas are produced in abundance. Fully sated and armed with our charming hostess’s top Tanzanian cooking tips, we hit the road again, bound for the coast.

Day 14 – 16

Luxuriating at Baraza Resort & Spa makes it easier to accept this amazing journey is coming to an end. A far cry from the savannahs and grasslands of recent days, this boutique property is set on the beach and pays homage to Zanzibar’s cultural heritage by fusing classic Arabic, Indian and Swahili design elements with the grandeur of a Sultan’s palace. Alana, our fellow traveller Sarah and I take a tour of the resort and fall in love with every facet.

Eternally bonded, our group meets by the pool to sip on refreshing fruity concoctions and reflect on the highlights of the past two weeks. For me, having the chance to really interact with tribespeople, our guides, drivers and hotel staff members deepened the experience. We all agree that it’s impossible not to be touched by the profound spirituality and genuine kindness of the Tanzanian people. 

As we head for Zanzibar International Airport, I close my eyes and a kaleidoscope of vivid images flashes by. These images – and my newfound ability to stop and savour the sweet things – will sustain me until Alana and I fulfill our agreement to sign up for another adventure with Nomads Secrets. 

A gentle giraffe reaches for the sky in Arusha National Park | Sivan Askayo

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