Featured Lodge: Serengeti Pioneer Camp

Pioneer CampView from the lounge. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Located in the hill-dotted Moru Kopjes area of Tanzania’s southcentral Serengeti, Pioneer Camp offers superlative access to the annual migration and the ‘Big Five.’ A large elevated lounge has sweeping views overlooking knobby granite outcroppings and the endless plains. Get an even better view of the surrounding landscape and its inhabitants through the lounge’s spotting scope.

Pioneer Camp

Guests can enjoy drinks and look through telescopes at the viewing lounge.

Each of the ten private tents pay homage to the mobile camps of the 1930s with solid wooden furniture and trunks, classic canvas chairs, throw rugs and gleaming copper wash basins. All have en-suite facilities that include a flush toilet, sink with oiled bronze fixtures, and rain showerhead. A digital safe and writing desk with stationery complete each room. Electric lighting is available in the rooms 24 hours a day, while cellphones and other equipment can be charged at the camp’s charging station adjacent to the dining room.

Pioneer Camp

Double rooms feature two queen beds on solid wood frames.

Serengeti Pioneer Camp  strives to have a low ecological footprint. Solar power heats the water and provides much of the camp’s electricity, and the dining tent features local seasonal produce prepared to the highest standards. The character of the area is preserved as tents are connected to the main area by natural stone paths that formed over the eons.

Pioneer Camp

The dining room offers very attentive service.

Comfort is also key here. Service is exemplary, and attention is paid to the smallest details. If you need to recharge after a long day at safari, relax in the plunge pool or use the camp’s stargazing scope to gaze at the southern sky. Another nod toward comfort: Pioneer Camp is a convenient 50-minute drive from the Seronera airstrip, allowing visitors to minimize time on bumpy roads by flying in and out of the Serengeti.

Crowdfunding to save the mountain gorillas

Courtesy of Ellen Wilson

Photo taken by Ellen Wilson on an Ujuzi safari in Rwanda.

British naturalist and science documentarian David Attenborough has launched a fundraising campaign to help protect mountain gorillas. The campaign, hosted on crowdfunding website Indiegogo, seeks to raise about $177,000 to support work by the conservation group Fauna & Flora International in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The group will use funds to protect mountain gorilla habitats, train community members as gorilla protectors, develop eco-tourism, and support gorilla protection initiatives of the local governments and parks.

Supporting mountain gorilla conservation is a great holiday gift idea for the nature lovers in your life! You can find out more about the campaign here.

Tanzania Day 10 – Zanzibar to Home

Today has been a bittersweet day for me. I’m looking forward to going home but sorry to say goodbye to this beautiful island so soon. My flights are a charter plane from Zanzibar to Dar Es Salam, then a KLM/Delta route to the United States via Amsterdam. Fortunately, my flight out of Zanzibar isn’t scheduled until 6 p.m., so I was able to visit a few more lodges, enjoy a spice farm tour, and have a late lunch at Zanzibar Serena Inn’s seaside restaurant in Stone Town before heading for the airport.

After breakfast at Essque Zalu, I headed to Matemwe, a town on the east side of the island’s northern tip. Matemwe is popular with travelers because the sand there is fine and powdery. (Some other parts of the island have coarser sand or lots of coral, both of which require the use of watershoes when wading.)

Matemwe Lodge

Two-story villa at Matemwe Lodge

I visited a set of three neighboring sister properties called Matemwe Lodge, Matemwe Retreat, and Matemwe Beach House. Matemwe Lodge consists of 12 villas: six two-story villas with a king-size bed on the first floor and a twin bed on the second loft-style floor, and six one-story villas with one king-sized bed. The villas do not have air conditioning, but have a layout that takes advantage of the sea breeze. Guests at any of the three properties can sign up for snorkeling and diving lessons. Other optional activities include a reef walk, village walk, and sailing. Or just hang around the property to swim in one of the lodge’s two pools or play chess on a large outdoor board.

Matemwe Beach House

Pool at Matemwe Beach House

Matemwe Beach House is a three-bedroom, two-bathroom cottage for groups of up to six people. It is the only of the three sister properties that allows children under six years old. The house has its own private pool and kitchen, as well as a personal chef and butler service.

Matemwe Retreat

Rooftop plunge pool and patio at Matemwe Retreat

Matemwe Retreat is a more secluded property up the hill from the beach. It has four villas that feature a rooftop patio with plunge pool. The first floor includes a master bedroom and a large veranda that looks down on the ocean. Meals are prepared by a personal chef and served in the dining area of the veranda.

We then headed south to Mchanga Beach Lodge, which was opened 6 years ago by an expat American and her German husband. The lodge has 18 units, including two garden suites that sleep up to 4 people each. Each room has a small sitting area that looks out onto the ocean. The lodge focuses on fresh food with local flavors, even harvesting coconuts from its own trees to use in food and drinks for guests.

Spice Farm Tour

One of our guides on the Spice Farm Tour shows us how the spice annatto can be used to paint the skin. The spice is a common ingredient in food coloring, make-up and dyes.

Speaking of local foods, it wouldn’t be a trip to Zanzibar without sampling some of the locally grown spices. I stopped at a spice farm owned by a cooperative of local farmers for a tour. The farm grows a large variety of spices. Cloves, cinnamon, allspice, vanilla beans, black pepper, lemongrass, turmeric, ginger, annatto, cardamom and hot pepper were just a few of the plants that our guides showed us. The farm also grows some delicious tropical fruits. After our tour we sat down to drink lemongrass tea and sample mango, jackfruit, pomelo (a bit like a grapefruit but without the bitterness), and local varieties of oranges and bananas that you can’t find in the United States.

Spice Farm Tour

This is a cardamom plant. Did you know that cardamom pods grow so close to the ground?

Our last stop before the airport was Zanzibar Serena Inn for a late lunch. Located in Stone Town, the luxury hotel is right on the beach. We enjoyed the ocean breeze from our table at the hotel’s sea front restaurant. It was lovely to be able to enjoy the Indian Ocean right up to the end of my trip!


Restaurant at Zanzibar Serena Inn

Tanzania Day 9 – Zanzibar

I awoke to the sun rising over the crystalline blue Indian Ocean. After a quick breakfast, we headed out to visit beachside lodges and resorts around the island.

The Residence

The beach at The Residence, Zanzibar, Tanzania.

Our first stop was The Residence, a beautiful 5-star resort on 79 acres on the southwest coast. Each of the 66 private villas has its own 8-meter pool and either a view of the beach or the resort’s well-manicured gardens. Visitors who want a larger pool can take a dip in the resort’s main pool — a glass-walled infinity pool that Conde Nast recently named as one of the top ten swimming pools in the world. Onsite activities include bicycling (each guest receives a bicycle to use during the stay), boating, a spa, fitness center, snorkeling, and dolphin safaris. A Kids Club offers activities for young ones ages 3 through 12, and an onsite petting zoo and bird sanctuary are fun for children of all ages.

The Residence

This pool at The Residence was rated one of the top 10 in the world by Conde Nast. It has a glass side.

We then visited Breezes Beach Club and Spa. I loved the lobby building, which was furnished with Persian-style brass lamps and intricately carved furniture. It also smelled like heaven, thanks to large urns of whole cloves and cardamon pods lining its open-air walkways.


A spice-filled coffee table at Breezes.

The 74 air-conditioned rooms are similarly decorated, and each room has an assigned umbrella and set of loungers on the resort’s private beach. Diving excursions and spa services are available on site.


The view from an oceanside suite at Breezes.

Konokono Beach Resort recently reopened after a two-year redesign and expansion project. Located on on Chwaka Bay on Zanzibar’s east coast, it now has 24 villas (up from 14) and a gorgeous seaside restaurant and pool. I was tempted to take a dip, but alas I did not have my swimsuit with me.

Kono Kono

Konokono Beach Resort has a beautiful pool.

However, we did enjoy a delicious lunch in the outdoor boma, which was built in the Zanzibar style with modern touches such as Italian-designed metal chandeliers. The villas themselves are spacious and airy, with their own verandas and plunge pools. Other villa amenities include air conditioning, cable television, and a coffee station.

Kono Kono

Villa at Konokono.

We then headed back toward Zanzibar’s northern tip to Essque Zalu Resort & Spa, our lodgings for the night. Essque-Zalu has been rated the island’s number five lodging by members of TripAdvisor, so I was excited to check it out for myself. I immediately saw why it ranks so highly. Essque Zalu is a luxurious retreat with a spacious lobby, three restaurants, three bars, a gorgeous swimming pool, and a high-end boutique featuring original fashions and art. It has 40 spacious suites and nine three- and four-bedroom villas with kitchens and outdoor jacuzzis, the latter of which are an excellent option for families.

Essque Zalu

Bed at Essque Zalu

Our host gave us a tour of the large spa. It offers massage, facials, manicures and pedicures using highly rated Africology products. Treatments may be given at the spa or at guests’ villas. We walked down the jetty, which goes out over the beach and water and has a restaurant at its end. Guests can access the beach and swimming from steps that run along it. After settling in our villa we had an outstanding dinner at The Market Kitchen, Essque Zalu’s main restaurant. There were three four-course offerings: a European-American-style meat option, a vegetarian option, and a Swahili option. All were delicious.

Essque Zalu

The Jetty at Essque Zalu. A bar and restaurant are at the far end.

For more pictures of Essque Zalu, visit my Essque Zalu Facebook album.

Tanzania Day 8 – Serengeti to Zanzibar

Today I bid farewell to Tanzania’s mainland. I was sad to leave such a beautiful place, but excited for my next destination: Zanzibar, a Tanzanian island in the crystal blue waters of the Indian Ocean.

I spent this morning in the Serengeti in Pioneer Camp’s lounge, talking with the camp manager about local wildlife and enjoying the antics of the yellow-spotted rock hyraxes on a neighboring outcrop. One of them even climbed up toward the edge of the lounge platform to wish me a pleasant trip. (At least that’s what it looked like the creature was trying to communicate, going by the smile on its face.)


This yellow-spotted rock hyrax seemed to have a smile on its face.

On our way to the Seronera Airstrip in the heart of Serengeti National Park, we came across a herd of hundreds of buffalo crossing the road in double- and triple-file. It was an astounding sight, with buffalo trailing toward both ends of the horizon as far as the eye could see. It’s the most buffalo I’ve ever seen at once. Our guide Modi said that they were all heading toward a watering hole down the hill. Cape buffalo don’t always travel in such large groups. But since the dry season has been long, watering places are fewer and farther between, so they were all headed to the same place.

Huge Herd of Cape Buffalo

A huge herd of approximately 250 Cape buffalo make their way down to the river in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

We also saw a young male lion guarding a recent kill. Although adult males generally don’t hunt for themselves — leaving it to the females of the pride to do the work — young ones that haven’t yet found females to support them do hunt for themselves. We also saw two very well-fed female lions by the side of the road; they had eaten so much that their bellies were distended. Other members of the pride were scattered here and there in the grasslands behind them.

Well-fed lionesses rest in the shade.

Last but not least, we saw a cheetah on the hunt. Unlike the cheetahs we say successfully hunt the other day, this one was by itself. When we first saw her, she seemed to have its eye on a group of mongooses that were running around under the trees. But as they came closer and she looked away, it became apparent that she was holding out hope for more substantial fare. There was a lone Thompson’s gazelle in a tree grove one- or two-hundred yards away, and she set her sights on it, moving so stealthily that we were certain she would bag this prey. But we were wrong: the Thompson’s gazelle managed to bolt away just in time.

Modi and Me

Our guide Modi was exceptional in his knowledge, attentiveness and effort.

And then it was time to say goodbye to our guide, Modi, and to the Serengeti. We got on our 13-passenger charter plane with Excel Air and flew to Zanzibar via Arusha, enjoying incredible views of the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and the Indian Ocean on our way.


View of Ngorongoro Crater from our charter plane.

The midday weather in Zanzibar was a change from the Serengeti. Not surprisingly, it felt like a tropical island: a bit hotter and more humid than the mainland, but with a refreshing ocean breeze that made up for the difference. The culture is different here, too. While the majority of the population here is ethnic Swahili, Zanzibar was colonized by Portugal, Oman, and Great Britain before becoming an independent state in 1963. In 1964, it merged with Tanganyika on the mainland to form Tanzania. Zanzibar holds an important port on the spice route, so Indian and Persian traders have also influenced the culture. Ninety-nine percent of Zanzibar residents are Muslim.

Fishing Boats

Fishing boats on the coast of Zanzibar.

Upon our arrival in Zanzibar, we took a brief driving tour of Stone Town, the island’s historic and cultural center. With narrow streets and white building, the architecture is reminscent of a Middle Eastern market. There are plenty of shops where visitors can purchase art from the island and mainland, as well as restaurants that reflect the variety of cultures that are part of Zanzibar’s history: Indian, Persian, East African and Middle Eastern. Music fans take note: Stone Town is where Queen’s Freddie Mercury grew up, so make sure your guide points out his childhood home to you!

Old Fort

In Stone Town you can visit the Old Fort, which the Omani sultanate built in the seventeenth century to defend the island from the Portuguese. It’s also known as the Arab Fort.

We drove along the coast to familiarize ourselves with the island, then checked in at Shooting Star Lodge for the evening. Located on a hill above a private beach, Shooting Star has a relaxed, bohemian feel that encourages guests to slow down and enjoy the island beauty. As the locals here say in Swahili: “Pole, pole!” (“Take it easy!”) Rooms are simply appointed with Indian, Persian and local fabrics, and most include a veranda with an ocean view. Next to the open-air lounge, an infinity pool for swimming overlooks the beach. It’s a great place to watch the sun rise over the ocean.

Shooting Star

Shooting Star guest room.

After the sun set, we had a great view of the southern sky. Thanks to the ocean, there weren’t a lot of lights to interfere with the view, and I saw many constellations that we don’t get to see in the northern hemisphere this time of year.

Shooting Star

View of pool and Indian Ocean at Shooting Star, Zanzibar, Tanzania.

Tanzania Day 7 – Serengeti

View from the front veranda of a guest tent at Eco-Lodge Grumeti.

We spent another day in the Serengeti area. In the morning, we visited Eco-Lodge Grumeti on hills outside of the national park’s central gate. It has 19 beautifully furnished permanent tents on high wooden platforms that overlook the savanna. Because it’s outside of the park, it’s able to offer night game drives, walking safaris and sundowners cocktail hours in the bush. (Inside the national parks, walking safaris and night game drives are generally prohibited.)

A bush hyrax enjoys a snack.

Back inside the park, we visited Mbuzi Mawe Serena, a 16-tent permanent camp whose name in Swahili means “klipspringer.” It’s an apt name because we saw at least three of the small antelopes during our visit. In addition to klipspringers, the hilly area attracts bush hyraxes (furry, guinea-pig-sized cousins of the elephant that dine on acacias and woody plants) and yellow-spotted rock hyraxes (which eat grasses, fruits and insects). We also saw several red-headed agama lizards basking on the rocks, the males occasionally doing rapid push-ups to flash their colors and claim territory.

Mbuzi Mawe Serena guest bedroom

Guests can view resident animals both day and night, thanks to night vision binoculars that Mbuzi Mawe keeps on hand. Other onsite activities include a spa that offers massages, manicures and pedicures. The lounge and rooms reflect the local landscape with  naturalistic wood furniture built from sturdy tree branches, while also embracing the modern conveniences of 24-hour electricity and hot water.

View from Pioneer Camp’s lounge

We then drove back across Serengeti National Park toward our night lodgings: Pioneer Camp, a luxury permanent-tented camp in the acacia woodlands. It has 12 ground-level tents with canvas floors, including one family tent. The 11 standard tents feature two double beds, a desk, lounge chairs, plenty of sisal and plush rugs, and an en suite bathroom with solar-heated hot water. Electrical lights operate 24 hours a day. The lounge offers beautiful views of the Serengeti; looking out toward the horizon one can see the woodlands transition into savannah and then into grasslands farther out to the east and hills to the south. Guests who want to avoid the sometimes bumpy drive from Arusha can take a charter plane to a nearby airfield and be picked up by lodge staff. The lodge provides safari guides and vehicles to guests who choose an all-inclusive package.

A lioness and cub dine on a recently killed cape buffalo.

On our way to Pioneer Camp, we had some notable sightings. We found three adult female lions and their cubs, some feasting on a recent buffalo kill, others napping in the shade. Lions can get territorial with their food, even within the family; when one of the cubs sidled up along a dining adult, he got to close and she growled at him until he backed away to another part of the buffalo. As we watched, a few of the dozing cubs woke up and started grooming each other, which soon turned into a lazy game of swat-and-pounce, then back to napping. (Napping is important for lions; they can sleep 18 to 23 hours a day.)

A giraffe bends down to pick up a rock.

We also encountered a giraffe who was sniffing around the base of a sausage tree (named after the long, sausage-shaped green pods it produces). Our guide explained that she was looking for fallen flowers and pods to snack on. It’s not easy for giraffes to pick things up from the ground: first, they have trouble seeing directly in front of them since their eyes are located on the sides of their heads; and second, they can’t spend a lot of time with their heads lowered because too much blood will flow to their brains, leading to faintness and possibly death. So her hunt was a hit-or-miss operation. She would crouch down, lower her mouth to the ground, quicly try to pick up something with her mouth, then raise her head back up above heart level so that the blood could flow back down her neck. We watched her do this a few times, but the only success she had was in picking up a rock. She quickly spit it out when she realized it wasn’t what she was looking for.

Room at Pioneer Camp

We arrived early at Pioneer Camp and were able to enjoy the view from the lounge before dinner. I retired early and from the safety of my tent enjoyed listening to the activity outside: lions, cape buffalo, hyenas, zebras and a leopard were all active in and around the camp. (Animals do not bother visitors in their tents; if you need to leave your tent at night, a guard who is familiar with the local animals and their activities will escort you to make sure that you don’t cross paths with any unwelcome visitors.) I fell asleep to the soothing sound of rain falling softly on the thirsty savanna.

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