Flights to Africa can be long, but they don’t have to be uncomfortable. Condé Nast Traveller reports that South African Airways provides the second most legroom in the world at an average of 33.5 inches.
South African Airways flies not only to its namesake but also to Namibia and Zimbabwe. It’s a great choice when you’re planning a safari to southern Africa.
Cape Town is among South African Airways’ most popular destinations, and for good reason. On the coast, it’s a great place to start a land-and-sea safari, introducing you to penguins, seals, and other creatures you wouldn’t see inland. Spending a day or two there can also help you adjust to the time difference before you embark to the wilds, and also introduce you to the country’s diverse and vibrant cultures.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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 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.
View of pool and Indian Ocean at Shooting Star, Zanzibar, Tanzania.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
We were sorry to say goodbye to the rustic comfort of Serian Mara after just one night, but it was time to head back to Nairobi and then home. After breakfast, we headed out for a short game drive on our way to the airstrip.
The last giraffe we saw on our trip.
A group of elderly cape buffalo.
Our driver and guide were two young men from the local Masai community. William, our guide, pointed out dik diks, topi and numerous other animals on our way. He told us that pumba, the Swahili word for warthog, is related to the word for stupid and that the swine got their name from their habit of running only a short distance and then suddenly stopping while being chased by predators. He called topi, a large antelope with a brown body and blue-black fur on its legs, “the blue jeans of Africa.”
We arrived at the airstrip and waited only 5 minutes before the plane landed and it was time to get on board. The plane was tiny, but the ride was surprisingly comfortable. We made two stops to pick up passengers in other parts of the Masai Mara before the final leg of our journey to Nairobi.
Boarding our Air Kenya flight from Masai Mara to Nairobi.
View from the airplane – if you look closely you can see hippos on the island.
We arrived at Wilson Airport, a hub for regional flights within Kenya. Before heading to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport for our flights back home, we stopped for lunch at Carnivore, a popular restaurant that serves a variety of all-you-can-eat meats. Meats such as ostrich, lamb, crocodile, chicken, beef, turkey and camel are roasted over an open fire on Masai sword skewers. Servers then come around to each table, carving slices of meat to order for each guests. In addition to meat, we enjoyed the classic Kenyan cocktail called dawa. This mix of lime, honey, raw sugar and vodka was first made popular in Nairobi and has spread in popularity throughout Africa.
It was a lovely way to toast the end of a wonderful journey, Kenyan-style.
I’m currently hovering approximately 30,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean en route to Nairobi, Kenya. My digs are a first class seat Ethiopian Airlines graciously provided as a thanks for past business. My travel companion is Kathryn Kingsbury, my communications assistant. It’s been 25 years since I flew first class (that was an upgrade and not related to business) and it is pretty swanky – right down to the menu. For lunch I started with sesame seared Ahi tuna, followed by a traditional Ethiopian course, and a main course of wild mushroom ravioli with grilled asparagus, roasted peppers, tomato and béchamel sauce. Yum!
Other than the first class food, one might wonder why travel Ethiopian Airlines. There are several considerations:
• Cost: An Ethiopian Airlines coach ticket costs $200-400 less on average than Delta/KLM (its major U.S. competition for flights to East Africa). Business/first class is usually $2,000-4,000 less.
• Arrival time: When arriving to East Africa via Ethiopian, you typically arrive in the early to late afternoon, while Delta/KLM arrives in the evening. Depending on where you’re staying the first night, a KLM arrival usually means about a 10 p.m. check-in. Tomorrow we arrive at 1 p.m. to Nairobi, which gives us a little time to acclimate to the new time zone and recover from the long flight. The downside of departing the U.S. on Ethiopian is that there is just one flight a day at 11:00 a.m. from Washington-Dulles; unless you live in the eastern part of the U.S., you’ll need to arrive the night before and overnight near the airport. This does break up an otherwise long itinerary and also reduces the likelihood that a delay or cancellation in your domestic flight will cause you to miss the international leg.
• Departure time: Ethiopian flights depart East Africa in the late afternoon, whereas KLM flights leave in the late evening. The nice thing about this is you arrive back to the U.S. a little earlier.
• The service: From check-in through the flight itself, we’ve found the personnel to be friendly, attentive and patient. They help make a 13-hour flight a lot more enjoyable.
• Ethiopian is a partner in the Star Alliance, which has 27 affiliated airlines, including United and US Airways. This opens up domestic flight options to connect to Washington-Dulles. The only other departure point in the Northern Hemisphere where Ethiopian also operates out of is Toronto, making its partnership with Air Canada another option for travel.