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On a sunken table in a sandpit, dinner is served. Surrounded by flickering lanterns and candles, I sip a smooth Pinot Noir, my feet resting in the powdery white sand of this quiet beach. I'm on my first international trip since the pandemic began, and I feel free and easy, as if transported back a couple of years, basking in the ocean's gentle roar and the distant glow of a million galaxies above.
In a way, it is the pandemic that has brought me to Zanzibar, the semiautonomous island off Tanzania's mainland. When Susan Neva, a private travel designer at the tour operator Alluring Africa, found that there were only twice-weekly direct flights from India, where I live, to Dar es Salaam, she suggested that I head to the island for a few nights before beginning my itinerary on the mainland. Many safarigoers head to Zanzibar to unwind before returning home, but the reverse was just what I needed. I lost the constant churn of my city-dweller mind in the ruffled waves and gentle wind, freeing me to be fully present for my time in the wild.
I had told Susan I was intrigued by Zanzibar's Stone Town, with its carved doors, spice bazaars, and historic church built on what was once East Africa's largest market of enslaved people. So she set me up with Muhammad Hamiz, a knowledgeable guide from ZanTours, on my first day, before I headed to the hotel at the other end of the island. A Zanzibari and a former physics schoolteacher, Muhammad has guided tourists for more than 15 years. Like all the Tanzanians I would meet, he is courteous, gentle, and soft-spoken. I longed to get a feel for the place and its culture, but we had only a few hours, so we went on an immersive walk. He showed me the gorgeous crumbling buildings of coralline ragstone that are the reason this Swahili trading town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, pausing often so I could sniff the aromatic vanilla and cloves at stores, pick up an invigorating cup of the local spiced coffee, and taste meat-stuffed sambusa while watching the sunset in the ocean-facing Forodhani Gardens. I had only just landed in Zanzibar, but thanks to Muhammad, I felt very much at home.
Perched over the hypnotic blues of a coral-reef lagoon, Matemwe Lodge offers what Asilia Africa, an eco-lodge pioneer in East Africa and partner to Alluring Africa, is known for: swanky suites in remote locations with stunning views. There is plenty to do, like the walk I take with Ibrahim, who has worked at the lodge for a decade and acts as my guide and translator at the nearby village and fish auction. I don't remember another time when I marked the hours at a hotel with such pleasure: watching the stars come out while floating in my chalet's plunge pool; sampling local treats, including the biscuit-like Swahili doughnuts; and lying in my hammock watching the elegant dhows sail as the fisherpeople walked far out into the ocean for their catch, enabled by waves that ebb for more than a half a mile at low tide.
The quickest transfer to the Serengeti right now, Susan has advised, is two connecting charter flights over three hours, from Zanzibar via Arusha, home to the mystical Mount Kilimanjaro and gateway to Tanzania's northern safari parks. (Transfers vary depending on season and demand.) But my destination is far from my mind as I watch spectacular landscapes unfold below: Tiny emerald isles in the vibrant blues of the Indian Ocean shift to dark-green plains shadowed by scudding clouds, followed by impressive mountains with a sheer drop to lush valley. The pilot points out Ngorongoro Crater, a vast and thriving volcanic caldera known as Africa's Garden of Eden, and the earthy browns of Olduvai Gorge, which holds evidence for 2 million years of human evolution. It is thrilling to get a bird's-eye view of such diverse and ancient land and yet see it in a way our ancestors couldn't have.
The central Serengeti is fabled land, known to deliver fast and furious game-viewing and home to the most camps. I step into the little Seronera Airstrip, within Serengeti National Park, and am greeted by the beaming Daniel Clement, my Tanzanian safari guide and driver from Asilia Africa's sophisticated Namiri Plains Camp. As I settle into the Land Cruiser, Daniel points to warm Maasai blankets, a fly-swatter, and an Asilia Africa parka in case of a seasonal shower. He pops open an icebox so I can sip a beer while he completes a few formalities at the airport. I taste three different beers with place-appropriate names: Safari, Serengeti, and Kilimanjaro. “If you can't climb Kilimanjaro, you drink it,” Daniel quips.
Namiri Plains Camp is nearly two hours from the airstrip, so Daniel suggests we go on safari en route rather than lose an afternoon. In the span of a couple of hours, I see more wildlife than on any safari I've been on in India, where the animals and terrain are spectacularly different. With the SUV all to myself and Daniel as my insider, this feels like an all-access VIP tour. I enjoy the details Daniel picks out in the landscape: lappet-faced vultures (Africa's largest) cuddling in their nests on tree branches; the deep red of a male ostrich indicating his breeding readiness; the whistling acacia's swollen thorns and leaf nectar, which woo ants to protect it from hungry animals; a redheaded rock agama lizard bobbing its head to ask a female for consent to mate; drama-loving hyenas always spoiling for a fight. We join five SUV vehicles around four lionesses panting in the heat. I think this will be as good as it gets, but we are only just beginning.
Namiri plains camp is located in Soit Le Motonyi, in the eastern Serengeti. The region was closed for 20 years, until 2014, to foster the cheetah population. This camp was the first to open the area to travelers, partnering with the Serengeti Cheetah Project as a conservation initiative. Its seclusion makes for spectacular and intimate viewing, and the camp is no less fabulous, with a spa, an outdoor pool beside a library exhibiting the skull of a legendary local lion, and chic tented suites that come with tubs overlooking the bush.
The grasslands of the Serengeti are vast open plains, their flatness broken by a spattering of acacia trees, termite mounds, and rocky outcrops. I feel strangely at home in this landscape, with its tawny lions and cheetahs hidden in the golden grass, wild skies above with astounding cloud forms, and, always, a column of rain on the horizon. With its epic scale, the savanna is made for dreaming wide and feeling free.
Asilia Africa has a rigorous guide-training program, part of which involves moving guides among camps to deepen their knowledge. Daniel, who has been guiding for eight years, has been with Namiri Plains Camp for six months but knows the best spots. Often he and I are the only people at a sighting. Something passes in the wordless exchange when an animal meets your gaze. Everything slows down and becomes clear for a moment.
Daniel cautions that a bull elephant in musth can be volatile and aggressive, but luckily we encounter one in a gentle moment, glancing at us through long-lashed eyes but so drowsy he can barely lean against a tree for support. Another morning, we are the only witnesses to a cheetah's successful takedown of a gazelle. Though cheetahs are the fastest land animals, their speed is fleeting. Its toll leaves them vulnerable to other predators, so they have to eat quickly and exit. Fewer than 7,100 remain in the wild. It is haunting to think that a creature of such sinuous grace could become extinct.
The intimate access to the wild is surreal, and the day that I feel truly immersed in it all is the morning Daniel decides to drive across the central Serengeti to Asilia Africa's Dunia Camp. Over the next few hours, we are the only humans to witness lionesses nuzzling their cubs amid an orchestra of exasperated maternal grunts and hungry mewls. The animals are accustomed to being watched, Daniel has told me, having grown up seeing their mothers comfortable around observers. The vehicle is our safe pass; it masks the threat of our unfamiliar scents, and all is well as long as we make no fast movements or loud noises.
Still, I feel a slight frisson when a lioness flops down right below me. Daniel lays a dining cloth on the armrest, opens vessels of delicious salads, quiches, muffins, eggs, sausage, and bacon, and steeps the insanely good Tanzanian coffee. Two males slouch into the shade thrown by our vehicle, so we are surrounded by the pride. It is an impossible moment of harmony, a breakfast I'll never forget.
The drive to the elegant Dunia Camp would have been worthwhile just to visit the continent's first women-run camp—where I am welcomed by the best singing and dancing on my trip—and to appreciate its woodland bustling with hippos, giraffes, and impalas. But Daniel's decision really pays off when we come upon the first few hundred of the nearly 1.2 million wildebeests and 300,000 zebras making their way back south across the Serengeti ecosystem, following the rains. This is the world's largest unaltered animal migration, and even a preview is breathtaking. The wildebeests, a blue sheen on their brown coats, drift ceaselessly like the wind across the plains, their loud brays mingling with the high-pitched barks of the equally skittish zebras, who form ever-moving striped tapestries. As we head back to camp for my last “bush TV” (campfire cocktails with guests), I know that I will, even months later, stop and wonder what is happening at the Serengeti that moment.
Also part of the Serengeti ecosystem and reached by a 40-minute flight from the Seronera airstrip, Ngorongoro Crater is the world's largest intact volcanic caldera. It is the largest of nine craters that formed in the highlands when a volcano that would have rivaled Kilimanjaro collapsed 2.5 million years ago. At Lake Manyara Airport, my guide and driver Festo Kiondo, from Asilia Africa's The Highlands, is waiting in a Land Cruiser with ginger ale and snacks ready for the two-and-a-half-hour drive to camp. We stop at the crater viewing point to peek at the lush bowl lidded by huge clouds.
Once I'm at The Highlands, thoughts of safari vanish at the sight of my funky geodesic tent with its cozy woodstove, hide rugs, and acrylic front overlooking sunset on the mountains. Assistant headwaiter Eric Matiko makes the best cocktails, like a Highlands buttered rum with rooibos and cinnamon that staves off the chilly evenings.
At Ngorongoro, an experienced guide is key. Festo, who has a tourism diploma and has worked in four national parks, has been at the Ngorongoro Conservation Area for more than nine years. He quickly angles for the best vantage spots from which to observe the African darters and oxpeckers riding on submerged hippos, and knows just the sheltered nook in the busy picnic site for our hamper of fried chicken and salads with rosé. As the lone vehicle at an elephant crossing, we have an incredible moment when a herd is ambushed by an enormous bull in musth. Trumpeting blasts shatter the air, giving me goosebumps. Festo talks me through the drama as the bull ignores the matriarch to diligently sniff for a female in estrus. A smaller bull joins in. I am on tenterhooks from the reverberating trumpeting and tension between the herd and the bulls. But it isn't their day, and after 15 minutes, the ellies round up and move on, leaving the bulls picking at the ground disconsolately while we all sigh in collective relief.
The highlands are a dramatic backdrop for the rich wildlife. While driving to the lesser-frequented Empakaai Crater for a hike, I look up to see a golden jackal poised on a ridge. He's not a big creature, but he stands with a quiet majesty as a nimbus cast by the sun sets his coat aflame. In the Maasai's Maa language, ngorongoro is the tinkling of cowbells, and it's common here to see zebra grazing alongside cattle—they feel safer around the herdsmen and often follow the cattle home. The Maasai believe their cows are a divine gift and, though they drink their milk and blood, they don't eat their meat, explains The Highlands' Peter Mwasuni, a Maasai guide who has been with the lodge since it opened in 2016. On the drive to Empakaai, he points out three mountains: Loolmalasin, Tanzania's third-highest; the distant Kilimanjaro, wreathed in clouds; and, northeast of the Empakaai rim, Ol Doinyo Lengai, the Maasai's Mountain of God. It is the world's only volcano to spew natrocarbonatite lava, which turns white when it cools.
It is a beautifully clear day, and the alkaline lake on the Empakaai Crater floor is dotted pink with lesser flamingos. The climb is steep and my pace is slow, but Peter and Alais, a ranger who accompanies us, talk about Maasai life and point out pretty but poisonous berries, shy blue monkeys, and the strangler fig trees that the Maasai revere.
I had imagined the long drive back to the airport would be gloomy, but Festo catches on to my love for music. He plays his latest favorites, translating the Swahili lyrics and talking about the spread of South Africa's amapiano musical movement across the continent. I have had that rare trip where each day has been so wholesome and free-flowing that I feel I have fully lived each one, leaving me with memories so vivid that I know I will return here in dreams.
Day 3: After months of shut-in, a hammock and pool day at my ocean-facing chalet at Matemwe Lodge was a completely restorative nature immersion.
Day 4: The journey is as rewarding as the destination when you’re taking charter flights from Zanzibar to the Serengeti over ancient and immensely diverse landscapes, across ocean, lakes, mountains, and savannah.
Day 6: Breakfast with the lions (and no one else) in the Serengeti—the sort of impromptu safari experience that is part gift from the bush, part the skill of an experienced guide. And witnessing the first hundreds of the great migration!
Day 8: Shaken and stirred by the reverberating blasts of a furious elephant herd as the only humans on the scene in Ngorongoro Crater—still gives me goosebumps!
How this trip came together
Alluring Africa's Susan Neva was great for two reasons: She worked to understand my ideal trip through a series of calls and emails, and then she set up a journey that turned out better than I expected. It helped that Susan, who grew up in South Africa before moving Stateside, has worked in the travel industry for 30 years. This was my first time in Tanzania, and I wanted to see everything I could without feeling rushed. Susan keyed Zanzibar into my itinerary to make the most of my travel time. Having taken frequent trips by herself, she anticipated my needs as a solo traveler, walking me through everything in her predeparture briefings. She gave me tips, like carrying soft-sided luggage for the charter flights, and arranged a COVID-19 test in the Serengeti in time for my flight out. I had a contact for every point in my itinerary. Plus, all the tickets and travel information were on the TravelKey app, which I was able to access without a cell signal, and I had Susan on WhatsApp. The guides she set me up with went the extra mile too, like Daniel, who drove three hours across the Serengeti so that I could see even more.
Alluring Africa offers a nine-night Tanzania trip in Zanzibar, the Serengeti, and Ngorongoro Crater from $8,900 per person, with half-board in Zanzibar, and, on safari, full-board, guided game drives and hikes, and airport transfers; alluringafrica.com. All listings featured on Condé Nast Traveler are independently selected by our editors. If you book something through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission.