Safari and Spice

A tantalizing journey to the paradise of Tanzania.

ZANZIBAR ISLANDERS play checkers 370 (photo credit: sarah levin)
ZANZIBAR ISLANDERS play checkers 370
(photo credit: sarah levin)
“And God said, Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind, cattle, and creeping things, and beasts of the earth after the kind; and it was so” (Genesis 1:24)
No more will iguanodons be seen, or brontosaurus, or old diplodocus, or the dragons that flew like birds, or the dodo that lost his power to fly. Gone are they all. But if a modern-day Garden of Eden still exists, it’s the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. It’s about as close to the Garden of Eden one can get on earth today. The serene setting is stage to the most dramatic wildlife interactions imaginable, with 700,000 animals. The park is ecstatically beautiful and excitingly entertaining.
It’s like watching Wild Kingdom in real-time. No two days are the same. For that matter, no two hours are the same.
It’s hard to express the magic of four-wheeling from place to place, spotting a cheetah and her newborn cubs, and then racing to see a pride of 14 lions under one tree before they flee in search of their evening prey, and on the way stop to see a pack of female elephants washing in the freshwater pools while a lone patriarch walks off into the distance, only to see a rhino along the horizon – all in two hours’ time.
Tanzania is just one of those places. Once you experience the sensational safari menagerie, getting up-close and personal with a few of the 126 African tribes, and the cherished Spice Islands of Zanzibar, and last, but not least, seeing and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, your soul will long to go back time and again.
One of the best ways to go is via the Tel Aviv-based Safari Company, which recently brought a group of hearty travelers to the African paradise.
“It’s one of those places I really didn’t want to go to but my wife talked me into it,” said Canadian Craig Stancin, whom I met there. “Something put all these animals here. Everything is unique in the ecosystem in that they are all dependent upon one another. It’s pretty spectacular. I’m glad we came.
We’ve been in many places in the world but this is by far one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
Larger than Israel, the Serengeti ecosystem of vast plains, making up 1.5 million hectares of savannah and covering the Masai Mara Game Reserve, the Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Grumeti Game Controlled Area, Ikorongo Game Reserve, Masaw Game Reserve and Loliodo Game Controlled Area, is one of the most impressive nature spectacles in the world.
Passing the gates of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a massive caldera formed nearly three million years ago following a volcanic collapse, is like passing into another world, in which the animals are the natives. The NCA is often referred to as the cradle of civilization, with 30,000 animals from every species in the world, except two, encompassing some 8,280 square kilometers of plains, forests, and lakes, all living harmoniously together.
The annual migration of two million wildebeests and hundreds of thousands of gazelles and zebras, is followed by their predators. One of the most exhilarating and heartrending experiences in the world is watching a wildebeest stampede. In the madness of the moment, calves get separated from their mothers, and as soon as the mothers realize, they turn back, creating a two-way chaos within a cacophony of calls.
TO EXPERIENCE the animals in a Serengeti safari, one needs an accomplished guide. I was lucky to have a handsome scout from the Chugga tribe named Harlequin Mlay, who is not only a competent driver, but has an intimate knowledge of the animals in the bush.
We were not allowed to get out of our cars in many places, but at a safe distance in the jeep, it’s thrilling to see the bruchelli zebras, lions, hyenas, buffaloes, wildebeest, olive baboons, jackals, cheetahs, gazelles, eland, mountain reedbucks, Egyptian geese and great white pelicans, just to name a few, hanging out together.
The first camp we stayed at was Kuhuma Camp, located in Ndutu in the southeast Serengeti plains, a mobile camp put up for a few months according to the moves of the migratory animals.
We enjoyed a hot meal of spicy chicken followed by a 20-liter hot water “bucket” shower.
With the sweet serenading of nature, I gently dozed off to sleep in the most comfortable bed and soft duvet in the middle of nowhere. A special experience was that of sleeping in the bush surrounded by wild animals where all that is between one and them is a canvas tent. It is thrilling to sleep in the bush as one hears the different animals’ sounds at close range, especially the roaring of the lions.
You’re not counting sheep, you’re counting lions.
We were awoken by the most stupendous voice in nature: the voice of the lion with its ground-shaking roars that sometimes unnerves animals so that they are incapable of flight. It sounded like a slow-moving train getting closer and louder. Just when you thought the roar couldn’t get any louder, it stopped.
One has a sense of security because of the ever-vigilant Maasai who wander freely all over the conservation area, and are paid to watch over tired tourists like myself.
At the crack of dawn we saw the most brilliant sunrise imaginable, as the sky was bathed in different shades of yellow that turn into pale blue, and we drove along and saw two lions stalking and eating their prey.
With all the precision of a military maneuver, Harlequin found a pride of lions in the candelabra trees.
The majestic appearance of the male lion is crowned by a great mane, sometimes black, but always darker than the tawny skin.
From here we drove to the permanent Pioneer Camp site located on a top of a high hill that overlooks the Serengeti. This camp is the ultimate in luxury.
It has to be kept in mind that this is placed in the middle of the bush. It has a small swimming pool and a long sightseeing deck fitted out with the most comfortable seating accommodations, even if one is immobile.
Care is given to accommodate persons in wheelchairs and those who have difficulty in walking, short-distance drives are offered so that people with special needs can also view the animals at these select spots, or simply sit and look at them from the deck.
Sitting on the deck you feel like you’re master of the universe, with the animal world stretched out in front of you.
It was also here that we made an attempt to see the “big five”: the African elephant, the African buffalo, also known as the Cape buffalo, the black and white rhinoceros, the lion, and the elusive leopard. Within an hour we had the pleasure of viewing four of the biggest, scariest creatures on earth – from a safe distance, through the window of the jeep, of course.
Unfortunately we were too late to see the leopard, which had left the area in search of his next meal.
Fortunately, it was not me.
Then, at sunrise, an amazing hot-air balloon ride offered a bird’s-eye view of the Serengeti to see the hippo pools and the movement of the animals over the grassy savannah. The experience was intense, and a wonderful time to just find yourself in your own peaceful existence floating in the air above God’s creations.
This unforgettable experience was topped off by a wonderful champagne breakfast in the bush, with water buffaloes and eagles eyeing your grub.
From here we were taken by a small plane to the Arusha airport, on the way to Zanzibar. Flying over the Serengeti gives you a feeling of empowerment and the wonders of the universe.
WHILE WAITING for your connecting flight in Arusha, you can take a short drive to a special shopping site which also serves as a cultural heritage shopping center focusing on the African handicrafts – beadwork, finely beaten copper, utensils, and wooden statues of all shapes and sizes, as well as large pieces of furniture.
After some hours allocated to shopping, one flies to the Spice Islands, for which Zanzibar is unique. Leaving the Serengeti was heartwrenching, but landing in Zanzibar and just standing on the paradise island made up for it.
Located in East Africa off the coast of Tanzania, flanked by Kenya and Mozambique, the archipelago consists of two semi-autonomous islands, the main island of Unguja or Zanzibar, 1,500 square kilometers in size, with 23 nearby islands, and 48 km. north the companion isle of Pemba with 15 isles. Another spice island – named Mafia – is governed by the mainland.
If traveling to Zanzibar directly through Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, or flying in from a safari on the Serengeti to brush the dust off and chill poolside, the equatorial climate is perfect anytime with an average temperature of 25º, but it can be as high as 39º.
July to September is perfect, with the southerly Kusi winds’ arrival. The Kaskazi winds from December to April are also ideal, for wind makes the hot periods bearable. February is the warmest, while August is the coolest.
The Swahili islands’ prevailing trade winds made it a suitable jumping-off point for trading and exporting of cloves and spices for centuries. In the middle of the 18th century Zanzibar was powerful on the mainland and active in the slave trade, until the British mandate after World War I. Now, the Anglican Christ Church Cathedral stands on the site of the slave market, where 1,000 slaves a week were sold.
Zanzibar’s enchanting diving holes, and secluded coves with private coastal getaways, are a major honeymooners’ attraction that anyone can enjoy. Choose from the sensuous spices and floral aromas, the magical, glistening-coral stone of Stone Town, dhow makers, weavers and witch doctors.
The Kilindi Zanzibar five-star boutique hotel consists of 15 private beach bungalows where butlers attend to all one’s needs. There is no set menu as such, one can order whatever one fancies, even kosher food, and there is a wide variety of top-shelf liquor generously dispensed at no cost.
The chief chef says, “Kosher meals are no problem.
I love shopping in the market for special foods for our guests. It’s one of the pleasures of my job.”
Designed by composer Benny Andersson, formerly of the Swedish pop group ABBA, staying at KZ is like living inside in a seven-star tree-castle inside the The Jungle Book surrounded by tropical rainforests.
Here the focus is mainly on privacy. The living accommodations are of a very high standard, especially the bathroom and private pools outside one’s room.
Take a swim at sunrise in the aqua-blue, crystalclear Indian Ocean and return for a refreshing shower in the most amazing shower room imaginable. The shower room is a massive, round, freestanding room with large, arch-shaped windows overlooking the jungle and sea. The shower-head, the size of a stop sign, hangs in the middle of the high gabled ceiling, as if you are taking a shower outside in the open air.
The shower alone is worth it all.
For the non-beachcomber, KZ is a birdwatcher’s and nature lover’s paradise.
In the middle of the night don’t be surprised if you are awakened by sounds you’ve never heard before.
Lie back and listen to the peaceful serenade of singing tropical birds and the chatter, barks, screams, chirps and grunts of the mischief-makers just a stone’s throw away in the jungle outside.
The pulsing rhythm of the nighttime jungle and the enthralling echoes of the bushbabies, small nocturnal primates that look and scream like babies, is bewildering. From my perch I thought I caught a glimpse of Tarzan and Jane swinging around, but maybe it was the red colobus monkeys.
At sunrise, some of the most exquisite and rarest birds in the world are at your fingertips. Leave a fruit platter out in your room overnight, and by daybreak, Eastern golden weavers, red bishops and lilac-breasted rollers have flown inside through the cracks of the woodenslatted veranda shutters to partake of your berries.
For a little exercise to burn off the scrumptious delicacies at KZ, join the friendly, openhearted guys playing soccer along translucent-white seashores lined with mango and coconut palms. If you want, they will gladly climb up and get a huge one.
For snorkelers and swashbucklers, Safari Blue Tours awaits you. Learn how to cut fresh coconut using your feet like vice grips and heel the lateen sails on a hand-carved dhow.
There’s nothing more calming than snorkeling side-byside with the majestic dolphins, turtles and rays skirting with the colorful fish and coral of all shapes and sizes in the Menai Bay Marine Conversation Area, off the coast of Fumba, a village about 20 minutes from Stone Town. Experienced divers accompany you so you don’t have to worry.
Bring your underwater camera, and they’ll dive down and get a few close-up shots for you. Ask Ronit Hershkovitz, owner of the safari company, and the organizer of all its tours, and she’ll explain how to get the true safari blue.
END THE day with a scrumptuous meal on a secluded island, and then set-off full sail into the distant sunset back to shore, feeling like a satisfied king.
Another recommended lodging is Stone Town in the old city of Zanzibar. Built from limestone and coral, the intricate narrow streets, door-to-door markets, souvenir shops and mosques makes it a bustling, thriving, living city of conglomerate nationalities.
Before the 1964 revolution, Stone Town was predominately Arab, a place where Africans worked but were not allowed to live. The gates opened and closed by a pealing bell in the mornings and afternoons. But over time, the city changed and Africans started to live in town and marry Arab women.
Immigration from Africa, India and the Middle East solidified this heterogeneous city of today. A symbolic bell still tolls twice daily in the form of an electric siren, similar to the one that announces the arrival of Shabbat in Jerusalem.
The people who live in Stone Town are unique in the way they live, the way they share their love, and the way they communicate. When you meet someone you immediately know they live here. It’s a little bit different.
In one building you will find a few families living together.
These houses are quite big and all the kids play outside.
“There is a lot of magic in Stone Town, much more than people think and know,” says Jason Barry, director of marketing, media and communications at Elewana Collection. “It hides an entire world that we haven’t seen. A lot of the things you will see, and how people are living, is how they were living a hundred years ago.
You can actually go back in time and see how people lived two or three hundred years ago, and this is what I love about the old town.”
The night market in the Forodhani Gardens is for the locals the place to go and eat. The atmosphere is very similar to Marrakesh, where the locals also come out in the evening to dine, chat and congregate.
The waterfront park lights up at sunset with mouthwatering smells of vendors cooking traditional delicacies of flash fried fish curries, shishkebabs, and Zanzibar pizza, a fried roti folded around your choice of filling, either minced beef, onions, chilies, spices, cheese, mayonnaise, and a raw egg, or banana and chocolate mix for a dessert, or urojo, a thick mango and tamarind soup served alongside chickpea fritters, boiled potatoes, cassava flakes, chutney, and as much hot sauce as you dare.
Lodging in the historical part of town is indispensable for Stone Town to be experienced, but access through the narrow, cobblestoned alleyways can be problematic with luggage.
Originally part of the Royal Palace and historically known as the House of Fire, The Seyyida, the Princess, is easily accessible in the heart of Stone Town, provides personal service and is reasonably priced.
From the rooftop cafe it’s mesmerizing to get a bird’s-eye view of the palace and courtyard of mausoleums of all of the sultans of Zanzibar, except one.
I couldn’t help but to stop and think about the history of these men resting before me. The second sultan, Sayyid Sir Barghash bin Said al-Busiad, helped abolish the slave trade in Zanzibar by signing a series of agreements with Britain starting in 1822, and finally closing the slave trade market in 1876.
Of him wrote the British Consul: “[He was] most truly every man’s friend: he wishes to do good to all.”
AND THEN, there’s the “icing” on the island.
Zanzibar is still famous as the Island of Cloves. The Spice Islands have lured visitors for centuries.
At the end of the 17th century Harameli bin-Saleh got special permission to take back a small quantity of seeds and plants from Mauritius. This was the beginning of clove cultivation on the Spice Islands and became the principal crop. In 1872 a tsunami wiped out the crop on Zanzibar, leaving Pemba with 80 percent of the market.
Normally we see spices in tins and plastic packets, but to actually see the living source is what makes this experience so special, even for a someone such as myself who is averse to the kitchen and hates to cook.
The tourist spice tours are spread over a few spots in the island, a shared village farming settlement 30 minutes north of Stone Town that’s preserved by the government for resident farmers to show off the pride of their island: avocadoes, bananas, cashews, cinnamon, citrus, cloves, cocoa, coconuts, ginger, henna, iodine, jackfruit, lemons and limes, lipstick trees, lychees, mangoes, millet, nutmeg, papayas, pepper, sweet potatoes, starfruit, turmeric, vanilla, yams and ylang ylang are grown side by side.
Amid the soft rustling of tropical flowering trees, herbs and grasses, the luminous green canopy with echoing songbirds, and the most unimaginable fragrances emanating from all around you, stimulating all five senses, your mind and body tingle.
All Zanzibaris understand the plants and trees of the island and how to use them as medicines. When they are sick, they don’t like to visit doctors or take tablets. They prefer to harvest bark, leaves and roots and stew up their own remedies.
Spice Tours guide Smiley Usee takes out a sharp knife and says, “Around the Mr. Kato Spice Farm we are going to see different kinds of plants and tree groves. Spices are types of leaves or seed products taken from the tree which give it that special color, fruity flavor and different kind of tastes. First we start by seeing the spices. I’ll crush the leaves and give you time to smell, and to guess what kind of spice it is.
And finish with a man singing Swahili songs ‘Jambo Bwana’ and ‘Malaika,’ while climbing the coconut tree to bring fresh coconut to taste. You must stand away when the coconut drops.”
Peeling seeds back, cutting bark, digging up roots, crushing leaves, Smiley shows off his goods, every spice from A to Z.
It’s a fitting way to end the journey, which is all about getting back to the roots of life. Maybe Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were referring to Tanzania when they sang, “Got to get back to the land, and set my soul free. We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon, and we got to get ourselves back to the garden,” because the Serengeti and the Spice Islands are about as close to the garden as one can get. ■
The writer was a guest of Safari Company.