14th March 2013

Tanzania Safari – A history

Safari is a KiSwahili word that evolved from the Arabic safariya, meaning a voyage or expedition. Although Tanzanian Swahili uses it to describe undertaking a journey of any kind, and a popular radio jingle for Safari Lager sings merrily about the joys of ‘Safari, o Safari the beer on any safari journey’, for most people these days the word has one specific meaning: travelling to watch wildlife in the African bush, for the sheer interest and enjoyment of doing so.

A main attraction of the vast protected reaches of the Tanzanian safari landscape is its utterly raw, wild nature. Each day sees pure energy and instinct focused entirely on survival, life reduced to its most basic impulses, the absolutes of killing, feeding, reproduction. And yet no experience is guaranteed. Spotting different animals and birds is a matter of luck, diligence and some knowledge of their preferred habitats, but often your most breathtaking moments will be the least expected. An entire afternoon might be spent searching for a glimpse of a leopard, to find instead a vision of migrating wildebeest and zebra jostling for precious, dangerous minutes at a crocodile-haunted waterhole, or a herd of impala poised like dancers in a lovely sunlit glade.

One enduring truth of safaris, whether you are [a novice or] an old-timer, or even if you spend every day of the year guiding clients through the passions and pathways of the bush: every safari is different. Each venture into the bush brings new experiences, sights, sounds and smells, and always the possibility that you may be in the right place at the right time to witness something marvellous. 

The word ‘safari’ was introduced to English by Sir Richard Francis Burton, the scholar, explorer and linguist, fluent in 29 languages. Burton was so passionate about his studies of Arabic culture that on occasion he dyed his skin darker in order to travel to places not usually open to white men, and was the first European to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and through the closed city of Harar in Abyssinia.

Safari used to mean dangerous and unpalatable expeditions into the African interior, whether to plunder ivory and slaves for trade or to go on hunting sprees. But changing attitudes and ideals over the past couple of centuries have irrevocably altered the definition of safari. Now the images that the word conjures, aside from subtly co-ordinated khaki clothes, are of exploration into the wilds of the African bush motivated only by a fascination for beauty, natural life and adventure. The safari is now more progressively focused on conservation and no longer on conquest, except for the achievement of the experience itself.

The change in attitude began in the late 1800s, in the era of the first expeditions undertaken by international geographers, naturalists (Birchell, Harry Johnston), and hunters, (Cornwallis Harris, Fredrick Courtnay Selous), who began to realize the need for conservation of African wildlife and to work for it. East Africa became the focal point for such safaris, not least because the southern African wildlife had suffered such decimation at the hands of early hunters.

At this time too, more people began to travel for travel’s sake, simply to feed their curiosity and need for adventure, inspired by the writings and information filtering back from the strange African continent. Some of the greatest proponents of adventurous travel at this time were women[. Among those who demonstrated notable spirit] were the flamboyant feminist American Mary French Sheldon, who [single-handedly] ran a 150-porter trek from Zanzibar to Kilimanjaro in 1891, and the impressive Mary Hall, who made a successful trek from Cape Town to Cairo at 50. (Mary French Sheldon subsequently published a revealing, still readable account of her trip, entitled Sultan to Sultan: Adventures among the Masai and other tribes of East Africa

As more writings and news of the African colonies and protectorates drifted back to Europe and America, safaris developed a glamorous appeal. Hunting safaris in East Africa were the widely reported fun of the rich and famous, of film stars, aristocrats, the monarchy, or any millionaire rich enough to afford the pleasure. Theodore Roosevelt’s safari in 1909– during which an estimated 5,000 animals, including nine white rhinos, were killed – reportedly cost £15,000, and no doubt others succeeded in spending even more. At the turn of the twentieth century any safari into the bush required hundreds of porters to carry a vast cargo of goods for elaborately styled camping, particularly impressive when you consider that every single item was carried on foot. Even the white ‘masters’ would frequently be carried, borne between the shoulders of four strong men on a palanquin, a shady, often canvas ‘box’ contrived to rest on two long poles. So the safari industry was born in these early days, existing solely to cater to the demands of such high-rolling and demanding adventurers.

The invention of the motor car in the early 20th century considerably reduced the cost of such East African adventures, and hunting as the primary aim of safari was gradually superseded by a greater interest in wildlife and travel. Other modes of transport also became popular, including hot air balloons, following the Boyce Balloonograph Expedition of 1909, masterminded by a Chicago newspaper. The newly possible photographic safaris were well-publicised by Martin and Osa Johnson when they embarked on a five-year film trip in the 1920s, funded by George Eastman of Eastman-Kodak. The African wildlife safari was fast developing an ever-closer association with conservation.

Tanzania Safaris – today

Any extended trip into the wilderness of the African bush is necessarily a costly venture, after international airfares and internal travel, and with safety, comfort and possibly fully-catered camping all needing to be funded. But generally it has become less prohibitively expensive to experience the extraordinary beauty of the African wildlife, and the safari market has developed different levels of service to suit differing budgets.

During the last decade a much greater range of choice and style has become available in the furthest reaches of the African bush, from fly-in opulence to simple budget camping, with different operators appealing to widely different budgets and tastes. A number of fine lodges maintain a remarkable standard of style and finesse, even when the daily delivery of food and supplies from the nearest town entails at least six hours’ bumpy drive, and the cost of enjoying their luxury is often extravagant, but not ridiculous.

The methods and means of safari travel have also diversified, so that you may choose to watch wildlife from a specially adapted safari vehicle, a balloon, a boat, on horseback or, in the tradition of old, close-up and personal—on foot. Itineraries suitable for all different budgets, ambitions and experiences are available. The key is in preparation, and in choosing the right combination to suit you.

Tanzania Safaris 

Including the National Parks, Game Reserves, Conservation Areas and Marine Parks, Tanzania has set aside 38% of its overall landmass for conservation protection in some form or another. It is an impressive expanse. The Serengeti alone, just one of its twelve National Parks, is 7,000 square kilometres, comparative in size to Belgium, Wales or the state of Ohio; the Selous Game Reserve encompasses a greater region for conservation than any other in Africa. From east to west, south to north, the landscapes, eco-systems and altitudes vary dramatically within the different conservation areas to provide an incredible range of choice for safaris.

A safari in any of the parks, conservation areas or game reserves in Tanzania should not be undertaken lightly. Regardless of the enormous advances in modern safari-going, all safaris require pre-planning and preparation, especially if you wish to travel independently. Most people wishing to experience the magical spell of the East African bush venture into the wilderness accompanied by a driver-guide, and potentially cooks and bottle-washers if they are planning to camp. Thus the job of planning and equipping the safari is left in the hands of experts, while you need only worry about your camera, films, sun cream and the experience.

All safari-goers, independent or guided, should adhere to the rules for conservation and preservation as laid down by each park and region. These are discussed within the text for each park, below; a more complete instruction is available at each park gate when you pay your entry fees. At least one popular conservationist’s rule applies to all, and that is to ‘take only photographs, and leave only footprints’.

© Africa Odyssey, an Odyssey Travels Company

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