We decided to do a self-drive safari of Tanzania after I read all the reviews and blogs of other people’s self-drive experience. I figured that it wouldn’t be as difficult as many people have made it out to be, however, I was basing that on just the driving experience. If you haven’t already read my other post, Should I Do a Self-Drive Safari, you should read about the actual driving experience. What I didn’t take into account were the many other factors that come into play when dealing with a third-world country.
Whenever we told any of the locals that we planned to drive ourselves to the Serengeti, we received surprised looks, followed by concern. A couple of people said we weren’t allowed to go into the national parks without a guide or driver. Don’t believe them. A couple of places where we inquired about renting a 4-wheel drive, quoted us a much higher price, up to 50% more, for self-driving than with a driver. Even many of the people commenting on TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet warn against driving yourself. These are all scare tactics meant to encourage using tour operators. You can rent a vehicle and you can enter the park without a guide. It will cost you quite a bit for the 4WD rental, especially with places that don’t specialize in it.
We went with Arusha Fortes, because they have been renting self-drive vehicles for over 30 years. They were very good at explaining a lot of the complexities of entering the national parks. Their vehicles were well equipped with two spare tires, a high-lift jack, and pop-up rooftop tent. For our convenience, they let us use their Ngorongoro Park card, for a $20 convenience fee, preloaded with enough to cover our costs. The vehicle was tough and we drove it like the locals. Everything on the vehicle survived the journey, but some things were a little worse for the wear. The parking brake cable seemed to stretch out, the brakes squeaked something awful for a while after sitting in the mud for 3+ hours. All the bumpy roads also took their toll. The high-lift jack lost a very essential pivot pin, making it almost unusable. And a metal door alignment stop simply sheered off.
Test everything you’re getting. Chances are, not everything will work. Our stove was badly clogged. The cooking grate for the LP gas stove was bent, making cooking difficult. Even our can opener didn’t work properly.
Tanzania’s national parks charge some exorbitant entrance fees. Park fees for the Serengeti and Ngorongoro have increased recently and they are the most expensive park fees on the continent, if not the entire world. Our 4 days in the Serengeti cost nearly $640 just in park entrance fees. Compare that to 4 days in Yellowstone ($30), or 4 days in Krueger, South Africa ($79), or 4 days in Yala, Sri Lanka ($300).
The entrance fee for the two of us, and our vehicle was about $160 per day for each park. You pay the same if you are staying 24 hours or if you are just transiting through the park for 4 hours. Plus, going into the Ngorongoro crater itself costs extra. A maximum of 6 hours inside Ngorongoro crater costs $295, plus they insist that you have a guide, which you have to pay. Since we didn’t know this rule, I convinced them to let us go down into the crater without one.
I’m still wondering where that money goes because it obviously doesn’t go toward road maintenance. Nor does it pay for making the entrance process more efficient. It took nearly an hour to get my permit because the process is so convoluted and there is no documented procedure for us non-local drivers. A crowd of local drivers from all the various tour companies gather in no particular order at the entrances to pay the fees. For the Ngorongoro, there’s a queue to pay with a special park fee card, a queue to then get the handwritten permit, and then a check-in with the gate security to copy all the information into their ledgers. Entering the Serengeti isn’t much better except that I can use my own credit card instead of a special card. There are no signs or written procedures to refer to. It’s as if it is a secret club of safari drivers and I had to pass the trial-by-fire as the initiation.
Overnights at the public campsites within the parks are from $35-50 per person per night. For that, you get bathroom facilities, a cooking hut, non-potable water, and sometimes armed park rangers. Our hotel room cost less with better facilities. The campsites are opened to the animals, that is, there’s nothing to stop an animal from roaming into the camp. Which is why I felt better with our tent on top of our vehicle.
Of the three public camps in the Central Serengeti—Dik-Dik, Pimbi, and Nyani—Dik-Dik was the best. It had a great view of the plains, clean restrooms, and level campsites. In the Northern Serengeti, Lobo was the only public campsite available, but it’s not nearly as crowded as the ones further south. At Ngorongoro, we stayed in Simba B campground on the rim of the crater, and on a clear day, I’m sure it would have spectacular views of the crater.
The campsites in the Central Serengeti and Ngorongoro are very crowded during high season. Lots of tour companies save money by not using the special campsites and crowding into the public sites. Some acted as if it was their own private campsite and tried to dissuade us from staying there, but we weren’t easily swayed. Don’t let the private tour operators at the public campsites try to steer you to another camp or intimidate you by telling you the camp will be full. Spaces are first-come, first-serve and the tour operators aren’t allowed to crowd you out. A company called “G Adventures” was one of the worst offenders, acting like they owned the campsite and telling us where we could or could not park. Beware of them if they approach you. Ask them if it’s a public campsite and let them know you’re aware of the park rules. If they give you any problems, go to the park ranger’s office and report them.
Maps of the area are available, but they aren’t the best. Few have all the off-road tracks that criss-cross the park making it difficult to find our way to certain areas. If you’re new to navigating, unless you’re able to determine your own location, a map will do little good. A few reviews recommended an app called Tracks4Africa. I can’t recommend this app. Although it works offline without the need for cellular service, its maps are incomplete, especially for the Northern Serengeti, making it inconvenient at the very least. Taking a route without accurate information leads to dangerous situations when you’re in the middle of nowhere and there are wild animals involved.
Because of our GPS app, we took a little used route trying to get to the Mara River to observe the wildebeest crossing. The route seemed little used because the track itself wasn’t the most obvious at times, especially when crossing small streams. As it turned out, the small stream we tried to cross was actually a deep mud hole. We became stuck and despite my best efforts, we couldn’t get out. Since it was a little used track, we waited for over 3 hours. All the while, we honked the horn signaling S-O-S, tried to get the attention of a passing airplane, and generally took stock of our provisions. When another truck finally appeared, it was just dumb luck that the driver was trying to find a shortcut to get his Chinese clients to the airport. After a few minutes of sizing up the situation, we were freed from our muddy confinement, lucky to not have to spend the night in the middle of the Serengeti.
The proper route, as it turns out, was on a track that the GPS showed as a dead end. We ended up following several vehicles for about 2 hours to the Mara River crossing. Because we were stuck most of the morning, we ended up missing a small migration of wildebeest and only observed the aftermath. My recommendation is to find a good paper map to augment technology, but don’t hesitate to ask other drivers. Without their help, I’d probably still be driving around in circles.
Get fuel when you can. You never know when you might need it. There’s a petrol station in the village in Central Serengeti, near the Dik-Dik and Nimbi campsites, and one just outside of Ngorongoro Park in the small village. Our Landcruiser had two 75 liter tanks, for 150 liters total. Even with that much capacity, I topped off the tank in the Central Serengeti and still had to buy nearly 120 liters by the time I returned to Arusha. Most vehicles operating inside the parks use diesel fuel. Very few use gasoline, which isn’t always available inside the park.
Self-driving means self-sufficiency. That means supplying your own food, water and supplies. Our rental didn’t come with sleeping bags. We could rent one for $5 per day. For two bags and six days, that adds up to $60. We bought a couple local made blankets for less than $15 and donated them afterward. Our vehicle came with most of the necessary camping equipment, a canister of LP gas, cookware, table and chairs, and the optional electric cooler. We had to provision the food and water for 6 days, and the best place to do that is in Arusha before driving to the park.
Nakumat in Arusha as you leave town toward Ngorongoro has just about everything you’ll need as far as food and supplies go. Buy food that you know how to prepare. Be aware that the quality of many things, such as beef, aren’t the same as in your country. Don’t try to make anything too complicated. Stick to simple recipes as you’ll find you won’t really have enough time. Be aware of food storage. Fragile items need to be protected from all the bumping and shaking they’ll encounter. Take extra care of plastic bottled or canned items. Anything that rubs against something else will get damaged and could develop a leak. Eggs should be kept in the original packaging and wrapped in plastic bags for protection. Be sure to have the necessary items for dish washing and leftover food storage. Get plenty of paper towels and garbage bags. You’ll need them. Here’s a list of a few other things you’ll need
- Water, in 1.5 liter bottles. Get smaller bottles. We bought two large 5 liter bottles and one developed a leak in transit leaving us with just 5 liters. Buy extra, it’s cheap and you never know what might happen.
- Headlamp for cooking, where you need both hands, and other nighttime excursions. Bring extra batteries.
- Dishwashing paste and green scouring pad for the greasy dishes.
- Paper towels or a cloth rag for all the dust and mud.
- Personal wipes—if you’re not into cold showers.
- Two small plastic dishpans for washing. Buy them in Arusha.
- Waterproof boots or Tevas for when you get stuck in mud.
- Tow cable—be sure you have one in your truck.
- High-lift jack—make sure your truck has one of these and don’t let them give you a small bottle jack. You don’t want to have to crawl under the truck to lift it up.
- Binoculars, no explanation necessary.
- Leatherman tool for when things break or need adjustment from all the constant vibration in transit.
- Bungee cords to strap things down in the truck so they don’t bounce around.
- Earplugs, because the other people in camp are extremely noisy, especially the local cooks who stay up late and start early in the morning.
- Lighter—you can get matches locally but it’s just not as convenient.
- Wind block—aluminum foil would work, but you could be like the locals and use a large wicker basket.
- Small spice packets to season food, otherwise you’ll have to buy big packages.
- Paper maps—our highly recommended GPS app for my phone was totally inadequate and didn’t have all the correct routes. When in doubt, ask a local guide or driver.
- Camp towel, for when you need a shower after mucking around in the mud.
- Light sleeping bag. It actually gets cold at night.
- International Driver’s License. When you get stopped the police may ask to see it.
- A few polite Swahili phrases—hello, how are you?, thank-you, etc.—go a long way to helping the locals warm up to you, especially the police officer who just stopped you.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The local guides and drivers are usually very friendly and helpful. Just be sure to pay the kindness forward.