On my 5-day safari through Tanzania, a local guide told me the No. 1 thing that ruins the experience for tourists

Going on safari is not like visiting a zoo. Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider
  • On a recent five-day safari in Tanzania, I witnessed the Great Wildebeest Migration – when 1.5 million wildebeest travel across Tanzania’s grasslands to give birth – as well as numerous lions, elephants, and giraffes.
  • I was incredibly lucky on my safari, as few people see as many animals as I did. My guide, Charles Nnko of Tanzania Experience, told me that many safarigoers don’t see half as much on safaris that are twice as long.
  • Nnko said that the biggest mistake first-time safarigoers make is expecting the experience of going on safari to be like visiting the zoo.

Most days of the year, you can’t see Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain peak in Africa, even when you’re driving alongside it. The day I flew into Tanzania was not one of those days.

As I looked out the window driving back from the airport, the mountain’s flattened peak was visible behind the expanse of savannah grasses. Veins of snow flowed down the top.

“It means you are a lucky man,” said Anthony, the Tanzanian owner of a bed-and-breakfast in Arusha, the city closest to Tanzania’s most famous safari parks.

“I think you will be lucky and see all of the ‘big five,'” he said, referring to lions, elephants, buffalo, rhinos, and leopards – considered the animals most difficult to hunt.

He was laughing while he said it, but he wasn’t wrong. I was lucky.

Over a five-day safari to the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater, and Tarangire – the three parks that dominate Tanzania’s Northern Circuit – I had seen no fewer than seven prides of lions, many herds of wildebeest, zebra, African buffalo, and elephants, giraffes, two cheetahs, and a leopard.

On the final day of my safari, my guide, Charles Nnko of Tanzania Experience, spotted a pair of rhinos – the last of the big five I hadn’t seen – a mile or so in the distance. Through binoculars, I watched them munch grass.

A pair of rhinos are visible in the distance on the center right of the frame, below the shadow. Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider

Nnko told me throughout the safari how lucky I was. Most people who go on safaris for twice as long see half as much. Some never see anything at all. I was not taking any of it for granted.

Temper your expectations: Going on safari is not like going to a zoo

The day I left for the safari, Nnko warned me: If you expect going on safari to be like heading to the zoo, you are going to have a bad time.

After close to a decade of guiding city slickers like me on their first safaris, Nnko said he’d dealt with all kinds of people. Without fail, the ones who don’t enjoy their safari are the ones who go in with expectations about what they will see. When it doesn’t happen, they leave dejected.

It’s understandable. Safaris are expensive – costing a few thousand dollars at a minimum – and a long flight away for most travellers. In an ideal world, you’d go on safari for five days and come home with tales of a lion lunging into a gazelle, an elephant mother nurturing her calf, and a stampede of a thousand zebras crossing a river.

But going on safari is about going into the wild. Animals there could care less about your expectations. They’re worried about finding dinner or avoiding becoming it.

Outside of seeing the Great Wildebeest Migration in the Serengeti – it’s hard to miss 1.5 million wildebeest migrating if you visit at the right time – everything is up to chance.

Take, for example, my third day on safari, when I visited the Serengeti. After a few hours of seeing nothing but antelopes and zebras, we came upon a tree near the road where two cheetahs were lazing in the shade.

A cheetah I saw for a few moments. Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider

Within a minute of our arrival, one of the cheetahs stood up to stretch its legs, chirped at its companion, and walked off into the savannah. The second one followed soon after. If we had arrived five minutes later than we did, we never would have seen the cheetahs.

Aside from the fact that I was lucky to see a cheetah, Nnko explained that I was doubly lucky to see a pair. Cheetahs are usually solitary creatures. The two were likely a mating pair, he said.

Less than half an hour after that, we came upon a leopard adjusting its position in an acacia tree.

A leopard adjusting its position on an acacia tree. Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider

Leopards notoriously are one of the hardest animals to spot on safari, Nnko said, because they spend most of their time sleeping on tree branches that camouflage them.

If we had arrived even a minute or two after we did, the leopard would have already laid down on the branch and, Nnko said, it’s unlikely he would have spotted the animal. I didn’t see another one.

Therein lies one of the things no one tells you about going on safari. The Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater, and Tarangire have some of the densest populations of large animals in the world, so it’s not just finding where the animals are – it’s about being lucky enough to be there in the moment an animal becomes visible, from chancing upon a carcass that attracts hyenas to being in the savannah on the day the lion pride is ready to eat.