Friday, February 7, 2014

Sisters on a Serengeti Safari

Good morning, Serengeti! 
The morning after Christmas, Beth and I woke up at 4:30 am to start our long day of traveling to Tanzania. After our seven hour bus ride to Kigali, we paused for lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant with a couple friends before continuing on to the Rusumo, at the Tanzania/Rwanda border, another four hours on a bus. It was already dark by the time we arrived in Rusumo, and though I’d visited a year earlier to see Rusumo Falls with my friend Megan, there was a lot of new construction going on and I didn’t recognize a thing. Luckily, a helpful Rwandan man who worked in Rusumo offered to show us a place to stay.
Rusumo Falls, at the Tanzania/Rwanda border
We arrived at a nondescript bar down a dark road close to the border, which also seemed to have rooms to stay in. I went into their tiny reception office, where bugs were swarming the single bare lightbulb in the room. When I asked about prices, the receptionist asked if I wanted a room by the hour or for the whole night (the mark of a truly classy place!).
At 3,000 francs per night (about $5), the price was certainly right, and since we didn’t know of any other place to stay, we agreed to stay. Our room was bare except for a bed and mosquito net. Beth and I were both dying for a shower after a long day on buses, but there was no running water in the entire place, and our dreams were quickly dashed. After getting a dinner of omelettes at another nearby bar with excruciatingly slow service, we turned in for the night, trying to take the “ignorance is bliss” route when it came to the cleanliness of the bed linens.
The next morning we were up bright and early to try to beat the lines and buses that clog the border immigration offices. By 7 am, we had gone through the Rwandan side of immigration, and were headed over the pounding waters of Rusumo Falls to the Tanzania side. I mentally congratulated myself on beating the rush as we crossed over into Tanzania with little hassle, until we arrived on the Tanzania side to find that no buses were leaving for Kahama, our destination, for another three hours. Fantastic.

View from my seat on a long, hot bus ride
We waited around, had some tea and chapatti, and then finally we were on our way to Kahama. We transferred buses in Kahama and finally arrived in Mwanza on Lake Victoria at about 8 pm that night, after about 13 hours of travel by bus, where we met up with our Swedish friends, Emmy and Josephine.

The following day, Josephine and I were up at 4:30 am to wait for our guide and driver from Serengeti Expeditions, but due to a miscommunication, we didn’t meet up with them until about 6:30 am. After paying and filling out our paperwork, we were on our way to the Serengeti, about two and half hours drive from Mwanza.

The four of us girls had our own safari vehicle with a pop up roof, so you could stand up with your head out the top. The Serengeti was unbelievable. Even if you see zero animals, the scenery itself is stunning. There are rolling hills, flat grasslands that stretch for miles, and acacia trees dotting the landscape.

Over the next two days, we were lucky enough to see crocodiles, hippos, giraffes, zebras, antelope, gazelles, lions, cheetahs, water buffalo, hyenas, a leopard, warthogs, baboons, and elephants. I had to pinch myself several times during the trip to make sure it was all real.

That night, we arrived at Nyani campsite in the middle of the Serengeti. With the help of our guide and driver, we set up our two tents amidst about a hundred others. There was nothing between us, the vast plains of the Serengeti, and all of the animals. Which was both exciting and slightly terrifying at the same time. Things slid towards the “terrifying” end of the scale later that night, when a girl started screaming around 2 am. It wasn’t just one scream, but several loud, blood-curdling, high-pitched screams. Other people at the camp site called out in different languages, “What’s happening?!” “What’s going on?!”

 Eventually the screaming stopped, but I had no idea what had just happened, and my mind raced towards worst-case scenarios. The camp is probably being attacked by lions. Or maybe hyenas, don’t they hunt at night? I somehow fell back to sleep, and the next morning we found that a girl on anti-malaria medications was simply having nightmares. 

            Beth, Josephine, Emmy, and I woke before sunrise the next day to head out on a game drive. Just a few minutes outside of our camp, we came across a herd of elephants. We stopped the car, and then watched the sun rise over the Serengeti. It was just like the Lion King. In fact, if I ever go to the Serengeti again, someone please remind me to bring the Lion King soundtrack. Pictures can’t do it justice.

            After another full day of game drives and seeing an incredible amount of animals, we headed back to Mwanza with Toto’s Africa blasting (really, the only other appropriate song besides the Lion King soundtrack in these circumstances).

Emmy, Josephine, and I headed to a swanky lakeside hotel, Hotel Tilapia, just a few blocks away from the budget place we were staying, for dinner. We had a delicious meal while watching a lightning storm over Lake Victoria, and then turned in for the night since our plane to Zanzibar was the next morning.

Trip Details
It is possible to go from Kigali to Mwanza, on Lake Victoria, in about 16 hours of travelling by bus. It’s about 3-4 hours from Kigali to Rusumo (the Tanzania/Rwanda border), and about an hour to cross and do immigration stuff. You can take Select or Matunda bus services from Nyabugogo bus park in Kigali (3,000 francs). There’s an hour time change (you lose an hour going to Tanzania) at the border.

There are buses waiting on the Tanzania side to take you to Kahama, about 5 hours away. We took Select Express (a smaller Coaster bus), for 12,000 TSH or 5,500 RWF. At Kahama, you change buses to a big bus to Mwanza. From Kahama to Mwanza it’s about five hours as well. It was 10,000 shillings.

In Mwanza, we stayed at Lake Hotel, close to Lake Victoria and Hotel Tilapia. It was definitely a budget place, but it was safe and definitely a step up from the “rent by the hour” place we stayed the night before. 20,000 TSH ($13) for a double room per night. Check out Hotel Tilapia, just a fifteen minute walk away, for some amazing food and views.

In Kahama, on the way back, I stayed at the New Mongo Hotel, a four story building just a block or two from the bus station. At 35,000 TSH a night it was pretty fancy for me, but very secure and had nice rooms and hot water. +255 282 710 351 and +255 782311679.

We went with Serengeti Expedition, based in Mwanza, for our trip (I had simply emailed about 40 safari companies, and they were the cheapest). It was fairly no-frills, but considering that we paid about $300 per person for 2 days one night in the Serengeti and other companies were quoting $1000, I felt it was a good deal for the money. Our guide was knowledgeable and we saw all of the animals except rhinos. My only complaints were that they had promised us that meals were $10 inside the park, and for some meals they wanted $15 or $20. Our guide seemed almost unsure of what to do for dinner once we arrived at the campsite (other tour groups had their own chef with them). And later in the second day, we had car trouble, and our guide and driver had no phone minutes. It turned out to be okay (we ate lunch while they had our car fixed), but it cut short our second day, and we didn’t get to see the south part of the Serengeti. So if you’re looking for a budget way to see the Serengeti, it was good, but if you have more money than a Peace Corps Volunteer, you might want to look into other tour companies.


  1. Claire -
    As usual, your blog entry is interesting, entertaining and informative. You are wise to document some of the details as thoroughly as you do --- the particulars are of use to anyone who might travel there - and sometime - years from now if you decide to go back, the particular details will serve you well - you won't believe it but the years have a way of blurring the little things and you will be glad you can go back and read it. miss you xo

  2. Tanzania is one of the best places to visit in East Africa.Tanzania is the home to famous Serengeti, Mikumi, Arusha, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Lake Manyara and the second largest lake in the world Lake Victoria.

    Mwanza to Serengeti Safari