A Safari In Tanzania: A Sneaky Peek Behind The Scenes

Herds of wildebeest and zebra are some of the animals you'll see on safari in Tanzania
Herds of wildebeest and zebra are some of the animals you’ll see on safari in Tanzania

Africa. The Serengeti. The Ngorongoro Crater. These are names we associate with going on safari in Tanzania. They conjure up thrilling images of vast open plains, with hundreds of wildebeest peacefully grazing while a dignified herd of elephants cuts a ponderous path across the landscape.

Or of nature, red in tooth and claw: a cheetah stalking noiselessly through swaying grasses; a muscular lioness sinking her claws into a bewildered impala; a crocodile feasting on an unfortunate zebra.

We’ve all seen the photos and watched the safari movies. But how close can you actually get to the animals on a safari in Tanzania? 

How close was the photographer? Was he or she a mile away with a zoom lens the size of a family car? Will you be able to get as close, and what’s the best way to get safari photos to rival the ones you’ve seen online or in the guidebooks?

Lions on safari in Tanzania
Lions on safari in Tanzania

If you want to know, you’ve come to the right place. Because I’m not just going to tell you, I’m going to show you. 

Behind the scenes, before and after. The fabulous wildlife photos, and the scene as it actually was, so you can really understand what it’s like and how close you can actually get to the animals on safari.

So here’s my story.  The photos behind the photos, the real truth behind the scenes from my safari in Tanzania.

Tree-climbing lions, Tarangire National Park, Tanzania
Tree-climbing lions, Tarangire National Park

A Safari in Tanzania: The Car

First up, a bit of context.  

I went to Tanzania with the aim of climbing Kilimanjaro. But then I thought, well, since I’m going ALL that way, it’d be kind of rude not to do a Tanzanian safari too. After all, there a quite a few mistakes you can make on safari, but not going would be the biggest one of all!

But I didn’t want to book a private safari on my own because it would have been (a) stupidly expensive and (b) kind of awkward and lonely, all that time in a car with just me and the driver.

So I contacted a few companies in Tanzania to ask about sharing and one of them – African Scenic Safaris – came back to say that they had a booking that fitted my dates exactly, with a German couple who were happy for me join them on their safari to split the costs.

On safari in Tanzania
Alone on a Tanzania safari in the Serengeti

So for six days Tina, Mike and I got to know each other – and the Tanzanian animals – from the back of a pretty comfy 4×4 safari vehicle.

The car was similar to the ones all the main operators use: it had six seats in three rows, so every seat had a window. It had a pop-up top for standing up and looking out, and was equipped with plug sockets for your battery chargers and a mini fridge for drinks.

Had it been full I think it might still have been a little cramped, but with three of us it was just perfect: it didn’t matter what side of the car something was happening on, all three of us always got a prime viewing spot.

Read more: 46 Amazing African Safari Animals – A Photo Guide

My companions Tina and Mike inside our safari car in Tanzania
My companions Tina and Mike inside our safari car in Tanzania

A Safari In Tanzania: The Animals

So with new friendships formed, and kit organised, off we went. First safari stop, the Ngorongoro Crater.  Where I quickly learned that the wildlife has no respect for the rules of the road.

You'll see amazing birds like this ostrich on your Tanzania safari
You’ll see amazing birds like this ostrich on your Tanzania safari

There are loads of incredible safari destinations in Africa, but the Ngorongoro Crater is especially astonishing. There are animals everywhere. Wherever I turned, I saw scenes that really wouldn’t have looked out of place in David Attenborough’s latest epic adventure.

Seeing huge herds of wildebeest is another big reason to go on a safari in Tanzania
Seeing huge herds of wildebeest is another big reason to go on a safari in Tanzania

Of course, if you’re lucky enough to be armed for your Tanzanian safari with a big zoom lens (more about the gear I took later on), wide shots like the one above can become this:

Wildebeest, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Wildebeest, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

And that ‘is-that-a-lion?’ off in the hazy distance can become this:

Handsome lion, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Handsome lion, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

How Close Can You Get to the Animals On Safari in Tanzania?

Don’t worry if you haven’t got an enormous lens, because as you’re about to see, the animals on safari in Tanzania are so accustomed to being gawked at and papped by tourists that they just ignore the cars and walk right past.

And this is true everywhere, whether you’re in the Ngorongoro Crater, or the Serengeti. Sometimes they come so close you could even snap them with a smartphone (in fact I saw quite a few people doing this).

Serengeti, Tanzania safari
When there is an animal close to the road, it can get quite crowded

One downside of this is that when an interesting animal is spotted by the side of the road, every car for miles around will swiftly descend, and the Serengeti can swiftly start to feel rather like the M25 at 5 pm on a bank holiday Friday.  

Which does slightly take the shine off the sense that you are out in the wilderness, at one with the animals in their natural environment.

But obviously the advantage of there being other cars around is that there are more eyes on the surroundings, and when you see a few cars all parked up in one place, you know there’s likely to be something exciting going on.

With a bit of luck you should see lions on your Tanzania safari
With a bit of luck you should see lions on your Tanzania safari

In this case that something turned out to be a group of lionesses returning from the hunt.  They passed right between the waiting cars and crossed over the road.

These lionesses came really close to the road in the Serengeti, Tanzania
These lionesses came really close to the road in the Serengeti, Tanzania

And just as we were wondering where they were headed, it became clear.  A group of cubs had been hiding in the undergrowth on the opposite side, and as the females approached them, the ran out to greet their returning mums and aunties.

Read more: What To Wear On Safari: My Detailed Safari Packing List With Photos

Chasing Cheetahs on Safari in Tanzania

Later that same day, we struck gold a second time.  Again, a queue of cars alerted us to the presence of something fantastic in the vicinity – this time a pair of young male cheetahs on the prowl.

This time it's cheetahs crossing the road on our Tanzania safari
This time it’s cheetahs crossing the road on our Tanzania safari

They crossed right in front of our car, and then settled for a long time just on the edge of the verge, waiting for anything that might resemble a meal to pass by.

Cheetah, Tanzania Safari
With the right gear you can get photos like this one

Having a super zoom allowed me to get some fantastic close-ups…

Cheetah, Tanzania Safari
I absolutely loved watching the cheetahs on my safari in Tanzania

…but as you can see, you would have been ok without.  They really were butt-clenchingly close!

And after a thrilling day getting up close and personal with some of the world’s most beautiful cats, we returned to our home for the night: Halisi Serengeti Tented Camp.

Read more: Top 50 African Birds: A Safari Photo Guide

Behind the scenes on safari in tanzania
You don’t necessarily need a huge zoom lens – the animals sometimes get really close!

Safari In Tanzania: Where to Stay

The two main options for accommodation when on safari are lodges, or tented camps. The lodges are essentially hotels, usually located outside the parks. They tend to be fancier and more comfortable, with nice facilities, 24-hour power, and generous breakfast and dinner options – but as a result they’re more expensive.

Read more: A Kenya Safari Holiday: How To Plan The Perfect Trip For You

Halisi Serengeti Tented Camp
A typical tented safari camp in Tanzania

The tented camps, on the other hand, are right inside the parks. They usually consist of a group of sturdy safari tents, with a central reception / dining tent.

Obviously they’re not as luxurious, with no heating or air con and electricity only when the generator is running, but the lack of 5* facilities is more than made up for by the authentic, sleeping-with-the-animals experience.

In fact animals can, and do, regularly wander into the camps. One night a herd of elephants came stomping through – and on another, it was buffaloes. So once you’ve been escorted back to your tent after dinner, you have to stay very firmly put, just in case the animals decide to do a safari of their own!

Inside a typical Tanzania safari tent
Inside a typical Tanzania safari tent

But it’s not a bad place to hang out. These tents were far swankier than any I’d ever slept in, as big as a smallish hotel room, with a proper bed, and even an ensuite bathroom!  Well it perhaps didn’t quite qualify as a bathroom, but it was certainly more of a bathroom than any tent I’ve ever slept in before…

Toilet in a safari tent in Tanzania
Some safari tents even have toilets

And in the morning, if you’re lucky, you might get a friendly visitor while you’re having breakfast.

A giraffe visits our campsite in the Serengeti, Tanzania
A giraffe visits our campsite in the Serengeti, Tanzania

A Tanzania Safari: Back on the Road

After enjoying our eggs and toast with our unexpected guest, we headed back out into the park to seek out more wildlife-spotting opportunities. And after driving around for a while we came across this handsome chap, resting with some females after a big meal, the remains of which were discarded to one side.

Lions are a common animal to spot on a safari in Tanzania
Lions are a common animal to spot on a safari in Tanzania

He was far too busy resting to pay us much notice, but the proximity of the lions to the car did make me a little nervous. They were only a few feet away, and if they’d been so inclined, they could probably have leaped in through the open window before we’d known what was happening.  

Fortunately though, they seemed quite happy just sitting in the sun, and weren’t in the least bit interested in the open can of fresh meat right in front of them.

Read more: Nature Vacations: 25 Amazing Places For An Outdoors Adventure

These lions were resting right by the road in the Serengeti, Tanzania
These lions were resting right by the road in the Serengeti, Tanzania

Life and Death on Safari in Tanzania

Something that happens to you very quickly after a day or two on a Tanzanian safari is that you start to get blase about how many animals there are on safari. 

On day one, you’re gasping with astonishment and firing off shots at every zebra, antelope and baboon that wanders past. But by day three, you’ve become so spoiled that you won’t even look out of the window at anything less than a big cat, a rhino, or a hippo.

Hyena, Serengeti, Tanzania
Hyena, Serengeti, Tanzania

And what’s worse, I was even losing interest in the big cats – or at least, the ones that weren’t doing anything.  We’d seen lions, cheetahs and leopards sitting, walking, and standing. I wanted more. I wanted to see something actually happening.  

So when we saw this traffic jam up ahead, I was excited.  Could this be the action I’d be hoping for?

(Hint: it was – and you may find the next few photos distressing, for which I apologise.)

Traffic jams can be un unfortunate side effect on safari in Tanzania
Traffic jams can be un unfortunate side effect on safari in Tanzania

A lioness had just recently killed a wildebeest, and was looking for somewhere to hide her meal away from scavengers. She gripped it firmly between her teeth and strained every muscle to drag her prize out of sight, but the wildebeest was heavy and it was slow going.

Lioness with kill, Serengeti, Tanzania
These are wild animals, being wild. You might need a strong stomach.

And as you can see from the behind-the-scenes shot – we had front row seats to the action.

Lion with kill, Serengeti
The lioness was busy trying to move her prey to a safe place

It was a gruesome but enthralling scene: the wildebeest’s stomach exposed through the tear in its belly, and its glazed eye the deadest thing I’d ever seen. To be that close to such a scene of life and death, to the ecstasy and agony of the natural world, was intoxicating.

But do be aware that if you’re considering going on safari with kids, they might find scenes like this upsetting.

Lion with kill, Serengeti, Tanzania
It’s sad, but part of the circle of life!

Needless to say I took a LOT of photos, and we stayed until the lioness grew tired of her efforts, and prowled away, leaving the wildebeest by the side of the road. We waited to see if she would come back, but we never saw her again.

Safari photography
Getting to grips with the bazooka lens (and beanbag) while on my Tanzanian safari

What camera gear do you need for a safari in Tanzania?

For those of you who are interested, here’s the camera gear I took on safari (after much soul-searching):

  • Canon 5D Mark IV body – my trusty faithful that’s getting on for 5 years old now. (UPDATE: I’ve now replaced this with the Canon R5 which I LOVE!)
  • I didn’t already own a super zoom, so after much research I bought a Tamron 150-600 f/5-6.3 lens.  Our guide, Tom, swiftly dubbed this my ‘bazooka’ lens – with its 600mm maximum zoom there were very few things I couldn’t capture and I loved it. Best of all, I bought it in mint condition off eBay before I went, used it for a week, then resold it when I got home for more than I’d paid for it!
  • My old, spare camera body as a backup – this was a Canon 5D Mark IV, but it has since been discontinued. I’ve now retired my Canon 5D Mark IV to be my second body.

Read more: Using The Canon R5 For Wildlife Photography: A Full Review

  • Canon 24-105 f/4 L lens.  I ended up putting this on the 50D and keeping the bazooka lens on the 5D, that way I could grab whichever shot size I wanted without having to change lenses all the time.
  • With a big heavy lens you need stabilisation.  I took a monopod, and a beanbag, which I filled with beans from the market the day before the trip started.
  • Plus plenty of batteries, memory cards, charger, polarising filter, lens cloths, dust blower.
  • One thing I didn’t take, but wish I had, was a spare fuse for my charger plug.  A power surge killed mine stone dead on the first day, and it was impossible to buy another. If it hadn’t been for the fact that Mike and Tina had a spare cable that worked, this could have been a very different post indeed!
  • Some people also like to take a good pair of binoculars for spotting animals in the distance, but I don’t because I already have too much gear in my bag!

I buy pretty much all my gear from Wex Photographic or  Their prices are as good as any on the market, their service is great, and they both have a really good range of second-hand gear too (which is something I can’t recommend highly enough!)

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