What does it mean to “belong”? The answer lies beyond Webster’s definitions, the organizations we work for, or the clubs we register to. What I’m asking is….what does it really feel like to truly “belong”? It’s a question we don’t often ask ourselves because day-to-day life can be a routine of act and react.
But some moments give us this sense that we are meant to be where we are at this particular time for however long it may be. For me, this moment appeared while more than 8,000 miles away from home on the first day of our vacation in Tanzania.
Woes of A Cautious Family Traveler
Our first trip to Africa was inspired by friends who once called Tanzania home and were planning a return to visit old acquaintances. Beyond my family’s excitement to go on safari, I had no idea what else to expect. The pandemic had forced us to cancel the previous year’s travel plans to Europe.
Navigating vaccinations, testing protocols, and ever-changing quarantining restrictions on top of the usual travel logistics to a whole new continent was daunting. But we figured it all out, enjoying a fairly smooth arrival after numerous car, train, and plane rides to get there.
Now, to provide a little more context to why this moment of belonging was so profound for me, you’ve got to understand a little about my nature. I’m an overly detailed, highly cautious traveler who can enjoy the wonders of a new locale while at the same time watching out for dangers at every corner. Some call it being a worry wort. Others call it neurotic.
I just call it being a parent with four kids and a wife I love who wants everyone to enjoy their experience to the fullest while also coming back home alive. This was the case when letting our kids learn to surf in Santa Barbara. Or when we were enjoying a snack in the park while viewing the Eiffel Tower’s twinkling lights at night or hiking through well-marked trails amongst the beauty of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy myself, but my Spidey senses are always active.
That is why this unexpected feeling of peace starting on our first full day in Africa, a place I’ve never been to, was so unexpected. There was something about our first interactions with Tanzania’s citizens amidst an immense diversity of landscapes. I felt I belonged in this unfamiliar place. I could finally let my guard down enough to fully experience what the rest of the trip had to offer.
I may fail to explain just how unforgettable the experience in Tanzania was for us, but I will do my best and hopefully inspire you to do the same sometime soon.
Exploring the Everyday
First of all, I understand that the context for a tourist can be skewed to the positive. They are often placed in settings that cater to making the experience as fun, comfortable, and as picturesque as possible. You don’t always see the everyday lives of local residents or only as we roll down the main stretch on the way to the resort.
This trip started off differently for us. After spending the night in Nairobi, we took a 3-hour minibus ride to the border of Tanzania. We met our tour guide upon arrival for what turned out to be another 3-hour process of passport checks and Covid testing.
Encounters like these can be nerve-racking. You don’t know the language. Government officials don’t move fast. And there is always a “new” step in the entry process that requires an additional fee on which you didn’t plan.
Despite all this, topped with the slight exhaustion of adapting to a 7-hour time change, there was something oddly Zen about seeing things for what they are. These border officials had a job to do, families to support, and it had been a tough year plus for all of us due to Covid. The few hours we spent were a minor rite of passage. They treated us with no malice or contempt and 2 more hours later we arrived at our first destination of Arusha.
Arusha is a massive province boasting more than 7 million residents. Tourism is its top industry since it serves as a key starting point for travelers beginning their journey on safari or seeking to climb the heights of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
After a much-needed night’s rest, we ventured around Arusha’s central city, visiting unique spots such as Maasai Market and the Cultural Heritage Center. These locales were not as packed as usual, giving us free rein to haggle and explore. The bustle of Arusha’s city life reminded me our my time in Antigua, Guatemala, where an ecosystem of small to large commerce coexists.
I’m always impressed with the ingenuity of the entrepreneurs who uncover a need, set up shop along the road or in a makeshift storefront, and find a way to make a living.
Also inspiring was visiting a United World College (UNC) school based in the outskirts of Arusha. The UNC network was founded in the early 1960s by Kurt Hahn to focus on leveraging “the power of education as a route to peace.”
We arrived at a perfect time as a children’s play was scheduled that day. It was inspiring to see so many youths from around the world celebrating our diverse cultures.
The next day involved a scenic hike along a trail less traveled by tourists. Our guides wanted us to have a unique experience taking us on a walking tour through the mountains. They shared insights into the medicinal benefits of certain plants found along the path while young children popped up from their homes to say hello.
We walked amongst plantations that produce the well-regarded Tanzanian arabica coffee bean. We’ve had experience in the coffee trade in the past, but it’s always enlightening to learn about the unique characteristics this crop takes on depending upon the region. The amazing thing about coffee is that the best varieties are shade-grown, which often means its surroundings are lush, green, and beautiful to venture through.
After nearly an hour of walking along this stunning path, we were rewarded with a stop at an equally stunning waterfall hidden by these mountains.
If that wasn’t enough, we ended our adventure with just as memorable an experience. A local family gave us an interactive lesson on the traditional way to make Tanzanian coffee. Once surrounded by a cherry-like fruit, the coffee beans are extracted, washed, and dried, and ready to be roasted.
Our local expert demonstrated this arduous process of roasting the beans over an open fire, pounding them into ground form, and then producing one of the best pour-over brews we’ve ever had.
The Wonders of Tanzania Safari
Our time in Arusha was the perfect precursor for the excursions into safari up next in our adventure. Tanzania doesn’t receive the same respect as some other countries but offers some of the best safari experiences in the world. With only 3 days available in our itinerary, Tarangire National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area were our main destinations.
We had the opportunity to enjoy diverse wildlife which included a search for big five game, wildebeest, historic sites, and African cuisines at amazing lodges.
Tarangire National Park
Our first stop, Tarangire National Park, is a sight to behold.The park features the largest population of elephants in Tanzania and the iconic big five game (lion, leopard, black rhinoceros, bush elephant, and buffalo). It was an early morning drive from Arusha to maximize the day and see the most variety of animals possible.
For our first time, the amazement began about half a mile into the park. The park entrance is mainly brush and dirt with a few trees here and there. It was the perfect spot to begin seeing a host of game that you can’t find in the Midwest USA. Waterbucks, impalas, and zebras are all scurrying about, searching for food and cover.
As we proceeded further into the park, we started seeing some of the much sought-after elephants and lions resting from afar. Seeing these majestic animals in their wide expansive homes is truly inspiring.
Day 2 at Tarangire was even more exceptional as we had a close encounter with a lioness and her cubs. Watching the cubs amble about up the tree and through the brush was something that felt straight out of a Disney special.
The rest of our journey provides us more sights of zebras roaming, elephants play fighting in the swamp, and giraffes grazing through the trees.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area
After touring Tarangire, our next stop was Ngorongoro Conservation Area. It is home to the Ngorongoro crater – the largest inactive volcanic caldera in the world, dating back 3 million years ago. A large number of enormous animals (more than 25,000) that dwell in this 30,000-hectare crater is awe-inspiring.
When we arrived, our attention was captured by the short-grass plains featuring a host of wildlife, volcanic peaks, and crater lakes. There were thousands of large animals including, lions, wild elephants, Thomson’s gazelles, buffalos, spotted hyenas, and a vast variety of bird species.
We also had the unique privilege of viewing scores of wildebeests. Although it is not as big as the Serengeti’s, it is still as breathtaking. Our travel guide was quick to add that when other water sources around the region dry up, the Tarangire River remains the only water point. Consequently, it draws huge herds of all sorts of amazing animals.
Zanzibar: An Island of Natural & Historic Beauty
The Zanzibar archipelago, located 15 miles in the Indian Ocean from Tanzania’s coast, is a breathtaking spot for those looking to have quality time and escape from the busy world. We had the remarkable privilege of spending 3 days at a beautiful beach resort enjoying sunbathing, watching the multitude of kite surfers fly through the air and simply taking in the beautiful turquoise waters. Beyond its beauty, the coastline also amazes with its ever shifting coastline, which can recede a half mile or more, allowing locals to pick seaweed in the mornings and visitors to search for various small sea creatures.
Afterward, we ended our trip with 2 nights in Stone Town, locally known as Mij Mkongwe. It is the oldest section of Zanzibar City. As of 2000, UNESCO named it a heritage site. We recommend including Stone Town in your itinerary even if only for a day. You experience a rich heritage of Indian, Arab, Persian, and European elements firsthand.
Here are at least 3 key activities you include on your itinerary.
Old Fort of Zanzibar
The fort is a 17th-century building built on an older Portuguese church. We had the chance to visit this incredible place, and the great news is that you don’t have to pay an entrance fee. We explored the interior towers and battlements that provide picturesque harbor and ocean views.
The fort features an amphitheater where although we were not lucky enough, you may catch live performances by the locals.
Darajani Bazaar is Stone Town’s main commerce center. We got to see various groceries, meat, fish, and purchase great spices to use in our meals at home. The cultural experience here is remarkable, depicting the nature of livelihood in this East African country.
Tips for Making A Family Trip to Tanzania Possible
Our trip to Tanzania and Zanzibar was unforgettable, but it wasn’t free. However, there are a few money-saving tips I’d like to share so that your family can enjoy everything Tanzania offers.
Let The Experience You Seek Guide Your Budget
The sheer amount of time and coordination it takes to plan a trip to Tanzania can be daunting. And looking at tweets of celebrities on safari can make one believe this type of trip is impossible for most family travel budgets. But have no fear…there are opportunities to visit Africa that can fit most budgets.
So you first must ask yourself…What is my vision for this vacation? Does your family prefer luxury or basic comforts? Is your primary interest in seeing wildlife and nature or diving into the region’s cultural aspects?
Crafting your vision ahead of time will be the foundation for building your travel budget. As a rule of thumb, figure a minimum of $1,500 per person for transportation costs, including roundtrip airfare, airport transfer, visa fees, and a minimum of 8 days for your vacation. From there, you can build your budget based upon your preferred accommodation type, excursions, and duration of the trip.
Consider Creative Air Travel Routes
Flying from the Midwest to Africa is not an inexpensive endeavor. However, there are ways to reduce the cost if you are willing to get creative. For us, this involved making Nairobi, Kenya our first point of arrival instead of Tanzania’s main airport in Dar es Salaam.
Despite needing to spend a night’s hotel stay in Nairobi and then taking a 3-hour minibus ride to the Tanzanian border, we still saved nearly $1,000 on airfare!
Place Your Trust in the Experts
Our family is well experienced in creating our own itineraries and charting our own paths for vacations. However, we chose to book our first trip to Tanzania through a reputable tour organization .
These tour organizations are usually operated by Tanzanians with firsthand knowledge of the region and a college-level education in wildlife management. They will help you get the most out of your safari and have invaluable relationships that enable you to obtain the best deals on accommodations.
Our tour operator, Northland Tanzania Safaris, crafted every part of our itinerary helping us determine the most cost-effective approach for getting our family of 6 to and from Africa. The size of our family with children from ages 10-18 created unique challenges as many lodges don’t allow more than 3 in a room. We had to split up into 2-3 different rooms at times, but our expert guide ensured the rooms weren’t too far apart and the lodgings were top-notch.