If you have ever heard anything about Tanzania or even Africa in general, you’ve probably heard about the iconic Serengeti in Tanzania. The venue of countless nature documentaries and the subject of a very famous song about rain in Africa, the Serengeti is synonymous with African safari. By contrast, you’ve probably heard relatively little about its neighbor, Malawi.
It was a no-brainer that Tim and I would make sure to visit on our overland trip through Africa, but to be honest we didn’t know much else about Tanzania. Moreover, our next destination right after Tanzania, Malawi, was a place I couldn’t even pick out on a map before this trip.
Over our two weeks in this region, we learned that Tanzania is more than the Serengeti, and Malawi is more than just Tanzania’s quiet neighbor.
- Day 1: Arusha, Tanzania
- Days 2-4: Serengeti & Ngorongoro Crater
- Day 5: Dar es Salaam
- Days 6-7: Nungwi Beach, Zanzibar
- Day 8: Stone Town, Zanzibar
- Day 9: Dar es Salaam
- Day 10: Iringa
- Day 11: Chitimba, Malawi
- Days 12-14: Kande Beach, Malawi
Dates: October 27 – November 10, 2018
Having wrapped up our time in Kenya and Uganda, we continued our overland tour with Tucan Travel (starting in Nairobi, Kenya and ending nearly two months later in Cape Town, South Africa) south into Tanzania. Our tour group grew from 7 to 9 with a couple from the UK joining for the Tanzania portion of the trip.
Bound for the world-renowned Serengeti National Park, we spent a quick night outside of Arusha at a campsite to break up the drive from Nairobi.
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
In a town on the way to the Serengeti, we left our overland truck behind and transferred into smaller safari trucks.
At the entrance gate to the national park, Tim and I made a short hike up a hill behind the visitor center. From the view point, we could look out over the Serengeti Plain. The plain stretches on for 12,000 square miles (30,000 square kilometers). It’s home to 750,000 zebras, 1.2 million migratory wildebeest, 3,000 lions, 7,500 elephants, and much more.
Once inside the park, we began looking for wildlife. We found awkward-looking ostriches, hyenas cooling off under the odd bush, a cheetah, and even a few lions lazing in the shade of an acacia tree. With so much wilderness all around, I was amazed at how many animals actually hang out near the roads.
In the late afternoon, we found a solitary male elephant grazing in an expansive grassland. Not far away, as the sun began to set, we came to a group of a dozen or so female and juvenile elephants munching on branches. We sat in our trucks watching them as the sky lit up in shades of purple and orange. It was one of the most magnificent sunsets I’ve ever seen. The setting was almost surreal, with the world’s largest land mammals right beside us and the silhouette of acacias all around as sun rays filtered through the clouds.
Our campsite that night was basic, but dinner, prepared by our local guides, was delicious. Our group prepared all our own meals most nights, but in Tanzania, the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater portions of the trip were “assisted camping,” meaning we didn’t have any of our normal responsibilities.
The next morning we explored the park a little bit more before lunch. Again, we found elephants (this time with a nursing baby) and lions. After lunch we started the drive out of the Serengeti and towards the Ngorongoro Crater.
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
The Ngorongoro Crater is one of the largest unbroken volcanic calderas in the world that isn’t a lake. The 19km wide crater is home to one of Africa’s most concentrated populations of wildlife, including the Big 5.
We camped on the rim of the crater that night. Again, our guides treated us to a nice dinner. We woke up very early the next morning before a beautiful pink and purple pastel sunrise to pack up and descend into the crater.
Even if there were no animals in the crater, Ngorongoro would still be an amazing place to see. Descending into the crater itself and seeing how large it is, with its walls surrounding you on all sides, is an exciting experience.
While inside the crater, we spotted the typical warthogs, zebras, and hundreds of marching wildebeest. There were a few moments that were more exciting, though. We watched a group of hippos in a pool grunting and splashing as a dominant male hippo charged at a younger male. We spotted a rhino far in the distance, only really viewable by binoculars and even then appeared to just be a black dot.
Then, on our way out of the crater, we came to a group of lions on the hunt after a baby gazelle. The lioness leading the hunt moved slowly, laying in the tall grasses with every few steps. Before she could pounce, the gazelle caught on and ran away. Though she didn’t get a kill, we were still thrilled to be able to observe the stalking process.
After a picnic lunch, we began driving to Arusha, swapping back into the Tucan Travel truck along the way. After one more night Arusha, we continued to Dar es Salaam, a fun coastal city on the Indian Ocean.
We gained a tenth member to our group that night, a British man named Jack who would be traveling with us all the way down to Cape Town. Being Halloween, we went out that night for dinner and ended up singing karaoke after a few drinks. It was one of the most fun nights of our trip, but I paid for it the next day when we took a ferry to the island of Zanzibar.
What is now Zanzibar wasn’t always part of what is now Tanzania. The two regions were separate entities until 1964, when Tanganyika and Zanzibar became Tanzania. Because of the historical and geographic separation, Zanzibar is culturally unique from the mainland. The population is mostly Muslim, thanks to the migration of people from the Middle East who settled there.
Once off the ferry, we had to go through immigration procedures as if we were entering another country. From there we headed directly to a spice plantation for a tour of the grounds, tastings, and then lunch in a local home.
Afterwards, our driver took us all to our last destination of the day – our hotel on Nungwi Beach. Once there it was complete relaxation for 2 nights. We had an abundance of leisure time, a room with AC to ourselves, and yummy food from nearby restaurants.
We spent our third night on Zanzibar in the historic city of Stone Town. Due to various settlers and colonizers who made this town home over the centuries, the architecture is a mix of Indian, Middle Eastern, and European.
Tim and I opted to take a guided walking tour of the town and its markets. On our walk, we learned about the city’s UNESCO status, and how it’s both a boon and a burden. The status brings in tourists who want to see the historic sites, but it also makes it difficult and expensive to maintain the old buildings. People originally built them using crushed coral from the ocean to make a cement-like building material. This is hard to come by in modern times, and as a result many of the buildings remain dilapidated.
The city is also home to hundreds of young cats. Up until recently, a successful spay and neuter program kept stray cats from reproducing. Now, the program has ended and the cat population is booming. They seem like well-cared-for strays, but I do worry about their future if the population gets out of hand.
That afternoon we reunited with our group to take the ferry back to Dar Es Salaam. We had one last night there, and left well before dawn to make the long drive across the country to Iringa.
We were quickly learning that traveling overland in Africa meant many early mornings and consecutive driving days. These next few days, en route to our 4th country Malawi, were some of the longest and hottest.
After our one night stop over in Iringa, we crossed the border into Malawi. The immigration procedures took a long time, and there wasn’t really a comfortable place to sit away from the sun. Finally, we got our passports back and finished our drive to Chitimba, the town where we’d spend the night at a campsite right on Lake Malawi.
Lake Malawi is the fourth largest fresh water lake in the world by volume, and the third largest in Africa. It sits nestled between Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique, and is the center of life in Malawi.
Kande Beach, Malawi
The next day, the third one straight on the road, was thankfully at least a slightly shorter one at only 5 hours. When we arrived at our hotel on Kande Beach, we were all looking forward to settling in for the next three nights.
The late afternoon sun over the lake was truly beautiful. The water and the sky blended together so seamlessly, you couldn’t tell where one began and the other ended.
It wasn’t until swarms of bugs hovered around all the lights at our hotel that we learned that these millions of gnats were the cause of the hazy blending of sea and sky. Every few days, the gnats hover out on the water and come to land at night. They then disappear for a few days before making their cyclical return.
As we ate dinner, we had to pick gnats out of our food and drinks. We had made a punch earlier that we ended up having to dump out when we saw the hundreds of drowned bugs floating in it.
I’ll admit I wasn’t really liking Malawi at first. It was unbearably hot and sandy, and now we were experiencing a bug apocalypse.
Things got better the next day, though, when we were able to just relax. It was more or less a repeat of our time in Nungwi Beach, but still a welcome break from truck time.
On our last day on Kande Beach, Tim, McKinley, Will and I took a walking tour of the local village. I really appreciated this tour because it didn’t feel phony or invasive. Our guide took us to his home where he answered any of our questions.
We visited the school, where we met with the principal. He shared the curriculum with us (which was really comprehensive) and told us about some of their successes and challenges. I really liked hearing about the school as opposed to disrupting a classroom and distracting the kids. Plus, plenty of studies have shown that short term relationships with adults cause more harm than good for the kids. In happy to just observe from the background, and learn about what really happens at the school from another adult.
We also visited the local clinic, which treats 13,000 patients. The facility was very basic and the equipment looked old. The metal bars on the beds were rusted and there was a stain on the cushion. We learned that HIV is still a big problem, but that numbers have been declining steadily. Now, they “only” see about 15 new cases per month.
Our tour ended with a visit to a local pub and then a few rounds of a game called bao, which an aspiring teacher named Moses (but who introduced himself as Baby Giraffe) taught us. He let us win the first round, but kicked our butts the second time.
Over the course of these few days, somehow I grew to be very fond of this little slice of Malawi. Poorer and less developed than most of the other African nations we have visited, Malawi still manages to give visitors a certain warmth and authenticity that can be harder to find in the more touristy spots.
In this way, Tanzania and Malawi couldn’t be more different. Though neighbors who both have beaches and safari parks, the two countries are strikingly unique. Tanzania is a well-oiled tourism machine, with big card draws like the Serengeti and Mount Kilimanjaro. Malawi is still untouched by mass tourism, mostly welcoming visitors like us who are just passing through on an overland adventure.
As for us and our overland journey, we left Malawi behind the next morning, bound for the fifth country in our route – Zambia.