The search for Simba

The search for Simba

‘We are driving through The Lion King!’ It was hardly surprising for super-Disney-fan Simoné to make this on-point observation as we slowly meandered through the grassy savannah studded by flat-topped acacias. The mighty Serengeti National Park surely ranks high on the bucket list of many people, particularly nature fanatics like us. We had always thought this king among national parks to only be reserved for those that enjoy high tea and heated towels. However, since finding out that one can indeed self-drive and DIY camp inside, we started hatching plans to make an overland pilgrimage to Simba’s kingdom. We visited the Serengeti during the dry season and opted to also visit the lesser-known but spectacular Tarangire National Park shortly thereafter. Here is what we found.

Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. Mufasa

Coming from Rwanda, we headed up Lake Victoria’s shoreline and stopped by the beautiful campsite of Rocky Bay lodge where we were welcomed warmly by its SA-expat owners. Taking the Mwanza Bay ferry, we eventually made our way to one of the north-west entrance gates of the park. We visited early in August, which meant that the bulk of the famous blue wildebeest herds were concentrated in the north of the park, starting to cross the Mara river on their eternal clockwise trip toward greener pastures.

Shortly after entering, we were quite simply awed by the sheer number of animals. Thousands upon thousands of wildebeest staged in herds of various sizes, some milling anxiously while contemplating the dreaded river crossing. Travelling south, herds of zebra, topi, and Coke’s hartebeest dotted the landscape. Driving through the central plains, the ubiquitous Thompson’s gazelle abounded and Grant’s gazelles showed off their impressive horns while iconic Maasai giraffes ambled across the horizon.

Birdlife was equally impressive. Aptly-named Superb Starlings proved as common locally as its Cape Glossy cousins in South Africa and eye-catching Yellow-necked Spurfowls called from open savannas. White-headed Buffalo-weavers chatted in trees, and African Orange-bellied Parrots foraged among palm trees.

Everything the light touches is our kingdom. – Mufasa

All things considered, it is the awe-inspiring landscapes that we will remember most of the Serengeti. We tried to cover as much as possible of the park, and the landscapes are more varied than you might imagine. Expansive rolling hills dominate the north, as it would keep doing into the Maasai Mara across the river. Recent controlled burns looked very much like Scar’s shadowlands with its smouldering ashes and embers still glowing. Around the central area, classic and enduring images of old Africa abound with the park’s signature flat-topped Acacias dominating the open grasslands (and yes, the giraffes do journey across the horizon). Further south, the plains stretch as far the eye can see. These are peppered with isolated rocky koppies around which we found many lion tracks. It was therefore not a giant leap to imagine Mufasa and Simba sitting on one of these real-life Pride Rocks to survey their magnificent kingdom at dusk.

I’m surrounded by idiots. – Scar

We have always harboured a certain uneasiness with tourist game viewing vehicles. Although certainly not always the case, the unfortunate stereotypical jeep jockey often chases big sightings in exchange for even bigger tips. In the flagship East African parks, this Ferrari safari industry is taken to a whole next level, particularly in the high season. Loaded cruisers speed and swerve dangerously on the badly corrugated entrance road, hogged sightings make lion congestions in central Kruger look like driving school, and public bush campsites more closely resemble rock music festivals. We therefore quickly learnt that these parks should be visited with the right frame of mind – focusing on their unique beauty and many strong-points while managing your expectations of other aspects described so faithfully here by Scar.

Carnivores, oy! – Timon

The incredibly high density of herbivores in the Serengeti means that the number of carnivores follows suit. We saw an amazing 31 lions in just 24 hours, including having an early morning coffee with a real Mufasa sunning himself majestically on a rock. We found three cheetahs, many hyenas and even got a glimpse of a beautiful Serengeti leopard. Great was our excitement when we came across a lone African golden wolf patrolling his koppie territory. We did not even know that these interesting creatures are found in these parts, so this was a real treat indeed. In Tarangire we were serenaded all night long by multiple lion prides, and found a treed leopard in the morning. If great cat sightings is your cat nip, you must simply put these parks on your to-do list!

Life’s not fair, is it? – Scar

There is a looming dollar-shaped shadow over Tanzania’s beautiful national parks, particularly to overlanders and budget travellers. Much has been written about it, particularly regarding the rather unjustified and exorbitant fees for private vehicles that are making it increasingly unfeasible for self-drive visitors. It will perhaps suffice to simply state that the fees are not going to go down any time soon, so hurry up and plan the trip if it is at all within your reach. We still felt that this trip of a lifetime was absolutely worth it, although we will never complain about SANPark fees ever again!

Hakuna Matata! – Timon and Pumbaa

There are very few places left in Africa, indeed in the world, where it likely still looks exactly what it must have looked like a few hundred years ago. It was therefore an immense privilege to visit these grand parks of Tanzania, let alone drive ourselves around them in Baloo. These are places where animals of all shapes and sizes still thrive in their hundreds of thousands, migrating unperturbed along ancient paths as they have done for millennia. These are places where the golden sun rises every morning (cue Elton John), and where there is hope for conservation efforts. These are places where, at least for a moment or two in time, animals can have no worries.

Some helpful trip tips:

Serengeti NP

  1. The park can roughly be divided into Northern, Western, Central and Southern areas. The classic flat-topped acacia scenery and busiest area is mostly central (around Seronera).
  2. The blue wildebeest migration moves in a clock-wise direction throughout the year. If you want to see them, plan your focus area ahead (
  3. Public (aka not exclusive) campsites are very busy with tour operators in the dry season, so arrive late, leave early and don’t expect facilities or atmosphere that match the cost.
  4. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area borders the Serengeti on the East and is just as expensive as the Serengeti, even if just transiting (more if you want to go down the crater). Therefore, plan your trip to enter on one side of the park and exit on another to avoid doubling costs.
  5. The road from Seronera to the NCA is notoriously badly corrugated. Avoid at least part of it by detouring towards the beautiful Gol Kopjes.

 Tarangire NP

  1. Seeing mostly day-tripping tourists from Arusha, there are less overnight campers in Tarangire than in the Serengeti.
  2. Tarangire is less about ferrari safaris, and more about beautiful baobab landscapes, a wonderful river and denser bushveld like southern African wilderness areas.


  1. Stock up and treat yourself at The Village.
  2. Those empty South African Cadacs can be filled at Manji’s Gas.
  3. Book your rattled cruiser in for a well-deserved service at the well-oiled Arusha Toyota (expat SA manager included).
  4. Foodies, coffee and wi-fi snobs should try Coffee Culture.


  1. Lake Victoria / Mwanza: Rocky Bay Lodge
  2. Outside Serengeti (West): Ikoma Safari Lodge
  3. Outside Ngorongoro (East): Foresight Safari Lodge
  4. Arusha area: Twiga Lodge
  5. Moshi area: Simba Farm Lodge

    Tree lions and lakeshore underdogs

    Tree lions and lakeshore underdogs

    ‘I’m sure it’s fine if you get out here for a photo, we haven’t seen a sign of predators all day,’ I said confidently to Simoné. And just then, a lioness strolled out of the long grass – right on cue. But wait, there is more. About 15 more lions to be exact, some of which were up a tree, draped uncomfortably over branches like great sacks of feline awkwardness. Tree-climbing lions is a thing in East Africa, and many believe they do it attempting to escape the constant irritation of tsetse flies. Whatever the reason, it is fascinating to find these large tawny cats behaving like leopards as we are more accustomed to Southern Africa’s in-the-shade-of-acacia lions. We also did not expect to see them here, in Katavi National Park, an under-the-radar park in Western Tanzania.

    Most people picture Tanzanian parks as scenes from The Lion King – open savannahs filled with animals and hordes of tourists. Although this might not be too far from reality in the Serengeti, remember that there are also 20-odd other national parks in this beautiful game-rich country. Katavi is one of them, and only gets about 600 visitors per year due to its location well off the northern tourist trail. This relatively small park comprises a large variety of landscapes, including a beautiful river (sporting the world’s highest density of hippos!), massive game-rich plains, lush wetlands, palm-tree glades, and more. During our visit we did not see a single self-drive tourist. What we did see were 1000-strong buffalo herds, wading elephants, antheap-topping topi, Grant’s zebra (without shadow-lines between their stripes), and Thornicroft’s giraffe (with their broken-up block patterns).

    Katavi quickly became one of our favourites, not only because of the lack of tourists and tree lions, but because of its fantastic diversity and its underdog status. We camped just outside the park (hello Tanzanian park fees) at Hippo Gardens Hotel, run by Flora the very friendly manager/campfire wizard/cook. This Chernobyl-like establishment may have seen better days, but is perfectly fine for a budget night or two. Its name is also most apt, since the resident hippos visited the garden every night and giraffes greeted us in camp every morning.   

    We had entered Tanzania a few days before from Zambia at the small Mbala – Isopa border post to avoid the notorious Tunduma craziness. It was a refreshing experience to pay only for a single document (the vehicle import permit), on the back of Zambia’s convoluted system of taxing the confused traveller independently for the road, the bridge, the council, the vehicle, and possibly more if you don’t watch out. Making our way over roads that are much better than its southern neighbour (yet not tolled), we stocked up in Sumbawanga. As supermarkets disappeared from the scene, our Swahili invariably improved as shopping now gets done mostly from local street vendors. If you sniff around you will find amazing fresh produce in these village markets – a cultural culinary adventure in itself.

    When travelling up through Western Tanzania, exploring Lake Tanganyika’s shoreline is essential. At Lakeshore Lodge we camped under huge mango trees (and got visited by a boomslang in one of them), sampled our first ice-cold Kilimanjaros, caught and released some of the beautiful cichlid fish species, befriended the ever-present furry residents, and took in the amazing views over this massive lake with the DRC mountains in the backdrop. Here we also met an intrepid aviator that flew his home-built ultralight seaplane from Dar-es-Salaam to the lake, complete with manual in-flight refuelling. A Palm-nut Vulture also foraged around camp in the mornings. These vegan ‘birds of prey’ live almost exclusively from palm fruits and although rare in Southern Africa, up here in East Africa you can almost be sure to find a resident pair where there are palm trees near water.

    Located further up on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, Kigoma is a fascinating town. Here you will find the MV Liemba (the world’s oldest passenger ship with the most interesting history), the site where Stanley met up with Livingstone, and the Gombe Streams mountain forest where Jane Goodall did her groundbreaking studies on chimpanzees in the 60’s. These days, it is also the place where you are likely to get hopelessly lost looking for your campsite, where you might meet Sabastian the local camp zebra, land your first small Tanganyika perch on fly, and meet Mr. Jakobsen himself, the fascinating Norwegian expat who has been in Tanzania since 1975 and casually travelled from Cape Town (SA) to Nord Kapp (Norway) in a 2WD VW kombi in the 80’s.

    Heading towards the Ugandan border, we made our way to Bukoba, including a bone-rattling 200 km of intense road works complete with confusing village detours and sweating Chinese construction foremen. Located on Lake Victoria’s western shore, Bukoba is not exactly on the tourist trail, so a few hours of exploring dead-ends were unavoidable. These included getting lost in banana plantations, muddy alleys not meant for vehicles, and lakeshore quarries with clouds of mosquito-like lake flies so dense you must drive with wipers and fog lights.  In the end we found a hillside BnB with an amazing view and the tastiest local equivalent of vetkoek you can imagine, enabling us to relax for a day or two and hike around the increasingly lush green countryside where we added many new birds to our list.   

    The western regions of Tanzania do not get as many visitors as the coast and northern circuit. However, we found this underdog area most enjoyable and enriching. We will think of quiet shorelines of crystal-clear water where fishermen head out in their sail boats under a golden setting sun. We will taste our homemade coconut-milk curries, chapati and fresh pineapple. We will think of forgotten wilderness areas where tree lions yawn lazily to get ready for tonight’s buffalo battles. But above all, we will remember our very first taste of Tanzania, a country we cannot wait to explore further.    

    Some helpful trip tips:

    ·        Mbala-Isopa border post

    1.       Avoid Tunduma and enter Tanzania here (no trucks or runners).

    2.       Have 20-30 USD ready to exchange to Tanzanian shillings for the TIP.

    3.       Even CDP vehicles need a TIP in Tanzania.

    ·        Katavi National Park

    1.       Tanzanian parks consider your vehicle registration card to determine your vehicle entry fee based on its Tare Weight. For 2000 – 3000 kg, this means an eye-watering 150 USD per day! Budget wisely …

    2.       Get your permits for the park at the Sitalike HQ before driving to the more game-rich areas around Ikuu.

    3.       Even though park opens at 6am, the permit offices only open at 8am, and officials only arrive at 9am. Therefore, try and get your permit the day before.

    4.       Concentrate on the areas around the plains and the river, and don’t forget to look in the trees!

    ·        Network

    1.       Vodacom is the best network (1GB = 1USD).

    ·        Campsites

    1.       Lakeshore Lodge is great for its location, its cleanliness, and its privacy!

    2.       Jakobsen’s Beach is essentially the only option in Kigoma. Meet the local zebra and enjoy the private bay!

    3.       Humura Rocks has a great view over Lake Victoria and provides a fantastic breakfast!