From the wilderness of the Ngorongoro Crater to the desert islands of the Indian Ocean, Tanzania is one of those off-the-beaten-track destinations where you can guarantee to have the place pretty much to yourself. Getting so far off-grid isn’t always comfortable and it certainly isn’t cheap. But, as Bay’s Nick Smith discovers, if you’ve got the spirit of adventure and the ability to take the rough with the smooth, Tanzania might just be the paradise you’ve been looking for…
It’s officially one of the ‘Seven Natural Wonders of Africa’, and as soon as you raise your binoculars you can see why. Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater is like nowhere else on earth. To gaze over the hundred square miles of pristine African savannah and montane forest, perfectly encircled by the planet’s largest unbroken caldera, is to gaze over a world before human existence. As one of my travelling companions remarked as we drove down the steep track to the crater floor, it’s like entering the world of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.
Only it’s not. The reason being that this isn’t the movies, and we are in the heart of deepest equatorial Africa, which is by any measure infinitely better. As we hack along dusty bush trails there are buffalo and wildebeest, zebra and gazelle, elephant and lion. In the distance there are rhino and in the swamp there are hippo. We are surrounded by birds. From the flamingo that are somehow always just out of range of the camera lens, to the glittering malachite sunbirds that are too quick for it, the birdlife is astonishing. It’s a genuine 360 panorama and for those who compared it to the fictional Jurassic Park, it’s time to dispense with the film references. This is biblical, and the words ‘Garden of Eden’ spring to mind.
To see such wonders you have to be prepared to venture off the beaten path. But the rewards are great, chief among which is that you will have the place virtually to yourself. Of course, that feeling of seclusion comes at the cost of hair-raising internal flights in rickety old light aircraft. Forget about trying to charter a helicopter because, as handy as one would be, they’re not allowed into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. And quite rightly too. The attraction of the Highlands is their seclusion and the last thing anyone wants is chopper-blades in their sunset photos. But more importantly, the road trip into the interior is part of the adventure. As you drive through the Highlands, you pass through the old Africa of semi-nomadic and pastoral tribal people. On the faraway hills you see Maasai cattle herders robed in their traditional shukas and the bomas of the local villages. The Maasai here aren’t putting on a show for the tourists. The beads and headdresses are genuine and this is the way the Maasai live today.
After several weary hours on the unmade road there’s an astonishing and welcoming sight. It’s a small camp for intrepid travellers, and we’re greeted by the staff of the Asilia Highlands camp with a cheery jambo (Swahili for ‘hello’), as well as much-needed ice-cold bottles of Tusker beer. If I had been expecting the camp to be in the traditional tent style, I soon found that Asilia is made of geodesic domes facing east into the sunset. Based on a lattice-shell design pioneered by the American architect Buckminster Fuller, these unusual domes have all the environmental credentials required by today’s green traveller.
First they blend in naturally with the landscape. Second, they are completely removable to comply with the regulations of the conservation area that doesn’t allow permanent buildings. A solar plant provides energy, while a biogas digester produces cooking gas. Rainwater is collected to produce drinking water by reverse osmosis, while ‘grey water’ (the stuff that comes out of baths and washing machines) is recycled for washing Land Cruisers and equipment. It’s a safari camp with an ecological and geometrical twist.
Try as you might, you won’t stay in your own dome for long, because the heart of the camp is a communal fire-pit where everyone gathers for evening drinks. We sloshed down a few sunset cocktails on a wooden terrace that faces east towards the Empakaai Crater. After a quick safari-style dinner it’s lights out. There are 25,000 animals to see in the Ngorongoro Crater, so an early start is essential. Before dawn, while it is still dark we grab some breakfast and load up in the Land Cruiser. After a morning’s game drive, we share a riverside lunch with a few sleepy hippos, in the form of a bush picnic in the shade of an acacia tree. If you have any energy left, in the evening the guides at Asilia will take you to a local village where there is traditional dancing and a chance to buy beaded jewellery. You will also get the chance to see a perfect highland sunset.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit Zanzibar a few times and so I already knew that Tanzania’s coast – particularly along its coral islands – is a photographer’s dream. And although I could hardly describe myself as being eager to leave the Highlands, it was time to push on with the next leg of the adventure. We took a Cessna bush-plane from a red earthen airstrip at Lake Manyara that flew south along Zanzibar’s palm-fringed coast to Dar es Salaam, where we switched to an even smaller 4-seater aircraft destined for Mafia Island, just south of the equator. At Mafia we jumped into a speedboat that took us 45-minutes further away from all civilisation to a tiny island called Thanda that from the air looks like little more than an emerald fleck in the vastness of the inky blue Indian Ocean.
Thanda is where you can live out the fantasy of being marooned on a desert island, but in more style than Robinson Crusoe. That’s because Thanda is a retreat for the rich and famous who want to get away from the paparazzi for a few days. Because there are only five rooms in the beachfront villa, you’ll only be able to bring with you your closest family and friends and, because you book the whole thing or not at all, you’re guaranteed to have no problem with tedious neighbours. Developed by Swedish philanthropists Christin and Dan Olofsson, Thanda was originally their own bolthole from which they created the surrounding marine nature reserve. To stay there, it costs $10,000 a night.
Ten thousand dollars a night? Yes, you read that correctly. And you also have a point if you are thinking: “hang on, isn’t that a lot of money?” But, you see, regular folk like us don’t appreciate just how rich the mega-rich really are. So if you’re a movie star or a footballer, own a private bank or a Formula 1 team, then this is where you’ll want to go to get away from all those long lenses and kidnappers. What do we get for our ten thousand bucks? Perhaps it goes without saying, but the experience is very, very luxurious, especially given the fact that everything apart from the lobsters, crabs and oysters has to be imported from somewhere. You will also get your own executive chef, boatman, housekeeper, hostess and, for those who haven’t yet worked out how to relax, Wi-Fi internet access. But really what you get is what us poor photographers already have and don’t need to pay for – and that’s a little privacy and the time and space to enjoy yourself.
Even before you jump out of the speedboat you can see that Thanda is special. The villa is straight out of New York’s Hamptons and the sea is warm enough to dive straight into. Such is the island’s effect on the inner workings of the soul that within seconds of getting the sand between your toes you become a ‘desert island dood’. After the intensity of wildlife watching comes the jet-ski, infinity pool and the Steinway. That’s right, there’s a grand piano, several lovely guitars, a cigar humidor, and the small matter of nearly a mile of private beach where the only other inhabitants you’ll come across are reef heron and a few crabs. If Robinson Crusoe had found himself cast adrift on an island such as this, he would almost certainly have done his best not to be rescued. This was a sentiment confirmed in me as we sailed one morning from Thanda to an even more remote sandbar, where we had an al fresco champagne breakfast with only a few hundred terns and no other creature for company.
Even in a place like Thanda, it is possible that you might need the occasional change of scenery, and so after a few days it was time to go for a sail to explore some of the local islands. Perhaps the most interesting of these is Chole off the south coast of Mafia, where life seems to have changed little over the centuries. Chole’s 1500 or so inhabitants live a stress-free life, mainly it seems because there are no motorised vehicles (well, there is one: the local ambulance, which is a motorcycle and sidecar.) A brief tour of the island takes in crumbling colonial architecture, traditional dhow building, a noisy colony of fruit bats and the red mud houses of the people who call Chole home. There’s fantastic diving here too, but the call of snorkeling back at Thanda, where the reef sharks come right up to the shore, seemed more inviting.
This speck of solitude that is Thanda, this exquisite coral island, is the perfect antidote to the early mornings and long hikes of the Highlands. Watching the finest wildlife show on earth in the Ngorongoro Crater can be demanding for sure, but it’s worth it if only to experience the feeling that the planet we live on might not be as over-crowded as every day life would have us believe. And there are times when it’s simply not a very comfortable experience. At night it’s bone-chillingly cold and by day it’s as hot as hell. You get thrown around on the long bumpy trails and no amount of bug spray will protect you from being eaten alive by all sorts of poisonous insects. But this is adventure at it’s best, and you keep telling yourself that if paradise were easy to get to, everyone would go there. And don’t let anyone tell you that watching it on the TV comes anywhere close to seeing the real thing. It’s a life-changing experience that calls out for the reward of a few days of beach therapy before heading home to boring old Heathrow with Africa in your heart once more.