Saadani Safari

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April 14th 2007
Published: April 14th 2007
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Saadani National Park and Safari Lodge

Saadani: Beach, River, Bush ... all in one. Here's a glimpse at where I went on my first wildlife safaris in Tanzania, a game drive in the savannah just north of Saadani village and a trip of the winding Wami River to the south. The safari lodge sits right on the beach, just a few km's north of the river's mouth. You can zoom out for reference for proximity to my home in Dar es Salaam, which is also marked with a way point. You can zoom way in close on the Dar es Salaam point to see where I am right now!

Last weekend I finally went on my first official safari in Africa! I joined up with my coworker Abdallah for a four-day visit to Saadani National Park and Saadani Safari Lodge, which is known for its unique location right on the shore of the Indian Ocean (aptly summarized in its slogan … beach, river, bush)

As you can imagine, it was breathtaking and beautiful, but before I get on with the story, just a reminder that only a few photos are posted here, but I have a lot more photos right here. So if you’re visually inclined, you might enjoy perusing the photos (more than 60) before reading on. I've also added a really nice route map to this entry. I was able to get the lay of the land really well at Saadani with the beach and Wami River. But if you look at the map, you can also zoom out a little to see my house in Dar es Salaam. I marked it with a waypoint ... just zoom out, center the second way point on the map, and zoom back in all the way for an aerial close-up of my house!

As you know, my schedule has been pretty full since I arrived in Tanzania
giraffes in saadanigiraffes in saadanigiraffes in saadani

Don't miss the one's hiding in the shade
in mid-January, and my earlier outings have been to Zanzibar and the East Usambara Mountains. But thanks to the extended easter weekend (passover for me) I had some time to sneak in a safari before the long rains settle in later this month and drench the low-lying coastal areas until June.

I chose Saadani for a few reasons, one being proximity to Dar es Salaam. But more importantly, Saadani is now home to Erik and Angel, two of the other Roots & Shoots volunteers I had been living with, at least up until a few weeks ago when they traded in their lives as volunteers (and as Americans for that matter) to work as camp managers of the safari lodge. In addition, all three of us have been talking with the owner of the lodge for a couple months about opening an eco-friendly residential environmental education center on property adjacent to the national park. So I took advantage of the long weekend before to visit Erik, Angel and Saadani before the lodge shuts down for the season. Here’s my story.

First David Goes for a Ride, and then some

I planned on leaving for Saadani last Saturday morning, but things didn't go entirely as planned, thanks to some hawkers who took advantage of my white skin and inability to speak fluent Kiswahili. The morning of my planned departure, I got an email from my friend Angel asking to bring 100 litres of water up to the lodge for the staff, which ended up altering the plan just enough to throw me off my game. First off, I needed to take a taxi all alone to the bus stand, instead of meeting my friend Abdallah outside the bus station (I later learned that Saadani buses actually pick up riders outside the station; why they’re outside, I don’t know … this is Tanzania). Meanwhile the driver, seeing that I had a full load of luggage and water, drove right past the ticket window booths and straight to the (wrong) buses. All the while Abdallah was waiting for me in the right place across the street, outside the bus stand. I didn't know where I was supposed to be, and with my ten, 10-litre bottles, had no mobility to walk around and find.

I did ask the taxi driver to check for Saadani buses outside the bus stand, but he started talking to some random guys in Kiswahili, and they directed us to a bus in the lot and I proceeded to buy tickets from the man next to the bus. Time was getting short, so I didn't even stop to think that I was buying from someone ripping me off because I was in such a rush to get the water loaded on the bus, which they told me was leaving for Saadani within 10 minutes.

I was a little surprised when the guy asked me for 70,000 shillings (just under $70) for two tickets, I said, "elfu saba?" (7,000) and they laughed at me as the guy wrote "70" on his hand in ink. I didn't have time to argue, so I figured the 7k quote I had gotten a few days prior was incorrect, or I had misunderstood. I called Abdallah to ask where he was and handed my phone to the bus conductor, who talked to him in Swahili for a few minutes before hanging up and assuring me that we’d pick up Abdallah right outside the bus station (again, he was in the right place, not me, despite the fact I confirmed and
saadani sunrise 2saadani sunrise 2saadani sunrise 2

with erik and abdallah
reconfirmed that I had just bought tickets to Saadani).

Next, I was charged an additional 10k to load the water. Coming briefly to my senses, though it seems only in part, I asked for a receipt figuring Saadani Safari Lodge staff would reimburse me additional cost of their water. I got on the bus and a few hundred yards away we stopped to pick up Abdallah, who gets on the bus, and we head up the road.

A few minutes go by and I asked Abdallah to find out how much tickets were for locals because I think I might have gotten ripped off "a little." We shortly realize not only was I taken for a financial ride, we're not even on a bus to Saadani, which I had previously confirmed repeatedly with the guys selling my ticket. So we had to ask the driver to stop, we unloaded the water, and hopped in a cab back to the bus stand having missed the real bus to Saadani at this point.

Despite our protests, the bus company won't refund my money, even though we have two printed tickets from their company with 35k tzsh written on each. The company did offer to send us on the next bus to Tanga (much further north than Saadani), informing us we could get off earlier and transfer at another town to catch (and pay additionally for) a second bus. After a few minutes we decided against this option as the day started reaching further into the afternoon and buses to Saadani village would be few and far between. Instead, we decided to go home, tail between our legs, and try again the following day from the correct bus stand.

Looking back, I was probably overdue for a scam like this. I’ve been out of the USA for nearly six months now and most of my travels have run smoothly, in part, causing me to relax my traveling street sense since arriving in Dar. When it’s all said and done, $70 isn’t the end of the world especially since none of my possessions were taken, and I wasn’t physically harmed in any way. Later in the weekend, Costa, the owner of Saadani Safari Lodge graciously offered to split the 70k TZSH down the middle since he had asked me to bring the 100litres of water for his staff, and it
what a crocwhat a crocwhat a croc

okay, so it's blurry .. the boat was in motion people
was the additional payload which kept me separated from my Tanzanian friend, Abdallah.

But you know what, I was supposed to be writing about my first safari in Tanzania and so far I haven’t even begun! Sorry about that, but this is just as much my travel journal as it is your window into my journey, and I wanted to document all that went on. Now the fun part.

Part Two: Saadani

Abdallah and I arrived at Saadani in the early evening on Sunday, April 8th. The Saadani staff, having already learned of the previous day’s misadventure over email, treated the two of us to dinner with the other guests at the lodge. Noting the date, this happened to be Saadani’s special Easter dinner, which was set up as a “bush dinner,” where we all dined under the stars amidst the trees.

Saadani is a small lodge with only a few luxurious, beachside tent cabins. This particular evening, the guests included a family of three from South Africa, a honeymooning couple from South Africa, a couple from Greece and an ex-pat Canadian couple turned Kenyan, along with Erik and Angel, Coenrad (the current Camp Host soon to be replaced by my friends) and Costa. We dined on a wonderful dinner, devoured our desserts and debated the true location of the Southern Cross in the night sky. Soon after, we called it a night, as Erik and Angel hosted us in their screened in porch, where I slept soundly through the night as the ocean tides cleansed the beach just a few feet away.

On Monday Abdallah and I walked over to the neighboring Saadani village, population 1,500, for breakfast, wandering around, and playing pool with a number of kids in the village. Unfortunately for me, Abdallah beat me in pool for the second time since arriving in Tanzania. Later we wandered through the mangrove forest which creates a natural barrier between the village and the beach, and walked along the sand back to Saadani Safari Lodge for our first game drive.

Game Drive
Just after 4:00 pm Abdallah and I met up with John, our driver, and we all hopped in one of the safari jeeps and hit the open road. The jeep could’ve easily sat 10 people comfortably, but on this quiet afternoon, it was just the three of us and we didn’t see another vehicle in the park. (I’ve been warned that safaris and game parks in Tanzania are virtual “parking lots” of tourists coming to take pictures of the animals, so this was a welcome quiet and peaceful experience.) Saadani, on the other hand, is Tanzania’s newest National Park, having recently been reclassified from its previous designation as a game reserve.

Within about two minutes, we came upon a group of baboons, climbing out of a cluster of trees and running across the road near the car. Then, within about five minutes, Jon spotted a herd of giraffe, turned down a side road and all at once it became official: I’m in Africa.

We had found about 20 giraffe, young and old, feasting on a variety of acacia tree equipped with a thorny, prickled defense mechanism (fortunately for the giraffe, they’re equipped with extremely tough lips and tongues to counterattack). Meanwhile, two zebra grazed in the tall grass next to the group. Of course this wasn’t my first time seeing a giraffe, having grown up visiting the Indianapolis zoo regularly as a child. Nonetheless, this was an entirely different experience seeing them in the wild in Tanzania. The giraffe all took an interest in our vehicle and raised their heads, angling their lengthy necks in various positions to peek at us while munching on their afternoon snack. Though I was in Saadani, I really felt like I had just been transported on to the pages of a Dr. Seuss book, staring at these cartoon animals with the various plants and trees of the coastal savannah all around.

John gave us a brief biology lesson on the giraffe, and shared his guide book which highlighted the different species which can be found throughout East Africa. After a few minutes we were off driving again, spotting tongs of birds left and right, up and down, in the grass, in the sky and all over the place before coming upon a second large group of animals, including more zebra, white bearded wildebeest, buffalo and waterbuck.

I was surprised by the commingling of the various animal species, who were seemingly right up in each other’s territory. This was very different from most of my previous wildlife encounters in the states, where I’m used to seeing a solitary black bear or one herd of elk all by itself. Here, I saw at least a hundred animals out and about, just a few kilometers from the beach where I had slept the night before.

The rest of the game drive also included sightings of kudu, warthogs and hartebeest, along with lilac breasted roller (I’ve got a great pictures), vultures, ground hornbill, and plenty other birds I can no longer remember because I forgot to bring a pen and paper with me. What kind of naturalist am I, sheesh!

We spent about two hours total on the game drive, as the sun set far to the west and cast a wonderful orange glow on the savannah. The only animals in the park we didn’t see were lions or elephants (we saw elephant tracks), which are the most elusive in the park. We then returned for another group dinner, this time at Saadani’s open dining area on a raised platform above the sand. We turned in very early Monday night because we had an even earlier morning planned for the following day.

River Safari

Just after sunrise on Tuesday, a boat picked us up right out front of the cabin and took us south along the beach to the mouth of the Wami River, where we would go on our second nature safari. Once again, John accompanied us along with our boat driver Oswald, and we were the only people on the river.

Our boat went up the estuary, paralleling mangrove forested shores as we visited all the local inhabitants. As can be expected, the number of bird species was overwhelming (and I forgot my pen and paper again … arrgh). There were a variety of species of heron, kingfisher (one of which was feasting on a large shrimp), cormorant, pelican, egret and sandpiper.

In terms of the charismatic mega-fauna, we saw blue monkeys, black and white colobus monkeys, a monitor lizard, a crocodiles of varying sizes, and a number of hippos who stayed mostly submerged as our boat passed by. I really enjoyed having the opportunity to explore the estuary and mangrove forest by boat, which provided us with what seemed like a more personal and intimate interaction with the ecosystem, at least compared to the game drive.

After the early morning trip, we returned to the lodge for breakfast and then sat/napped/read/swam at the pool for the duration of the afternoon, with a lunch break in the bar. Abdallah managed to beat me a couple more times in pool, though I got in a couple of other victories playing with American rules, and one game of nine ball. Then in the evening Erik drove us out to the adjacent property on which Costa is thinking of building an eco-friendly education center. As you can imagine, with my professional background, my mind was in full gear considering all the opportunity and possibility of having a residential education program at this unique confluence of river, estuary, mangrove forest, and savannah, all teeming with wildlife.

We returned for our last night at the lodge for one final dinner … by now all the guests had left except for the honeymoon couple, who managed to see lions just as they finished their final game drive that evening. The staff set them up with a private beach dinner, so the other four of us had our dinner alone at the restaurant area on what would be the final night of activity for Saadani Safari Lodge before closing up for the rainy season that will extend until June.

Wednesday morning we got up around 5 a.m. to catch a very early bus back to Dar es Salaam, but I managed to get a couple hours of sleep on the way home before finishing off my book (Stephen King’s Dark Tower … the seventh and final book in the series which I’ve been reading off and on since 1999!) and returning to city life.

The trip to Saadani definitely reinvigorated me, despite the unfortunate circumstances under which the trip first got underway … or to be precise, did not get underway as planned. Even though I’m having an incredible experience working with JGI here in Dar es Salaam, there have been plenty of times where doubt has crept in and I’ve wondered, why have I traveled so many miles from home, family and friends (and colts) when I’m not out in the field learning about the unique ecosystems here in East Africa? Well, this was a nice grounding reminder that yes, even while living in the city, I’m in a very special place. And in a matter of weeks, I’ll have plenty of time to get out to explore and continue learning about this wonderful place. In the mean time, I’m getting back to work with all the wonderful people I’ve met here in Tanzania, hoping to inspire them with the same curiosity and interest that I have … to learn about the world around them and do what they can to protect it.


14th April 2007

to subscribers ...
Sorry I accidentally sent this one out to you twice. In any case, it looks like the email system is back up and running!
22nd April 2007

Thanks for the story !
I really enjoyed reading your post here on Saadani. We will be visiting this lodge in August but found very little info on it. Your explanations and pictures helped us to visualise the experience and sounds really good. Good luck with your future plans !

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