Tanzania’s Saadani national park may be less well known than the Serengeti but its situation means tourists enjoy big game and beach life
WALKING out to the plane at Dar Es Salaam airport I can’t help feeling that something’s missing. Where are the security checks? And my luggage? And the other passengers? “It’s just you on this flight!” beams a man called Gilbert, who seems to be in charge of seeing me through the Tanzanian capital’s laid-back domestic terminal.
As my backpack reappears, I start thinking I could get used to this relaxed approach to air travel, though I’m not prepared when he suddenly adds, “Would you like to sit in the cockpit?”
Looking inside, I’m relieved to see a pilot is already on board, however, so I hop in and gaze out as we take off. I’m amazed by how much better the view is from here.
Within half an hour we’re landing on an airstrip at Saadani national park, and the safari begins on the drive to the camp. The biggest creatures we spot this afternoon are warthogs, trotting along in their usual comedy style with tails bolt upright. The more popular exotic animals that lure countless tourists to Tanzania’s most famous wildlife park in the Serengeti, such as elephants, lions and giraffes, can be seen here as well. And while it is less well known than the Serengeti, Saadani is the only national park in the country that is beside the Indian Ocean, so visitors can enjoy big game and beach life simultaneously.
Saadani is also the site of a major elephant conservation project, supported by A Tent with a View, a luxury camp just outside the park. It’s a misleading name these days because guests no longer stay under canvas, but in comfortable wooden bandas, each with its own veranda and hammock, built in coconut groves bordering a stretch of deserted white sand strewn with driftwood.
Dining under myriad stars at night with Australian hosts Steve and Lynn Boyd is entertaining and educational as they point out the constellations to guests. We sit together enjoying a feast that includes fresh avocado and yoghurt followed by fish and chips made with the local catch of the day. Afterwards Steve introduces us to Amarula, a South African liqueur like “Baileys on steroids”, made from the fruit of the marula tree, which is also a favourite food of elephants.
Here the jungle giants enjoy coconuts. There is plenty of evidence both in the camp and nearby villages of their penchant for knocking down palms at night to quench their thirst. Unfortunately, though, the success of efforts to protect elephants from poachers now jeopardises the survival of communities whose livelihoods, and lives, are under attack by the animals. A Tent with a View works with locals to find ways for people and pachyderms to live in harmony.
It puts elephants in a new perspective as I stand at the top of a watchtower early next morning, scanning the land for hours as the sky gradually lightens from grey to yellow. Chatting quietly, my guide Tizo Mhando grins, recalling the reaction when staff here were asked to help fit satellite collars to some of the elephants to monitor their movements as part of the conservation project. “The first time we got some information about the project everyone was very afraid and we all said, ‘How will we do it?’ Nobody ever touches the elephant.’”
He pauses to point out a young giraffe standing about 100m away, facing the opposition direction, its ears waggling and black tail swishing.
Resuming his story, Tizo describes running towards a tranquilised elephant lugging a 7kg transmission collar. “We had to get it on quickly before the elephant came around again. It was fun,” he giggles.
The security man who sleeps here says he saw a big group of elephants last night. Suddenly he points and hisses, “Elephants are coming!”
Around 20 mothers and babies, some just three or four weeks old, move towards us like one vast, swaying grey mass. Catching our scent as they get closer, the matriach trumpets a warning and they break into a run, ears flapping as they disappear in the direction of the coconut groves on the coast. It is a wonderful sight, and Tizo and the guard seem just as delighted as I am.
Resorts here routinely employ armed guards, one of whom I bump into on the beach when walking back to my room one evening. Growing concerns about Somali pirates attacking tourists over the border in Kenya, and the recent murder of a British man and the abduction of his wife at a coastal resort, have made foreigners more wary.
Steve says pirates haven’t come this far south, and the place benefits from the natural protection of offshore reefs, which make it hard for boats to land here. Nonetheless, I find myself lying awake in bed thinking that the previously welcome sound of thundering surf would make it impossible to hear a call for help should anything untoward happen.
The next day my nocturnal fears are forgotten as Lynn takes me on a makeshift canoe through the mangrove swamp. A flash of brilliant blue and red confirms the presence of a tiny malachite kingfisher, which flies with us as we paddle towards the camp’s research centre.
No-one is working here at the moment, but there is a map charting the movements of the two remaining elephants that have collars still transmitting their locations.
Leaving Saadani airstrip after another safari en-route and no check-in queue, I wish all flights could be like this one.
Rooms at A Tent with a View in Saadani national park start from US$195 (£120) per person per night, full board. Safaris start from US$40 (£25) per person for a half day, plus US$30 (£19) park fee.
Rooms at the Oyster Bay Hotel (www.theoysterbayhotel.com) in Dar es Salaam start from US$400 (£248) per person per night, including all meals and drinks.
Return flights with British Airways (www.britishairways.com) to Dar es Salaam from Scottish airports (via London) start from around £730 per person.