There are a few things I can say I’ve done in this lifetime.
One is getting out to pee in the middle of a Serengeti safari because I couldn’t hold it any longer. Trust me, I kept looking over at the grass for signs of movement, and it was one of those long pees that just won’t quit.
And the second is going on said Serengeti safari which now counts as one of the most memorable experiences of my life, including one of life’s travel bucket-list items: floating in a hot air balloon over the open Serengeti.
I want to start by saying this is not a list of superlatives.
I’m not going to tell you what to pack for safari or what to wear on safari because I am not a safari expert, though I do share some practicalities at the end of this post. Because I am African, I always want to know that safari holidays and safari packages are giving back directly to the local communities they operate in. I always want to go with companies and brands who treat their staff well.
My experience going on a Tanzania safari with Four Seasons was an easy choice for me. It’s a brand I love and have already collaborated with in Portugal, Mauritius, Seychelles, Baltimore, and Washington DC. It’s the kind of luxury brand that feels grounded, accessible, relaxed, and more importantly, where its employees and staff feel like family. There’s so much you can tell about a brand from the nuances one observes within its staff.
So, I already knew that once in Tanzania, this was the brand I wanted to collaborate with.
Please take a moment to watch this short video we put together before moving on.
So, where do I start?
A morning flight in a bush plane over the Ngorongoro Crater with Coastal Aviation already started building up my sense of awe. I was actually doing this and not really dreaming as we coasted over plains and expanses of land as far as the eye could see. Stretching across a mind-boggling 14,760 square kilometers, it’s no wonder that for centuries, local Maasai tribes have called this golden savannah “Serengeti”, which means “endless plains” in Swahili.
In 1956, the Serengeti was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and with over six million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebra and other indigenous wildlife, Serengeti National Park is where your chances of catching all Big Five in close proximity – lion, elephant, buffalo, the elusive leopard, and even rarer rhino – are pretty high.
We landed at Seronera Airstrip right in the middle of the Serengeti, a sand-gravel road serving as our landing strip. Upon pickup, we met our guide Naftar who would remain our dedicated companion for the three nights Janicke (my friend and NordicTB co-founder) and I stayed at the Four Seasons Safari Lodge. We arrived to a champagne welcome right at the airport with snacks, fruits, and sandwiches to get us filled up for our drive.
We noticed other lodge guests heading over to their own jeeps. That was when we realized we were getting the jeep all to ourselves for the entire length of our stay!
And right then was when I knew this safari experience was going to be exquisite, especially as photographers, we could stop whenever we wanted along the way without worrying about inconveniencing any other passengers.
The Game Drives
Right off the bat, it took us three hours to drive the normally 45 minutes it takes to get to the lodge, and that was why they met us with snacks to prepare us. In essence, the entire trip to the lodge was our first game drive. Before turning out of tiny Seronera Airstrip, we already saw groups of gazelles, antelopes, bucks, and more. The Serengeti’s panorama is a curious mix of sturdy acacia trees, rock outcroppings sprinkled around like Maltesers and crawling with rodent-like hyraxes and dik diks, as well as long blades of bush that hid hungry predators very well.
Over the course of our three days, we took daily game drives with Naftar who informed me not to be fooled by the swaying tall grass calmly dancing in the light wind. That I’d be dead within ten seconds if I decided to step out of his jeep.
From lions, hippos, and buffalos to elephants, baboons, and hyenas, we saw pretty much every major type of wildlife people go on a Serengeti safari to see. We even spotted a super elusive leopard which was lounging a tree with the carcass of a wildebeest it had dragged up to feast on.
While we didn’t get to see a rhino to round out our Big Five, the fact we were able to see so many animals in the span of just three days at the lodge was impressive.
Here are a few of my favourite wildlife shots from several game drives we took (with our own dedicated guide and jeep!).
Knowing the brand well, I knew I was going to be arriving into an impressive property, but the lodge was more than I had anticipated. Its common areas look over an animal watering hole where a herd of elephants came to drink on our last night there. The entire lodge is a labyrinth of elevated platforms and walkways that take you from your room to the main lodge. It’s so easy to forget that you’re literally in the open Serengeti where animals could walk around the property and right under those walkways. That’s why there are Maasai guides who can escort you to your rooms and back to the common areas.
We were upgraded to the “Simba” villa which was a one-bedroom apartment (larger than my Stockholm apartment) with a full kitchen, its own outdoor swim-up pool, a horizon view of the Serengeti, a full bathroom including an outdoor shower area. We had a rock right behind our villa where baboons perched all morning and night, looking for a way to get in.
For guests, all meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, everything) are included in the room rates including all alcoholic beverages, some laundry credit, and WiFi. Roundtrip transfers from Seronera Airstrip are also included. The best part? – Accommodation and meals are complimentary for children ages 10 and under sharing a room with an adult, so I’m seriously considering a return trip with my husband and kids soon.
In addition to rotating resident artists who stay at the property for a few weeks to months, there’s a wonderful Discovery Centre onsite which is part museum and part lecture theatre. There are interactive experiences where you learn about the wildlife, history and people of the Serengeti, including a dynamic map that shows the Great Migration.
Even if we didn’t go on the game drives, just hanging in our stupendous villa and gorging on exquisite food for three days would have still made the trip worthwhile.
Speaking of dining, the lodge is a bonafide all-inclusive affair. After all, you’re in the middle of a Serengeti safari so there aren’t any other restaurant options nearby. But considering it is the Four Seasons after all, the three restaurants on site were fabulous. Most of the cuisine was a blend of African herbs and spices fused with international cuisine.
For example, breakfast was at Kula’s breakfast with omelets made to order, and a generous buffet spread. At Maji Bar and Terrace which has open air sweeping views over the plains, we dug into lamb curries, samosas, tapas, and other savory dishes, while Boma Grill is built around an open-air firepit and serves lots of grilled and smoked meats and seafood.
There was also a Maasai performance at some point during the evening where a lot of the staff and guides invited us into their culture through songs, dance, and the well-documented adumu jump.
The Spa Retreat
For the last two years, self-care has really been a mantra for me. Making sure I take adequate time to stop and get enough rest and rejuvenation. So, while at the property, we indulged in some massages and spa treatments, including the 60-minute Kina massage (which means “thorough” in Swahili), a deep tissue massage after our game drives, and the best part? – Our masseuse pulled open the doors to give us an open-air sunset view over the Serengeti.
The Bucket List – Hot air ballooning over the Serengeti
The ink-black darkness which surrounded us belied what was well hidden within tall savannah grass flanking both sides of our rustic road as we made our way at the crack of dawn to partake in what has become one of the experiences of a lifetime for me. At the end of our sail was a champagne breakfast spread right in the middle of the open Serengeti.
We arrived at the launch site as distant sunrays started to streak the sky dark orange. There were a few other jeeps parked in the open plain where two large 16-person baskets the size of minivans were lying on their sides. Several men dressed in dark green jumpsuits and donning baseball caps worked feverishly at this early hour, getting gas ready, and making sure both balloon fabrics were properly spread out.
As the pioneering company in Tanzania, Serengeti Balloons has been flying hot air balloons in the country since 1989. All their pilots are commercially certified by the Tanzania Civil Aviation Authority to fly balloons, as well as hold permits in other regions around the world such as Cappadocia in Turkey and the southwestern United States known for their vibrant ballooning culture.
Captain Abeid Soka greeted us with a large smile which seemed a tad perky for this witching hour. As our “acacia green” and “savannah gold”-colored balloons were being inflated for takeoff, Captain Soka gave us a safety briefing. The chances of us plummeting down in a fiery ball into the midst of a hungry pride of lions feasting on their kill was slim to none. That was the only briefing I personally needed. Everything else – strapping in for boarding and bracing myself for landing – felt like bonus information.
Their balloons are made from recyclable materials such as bamboo, timber, and stainless steel, and the gas they use is classed as a green fuel. Old baskets are donated and have been repurposed into everything from a kid’s climbing playground to a chicken coop.
I climbed onboard my basket sideways and seated myself in the awkward position of an astronaut strapping in for lift off in a space shuttle. There was a sense of reverence that staring into infinity straight ahead invoked deep within me. I was looking into space as far as my little eyes could see, before I felt the basket slowing being lifted to an upright position. We were all in, strapped up, and ready to sail.
You can read my full experience hot air ballooning over the Serengeti at Adventure.com.
View more photos from my Serengeti safari
You can check out more photos from this incredible experience in my Serengeti safari image bank below. I wish I could share every photo with an anecdote, but some memories are just best savored by me.
As you can probably already tell, this experience isn’t cheap, but it is well worth the expense if you can afford to indulge and truly enjoy yourself. Would I have gone on this experience if I hadn’t been hosted? Absolutely! I take my family on great personal trips which I pay for and don’t publicly write about, including one we took together right before my trip to the Serengeti as well. One of the advantages and enjoyable aspects of my career as a travel writer and photographer is that I can collaborate with various travel brands as part of my work.
For our collaboration, we were fully hosted by Four Seasons, paid a subsidized media rate to Serengeti Balloons for the experience, and paid our park fees which were $71 per person per day.
Time to go – We went at the tail end of May which meant we caught a bit of the Great Migration in progress, but it wasn’t too crowded yet and the rains hadn’t come yet in full force.
Getting there – The best way to get to Four Seasons Safari Lodge is to fly to Seronera Airstrip with a domestic bush flight such as Coastal Aviation from Kilimanjaro International Airport. Roundtrip tickets during the time we flew there would normally be roughly $650 per person. Considering they have small 12-14 passenger planes and only fly 2-3 times per day to the Serengeti, you can understand why ticket prices are high.
Park fees – You will need to pay a national park fee for a Serengeti safari of $71 per day per person. This is collected by the hotel, so you don’t have to worry about a separate payment system.
Rates and prices – I would recommend staying a minimum of three nights (more if you can afford it). Be prepared to pay a starting rate of about $1,200 per night depending on the season. Keep in mind, this rate includes pretty much everything (except special spa treatments) so it is a pretty good deal for all what you get. Four Seasons regularly publishes a lot of special offers and Serengeti safari packages too.