A Solo Safari in Tanzania

by Lauren on September 16, 2013

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If I go solo on another African safari, I will wear a ring.

“Is she your wife?” other guides would ask my guide. “When is the wedding?” they would joke. The thing is, they kind of weren’t joking.

Traveling alone offers an intimate experience that is unrivaled — after 48 hours with my knowledgable safari guide, having developed a rapport through our mutual Spanish-speaking backgrounds, I felt I could grill him.

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After witnessing a particularly animated discussion between Leonard and the driver of another safari vehicle, I asked, “Leonard, what are you guys talking about?”

“Oh, Lauren. If only you knew Swahili.”

I pushed, “I don’t, amigo. What are they saying?”

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Leonard then told me the truth. In many circles, a woman traveling alone gives the impression she might be in trouble. Leonard explained that some may think she is running away from her husband.

It was startling lesson. And the first time I realized that traveling solo doesn’t always carry a sense of independence; of empowerment.

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The timing of our discussion aligned uncannily with a herd of elephants crossing our path.

Leonard had grown up in a Maasai tribe, a nomadic culture that practices polygamy. How ironic that a group of intimidatingly large creatures would appear just then.

All female, incidentally.

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Leonard was a highly knowledgable professional with a background in big game hunting. After a client nearly died while trying to shoot an African buffalo, he decided to lead photographic safaris only.

Sounded totally reasonable to me.

The highlight of our safari was the Ngorongoro Crater, a vast expanse of African bush with every zoo critter one might imagine — minus the tigers. They live in Asia.

The crater is technically a caldera, given the wildlife and fauna that it supports. Actual craters tend to be dead zones.

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My first lion sighting was remarkable. She lay quietly just meters away from our vehicle, and I stared in disbelief for several minutes.

Leonard was texting.

Then she huffed and puffed and stared at the six buffalo that were fifty meters away, staring her down. A hyena circled nearby, waiting for the dramatic event.

Unfortunately for my photojournalistic career, but fortunately for my peace of mind, nothing happened.

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A lesser but equally fascinating sighting were the scores of wildebeest on their annual migration. They are on the move in summer months in search of more plentiful food and water sources. Many die along their journey, some eaten during water crossings, and others starving to death.

I wasn’t witness to hundreds of thousands moving across the Ngorongoro Crater, as is the case at other times of the year. However, the aggressive trickle of wildebeest (wildebeasties?) was captivating nonetheless.

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If a lesson was learned on safari, it was that you should always have your camera at the ready, lens cap off and ready to shoot. As you pull alongside a herd of grazing gazelles, scrambling to pull out your camera is not necessarily smooth safari etiquette.

Fortunately, I had learned this by day’s end, when a gentle giant graced us with her presence at sunset.

Giraffe in Tanzania, Ngorongoro Crater

And while I never felt in danger, the safari portion of my expedition would have been more comfortable had I worn a ring.

I wouldn’t discourage women from traveling alone, but I would certainly encourage them to think about traveling with a friend. In which case it is assumed that you are “two friends traveling.”

You would not be perceived as “two women running away from their husbands.” I verified this with Leonard.

However, if that were the case, what better choice than to fly to Africa and lose yourself on safari?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sunessa Schettler October 11, 2013 at 3:45 pm

I do wish that men weren’t so wrong in their assumptions about why women might travel solo. It really makes so little difference “why?” someone travels, but then there’s the cultural assumption that women stay in families, in homes, or married and otherwise indoors. It is really frustrating and therefore understandable why some would choose to wear a ring and avoid the questions. I like that you’ve written about it all so honestly. I felt similarly while in Morocco solo in the mid-90s

I also like that your camera was poised and ready for some great wildlife shots!!

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Lauren Schaad October 11, 2013 at 9:09 pm

It would great to hear more about your experiences in Morocco! I bet that was interesting, Sunny. Fortunately, I’ve found many places to be more than welcoming to solo women travelers, as I’m sure many places in Africa are. This trip was definitely unique!

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