Bucket List Africa: The Ultimate Beach and Safari Getaway in Tanzania
On a beach-safari-beach honeymoon in Tanzania, Nikki Ridgway discovers the beauty of the southern Selous and its wildlife alongside ultimate relaxation in Zanzibar and the Swahili Coast along with more than a little adventure
“Newlyweds die in giraffe collision.” “She always hated small planes.” “Safari was his idea.” I was crafting my local newspaper’s obit headline as our five-seat Cessna roared down a dirt airstrip in Tanzania’s southern Selous Game Reserve toward two giant male giraffe. One did an about turn back into the bush, but the other continued his slow motion gallop across the runway just as our plane’s wing sliced the air between his body and great big neck. I was hyperventilating, the pilot was gesticulating like a New York cabbie, but my brand new husband was ecstatic. “Did you see that?!”
This was day seven of married life and part two of our Tanzanian honeymoon having started with some beach lazing and McConaughey-level romance on Zanzibar. Getting there was a relatively painless hop from New York via Paris and Dar-es-Salaam (fly with Emirates and plea to the upgrade gods), but settling on the destination involved plotting and rejecting journeys through Turkey, Greece, Colombia, Mexico and, fleetingly, a cross-country road trip.
Where I wanted to hole up in some faraway cottage and sleep for a week, he was plumping for surf school
Never had so much planning or indecision gone into our travels, but just as the wedding caused first-time tiffs over fonts and hemstitch napkins, so the honeymoon lead us down wildly different paths. Where I wanted to hole up in some faraway cottage and sleep for a week, he was plumping for surf school. My image of a deserted beach and beer for breakfast was at odds with his once-in-a-lifetime adventure and stories to tell our kids. No pressure, honeymoon, but it had to be our Best.Trip.Ever.
Thankfully, finally, we were both sold on a beach and safari combo in Tanzania — from Zanzibar to the Selous and over to the Swahili Coast — and touched down in Freddie Mercury’s hometown (aka Stone Town, the capital) 72 hours after “I do.” A direct flight from many international hubs or just a 20-minute puddle jump from Dar-es-Salaam, the Spice Isle is a well trodden honeymoon destination with good reason. In the tidal south you can chase the Indian Ocean miles out to sea alongside local seaweed farmers, while the more developed north has its miles of wide, white beaches and raft of restaurants and resorts.
We loved both versions, first at the elegant, Arabesque Residence Zanzibar on the island’s far southern tip, then at Diamonds Star of the East, a decadent enclave within an already exclusive beach resort on the northwest coast. Full service, all-inclusive properties both, they set the scene for some classic honeymooning: palatial beachside villas you don’t want or need to leave, dedicated butlers at your beck and call, world-class spas and gourmet meals, and those topaz Indian Ocean views at every turn.
After five days on the island we were tanned, a bit drunk at all times (thank you, all-inclusive plan) and nowhere near ready to leave — so much so that I misread our meticulously planned itinerary and we missed the only direct flight from Zanzibar to the Selous Game Reserve the next morning. It cost us an unmentionable amount of money, 13 hours in Dar airport and a lost day of safari to fix, but we scored a good giraffe survival story and arrived in the Selous as the sky burned red with dusk and the reserve’s million odd residents were kicking off their evening chorus.
Four times the size of the Serengeti, Selous Game Reserve is earning new international attention, but our trip still felt like a private audience with the animal-dotted savannahs and rich wetlands
Dissected by the mighty Rufiji River, the Selous Game Reserve is four times the size of the Serengeti and just a 30-minute flight from Dar-es-Salaam, but I couldn’t have pointed it out on a map before booking our trip. The spread of tourism-only consignments in the north of the reserve is bringing new attention to the region, but our trip still felt like a private audience with the animal-dotted savannahs, rich wetlands and varied wildlife.
We admired all of this and more from the private deck of our enormous "tent" (a tent with a hardwood king bed and soft linens) at Siwandu lodge on the banks of croc- and hippo-filled Lake Nzerakera. A luxe but unflashy retreat, it has a cozy Euro feel, stellar staff, small pool and fleet of boats for river safaris, but nothing to distract you from the live safari show going on and around the lake.
In the care of our driver/guide/life coach Mpoto, days here began at dawn as we set out on slow, deliberate drives along dry riverbeds, past towering termite mounds, beneath 1,000-year-old Baobab trees and through thick scrub looking for the Big Five, Little Five (Mpoto seemed even more excited about these sightings) and a zillion bird species. We saw skittish impala in their little stiletto booties, giant herds of zebra on every horizon, our giraffe friends between acacia trees, elephants wading in the marshland and, one grisly morning, a dead kudu dangling in the crook of a tree and, minutes later, the mother leopard who returned to claim her kill.
On our final night in the bush we were drinking wine on the outdoor deck and listening to the hippos make their noisy exit from the lake when the "tree" next to me took a step forward and another giant giraffe appeared within two meters of our chairs. Like the appointed greeter for the week, I hoped he’d inquire about the quality of our stay here in the Selous, but alas, he just masticated loudly and went on his lolloping way. As did we, early the next morning.
With just 48 hours before we’d be back at our desks, we made an 11th-hour swap of city time in Paris for a tan top up and long lie-ins at Ras Kutani — Siwandu’s sister property between a freshwater lake and the Indian Ocean on the untouched Swahili coast. Just a 15-minute flight from Dar, it is a destination to do nothing at all and lures weary city folk and pre- and post-safari goers to rest and recharge. You can take a 1.5-hour walk along the deserted beach or kayak down the creek, but that’s where the activities manual ends. We settled on Zanzibar-grade loafing in our hillside villa and on the wind-whipped beach, a closing credit–worthy swim in the Indian Ocean and, yep, one textbook arm-in-arm stroll at sunset.