You can watch every documentary on PBS, consult how-to videos on Youtube and troll dozens of photos on Instagram, but nothing can quite prepare you for the reality of what it's like to go on safari in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park. Massive in size (about 6,000 square miles), it's simply impossible to imagine the vastness of the landscape; a sea of uninterrupted grassland (save for the occasional acacia tree or ancient rock formation) that seemingly stretches to infinity against a brilliant blue sky. Also unimaginable, the sheer number and variation of wildlife you'll encounter, which includes everything from the big five (African elephant, Cape buffalo, lion, leopard and rhino) to rare, colorful species of birds, packs of sprightly warthogs and hyenas, cheetahs, hippo, and the hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra as they make their way on the famed great migration.
For first time safari-goers, the Serengeti is ideal. Not only is Tanzania a stable, tourist-friendly African country (about a quarter of which is government-protected parkland), the Serengeti National Park—though wild and minimally developed—is generally very safe and well-patrolled, making it a magnet for wildlife researchers from around the world, honeymooners, adventurous solo travelers and even families with young children. And while the range of places to stay is varied (it's possible, for example, to pitch a tent and drive yourself around with a rented Range Rover), for novices the best way to experience the Serengeti is something a bit more buttoned up, ensuring a truly once-in-a-lifetime trip. The saying goes, your first safari is a lot like your first love: you never, ever forget it.
Where to Stay
Easing into your first safari is made exceptionally simpler by staying at the 77-room Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti, opened in 2013. This isn't one of the tented camps you may have heard about, but (unusually for this part of the world) an actual, proper two-level contemporary structure that seamlessly blends into the surrounding wilderness with its generous use of stone, timber, and thatched roofs. What's striking about the Four Seasons is how isolated it feels while giving guests access to things like a full-service spa (try the kifaa treatment, which incorporates the use of a rungu—a traditional wooden Maasai baton—in a massage), three restaurants, fitness center, swimming pool, a kids club and a truly fascinating Discovery Centre, where any question you could possibly have about the Serengeti ecosystem is answered via interactive exhibits and displays, and the friendly resident conservationist and manager of the center, Oli Dreike.
Four Seasons Serengeti
Four Seasons Serengeti
Even standard rooms here feel spacious and airy, with huge bathrooms with stand-alone soaking tubs. If you can, request a room with a water hole view—the property's very own watering hole sits alongside the main swimming pool and draws herds of elephants, who stop by to take a drink and appear so close that it sometimes feels as if you could reach out and touch them. If you only have a week to spare, five nights at the property is just enough time to get a few incredible game drives and activities in. From $1,000; fourseasons.com.
When to Go
June through October is the high season, with the driest weather and most comfortable temperatures (around 80 degrees during the day and cool evenings), but travelers should also consider other months, as well. Not only will prices be more reasonable, but the rainy (or "green") season, from November to May, has its advantages. "The park is beautiful, lush and verdant during green season," says Dreike. "Many of the migratory birds have arrived and are in their colorful breeding plumage. The great migration is all in Tanzania during the whole of the green season and the park is quieter. And there is nothing like watching an African thunderstorm build and then break off in the distance, while enjoying a gin and tonic on your deck."
Four Seasons Serengeti
What to Pack
Because of weight limits (about 30 pounds) on the small planes used to fly to the African bush, packing light is essential. Luckily, you won't need much and the Four Seasons provides complimentary laundry service (and every restaurant at the hotel is casual, you'll have no need for evening wear). In general, the safari clichés exist for a reason: khaki and green blend in with the surroundings, with the additional benefit of camouflaging dirt and dust. Think lightweight, breathable tops and bottoms (for maximum sun and bug protection), a practical light jacket for cool evenings and a wide-brimmed hat for further sun shielding. Binoculars, insect repellent and extra camera memory cards (you'll take more photos than you think) are virtual necessities. Make sure you pack everything in a soft duffel bag, as opposed to a traditional, hard-sided roller, as they aren't generally allowed on small prop planes that will take you to the national park.
What You'll Do
Typically, the schedule during a Serengeti safari is pretty straightforward: get up just before the sun comes up, sit down for a substantial breakfast, and then it's off for a four-hour game drive with a supremely knowledgeable guide. Four hours sounds like a long time (rest assured, there are bathroom breaks), but that time flies when every moment is spent in awe observing lions feasting on antelope right after a kill ("the Serengeti has the largest population of lions of any national park in East Africa," says Dreike), an ostrich trying to woo a mate, giraffes munching on acacia tree leaves, or being mesmerized by a never-ending galloping stream of wildebeests on their great migration journey. Afternoons for a first-timer should be spent relaxing, indulging in a spa treatment, a workout, a nap (to make up for the super early wake-up calls), or just hanging out around the grounds. "Just sitting by the pool looking out over the animal watering hole, where the elephants are often found drinking, is one of the most favorite pastimes of our guests," says Dreike.
Four Seasons Serengeti
In the early evening before dinner, one ofthe most exceptional experiences on offer is a walking safari, where guests are able to leave the confines of a Land Rover and immerse themselves in the landscape on foot. If the idea of being directly on ground causes some anxiety (guests have been known to spot lions and hyenas on these walks), Dreike makes a point to highlight the safety precautions the hotel takes. "Safety is a number one concern, which is why we walk with two experienced, armed rangers and why we keep the groups to a maximum of six guests. It's a chance to gain a deeper understanding of the ecosystem, to see the smaller things you miss when driving and also to learn more about the Maasai and how they use local plants in ceremonies, for medicine and in building their homes."
How to Get There
A travel visa isn't required before leaving for Tanzania (though you'll have to pay a $100 fee for one on arrival). Connecting flights via Europe and the Middle East are plentiful, with airlines like KLM, SwissAir, Turkish Airlines and Emirates all serving the country. For guests, Four Seasons can arrange a small charter plane that takes you from either Dar Es Salaam or Kilimanjaro airports to an airstrip in the Serengeti, where you're greeted with snacks and champagne before the two-hour drive to the hotel (which in itself is its own mini game drive).