We’re in a jeep at Saadani National Park, quietly watching 13 muddy lions devour a water buffalo. Only 1100 km in size, this reserve 50 miles north of Dar es Salaam is the smallest in Tanzania, and the only one to border the Indian Ocean. “Children under 15 aren’t allowed in the park,” explains our guide Graham as we observe the vicious carnivorous scene, “they put the guests in danger, as they’re an easy target for lions.” Right on cue, a car pulls up with a toddler sitting on the roof rack. The wild cats look up, bloody guts clenched between their teeth. Graham starts to panic; he looks at the other driver. “What is he doing,” he says pointing to the little girl on the top of the car, “she’s not even allowed in the park, and he’s parading her around like bait.”
Muscles flexing, the male lion strolls up to the car – he looks like C.S. Lewis’ Aslan on steroids. “Why won’t he turn off his engine,” says Graham nervously as we sit in our windowless jeep, with nothing protecting us from the elements. The lion pack is looking tense; they’re clearly aggravated by the noise. The strongest female joins ‘Aslan’ and they begin to circle our cars like we’re prey. “I think it’s time to go,” says Graham sagely.
As we’re speedily reversing out of our viewing spot, the driver of the other jeep makes a dash for the child. With muscles almost as firm as iron, legs that can launch a body 36 feet and teeth designed to bite through bone, the little girl doesn’t stand a chance if the lions attack. Scrambling out of his window, he grabs the girl off the roof and the male lion lets out a blood-curdling roar.
Safari doesn’t get more thrilling than this.
The game drive
This part of the world is stunning. Due to the condensed size of the Saadani National Park, and the unusual coastal vegetation on offer, wildlife is in abundance. Free roaming elephants, giraffes, baboons, antelopes and water buffalo are spotted here on a regular basis. We see each species during just two days in the park.
But with great wilderness comes great responsibility. “We try and be considerate of the wildlife,” says our guide Graham when we’re safely away from the lions. Upon entering the park he warned us about making sudden movements and noise while in the 4×4. “It’s idiots like that guy who spoil it for the rest of us.” Graham works for the nearby Sanctuary Saadani Safari Lodge, where we’re staying for a couple of nights. Although luxurious, the emphasis at this lodge is on eco-tourism, helping the local communities, observing the nature in the area and leaving the smallest footprint possible.
Due to the seaside location of the park, guests can go on a game drive in the morning and then meet underwater marine life in the afternoon, with a snorkel off the beautiful coastline. And, an added bonus, hippos and crocodiles lurk beneath the murky waters of the nearby Wami River. A stay in the thick jungle at the Sanctuary Saadani River Lodge is just a few miles away from the park.
When the tide is out, directly off the coast of Saadani, small sandbars appear. These tiny little islets are what Robinson Crusoe’s adventures are made of. At your request, the safari lodge staff will take you there on a speedboat. We arrive at a crescent-shaped sand bar no larger than a tennis court. The highest point is only a metre above the water. We are utterly alone, a mere blip on the horizon. “This island is only here for around four hours a day,” explains our guide Isaac, as he hands out snorkels and masks. “There are great reefs and lots of tropical fish living here.” We wade out to the reef and encounter a whole other community living in Saadani. Stripy Moorish idols, colourful empress angelfish and clownfish (otherwise known as the fish from Finding Nemo) charge in and out of the colourful garden on the ocean’s bed. When we surface, there’s a table, chairs, veranda and barbeque lunch waiting for us. With full bellies, we’re dozing in the warm heat on our own private island, as Isaac starts to pack up. We look around; most of the island has been submerged. “We have to go now, as the tide is coming in,” he says. Each wave appears to swallow a few more inches of the land as it gently clasps the edges. We clamber into the boat and watch the island completely disappear. Still water all around us, we could have imagined the whole thing.
South of Saadani National Park, 17 stilted suites flank the edge of the Wami River. We’re so deep in the wild that monkeys squawk in the treetops above the lodges, chameleons wander along the roofs and hippos graze in the water beneath. We get a closer look. “Hippos kill more people than lions, elephants, leopards, buffaloes and rhinos combined,” says one of the guests on our river cruise, as we pull up to 15 tiny hippo ears and eyes peaking out of the water. “Could a hippo turn over this boat?” asks another. “They’re curious, but won’t come close to the boat, it’s too big,” Garth reassures us. “Crocodile,” shouts another guest. On the right-hand muddy bank, the two-metre reptile is lying desperately still, hoping we hadn’t noticed it. It’s too late; eight enthusiastic nature spotters are aiming at it… with their cameras. An echo of lenses clicking all around, the crocodile plays dead. The boat driver gets closer, we’re no more than two feet from its open mouth, filled with sharp teeth, but there are too many of us for him to take on.
Everyone gets a money shot and we slowly pull away from the bank. The crocodile darts into the water and disappears into the brown drink. “I wouldn’t want to fall in there,” says another guest. We turn a corner and a big blubbery alpha male hippo is making his way into the water, his legs wading though thick mud, posing like he expects us to be there. We realise we’re not lucky; it’s just another day in Saadani.
What else to do
Sundowners – choose your spot (riverside, beachside or in the middle of the national park) from which to enjoy a champagne or gin and tonic, while watching the colours of the African sky blend into the darkness.
Massage – between nature activities, the Sanctuary Saadani River Lodge offers spa treatments from traditional Thai massage to hot stones therapies and waxing treatments.
Learn about local Maasai culture – a local village welcomes visitors wanting to learn more about this ancient tribe. There will be no naff singing, dancing or set-up entertainment during your visit, just an honest chance to look at where the Maasai people live, ask questions about their culture and buy local crafts (if you wish). The above can be booked via the Sanctuary Saadani Safari Lodge.
Where to stay and how to get there
Sanctuary Retreats hosted RadioTimes.com and has two properties in the area. The Sanctuary Saadani Safari Lodge in Saadani National Park and Sanctuary Saadani River Lodge on the Wami River. These beautiful, intimate hideaways are fully immersed in nature and come complete with outdoor pools, luxury lodges and expert guides. Rainbow Tours offers a six-night trip incorporating three nights each at Sanctuary Saadani Safari Lodge and Sanctuary Saadani River Lodge from £3680 per person. Included in the price: return flights with Kenya Airways from London to Dar es Salaam via Nairobi; all internal light aircraft flights and road transfers; accommodation with all meals, a daily activity, all beverages (excluding premium brands and champagne) and park fees. See www.sanctuaryretreats.com, www.rainbowtours.co.uk for more info.
Images by @jadebremner