Camping with elephants in the Serengeti

I am not afraid to admit but at the time I was petrified! We were camping in the Serengeti at one of the park’s many public campsites, none of which have any fencing, and having arrived late at camp, our tent was at the perimeter of the camping zone.

It was whilst having dinner that the elephants first visited and it was surreal to be no more than 10 m from these beautiful and huge creatures. We watched them feeding in the light of the full moon. before going back to our tent for an early start the next day. We had decided to keep the slide flap of the tent open so we could see the stars in bed and were soon asleep after a long, hot day in the car.

Catherine heard it before she saw it – that sound of grass being torn – and awoke to the shadow of an enormous elephant grazing right outside the tent window. And I mean right outside! A little nudge and I was soon wide awake … our night safari had just begun!

We knew they had no reason to harm us and were just eating, as elephants do for most of the day. Having a trunk tickle our tent told us they realised we were there but still – should one step on us accidentally we would be tickets!

We lay there for what seemed like an eternity until the sound of a munching family of elephants very slowly started to get fainter and fainter and eventually we fell back asleep. It was such a special experience, but completely terrifying!

We spent two wonderful days in the Serengeti and a full six on safari. In total we visited four parks and they all offered something different.


  • Tarangire National Park

Tarangire was the first park we visited and being no more than around 90 minutes drive from Arusha, the largest city in Eastern Tanzania and the gateway city for safaris, is a park you could easily visit on a day trip too.  Tarangire is the sixth largest in the country and the name of the park originates from the Tarangire river that crosses through the park, being the only source of water for wild animals during the dry season.

Tarangire was quite open, lush, beautifully green as it was the rainy season (or so we were told – we saw no rain in 6 days!) and dotted with huge baobab trees. There was also far more wildlife and birds than I had for some reason expected; highlights included seeing hundreds of elephants, at least two kaleidoscopes of giraffe and driving alongside a lioness as she prowled across the savannah surveying what might be for lunch. It was fantastic not only being able to see the birds up close with binoculars, something I had never done on safari before, but also having a guide, Zeb was both driver and guide, to  answer our endless questions and identify who was who.

  • Lake Manyara National Park

We spent our first night camping just outside Lake Manyara National Park, which we explored on day two. Lake Manyara was far less open than Tarangire and quite foresty in place, while as the name indicates, there was a beautiful lake hosting thousands of flamingos. We continued seeing heaps of elephants, giraffes both near and far, a pool of noisy hippos plus herds of zebra, buffalo and wildebeest.

It was amazing watching a baby elephant struggle to use its trunk; when it finally was able to break off some grass it couldn’t get it into its mouth! The Park is also home to thousands of baboons and it was fascinating watching them and seeing how many mannerisms we share. Plus the male Vervet monkey and its blue balls cannot be ignored!

The blue-balled Vervet monkey!
I love this picture!
I love this picture!






After a second night outside Lake Manyara, we continued onto the Ngorongoro conversation area. Jeeps were lined up for some metres outside the gate and while our Zeb queued for more than an hour, thankfully once we were in the sheer size of the area ensured it didn’t feel chaotically busy. Masaai villages of small, rounded huts appear throughout, with some 40,000 living in the area.

As we drove through the conservation area, we were incredibly lucky to witness part of the migration. The Wildebeest have moved south to give birth in a few weeks – incredibly, they give birth within a 3 week window (some 8,000 calves a day) – and will stay for a few weeks before heading north. As an aside, calves are on their feet within minutes of being born and some 40% of calves will survive.

I have no idea of the number but there were hundreds of Wildebeest everywhere you looked and you really needed to be in the air to appreciate the sheer scale. The grass stretched as far as one could see and so too did the Wildebeest.

  • The Serengeti

After driving through the conservation area for quite some while on awful roads, we made our way to the famous Serengeti. In Masaai, ‘serengeti’ means ‘land of the endless plain’, and standing atop Naabi Hill at the entrance to the park we fully appreciated and understood why it was so named with flat, African plains stretching into the distance and out of sight.

After the concentration of animals on our first two days, we were looking for the more elusive big cats in the Serengeti and were not disappointed. Unlike Tarangire and Manyare, the sheer size of the Serengeti meant we often drove for some time before seeing animals which made for a different experience.

We were fortunate to see an elusive leopard lazing as they do in a tree, a lioness climbing a tree and to an witness hippos running at dusk. We had no idea they can run and they are far quicker than you would think! And noisy … the cacophony created by roughly 50 in the pool made us laugh from the pits of our stomachs!

Perhaps the highlight, though, was seeing a cheetah mom and her four cubs, an experience made even more special by the fact that we had driven for close on four hours to find one.

It was incredibly special to see a Cheetah mom and her 4 cubs
  • Ngorongoro Crater
What a view! This was taken from the viewpoint on the crater rim.

After two wonderful days and nights in the Serengeti, we headed back to the crater. The first hour’s driving was through an endless expanse of grass with wildebeest everywhere we looked. Approaching the base of the Crater, that changed to a thick forest of acai trees before we entered what felt like a mini Crater and then climbed to the rim of Ngorongoro, where we were camping for the night.

What a camping spot!
What a camping spot!

Driving through the crater the next morning we  felt like we were were part of a wildlife documentary with the confined space seeming to magnify the number of animals. We saw hundreds of the ‘usual suspects’ (zebras and wildebeest) plus more than a dozen lions, numerous buffalo, a servat and, to end our trip off perfectly, a rhino.

As we headed out of the crater and made our way back to Arusha, we reflected back on a quite unforgettable few days and realised just how lucky we had been to see so many beautiful creatures, both big and small, in their back garden.

Who to go with and what to book

There are a hundreds of tour companies to go with and a number of ‘comfort’ levels to choose from. We chose to camp not only because it was all we could afford (camping is still incredibly expensive at $150/day minimum, all included) but because we are not fussed where we sleep and quite enjoy camping. We also decided to go all out and book a six day tour that took in four parks but you could certainly do less – a common trip would be to skip the first two parks and spend 4 (or 3) days in just the Serengeti and the Crater. Doing it in 3 would be tiring as it is a long drive to the Serengeti but it is certainly possible.

We booked our tour from home and cannot recommend Happy World Safari’s enough. Joseph and his team were simply amazing and here is the review we wrote.

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