The History of Safari in Tanzania

© Henry Morton Stanley
In East Africa, the concept of safari existed long before the coming of the white man. From the earliest times, caravans of porters carried oil, skins and rhinoceros horn out of the African interior to be traded with the seafaring people of the Swahili coast...

by Gemma Pitcher

These journeys - called "safaris" in Arabic - grew bigger and more complex with rise of the slaving empire of Zanzibar, the scarlet flag of the sultan at the head of the caravans sent out proclaiming his dominions over a huge area that none but a few of his servants would ever see. Yet still the caravans wound their way inexorably in and out, from Zanzibar to Lake Victoria, escorting slaves or leaving them dying by the roadside, porters staggering under the great tusks of ivory or bundles of silks they carried.Europeans, in their first explorations, changed little except the paraphernalia - their porters carried extra boxes of muskets and guns, or even cannon, for 'pacifying' villages and chiefdoms as they passed through, flanked by special regiments of guards recruited from Zanzibar before setting off. Zanzibar remained the jumping off point for safaris to the mainland - the place where merchants must be haggled with, porters and guards engaged, officials called upon, safe passages secured and bribes paid. Europeans who wished to set off into the wide, free spaces of the mainland had first to endure days, weeks, even months of sweating, jostling and complaining in the stifling heat of Zanzibar's Stone Town.The best known figure in this slow procession inward from Zanzibar became David Livingstone, the Scottish explorer and missionary who became so famously lost that Henry Morton Stanley was dispatched by the New York Times to find him. Livingstone spent his life searching for the one thing he never found - the source of the Nile River, the question of which engaged the hearts and minds of Victorian society for decades.The honour finally went to the much lesser-known John Hanning Speke, a hazy character eclipsed for the most part by his more famous sometime travelling companion, Oriental linguist and explorer Richard Burton. Travelling thousands of miles inland at the head of a huge train of porters, sometimes so incapacitated they had to be carried on litters, Burton and Speke managed to be the first Europeans to look upon Lakes Tanganyika and Victoria. During the course of their safari, an insect crawled into Speke's ear and rendered him deaf, Burton was racked by fever and almost blind, and the two men were barely on speaking terms by the time they returned home. Speke later died in a mysterious shooting accident hours before he was due to debate publicly with Burton as to the true origin of the source of the Nile.The source of the mysterious 'fever' that racked every European explorer on safari and even killed a few was the anopheles mosquito, not recognised as the source of malaria until 1898. The chills and cramps that the travellers complained of incessantly came from drinking polluted water, which was not boiled before drinking until well into the twentieth century. Flannel underwear and thick tweed, accompanied by one or two felt hats and a thick, quilted spine pad, were considered the only appropriate dress for exploring south of the equator, where temperatures rose into the hundreds for weeks at a time.Speke found it, but it was left to Henry Morton Stanley to prove the source of the Nile. He also found time to locate the absent Dr Livingstone - on the banks of Lake Tanganyika at Ujiji, after a journey inland from Zanzibar lasting more than a year. Stanley was not a man to travel light - on his first journey, in 1871, he took over 400 porter loads of supplies, including four porters who only carried brandy, wine and vinegar, and 22 who carried, in pieces, two boats, to be reassembled when a lake was reached. Finally came his huge bathtub, carried a thousand miles inland from the coast on the heads of Africans. Nor was Stanley one to pass gently through a slice of untouched Africa - vigorous fighting at all times was the order of the day, a trail of corpses and burnt villages was left in his wake only to enhance his reputation further, both at home and in his new-found domain.Then as now, image was everything. Headmen and porters' leaders wore special headdresses to identify themselves; drums were beaten, muskets fired and flutes were played to announce the safari's arrival. Europeans, when marching into a village or a new chief's domain, wore full dress uniform, complete with swords, or in the case of early explorer Samuel Baker, full highland dress including a kilt and a tam o'shanter. Fortnum and Mason delicacies were eked out carefully until the last tin of foie gras was gone.When night fell, porters built grass huts to sleep in at every stop; Europeans had canvas tents. Camp was broken before first light, and the shout of Haya Safari! announced the beginning of the day's trek, walking in the cool of the morning and stopping to rest during the heat of the day - the Europeans using the hot hours of inactivity for writing notes, bringing scientific specimens back to camp for examination, or studying scientific instruments such as compasses or theodolites.The day of the European was coming. By the end of the nineteenth century, the great slave caravans of the Sultan of Zanzibar were no more. Slavery had been abolished, the Sultan's power was at an end, and the safari caravans that set off into the interior were now mostly headed by European explorers, sportsmen or missionaries. As the colonial grip on East Africa tightened, British and German administrators took to the trail, forging paths for their administrations until the whole map of East Africa was filled in and neatly demarcated. By 1914, over 90 per cent of Africa was claimed by Europe.It was at this point that the idea of the tourist was introduced into East Africa - as opposed to the gentleman explorers who confidently expected privation, threat, and hardship in return for the glory of a new 'discovery'. The bestsellers penned by the likes of Burton and Stanley had done their work, and the imagination of the moneyed public had been captured. A new breed of traveller had arrived - one who wanted to see, marvel and shoot at what had already been discovered - in comfort. The opening up of the Suez Canal made the East Coast of Africa more accessible to the 'ordinary' adventurer, perhaps armed with one of the new-fangled cameras in addition to the usual battery of heavy guns.A living transition between the old and new faces of the safari was Frederick Courtenay Selous, an old-time Victorian hero who made his name as an elephant hunter, explorer and naturalist. In 1909, however, he changed tack to pioneer the first and most famous of the leisure safaris of the new era. President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States, enervated by years of confinement in the White House, chose an African safari over a third term of presidency, and Selous was his 'white hunter' - a term that eventually became a common cipher for all that the modern age considered brave, manly and resourceful. The Roosevelt safari effectively began the East African tourist industry, launching hundreds of wealthy American would-be adventurers in the wake of their former leader.When war broke out in 1914, Selous transformed his bush skills and deadly shooting ability into military prowess. He took command of a ragged group known as the Legion of Frontiersmen, a special African unit including a lighthouse keeper, several acrobats and a couple of Texas cowboys. This motley crew were pitched against the brilliant General von Lettow-Vorbeck, with his professional German soldiers and companies of highly trained African askaris. After leading patrols of exhausted men forty years his junior through heavy swamps for hours on end, Selous would take off in the evening with a butterfly net to collect specimens. He fell at last near Beho Beho in the modern-day Selous Game Reserve, shot by a German sniper whose officer later made a formal apology to the British command.After the First World War the former German East Africa became Tanganyika, held on a special United Nations mandate by Britain. As the country became anglicized, the safari industry enjoyed a new boom. Arusha was the focal point of Tanganyika's safaris, built as it was in between the newly 'discovered' wonderlands of the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater. It was secondary to Nairobi, for sure, but as Nairobi's old guard pioneers and settlers were gradually replaced by a less adventurous, more dissolute type of settler - exemplified by the antics of the Happy Valley set - Tanganyika evolved into a centre for the tougher and more serious type of European safarigoer.The coming of the motor car to East Africa between the wars changed the face of safari forever, many thought for the worse. Where once trains of porters had set out, convoys of vehicles instead bumped their way into the wilderness, and patient stalks on foot were at times replaced by dragging meat behind vehicles and shooting lions from inside the car - a practice widely condemned by the old guard. Later, tiny planes buzzed clients between camps or spotted the best elephant from the air, or were sent up daily to fetch the newspaper from Arusha to the Serengeti.As safaris became more accessible, they also became more fashionable - and the idea of an adventure in the African wilderness was heightened in the public consciousness by the Hollywood movies of the 1920s and 30s. When American writer Ernest Hemingway arrived in East Africa, safari found a new popular medium - literature. A journey to the African wilderness became not only adventurous, but glamorous - fame and money were the new gods of the modern age, and they adopted the safari as their own.When the future Edward VIII of England came out to Tanganyika on safari in 1928, however, he surprised his white hunters Denys Finch Hatton and Bror Blixen by eschewing many of the expected comforts of the day. The then Prince of Wales was described by Blixen as "one of the three or four toughest sportsmen I have been out with, or perhaps the toughest of them all". He thought nothing of stalking elephant on foot for several days in a row, marching through blistering heat and sleeping in a simple tent on the ground.But for most clients, the trappings were all. Double walled tents, mosquito netting, chemical toilets, air mattresses and mess tables were de rigueur. Breakfast in the dark, hunting or game-watching in the early morning, back to camp for lunch and afternoon rest; out again until dark, then a hot bath, cocktails and dinner in pyjamas and thigh-high mosquito-boots. Anything at all could be brought on safari if the clients were willing to pay - African veteran JA Hunter remembered a safari that included a private armoured car, a mobile cinema, several motorcycle messengers, a generating plant, a medical lorry (complete with x-ray machine), and a mobile drawing room with a grand piano.The Second World War put paid to these kinds of antics, at least for a few years. Once again the white hunters swapped human targets for animal ones and shipped north to Abyssinia to fight the Italians. When the smoke cleared, and the 1950s began, another phenomenon had appeared that was to change the face of safaris yet again - mass air travel. Big four-engined aircraft, the next generation of World War Two bombers, began to land at Nairobi airport, from which it was only a few hours drive to Tanganyika's northern 'game protected areas', which were given an added allure as the Mau Mau crisis - an African uprising - terrorised Kenya from 1953. But there were plenty of tourists to go round - the mass air travel revolution and post-war economic expansion meant that safari travel had become accessible to the middle classes as well as to the super-rich.As the number of safari hunters grew, pressures on the most popular trophy animals became intolerable - their numbers, already in decline, were reaching crisis levels. Even with the decline of hunting in favour of the less expensive photographic or game-watching safaris, steps were needed to preserve both habitat and the animals themselves. The response of the colonial administration was the creation of 'Game Reserves', areas where game and environment were specially protected and which went on - after a considerable struggle on the part of the conservationists of the day - to become the post-Independence National Parks. By the end of the 1950s, the transition from hunting as the primary safari activity was complete. Most visitors to East Africa from the 1960s onwards came to watch game in protected areas, not to wander at will in search of quarry to shoot.The first permanent structures erected for the new breed of lower-budget safari visitors were the government resthouses - sometimes known as 'dak bungalows' in an echo of the India of the Raj - erected by the colonial government in the 1950s. Such simple buildings, which usually comprised a bedroom and a kitchen area, were intended for use by travelling government officials, but available at other times for visitors. In the 1960s, these resthouses evolved into the early safari lodges, precursors of those in use today. Safari accommodation - both private and public- has been evolving ever since, proliferating into areas of wilderness once only accessible to the hardiest caravan of porters, and finding form in anything from a tented village to a baroque palace.One thing, though, will never change. Today's safarigoers, for all the luxury and sophistication with which they are surrounded, are still searching for the experience sought by Stanley and Livingstone sought two centuries ago - a closeness to the wild earth, a sense of the smallness of humanity upon the planet, and an understanding of a place and a culture alien to their own. The truth, for the lucky few that discover it, is that none of the trappings really matter. In the words of American naturalist John Muir: "Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and chatter."Copyright © Gemma Pitcher 2004
South and East African Safaris
  • Customer Support
  • Tel: +27 21 424 1037
  • Fax: +27 21 424 1036
  • Contact by Mail
  • Business Hours
  • Mon - Fri. 08:00 - 17:00
  • Saturday. 08:00 - 12:00
©2020 Siyabona Africa (Pty)Ltd - Private Tours and Safari