Travel

From Anchorage to Tanzania, Alaskans get a custom safari with the help of a friend

Safari leader Aman Mbisi dancing to Maasai rhythm in Ngorongoro

Back in 2018, Amana Mbise arrived at the University of Alaska Anchorage to teach in its social work department.

Mbise’s family is from Arusha, Tanzania. His hometown is in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, in the middle of safari-land. He and his family grew up around the Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti and many other parks and conservation areas.

As part of his orientation to Anchorage and Alaska, Mbise’s boss introduced him to Paul Wasko, another teacher at UAA. The two became fast friends — and it wasn’t long before Wasko started talking about visiting Tanzania with a group of Alaskans.

Wasko and Mbise found many willing participants, particularly through Wasko’s church. But then the COVID-19 pandemic swamped everyone’s travel plans.

Last year, the duo revived the trip, in part because Mbise’s family started up a safari company called Lendimi African Safaris. Many of Mbise’s family members had extensive experience. “My brothers worked as guides on Mount Kilimanjaro,” he said. “They’ve summited at least 100 times.”

When it came time to plan for the Tanzania safari earlier this year, interest had waned. Still, there was a solid group of eight Alaskans who bought their tickets and said “Let’s go!”

Mbise noted there are all sorts of safaris. “Some people land at Mount Kilimanjaro airport and get on another plane to go see the animals,” he said. For some, that’s enough.

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But Mbise and his company want to include more human elements in a safari, so travelers can meet the people who live in the area. There’s also a strong conservation element in each trip. “Everybody gets to plant a tree,” said Mbise.

The word “lendimi” means “master of the forest” in the Masai language. According to the company’s brochure, “We are living the name through conserving nature by planting trees … on the slopes of Mount Meru.”

Mbise and his family are part of the Maru tribe, although he says that’s “a government name.”

“We call ourselves Varwa,” he said.

Wasko and Mbise planned a custom safari for the Alaskans, which included time to visit Mbise’s family. In fact, the group attended the baptism of Mbise’s infant daughter during the trip.

As part of his work at UAA, Wasko teaches students how to produce “e-portfolios” of their work. So, of course, he produced an e-portfolio of the entire trip, so travelers can check out the day-by-day itinerary.

Scrolling through the file, Wasko and the group fit quite a bit of Tanzania into their two-and-a-half-week trip. Wasko includes video clips of the group’s visit to the Hadzabe tribe, who still live as hunter-gatherers in the countryside.

As part of the e-portfolio project, Wasko hired a photographer to get the high points of the trip. “We wanted to be present and available during this trip, without living behind the camera,” he said.

Part of the thrill for Mbise and his family is to show off Tanzania’s wildlife, culture and countryside while offering local expertise. “The wildlife and culture of Tanzania are sort of my extended family. Our core value is to embrace and understand the culture of Tanzania,” he said.

“I’m showing them my home and my family,” Mbise said. “The tourist safari thing is sort of an add-on.”

Elephants in Tanzania’s Lake Manyara National Park having a dust bath

But what a fabulous add-on! Scrolling through Wasko’s e-portfolio, there are lions — lots of ’em. And elephants. And rhinos. And Cape Buffalo. And zebras, hippos and giraffes. Lendimi’s Land Cruisers are set up for prime wildlife viewing on the go, with a pop-top so you don’t have to peek through the windows.

“Wow! Other than a rhino, we saw the rest of the Big Five while in the Serengeti,” wrote Wasko. For reference, the “Big Five” are lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and Cape buffalo.

Mbise and his crew customized this trip for Wasko and the other Alaskans. If you want to summit Mount Kilimajaro after seeing the wildlife, Lendimi can customize a package. Or, there’s a ready-made package that includes a visit to Zanzibar, on the coast of the Indian Ocean.

The “Tanzania Wild” package is a nine-day/eight-night package that Mbise said is designed for animal lovers. It includes three days in the Serengeti, plus two days in Ngorongoro Crater. Both areas are teeming with wildlife. There’s also time set aside to visit a village and learn about the culture of this area in Tanzania.

And everyone gets to plant a tree.

Kaanankira Mbise (left), a community member from Seela village in Tanzania, plants a tree with Barb Ross from Anchorage

The Tanzania Wild package is $350 per person, per day. It includes all airport and hotel transfers, all accommodations, safari game drives in the parks — and more. Airfare, tips and alcohol are extra. So is travel insurance, which is essential.

One key to the affordability of Lendimi’s packages is the accommodations. “You can stay at some really fancy lodges,” said Mbise. “But we choose very comfortable lodging vetted by the team.” Some nights, that means “glamping” in wall tents in the park, like the Kubu Kubu Lodge. In the Ngorongoro Crater, overnight at Lion’s Paw Lodge.

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Mbise has a 14-day package that includes a trip to the island of Zanzibar. The daily rate is a little more: $400 per person, per day. There are two days set aside for excursions, including spice tours, samples of Swahili cuisine and other options.

Mbise stresses that travelers who just want to drop in and see the animals may want to search elsewhere for a safari. “They’re not for us,” he says with a smile.

“The addition of the cultural aspect is relatively new,” he said. “But we want our visitors to get a bit of history while they’re here.”

Mbise shared that there’s another group of four Alaskans booked with Lendimi later this month. While he’ll be in Anchorage during the winter break, his family will be showing off their backyard: the heart of Tanzania.

Scott McMurren

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at zoom907@me.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.

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