Expert Reviews – Saadani NP

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Bush and beach in one
Overall rating

Combining an Indian Ocean beach retreat with a big game safari – the boast of many an East African visitor package – generally involves an expensive and time-consuming transfer between the two. Saadani is the one park where you can enjoy both experiences in a single location: your chalet overlooks the waves while big game roams your backyard. What’s more, the park is a mere 20-minute hop across the water from Zanzibar. That it is not more famous comes down to the relative paucity of large wildlife. There are decent populations of giraffe, waterbuck and bohor reedbuck, plus a few more unusual species such as red duiker and Lichtenstein’s hartebeest. However, both elephant and buffalo are low in number and large predators are highly elusive. Lions were seen on just one night during my week-long visit (not by me), and old tracks near the lodge were the only evidence of leopards. Those hell-bent on ticking off the Big Five thus tend to look elsewhere.

Nonetheless, this is a charming destination. The landscape of palm forest and coastal thicket is attractive, and the challenge of finding larger game serves to increase the excitement when you succeed – my encounter with a skittish breeding herd of elephant after three days of searching was thrilling. Meanwhile, the birding is excellent and, as well as the usual savannah species, includes a large number of migratory shorebirds (sandpipers, sand plovers, terns) along the beach. Boat trips along the Wami river offer close encounters with hippos, crocodiles and, in the overhanging gallery forest, black-and-white colobus monkeys. Back at camp, the Indian Ocean ambience makes it a pleasure to return from any game drive or bush walk. Bushbabies and genets hang around at night, hoping for restaurant scraps, and a morning stroll will reveal the tracks of such nocturnal beach commuters as civet, bush pig and sometimes even lion. Marine wildlife is good in season, with green turtles and humpback whales seen nearby and snorkeling trips arranged to nearby islands.

Wonderful Beach & Some Wildlife, Too
Overall rating

Tiny Saadani's real highlight is not its wildlife, but the coastline - long, wide, driftwood-strewn in parts and mostly deserted. I don’t recommend the park as a destination in itself. Rather, plan a stop here if you're travelling by road between Dar es Salaam and the Pangani-area beaches. The beach lodges within and near park boundaries generally have a more secluded feel than the coastal resort areas closer to Pangani, and with luck, an elephant or two may even wander into your ocean vistas.

Wildlife sightings are notoriously erratic, and plenty of visitors manage to leave Saadani without seeing much more than the occasional antelope. However, most times I've visited, I've seen elephants (including several almost on the veranda of the park guesthouse where I was sleeping), plus hippos and giraffes. Saadani is also of interest as a cultural and bush tourism destination, with the upmarket Kisampa camp (just outside park boundaries to the south) an ideal base for this.

Where the beach meets the bush
Overall rating

The only viable East African wildlife sanctuary to boast an Indian Ocean beachfront, this likeable second-tier national park bills itself as the place where the beach meets the bush. In truth, while wildlife numbers have increased significantly since the former wildlife reserve was expanded and upgraded to become a national park in 2006, it is the beach – and swimming pool - that dominates proceedings. Nevertheless, while Saadani is not suited to those seeking a full-on safari experience, any wildlife lover seeking a post-safari chill-out venue might want to consider it as an alternative to the more crowded and developed beaches around Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam. Odds of seeing an elephant herd stroll along the beach are pretty small, but with a population now estimated at 150-200, you may well see them away from the beach. Lions now number around 50. Conspicuous savannah wildlife includes giraffe, buffalo, warthog, yellow baboon, vervet monkey and a wide variety of antelope including common waterbuck, Bohor reedbuck, Lichtenstein's hartebeest and the magnificent greater kudu and handsome Roosevelt’s sable. The diminutive and normally very shy red duiker is quite often seen in coastal scrub and forest. The beaches of Saadani are the only Tanzanian turtle nesting site north of Dar es Salaam, with green turtle being the most regular visitor. The undoubted highlight of Saadani is the boat trip up the Wami River, which offers excellent birdwatching, including the possibility of African skimmer, mangrove kingfisher and Pel’s fishing owl, as well as reliable hippo and croc sightings, and a good chance of spotting the lovely Angola colobus monkeys foraging in the riverine trees. Guided walks are also great fun, and very rewarding for birders, but are best undertaken in the early morning cool.

East Africa’s unique safari destination on the beach
Overall rating

Saadani is Tanzania’s only park with ocean frontage, but it wasn’t as scenic as I had expected; fairly flat and featureless, and the beach scruffy and not the paradisiacal swathe of sand usually seen in East Africa. But I enjoyed the boat trip up the Wami River and saw plenty of crocodile and hippo, and watched two kingfishers hovering above the water before diving vertically. While the park is not renowned for its big game (lion and elephant sightings are rare), on game drives we did see baboon, vervet monkey, bushbuck, warthog, hartebeest and giraffe. Reedbuck were everywhere, replacing impala which are so ubiquitous in other parks, and birds plentiful; glossy ibis, hammerkop, palm nut vulture, and lots of lilac-crested rollers. Undoubtedly, the best feature of this park was that I loved being able to go for a dip in the ridiculously warm ocean after an afternoon's safari.

Saadani National Park: Bush and Beach in one
Overall rating

Katavi has often been called one of Africa’s best kept secrets. But like all secrets, they get out eventually. Quite a few new lodges have opened here over the years and although still very remote, you won’t have the place to yourself anymore as we did years ago. I still love this place. The big grassland plains are teeming with wildlife. Variety isn’t the strength here, but the numbers are impressive. A unique sight, never to forget, is the hippos tightly bunched up in the last remaining pockets of water in the diminishing rivers towards the end of the dry season. Bulls regularly get pushed out and big fights are common. Crocodiles have to share the space and can sometimes be found lying on top of the hippos. Equally impressive are the huge buffalo herds that roam the park. Some of them count thousands of heads. In terms of predators, lions are easily spotted, but other cats are rare. Getting to this place is expensive, but the reward is a very special experience.

Average Expert Rating

  • 2.6/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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