OK, so Australia got thumped and the vuvuzelas were annoying, but one thing most of us took away from the World Cup frenzy of this winter was a renewed appreciation for Africa's potential as a holiday destination. An African safari is something we've all dreamed about at some time or another, and with V Australia opening up the Johannesburg route to some much needed competition, prices are set to be get low enough to make the dream a reality.
But where to go, what to do, and will you get eaten? We'll start off with a look at one of the lesser-known corners of Africa's main safari destinations, Tanzania.
Lake Manyara National Park is a 25-minute flight from Arusha, Tanzania's safari capital. It's got an appealingly ‘Lost World' feel about it, with a high escarpment shutting off the rest of the world on one side and the park's namesake lake on the other. In between are thick green forests, expanses of sandy plain and wide dry riverbeds, adding up to a storybook African landscape straight out of a wildlife documentary or a 1950s safari film. Giraffes stand like stick figures on the lake shore, gazing out over the water, and great herds of buffalo graze knee-deep in the dark-green swamp grass or wallow contentedly in the park's hot springs. There are elephants everywhere, chomping noisily through the woodlands and appearing like ghost at twilight to sling dust over their backs and rumble warningly at cars that get too close.
Great flocks of flamingos appear periodically on the alkaline waters of the lake, disappearing overnight in search of new feeding grounds. Even without the flamingos, however, Lake Manyara is a bird paradise, and even if you think you're not interested in birdwatching, you can't fail to be captivated by the sight of hundreds of white pelicans fishing together on the glassy blue surface of the lake, like a fleet of ocean-going ships. When the sun warms up the morning air, massive flocks of storks and pelicans wheel upwards towards the top of the cliffs, riding thermals round and round like punters on a fairground ride.
But of course, this is a safari, so everyone is desperate to see the big cats. Lake Manyara's lions have developed the habit of climbing into trees during the heat of the day, hanging in the branches like great tawny fruit, snoozing contentedly and barely opening their eyes to glance at a carload of captivated humans and their whirring cameras. Leopards are best seen on a night drive, with a ranger perched on the front of the car wielding a spotlight to look for the reflections of their eyes. The red bulb picks out their sinuous movements as they saunter alone down the roads or stalk through the bush, unconcerned by the chorus of panicked shrieks they provoke from the baboon troupes in the trees above.
And where to stay? &Beyond Lake Manyara Tree Lodge is the only hotel in the park itself, tucked away into the woodlands at the far end of the lake. The ten rooms are roofed with banana bark and comprise a sitting area, a bedroom dominated by a romantic gauze-draped bed, a bathroom big enough for a cocktail party, a terrace nestling into the surrounding foliage, and a walk-in shower open to the night sky. It's quite possible to wallow in the tub while watching blue monkeys chase each other through the trees outside, or pause during breakfast to watch a solitary bull elephant drift through the camp a few metres away from the terrace. The hotel is beautifully designed to fit in with the surrounding landscape, built entirely from natural materials and lit up at night with hurricane lamps and an open fire. There's a swimming pool tucked discreetly into a woodland glade, and an open-air dining area surrounded by a timber stockade. Maasai warriors with spears are on hand to escort you back to your room after dark.
As well as daytime and nighttime game drives to see all the critters, the Tree Lodge also offers guests the chance to interact with the local human population, organizing visits to the nearby villages of Moyo and Mayoka, which have benefited from donations by the lodge to renovate their clinic and build more classrooms for their school. Guests who want to help can participate in an innovative program called ‘adopt a desk', buying a desk for the school with their name on it.
To find out more about Lake Manyara, go to www.tanzaniaparks.com/manyara.html or www.andBeyondafrica.com