This New Conservation-focused Safari Camp in Tanzania Offers Night Drives and Incredible Wildlife Adventures — See Inside

With citizen-science adventures and cutting-edge night viewing, this is not your typical safari.

A safari vehicle in a field watching a herd cross

Stephanie Vermillion

I sprang from bed in a frenzy, too groggy to remember which noise had startled me, too restless to fall back asleep.

I checked the clock: 3:55 a.m. Ugh. The day’s walking safari wouldn’t start for another four hours. I slid back between the sheets, then a familiar roar roused me all over again.

Wait, was that a lion?

I’m no stranger to the Serengeti’s animal-call guessing game. Throughout the years, I’ve spent at least a dozen vacation mornings recounting the night’s howls and hoots with my Tanzania-loving parents. They fell hard for the country during their backpack-through-Africa honeymoon, then brought me to Serengeti National Park time and again to pass on the torch.

However, this was not my mother’s — or your mother’s — safari. I’d traipsed some 24 hours from the U.S. to southern Tanzania to visit the Usangu wetlands, a wild stretch of the country’s less-trodden Ruaha National Park, roughly 300 miles southwest of main city Dar es Salaam.

Tanzania’s Wilder Side

This off-the-beaten-path escape is 40% larger than the world-renowned Serengeti National Park, with roughly 15 camps compared to the Serengeti’s nearly 200, and 30,000 annual visitors to the Serengeti’s nearly 500,000, according to statistics from luxury safari tour operator Alluring Africa, which coordinated my trip logistics, from itinerary to flights to visas. Ruaha also has one of the country’s largest elephant populations, and around a tenth of the world’s lions.

Animal in a field on safari

Stephanie Vermillion

The park’s Usangu wetlands feel even more far-flung. There’s one accommodation in this untamed stretch of Ruaha, the rustic-chic new four-tent Usangu Expedition Camp by eco-tourism company Asilia Africa. It’s the only camp for nearly 40 miles. I snagged a spot as one of the property’s first guests, and had a cozy acacia-flanked abode all to myself — although that solo setup did make the twilight lion calls a bit more unnerving.

Gulp. Yet another lion roar; this time, it felt closer. I crawled to the edge of the bed to patrol from my tent “window,” a 180-degree mesh wall overlooking the vast woodlands. I saw hundreds of stars, but, unsurprisingly, zero cats.

Maybe spooky lion stories by last night’s campfire were a bad idea.

Conservation Meets Adventure

To be clear: I wasn’t actually scared a lion would find my door, knock, then let itself in as it had in the previous night’s campfire tale. If anything, I relished this thrilling, goosebump-inducing night.

It’s increasingly rare to visit a destination with more questions than answers, but that’s a promise in the Usangu wetlands. This region, which experienced decades of uncontrolled hunting and, more recently, a drought, is a relatively new addition to Ruaha National Park. Researchers are only just beginning to monitor the health and breadth of its flora and fauna.

Night skies showing Milky Way over Usangu Expedition Camp

Stephanie Vermillion

The Usangu Expedition Camp, which debuted in summer 2022, is integral to this effort. It’s part of a first-of-its-kind partnership between a tourism company (Asilia), Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA), and the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute. The trio’s goal: study and protect the fragile Usangu wetlands ecosystem.

The first step? Answering critical questions: “What’s in Usangu?” said TANAPA ecologist Hellen Mchaki while meeting with our group in the camp’s Douglas Bell Eco Research Station. “What’s here? How many [animals] are there? How are they living?” Mchaki said this collective of organizations will use data as a benchmark to study the fluctuation of wildlife populations in the coming years.

Interior bedroom at Usangu Expedition Camp

Stephanie Vermillion

That’s where we, as Usangu Expedition Camp guests, come in. Asilia’s conservation-driven Usangu experience features hands-on activities that contribute to this massive wildlife study. On day one, we installed camera traps in the bush, then monitored and shared the recordings. Throughout our stay, we used the citizen-science app iNaturalist to log and post animal photos for identification. Guests can also add a wildlife-collaring experience to their visit via an extra donation. Researchers use telemetry to track and study these collared animals’ movements. What’s more, the entire research project — and the area’s future protections — largely relies on tourism dollars. 

A Twist on the Traditional Safari

It’s not all work, no play at Usangu. The expedition camp offers the traditional game drive, plus more unique experiences geared toward the contemporary safarigoer — think cutting-edge night drives that incorporate thermal monocular technology to watch wildlife after dark (without disturbing them), boat or canoe excursions, and walking safaris deep into the bush.

I’d always considered signing up for the latter — a walking safari — on previous trips to the Serengeti, but a fear of missing out held me back. The Serengeti experience centers on catching every epic, once-in-a-lifetime wildlife sighting possible, and there are a lot of them: wildebeest crossing the Mara River, cheetah hunts, and even the chance to spot the elusive wild dog. Choosing anything but the traditional sunrise-to-sunset game drive comes with the risk of potentially missing the grandest wildlife experience of your life — or so I told myself.

A man with a rifle before a walking safari

Stephanie Vermillion

Down at Usangu Expedition Camp, it’s a different vibe; that’s why this region is the perfect, adventurous complement to any Serengeti safari, or an intrepid alternative for repeat Tanzania travelers. While Usangu does wow with wildlife — we saw leopards, elephants, giraffes, sables, warthogs, you name it — it’s not about spotting every animal possible or checking the Big Five box. It’s about joining the conservation process; learning about new local cultures, as many Usangu Expedition Camp guides and staffers are from the surrounding area; and embracing Tanzania’s astonishing biodiversity in a fresh, lower-impact way.

“When you’re in the car, you feel like you’re on nature,” said Usangu Expedition Camp walking guide Fadhili Saning’o, as we lined up for the morning’s walking safari. “On foot, you feel like you’re in it.”

Once he had us lined up properly, Saning’o explained the walk’s rules: no chitchat, watch where you’re stepping, and use hand signals if you notice something awry.

He’d barely demonstrated hand-signal number three when that familiar roar echoed through camp for the umpteenth time. Saning’o stopped, raised an eyebrow, then conferred with Asilia head guide Hamza Visram. “It sounds like the lions are moving farther away,” Saning’o confirmed. In other words, we had the all clear.

Still, as we tiptoed through shoulder-high grass, admiring distant giraffes and centuries-old baobabs, I kept my ears extra perked — because true to the Usangu experience, I knew anything was possible.

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