Photographing Advise to Tanzania
A photographer in Tanzania
What follows is a set of Photographing Advise to Tanzania, that can be useful for your . They’re half intended as notes for whoever wants to plan for a great safari. I am a fairly “enthusiastic” photographer, meaning I am an equipment freak and most of my personal budget goes into cameras and lenses, so don’t be afraid by my equipment list.
You can take great pictures on a safari with a reasonable setup. And even if you don’t have much training in photography, you can greatly improve your pictures by following a few pieces of advice that is why these Photographing Advice to Tanzania are important for you!
What expertise can I claim? How much should you trust me? Well, this was my first time in Africa, so I am by no means a specialist. As far as photography is concerned, as I wrote above, I am an advanced hobbyist with way too much equipment compared to his talent.
I understand the technical side of photography pretty well (part of my work is in the technology of digital photography), but I do not formal training in photography itself. I’ve been doing wildlife photography for two years now.
A 100-400mm lens is ideal
For those with a high budget, a super telephoto (e.g. 500mm)+teleconverter will really make a difference (consider renting one if you can’t afford it)
Get a flash and a flash extender
Use hoods on all your lenses
Consider a polarizer
Make sure you have backup equipment: Will your trip be ruined if a given piece of equipment fails?
The best time of day to shoot is 6:30-8am and 5:30-7pm. Make sure that your tour operator takes you on game drives then (breakfast in the middle of the Serengeti are wonderful anyway, don’t waste time with breakfast at the lodge/camping)
Bring dust protection for your equipment: trash bags, blanket, ziplock bags.
Equipment I used
My low-light configuration: 24-105f/4 +300f/2.8 +500f/4. Flashes + better beamer. Note the red Masai blanket that I used to protect the equipment from dust.
My normal configuration: 24-105f/4 + 100-400f/4.5-5.6 + 500mmf/4 and TC1.4x. Flashes + better beamer
I worked with 3 cameras, which allowed me to change lenses as little as possible. This was important both because changing lenses introduces dust on the sensor, a plague in Africa, and because things go pretty fast and animals often don’t wait for you to change your lens.
Most of the time, I had a 1D Mark II N with a 500mm f/4.0 + a1.4 teleconverter, a 1D Mark II with a 100-400mm, and a 5D with the 24-105mm. The combination is just great, covering everything from wide angle to super tele.’ The gap between 400 and 700mm was annoying at time, but if I had been smarter I’d use 400 more often and things would have been great.
I long hesitated between taking the 70-200 f/2.8 and the 100-400 because the former has better optics, but I must say that 100-400 is just the perfect range for a safari. But remember, I had a 1.3 crop factor. Owners of 1.6 (a.k.a. APS-C) sensors such as the rebels or 10D/20D/30D might get away with a 70-300 range. When it was too dark, I swapped the 100-400 for the 300mm f/2.8. Amazing lens.
Between the large aperture and the image stabilization, it allowed me to take a lion picture 10 minutes after the sun had set. In general, image stabilization was a must, allowing me to take a number of shots hand-held.
I had brought the wide angle 16-35mm but never used it.
Of course, I was shooting RAW all the time. Don’t even think about using JPEG. You came all the way to Africa, you don’t want to be cheap on memory card and end up missing shots because you don’t have enough latitude to correct the exposure.
The reason why I like to use the 1D Mark II and 1D Mark IIN is not really their amazing burst speed, but their superior autofocus. The 45 sensor make a huge difference compared to the only 7 or 9 or lower-end cameras. The sensors are also more sensitive, perform better in low-light, and the camera can focus with an f/8 lens (vs. f/5.6 for other cameras) which proves useful with the 500mm and the 2x teleconverter.
I had brought a tripod against the advice of most sites and books, and never used it. Sometimes, what people say is true I guess. Some people use a tripod around the lodge for macro shots during their lunch break. However, we were not coming back to the lodges for lunch, so I did not really do any macro shot. My 180mm macro remained unused.
Window mounts are fantastic for long lenses (read 500mm f/4 and that kind of monster). I used the Kirk window mount with a Wimberley sidekick to support my 500f/4 and it made my life much easier. One problem I had was that the window mount was not horizontal due to the configuration of the Landcruiser roof rail. I’d suggest bringing a small piece of wood to make it level.
Sunset in Serengeti
Kirk window mount with Wimberley sidekick. Notice the amount of dust!
I had two flashes, one on the 1DMkII+100-400 and one on the 1DMkIIN+500+1.4x. Both had a better beamer, one of the best value-for-the-price accessories. Don’t go on a safari without one. Once in a while, I wished I had a flash on the 5D+24-105 when I was shooting close elephants in the harsh midday sun.
In general, light is really tough from 10am until 4-5pm. If you’re smart and can resist, just don’t take pictures during that time. More realistically, you don’t go on safaris so often and you’ll want to capture everything. Use a fill flash (remember to compensate the flash exposure by -1 to -2). Careful with the big cats though, they can get really disturbing flash reflections in their eyes.
I had Wimberley flash brackets for the two big lenses (500mm and 300mm), which was relieving the camera flash mount and making it easier to rotate the camera from landscape to portrait with the sidekick. Those brackets don’t take much space and are worth it in my opinion.
Technical problems: always have backup!
I had a number of technical problems on this trip, which reinforces what I say below: make sure you have backup equipment.
First, my laptop stopped believing in USB 2.0 two days before we left Boston and I had to transfer most of my photos in super-slow USB 1.0. The main consequence is that this was taking forever (a couple of hours every night) and I could not really review my photos during the trip because the computer was too busy transferring.
Regular photo reviews would have allowed me to detect recurrent problems such as bad horizontals, abusive use of high ISO, underexposure and wrong aperture choices, and I could have tried to correct them. Oh well.
The DVD burner of my laptop also decided to stop burning. Anyway, the laptop was so busy transferring that I did not really have time to burn back up DVDs.
However, I was making sure to copy all the files to an external hard drive. This additional transfer was also taking forever because it was also USB 1.0. I would then carry the drive with me on the game drive in case my laptop gets stolen at the lodge. I use a fortress drive which is really sturdy. I heard Lacie has a pretty good one too.
One of my Lexar compact flash also failed, unfortunately after it was full. I could not transfer the pictures to my computer and had to send it to Lexar. To their credit, they are attempting to extract the data free of charge.
Loosened screws were also an issue, in particular for my flash mounts. First my flash cords started having false contacts (the flash would not fire), so I put the flash directly on the camera.
Then the camera flash mount went loose and got false contacts. Fortunately, I had brought a small screwdriver (Pocket 4 In 1 Screwdriver, 744, I love it, e.g. http://www.amazon.com/POCKET-4-1-SCREWDRIVER-744/dp/B0009S5VNO) and was able to tighten the screws (you need to remove the small metal plate hiding it, which is pretty easy).
So in general, I’d advise to verify any screw when things get suspicious. The car vibrations are pretty bad and I also had bad experiences with lens screws in the past.
Moral of the story: be prepared for equipment failure. Shit happens, and Africa is really tough on equipment. Between the dust and the car vibrations, chances of breakdown are numerous.
As I already mentioned, think for every piece of equipment you bring: what would happen if it breaks? Would the trip be ruined, or do you have the appropriate backup?
The three main problems you will have in Tanzania are the grass that often hides most of the animals, and the sun which is pretty harsh mid-day (it is harsh everywhere, but it’s worse since you’re on the equator).
If you’re a hard-core pro, you’ll shoot only under the best light (early morning, late afternoon), but most of us want to record every animal we can possibly see, and we want to shoot in the middle of the day. A flash is therefore indispensable. Finally, your main enemy is dust which goes everywhere in your equipment.
In Tanzania, you spend most of the time in a 4×4 vehicle with open top, which means that you have a fairly high viewpoint. This makes life easier for occlusion and allows you to shoot animals that would be hidden by the grass and also to include more of the landscape in your pictures.
However, it can yield less intimate pictures, since eye-level pictures always bring you in the world of the animal. Also, for elephant pictures, you lose the sense of scale since your viewpoint is at the height of the elephant. My advice: shoot from the side windows as much as possible. It is more difficult, especially with the flash and flash extender, but it will improve your pictures. In summary, do as I say, not as I did.
The flash is your best friend if you shoot between 10am and 5pm. It allows you to fill in shadows and reduce the effect of harsh lighting. Use flash compensation around -2 or -1 1/3 to make the flash less strong than the main lighting.
To make your flash more effective with telephotos, get a better beamer which is a simple Fresnel lens that focuses the flash light and makes it reach farther. It’s very cheap, it makes you look very professional, and it greatly improves your pictures.
Flash fill in requires practice to decide when to use it and how much to compensate for, so make sure that you try at home before going to a once-in-a-life. One exercise that allows you to learn is to use a teddy bear as subject. Be careful however with cats. They have a reflective layer in the back of their eyes, which can result in pretty bad shiny green eyes. Turning off the flash is often a good idea with them.
Get a hood on all your lenses. And put it in the right direction! I just can’t believe the number of people I saw shooting with the lens hood reversed! The African sun is pretty bad mid-day, make sure you use the hood, it will reduce flare and increase image contrast.
Use a bean bag. For a safari, you probably need to fill it more than average (I’d say 90% full) because you will typically put it on the roof rail of a landcruiser. I brought two Kinesis beanbags, http://kgear.com/r/, which allowed me to place one on each side of the car. I brought them filled with Kinesis’s lightweight Buckwheat. What I like about the Kinesis bag is that you can attach them to the rail of the roof and leave them there as you drive. Some safari operators (like Africa Dreams, see below) do provide beanbags, so ask before adding this to your luggage.
Kinesis beanbag on the roof’s rail
Polarizers are very useful. There can be a lot of glare, which polarizers will greatly reduce, thereby increasing the saturation of vegetation in particular. I unfortunately had only one with me, I wish I could have left one permanently both on my 24-105 and my 100-400mm. My main issue with polarizers is that they’re hard to use with a hood. Also, you loose a lot of light, so I remove them early and late in the day.
Depth of field was one of my big challenges. You often have multiple animals, or you want to include the wonderful landscape in the shot, which requires small apertures to get decent depth of field. This made me rely too much on high ISO (up to 1600). While high ISO are surprisingly not bad with Canon sensors if you don’t retouch the image, it’s a different story if your exposure is off and you need to boost the exposure in camera RAW. I wish I had been more careful both with exposure and ISO.
I found that metering was often underexposing, probably because of the light-colored grass in the background. You might want to use exposure compensation and check the histogram. (Nikon users might have a more reliable metering system.)
Dust is really bad, especially in NgoroNgoro. The second half of the trip, I was cleaning my sensors every day with an arctic butterfly, which worked wonderfully. I was not as thorough at the beginning, and I had to use the Photoshop healing brush a lot to remove dust spots.
There also was a huge dust deposit on everything in the car. Make sure you bring trash bags and ziplock bags to protect your equipment. However, it makes it harder to access your toys, so in the middle of the trip I decided to buy one of those Masai blankets that was much quicker to put and remove.
Electricity can be an issue. Most lodges operate on a generator and only offer electricity in the evening and morning, not overnight.
I found it convenient to recharge my batteries in the car, using a power inverter for my chargers that did not have a car adapter (come on Canon, why don’t you provide a car adapter for the charger of the 1D series?). The inverter had a ventilation fan that got progressively louder, probably courtesy of the dust.
Some of the animals are pretty skittish. I have found that the shutter noise frightens a lot of them. Maybe I should consider one of those camera muzzles.
We did a balloon trip, which was a wonderful experience. These trips take place around sunrise, and the combination of the amazing light, fantastic landscape, unusual viewpoint and active animal life is really amazing.
They’re unfortunately short, one hour, and are followed by a fairly long pseudo-champagne breakfast. While it was fun to have breakfast and chat with other balloon passengers, it was also using up the best light of this morning.
The balloon ride is over at 8am, so you still have another hour of fairly good light that you’re wasting with breakfast. Next time, I’ll ask the driver to pick us up right after the balloon itself and we’ll go directly game driving. If Champagne is what you’re after, Tanzania is probably the wrong destination 😉
You’re fairly crammed in the balloon and the trip is fairly fast-paced, so don’t plan to spend your time switching lenses. A 100-400 lens is pretty ideal, although the normal zoom 24-105 proved useful for various shots.
I must shamefully confess that I messed up the sharpness of a lot of my balloon pictures because I was using to-slow a shutter speed.
I’d say that 1/200s is a safe minimum, even with Image Stabilization (and I must, as usual, curse Canon for misplacing the IS on/off button which makes you turn off IS involuntarily more often than you’d wish). Also since you are moving rather fast, you should track your subject to eliminate that motion. This is nit something IS can help with.
I used photoshop mostly to manage contrast and clone-brush dust spots. I also boosted some colors a little.
I used Adobe Camera Raw to process my files, and I often had to compensate for exposure errors there (usually underexposed images). This was frustrating because I badly increased noise. I used Noise Ninja to correct this, but usually applied it selectively using a layer mask.
As I mentioned, light can be pretty harsh around noon, so I often had to increase the brightness of areas in shadow (in addition to the fill flash or because I had not used fill flash, for example for cats). I usually use a curve adjustment layer and paintbrush a mask that applies the curve only to the parts in shadow.
I often reframed images. I must confess that my ability to keep the horizontal horizontal is limited, and I often had to rotate photos a little.
Some colors were boosted using Velvia Vision, but I progressively reduced my use of it.
Your main lens should be a telephoto zoom, ideally a 100-400 Canon or 80-400 Nikon. Zooms are a must because you don’t control your viewpoint that much (stuck in the car), everything goes fast, and you don’t want to change lens.
A 70-300 is probably pretty good with a 1.6 crop factor camera (most Canon except the top models, all Nikons). However, those zooms are often weaker at the longer end, which will result in lower visual quality, less sharpness and less saturated colors. By the way, forget what you knew a long time ago: zooms are now great, thanks Computer-Aided Design.
Super telephotos really make a difference. While some of the animals get really close, other can stay pretty far. All my leopard pictures were done with the 500mm and a teleconverter, and my favorite one even used a 2x teleconverter, resulting in a ridiculous 1000mm focal length.
The 500 (or 600) will also enable tight portraits and bird photography. I know that these toys are terribly expensive and heavy. If you can’t afford one, consider renting it for the duration of the trip. However, be careful, they’re addictive.
A note about teleconverter: only use them with the best lenses (such as super telephotos) because they will yield really poor results with other lenses. With Canon equipment, you will actually not be able to mount a teleconverter with most lenses, which is a good thing.
Always use a hood. If your lens does not come with one (Canon is particularly bad) it’s worth the investment.
Get a backup camera. In general, for every piece of equipment you bring, ask yourself what happens if it breaks. Will it ruin a once-in-a-lifetime trip? If you’re on a tight budget, the backup can be a superzoom compact camera. Advantage: it also covers your ass if your main lens breaks.
If you can afford it, bring a second SLR. Advantage: you can mount it on a different lens, thereby reducing lens switches. My main lens backup was the Canon 70-300DO because it is very small which reduce luggage overhead and proves useful when you want to be less conspicuous, for example to take photos in a place like Zanzibar.
Get a flash, and a flash extender. (and don’t even think about using the integrated flash, it’s not powerful enough). The light is really harsh and you will want to shoot in the middle of the day and against the sun. If you see your only Leopard of the trip in such conditions, you’ll feel really sorry you don’t have a flash.
Bring small tools such as small screwdrivers, duct tape and an Leatherman.
Bring good binoculars (duh!). Luminosity is not critical, so good 10×25 are probably fine. As I said, I’m an equipment freak and I had Canon 18×50 stabilized binoculars. I find them pretty amazing, the stabilization is really useful at this magnification.
Although I must say that it’s really convenient to have your elbow resting on the car, which provides great stability when the engine is off. The guide seemed to have binoculars in the 10×40 range (and he was finding animals way more easily than me with my gigantic 18×50!).
My girlfriend Janet had Canon 12×36 stabilized binoculars. All of us were pretty happy with our binoculars. But make sure you buy binoculars that fit you well and that you know how to use them, in particular that you set them appropriately for you situation: glasses or no glasses.
Bring plenty of lens cleaning equipment. I’m a fan of pre-moisturized towelets, and I had to use a lot of them. Amazing how much dirt a lens can gather.
Suggested budget configuration
Canon: Rebet XTi (good test for their dust reduction technology!) + 75-300mmIS and 17-85mm. Flash: 580 + better beam extender. Backup: Canon Powershoot S3 or Panasonic FZ50.
Nikon: D50 + 18-70 and 70-300. Backup Canon Canon Powershoot S3 or Panasonic FZ50.
Accessories: sensor cleaner, polarizer, beanbag if your operator does not provide it
Main upgrade: replace the 70-300 by a Canon 100-400 or a Nikon 80-400. They have better reach and much better optical quality.
Suggested intermediate configuration
Two Canon Rebel XTi+battery grip (never spend too much money on bodies, always on lenses), Canon 100-400 + Canon 17-85mm (having two bodies allows you to keep the lenses on all the time). Backup lens: 70-300 IS or 70-300 IS DO. One flash 580+better beamer. You might be able to use the integrated flash with the 17-85, so one flash might be enough.
Accessories: sensor cleaner, polarizer, beanbag if your operator does not provide it
Main upgrade: rent a super telephoto 500mm f/4 with image stabilization
The sky is the limit. Make sure you include a super telephoto. I’m a big fan’ of the 500mm f/4 because it’s still hand-holdable, but the 600mm f/4 provide more reach. Just make sure you work out before the trip to be able to bring from where it sits in the car to the roof. You’ll be doing this a lot. Also, in many cases, I was shooting towards the front of the vehicle and could not put the window mount there. In addition, in order to avoid having the car’s hood in the frame, I had to hold the camera fairly high, something that was painful with the 500 but would have been torture with the 600. Your call. I considered the 400mm f/2.8l, but I am glad I had the extra reach of the 500, which I was almost always using with the 1.4 teleconveter.
Places, light and shooting conditions
In general, the sun rises at 6:40 in all four parks we visited and sets around 6:40.
This means that you should not accept trips where breakfast is at 7:30 and game drive start when the light gets bad. In addition, many animals such as lions are active only at night, so your only chance of seeing them in interesting situations is early morning.
Each park has its own schedule, but the general rule is no driving when it’s dark. This can be an issue if your hotel/lodge/camp is far from the game viewing area: you will waste the best light driving back. In my opinion, the main criterion for accommodation is distance to game.
I would suggest to stay a minimum of two nights at each location. It’s tiring to move from place to place and you waste time checking in/out. In addition, some places give you much better picnic if you’re staying the following night because you can return the silverware.’ Also, you want to find a good balance between covering multiples parks and environments and avoiding wasting all your time traveling. Again, two days per location is a good tradeoff (where I count the various sup-parts of the Serengeti as two days each). Of course, the precise choice of which location depends on the season and the great migration.
In general, we’ve had some of our best time in the less visited parts such as the Northern Serengeti, the Western corridor of the Serengeti, and lake Manyara. But crowded places are crowded for a reason, Ngorongoro is the only place where we saw a rhino, animals are less skittish because they’re blas’ with tourists.
Morning light is fantastic 6:30-7:30. It’s good until 9:30. Skies are usually very clear in the morning.
The evening sky is more cloudy, which often makes light good as early as 4pm (if you don’t include the sky in the frame.) Sunsets are spectacular thanks to the clouds.
The central Serengeti is the most touristy part. However, if you go for full-day game drives, you usually go far enough, out of the reach of people who need to go back for lunch. We had a cheetah mother and her 4 cubs just for ourselves for one hour around noon. In addition, a picic in the middle of the Serengeti is a wonderful experience. The central Serengeti is the only place where you can have a baloon ride.
The Western and North Serengeti are less crowded and amazing for game viewing too. Don’t miss them. In particular, Lobo lodge is 30 seconds from game viewing areas and is in a great setting for a moderate price. We had our best time around Lobo.
NgoroNgoro was more frustrating because it takes a long time to get to the crater and because they make you leave early. In my experience, only morning drives are useful because in the evening you must have left the park at 6pm and getting out takes time. In practice, you stop game driving when the light gets good at 5ish. In addition, the park gets too crowded after 10am. Just don’t oversleep. And plan your hotel smartly: distances to the entrance gates vary quite a lot.
The mornings are always very cloudy, with really great shafts of light. Light is therefore pretty nice until 10:30-11 if you’re under a cloud. You get a really nice foggy atmosphere.
Animals are really tame due to the high number of tourists. We had lion cubs who came udner our car to find shade!
The situation can get ridiculous, when we saw lion cubs, as many as 30 other cars showed up and it was a depressing ballet of vehicles. Together with central Serengeti, this is where we saw the biggest number of tourists. However, in central Serengeti you can escape in the middle of the day if you go far enough, but Ngoro Ngoro is too small and people are everywhere by noon.
The rim of the crater also provides wonderful background. I took some of my best pictures ever in Ngoro Ngoro (the Zebra at the top of the page was shot there).
The place is really dusty, and between the dust, high noon temperature, and the early checkout time, it makes game drives less interesting after noon. Next time, I consider leaving the main crater around 10am and go explore one of the two other craters nearby which are supposed to be really nice, with possible hikes and nice waterfall.
Lake Manyara provides a very different perspective and a plethora of birds. We saw thousands and thousands of pelicans, cranes, and flamingos. I think in one day it doubled the total number of birds I have seen in my entire life! I also really like the background provided by the lake and the mountains in the distance.
The park also includes forests with darker shooting conditions where I was glad I had the 300f/2.8. This is the only place where we saw blue monkeys.
The park closes at 6pm, so morning drives are best. It’s often cloudy in the morning.
Manyara is often neglected in a safari, but I strongly advise to visit it. The lake and forest habitats are very different from the other parks and the photography opportunities are superb.
Tarangire is great for its baobab trees and elephants. Those elephants actually have a lot more attitude than elsewhere. Our guide explained that they spend a lot of time outside the park where they cause much destruction, which results in less-than-friendly relationship with humans who usually try to chase them away by throwing rocks at them.Elephant in Tarangire
We happened to have cloudy mornings in Tarangire, but our guide said that it was not the rule. The late afternoons were rather clear.
The main game viewing area is around the Tarangire river. Make sure that your accommodation is close. We were staying in Swala lodge, a truly wonderful place. Probably our best memory as far as accommodation is concerned.
There were permanently elephants and impalas around the camp, and we even saw one lioness one night waling 50m from us with her two cubs. Pretty neat if you add that we were having tea around a nice campfire after the an amazing dinner cooked by their creative chef. The only problem with Swala is that it’s far from the Tarangire river. I’d advise to plan to take it easy one day and stick around the camp. Oh, I forgot: their picnic baskets are marvelous.
We decided to go on a private safari because we wanted more control on the schedule and because all my camera equipment was taking so much space in the car. My girlfriend Janet can tell you that it was difficult for her to find a seat while we were just the two of us for a car planned for seven passengers (+2 seats in the front).
The critical element of a safari is your driver. They are all trained naturalist and will be responsible for driving, finding the animals, and providing explanations about the local wildlife. The quality of your guide is therefore critical for the success of your safari. We could not have been more pleased than with our driver-guide, Nickson Kassim.
He was wonderful to hang out with, was a very careful yet efficient driver, and was amazing at spotting animals. I just can’t comprehend how he was able to find some of those little critters that were so far away, while driving on really bad dirt road at the same time. He also provided thorough explanations about the how and why of animal behaviors. We were so happy with Nickson that if we go back to Tanzania, we will insist to have him as our driver.
Why Tanzania, what about other countries?
Tanzania is THE premier place for safaris. The Serengeti and Ngorongoro are probably the most famous safari destination, and rightly so. The country is pretty stable, although it’s one of the poorest in Africa. The Tanzanian government has long had effective policies for preservation and the reserves and parks are amazing and full of animals.Tanzania Flag
Many people believe Kenya to be the main destination for safaris, but according to what I read everywhere, Kenya is inferior to Tanzania in many ways. The country is less stable, the game is not as abundant and parks tend to be disturbingly packed with tourists.
In fact, part of the aura that Kenya has for safari is because people wrongly think that places such as the Serengeti are in Kenya, while it is completely in Tanzania. According to our guide, such confusion used to be encouraged by Kenyan authorities. On the other hand, many renowned nature photographers such as Arthur Morris and Joe and Marry-Ann McDonald return to Kenya regularly and seem to be happy of it.
Botswana is the other top country for safari. It has the reputation of being quite expensive, partially because most travel must be done by plane, but also because the country emphasizes high-end and low-volume tourism. It’s the most stable democratic country in Africa and comes highly recommended by everyone who went. We really hope to go there in the future.
South Africa is the preferred option if you’re on a budget. You can self drive (no driver-guide) and there are many cheap accommodations. Kruger National Park is the most famous place, but there are many other parks.
If you’re into scenery and like deserts and dunes, Namibia is supposed to be amazing. Game viewing is not as great as in these other countries.
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