A 16-person Family Safari Explained

Written by Thomson Safaris
family safari in the serengeti

She took her first step in Tanzania and knew in an instant the trip would be life-changing. “It was incredible,” Jennifer Zaltman said. “That feeling of adventure – you know, for a mom – it’s always exciting, but this was the biggest adventure we’ve ever had.”

Exiting the plane, gazing over Arusha’s rugged cityscape and smelling wood burning in the distance – there was something special about it all. Her family has traveled extensively – three weeks touring Europe, a journey through Alaska, trips all around the U.S. Still, nothing compared to this. Sixteen family members – teenagers, parents and grandparents – flew from the U.S. and Europe to meet in Arusha and head into the wilderness. Jennifer’s feeling on the tarmac was the first of many unforgettable experiences during the trip.

family on thomson safari en route to serengeti

“The flight was really cool because we took up the whole plane,” Jennifer recalls. “This was so exciting for my whole family. I can’t imagine how my father in law felt.”

How Did it All Start?

The safari was Jerry Zaltman’s idea – the grandfather of the family. He knew his grandkids, six teenagers ages 14 to 23, would have difficulty getting together in the future. He wanted to share a safari experience with them while they had the time. He was convinced it would be a significant cultural experience and a terrific learning opportunity.

He wasn’t disappointed.

Meeting the People of Tanzania

Many people travel to Tanzania to see the animals. However, it’s often the people who leave the lasting impact. Many of Jerry’s favorite moments centered around interactions with the people. His favorite location was a village hosting two weddings. His favorite family experience was seeing his grandchildren play a spontaneous game of modified basketball with some students, and he fondly recalls interactions with singers at camp and with vendors at the Enyuata Women’s Collaborative.

Jennifer, on the other hand, fell in love with the moments with her son at one of the Maasai villages. “We and the kids are at a Maasai village, and Sam had his phone and was doing SnapChat with the children,” Jennifer said. “The laughter is the best thing you’ve ever heard.”

Her son was browsing SnapChat’s filters with the children and bursting with laughter as the cartoon features appeared on each of their faces. “You don’t speak the same language, but we all have these similarities,” Jennifer said, commenting on the laughter.

The moment had a significant impact on Sam as well. A high school senior at the time, he found inspiration in that moment for one of his college admissions essays. He shared his thoughts about focusing on similarities between people over differences. “I think we learned that people in very different cultures share a great deal with us,” Jerry said.

Their First Wildlife Sighting, Explained with 30,000 Pictures

family safari in tanzania

giraffes at eastern serengeti nature refuge
But what about the wildlife? The Zaltmans were tremendously excited to see the animals, and they may have gone a little overboard at first. “I think it’s hysterical the number of pictures you take,” Jennifer said. “You take 30,000 pictures of the first animal, and then you see all these others.”

We’ve heard that before! Countless guests spend a little too much time looking at things through the viewfinder of a camera on the first day.

Our advice: relax, set your camera aside and just enjoy that first day. You only get one first encounter with Africa’s wildlife.

lioness in serengeti

elephants and wildebeests in serengeti national park tanzania

Excitement on a Night Drive

And some first encounters are particularly special. Very few people on safari find the aardvark. Nocturnal and solitary, they curl up in their burrows during the day and forage for food after sunset.

Tourists can’t explore the state parks at night. The Eastern Serengeti Nature Refuge is one of the few places people get the opportunity to set out on night drives to search for rarely seen wildlife. When the Zaltmans’ guides saw an aardvark, they pounced on the opportunity to get a closer look. “The night drive was crazy and fun. That’s a unique experience,” Jennifer said. “We were chasing an aardvark and I thought it was hysterical. We had the infrared lights and it was cold. We felt like storm chasers!”

Other times, the nocturnal animals find you. Set in the middle of the wilderness, the campsites offer an authentic, immersive safari experience, complete with the sound of the wildlife at night. The Zaltmans tuned into one unique call from the comfort of their tents. “We think there were leopards in trees around the camp,” Jennifer said. “My son heard it; it sounds a little like sawing wood.”

Bingo! There’s no mistaking the characteristic sound of a leopard.

For the curious, yes, this is a safe experience. Camps are watched by guards, and guests stay in the tents at night, which is the typical protocol for any safari stay in the Serengeti. We’ve enjoyed 38 years without incident.

Of course, there were dozens of other memorable wildlife moments. Watching a lion stalk a gazelle, finding crocodiles feeding on wildebeest after a river crossing, seeing endless herds from the Great Migration day after day – those were just a few lasting images Jerry recalls. Before leaving, the Zaltmans took a few pictures for their Christmas card – the perfect souvenir for the trip.