Back from Safari: Thomson Co-founder Tells Her Story of Serengeti Solitude

Written by Thomson Safaris

lion in serengeti tanzania

Co-founder of Thomson Safaris Judi Wineland traveled to Tanzania in late 2021, her first safari experience in over a year. We sat down to chat with her about the trip.


When you were in Tanzania recently, you hadn’t been back in over a year. That’s a really long time for you! What are some of the things you missed?

Have you ever seen those iconic images of the fiery-orange sunset over the plains? And there’s usually an umbrella acacia and several wildebeest silhouetted on the horizon? Well, that’s what it’s really like every night in the Serengeti. But it’s not just a photo in a magazine! You’re actually there, basking in this incredible golden light and beautiful scenery, immersed in nature and feeling really peaceful. I missed those moments.

sunset scene with wildebeest

You chose to wait a little while before going back. What were some of your considerations before you returned? And what were your goals for this particular trip?

Like everyone else in the world, I was taking into consideration my own unique set of circumstances, and I chose to wait until I was fully vaccinated and boostered. I felt that was the responsible thing to do for myself and for those I’d be visiting.

The trip was a working trip. I needed to go to witness Thomson’s Standard Operating Procedures in practice, check in with the staff who are now 100% vaccinated, and make sure that trips were still running seamlessly with our heightened protocols in place. I needed to witness everything myself so that I could come home with the first hand assurance that our guests and staff deserved.

vaccinated thomson safaris staff

That was the work part, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I also needed a break! The last year and a half have brought us all so many challenges, and it was an incredible privilege to just be away from the news for a few weeks and focus on the natural world, breathe fresh air, rise with the dawn chorus of birds and feel the warmth of Tanzania.

What was different about this trip?

The protocols in the airports and on the planes were obviously different, but everything went so smoothly. Everyone masked up. Overall, I got the sense that international travelers were taking COVID very seriously. We had all taken our tests, we were all trying to be safe. When we arrived in Tanzania we were immediately given another test, just to be sure.

serengeti road and clouds

Arriving in Tanzania was such a joy. Stepping off the plane, you’re always greeted with that really distinctive smell – and I should probably explain here that you exit the plane directly onto the tarmac! The air is always warm and smells of fertile earth and night-blooming flowers and just a hint of distant cooking fires. I had almost forgotten Tanzania had such a beautiful smell. I had a giddiness I could feel in my bones.

Tell us more about what was different. What are some specifics?

What struck me immediately was how strong the safety protocols were and how seriously everyone followed them. “You have to be vaccinated” was a mantra I saw practiced everywhere: at the hotels, in the cities and so on. All the safety stuff meant I could actually relax and enjoy my safari. My husband Rick liked to say during the trip, “It’s safer than going to the grocery store!” It really is, because of all the testing, and vaccinations, and masking and procedures. It’s all there.

Guides Freddy and Seph at the airstrip

All Thomson guides are fully vaccinated and masked, and while I missed seeing those familiar smiles that I’ve known for years, it was just part of the new experience. Going into this trip, I thought it would be hard to implement all the protocols recommended by the CDC, but they had it down, and it felt totally natural. When I met up with them, they greeted me and sprayed my bags down. I kept looking around at the safari camps and our staff, searching for anything that Thomson could be doing better. I couldn’t think of anything!

What about the wildlife? Any differences there?

One of the most notable differences on safari was that there are fewer people than ever coming to Tanzania. In fact, my group and I were sitting amongst lions and cheetahs and leopards without anyone else–not a single other car. We were almost always by ourselves, at one with the wildlife and with nature.

Let’s talk about lions! You know, if you added up all the other lions in all these other countries–South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya–Tanzania still has more. Right now, it’s just you and them. It’s almost like safari travel was 40 years ago, when there were just a handful of tourists.

What about leaving Tanzania? How was that process?

Well first off, I didn’t want to leave! But there was work and real life to get back to. The process of going home was as easy as going there. We got a rapid test a few hours before our flight. Masked up in the airport and on the plane. Customs and immigration back into the States was totally uneventful, and before we knew it, we were back in our beds with this incredible experience under our belts.

elephant herd in the serengeti at sunset

Rick and I founded the company and have been doing this for 40 years, but I can honestly say that Tanzania has never gotten old. A lot of our guests have told us that it just gets under your skin in a way other places don’t. We certainly feel that. And now is an absolutely phenomenal time to go. Go before the rest of the world comes back, while you have this incredible opportunity to see it as if time had stopped 40 years ago. Go when you feel you’re ready, but don’t put it off too long. Your soul will thank you for the break!