When is riding in cars not relaxing? When you’re in a safari car zooming around a national park, standing up on the seats to look out the roof (which pops up) and bruising your sides from bumping into the side of the car over and over, while getting sunburnt. While that might not sound like an enjoyable ride, that’s basically what all of our game drives are like – and I loved it. Visiting the national parks and conservation areas in Tanzania has been my favorite part of the program. I think I can speak for all the students when I say that we saw animals and landscapes that we’ve been dreaming about for years.

In the first week, we visited Lake Manyara National Park. It’s extremely close to our camp and has a huge beautiful lake in the middle. The rest is open savannah and forest areas surrounded by mountains. Our main goal for the first afternoon was to see how many species of mammals we could find, but we also identified a lot of cool birds. We briefly spotted two elephants before they got spooked and ran away. The second day there we spent a couple of hours in the morning observing baboon behavior and creating an ethogram (animal behavior chart) which we used to write a paper.

The next week, we went to Tarangire National Park. It looked a lot more like what I expected of East Africa than Manyara did – lots of flat grassland. The park is known for having lots of elephants, so our exercise for the morning was to record and study elephant behavior. A few of the herds came within feet of our car and crossed the road right in front of us, which was awesome.

Our third stop was Ngorongoro Conservation Area. There is a giant crater in the middle (technically a caldera) and it was formed when a volcano collapsed. Now it’s full of flora and tons of fauna like wildebeest, cape buffalo, elephants, lions, zebras, gazelles, hyenas, hippos, etc. This was the first time we saw lions and everyone was so excited! In the afternoon a storm rolled in and the sky got really dark, making an awesome background for pictures.

While every site we visited was amazing, nothing can beat the Serengeti. The park is about a seven-hour drive away, so we left super early Saturday morning and camped there for four nights. We stayed at one of the campsites right in the middle of the park (no fences or anything). We could hear hyenas and wildebeests a lot throughout the night. The stars were absolutely amazing too, because of the lack of light pollution.

Most days we got up and left at 6:30 to look for birds or carnivores. We saw EVERYTHING there! Students in different cars saw different things, but for the 3 full days we were there, I saw lions, cheetahs, and leopards each day as well as servals. As if that isn’t cool enough, we were driving around right in the middle of the Great Migration – usually there were groups of wildebeest and zebra surrounding us, stretching all the way to the edge of the horizon. Everyone came back to Moyo Hill Camp exhausted but happy, and with about 900 pictures on their camera.

I feel so lucky to be studying abroad with SFS and to have the chance to visit all of these national parks. All of our professors and drivers really know what they are doing and helped us find some amazing wildlife. Among other things, what all of that driving around has taught me is that I definitely want to come back to Tanzania in the future – hopefully to conduct research to help conserve these amazing animals.