See the African continent's top safari destination without spending a fortune

It wasn't until the sun set on my first night in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park that I really understood my place in the food chain.

I was standing outside my tent, which was set up in a small clearing, when I heard a deep, guttural roar off in the distance.

"Lion," said my guide, a sharp-eyed 43-year-old named Ziggy Msangi, as he scanned the nearby brush.

While he couldn't spot the great cat, he did offer some advice for the coming night.

"Don't walk far," he said. "If you need to go to the bathroom, go right outside your tent."

"Okay," I said, looking at the assemblage of canvas and aluminum. "But even if I'm inside, will I be safe from a lion?"

Ziggy glanced out into the darkness.

"Yes, yes, no problem," he said before turning to me. "Just remember: Don't go far."

That's something Ziggy would say several times during our trip across the Serengeti, a vast plain in northern Tanzania that is home to more than two million animals, including several species that would happily make a meal out of a slow, mostly hairless biped.

The Serengeti is arguably Africa's top safari destination and trips here can cost a small fortune, with even mid-range lodges charging upwards of US$400 (S$547) a person a night.

But if you are willing to rough it out a little, you can soak in the savannah for a fraction of that.

The key? Book what operators call a mobile safari. You will shuttle across the Serengeti - and several neighbouring parks - in a 4x4, sleep in camping tents and eat simple meals with other travellers.

It is a stripped-down experience, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

The landscape here is so stunning, the game so plentiful that you won't miss the white linens and hot-tub chardonnays peddled by the top-end lodges.

The best part is that a five-day all-inclusive trip could cost as little as US$900 a person in a group of four.

Most trips begin in the parks that surround the Serengeti, such as Tarangire, renowned for its elephant herds, and Lake Manyara, with its famous tree-climbing lions.

But the Serengeti is Tanzania's crown jewel. At 14,000 sq km, it is 20 times the size of Singapore and home to every iconic African animal, including the Big Five: the lion, the leopard, the Cape buffalo, the elephant and the nearly extinct black rhino.

Wildebeest graze on the short grasses of the Serengeti. The reserve is home to more than a million of the animals and their annual migration into neighbouring Kenya is one of the world's great natural spectacles.

I had been in the park for all of 15 minutes when Ziggy yelled "Kill" and pointed to a pride of lions on the open plain.

Two adults and several cubs had sidled up to a buffet of zebra. A lioness was tearing away at the flank while a cub chomped down on the neck, practising the strangulation hold that lions use to kill their prey. Not far away, a male lay flat on his back, sunning his distended belly.

The lions looked like they owned the place. But as we soon saw, even they are not a match for the savannah's alpha species: the African elephant.

The setting was a small, muddy riverbed in the western expanse of the Serengeti. A pride of lions, at least a dozen in all, were lounging in the tall grasses along the water. One lioness was on her side, her cubs jockeying for nipples.

Suddenly, a dozen elephants, including several calves, came around a bend in the river, trumpeting like a high school marching band.

The lions scattered into the tall grass, tails between their legs.

"Nobody messes with the elephants," said Ziggy.

If the Serengeti is Tanzania's biggest attraction, the nearby Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a close second.

The reserve is housed inside a crater, created eons ago by a collapsing volcano, that is up to 19km across. Unbroken walls, about 600m tall, separate the crater floor from the surrounding plains, forming what looks like a lost world.

Over 25,000 animals live in Ngorongoro, which has the highest density of predators on the planet, according to the United Nations.

But it is one big herbivore that is the star attraction: the nearly extinct black rhino.

Only a few dozen still live in the area and Ziggy had been trying to spot one for hours when his CB radio crackled to life. A couple of garbled Swahili sentences fought through the static and Ziggy hit the accelerator.

"Black rhino," he said simply.

Our jeep bounced along the muddy tracks that spread out across the crater floor like threads on a spider web. For the first time, Ziggy was gunning it.

Soon, the jeep came to a stop and he handed me the binoculars.

In the distance, I could see a faint black silhouette, capped by the rhino's unmistakable horn. It wasn't much, but we were lucky to see it.

"There are so few of them left, most tourists don't ever get the chance," Ziggy said.

On our way out of the park, we stopped in a Maasai village. The Maasai are nomadic herders who have grazed their cattle on these lands for millennia and remain fiercely traditional.

But they are also savvy capitalists. For about US$25 they will give you a village tour, which comes with a welcome dance (photos encouraged), a visit to a school and a tour of a Maasai house.

It can all be a little forced, but if you can break away from the tour, the Maasai make great conversation.

I spoke with Ponja, the 28-year-old son of a chief. He lives in a two-room house made from sticks and cow dung with five other people, including his wife and son.

His days begin at 5am, when he leads his herd of 120 cows and goats out onto the grasslands to graze.

He never leaves without his spear; the savannah is full of lions and cheetahs looking for an easy meal of domesticated ungulates, he said.

Many Maasai have moved into urban centres in recent decades, lured by jobs, schools and television. I asked Ponja why he had not done the same.

"I don't like city life. It's too busy and there are too many people. I prefer it here," he said, gesturing towards the open land.

stlife@sph.com.sg

Andrew Raven is a freelance writer and former copy editor with The Straits Times.