Go wild at Christmas time with a beach safari

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Mike Unwin takes three generations of his family to Tanzania for the festive season, swapping 'Only Fools and Horses' for baboons and buffalo

I saw three ships come sailing in, on Christmas day in the morning. Three dhows, to be precise – a kilometre or so offshore and heading north. And, in truth, there were more than three. A sweep of my binoculars from our beachfront chalet revealed a scattered flotilla silhouetted against the dawn, all plying a homeward course from the night's fishing.

It would be nice to think the boats were laden with something suitably festive – if not gold, frankincense and myrrh, then perhaps a cargo of mince pies. But common sense suggested they were carrying fish. I suspect the life of a fisherman on the Swahili Coast does not extend to Christmas frippery. Besides, these fishers were Muslim.

I had travelled with my family to Saadani Lodge, a safari retreat on the northern Tanzania coast. The idea was to relocate our Christmas to Africa, while preserving, intact, its home-front traditions. Our nine-person party ranged from my 10-year-old daughter to my 70-something parents, with various relations in between. I'd been the one tasked with organising this ambitious, once-in-a-lifetime extravagance. The pitfalls loomed large; the location would have to be just right.

Saadani seemed tailor-made for the challenge. This relatively little-known national park, just across the water from Zanzibar, is unusual in offering the twin safari attractions of bush and beach in a single setting. Behind our chalet was wild African savannah, home to lions and elephants; on our doorstep the Indian Ocean, with its long beaches, coral reefs and dhows.

Despite its winning geography, Saadani has never quite made it onto Tanzania's A-list of destinations. Perhaps because this newish reserve does not yet offer the Serengeti's wall-to-wall wildlife; and the beach, its breakers sepia with silt from the nearby Wami River, doesn't quite match Zanzibar's picture-postcard perfection. But being a little off the beaten safari track suited us perfectly. With no hectic itinerary of must-sees, we could mould the laid-back ambience of the place to our own ends.

Thus we flip-flopped from chalet to restaurant along the wooden boardwalks, played boardgames by the pool and enjoyed the wildlife that shared our space – bee-eaters hawking dragonflies; vervet monkeys clambering around the bar. When the heat left us wilting, we were thankful for the delicious Indian Ocean breeze that tinkled the wind chimes and stirred our mosquito nets. It wasn't all indolence, though. Arriving four days before Christmas, we had already enjoyed many of Saadani's activities. Isack Mnyangabe was the guide assigned the dubious privilege of herding our motley crew around. With a safari vehicle to ourselves, we'd been able to indulge all the running family arguments – from meal times to Test Match scores – but somehow Isack had kept the show on the road, patiently pointing out the wildlife and explaining the local culture.

On game drives, we spied the rare Lichtenstein's hartebeest, with its racing-bike handlebar horns; watched giraffes lope across the plain; and caught up with a herd of buffalo that sniffed at us suspiciously before melting into the trees. On foot – setting out early to avoid the heat – Isack turned bush detective to reveal the pad marks of a hyena, the clotted droppings of wildebeest and the skull of a baboon, crushed by the jaws of a leopard. Birds, meanwhile, were everywhere: lilac-breasted rollers flashing azure wings in tumbling display flights; ground hornbills stalking through the long grass; a bateleur eagle riding the day's first thermal.

On Christmas Eve, we boarded a small motor launch to explore the Wami River, a few kilometres south of the lodge. Slumbering hippos raised goggle eyes and twitching ears at our intrusion, a croc was submerged among the mangrove roots, and white bell-pull tails betrayed the colobus monkeys in the canopy. Our return drive passed dazzling white saltpans, where flamingos swept their upside-down heads through the shallows.

Between excursions, however, we simply hung out at the lodge. At high tide we splashed in the waves – as warm and salty as mulligatawny soup. During the hotter hours, we lazed around the pool, my daughter learning backward somersaults from her cousins, while the older and less athletic among us retreated to the loungers with Scrabble, books and occasional sustenance from the bar. A tree-hide overlooking a small pool behind the lodge also offered a shaded retreat, attracting – among other thirsty wildlife – argumentative baboons and a well-drilled troop of banded mongooses.

When the tide rolled out, exposing rippled mudflats, we went beachcombing, finding coconut shells, sand dollars and wave-sculpted driftwood. Prawn fishermen from the village waded into the shallows to cast their nets, disturbing clouds of terns from the exposed sandbanks. The tide-line was printed with the meandering signatures of civets, genets, bush pigs and other foragers that did their own beachcombing after dark.

And so, by the time dawn broke on Christmas morning, we'd already fallen for Saadani. But now, watching the passing dhows, I couldn't help wondering if the big day – uprooted to the tropics – would match expectations. It was accepted, of course, that there would be no early morning peeling of spuds or jamming of turkey into oven; no piling of presents under the tree. But a few rituals remained sacrosanct.

After breakfast, we retreated to the deck for presents. Stockings had already been opened –trictly a pre-breakfast routine – producing seashells, seedpods and other tokens from the beach. Now came the main gifts, restricted in size and value by prior agreement to the likes of water pistols, fridge magnets and swanee whistles. My father presided over things with his time-honoured clipboard – packed for this very purpose – noting, as ever, who gave what to whom in order that no thank-you letter should go unwritten.

Father Christmas hats were donned for lunch – a buffet with mango and seafood salad. We then piled into Isack's 4x4 for a Christmas game drive. Our wildlife wits were not at their sharpest, given the lunchtime festivities, but dusk blessed us with a yuletide herd of elephants. We watched until darkness as the nervous pachyderms emerged slowly from the palm forest, the youngsters trumpeting shrilly as they trundled after their elders.

Back at the lodge, we found the restaurant and walkways decked – not quite with boughs of holly, but with fairy lights draped around the palm fronds. After champagne cocktails we settled down to a Christmas dinner of "African" turkey – the same as the supermarket variety, as far as I could tell – accompanied by the slightly less traditional coconut and banana soup, with an impressive Christmas cake to follow. We belted out a few carols over the cheeseboard, while bushbabies romped across the roof and Kissie, the local genet, slunk around in search of leftovers.

Our African Christmas ended on the beach. Nick, the lodge manager, strummed his guitar – barely audible above the breakers – while sparks flew from the big driftwood fire and shooting stars slipped across the tropical heavens. Replete with food and festive spirit, our deckchairs sank a little deeper than usual into the sand. I wandered out of the circle of firelight down to the surf, ghosts crabs scuttling across the wet sand at my feet. "Don't go far," called Nick, "there are lions about." Let them try, I thought. They'll never manage all of me.

This Christmas tale has a coda. Yes, Saadani had done us proud. But knowing that Zanzibar lay just over the water, and having come all this way, we'd elected to extend the holiday by a few days and take a peek at the fabled spice isle.

Thus, on Boxing Day, we crammed into a tiny aircraft on Saadani's dusty airstrip and made the 15-minute hop over the waves. From Zanzibar airport, a half-hour taxi ride took us to Unguja Lodge on the south-west coast. Far from the tourist hotspots, it was just the spot for that post-festive torpor.

Activities were available, of course. We braved the labyrinthine, spice-scented streets of Stone Town, with their ancient carved doors and chaotic fish market; we trod the damp trails of the Jozini forest, enjoying the antics of the fancily coiffed red colobus monkeys; and, from the lodge itself, we paddled out to the reef and snorkelled over coral gardens kaleidoscopic with fish.

With the lodge arranged in its own lush forest, complete with giant baobabs, the wildlife continued to claim our attention. Not big game, perhaps, but birds – including an exquisite pygmy kingfisher at the pool – butterflies, lizards, elephant-shrews and the resident troop of blue monkeys that sneaked on to verandas to snatch unguarded biscuits.

For our final evening, the whole family was on the beach below the lodge. We pottered on the warm rocks and flung frisbees in the surf, attracting a retinue of village children. It was all too picturesque to be true: the sun setting behind a dhow, a pod of passing dolphins catching the last of the light. Tomorrow would be New Year's Eve and a flight home to cold winter reality.

So, no brussels sprouts, no Queen's Speech and no Only Fools and Horses re-runs. But while Herald Angels may not have sung, baboons had barked, hippos had grunted and this family Christmas had been – for the most part – both joyful and triumphant.

Travel essentials

Getting there

The writer travelled with Rainbow Tours (020 7666 1250; rainbowtours .co.uk) which offers 10 nights in Tanzania from £3,780pp. The price includes five nights' full board at the Sanctuary Saadani Safari Lodge in a Maridadi Suite with one daily activity and park fees, as well as five nights' half board in a sea-view villa at Unguja Lodge. Flights from Heathrow to Dar es Salaam and back from Zanzibar via Nairobi are also included, as well as internal flights and transfers.

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