A few years ago, I was on safari in Tanzania, heading to Tarangire National Park, when a swarm of tsetse flies flew into our 4x4 -- they showed no mercy. As we were slapping them away, I noticed our poor guide's head was covered in about half a dozen of these pesky flies. The tsetse fly is attracted to dark colors and moving cars, making us the perfect target. The bite hurts, it can stay itchy for a little while afterwards, and it is irritating. It won;t ruin a safari, but it can certainly make your time less pleasant. You can end up concentrating more on getting the flies away from you, than gazing at wildlife. We had applied some DEET as a precaution, as Tarangire is a known area for the tsetse fly, but it made little impact.
About the Tsetse Fly...
The tsetse fly is about the same size as a honeybee, surprisingly quick, and therefore very difficult to swat. Even if you are lucky enough to thwack one with your hand or guide book, they have this strange ability to recover quickly and continue to fly on in their own merrily annoying way. In most cases, the tsetse fly bite is simply an irritant, but they do transmit a parasite that causes African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness).
It is very rare to get sleeping sickness while on safari. The tsetse fly is sometimes referred to as the ‘greatest conservationist in Africa’ because it transmits sleeping sickness to cattle, but wildlife is immune to the parasite. Areas where Tsetse flies prevail are thus safe for wildlife, and tends to keep humans and their cattle away! Very occasionally the disease is transmitted to humans, but generally affects those living in a Tsetse fly area on a permanent basis. That being said, travelers who sustain tsetse fly bites and become ill with high fever or other manifestations of African trypanosomiasis should be advised to seek early medical attention. The infection can usually be cured by an appropriate course of anti-trypanosomal therapy. Travelers should be advised to consult an infectious disease or tropical medicine specialist.
What's the Best Defense Against the Tsetse Fly?
While your chances of getting sleeping sickness from the tsetse fly are minimal, their bites can be painful and irritating. As we demonstrated on our safari, insect repellent and long sleeves won't necessarily help since the tsetse fly can bite through light clothing. Tsetse flies are attracted to dark colors as well as blue and purple, so wearing traditional khaki is best. You may see some mysterious blue and purple cloth hanging off trees, this is to attract the Tsetse fly away from cattle, not someone's laundry that went astray! Tsetse flies are also attracted to moving safari vehicles, they must see it as some odd shaped bovine. Before you get in to your vehicle, swat the large flies and get them out of there! If your safari vehicle stops in an area where flies are present, just remember to wind up the windows as you slow to a stop, and this will help keep them away!
The Insider Tip...
If you are really being pestered by tsetse flies, ask your guide to stop at a local supermarket to purchase a bottle of Dettol. Dettol is an antibacterial solution commonly found in Africa. It's one of the few smells/tastes that genuinely seems to bother the tsetse flies, and several safari veterans swear by its effectiveness. If you don't fancy putting antibacterial solution on your skin, you can always buy a local fly whisk, which can then double up as a souvenir once you get home. A bottle of "anti-itch" cortisone based gel or cream is handy to have if you do get bitten.
Avoiding the Tsetse Fly
Tsetse flies live in bushland and wooded areas, so they are not nearly as prevalent in the open grasslands of the Serengeti, or the Ngorongoro Crater. Tsetse flies also like being close to water, so river banks are also popular habitats. But it would be a shame to miss out on the Western Serengeti and Tarangire altogether simply to avoid meeting up with the tsetse fly. However if the idea of encountering them puts you off, you can opt for a safari in neighboring Kenya, where the Tsetse is less prevalent at popular parks like the Mara and Amboseli. Or, check out South Africa and Namibia which are both Tsetse free!