Few destinations in Africa can rival Tanzania’s diversity of wildlife, cultures and landscapes. From the classic savannah destinations of the Serengeti, Tarangire and Ngorongoro Crater to the beaches and coral reefs of Zanzibar and the tropical coast, a Tanzania safari holiday delivers one massive experience after another. And that’s before you discover the off-the-beaten-track experiences such as chimpanzee trekking in the magisterial rainforests of Mahale and Gombe or game viewing in the super-remote Selous Game Reserve.
Even fewer destinations however can offer an experience to match the Serengeti Migration. Forming the centerpiece of most Tanzania safaris, the migration is regarded as Nature at her most extravagant and involves hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, zebra and antelope running the gauntlet of predators as they migrate around the Masai Mara/Serengeti ecosystem.
Tanzania offers a wide range of safaris for both first-timers and seasoned campaigners. The ease with which a child-friendly safari can be combined with a beach holiday makes Tanzania a shoo-in for families while the country’s most exclusive and luxurious safari lodges and beach retreats make for an unforgettable Tanzania honeymoon. And for a full East Africa safari experience, our experts have selected a range of Kenya & Tanzania safari combinations.
Tanzania’s Northern Circuit is renowned for offering some of the finest game viewing in all Africa. Its natural abundance of wildlife, along with the annual migration of millions of animals across these northern reaches make up a flourishing eco-system that is now benefiting from hard-fought conservation measures. Many hundreds of hectares of these superb rolling landscapes have been preserved in their natural state due to the inward-looking politics of an impoverished country that never had the funds for development or impetus to increase tourism. As little as twenty years ago, wide tracts of land were inhabited only by rural nomadic tribes.
Most safaris and many mountain-climbing expeditions in Northern Tanzania begin and end in Arusha. Tour operators generally assemble all equipment here before departure, and many people spend at least one night in the richly foliaged and fertile hillsides around the town or in more upbeat Arusha itself before taking to the road.
The safari experience starts here…The westward road from Arusha towards Manyara, Tarangire, Ngorongoro and the Serengeti runs across the wide, open plains of Maasailand. It is straight and clear, with views across the plains to an arc of craggy mountains that make up a part of the Great Rift Valley escarpment on the horizon. This is the land of the Maasai tribe, a wild and mainly uncultivated stretch across which they roam and graze their cattle. Often the unaccustomed eye can make out nothing but wilderness in each direction, a greenish sea under the shimmering sun. Then, in the distance a dart of red picks out a lone Maasai walking from one far region to another, often on a journey of a day or more. The Maasai people have generally aspired to remain true to the traditions of their tribal lifestyle, and fought to resist the encroaching changes from the modern world. But on this route to the Northern Parks it is common to see Maasai who have made one proud concession to modernity and who now make the journey along the tarmac way on a shiny Chinese frame bicycle. Yet they wear their traditional dress of red shuka robes, and pedal armed with a well-honed stick to ward off snakes.
All driving safaris from Arusha require a minimum two-hour drive to the nearest park gate. This always takes a route through the centre of Arusha, past the Cultural Heritage Centre and Snake Park on the outskirts of town and on into the magnificent spread of countryside beyond.
The Northern Tanzania Circuit – When to go
The long rains in April and May provide the perfect excuse for the smaller tented camps and lodges to pack up and close for two months, but the Serena, Sopa and Wildlife Lodges stay open year-round, and provide a rare opportunity for safaris during the ‘high season’. June is a wonderful month to visit, and not yet peak season so it’s sometimes possible to still get the lower high-season rates. By travelling so early in the season you risk encountering the odd shower, the roads are invariably in a pretty dire condition and the lodges tend to struggle to get going again as they deal with the inevitable repairs, especially the permanent tented camps. But the land is rejuvenated after the rains, and the greenery and abundance bring widespread contentment. The land around the fertile reaches of the Rift Valley is especially beautiful. June is a good time for bird watching and offers a profusion of butterflies, but it is a little harder to spot animals, as the abundance of standing water means they disperse, and disappear into the high grasses of the plains.
Between August and early November it gets progressively hotter and dryer, although the humidity is pleasantly low and temperatures tend to drop a few degrees in the evenings. As the dry season draws on, more and more wildlife congregates around the diminishing watering holes, conveniently for hungry lions and snap-happy tourists. The short rains should come in mid-November, generally bringing showers for an hour or two each day, or at night. Clouds do not gather for long, and the sun regains its position of supremacy soon after.
December is very hot, making Christmas holidays popular, and it remains pleasant through the New Year. Between January and March it gets progressively more humid, gradually building up to the long rains in April and May. Visitors to the Serengeti between December and July should have a chance to catch up with the migrating herds of wildebeest in certain areas of the Serengeti, listed below in the Serengeti chapter
The Northern Tanzania Circuit – History
The land covered by all the conservation areas in northern Tanzania is characterised by geographical extremes. Here are Africa’s highest mountains, alkaline lakes and hot mineral springs, all shaped by volcanic action, and making up an extraordinary landscape. This is the result of its precarious position, poised over the meeting point of huge tectonic plates beneath the earth’s crust, in the realm of the Great Rift Valley.
The Great Rift, approximately 6,400m long, 50km wide, and varying between a hundred and a thousand metres deep, has created a vast and tempestuous fertile spread, without which this large expanse of East Africa might be as arid as the wide Sahara. Now the landscape is dramatically undulating, thrown upwards in rifts, faults and craters of dramatic volcanoes that have covered the land in rich minerals, making it green and prolific and creating lakes, rivers and clouds. The most famous of these wild northern plains is the Serengeti, formed of layers of ash blown out by volcanic eruptions from Ngorongoro and the three cones that make up Kilimanjaro. Its name comes from the Maa phrase ‘Siringet’, meaning ‘endless plains’, as the Maasai people who once made their lives on its wide expanse called this region when they emigrated here 200 years ago.
The first European to glimpse these plains was probably the German Explorer Beaumann in 1892, but the Serengeti first captured the imagination of the world in the 1920s, when reports of the unusually large number of lion here began to circulate among the interested echelons of society, especially those with a gun and a taste for the hunt. It was soon deemed necessary to make the endless plains a game reserve in 1950, and then a fully protected National Park in 1951. Later, in the 1960s, the work of Professor Bernhard Grzimek, then president of the Frankfurt Zoological Society and author of the book Serengeti Shall Not Die, (published in 1959), highlighted the importance of protecting the land required by millions of wildebeest, zebra and antelope in their annual migration across hundreds of miles of seasonal fertile plains. Professor Grzimek and his son Michael believed in preserving the region as close to a ‘primordial wilderness’ as possible, and that no men, not even native tribes, should live inside the nature reserves. As a result of their efforts and subsequent studies into the annual path of the migration in Northern Tanzania, the boundaries of the Serengeti were extended and altered and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area emerged as a separate entity. Many resident Maasai on the plains were moved to other regions, and debate continues as to the fairest future for those who were effectively displaced from the land. Today the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem is made up of a vast mosaic of adjoining Game Reserves and National Parks crossing the border between Northern Tanzania and Southern Kenya and covering over 9,600 square miles of grassland and forest.
The immense size of the Serengeti National Park alone, which at 5,600 square miles exceeds the size of Belgium, Ohio or Wales, ensures each vehicle at least one blissful moment of apparent absolute isolation in a wilderness that seems to be made up of the very stuff of original creation.
The neighbouring Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) is a markedly different environment, visibly shaped by volcanoes and the tectonic plate action of the Great Rift. The land is pockmarked with giant craters, the most famous of which, the Ngorongoro Crater, has attracted an unusually rich variety of resident and migratory East African wildlife. Nowadays these highlands are also home to a large population of the Maasai tribe, many of whom have been displaced from the surrounding National Parks. The NCA aims to help preserve their traditional tribal lifestyle while also conserving the environment for wildlife and serving the growing tourist market.
A large tract of land at Tarangire, and subsequently a swathe between the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley and Lake Manyara, became National Parks during the 1970s. These smaller National Parks in the north are also worth exploring. Lake Manyara National Park is an easy and enjoyable two-hour drive from Ngorongoro, and a completely contrasting environment. Lush green forests, palm trees and clouds of butterflies surround visitors at the gate, and tempt you into the magical maze of driving routes through the woodlands and glades that lie between the sheer escarpment of the Great Rift Valley and the shining soda lake waters of Lake Manyara. Manyara National Park is a haven for birdwatchers, like its neighbour on the southern side of the plains of Maasailand, Tarangire National Park. Tarangire has a more open, hilly landscape studded with ancient baobab trees, and stretches along either side of the Tarangire River, with superb views along the length of the valley. This is the central water source for all resident and passing wildlife, and during the dry season the park holds a high concentration of wildlife, at this time second only to Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti.
These northern parks support a vast ecosystem as herds of wildlife travel according to the season across the boundaries of each park and between the borders of Kenya and Tanzania. The Northern Circuit has evolved into a sequence of conservation and game-controlled areas directly related to the natural distribution of wildlife in these areas, which specifically include the land required by migrating animals in the course of the year. Each of these parks and conservation areas that protect and conserve local wildlife relies on the mutual preservation and protection of the outlying areas. Thus the Northern Circuit is far more than simply a pleasure park devised for tourists.
Widespread international interest in the unusual balance of such a wide-ranging ecosystem has meant that the Northern Circuit has benefited from extensive research and foreign investment, its infrastructure and experience with tourism and conservation far ahead of the rest of the country. It is said that since 1966 the Serengeti ecosystem has been one of the most studied areas in the world.
The northern parks are way ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to conservation issues, and set precedents for other parks to follow or avoid. Poaching continues to be a real problem for all conservation areas, especially given the serious and widespread rural poverty. Villages on the outskirts of parks and game reserves tend to rely on wild animals for food, and kill without remorse when crops or livestock are threatened or destroyed by ranging wild creatures. Animals such as antelope, buffalo and zebra are sold from the hunting reserves at far lower prices than farmed meat, but free will always prevail over cheap when life is so hard won. Tanzania National Parks Association (TANAPA) and a number of foreign investors – see details in Conservation, p xxx – have worked to combat this situation by means of education and improving living standards in outlying villages, but have been defeated and demoralised by an unforeseen but predictable response to their attempts. Once they have built schools and encouraged new business in outlying villages, the news spreads quickly, and the local population fast increases as outsiders move in to share the benefits. Problems of demand outstripping supply arise once more, and this most hard to manage small-time poaching begins again.
The Northern Tanzania Circuit – Around Lake Manyara
Before reaching the National Park you pass through a colourful and rapidly growing small town called Mto Wa Mbo, which translates enticingly as ‘River of the Mosquito’. Here is the Milton Keynes of the Northern Circuit; a new town that has developed since the irrigation of this previously dry and barren stretch of land during the 1950s. The project has successfully transformed hundreds of acres of land into profitable ground for farming, and attracted newcomers from all over the country. Nowhere else in Tanzania have so many different tribes gathered together in such a small area, and with each practising traditional methods of production there is a fascinating spread of activity. Chagga people from Kilimanjaro make banana beer, a farmer from Kigoma produces palm oil, the Rangi people make baskets and mats from papyrus, while those of the Sandawe make bows and arrows to hunt and the Maasai herd their cattle across the surrounding plains. There are a number of low budget hostels and campsites here, and several bars and dukas for last minute provisions. an evening meal and picnic lunch [(find out what they are called!)]
A Cultural Tourism Programme has been developed at Mto wa Mbu, with advice from the Netherlands Development Organisation SNV
Manyara National Park is approximately three hours’ drive from Arusha through Maasailand, following the direction of Tarangire for most of the way until the crossroads. This final right-hand stretch of the road to Manyara has had a troubled life as a result of harsh rains and potholes, and can be a long and bumpy ride. At the time of writing there is a concerted effort to fix the road.
The children along this route have grown accustomed to the passing tourist trade. Many are trying to raise money for their schooling, and often ask for pens. The problem with giving money to children who run into the road is that it encourages them to do so, and can be the cause of accidents – especially as the road improves and the traffic speed increases.
The Maasai people throughout this region are impressive looking, and their photogenic harmony with their surroundings can be very inspiring to aspiring photographers. But after decades of white-faced tourists rudely sticking cameras at these strangers and snatching their image with no word of thanks, many Maasai – especially those living close to the parks – will be reluctant to let you photograph them without paying them a small fee for the privilege.
Best Tanzania Tours & Safaris
Fuelled by its international reputation for fantastic wildlife, idyllic scenery and dreamy tropical islands, Tanzania is rapidly becoming one of Africa’s most popular holiday destinations. Naturally, most of our Tanzania tours and safaris focus on the country’s great parks and reserves like the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater but we also have a great selection of tours to Tanzania’s less well known reserves like Selous and Mahale plus tours to exotic Zanzibar too.
Our top tours and safaris in Tanzania will deliver experiences that last a lifetime, and we have a wide range of tried-and-tested itineraries. Te best way to explore Tanzania is with a customised safari – particularly if you want to visit the Serengeti during the wildebeest migration season.
Talk to an Tanzania Safari Expert today and make the most of your Tanzania safari tour package.
South Central Tanzania Safari
With all the attention focussed on its more famous northern destinations such as the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania’s equally enticing southern and central conservation areas tend to be overlooked. On the one hand that’s a shame as they deliver a range of astonishing safari experiences from classic big game viewing to sublime bird watching and even chimpanzee trekking but on the other hand it does mean that you’ll have these amazing places virtually to yourself.
Suitable for safari aficionados, wildlife enthusiasts and nature photographers who have already been to Africa’s more popular national parks, South Central Tanzania’s remote parks and reserves are very wild and virtually undeveloped but nevertheless are home to comfortable safari lodges and offer a range of activities from game drives to river cruises.
Choose the timing of your south and central Tanzania safari carefully and work closely with one of our safari experts to ensure maximum value from this challenging but very rewarding region.
Mahale Mountains & Gombe Stream – rainforests & chimpanzee trekking
They’re hard to reach but travellers to either of these two little-visited national parks will soon realise why: lying on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, mountainous Mahale and Gombe offer a pristine Central African rainforest to explore. Forest birds, butterflies and small mammals are abundant but it’s the primates that steal the show and none more so than chimpanzees. Although the chimpanzees are the star attraction of the Gombe Stream National Park, they are not the only one – there are many other species, including baboon, vervet monkey, red colobus monkey, blue monkey and bush babies.
A Gombe safari is a great opportunity to meet a chimpanzee up close – go chimp trekking during the July to October dry season when chimpanzees forage at lower altitudes and are easier to find.
Lake Tanganyika Safari
Lake Tanganyika is the second deepest and, by volume, the second largest lake in the world (after Siberia’s Lake Baikal in both respects). It lies in four countries’ territories: a little in each of Burundi and Zambia, and more than 40 percent in each of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania.
Part of the Great Rift Valley, Lake Tanganyika is about three million years old and is fed by at least 50 streams and rivers. Its isolation and age have conspired to make it one of the most biologically rich and scientifically valuable habitats in the world. Holding 8% of the world’s freshwater, Lake Tanganyika is home to no fewer than 500 fish species. However, its great depth means there’s little oxygen in its deep waters and nearly all of Lake Tanganyika’s fish stay within 20 metres of its warm, well oxygenated surface.
The main settlement on the lakeshore is the town of Kigoma. Visitors come here because it is the jumping off point for Tanzania’s two superb rainforest reserves that border the lake: the incredibly beautiful Mahale Mountains National Park and the equally enticing Gombe Stream National Park.
Both parks are famous for their populations of habituated chimpanzees as well as a wide range of other primates, forest birds and dazzling clouds of butterflies. There is accommodation in each park, including a sensational lakeside lodge in Mahale. These remote reserves are not as easy to accesss as Tanzania’s more famous safari destinations but both offer visitors a rewarding insight into the biodiversity of a famously biologically rich region.
There’s accommodation on the 52-hectare Lupita Island as well, set in the southern part of Lake Tanganyika. Visitors can choose between water activities such as diving, snorkelling and sailing as well as land-based adventures such as hiking and excursions to local fishing villages. Also in the area is Katavi National Park, long considered one of Tanzania’s best-kept safari secrets. Combine a traditional big game safari in Katavi with a stay in Mahale or Gombe for a unique savannah and rainforest adventure.
Selous Game Reserve – Africa’s greatest safari wilderness
At 50 000km², the Selous really does deliver on its promise of a vast, virtually unvisited safari destination. Home to large numbers of classic African animals, the Selous is Big 5 country and can be explored by 4X4 or on foot while the Rufiji River offers excellent opportunities for boat safaris. Tanzania’s best place for wild dog, the Selous is predator heaven and boasts large numbers of lion, cheetah and spotted hyena.
Best visited from June to October, travellers should avoid Selous during the March – April rainy season.
Remote, raw and filled with wildlife, the Selous is Africa’s largest game reserve. Yet unlike the iconic destinations of Tanzania’s Northern Safari Circuit, it remains relatively unknown to outsiders.
The sheer scale of the Selous Game Reserve is difficult to imagine. Nearly four times the size of the Serengeti, this massive conservation area is home to Africa’s Big 5 and all the top predators – lion, wild dog, cheetah, leopard and spotted hyena. And the animals are present in large numbers too: a Selous safari is fantastic for sightings of large elephant and buffalo herds as well as healthy populations of hippo, giraffe and sable antelope.
Phenomenally wild and beautiful, the defining feature of the Selous Game Reserve is the great Rufiji River which creates a series of interconnected lakes and palm-fringed channels. The river teems with wildlife: Jurassic-size crocs bask on sunny sandbanks, elephants browse on swampy islands, storks and spoonbills patrol the shallows, and exposed mud banks are covered in crimson clouds of carmine bee-eaters. Consequently, many Selous safari lodges lie on or near the river and offer boat safaris along with game drives in open-top vehicles.
You can also expect some adventure. The Selous isn’t subject to the restrictions that govern Tanzania’s other national parks so along with game drives and river cruises, visitors can go on guided walking safaris that last anything from a few hours to a couple of days with a night of rustic fly-camping. There’s not much that can beat the thrill of being on foot in big game country but you’ll be in the company of armed rangers and expert guides.
The best time to visit the Selous is during the June to October dry season when wildlife congregates around permanent water. A fly-in destination, this virtually unexplored reserve is rarely visited in isolation so we recommend combining a Selous safari with a stay at Ruaha or Katavi – the other savannah parks in South Central Tanzania equally as wild as Selous – or Mahale National Park, a pristine rainforest reserve on Lake Tanganyika, complete with chimpanzees, forest birds and dazzling clouds of butterflies.
Browse our range of Selous tours and safaris or simply chat to one of our Africa Experts and they’ll tailor-make a safari to your specifications; you can even add on a beach holiday on Zanzibar or laid-back Mafia Island – just ask us how.
Ruaha National Park – Tanzania’s biggest elephant herds
Deep in Tanzania’s little-visited south lies huge Ruaha, noted for its striking, rugged landscapes and abundant wildlife. Large numbers of elephants top the what-to-see list but it’s a great destination for predators and the bird count is over 400 species. The Great Ruaha River adds an intriguing wetland aspect to this very under-rated safari destination.
Go between May and October for great dry season game viewing.
Only 1% of visitors to Tanzania go on safari at Ruaha. Also known as the country’s best-kept secret, Ruaha National Park delivers one of the most rewarding and authentic wildlife experiences in Tanzania. This fly-in destination offers off-the-beaten-track adventure and as well as luxury and excellent hospitality at beautiful riverside lodges and tented camps.
Big game wildlife at Ruaha
Set where the woodlands of Southern Africa meet the savannahs of East Africa, Ruaha’s diversity of animals is matched by their numbers. Drawing its name and lifeblood from the permanent Great Ruaha River that forms its eastern border, Ruaha is Tanzania’s biggest national park. It is home to the largest elephant herds in East Africa and has an excellent reputation for predators. All the big cats- lion, leopard and cheetah – are there in healthy numbers as are the highly endangered wild dog and spotted hyena.
Best time to visit Ruaha
Ruaha is an excellent year-round destination for game viewing and visitors can expect to see a wide range of game species such as greater kudu, buffalo, roan and sable antelope, zebra and giraffe. When weather is hot and dry from May to October animals concentrate along hippo-and-crocodile-filled watercourses. This is considered peak game viewing season. With a bird count around 570, it’s also an excellent destination for twitchers, especially during the November to April Green Season. At this time you will also be privy to spectacular scenery, new life and low season rates. Peak rainfall is between February and April.
Katavi National Park – incomparable dry season game viewing
It’s Tanzania’s 3rd largest park but you’ll probably have the place to yourself: A Katavi safari will really take you off the beaten track but it offers the intrepid safari-goer an unforgettable wildlife experience. Katavi receives only a handful of visitors each year – the only option is to fly in and there is only one camp – but once you arrive and lay eyes on the thousands of plains game roaming freely you will realize that this untouched wilderness truly belongs to the animals. In fact, Katavi is one of the few places in East Africa where you can expect to meet more lions than people.
The best time to go on a Katavi safari is in the dry season from May to November. The park is home to huge numbers of buffalo, elephant, hippo, crocodile and lion, centred in increasing concentrations around Katavi’s rivers as the hot dry season wears on.