Tanzania | Cats, Coastlines, Craters & Kilimanjaro
Tanzania has a remarkable range of quality safari locations, and is the leading location for safari and tropical beach combinations. Moreover, it has fascinating mountain ranges as well, Kilimanjaro being the largest and best known summit. Last but not least it has some gorgeous rural areas as well, notably in the tea and coffee plantations. All these drawcards are not crammed into a small area though; Tanzania is the largest country in East Africa, so to get from one spot to the other isn’t always easy.
It’s not so much about choosing the right camp; Tanzania has more than 350 safari lodges to choose from. Rather, the trick - in our humble opinion - is to combine locations and attractions that are not too far apart, and create an itinerary that’s a loop that has the same start- and endpoint. This starting point is either Kilimanjaro International Airport or “KMIA” for short, or Dar Es Salaam airport. From those points, there’s two typical “circuits” that string together a number of attractions and parks;
The northern Circuit
Driving west from Kilimanjaro area, the first National Park you pass is Tarangire. This park is most known for it’s impressive baobab trees and it’s large herds of elephants (especially in the dry season, June until November). There’s also good populations of kudu and oryx. Predators are more difficult to spot than in Serengeti.
During the wet season the game disperses, but then there’s a prolific bird life. So it’s not as if you should avoid this season. It may actually be the best time to do bush walks, and Tarangire is one of the only parks where walks are allowed.
A very small park, right underneath the escarpment, with a large lake that has the same name. The perennial groundwater forest acts as a refuge for wildlife during the dry season.
This park is particularly well known for birding. Lots of different species have their home in the different types of vegetation that can be found in the park. Most notable are the lesser flamingos on the lake; there’s up to a million of them.
The Ngorongoro Crater is arguably the most impressive geological feature in Africa. About two millions years ago, the implosion of an enormous super-volcano create a vast caldera that is 600 meters deep and 20 kilometers across. It is a microcosm of safari in East Africa, with open plains, acacia forests, swamps and soda lakes.
The crater floor is home to almost the full range of safari wildlife, with the exception of giraffes, as these cannot scale the mountain slopes around the crater. Predators like lions, cheetahs, leopards and spotted hyenas are numerous and often easily viewed,and are very relaxed around vehicles.
The crater is very popular and as such it is critical to the overall quality of your safari experience to choose the right place to stay. There’s only two access points to get to the crater floor, and as most lodges are on the south side of the crater rim, the south gate is by far the busiest of the two. Often this creates traffic jams! Our advice would be to opt for a lodge on the north side of the crater, thereby avoiding the busy south access route.
On the north side there’s even some lodges that are within the park boundaries. These do not even need to pass a gate, and have priority access to the crater floor early morning. An added advantage of staying on the north side is that you can do dat trips to Maasai land and other craters like Empakai. A hike down to Empakai’s crater floor is a nice break from your regular safari days.
Arguably the most known reserve on the whole African continent. At more than 13000 square kilometers in size, it is rather vast and diverse.
The biggest portion is of course the rich grasslands (caused by rich soil formed from the ash of volcanoes like Ngorongoro). A huge migration of more than a million wildebeest and zebra travels around on the reserve, always in pursuit of fresh grass, which in turn depends on the rain. They move in a circular pattern, clockwise, and act like a giant lawnmower.
In the dry season (July - October) this migration can be found in the north, and people can witness the rather dramatic crossings on the Mara river. In the wet season (December - March) the migration can be found in the south. This is the time they drop their young, and a time of plenty for both prey and predator.
Note that it is not necessary to book accommodation where the migration is. There’s plenty of animals that do not migrate. Serengeti has a rich resident wildlife which can be viewed all year round. Furthermore, predators are territorial, so they don’t move either, or only move short distances.
The large number of antilopes of Serengeti results in a very highest density of predators. These can be spotted the easiest during the dry season, when most grazers will migrate a short distance to the rivers of central areas; predators tend to follow them.
For those who thought that Serengeti is the end of the southern safari circuit; please note that you do not need to fly all the way back to the coast and then on to Zanzibar to finish your safari with some relaxing days. There’s another option. You could fly on to Rubondo Island in the southwest of Lake Victoria. It’s a beautiful tropical island, quite unspoilt, a little unknown paradise. And it has a good range of wildlife as well, including chimpansees.
After Serengeti, most visitors will obviously fly to Zanzibar or the coastline, for some relaxing days at the beach. There’s one last travel destination you may want to squeeze into your safari itinerary, before flying on to the coast; Lake Natron is only about 100km to the east of Serengeti and surprisingly remote and unspoilt.
It’s a vast soda lake of more than 500 square kilometers, mostly known for the huge number of flamingoes that come to breed here. But that’s not the only attraction here. The scenery is quite beautiful as well, and what certainly stands out is Oldonyo Lengai, a volcano that still erupts from time to time. You can hike up the volcano! The night time ascent of the volcano is arguably the greatest day hike in Africa.
There’s also another hike that takes you to a scenic waterfall which cascades down the Rift Escarpment.
The southern circuit
It’s a shame that Saadani isn’t included in more safari itineraries, as it’s quite special; it is the only reserve in East Africa that offers game drives and beach accommodation in the same location.
The wildlife is not that special, but it doesn’t need to be; after all you’re just getting started, so any animals you see are fine - even if it’s just a herd of zebra. And if you get that rare occasion to spot elephants on the beach or even in the ocean, you walk away from Saadani with quite unique photos.
Selous is the largest wildlife reserve in the whole of Africa. It’s over 45000 square kilometers is size, which is bigger than the Netherlands! Not all of Selous is commercialised though, but the nicest section (along the Rufiji River) luckily is.
Just like Saadani and Tarangire (on the northern safari circuit), Selous is on the humid coastal plateau, which gives it a unique tropical feel, with very attractive and airy palm tree forests on the river banks and around some lakes.
These fertile areas attract a large concentrations of wildlife; a wide range of herbivores including elephants, buffaloes, giraffes and many species of antelope can be found here. Predators include good populations of lions, leopards and spotted hyenas, and even wild dogs! These are regularly sighted around the central lake network. Apart from vehicle safaris, we highly recommend the motorboat safaris; game viewing can be quite superb.
Mikumi is a substantial conservation area of more than 3000 square kilometers, and is an important corridor between Selous and Ruaha. It’s a quite photogenic reserve, with a hilly landscape, and it has a decent range of herbivores including elephants, giraffes and zebras. These flock to some small lakes that provide drinking water for the animals year round.
Predators are more elusive though, which is one of the reasons why some people skip this reserve. What doesn’t help either is that the main road runs smack through the middle of the reserve, effectively cutting it in two. This makes it look less wild. But still; if you’re looking for a quite safari away from the crowds, Mikumi can be a good choice …if you stay away from that main road.
Udzungwa Mountains is a substantial forest reserve, part of the ancient Eastern Arc Mountains, and a renowed island of endemism, whose tropical forests harbour a huge range of rare and unique species. Unfortunately the animals, like this Sanje Mangabey, are incredibly elusive and difficult to observe.
The rich tropical forests and scenic waterfalls make for some very nice treks though, and these can be a nice change of pace from the regular game drives on the rest of the southern safari circuit. The treks require a fair amount of fitness though, as some take multiple days and it’s a hot and humid environment.
The second largest reserve in Tanzania, and perhaps the most wild and unspoilt! It is over 20000 square kilometers but has only a handful of small and very high quality camps, all offering top quality safari experiences. It’s a very scenic reserve, with huge baobab trees and dramatic granite domes as background for your images.
The main river may not flow very strong (or at all) during the dry season (June - October), but it still attracts all the usual suspects, so the season doesn’t really seem to matter: the reserve has a large number of herbivores, and large populations of lions, hyenas and cheetahs. If you’re lucky you may even see wild dogs. All camps offer the regular game drives, but some offer fantastic walking safaris as well.
Katavi is an extremely remote park, and rather expensive as well. As such it has become a bit of a Holy Grail for safari addicts. There’s only a handful of camps, and - quite unique for government-owned reserves - vehicles are allowed to go off road to get close to animals. The open grasslands are not impacted by a few tyres going over them, even more so because large areas become vast wetlands during the rainy season (November - May), and the grass grows back to record heights in no time.
The reserve offers great game viewing, with huge herds of buffalo, amazing hippo pools, and large numbers of predators. Walking safaris can also be arranged.
Mahale & Gombe Stream
These two small reserves are on the banks of Lake Tanganyika. Both are known for their guided hikes into the forest in search of chimpansees. Gombe might be a tad prettier, but it’s less of a chimp location than Mahale. So at Mahale your chance of seeing chimps is definitely higher. Some days this is a short stroll, other days an epic mountain trek, very much depending on the chimps.
When you get to see chimpansees you will learn that this is arguably the finest animal interaction experience on the planet. But that’s not the only reason to go to these reserves. Other activities like kayaking and sailing out on the lake are also offered. The lake shores are equally suited than a sandy beach, if you want to work on your tan. So you don’t really need to go to the coast for a few relaxing days at the end of your safari.
(to the Tanzania safari circuits)
Apart from the typical “northern” and “southern” safari circuit Tanzania has two other drawcards that you may want to add to your itinerary. The most popular of the two is a stay at the seaside; lots of visitors decide to end their safari with some relaxing day at the beach. The other is Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest walkable mountain in the world.
The coast +
Zanzibar- & Pemba- & Mafia Islands
The most popular beach location is obviously the island of Zanzibar. On it’s west coast is the famous Stone Town, a fabulously historic as well as rather chaotic place. And there are some less attractive beaches that have rather large resorts. The beaches may look less pretty but the resorts offer a lot of facilities. On it’s east coast we find the white-sand (coral) beaches with lots of small-scale hotels and lodges, offering fantastic beach holidays. The further south you are at that side of the island, the more remote and unspoilt it feels, but the less interesting for divers. That side is know for kite-surfing though. The more north you go on the east side of the island, the more commercial it feels (although the cove of Pongwe is quite intimate). The best spot to dive is actually on the southwest side (as part of it is a marine reserve), and the norther tip, in particular the diving areas around Mnemba Island and Matemwe. The north has very nice beaches as well.
Pemba, to the north of Zanzibar, is less known and receives only 1% of the amount of visitors that Zanzibar gets. But therefor it is much more unspoilt and extremely beautiful. It’s rather remote, and there’s just a handful of good quality lodges, but definitely worth it. All lodges offer a very strong range of marine and cultural experiences. The diving is simply superb. The area is best known for its coral gardens, big pelagic dives, huge drop-offs and strong drift currents. These waters are renowned for dolphins, turtles, mantas, sharks and whales. The snorkelling here can also be quite extraordinary, notably in the marine park at Mesali Island.
Mafia, to the south of Zanzibar, is only half the size of Pemba. It’s a little-visited tropical island, best known for its great diving, swimming with whale sharks, authentic Swahili culture and characterful lodges. The island does not have many classic tropical beaches, the shoreline being dominated by mangrove forests. It is this lack of conventional beaches which keeps the island so blissfully free of mainstream tourism.
Everybody seems to focus on the islands, but forgets that Tanzania has 700km of coastline! Endless palm-fringed beaches with barely any development, are interspersed with mysterious mangrove forests and river deltas. Offshore there are extensive sandbanks and coral reefs suitable for diving and snorkelling. The Pangani- and Tanga areas represent an interesting lower cost alternative to Zanzibar, with guest accommodation in a dozen nice but simple lodges, offering a good range of marine and cultural activities.
Climbing the highest mountain in Africa isn’t something to be taken lightly. It’s one of the ultimate outdoor challenges, and it needs to be planned carefully. Choosing the right route for your level of fitness and experience is critical, as well as choosing the length of your trek. We work only with licensed mountain operators that have a high number of years of experience.
These operators provide a trekking team comprising of guides, cooks and porters, plus all the equipment needed to help you stay safe and reasonably comfortable. This team usually adds up to around 3-6 members of staff per trekker. Your cost will depend, not as much on the amount of staff involved, but rather on your group size and on the amount of time spent on the mountain. However, your budget should never dictate your ascent speed!
Apart from the amount of days you want to spend on the mountain, another important decision to make is which route to take. We can advise you what routes are best at what times of the year, and which routes to avoid during certain busy periods. Important as well is to book far in advance. We advise you to book at least six months in advance, as this will assure that a trekking team is available for you on the right dates, and as you possibly will want to have some time to get some training under your belt.
Our favourite lodges
Accommodation; 8 garden cottages (2 pax), 1 villa (4 pax), 1 villa (6 pax).
Room type; Double beds. Air conditioning. Wifi. Fireplace.