Tanzania undoubtably offers the most diverse attractions on the continent. It has more World Heritage Sites than any other, a vast coastline, the highest peak, the deepest lake, sweeping savannahs and forested mountains. And it is vast. So if you’re planning a visit, you have a lot to consider.
Serengeti National Park
The Serengeti National Park forms the core of the 30,000-square-kilometre Serengeti-Ngorongoro-Mara ecosystem. As such it plays the major role in the world’s most famous mammalian migration, which involves some two million wildebeest and other ungulates. But even when the migration is out of range, the sheer volume of predators and grazers that inhabit the Serengeti makes for unforgettable game viewing, with a good chance of spotting all three large African cats: lion, leopard and cheetah. Most safaris focus on the plains southeast of Serengeti, site of most of the large lodges, but for those with sufficient time and resources it’s worth heading further north to the remote Mara River region or the Western Corridor.
It was here, in 1959, that the palaeontologist Mary Leakey unearthed the fossilised jawbone of the so-called ‘Nutcracker Man’, providing the first conclusive evidence that human evolution had been enacted on the plains of East Africa and stretched back more than a million years. The site museum is a thoroughly worthwhile stop en route between Ngorongoro and Serengeti, and the surrounding dry scrub is also rich in birds.
Mahale Mountains National Park
The steep, forested slopes of this park are home to approximately 800 of Africa’s remaining wild chimpanzees. As the park is inaccessible by road, the tracking of chimps and other primates through the park’s rich woodlands is done on foot – expect to be exhausted but exhilarated. The park sits on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, so you can happily rest your weary legs on one of its beaches.
Katavi National Park
The wide alluvial plains of Katavi are barely visited at all, which is one of its greatest assets. Miles off the beaten track, Katavi is superb in the driest months of the year (May-October and December-February), but unpredictable (and partially impassable) during the remainder. The intrepid few who do venture the distances are well rewarded, as the park is home to vast buffalo herds and hippo pods, and large concentrations of elephants around February. Following the short rains in November, the larger game disperses but birdlife proliferates.
Ruaha National Park
Tanzania’s second-largest national park, Ruaha is fabulously under-visited and a very worthwhile destination, especially when combined with the Selous. A wild and distant safari experience, its dry red-earth vistas are studded with ancient baobabs and irrigated by the rocky meanderings of the Great Ruaha River. The ecosystem here supports one of Africa’s largest elephant populations, plentiful lion prides and thriving packs of African wild dogs. Leopard sightings are also frequent, and the park is a birdwatcher’s delight.
Selous Game Reserve
The largest protected wildlife area on the continent, the Selous Game Reserve is bigger than Switzerland. Yet only a few thousand visitors come to experience the wonders of this UNESCO World Heritage site each year. The lagoons, sandbanks, lakes and shores of the Rufiji River host a wide array of wildlife and make the entire area an exciting environment for walking, boating and fly-camping safaris.
Lake Natron & Ol Doinyo Lengai
Natron is one of the Rift Valley’s starkest and most forbidding lakes. However, the hostile conditions are ideal for flamingos and the lake is their most important breeding site in Africa. Its waters are shadowed by the 2878m-tall Ol Doinyo Lengai (the ‘Mountain of God’ in Maasai), which is one of East Africa’s most active volcanoes. Its otherworldly caldera can be ascended in 5-6 hours, ideally at night.
This scenic showstopper – a vast volcanic caldera, offering mind-blowing views from the rim to the grassy floor 600m below – is the centrepiece of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, an extension of the Serengeti National Park, where Maasai pastoralists still herd their cattle amidst herds of big game. The crater also forms a natural sanctuary within a sanctuary, providing refuge to the world’s densest lion and hyena populations, some seriously impressive tuskers, and the endangered black rhino.
Kilimanjaro towers almost 5km above the surrounding dry plains, and its snow-capped peak ranks high among Africa’s top travel icons. The highest point in Africa can be reached over a 5-9 day hike (the longer the ascent, the lower the risk of altitude-related sickness), a trip that is often appended to a more conventional northern Tanzania safari.
Arusha National Park
This petite gem of a park protects several unusual habitats: the lush Afro-montane forest around Ngurdoto Crater, which is home to athletic troops of black-and-white colobus and blue monkies; the Momella Lakes, where kayaking trips often offer close-up views of buffalo, waterbuck and myriad waterfowl; and the 4566m-tall Mount Meru, whose upper slopes and craggy peak are accessible to serious hikers. Meru’s summit often emerges at dusk, in duet with nearby Kilimanjaro.
North of Zanzibar, the large island of Pemba is still surprisingly rural and has a unique charm, which is only enhanced by its lack of visitors. The waters off its shores are superb for diving and deep-sea fishing. Whales, sharks and manta rays are often seen in the deeper channels.
It’s name alone stirs thoughts of an exotic paradise. And although its current popularity and status mean it’s no longer yours to enjoy alone, its powdery white sand beaches, lush forests and sultry, spice-scented alleyways still justify those initial sentiments.
After becoming a strategic Indian Ocean trading post in centuries past, Mafia eventually reverted to its ways of old, once again becoming a peaceful place that’s home to rural fishing communities. Today, the island has the same feel, but much of its waters are now part of Tanzania’s first marine park. There are plenty of diving and deep-water fishing opportunities here. The historic ruins on Chole Island are accessible by boat, and those at Kilwa Kisiwani are just a short flight away.
Tarangire National Park
The baobab-studded grassland of Tarangire National Park, just two hours drive from Arusha on a surfaced road, peaks in wildlife activity in the second half of the year. This is when the park’s eponymous river becomes the only reliable source of drinking water for miles around, attracting prodigious herds of elephant, zebra and other grazers. It can also be pretty good for lion and leopard, as well as smaller predators such as mongooses and genets.
Lake Manyara National Park
Spectacularly situated at the base of the rift escarpment, Lake Manyara lends its name to a small national park that is big on ecological diversity. In addition to the open waters of the lake, the varied habitats include a lush groundwater forest, tracts of thick acacia woodland, tall rocky cliffs, a field of hot springs and the lake’s grassy floodplain. Reliable wildlife highlights include plentiful elephants, habituated troops of blue monkeys and olive baboons, and the prolific birdlife (a novice birdwatcher might easily tick 100 species in a day here). It is also renowned for its tree-climbing lions.
Language: English and KiSwahili, the East African lingua franca, are both official languages.
Time zone: GMT + 3
International dialling code: +255
Visas: Visas are required by most nationalities, but they can be bought upon arrival at all borders and international airports.
Health: Proof of a yellow fever vaccination may be required when entering Tanzania from elsewhere in Africa. Malaria is present in most parts of the country and prophylactic drugs are strongly recommended.
Money: The unit of currency is the Tanzania shilling (TZS). Recent exchange rates were: UK£1=TZS2710, US$1=TZS1640 and €1=TZS2260. Major credit cards are accepted by many tourist hotels. They can also be used in ATMs in the main towns.
Costs: A basic camping safari for 4-5 people, often using campsites outside the parks, will cost at least US$150 per person per day. Smaller groups will pay more per person, and safaris based in lodges might cost two to three times as much as a camping safari. Costs on Zanzibar and the coast vary widely depending on your choice of accommodation.
Safety: Tanzania is generally very safe, with malaria forming by far the greatest threat to life and limb.
Getting there: International flights serve Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar, Arusha and Kilimanjaro.
Getting around: A good network of domestic flights link Arusha, Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar to most other attractions. National Parks are generally most easily visited on organised safaris. Independent travellers can get to most other places via public transport.
Books: Guidebooks to Tanzania are published by Bradt, Footprint, Insight, Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. Locally published booklets to individual parks are widely available in Arusha and lodges.
First published in Travel Africa 66 Spring 2014