Northern Tanzania may be laden with safari treasure, but finding the best way to take it all in requires some know-how. Fear not: we’ve asked Philip Briggs, author of many Bradt guides to Africa including, Tanzania, Northern Tanzania and East African Wildlife, to provide you with some guidance.
he northeast of Tanzania packs an incredible number of travel icons into one relatively compact tourist circuit. As a measure of this, the region boasts a full four UNESCO World Heritage sites, namely Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro Crater, the legendary Serengeti National Park and the relatively underpublicised prehistoric rock art sites of Kondoa District.
Scenically, northern Tanzania is stupendous. Visual highlights embrace snow-capped Kilimanjaro and nearby Mount Meru (Africa’s fifth highest mountain), as well as a string of beautiful lakes that run along the Rift Valley escarpment east of the Serengeti.
And evidence of the violent tectonic activity that shaped these wild landscapes is everywhere, from the extinct calderas that stud the Ngorongoro Highlands to the eruptive Ol Doinyo Lengai, one of East Africa’s most active volcanoes.
Fittingly for an area that played a crucial role in human evolution, northern Tanzania supports a diversity of modern cultures whose traditions hark back to older times. There are the hunter-gatherer Hadza of the Eyasi Basin, the agriculturist Wa-Arusha who inhabit the slopes of Mount Meru, and – most emblematic of all – the red-robed, spear-wielding Maasai, who still follow their ancestral cattle-herding lifestyle, often right alongside the wildlife, in the Ngorongoro Highlands and Maasai Steppes.
But northern Tanzania’s main attraction is undoubtedly its wildlife viewing, which is more than a match for any African safari circuit. It starts with the peerless Serengeti, a vast tract of undulating savannah that hosts the legendary wildebeest migration along with a profusion of lions and other predators.
Elsewhere, there is the Serengeti-in-miniature that is the Ngorongoro Crater, a pair of underrated small gems in the form of Arusha and Lake Manyara National Parks, and the scrubby Tarangire National Park, home to the region’s largest concentration of elephant.
Whether travelling for one week or two, Tanzania’s northern safari circuit offers rewarding itinerary options. Here are three suggestions to get you started.
Introductory safari (6 days)
Featuring: Lake Manyara National Park, Ngorongoro Crater, Olduvai Gorge and southern Serengeti
Day 1 Leave Arusha early enough so that you can enjoy lunch at a campsite or lodge in or around Lake Manyara National Park. Spend the afternoon on a game drive in the park, stopping at the hippo pool near the gate, a good site for water birds. Then follow the floodplain south to the Maji ya Moto hot springs, a drive that usually yields elephants, giraffes and (if you scan the rocks carefully) timid klipspringers.
Day 2 Ideally, revisit Manyara in the morning, when it tends to be at its quietest. Visit a Maasai manyatta (settlement) en route to one of the lodges or campsites on the Ngorongoro Crater rim, where you can spend the rest of the afternoon scanning the crater floor for wildlife.
Day 3 Get the earliest possible start for a long morning game drive on the crater floor (don’t forget to take a packed breakfast!). Return to your lodge for lunch, then depart for an afternoon drive through the Serengeti, stopping en route at Olduvai Gorge.
Days 4-7 Spend the next two days exploring the Serengeti, then, on Day 6, either undertake the drive back to Arusha or save yourself some time and bruises by flying there directly.
Extended safari (10 days)
Featuring: Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks, Ngorongoro Crater and Olduvai Gorge, southern Serengeti, western or northern Serengeti
Days 1-2 Leave Arusha in time for lunch at Tarangire National Park. Spend that afternoon and the next morning exploring the park and observing the wildlife (the roads that flank the river are always rewarding). Head to Lake Manyara National Park for lunch on Day 2 and enjoy an afternoon drive there.
Days 3-4 As per day 2 and 3 of the Introductory safari.
Days 5-6 Spend these two days exploring the southern Serengeti, which is generally the best part of the park for spotting cheetah, leopard and lion.
Days 7-9 Head to the northern or western sections of the Serengeti, areas that feel very untrammelled compared to the area south of Seronera. Both are worthwhile at any time of year, but the north is particularly recommended between July and October, when large numbers of wildebeest are in the area (river crossings are very regular). The west is usually at its best over late May to early July, when the wildebeest amass there in anticipation of crossing the Grumeti River.
Day 10 Fly back to Arusha, or drive (ideally with an overnight stop en route).
Adventure safari (14 days)
Featuring: Arusha and Tarangire National Parks, Kondoa and Lake Manyara National Park, Lake Eyasi and Ngorongoro Crater, Olduvai Gorge, southern and northern Serengeti, Lake Natron and Ol Doinyo Lengai
Days 1-3 Start with a morning game drive in Arusha National Park. Drive to Tarangire National Park that afternoon, treating the last stretch as a game drive. Spend the entire second day in Tarangire, before visiting the Kondoa Rock Art on Day 3. Return to Lake Manyara to overnight.
Days 4-5 After a morning game drive in Manyara, spend two nights at Lake Eyasi, where you can join a band of Hadza hunter-gatherers in action.
Days 6-11 Visit a Maasai manyatta en route to Ngorongoro Crater. After spending the rest of the morning on a game drive in the crater, depart for the Serengeti. Divide your time over the next five days between the park’s south or west and the north.
Days 12-13 From the northern Serengeti, drive to Lake Natron, exploring the lakeshore and optionally doing an night hike to the top of Ol Doinyo Lengai.
Day 14 Return to Arusha, stopping at the mysterious but little visited Engaruka ruins en route.
Right time, right place
Timing is vital if you want to catch the wildebeest migration, though you have to bear in mind that while it does follow a reasonably predictable annual route, the exact time may vary considerably from one year to the next due to varying rainfall patterns.
Broadly, however, the best time to be in the southern Serengeti (the most accessible part of the park on a budget) is November to May, when the wildebeest disperse into the southern short grass plains, calving there over late January and February.
They usually start to move west in May, occasionally reversing direction after a major storm, to eventually amass at the Grumeti River in the Western Corridor in June or July.
The wildebeest are usually in the northern Serengeti, on either side of the Mara River, from early August until October, when they start moving back south again.
Another seasonal factor to take into account are the long rains, from March to May, which may inhibit your movement in more remote areas (but they are also the quietest months in terms of tourist traffic).
This article was first published in Travel Africa issue 58