Tanzania safari

Tanzania – what to do and see

Tanzania is one of the most attractive safari destinations in Africa, offering a variety of amazing experiences. These include sighting the famous Africa “big five,” the annual migration of the wildebeests, trekking Mount Kilimanjaro, the tropical Zanzibar islands and beaches and the historic Stone town.

In addition to offering upscale accommodations, visiting Tanzania’s most famous national parks such as the Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti plains ensure seeing endangered African wildlife species like black rhinos, African wild dogs, leopards, and cheetahs.

This travel guide focus on providing an insight guiding travellers to select their preferred destinations in Tanzania. Given that there are 22 national parks divided in 4 different safari regions including northern, the southern, eastern and western, you need to find the ideal Tanzania safari region to visit according to your interests.

To ease your Tanzania safari planning, you will also find where to arrive and the requirements, safety and security, best time to visit and some suggested itineraries. There are several ways to experience Tanzania including taking a walk among the wildebeest in the Serengeti plains or Tarangire national park, trekking, flying safari, and 4×4 game drives. You can explore a single location or combine more than two with wildlife safari, city tours and exclusive activities like a Dhow boat trip, diving, or a honeymoon. 

Location and geography

Tanzania is the biggest of the 7 East Africa Community (EAC) member states and is located 667 sq. km (414 sq.Miles) south of the Equator. The country covers 945,500 sq.km (365,060 sq.Miles) including the offshore Zanzibar islands in the Indian Ocean. Besides, the country’s borders are also marked by 3 of the 8 African great lakes including Lake Victoria in the north, Lake Tanganyika in the west, and Lake Malawi in the south-west. The Tanzania coastline along the Indian Ocean stretches for 500 sq.mile from Mitwara (home of the former president Benjamin Mkapa) in the south along the border with Mozambique to Tanga city in the north where the train travel connects further north to Moshi capital city of Kilimanjaro region. 

From north to south the terrain of Tanzania includes the highlands which consist of Mount Kilimanjaro the highest point (5,895m), Mount Meru (4,565m), Ngorongoro crater and the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano (2,962m). The central plateau lies in the Great East African rift valley with the vast Serengeti plains and several craters filled lakes including Lake Manyara in the Arusha region and Lake Natron famous for its pink flamingos. 

Best time to visit Tanzania

Tanzania can be visited anytime of the year; however, the country has two seasons which influence wildlife viewing and travel experiences. So, plan your trip accordingly. The long and heavy rainy season in Tanzania occurs from March, April to May. The rift valley lakes are filled and the high-water levels of the Mara river in the Serengeti-Masai Mara ecosystem northern Tanzania and Southern Kenya means that wildebeests are grazing in the central Serengeti national park.

The vegetation blossoms and the grass gets taller. While most regard this as an unfavourable time for wildlife viewing due to slippery roads, these fears are unnecessary. The green landscapes and chance for baby animals are a must-visit for keen photographers. The short rainy season starts in October to early December, which is characterized by calm winds and high humidity. Even though it’s the rainy season, the sunshine, clear skies and cool monsoon trade winds make for pleasant weather. The rainy season in Tanzania offers some of the best off-season safari experiences in East Africa. 

The best time to go on a safari to see wildlife not only Tanzania but as well as for those intending to add gorilla safaris is during the dry season, which lasts from June to September and December to February. Little rainfall continues to happen but water levels and grass recede forcing large mammals to stay around waterholes. The main highlight is to see wildebeest cross Mara River with the major event happening in Masai Mara wildlife reserve, Kenya. The great migration of Tanzania takes place at Grumeti River in the western Serengeti sector. Another highlight is the Tarangire river elephant congregation, the only source of water that remains for wildlife in the Tarangire national park. 

Where to arrive in Tanzania 

The region you choose to visit will determine where you should arrive in Tanzania. For instance, the northern safari circuit parks including Serengeti and Ngorongoro can be reached through Kilimanjaro international airport (KIA). The airport is 50 km 1-hour drive (30 miles) to Arusha capital city of northern Tanzania.

Julius Nyerere international airport (DAR) is located in Dar es Salaam capital city on the Indian Ocean coast. It’s the best point to arrive for those intending to visit Zanzibar islands and the southern Tanzania parks including Ruaha national park famous for harboring 10% of the world lion population.

Domestic flights are the fastest way to travel within Tanzania and get to far-flung places like Gombe Stream National Park for chimpanzee trekking via Kigoma Town Airstrip in the western safari circuit. Traveling by road in Tanzania requires 4×4 vehicles especially with dirt roads in the national parks. Major highways are tarmaced, however, 4×4 vehicles are necessary for road travel in Tanzania, especially on the national parks’ dirt roads. 

Requirements to enter Tanzania

Those intending to visit Tanzania for safari need to have a visa which can be obtained at any of the entry points including Dar es Salaam capital city, Kilimanjaro airport, and Zanzibar airport and Namanga Kenya-Tanzania border. You can also apply for the Tanzania visa through the official immigration web portal. You need to fill in an application form, submit copies of your passport, passport images and pay.

The processing can take 10 days. Besides, other requirements to enter Tanzania include yellow fever vaccination card and a negative Covid-19 PCR-test valid for 72 hours prior to arrival. The multiple entry visa valid for 1-year costs $100 for US citizens, $50 (non-US citizens) single entry visa valid for six months and $100 double entry visa for six for non-US citizens. Tanzania allows free entry for travellers from 66 countries including Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana, Gambia, Seychelles, Malta among others.

Northern Tanzania destinations

The northern Tanzania circuit contains 5 national parks including Serengeti, Ngorongoro crater and highlands, Tarangire, Lake Manyara and Mount Kilimanjaro. The gateway to these destinations is Arusha city situated between Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru. Majority of visitors will pass through the town from Kilimanjaro international airport. 

Ngorongoro crater 

Ngorongoro crater was formed about 2.5 million years ago due to a violent volcanic eruption that caused the summit of an active volcano to collapse inward. Today the crater has an area of 106 sq.km (246 sq.Miles) and measures 19 sq. km (12 sq. Miles) across. Ngorongoro crater is the largest non flooded volcanic caldera in the world.

The elevation from the crater floor at 610 meters (2,000feet) the crater walls rise to 2,286m above sea level. On top of the crater rim there are lodges including &Beyond Ngorongoro crater lodge, Ngorongoro Serena safari lodge and Ngorongoro Sopa lodge. These are perfect places for you to enjoy Ngorongoro safari. 

Due to the altitude variation, the crater contains a variety of habitats including tropical forests, woodlands, acacia savanna plains, Alkaline lakes and swamps providing a refuge for over 20,000 wild animals including the Big 5 mammals as well as African wild dogs, cheetahs, hippos, giraffes, and zebras.

Game drives take place inside the crater with potential to see black rhinos and flamingos. In addition, visitors can take day trips through the highlands to lake Eyasi for unique cultural encounters with Hadzabe, the last hunter-gatherers of Tanzania. Ngorongoro is more easily combined with Serengeti, Tarangire, Mount Kilimanjaro, and Lake Manyara national parks because it is a part of the northern Tanzania safari circuit.

Tarangire national park

Famous for harboring 2,500 of the 60,000 Tanzania elephant population, Tarangire also offers a walking safari and spectacular baobab trees. The elephants often congregate in large herds along the Tarangire river, which bisects the 2,850 sq.km (11,000 sq.Miles) area containing savanna plains, dense acacia woodlands, swamps and riverine forests.

In addition to elephants, there are lions, leopards, wildebeest, buffaloes, giraffes, impalas, plains zebras, warthogs and over 450 species of birds. Since the river is the only major source of water in the park, different wild animals are frequently spotted together in the river bank during the dry season in July to October. As a result, the park provides one of the most successful game viewing opportunities that some have nicknamed it the “Little Serenget.” However, Tarangire offers unique activities including a walking safari and the baobab trees which are not in the Serengeti. 

Serengeti national park

Serengeti national park covers 5,700 sq. Miles of which 80% is open savanna grassland plains dotted by acacia trees. The landscape of Serengeti was named among the 50 most beautiful places in the world by Conde Nast, a New York based luxury and lifestyle magazine. The park is divided into 4 regions including Seronera valley (central), southern plains, Grumeti game reserve (western corridor), and northern sector. The protected area contains rich biodiversity including the Big 5 mammals, 2 million wildebeests, and over 500 species of birds.  Those intending to visit need to know the different areas of and plan their trip accordingly. 

The central Serengeti area is drained by the Seronera river valley forming permanent water sources and green pasture which attracts the highest density of wildlife including all the Big 5 mammals. In this area the open plains are dotted by rock kopjes and riverine forests are a habitat for hippos and crocodiles. You will find the park visitor information center and can be accessed by air through the airstrip south of the center. 

The southern Serengeti plains

The Southern Serengeti area has shortgrass plains and is the wildebeest calving grounds. The calving season in Tanzania occurs between January to the end of March. According to National Geographic (NAT GEO Wild), over 8,000 wildebeest calves are born each day which attracts predators including African painted dogs, cheetahs, lions, leopards and hyenas. 

The Western Corridor and Grumeti River 

Serengeti’s western corridor is drained by the larger Grumeti River and the smaller Mbalageti river. The area is characterized by lush savanna interspersed by woodlands and riverine forests. It includes the Grumeti Game Reserve, a private concession offering unique game viewing experience. The area is famous for the wildebeest rutting (mating) season that occurs from April, May and June. The males are battling for territory and it’s time to witness their spectacular mating rituals and the Grumeti river crossings. The area has few accommodations and receives few visitors, making it ideal for those intending to enjoy Serengeti safari without crowds. 

The northern Serengeti

Northern Serengeti forms part of the Great Mara River and adjoins the Masai Mara National Reserve across the border in Kenya. Mara River attracts the greatest wildebeest crossing in July to October. The river contains many crocodiles which make crossing for wildebeest difficult and dramatic.    

Mount Kilimanjaro 

The major feature of Kilimanjaro national park is Mount Kilimanjaro the tallest freestanding volcanic mountain in Africa with an altitude of 5,895 meters (19,341feet). The summit of Mount Kilimanjaro comprises 3 cones of which 2 are dormant and have snow including Kibo the highest and Mawenzi (5,149m) and Shira (3,962m) which is extinct.

Named a Natural Wonder of Africa in 2013 and a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987, Mount Kilimanjaro is a must-visit for keen mountaineers. In addition to trekking, the park offers opportunities for wildlife viewing safari. There are 140 mammal species including giraffes, elephants, lions, buffaloes; 7 primates, and 179 different bird species. Those who don’t want to reach the summit can engage in a number of activities, such as taking nature hikes in the montane forest, visiting the Lauwo waterfalls, and Chala and Maundi crater lakes.

The seven Kilimanjaro climbing routes

There are seven Kilimanjaro climbing routes with over 22 camping huts available along the northern circuit, Machame (the whiskey route), Rongai, Lemosho, Shira, Marangu, and the Arrow Glacier Route. Two routes are used for descending including Umbwe and Mweka. Despite its high elevation, Mount Kilimanjaro is regarded as a non-technical mountain climb. However, hiking can be challenging due to the nature of terrain. Depending on the route used, it takes 7-10 days. The minimum days required to hike Mount Kilimanjaro is 7 days according to the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA). Planning the ideal route depends on several factors such as cost of Kilimanjaro safari, level of difficulty and number of days you need on a given route. 

The Northern circuit route

Those intending to spend more time, the northern circuit is the Kilimanjaro route with almost 95% success rate. It takes 9 – 10 days round trip which is good for beginners or slow hikers to acclimatize and adapt to high altitude. The northern circuit route is best for leisurely mountaineers given that you will spend longer days on the mountain. The route circumvents the mountain passing through the remote parts of Mount Kilimanjaro including the spectacular rock formations such as Lava tower at 4,630m (15,419 feet) and Gilman’s point (5,681m) where you will walk through the glaciated crater rim to Kibo peak. These geological formations are also seen by those who use the Rongai and Marungu (busiest) routes. 

Machame route (Whisky route)

Machame route is used by over 50% of the visitors who climb Mount Kilimanjaro every year, making it the busiest. Most people want to experience the five vegetation zones including montane forests, desert alpine heath and moorlands, volcanic rock and scree and the summit equatorial glaciers.

Along the way, you can see afro-alpine flora and fauna including giant lobelias and groundsels and high altitude bird species such as Narina trogon and Augur buzzard.  The 13-km long Shira plateau and the Barranco wall, a massive volcanic cliff 257 meters high offers a view of the valley that hikers say looks more or less similar to the Grand canyon. Climbing the Barranco wall requires adding an extra 4 days on top of the usual 7 – 8 days needed to complete the Machame route.

The trails are well-maintained and include alternating steep ascents and descents into the valley. In that way, the chances of getting affected by high altitude sickness becomes rare and the Machame route has over 85% success rate. However, descending the Machame route is more challenging than ascending due to the nature of terrain and requires physical fitness and determination.

Lemosho route

The Lemosho route was created recently to neutralize the traffic on the Marangu and Machame routes. Both are almost similar in terms of scenery, number of days and level of difficulty. The Kilimanjaro Guides Association (KGA) highly recommends the Lemosho route which passes along the western slopes including an extensive evergreen forest of East African camphor wood trees (cinnamomum camphora) at 2,400m- 3,500m.

There are chances to spot primate species in Kilimanjaro national park including black-faced monkeys, colobus monkeys and olive baboons. There are 5 campsites along the route of which 2 including the Barranco wall and Karanga valley lie at the same altitude. This allows for acclimatization and preparation at the last Barafu camp (under a massive glacier) for the 8-hour ascent to Uhuru peak. Lemosho route has a 90% summit success rate and takes 8 days roundtrip. 

Rongai route 

The Rongai route stands out from all others given that it starts close to the Kenyan border with views of super tusker elephants in Amboseli national park. The route passes through dry alpine wilderness, and climbs Uhuru summit from the leeward side.

The leeward side of Mount Kilimanjaro is approachable during the rainy season when all other routes become challenging since it receives little rainfall. There are only three camps and for that reason the KGA advises people planning to use the Rongai route to bring less luggage.

The path along the route avoids Giman’s Point and gradually proceeds to the peak without going through too many steep ridges and valleys. It takes seven days to accomplish and is less difficult for those who add an extra 8th day. The path offers a chance to see the Mawenzi cliffs and granite rock formations that look like lunar landscapes found in the northern Namib Naukluft desert. However, the scenery along the route is not particularly varied. 

Marangu (the coca-cola route)

Marangu route is believed to have been founded following the footsteps of Hans Meyer (German geologist), who in 1889 became the first person to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with the aid of Kinyala Lauwo,a local guide from the Chaggah tribe. It is the only route that allows you to skip camping tents altogether and stay in mountain huts.

Therefore, Marangu is a warmer and comfortable route for couples, families and groups intending to climb Mount Kilimanjaro together. The minimum number of days to summit Kilimanjaro is 7 days. However, this route can be completed in only 5 days, making it cheaper and easier to create time to go on a safari. Keep in mind that rushing can cause injury or even altitude sickness, thus this should only be done by experienced hikers with authorization. Due to the gentle ascent and quicker descent on the loose rock scree, the Marangu route is one of the simplest to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Shira Route

Trekking along the Shira route starts at 3,600 meters in the montane forests. Most climbers avoid starting at higher elevations and this route is less busy even during the high season. 

Best time to climb Mount Kilimanjaro 

The optimum time to climb Mount Kilimanjaro is during the dry season from June to October and January to March. Given that the trails are drier, hiking is much less taxing and there is a greater opportunity of seeing primates and birds along the Marangu and Machame paths pass through montane forests.

The peak season is always busy and those intending to avoid the crowds can climb Kilimanjaro in the wet season during April to May and November to early December. The best routes during the rainy season are Marangu where you will sleep in huts. The temperatures on Mount Kilimanjaro vary depending on the season you select. On average the base temperature can reach up to 27 °C and then drops as you climb higher to -4 °C (-20 °F) at the summit of Uhuru.

Southern Tanzania safari circuit

Southern Tanzania encampasses 5 national parks of which 3 are the most spectacular including Ruaha, Katavi and Kitulo national parks. The region is best for those intending to have an off-the-beaten path Tanzania safari experience. These parks can be reached by road and air, making it easy to combine with Zanzibar islands and northern Tanzania.         

Ruaha national park

The second largest protected area in Tanzania, Ruaha covers 20,226 (7,809 sq. Miles) and is larger than the Serengeti. The altitude of the park ranges from the Great Ruaha river valley at 750 meters to the undulating rocky hills at 1,868 meters above sea level. The park contains a variety of habitats including riverine forests, open grasslands, magnificent baobab trees and wild palms. The park receives one rainy season of  500 to 800 mm from November to the beginning of May. It stays dry much of the year and the changing landscapes make it a must-visit gem for keen photographers. 

With regard to biodiversity, Ruaha National Park is renowned for harboring 574 species of bird and 80 mammal species, including over 1,000 lions (of the 13,818 lions in Tanzania), which accounts for nearly 10% of the African lion population. There are also African wild dogs, cheetahs, leopards, elephants, buffaloes, lesser and greater Kudus, roan antelopes, sable antelopes, southern reedbuck, and giraffes. The great Ruaha river during the rainy season is home to a large hippo population and attracts over 570 species of birds including African fish eagles, ostriches, hammerkops, little bee-eaters, European rollers, and red billed hornbills.  

The park offers fantastic wildlife viewing activities including walking safari, star gazing, night game drives, hot air ballooning, bush dining, filming and photographic safaris. The park is reachable both by air and by road. Ruaha entrance gate is 180 km (2-hour drive) from the nearest town of Iringa, 480 km (7-hour drive) from Mbeya city and 625 km (9-hour drive) southwest of Dar es Salaam. The park can also be reached by air through Mpanda airport, 20 km from the park entrance. 

Katavi national park 

Katavi (the untamed wilderness) depicts Africa as it must have been many centuries ago. The protected area is located 202 kilometers from the coast of Lake Tanganyika in southwest Tanzania. It enjoys a tropical climate with average temperature of 26.2 °C during the dry season in June to October.

The park receives high amounts of rainfall (1,139m) in April to May November – December. The Katuma floodplains overflow attracting high densities of hippos, crocodiles, buffalos, elephants, lions, giraffes, and zebras. There are over 450 bird species in Katavi, including hooded vulture, grey crowned crane, and fish eagles. The park contains 3 waterfalls which can be visited by nature walks including Chorangwa, Lukima and Ndido waterfalls. Katavi offers a wide range of activities including private and public camping, fly camping, walking safaris, birding, night game drives, filming and hiking.  

Katavi national park is 86 km (1-hour drive) from Mpanda city, which is along the main rail route from Dar es Salaam capital city. The park is 677 km (9-hour drive) south of Mwanza port city on the shores of Lake Victoria, 1,513 km west of Dar es Salaam city and 1,015 km from Arusha via Tabora city. The park can also be reached by air through Ikuu airstrip 21 km away from the park entrance gate.

Rubondo island national park

Rubondo island is situated in the south west part of Lake Victoria about 95 miles (150 km) west of Mwanza port city. From there the road to Nkome ranger post is 164 km (3-hour drive) through Geita town. The boat cruise from Nkome to the park takes about 1 hour. Alternatively, visitors travel through the Mwanza-Bukoba-Mganza route which is 270 km (5-hour drive). From Mganza you will continue further to Kasanda landing site and take a 25 min boat ride to the park.  The park can also be reached by air through Ruboni airstrip next to Kageye park visitor center.

The protected area is 456.8 km2 in size of which 236.8 km2 (80% of the island) contains dense lowland tropical forests of the Congo basin and 220 km2 of it being water with 11 islets. It contains rich biodiversity including chimpanzees, elephants, hippos, giraffes, sitatunga, and hippos; primate species such as black and white colobus monkeys and reptiles such as Nile crocodiles and African rock python.

Ruboni Island combines a safari and a relaxing vacation with beautiful forest beaches including Rubondo island camp and Michungwani. The best time to go there is during the dry season from June to September and December to February. The park offers a wide range of activities including chimpanzee habituation experience, canoeing, boat cruise, spot fishing, game drives, forest walks, and birding.

Culture in Tanzania 

There are over 130 indigenous tribes in Tanzania, including the Masai warriors and Hadzabe bushmen. Recently, Tanzanian authorities have helped them adapt to modern education with some now speaking swahili and English.

But they are still maintaining their traditional ways of life, making them some of Tanzania’s most indigenous communities. Tanzania’s primary religion is Islam, which is practiced by more than 35% of people on both the mainland and the Zanzibar islands.

Despite the fact that the nation was first indirectly colonized by Germany and then gained independence from the British on 1 May 1961, both Swahili and English are the official languages. Independence Day (Saba Saba every 7th July) is a public holiday together with other cultural events like the Bagamoyo Arts Festival in September – a festival dedicated to promotion of traditional artists. The Sabuti za Basara music festival takes place in the Zanzibar Islands in February and is a celebration of African music and an opportunity to observe the variety of cultural expressions. 

Zanzibar islands

The Zanzibar islands are a series of many of which the major 5 islands comprise of Pemba, Mafia, Chumba, and Mnemba islands, in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania. Zanzibar, 85 sq.km long and 42 sq.km wide also known as Ugunja, is the largest of these islands.

It is home to the Stone Town Capital city, a UNESCO world heritage site, spice plantations, Jozani Chakwa marine national park and some of the best tropical beaches including Nungwi Nakupenda, Kendwa, and Matemwe on the easternmost tip of the island, Bwejuu, Kizimkazi, Uroa bay, Jambiani, and Paje on the western shores. Zanzibar island is surrounded by smaller isolated islands including Mnemba Atoll, a superb diving and snorkeling location.

Stone Town is 92 km (3-hour ferry ride) south of Dar es Salaam. Zanzibar island can also be reached by air through Amani Karume international airport. For those interested in learning about the variety of cultures that have influenced Zanzibar for many centuries, including Swahili, Persian, Portuguese, Arabs, Indians, and Europeans, taking a sightseeing tour of Stone Town is a must-do activity.

To learn more about the fauna and flora of the Zanzibar Islands, visit the Jozani Chakwa national park home to the Zanzibar red colobus monkeys, the Mnarani Marine Turtles Conservation Centre, and the Zanzibar Butterfly Centre. At Cheetah’s Rock, you can get near to cheetahs. The Kiwengwa forest reserve on the eastern shores of Zanzibar islands provides an opportunity to explore ancient rock caves. Those intending to indulge in the Zanzibar cuisine, music and dance can spend an evening at the Mtoni Palace, a historical Arabian Sultans architectural building located 5 km from Stone Town.

Whether you’re intending to have a cultural experience, migration safari, Kilimanjaro trekking or zanzibar holiday, Tanzania safaris are available for booking through tour operators or the Tanzania National Parks Service (TANAPA). You can combine Tanzania with Uganda or Rwanda for gorilla and chimpanzee trekking for the finest East African safari experience. 

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