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Lion in the Serengeti, Tanzania

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Tanzania safaris: north vs south

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Tanzania

Wildlife

By Tanzania specialist Dickie

I’m envious of anyone embarking on a safari. There’s nothing quite like seeing your first giraffe strolling gracefully across the plains. Or getting so close to an elephant that you can feel the waft of air from its flapping ears and smell the dust on its body.

While I’ve been on safari across Africa, there’s nowhere quite like Tanzania. In the north, volcanic landscapes provide a habitat for everything from endangered black rhino to flamingoes, and the Serengeti’s plains are flooded with wildebeest undertaking the Great Migration. Down in the remote south, meanwhile, it feels like you’re the first to have set foot in an untouched wilderness.

North or south Tanzania?

Cheetah and her cub on the open plain of the Serengeti

Cheetah and her cub on the open plain of the Serengeti

There’s a case to be made for visiting both the north and the south of Tanzania on one safari. While this is certainly possible, time and budget restraints mean that more often than not you’d visit one or the other before enjoying some beach time on the coast or in Zanzibar.

The north sees far more visitors than the south. Logistically, it’s easier to get around as you fly into Kilimanjaro International Airport and are then driven between the different wildlife areas. In the south you’d fly into Dar es Salaam before taking light aircraft flights between each area.

A big draw of the north is the Serengeti National Park and its role in the Great Migration. Each year, more than two million wildebeest, zebra and gazelle enter the park from Kenya’s Masai Mara, following the rains south to have their young.

If you’re a seasoned safari-goer, or prefer a more secluded, back-to-basics safari experience, I can’t recommend southern Tanzania more highly. Its parks and reserves offer what safaris are all about: getting away from the material world and soaking in the nature of the bush.

Here you can embark on boat and walking safaris as well as game drives. And, in some cases, you can venture off-road in your vehicle to get even closer to the animals you encounter.

Safaris in northern Tanzania

Serengeti National Park

White rhino, Serengeti National Park

White rhino, Serengeti National Park

Tanzania’s flagship safari destination, the Serengeti sees the most visitors of all the country’s parks and reserves, but for good reason. With its very name meaning ‘endless plains’ in the Maasai language, this vast expanse of land not only plays host to the Great Migration for much of the year, but provides a permanent habitat for big game from lion, cheetah and leopard, to elephant, hyena and buffalo.

Wherever you stay in the park, you’re able to join guided morning and afternoon game drives. I also recommend joining at least one full-day game drive during your stay, to explore farther afield and have a picnic lunch out in the bush.

Each game drive is punctuated with special moments you can’t pre-empt. Like the time we encountered a young leopard eating its kill in the branches of a tree. After watching it for a few minutes, its mother arrived and we observed them interacting with each other. The wildlife is less timid than in the south, so animals tend to be unfazed by your presence.

Experiencing the Great Migration

Wildebeest crossing the Grumeti River, Serengeti National Park

Wildebeest crossing the Grumeti River, Serengeti National Park

What you may not know is that the vast majority of the Great Migration takes place in the Serengeti, with Kenya’s Masai Mara only hosting the animals for a short period (generally between August and October).

With recent years seeing unpredictable weather patterns, it’s becoming increasingly hard to pinpoint when the mass herds of wildebeest and zebra will arrive into the Serengeti or where they’ll be at any given time. Your guides will be up-to-date with the herds’ latest movements to give you the best possible chance of seeing them.

Typically, they begin to trickle into the park from November as they follow the rains south, giving birth to their young in the lush grasslands of the southern Serengeti between January and March. You can see their newborn calves take their first tentative steps, watched closely by prides of lion, leopard and cheetah — their hunting prowess is heart-stopping to watch.

Over the following months, the herds gradually head northwest through the park. You can witness some of the more dramatic moments close to the Kenyan border between July and September. Here, the herds are forced to cross the Mara River, whose waters are riddled with crocodiles waiting in anticipation of their next meal.

You can feel the rising tension as the animals congregate anxiously on the banks. Eventually, one plucks up the courage to enter the water and the rest follow in a panicked flurry of noise and splashing water. Not all of them make it across.

Where to stay in Serengeti National Park

Namiri Plains, Serengeti National Park

Namiri Plains

Namiri Plains, Serengeti National Park

Bedroom, Namiri Plains

I loved Namiri Plains, a tented camp located on the site of a former cheetah research base in central Serengeti. This part of the park sees fewer visitors, and the camp has a thriving population of predators.

The camp itself comprises eight canvas en suite tents with sides that open out to give you far-reaching views over the plains. From here, you can join twice-daily game drives, spend time with a local cheetah researcher, or, for an additional cost, take a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the park.

Ngorongoro Crater

Ngorongoro Crater

Ngorongoro Crater

Northern Tanzania’s volcanic landscape adds another dimension of soda lakes, hot springs and dormant craters to your safari. The most impressive of these is, without doubt, the Ngorongoro Crater, which is the largest intact, unflooded caldera in the world. Its 600 m (2,000 ft) walls form a gigantic natural bowl, protecting the wide range of wildlife inside (including the Big Five).

Regardless of how many safaris you have under your belt, the first time you look over the crater rim is jaw-dropping. The entire 20 km (12 mile) wide dent in the Earth stretches before you, filled with vivid-green grass and mopane woodland. I was itching to get down there and see what animals I’d encounter.

You can spend a whole day in the crater with your guide in search of wildlife. Added to the Big Five, there are healthy populations of zebra, buffalo, and Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelle. Elephant roam the Lerai Forest in the southwest of the crater, while lakes and rivers support hippo and wading birds, including flamingoes, storks and pelicans.

The most eagerly sought animal is the black rhino. The crater is the best place in Tanzania to see this critically endangered species, though sightings are never guaranteed.

Where to stay near the Ngorongoro Crater

Gibbs Farm, room

Gibb's Farm

Tea time at Gibbs Farm, Karatu

View from Gibb's Farm

There are several lodges set right on the crater rim, but the location comes at a price. Instead, I prefer to stay just outside the town of Karatu at Gibb’s Farm, around half an hour’s drive from the crater.

This rustic working farm offers a completely different experience to a typical safari lodge. Its 18 spacious cottages are positioned on a hill overlooking green farmland, and you can take part in farm activities from feeding pigs to milking cows and bread making.

Lake Manyara National Park

Flamingoes, Lake Manyara National Park

Flamingoes, Lake Manyara National Park

Set at the base of the Great Rift Valley escarpment, Lake Manyara is one of Tanzania’s smallest but, in my opinion, most visually striking parks. As you drive, you have the huge, jungle-clad wall of the escarpment rising on one side, while on the other is the vast, flat salt lake, its blue waters and bright patches of salt shimmering in a heat haze.

Much of the water is dappled pink and white, as large flocks of lesser flamingoes and pelicans gather here to feed. The park is one of the best places for birdwatching, with more than 400 recorded species, from flamboyantly plumed bee-eaters to silvery-cheeked hornbills.

Marshland surrounds the lake, providing habitat for hippo, elephant and buffalo, while zebra, wildebeest and giraffe wander across the grasslands. Blue and vervet monkeys rustle in the branches of acacia, mahogany and sausage trees, where you can also listen for the howls of baboon troops and look for tree-climbing lion. It’s not known for sure why lion here adopt this unusual trait; some believe it’s to help them regulate their temperature, others have suggested it’s a way of avoiding tsetse flies.

Where to stay near Lake Manyara National Park

Lake Manyara Tree Lodge, Lake Manyara National Park

andBeyond Lake Manyara Tree Lodge

Lake Manyara Tree Lodge, Lake Manyara National Park

Pool, andBeyond Lake Manyara Tree Lodge

I suggest visiting the park with a guide in a day from Gibb’s Farm, which is less than an hour’s drive away. If you’d prefer to stay longer, andBeyond Lake Manyara Tree Lodge is a characterful option inside the park. Its ten luxurious treehouses are set on stilts among the branches of mahogany trees.

Safaris in southern Tanzania

Selous Game Reserve

Elephant, Selous Game Reserve

Elephant, Selous Game Reserve

Arriving into Selous Game Reserve — the largest protected area in Africa — it felt like I was flying over the Amazon. The thick Rufiji River was the shade of milk chocolate as it curved through the green landscape below, occasionally splitting off into different directions and leaving oxbow lakes behind.

It wasn’t long before I was out on the river as part of a boat safari — one of the many things that sets this reserve apart. The boat churned through the water, then the driver cut the engine and we were left to drift in silence.

With no engine noise, we could listen to birdsong and hear the sound of hippo honking nearby. You can poise your camera ready to capture kingfishers, egrets, bee-eaters and fish eagles. Then, in a heart-thumping moment, you might discover that a supposed bit of driftwood is actually a crocodile basking in the sun.

Returning back along the river, you stop at a sandbank for sundowners and watch as the trees become silhouettes against the pink and orange sky, the water tinged in a warm glow.

The Rufiji is the lifeblood of Selous, particularly during the dry months of June to October. It draws in giraffe, elephant and leopard. Buffalo and antelope graze on the fertile grasslands, hunted by lion and thriving packs of wild dog — a rarity elsewhere in the country.

You can often head out on a game drive and see no one else, it’s that quiet here. But what I like most is getting out on foot with a local guide, who’ll tell you about the finer details of the reserve’s ecosystem.

On these bush walks, your guide points out smaller wildlife, including insects, reptiles and birds, you might not spot from a 4x4, as well as identifying plants and trees. There’s a different level of excitement and energy when you’re out in the open, knowing that you’re treading where buffalo, lion and giraffe may have stood. 

Where to stay in Selous Game Reserve

Siwandu Camp, Selous Game Reserve

Siwandu

Siwandu Camp, Selous Game Reserve

View from Siwandu

Siwandu, on the shores of Lake Nzerakera, is a classic safari camp with 13 spacious tents. Furnished to a high standard, they’ve large wooden beds, ceiling fans, outdoor showers and woven rugs. The guides here are excellent, and each evening you can enjoy a candlelit dinner in the boma (an outdoor communal area set around an open camp fire).

Ruaha National Park

Lion, Ruaha National Park

Lion, Ruaha National Park

I thought I knew what it felt like to be somewhere remote until I visited Ruaha. Set farther west than Selous, it takes longer to get to but the extra effort means more solitude. In this unspoiled wilderness you can revisit the early days of safari, surrounded by nothing but wildlife.

It’s rare to see any other visitors while out on game drives. Instead, you’re likely to encounter one of the largest populations of lion in Africa, skulking leopard, grazing herds of zebra and impala, cackling striped hyena, and buffalo and elephant drinking from the Ruaha River, which forms the park’s southeastern border.

Ruaha has a higher altitude than Selous, so its landscape is much drier, sprinkled with baobabs, granite kopjes and seasonal rivers (a contrast that means both areas work well in a single trip). Days are mostly spent taking game drives into secluded areas, though most camps also offer walking safaris.

The wildlife here tends to be warier of humans than in the north, which makes sightings all the more rewarding. Guides are incredibly knowledgeable about the park and know the best places to find whichever species you’re most interested in.

Where to stay in Ruaha National Park

Mdonya Old River Camp, Ruaha National Park

Mdonya Old River Camp, Ruaha National Park

Mdonya Old River Camp, Ruaha National Park

Mdonya Old River Camp, Ruaha National Park

I’m drawn to Mdonya Old River Camp for its rustic atmosphere, which harks back to the days of early African exploration. Your simple but comfortable en suite tent is lit by kerosene lanterns, and you wake to the breaking light of day amid the bush’s dawn chorus.

Set beside the Mdonya River, you can often see game and some of the park’s 500 bird species from camp, and candlelit meals are served on the sandy banks.

Best time for a Tanzania safari

I recommend a safari in either the north or the south during the dry season (June to October). It’s easiest to see wildlife at this time, as animals gather around the available water sources and vegetation is lower. For the Great Migration, you’re best to visit between January and March when the animals have their young in the south of the Serengeti.

Safari ideas in Tanzania


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