So you’re looking out through your aeroplane window and there’s the white tip of Mount Kilimanjaro. You touch down and experience the wonders of the Serengeti before heading to the white beaches of Zanzibar. Can it get more exotic than this? Welcome to Tanzania!
Located in East Africa, just south of the equator, this is not a place you’ll be popping to for a long weekend. And let’s face it – its not a cheap vacation – your savings will take a hammering here. But for that special experience – honeymoon, retirement – Tanzania is hard to beat. And if you’re planning that trip of a lifetime with your kids before they leave the nest, well – this should tick all the boxes!
I’ve selected 10 reasons to go to Tanzania. But you don’t need 10 – any one of the following experiences is worth the journey. This list is based on our own trip (2006) with a 16 year old and concentrates on the northern region of the country. Most major attractions are here but there are several national parks throughout Tanzania and, apart from Arusha, we didn’t visit any major urban area.
I hope you enjoy what Tanzania has to offer as much as we did:
1. The Serengeti
Spanning an incredible 12,000 square miles (30,000 square kilometres), the best known wildlife reserve in the world is aptly named – Serengeti is derived from a Maasai word meaning the place where the land runs on forever. The great expanses of Savannah grassland stretching as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by the odd shrub or rock, are ideal for grazing herbivores – and hunting carnivores!
You name it – its here: great herds of buffalo and wildebeest, smaller groups of elephant, zebra and giraffe, and thousands of eland, impala and gazelle. The 3 big cats – lion, cheetah and leopard – are commonly seen along with hyenas, jackals and other predators. Then there are the hippos, rhinos, primates, crocodiles, over 500 bird species…..and all are locked in a constant battle for survival.
To see these amazing animals in their natural habitats is a truly humbling and privileged experience.
(Granite outcrops known as Kopjes make great observation spots for predators as well as popular sleeping spots for lions!)
2. Mt. Kilimanjaro
Tanzanian national parks are not just all about animals you know! Mt. Kilimanjaro is Africa’s highest peak and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. This snow-capped dormant volcano stands at nearly 6,000 metres tall and attracts thousands of visitors each year.
It can take up to nine days to reach the top. But we discovered that you can head up to the base camp as a day tripper. It takes a few hours and to be honest you can’t actually see much along the path but its nice to be able to say that you ‘climbed Kilimanjaro’!
(Have we done enough to buy the t shirt? Probably not!!)
(You can have a wander and meet some ‘real’ climbers!)
3. The Great Wildebeest Migration
This has to be one of the most spectacular natural events on the planet – millions of wildebeest, accompanied by about 200,000 zebra and 500,000 antelope, making their way around the park in a roughly circular route, searching for fresh grazing land and water. In January and February, numbers are swollen by the addition of an estimated 500,000 newborn wildebeests. The calves are easy targets for the ever present predators but they quickly learn to fend for themselves – they can run within minutes of birth! River crossings make for the most amazing spectacle of all – thousands of animals pouring into water teeming with hungry crocodiles……..
4. The Maasai People
Instantly recognisable in their red cloth (Shuka) and intricate beaded jewellery, the Maasai are a semi-nomadic people, herding sheep, goats, camels and the all important cattle which denote a man’s wealth and his status within the community. They live in enclosures of circular huts – pretty much in the middle of nowhere – which have been built by the women. They use whatever readily available materials are to hand – cow dung, mud and grass – which they pack onto timber frames that are easy to disassemble.
A visit to a Maasai village is a special experience but should be researched carefully before your trip. Some lodges work closely with a local Maasai village and offer a genuine informative encounter. Try to avoid a staged stop by a safari company at a touristy roadside village where the emphasis is on money and a hard sell of jewellery and trinkets.
Our own encounter with the Maasai was the highlight of a trip full of special moments. We were extremely lucky and honoured to be invited to the home of Matayo, who worked for my friend in Arusha with whom we were staying for a few days. The trip had been planned in advance and Matayo had returned to his family several days beforehand. We drove for a few hours where we found him waiting by the side of the road (without means of communication to confirm times, he’d been waiting there for several hours). He assured us the village wasn’t far – about a 20 minute walk…. it took well over an hour! We’d brought food essentials – sugar, etc. as a gift. Everyone in the ‘village’ was a family member and made us so welcome. Matayo wanted to kill a goat in our honour but we eventually dissuaded him and settled for tea (which we’d been warned would be drenched in sugar as a sign of hospitality). We were all given pieces of jewellery before we began our trek back to the car. Brilliant!
(Matayo’s village finally appears!!)
(Matayo’s mother attaching a piece of jewellery)
5. Ngorongoro Crater
Known as Africa’s Garden of Eden, the world’s largest unbroken caldera was created by the massive collapse of land after a volcanic eruption (its believed that it was originally at least as tall as Kilimanjaro). This 12 mile wide ecosystem of grassland, lake, river, swamp, mountain and woodland is home to 30,000 animals.
There are large concentrations of lion, leopard, elephant, hyena, buffalo and a possibility of spotting the endangered Black Rhino. There are over 500 species of bird, including thousands of flamingo. What you won’t find is a giraffe!!! It’s thought that the sides of the crater are too steep for them to walk down.
(A lucky sighting for us – the endangered black rhino)
(The backdrop of the crater walls makes for great photo opportunities)
6. Beach Time
Turquoise water, white sand, palm trees…. its the cliche! Zanzibar (even the name is exotic!) is just lying there off shore screaming ‘come here for a few days before heading home’! And of course you will!
You can just sun worship if you like, but the clear waters are great for snorkeling and diving. There are lots of dive centres where you can learn the skill or just mess about yourself close to shore where you will still see a huge variety of marine life.
Activities are pretty much focused on the beach and water but Stone Town – the capital – is steeped in history and well worth a visit. Here, you can enjoy the narrow alleyways, Arabic architecture, markets and coffee shops. Did you know that Freddie Mercury was born here? You can visit his childhood home.
(Beginner’s lessons at the hotel)
7. Tarangire National Park
Plonk yourself on a cliff top and watch the animals head for the river as evening draws in – you will never want to leave! But you’ve booked a sunset safari drive… ah!… decisions, decisions, decisions….
The sixth largest national park in Tanzania is named after the Tar River which flows through it. The river is all important, especially during the dry season when its the only source of water in the region for thirsty wildlife and attracts animals in droves (which is great for game viewing of course!). The stunning landscape is dotted with baobab and acacia trees, high grasses and dense bush. It can hold its own with the bigger parks – this is home to Tanzania’s largest elephant population and it boasts more breeding species of birds than anywhere else on the planet!
The park is known in particular for its ancient baobab trees. They are odd looking to be sure – without their leaves, they actually look as though they have been turned upside down! (The story goes that when the Baobab was planted by God, it kept walking, so God pulled it up and replanted it upside down to stop it moving). These towering structures can store up to 1,000 litres of water in dry season. Despite very strong roots and sturdy appearance, most of the baobab is in fact hollow. This provides a handy habitat for several species including owls, parrots, bats, cats, bees and snakes.
8. Hot Air Balloon over the Serengeti
If you can stretch the budget a bit, then this is definitely a treat worth experiencing. You are collected from your accommodation before light and are in the air for sunrise. As you glide along, you’ve literally a bird’s eye view of the landscape and wildlife below. Upon landing, you are greeted with a champagne breakfast out on the plains before being brought back to your lodgings – how can you beat that!!!!
9. Spice Tour
Clove, lemongrass, nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric, vanilla, coconut, papaya, chili, black pepper, jackfruit, cardamom – coming from temperate climes, these are products I can only find in a shop or market. I love all plants exotic, especially spices, in their own environment.
Spices and herbs were originally introduced to Zanzibar by Portuguese traders in the 16th century, brought from their colonies in South America and Goa. This spice trade, combined with a thriving slave trade, made Stone Town one of the richest cities in Africa.
There was a time when Zanzibar was the largest producer of cloves in the world. These days, that production is declining while tourism is increasing. The spice industry has turned towards plantation tours as a way of staying in business. I’d say that pretty much everyone who visits Zanzibar heads into the island’s lush interior to take a spice tour. There you get a chance to touch, smell and taste as well as learning how the spices are used in local dishes, herbal medicine and traditional ceremonies.
10. Safari Experience
The whole safari experience encompasses much more than the sum total of wildlife species you’ve managed to spot on your drives. Its also about gleaning every bit of knowledge you can from your driver, appreciating different landscapes, experiencing various types of accommodation, enjoying packed lunches and evening buffets and swapping stories with other travellers. Its about getting up before dawn for a game drive before heading off for several hours on rough roads and tracks to your next destination. Its about sunrises and sunsets. Its about wondering where on earth that Maasai man has walked from and is heading to because you’ve seen nothing for hours!
(Our driver Audax loved boiled eggs so he had mine every day – and I had his mini bar of chocolate – he actually thought he had the better deal!!)
Over 6 nights, we stayed in a mixture of camps and lodges.
The Great Migration of the Serengeti was selected in 2013 as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa. The others are the Red Sea reef system, Mount Kilimanjaro, Sahara Desert, Ngorongoro Crater, Nile River and Botswana’s Okavango Delta (Notice that three of the seven are in my list!).
Kilimanjaro International Airport is 52km from Arusha. There is also Arusha Airport which serves domestic flights from elsewhere in Tanzania.
What to Book:
Most safaris start in Arusha.
Driving is the cheapest and most common option but, if pressed for time, you can fly into one of the Serengeti airstrips from Arusha or Kilimanjaro airports. Your safari company will take care of all the logistics – most packages include accommodation, games drives, transportation, meals and park fees.
There are so many tour options that the problem is actually making a selection! Make sure to do plenty of online research beforehand.
Have some idea of what you want….
- Have a rough itinerary in your head
- Ask for a detailed daily itinerary – how many hours driving etc.
- Will you stay in or close to the parks?
- What standard of accommodation will you be happy with?
- Are you physically able for long drives on bumpy trails? There are plenty of easier options if necessary.
- How many people will be in your group? (private safaris are more expensive, but are more flexible – you can change plans, you can stay as long as you want in one spot, you don’t have to share the perfect photo spot and so on…)
- What kind of transport… how old is the car…..
- Will everyone have a window seat?
- Is there anything in particular you want to concentrate on – the big 5 / birds / wildebeest migration…..
- Check the cancellation policy – especially nowadays!!
AND REMEMBER – if the price sounds too good to be true – well…….!
When to go:
Do your homework before you book anything – decide what you want to see and work from that.
June to October is the cool, dry season so the animals tend to be easier to spot.
June and July are good months for viewing the wildebeest migration.
November and December bring the short rain but there’s still pretty good wildlife viewing.
April and May bring the long rains – most people avoid this time of year.
Most people we met up with were on safari for 3-7 nights. We were able to spread it out over 6 nights which meant we could cover extra ground and enjoy more morning and evening drives.
If you’ve 10 days, you could spend a day on Kilimanjaro, 4 nights on safari and 4 nights on Zanzibar! What a trip!
We saved a bit of time by flying from Serengeti back to Kilimanjaro (or maybe Arusha- can’t remember) and on to Zanzibar.
There is usually an early morning and / or evening drive. This can last for a few hours.
There can be long transfer journeys to your next base, often with little to distract as there are fewer animals out and about during the day. You might doze – but the trails are very rough in spots!
You will have a packed lunch each day. Its so exciting opening that box! Typically it will include fruit juice, water, fresh fruit, sandwiches or wraps, boiled eggs, treats such as biscuits, muffins or chocolate, etc.
Dinner depends on the accommodation and varies between table or buffet service.
What type of Safari Accommodation?
Well – how much do you want to spend!
There’s everything here, from basic enough camping to the ultimate luxury safari experience. We didn’t rough it – but it certainly wasn’t high end either. Over 6 nights, we’d 6 different experiences. My least favourite were the 2 nights we spent in big lodges that catered for groups. But even they were fine. We spent 2 nights in small lodges and 2 nights glamping.
Personally, unless you’re minted, I’d rather spread my money over extra nights, the balloon trip and Zanzibar than blow it all on a few nights luxury accommodation. After all – you will probably see the same animals anyway!
A few things to think about when packing:
If camping, you may not have access to 24 hour electricity – bring extra batteries for your camera etc.
You should invest in a pair of binoculars.
You won’t actually do a lot of walking but you’ll still need comfortable footwear.
Bring warm clothes. Nights can be cool to say the least. You’ll need a fleece or jacket for early morning and late evening drives.
I think if I were going straight from airport to safari, I’d bring some snacks from home – biscuits, peanuts, etc….
Don’t forget to put a change of clothes and some toiletries in your hand baggage…. just in case!!