Thanks to the presence of some of Africa’s biggest and best national parks, Tanzania is a safari tour de force. It’s also a dauntingly large place, though, so a trip here requires much advance decision-making. Here’s everything you need to plan a trip.
Which region should I choose?
This is the first thing to settle. Tanzania has two main safari areas: the so-called Northern and Southern Circuits, and Western Tanzania. Travelling between each is a challenge, so most visitors tend to choose just one.
Containing the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania’s Northern Circuit is decidedly the headline act. This is where you’ll find both the most prolific wildlife (aka “game”) and serial crowds. Travel to whichever Serengeti corner the spectacular Great Migration currently occupies, and 4×4 vehicles will generally be bumper-to-bumper.
If you’ll happily swap a few animal spottings for extra tranquility and authenticity, head south. The massive main parks here, Selous and Ruaha, are untamed, multi-dimensional expanses where tree-clogged waterways give way to parched plains. You have to work harder to see lion, leopard and co, but patience always goes rewarded – and, happily, spying other humans is also rare.
The still-wilder west offers equally good game (including the Mahale Mountains’ chimpanzees) blended with serious remoteness; as such, parks like Katavi are the preserve only of long-term Tanzania junkies seeking an obscure new fix.
Do any parks specialise in particular animals or activities?
Ruaha has the largest elephant and giraffe population of any African reserve – hence its “Giraffic Park” moniker – plus 10% of the world’s lion population.
The Selous is Tanzania’s best bet for seeing rare wild dogs and – together with the Ngorongoro Crater – the country’s only place to spy rhinos. Lovers of the endangered cheetah are directed to the Serengeti’s Ndutu Safari Lodge or Namiri Plains, ideally during January’s calving season.
Walking safaris are available in most parks, but try Beho Beho camp in the Selous to enjoy them in league with some of Tanzania’s finest guides.
What about the Great Migration?
Though dependent on the caprice of rainfall, this never-ending procession of hundreds of thousands of wildebeest – plus vast zebra and gazelle herds – can usually be accurately pinpointed to certain Serengeti areas at certain times of year.
September and October see the skittish omnivores attempt risky crossings of the Mara River – optimum time for lion, leopard, cheetah, crocodile and hyena to strike. This spectacle happens in the Serengeti’s further-flung north; go to the Lamai Wedge to watch it unfold with some semblance of exclusivity.
How do I get around – and do I need a guide?
Light Cessna planes – dinky, 2-18-seat affairs in which you can sit beside the pilot – are the standard transport mode between Tanzania’s camps. In fact, for visitors to the remote south and west regions, they’re the only means of getting from A to B. Nervous fliers can expect a rickety nightmare; otherwise, the experience tends to be magical.
It’s possible to do the Northern Circuit by road, but – despite plentiful concrete – this is a long-winded process thanks to Tanzania’s size. Then again, you do earn the opportunity to stop in non-tourist towns and villages, and sample local life.
Having a guide for your trip’s entirety is advised. Partly because in many parks – the Serengeti included – you must travel with one by law, and partly as it means you needn’t worry about satisfying park entry fees. The clincher, however, is their universally superior eyesight and, local savvy, which combine to ensure you’ll see hosts of animals. Most guides are charming, too, making their constant company a pleasure rather than a chore.
Can I go to the beach afterwards?
Most visitors do. The main draw is Zanzibar, an Indian Ocean island whose beautiful name is adequately matched by a glut of white-sand beaches and teeming coral reefs. Hotels here range from billionaire boltholes to very affordable, charming guesthouses.
Just south of Zanzibar is the quieter and similarly idyllic Mafia Archipelago, especially good for diving. Other options include Pemba, a more remote isle, and the mainland, where a top-notch villa and beach lodge scene has more recently sprung up.
How long do I need and when should I go?
On the Northern Circuit, spending 2-3 nights at each park will give you time to enjoy every experience – daily game drives, often plus Maasai village visits and walking safaris – without risking cabin fever. Slightly longer per camp is advised in the South, however, to enable true immersion.
Late June to October is Tanzania’s dry season, meaning better visibility and chance of animal sightings. The same time is also excellent for Zanzibar and Mafia – it bisects two short rainy seasons – but February-May offers divers better visibility.