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On Safari in Northern Tanzania – Back to The Sixth Day of the Creation
Tanzania’s natural wealth as a wildlife safari destination is unparalleled. Wild animals roam in vast areas as God intended on that sixth day of creation. These areas are designated as national parks and game reserves and have a high reputation for being sparsely populated and pristine. The beautiful collection of game reserves in the north of the country, near the border with Kenya, is called The Northern Circuit. This is the most popular and accessible wildlife safari route in Tanzania. I can say with certainty that this is one of the best game viewing areas in the world.
Game aside, the spectacularly diverse cluster of ecosystems and habitats is a dazzling experience for many a visitor. The stars of the Northern Circuit are the Serengeti and Ngorongoro, very dear to the hearts of nature lovers. But no less scintillating and indeed complementary to the two are the other members of the circuit: Arusha, Tarangire and Lake Manyara. In terms of wildlife, the abundance and diversity of wildlife here is hard to imagine.
At the top of the heap are the highly regarded “big five”: elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, leopard and lion. And then a wild array of common animals: wildebeest, zebra, eland, hartebeest, oryx, reedbuck, giraffe, Thompson’s gazelle and many more of the same genre. But don’t forget the ruthless predators: cheetah, wild dog, jackal, hyena and vulture. The Northern Circuit is also an ornithologist’s paradise, with over 500 bird species recorded. On safari you witness the shocking and fascinating dance of life and death to the daily game of this combination of animals.
The starting point for northern safaris is usually the city of Arusha. The city is located at the foot of Mount Meru and within sight of the mighty Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. From Arusha, the closest protected area to see wildlife is Arusha National Park, just 32km away. In this 137 square kilometer park you can see baboon, colobus and vervet monkeys, duikers, elephants, buffaloes, giraffes, hippos, leopards, hyenas, zebras and a wide variety of antelopes. More than 400 bird species have been recorded, including Eurasian migrants, who visit between October and April. One of the park’s unique attractions is that walking safaris are allowed and you can get out for a nature walk. Due to its proximity to Arusha, the park is very popular for day trips.
Wildlife aside, Arusha National Park is a treasure trove of a rich tapestry of habitats, including grassland, montane forest, moorland and alpine desert, and soda and freshwater lakes. Three spectacular features stand out: the Momela Lakes, Mount Meru, and the Ngurdoto Crater. Mount Meru stands at 4,575 m and is the fourth highest mountain in Africa. However, it is overshadowed by nearby Kilimanjaro, which rises more than 1300 meters above it. It is a pity that many climbers’ snobbish instincts cause them to overlook Mt Meru. The mountain can be climbed in three to four days with overnight stays in alpine huts.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve, is located in the Great Rift Valley – that monumental fracture of the Earth’s crust. The area is filled with volcanoes, mountains, plains, lakes and forests. Covering an area of 8,288 square kilometers, its main features include Ngorongoro Crater, Empakai Crater, Oldonyo Lengai Mountain, and the archaeological site of Olduvai Gorge. Olduvai Gorge is the prehistoric site where Dr. Louis Leakey discovered the remains of Homo habilis (“Handy man”) who is considered by scientists to be humanity’s first step on the path of human evolution. Be sure to see the remains of our dignified predecessor, whose brave industry led him to make simple stone tools.
Unlike in the national parks, the colorful Maasai people, their livestock and wildlife coexist in the protected area. The Ngorongoro Crater is the largest caldera in the world with its walls still intact. The crater floor is a drop of 600 m and covers an area of 260 square kilometers with a diameter of 19 km. This magnificent natural amphitheater is a breathtaking attraction in itself and is one of the wonders of the natural world. The crater supports a year-round resident population of a variety of wildlife. You will have no trouble spotting lions, elephants, rhinoceroses, buffaloes and many species of common animals: wildebeest, zebra, reedbucks, Thompson gazelles and many more. The crater floor is dotted with waterholes and is home to nearly 30,000 wild animals. Ngorongoro is a four-hour drive from Arusha or an hour’s flight. And it takes two hours from Lake Manyara or Tarangire.
Lake Manyara National Park stretches between the cliffs of the Great Rift Valley and Lake Manyara, a shallow soda lake. The park covers 330 square kilometers, 70% of which is occupied by the lake. The diverse ecosystem consists of groundwater forests, acacia woodlands and open grassland along the lake shore and is home to a wealth of wildlife including the Big Five – lion, elephant, leopard, rhinoceros and buffalo. Other animals that can be seen in the park include baboons, impalas, giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, ostriches and hippos.
Lake Manyara is famous for the elusive tree-climbing lions, which can occasionally be seen perched on the branches of the acacia trees. It is also an ornithologist’s paradise and is home to more than 400 bird species. The waterfowl that hover around the lake include pelicans, spoonbills, egyptian geese, and hammerheads. In addition, migrating flamingos arrive in their hundreds of thousands, creating a spectacular sight over the soda lake. You arrive at Lake Manyara after a two-hour drive from Arusha or just a half-hour flight.
Tarangire National Park is an hour and a half drive from Arusha, making it very popular for day trips. Tarangire is a park with giant baobab trees, rolling savannas and acacia parks. It is known for its dense wildlife population, which is most spectacular in the dry season between June and September. It is during this period that thousands of animals – wildebeest, zebra, eland, hartebeest, waterbuck, giraffe, impala, gerenuk, buffalo and oryx – migrate from the arid Maasai steppe to the Tarangire River in search of water. The predators – lion, leopard and others – follow closely as usual in the savannah. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot the peculiar tree climbing python, kudu and roan antelope, a rare experience in the northern safari circuit. Birdlife is also abundant here with over 550 species recorded.
Serengeti National Park is Africa’s most famous nature reserve and Tanzania’s largest national park. The park is a 6 hour drive from Arusha or an hour flight. It is located on a high plateau between the Ngorongoro Highlands and the Kenya-Tanzania border, almost touching Lake Victoria to the west. Appropriately called “endless plains” by the Maasai people, it features short and long grass plains, acacia savannah, and forests in parts of the north and east.
Within the area of 15,000 square kilometers, the Serengeti is home to 3 million large mammals. More than 35 species of common animals – zebra, wildebeest, moose, giraffe and others can be found here. And so for the big five: elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros. The park is the gathering place for one of the most spectacular events in the natural world: the annual wildebeest migration. This starts around June when more than 1 million wildebeest, zebra and gazelle move to Kenya’s Maasai Mara in search of pasture. Close on their heels are the predators of the savannah, cheetah, wild dog, jackal, hyena and vulture.
If you can spare the money, watching the migration float in a balloon is an unforgettable experience. The best time to view game is from December to May when the grass is short. Avoid late June-October when most of the animals have evacuated with the migration and are best seen in Kenya’s adjacent Maasai Mara. The avid ornithologist will have fun trying to spot the 500 recorded bird species.
Campgrounds can be found in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and all of the Northern Circuit National Parks. The facilities are quite basic and this is where budget travelers prefer to spend their safari nights. If you can afford it, stay overnight in the luxury safari lodges and tented camps. Expect all the comforts of a rated property in this accommodation class. You can check out some of the Tanzania hotels and lodges available for your safari online.
It is generally recommended to take an escort Tanzania safari package that includes transport, guide, park fees and accommodation. Guides have valuable local knowledge about the animals, where to find them and how to get where you are going. But if you know the country well and have good knowledge of animals, self-drive car rental in Tanzania is an option.
Due to the relatively high location in the north of Tanzania, it never gets too hot. Indeed, the nights and early mornings can be quite chilly. It is advisable to bring a thick sweater and a windbreaker or jacket. Expect average temperatures of 15°C in May to August and 22°C in December to March. The weather is best between June and September, but don’t bet on seeing wildlife in the Serengeti. September to March is a good time for a safari in all the parks of Northern Tanzania. But don’t forget that some of the other parks in the region offer almost year-round game viewing opportunities. April and May can be a challenging time to do a safari as that is when the weather is the most rainy.
On safari, brightly colored clothing can get you into trouble with wild animals. If you’re sensible, pack brown, beige, and khaki clothes. Short-sleeved shirts, shorts and men’s pants are sufficient. For women, blouses with short sleeves, trousers and skirts are ideal. Although the northern region is far from the predominantly Muslim coastal areas and ladies are not required to dress
too conservative, modest clothing is still a good idea. Don’t forget to bring sunglasses to protect you from the sometimes harsh tropical glare. Binoculars will come in very highly
useful for spotting animals.
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