Tanzania’s Northern Safari Circuit
Northwest Tanzania offers some of the best and most diverse wildlife viewing opportunities in Africa, if not the world. The Serengeti has become a byword for the quintessential Big Five safari experience, while the Ngorongoro Crater continues to mesmerise. Less well-known by equally impressive are the national parks of Tarangire and Lake Manyara, which together with the Serengeti and Ngorongoro form the basis of Tanzania’s Northern Safari Circuit. This guide to Tanzania’s Northern Safari Circuit reveals all you need to know about safaris in the region.
What to expect from Tanzania’s Northern Safari Circuit
The four main parks and conservation areas that traditionally comprise Tanzania’s Northern Safari Circuit can be covered in an itinerary of around a week, giving safari0goers around two days in each location. This should be more than enough time, with a couple of game drives each day, to tick off all but the shiest of plains species. Of course, the longer you have, the more attuned to the savannah ecosystem you will become!
To capture animals at their most active, game drives are usually scheduled for the early morning or late afternoon. This gives you time to relax at a good viewing spot or with a glass of something cool during the hotter middle hours of the day.
Game viewing within almost all the protected areas of the Northern Safari Circuit is limited to game drives, although a few of the more specialist camps do permit walking safaris. When it comes to accommodation, visitors have the choice of both larger camps and smaller lodges. Smaller lodges are well-worth the extra cost if your budget stretches this far, since they offer a far more intimate safari experience all round.
A national park that needs no introduction, the Serengeti covers more than 14,500 square kilometres of northern Tanzania. Equivalent in size to Belgium or the US state of Ohio, its name, meaning ‘endless plains,’ is still very apt.
The Serengeti has achieved its worldwide fame not only because of its size but also because it is the main location for the annual Great Wildebeest Migration, which sees some two million individual animals crossing the plains in search of the new season’s grasses. What’s more, its one of only a few places in Africa where it is still possible to see all the Big Five species: elephant, lion, leopard, rhino, and Cape buffalo.
While known for its plains, flat grasslands span just a third of the Serengeti’s area. The rest is woodland and riverine forest, providing a huge variety of habitats, which in turn means a greater number of species can be found here.
One of the world’s natural wonders and a UNESCO World Heritage Site (alongside the Serengeti), the Ngorongoro Crater is unique in Africa. The world’s largest complete volcanic crater, it has a diameter of 18 km, and walls up to 600 m high, creating an ecosystem within an ecosystem almost closed off from the rest of the region.
Despite this, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is still able to boast the Big Five. In addition, the area around the crater has become a haven for Maasai tribespeople. Pushed off the land of the national parks, here they are able to continue their traditional culture of cattle herding.
Also protected by the conservation area is Oldupai (or Olduvai) Gorge, where some of the oldest human remains have been found, dating back almost two million years.
This national park is south and east of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. Stretching roughly north to south, it lies on both banks of the River Tarangire, an important source of fresh water for a variety of species during Tanzania’s drier months. As a result, the park contains large areas of swampland, in addition to gently-rolling hills and areas shaded by giant baobab trees.
As a year-round water source, it has some of the largest concentrations of game on the continent during the latter half of the year, second only to the Serengeti. The park is also well known for its elephants, and in particular increasingly rare giant tuskers.
Squeezed between the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Tarangire National Park, Lake Manyara National Park is roughly two hours from the Ngorongoro crater rim. Largely occupied by the lake after which it is named, the park’s habitats include woodland glades with evergreen fig and mahogany trees, and the rocky escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, which rises some 1,200 metres. Of all its animal inhabitants, its million-strong seasonal flamingo population is its most celebrated.
How to explore Tanzania’s Northern Safari Circuit
The starting point for the Northern Safari Circuit is usually the town of Arusha. It lies in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, the continent’s highest peak, and gets daily flights from the country’s main international airport at Dar es Salaam two hours flight time away. A second airport at Kilimanjaro is just half an hour away by road.
The circuit can be completed by air or overland. Scheduled light aircraft crisscross the region on a daily basis, arriving at a multitude of public and private airstrips. Overland, the road from Arusha towards these parks cuts through ancestral Maasai land, with the nearest park gate roughly two hours away.
When to go on the Northern Safari Circuit
The long rains of April and May put off many tourists, and some camps even shut down during this period. However, the rains are not constant, and the reduced number of vehicles can make safaris in these months a spectacular alternative to peak season.
June is a shoulder between the low and high seasons. Unsurfaced roads within the parks can be a struggle even with a four-wheel drive, and you will still face the odd shower. On the other hand, the fresh green grasses are beautiful, and this is one of the best times to come for bird watching. Game can still be quite hard to see, since easy access to water means there is no need to congregate in one place, and the grasses can be high enough to obscure the view.
The peak safari season is generally considered to be from August to November, when the plains turn steadily from green to yellow. As water becomes scarcer, game begins to congregate together, while roads have now dried up and grasses died down.
The short rains that arrive in November don’t put too much of a damper on things, and lead up to the popular Christmas holiday period. Humidity levels start to build from the new year, towards the long rains, making it more uncomfortable on the plains for human visitors.