Tanzania features some of Africa’s best-known national parks and game reserves, including the legendary Serengeti, which millions of wildebeest cross every year as part of the great migration. Then there’s the ‘lost world’ of the Ngorongoro Crater, an extinct volcano which shelters endangered species.
To truly get away from it all, head to southern Tanzania. The vast wilderness areas of Ruaha and the Selous receive relatively few tourists, so they feel authentically wild and remote. If elephants are your thing, seeing them alongside the iconic baobab trees of Tarangire is an unforgettable experience.
While the Great Wildebeest Migration gets a lot of the attention, you might find that it’s better to visit Tanzania at off-peak times. You won’t see the huge herds, but the year-round game-viewing of resident wildlife is also excellent.
- Admire huge elephant herds alongside iconic baobab trees in Tarangire
- Walk in the footsteps of our ancestors at Olduvai Gorge
- Be a part of chimpanzee habituation process at Rubondo Island
- Visit the legendary Serengeti where millions of wildebeest cross every year as part of the great migration
- Wander through the maze of alleyways and carved wooden doors that make up Stone Town in Zanzibar
Gateway cities: Kilimanjaro, Dar Es Salaam
Best time to travel: Year-round; November to June for the migration (locations vary)
The Mahale Mountains National Park was created specially to protect local chimpanzees. Within the park is the remarkable Greystoke safari lodge, on the shores of the crystal-clear Lake Tanganyika (one of the largest and deepest freshwater lakes in the world). Greystoke Mahala offers a unique combination of beach and jungle, with the option to head out onto (or into) the lake for kayaking, snorkeling or fishing, or go inland in search of birds and primates. The forests on the slopes of the Mahale Mountains are endlessly fascinating, with flashes of color and almost guaranteed sightings of smaller primates as well as the chimpanzees themselves. Narrow forest paths lead to secret waterfalls, and the trees echo to musical birdsong and the distinctive calls of the chimpanzees as they forage and socialize.
The Ngorongoro Crater is a remarkable “lost world” in northern Tanzania. It’s the remains of an extinct volcano, and from the luxury lodges on its rim, you can descend into an incredible landscape that’s rich in wildlife. Ngorongoro is one of the best places in East Africa to see rare black rhinos, and you may also spot Maasai herders and their cattle in the Crater – seemingly unperturbed by the fact that lions also live there. Driving down into the Crater really does feel like going back in time – it’s been described as a garden of Eden. This impression of timelessness can also be felt at the nearby Olduvai Gorge, an important site in the history of our own species. Remarkable hominin fossils have been found here dating back millions of years and include some of the earliest evidence of the use of stone tools.
The vastness of Ruaha and its relative isolation help explain why it’s not better known to travelers – it certainly deserves to be. Although a relatively dry area (known for its sandy riverbeds), Ruaha has incredible biodiversity. This includes almost 600 species of birds – more than half as many as in the United States. It’s also known as a stronghold for lions – some 10% of Africa’s remaining population of these big cats are found here. Ruaha contains a range of habitats, which mean that it can support a great many kinds of wildlife from elephants to rare species of antelope. Ruaha is reckoned by many travelers to offer Africa’s most unforgettable sunrises and sunsets – quite a claim, and one you can only really put to the test by spending time there.
Rubondo is an island in Lake Victoria, and it has a unique population of “castaways” in addition to many colorful species of tropical birds. The history of the chimpanzees of Rubondo Island is a remarkable one: in the 1960s, 16 chimpanzees were rescued from zoos in Europe and sent to Tanzania by steamship. On arrival, they were released on the island (which had no natural predators) and they soon began to revert to a more normal way of life for wild chimpanzees. Over time, their population has naturally increased to around 40, and there is an ongoing habituation programme on the island. By visiting Rubondo, you can directly contribute to primate conservation as well as learning more about these remarkable creatures – our closest relatives in the animal kingdom.
Named after the explorer and adventurer F C Selous, the Selous Game Reserve is one of the largest protected areas in Africa. At 19 000 square miles, it is almost half the size of the State of Kentucky. The Selous has long been recognized as a true unspoiled wilderness and is still visited by relatively few travelers. It’s a place where you can leave behind the modern world and reconnect with Nature in almost perfect solitude. The gorges of the Rufiji River are one of the most spectacular features of the park, and boat excursions on the river are an ideal way to explore the Selous (and spot game on the banks). Water-based experiences provide an excellent contrast with more terrestrial safari activities elsewhere in Tanzania, and the Selous offers exceptional fishing including the fearsome tiger fish.
The name “Serengeti” comes from a Maasai word meaning “endless plains” and that’s a very apt description of this region of northern Tanzania. This is the East African landscape that has launched a thousand safari dreams: golden savannah, lone flat-topped acacia trees and rocky kopjes offering almost infinite views. The Serengeti echoes to the hooves of the Great Wildebeest Migration and is also home to a remarkable array of resident wildlife – meaning that it is a rewarding game-viewing destination at any time of the year. In fact, by traveling outside the peak season you can avoid the crowds and experience this immense wilderness area at your own pace. The Serengeti boasts some of East Africa’s most luxurious lodges, including mobile tented camps that move with the herds to ensure the best possible encounters.
A hidden gem on Tanzania’s fabled northern safari circuit, Tarangire is close to some of the Great Rift Valley Lakes (especially Lake Manyara, with its huge flocks of pink flamingos). This national park is renowned as a great place to see herds of elephants, and its dry, stony landscapes are dominated by towering, bulbous baobab trees. This creates wonderful photographic opportunities, with the chance to capture two African icons in the same frame. The Tarangire River, which flows through the park, ensures that there is water year-round and accounts for the exceptional dry season game viewing in the area, as huge herds of animals amass along the river. As with many parts of East Africa, Tarangire is transformed during seasonal rains when a green flush covers the land.
Not far off the coast of Tanzania lies the Spice Island of Zanzibar. The maze of alleyways and carved wooden doors that make up the capital, Stone Town, are unmissable, while the island also has important cultural locations (including the house that ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ singer Freddie Mercury grew up in). Zanzibar also has outstanding beaches and offers experiences from spice tours to trips to former slave prisons. Some of the smaller islands feature mysterious ruins half-lost in vegetation, and there is outstanding reef diving to be had.