Tanzania has plenty to offer, especially a safari in the Serengeti, but knowing where to go and when to do it is critical. Here is a brief primer.
Population: 49 million (70% rural)
Language: Swahili and English
Largest city: Dar es Salaam (4.3 million)
Arusha – Kilimanjaro
Whether you plan to hike or safari, most visits to Tanzania begin in Arusha, home to the famed dormant volcano, Mount Kilimanjaro. Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world at just over 19,000 feet (5,895 meters) above sea level. From Arusha’s flatlands, Kilimanjaro juts out of the sky with almost god-like proportions – when you can see it (because of its height, the mountain creates its own weather systems and is often hidden by cloud cover).
While not really a destination in itself, Arusha makes for a good landing spot in Tanzania, and most likely you’ll want to spend a day acclimating to the area and time zone. Most westerners will want to hire a private guide for a tour of the city and its many markets. Just driving through the streets offers a view into real life in Africa, and seeing the mix of western and tribal attire provides insight into the local culture.
Fun Fact: All Tanzanian schoolchildren take a class in English in grades 1-8. Beginning in grade 9, all classes are taught in English.
One of the world’s largest unbroken calderas, Ngorongoro Crater offers a unique ecosystem where humans and animals live harmoniously within the Ngorongoro Conservation Authority lands. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, the area also boasts paleontological, archaeological, and anthropological sites. But let’s face it – it’s the animals we all want to see, and Ngorongoro will not disappoint.
Ngorongoro Crater is a large, unbroken, un-flooded caldera, formed when a giant volcano exploded and collapsed three million years ago. The crater sinks to a depth of 2,000 feet (610 meters), and the base is 160 square miles (260 square kilometers).
The area contains over 25,000 large animals including black rhinoceros, which tend to be elusive, so bring good binoculars. There are also thousands of wildebeest, zebras, eland and gazelles. The crater also has the densest known population of lions, and they are not shy. Higher up, in the rainforests of the crater rim, are leopards, elephants, buffalos, spotted hyenas, jackals, and cheetahs.
The base of the crater is an open plain, allowing you an unbroken field of view, and the rim is dense, lush vegetation reminiscent of Jurassic Park. Ngorongoro offers an excellent opportunity to view wildlife in a close and personal way.
Serengeti National Park
Most visitors come to Tanzania for a safari on the famed Serengeti, the country’s oldest and largest national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The park, which covers 5,700 square miles (nearly 15,000 square km) hosts the annual migration of millions of wildebeest. As you can imagine, these animals don’t travel alone: in addition to their constant zebra companions, the migration attracts every kind of predator, from large cats to crocodiles. With an area this large, it’s important to choose the right time of year – and right location — to visit. Here are some guidelines:
Fun Fact: Wildebeest and zebra travel together because they eat the same grasses, but they eat them in different ways. Zebra have long front teeth that can cut through long grass, so they basically mow the lawn for the wildebeest, which prefer to graze on short grass.
November – March
Herds of wildebeest typically arrive on the short-grass plains of the Serengeti in late November or December, right after the “short rains” begin. These rains generate fresh, nutritious grasses that nourish the herds through the calving season.
Most calves – as many as 8,000 each day – are born in a very short window in February, and the herds stay in this area through the end of March to let the wee ones get their feet under them. They also use the area as a training ground for river crossing, which will become critical to the young ones’ survival later in the annual migration as they cross the deadly Mara River.
Late February is a great time to visit Seronera, Ndutu and the northern Ngorongoro Conservation area if you want to see baby wildebeest and experience the “circle of life” through the constant hunts by the big cat predators they attract.
April – June
Considered the low season, this period brings a slower, steadier pattern to the migration, without the great congregations seen at other times of the year.
July – September
The dry season tends to offer the best overall wildlife viewing opportunities, and if your timing is lucky, you might get to see the wildebeest herds tempt fate as they try to avoid crocodiles while crossing the Grumeti River in June-July. Since there is little rain at this time, there are few mosquitos and animals tend to be easier to spot in the shorter grasses, especially since they congregate around well-known watering holes.
September – October
By September, millions of wildebeest congregate at the banks of the great Mara River, which flows into the northern Serengeti from neighboring Kenya’s Maasai Mara Game Reserve. Unlike their zebra companions, which tend to be deliberate and thoughtful in their movements, wildebeest can be disorganized and confused. Typically the banks are crowded with hundreds of thousands of pushing and shoving wildebeest, all needing to get to the other side, but none wanting to be the first to attract the waiting crocodiles. While many wildebeest fall prey to the crocodiles, even more succumb to drowning and limbs broken on the chaotic riverbank. This crossing is a highlight for visitors wanting to view the struggle for life in its most spectacularly chaotic and violent act.
Fun Fact: While not the prettiest animals on the planet, wildebeest represent the best of nature. Their natural instincts drive them to where the grasses are most fertile, and then they leave the area in order to let it replenish itself. In this way, wildebeest ensure the survival of their species and the land that supports them.