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The ultimate African safari

Thursday, 30 November 2023

Tanzania is an extraordinary country, replete with an abundance of mesmerising natural marvels and magnificent cultural nuances. It is an essential bucket-list destination for safari enthusiasts and wildlife lovers. Of course, in an ideal world, these visitors would have boundless time and money to explore the country at leisure, but this is not a realistic option for most. For many, a trip across the world to visit Tanzania’s majesty may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Tanzania is traditionally divided into “safari circuits” to ensure that travellers make the most of their special journey.

These circuits divide Tanzania into the four corners of the compass and consist of an itinerary of destinations designed to minimise travelling time and maximise the experience. Tanzania is a diverse country, so each circuit offers its own unique magic, divergent scenery, and appealing wildlife encounters. The northern, southern, western, and eastern circuits encompass a selection of national parks, reserves, conservation areas and even, in the case of the eastern circuit, islands and beaches, that visitors can choose based on their interests.

Tanzania’s northern circuit

The northern circuit is unequivocally the most popular circuit on this list and includes destinations that are the stuff of safari, travel and film-making legend. For first-time visitors who only plan to visit Tanzania, this is almost unfailingly the place to start. It involves some of the best roads in Tanzania, so every destination is easily and (relatively) quickly accessible, and there are countless accommodation options available for every budget, from basic campsites to some of the most luxurious lodges in Africa.

Want to go on an adventure along one of Tanzania’s extraordinary safari circuits? Search for the best Tanzanian safaris on offer right now, and check out our recommended accommodation on offer in Tanzania.

The northern circuit stretches from Lake Victoria in the west to Mount Kilimanjaro in the east, and it is bounded by the Kenyan border to the north and Tarangire National Park to the south. It includes such iconic names as the Serengeti and Ngorongoro, and, naturally, more time should be devoted to exploring these areas than others.

Serengeti National Park

Serengeti National Park is a land synonymous with the very essence of an African safari, where the majesty of the scenery and expansive atmosphere is matched by extraordinary wildlife viewing. Here, sweeping grass plains, rocky outcrops and woodlands support myriad animal species, all engaged in a primordial battle for survival.

A typical sighting in Serengeti National Park. To see more pics from Alexander Ley, check out his profile here 

Naturally, the Serengeti ecosystem is most famous for its role in the Great Migration – the largest overland migration on earth. In fact, most of the year, the wildebeest herds move through the Serengeti before passing the international boundary into the Maasai Mara. No words can fully capture the dazzling feeling of sitting in amongst hundreds of thousands of animals that stretch as far as the eye can see or throw themselves helter-skelter at the mercy of the river crossings. However spectacular though it may be, the Serengeti is about more than the migration. The Big 5 are all present, and encounters with big cats and hyenas are all but guaranteed, viewed against the backdrop of breathtaking scenery.

The Serengeti ecosystem also incorporates several surrounding reserves and game control areas, all contiguous with the national park. These include Grumeti Controlled Area, Ikorongo Controlled Area, Loliondo Game Controlled Area and Maswa Game Reserve. The national park is also open to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area described below.

Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Ngorongoro Conservation Area is often described as Africa’s Eden, with its most prominent feature being the Ngorongoro Crater. This ancient volcanic caldera encircles one of the most biodiverse and precious wild spaces in Africa, giving the impression that time stood still at the centre of the massive geological cradle. Here, many of Africa’s most iconic animals (including the Big 5) thrive, and every year, Lake Magadi flushes pink as hundreds of flamingos arrive during the breeding season.

Tanzania Northern Safari Circuit
An elephant grazes at the bottom of the crater

Outside the crater, the Ndutu region of Ngorongoro serves as a critical resting point in the Great Migration, as over a million wildebeest arrive on the short grass plains to calve. At the height of the chaos, over 8,000 calves are born each day, forced to find their feet quickly or be lost to the predators that throw themselves into the wildebeest melee with joyous abandon.

The steep-sided ravine of Olduvai (or, more correctly, Oldupai) Gorge is another of Ngorongoro’s significant attractions, having yielded a timeline of our evolution as a species. The scattered fossils, tools and bone fragments reveal the gradual development of societies and social complexities that today define Homo sapiens.

Lake Manyara National Park

Lake Manyara National Park is named for the eponymous lake along its eastern edge, with the remainder of the park sandwiched between the lake and the dramatic hills of the Great Rift escarpment to the west. Known for its spectacular displays of flamingos and other water birds, Manyara is lowkey and less frenetic than the extravaganza of Serengeti or Ngorongoro. This makes it ideal as a perfect launchpad for exploring the northern circuit of Tanzania.

Tanzania Northern Safari Circuit
Lake Manyara is the perfect destination to start your Tanzania circuit
Africa Geographic Travel

Tarangire National Park

Not far from Lake Manyara, Tarangire National Park is the southernmost park in the northern circuit. It is a land of giant baobabs, fever tree forests, shimmering swamps and sweeping vistas –  unequivocally one of Africa’s most underrated African safari destinations, bursting with abundant wildlife. It is also an essential landscape for one of the lesser-known migrations in Tanzania because, during the dry season, the Tarangire River becomes one of the only available water sources. Tens of thousands of animals are drawn to its banks and floodplains from miles in every direction.

Don’t get too close! Spotting elephants on a guided walk

Mount Kilimanjaro

As Africa’s highest mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro needs little by way of introduction, as every year, thousands of amateur and expert hikers set out to summit its peak. Its snow-capped summit stands out incongruously against the flat Rift Valley scenery below, and even those reluctant to don hiking boots should be content to gaze upon this African legend from its base.

Tanzania Northern Safari Circuit
An iconic shot of Mount Kilimanjaro, photographed from Amboseli

Arusha National Park and Mount Meru

The city of Arusha acts as the gateway to the northern circuit, meaning that Arusha National Park is usually the first or the last stop for travellers navigating the route. Within the park, the dormant volcano of Mount Meru is occasionally referred to as the “little brother” of Mount Kilimanjaro. It offers a much quieter and more intimate experience, along with spectacular wildlife encounters en route to the summit.

Mount Meru is Kilimanjaro’s “little brother”

Tanzania’s southern circuit

In contrast to the bustling northern circuit, Tanzania’s southern safari circuit is remote and wild, characterised by a feeling of absolute immersion without ever skimping on East Africa’s famous hospitality standards. This region is famed for its back-to-basics and authentic approach, where exploring on foot is an essential part of the experience and you can go for days without encountering another tourist. Much of this region is relatively arid compared to the luscious plains of the north but still incorporates areas with thriving swamps, verdant forests and spectacular waterfalls.

Ruaha National Park

Ruaha National Park is a gem of the southern circuit, an enormous and untamed semi-arid wilderness, divided by live-giving river systems and dotted with the pyknic forms of ancient baobabs. The rugged park supports high densities of herbivores (including sizeable herds of elephants) and one of the largest lion populations on the continent. Leopard, cheetah, spotted hyena and African wild dog (painted wolf) sightings are frequent, and some lucky visitors have even managed to spot one of the park’s elusive striped hyenas.

Tanzania Southern Safari Circuit
A matriarch leads the herd to water in Ruaha

The protection of the greater Ruaha ecosystem is extended by the contiguous Rungwa, Kizigo, Usangu and Muhezi game reserves, all offering their own African safari experiences.

Nyerere National Park/Selous Game Reserve

The newly declared Nyerere National Park now extends over three sides of the Rufiji River valley, carved from the former Selous Game Reserve. The Rufiji River dominates the landscape, fanning into an intricate network of channels, oxbow lakes, and swamps, supplying a never-ending parade of thirsty animals drawn to the water’s edge. Though the declaration of the national park is intended to boost Nyerere’s tourism potential, there is no question that this remains something of a forgotten corner of Africa, where wildlife connoisseurs can lose themselves in the vast wilderness.

Tanzania Southern Safari Circuit
Wildlife viewing in Nyerere and Selous is exquisite

Mikumi National Park

Mikumi National Park lies adjacent to the northern border of Nyerere National Park and is easily accessible from Dar Es Salaam, making it a popular choice for local tourists. However, few international guests have yet to discover the splendour of Mikume’s expansive floodplains and prolific animal sightings.

Tanzania Southern Safari Circuit
The giants of Mikumi

Udzungwa Mountains National Park

Despite its proximity to the western edge of Nyerere National Park, the misty forests and picturesque, tumbling waterfalls of Udzungwa Mountains National Park make it seem worlds apart. These mountains are a biodiversity hotspot characterised by mind-boggling levels of endemism, with species including the Iringa red colobus, the Sanje crested mangabey, the Udzungwa partridge and the rufous-winged sunbird.

A mangabey spotted in Udzungwa
Africa Geographic Travel

Tanzania’s western circuit

Unlike the northern and southern safari circuits, Tanzania’s western circuit breaks away somewhat from the more traditional safari fare. This is a shorter and more specialised circuit and should be combined with aspects from the northern or southern circuit if time and resources allow.

Gombe Stream National Park

Situated on the northeastern shores of Lake Tanganyika, the tiny Gombe Stream National Park is one of only a few places in Tanzania where chimpanzees can be encountered in the wild. This intimate park sports exceptional biodiversity and is celebrated as the park where Jane Goodall first set up her now-famous research centre. Here, visitors can follow expert guides into the heart of the forest in search of our chimpanzee kin, admiring the many other primate species along the way.

A chimpanzee greets the setting sun in Gombe Stream

Mahale National Park

Also situated on the banks of Lake Tanganyika, Mahale National Park is substantially larger than Gombe, extending over the craggy Mahale Mountains and across rolling hills to the east. The forested western slopes are home to a substantial population of chimpanzees, with many families being the subjects of scientific study for over 50 years. And how better to celebrate a successful (and exhausting) day spent trekking for chimps than diving into the cool embrace of Lake Tanganyika’s crystal waters or lounging on its beaches, cocktail in hand?

Tanzania Western Safari Circuit
Picturesque Lake Tanganyika

Katavi National Park

Katavi National Park is one of Tanzania’s most electrifying African safari destinations, ruled by the cadence of the rainy season. During the late dry season, the park swelters beneath a merciless sun and its residents are forced to compete for access to the remaining water in a dramatic battle for survival. Visitors who venture here off the beaten safari track are rewarded with a natural African nirvana that they can enjoy all to themselves.

Tanzania Western Safari Circuit
Elephants of Katavi
Africa Geographic Travel

Tanzania’s eastern/coastal circuit

With all the excitement of an African safari, complete with early mornings, dusty roads and adrenaline-inducing sightings, it is well worth taking a few days to collect one’s emotions before returning home from Tanzania. And where better to do that than on one of the country’s paradise tropical beaches? Though the mainland offers some beautiful spots to soak in the sun, the islands off-shore provide the best seaside escapes.

Tanzania Coastal Safari Circuit

Zanzibar Island

Zanzibar is the largest and most popular of Tanzania’s islands, renowned as a honeymoon destination and beach paradise. From dazzling beaches to the vibrant cultural hub of Stone Town, Zanzibar is an accessible and relatively affordable island Utopia.

The island paradise of Zanzibar

Mafia Island

Less crowded and more exclusive than Zanzibar, Mafia Island offers the perfect place to soak up the resplendent marine scenery, including snorkelling, diving with whale sharks, and even watching hundreds of turtle hatchlings make their perilous first journey to the sea.

Mafia Island is a beach haven away from the crowds

Pemba Island

Like Mafia Island, Pemba Island is quieter than Zanzibar, removed from the trappings of mass tourism. Its fertile soils support rolling hills covered with fruit-laden coconut, banana and cassava trees. The warm waters surrounding it are famous for their exceptional diving and snorkelling opportunities.

Dolphin spotting off Pemba Island

Final thoughts

No matter the safari circuit, Tanzania is a country that consistently delivers excitement and copious natural wonders to its fortunate visitors.

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