Tanzania Wildlife Safaris, East Africa

A leopard hanging out in the Eastern Serengeti, Tanzania

A leopard hanging out in the Eastern Serengeti, Tanzania.

Getting the best from a Tanzania Safari

Where to go

Tanzania tourism is often divided into either/or. . .

Go North for teeming wildlife, grand scenery and tourist herds photo-grazing everywhere. The dream of a magical, remote safari experience may be killed stone dead if every time you get near something interesting – such as lions chowing down on a fresh wildebeest breakfast – a dozen open-top 4WDs screech up and jostle for pole-picture position. If you decide to go north, which you should, then go with expectations of a wildlife Grand Prix, factoring in thousands of animals pursued by tens of jeeps and you won’t be disappointed.

Go South for less animals, less tourists, worse roads, better ambience, more cost.

A lonely wildebeest wandering past a flamingo social club in the Ngorongoro lake, Tanzania

A lonely wildebeest wandering past a flamingo social club in the Ngorongoro lake. Photo by Fabrice Stoger.

How to get the best experience

• Crowds tend to gather around the relatively rare predators; as far as other wildlife is concerned – elephants, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, hyenas and so on – there is no shortage of these so tourists can get a lot more space and sense of isolation even in busy game parks like the Maasai Mara and Serengeti with an experienced and knowledgeable guide.

• A good (human, as opposed to book! ) guide is invaluable in any of East Africa’s game parks, leading you to dramatic scenes and rarer animals before the herds of camera-wallies arrive, as well as providing information and lifestyle snippets of the beasts you come across. This is definitely worth paying a premium for!

• Sometimes it’s better to go to more popular safari places where the animals are accustomed to human spectators and don’t flee at the sight of the first safari truck. You could find yourself, for example, on an expensive, personal safari in a remote location where there are not only fewer animals around but all of them run for their lives as soon as your wheels get within half a mile.

• If you are travelling individually or on a budget head for Arusha town and pick up a tour or wildlife-safari package there.

A Toyota safari truck and zebra in Serenget, Tanzania

Only one Toyota? Must be a slow day in the Eastern Serengeti. Photo by Harvey Barrison.

The Migration

This massive wildlife event involves mainly wildebeest and zebra with accompanying predators as they shift from the drying plains of the Serengeti reserve in Tanzania to the sweet green grasslands of Kenya’s Mara plains between the months of June and August. This is the world’s biggest animal event and worth making a huge effort to see, though the costs are equally huge
Timing is complex with a lot depending on local conditions, especially rainfall. Obviously animals are only traveling to different areas in search of food, so if it happens to rain where they are new grass will appear and they’ll stay there until the region dries out.

Approximate migration timing

Animals start massing in Tanzania in June. They move into north Tanzania in July and start to enter Kenya in August.
The beests (sic) are mainly established in Kenya September and October.
They head back into Tanzania during November after the short rains in early November.
During the winter December to March animals shuffle around southern Serengeti, heading into north Serengeti in April/May.

Tanzania, Serengeti National Park, An olive baboon family photobombed by a young impala

An olive baboon family photobombed by a young impala and caught by Harvey Barrison.

North Tanzania parks

Arusha town is comfortable, reasonably well-organised and a popular base for exploring northern wildlife parks (aka The Northern Safari Circuit), climbing local mountains such as Meru and Longido, hiking forests, shopping for souvenirs or taking part in cultural tourism, especially involving Maasai lifestyles. Nightlife is lively and inexpensive.
Arusha is about 10 hours by bus from Dar es Salaam.
Arusha has its own pretty little game reserve, Arusha NP, with magnificent views of Mt. Meru and Mt. Kilimanjaro, a lush and restful rainforest and no shortage of wild things.

Wildebeest massing in the Eastern Serengeti, tanzania

Wildebeest in the Eastern Serengeti. Photo by Harvey Barrison.

***Serengeti National Park, the grand old man of wildlife-safari parks, Serengeti’s vast golden plains are breath-taking and crammed with critters, though several million of them (mainly wildebeest and zebra) will head for Kenya’s water holes sometime between June and August so do check with tour operators on timing if you plan to tour the great Serengeti plains. Most tourists get there via Arusha.

Ngorongoro

Maasai cattle in Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

Amazingly the Maasai people put their cattle to pasture inside the massive Ngorongoro caldera, but always with a guard. Photo by Vince Smith.

***Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a uniquely lush and picturesque volcanic bowl, the largest unbroken caldera in Africa, with its own micro-ecosystem of lakes and forests that attracts many species of animals, including the ‘Big Five’. However, due to Ngorongoro’s relatively small land area human overload may detract from the ambience.
Views from the crater rim are worth the trek up there. Most tourists get there via Arusha.

Hippopotamus posing with friends, Serengeti, Tanzania

Hippopotamus posing with friends. Photo by Roburq.

Tarangire NP

***Tarangire NP/CA, a massive, somewhat uncared-for game reserve encompassing both a National Park and a Conservation Area (CA), offers almost the number of animals as Serengeti or Ngorongoro but far less tourists and a fine river to boot, in the NP.
Tarangire’s three specialities are elephants, birds (more than any other Tanzanian park, best time for bird-watching is September-March) and baobab trees, those obese, alien and extremely photogenic trees that are not, in fact trees, but super-size succulents. Guided bush walks are offered in Tarangire CA.
Tarangire NP is best July-October, Tarangire CA is best December-March (migration time), also July-October.
Tourists can get there in two hours from Arusha.

African Bush Elephants in the Eastern Serengeti, Tanzania

African Bush Elephants in the Eastern Serengeti. Photo by Harvey Barrison.

Lake Manyara NP

*Lake Manyara NP is a smaller NP in a scenic location at the base of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, with plenty of scattered shrubbery and differing habitats in place of the wide-open spaces enjoyed by the grand old NPs, but is nevertheless home to abundant wildlife, with particularly impressive flamingo gatherings.
Unfortunately human expansion around the town of Mto wa Mbu is reducing land available for wildlife and at the same time polluting the lake waters, so the future of this pleasant little park is bleak, though the town is home for over forty ethnic tribes and has accommodation and an excellent cultural programme if you have an interest in ethnic groups.

Giraffes in the Serengeti, Tanzania

Giraffes photographed by Harvey Barrison.

*Engaruka, just north of Mto wa Mbu, is another spot of ethnic interest with a large and mysterious, 15thC stone town in an arid location currently occupied by the Maasai but not -apparently – of their making.

Central/South Tanzania parks

Selous Game Reserve

***Selous is a well-organised space with varied safaris possible, including walking and boating. Only a limited section is open to tourists but the whole park is the size of Switzerland so that’s not a problem and the number of visitors is way less than up north, so the atmosphere is more exclusive.
The scenery around the Rufiji river is especially attractive and awash with hippo, elephant, zebra, lions and others; most lodges and tented camps lean towards luxury living. Best July-October, the dry season or January-February for bird watching. Get there from Dar es Salaam though roads are bad and flights are encouraged.

*Mikumi National Park is primarily woodland and sports plenty of wildlife but can be tricky to find predators. Best September-October. Get there from Dar es Salaam, 300 kms away.

Lion sex in the Serengeti, Tanzania

Leonine romance peeped in Tanzania by Kip Lee. The average lion’s sexual activity can last for up to four days at a time. Copulation lasts about a half minute to a minute and is repeated once every 20 minutes during these days. And no viagra to help out!

West Tanzania parks

**Katavi NP, quiet, remote and undeveloped yet loaded with beasts and birds so Katavi is the place for those who really want to get away from the human hordes, though camps are limited in number and access difficult other than by plane. Best July-October (dry season).
**Ruaha NP, another excellent small park with as much wildlife as big northern reserves but a fraction of the visitors. Bush walks with an armed ranger are a feature of Ruaha. Best July-October (dry season).

PJ O’Rourke’s view of Safaris from his hilarious and educational book ‘Eat the Rich’

A trip to the game lands of Tanzania isn’t a lonely, meditative journey. Everything I saw was also being ogled by dozens of other folks from out of town, and they were reeling off enough video tape to start a Blockbuster chain solely devoted to out-of-focus fauna. But the tourists pay money, and money is what it takes to keep the parks and reserves more or less unspoiled, and to buy the bullets to shoot poachers. If the animals of Africa aren’t worth more alive to rubbernecks than they’re worth dead to farmers, pastoralists, and rhino-horn erection peddlers then that’s it for the Call of the Wild.

Best seasons for wildlife viewing

December-February and June-September. The weather is relatively cool and dry, meaning less mosquitoes, wildlife is more concentrated due to limited water supplies, more visible due to shorter grass and you have more light to enable use of your new super-telephoto lens!

However, if you wish to see massed animals in Serengeti most are vacationing in Kenya August-October so you’re going to be a few animals short of a safari.

OK: November-December, short rains.

Worst: March-May due to long rains on the coast and August-October if you want mass Serengeti action.