Tanzania Safari Circuits – North and South

This post discusses the two circuits that make up Tanzania’s safari landscape. When selecting a safari itinerary, it is important that one is aware of the parks and routes that make up each circuit as well as the gateways into each.

When visiting Tanzania, you might want to combine it with Kenya (see our post) and since both destinations offer different experiences, we compare them here. For better planning your trip, you may also want to review our Great Migration post in order to determine the best time of year for travel. We describe the northern circuit in greater detail, see our post.

Tanzania, Mara River crossing with Giraffe watching

TIP: We describe other excellent safari locations further south in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa.

The red dots on the map below identify the typical areas in the so called northern safari circuit. Based on our research and experience, the most prolific areas in the circuit are the Serengeti ecosystem and the Ngorogoro Conservation Area which includes the famous crater. Another small park in the circuit we’ve been to is Arusha National Park, which has a nice waterfall but the park visit is only warranted as a side trip on your way into or out of Arusha or Kilimanjaro airport (JRO).

The remaining parks in the northern circuit are: Lake Manyara National Park, Tarangire National Park, and Kilimanjaro National Park which we have not visited. Based on advice from many safari outfitters and from our safari guides and from fellow travelers, these 3 parks are usually added to fill up a longer itinerary or when you don’t have enough time to visit the Serengeti. We’ve never added them to our itineraries because our visits have always been for the migration season in the Serengeti.

A typical itinerary for a 5-7 day drive-in safari departs Arusha, then to Tarangire or Lake Manyara, then into the crater followed by Ndutu area, and finally back to Arusha or on to Seronera for a flight back to Arusha or JRO, or some variation of this. If your time allows, try to spend more time at one camp in Ndutu rather than driving to see 4 or 5 parks.

Arusha, the safari gateway

As seen on the map above, Arusha is a convenient gateway when driving to any of the parks in the northern circuit. A safari outfitter will always offer to start your safari drive start from Arusha because most guides/jeeps are stationed in Arusha, which is good for the outfitter because they can start charging you a full daily safari rate from the beginning. Sometimes, depending on time of year and what you want to see, it may be better for you to fly-in to your camp and start your safari from the airstrip.

We’ve heard that some travelers arrive in Arusha without any safari itinerary, hoping to shop around for an outfitter to plan out their safari. Apparently the price is much lower doing it that way. However, the quality of your safari guide is one of the most important factors in a great safari experience, yet the lowest cost last minute safari package is not likely to yield a great safari guide. Many outfitters will sign you up but sub-contract your safari to the highest bidding independent guide. If you are buying a last minute safari package from an operator in Arusha, at least ask for the name of the guide and where they are from, how many years they’ve been guiding.

Even with a fly-in to your safari camp instead of driving, Arusha has connections to most airstrips serving the Serengeti due to its proximity to Kilimanjaro International Airport, which is only 1 hour away by car. Arusha is not as interesting or as big as Nairobi or Dar, but we enjoyed our stay there, and although its economy depends heavily on the tourist dollar, it isn’t a touristy town.

Lodging in Arusha

A great place to spend a few days on your way to or from a safari is the Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge in Arusha. Set in lush gardens amid forest and crystal clear waters on the slopes of Mount Meru, the Lodge has been adapted from an early colonial farmhouse built in the early 20th century and it is one of the oldest family lodges in Arusha. There is hiking in the forest connected to the lodge, it is inhabited by Colobus and Sykes monkeys as well as hundreds of small animal and bird species.

Other lodging options are the African Tulip, which we also stayed at. It is a good hotel for one night, there are no grounds to walk around or hike in, it serves mostly as a transfer hotel. It has a restaurant and the food is good, although it is in need of a renovation, it suffices for a night before you depart on your international flight or on a safari.

Arusha National Park

The Arusha National Park is only 45 minutes away from Arusha, and one of the only places in Tanzania for canoeing safaris (see our post here about different types of safaris throughout Africa). It encompasses the snow-capped peak of Mount Meru, the little sister of Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s great for a half-day visit, or a long hike, you have to have a ranger with you for the hikes (which you pay for), he carries a gun for protection.

Other Parks in the Northern Circuit

Lake Manyara National Park offers beautiful landscape, and almost all of its 330 sq km is lake (200 sq km), and therefore a famous birding location boasting 500 bird species. This park is also famous for its tree-climbing lions, which feed on the wildebeest, impalas, waterbucks, dik-diks coming to the lake.

Tarangire National Park is named after the Tarangire River which flows through it. Although you can see wildebeest, buffalos, hippos, giraffes, zebras, and waterbucks, this park is known for its large elephant herds.

Both of these parks are near each other, and the best time to visit them is the dry season (June to Sept), while the worst time is wet season (March-April).

Kilimanjaro National Park encompasses enormous Mount Kilimanjaro and its six climate zones. The lower areas are lush green vegetation and surrounded by mountain forest belt. This accommodates many animal species, both common and endemic.

TIP: Mount Kilimanjaro is in Tanzania, but it is best viewed from Amboseli park, just across the border in Kenya.

Tanzania’s Southern Circuit

The coastal city of Dar es Salaam is typically the gateway for safaris in southern Tanzania; it is the largest city in Tanzania and the country’s financial hub. Arusha on the other hand is gateway to northern Tanzania safaris, and that’s where we went.

The southern circuit includes the Selous Game Reserve (over 50,000 km²) which is the largest designated wildlife area in all of Africa. In 2019, a large section (30,000 km²) of Selous was designated as the Nyerere National Park. Tanzania: boat trips along the Rufiji River in Nyerere National Park and the Selous Game Reserve (55 are two of the few places in Africa where it’s possible to view wildlife from the water.

One of Selous’ key attractions lies in the official status of the “Game Reserve”, it is not a national park. This means that it is not bound by many of the rules intrinsic to the government-run national parks, and is instead privately managed. Unfortunately, much of the Selous Game Reserve is dedicated to very profitable hunting. Another attraction is Selous and Ruaha have a handful of lodges between them,

When to go

The peak tourist season is June through September, but October to early November is still an excellent time to catch the river crossings on the herds’ southbound journey when they are near the Mara River in Kogatende and Lamai.

Early November in particular is a fantastic time to see the migration. By mid-November the central Serengeti around Seronera region may provide good opportunities to catch the herds on their way to their to their preferred area: the short-grass plains in the south (near Ndutu). They stay in the south until around March, when they begin their migration north west (see out post on the migration).

Mondisti’s Tanzania Trip Tips

  1. Tanzania’s Northern Circuit and its migration are not to be missed.
  2. The Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro National Parks are the two parks you must include in your itinerary.
  3. Be careful in planning your itinerary as each park requires its own entrance fees and the transfers between parks is heavily monitored.
  4. Arusha is a warm and vibrant town and you should spend a few days here, there are interesting accommodations.
  5. The Ngorongoro Crater is a one time visit, you don’t have to repeat it.
  6. Even though the great migration has changed over the years, the best time to visit is July to November.
  7. Please consider  taking supplies for schools or medical clinics on your next African trip:  http://www.packforapurpose.org/