Safaris are addictive. Tanzania’s northern safari circuit boasts 2 of the most iconic areas in all of Africa: the Serengeti ecosystem and the Ngorongoro (Crater) ecosystem. We have visited both of these areas several times and plan to go back. Our first visit was in 1999 and our most recent visit was 2021 – the pandemic created a few logistical issues but there were so few people in the camps that it was a unique and unforgettable experience.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Ngorongoro Crater
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area (8,288 km²) is named after the volcanic crater, but extends all the way to the Serengeti National Park. The Oscar-winning movie Out of Africa was filmed partly in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The Ngorongoro Crater is on almost every drive-in safari itinerary that starts in Arusha. The crater is 2 million years old, with crater’s walls 400 to 600 meters high, and a floor covering 260 km². Because the crater is completely enclosed it has its own ecosystem, and flora and fauna found all year round.
There are around 30,000 animals ranging from leopard, cheetah, elephant and hyena to warthog, buffalo and impala. It’s also one of the best places to see the endangered black rhino. Although many wildebeest, buffalo and zebras enter or exit the volcano depending on the season, the majority of the game resides on the grasslands in the north of the Crater. In the south west corner is the Lerai Forest and a shallow lake, while in the east is Gorigor Swamp and the Ngoitokitok Springs where pods of hippo are to be found. The crater has a dense population of lions (considering the crater’s small territory) and many black-maned males are here. Because the crater forms a natural enclosure the lion population has a very small amount of new bloodlines that enter the local gene pool.
The crater sees many vehicles and tourists, and because the crater is small with no off-road driving, you can quickly find your jeep is one of many in a long dusty convoy. In our experience, every visitor to Tanzania should have a glimpse of this amazing landscape and its diversity of game; having said that, we’ve seen it once but avoided it on our two return trips.
Because there are so many visitors to the crater, there is a wide selection of quality lodging, and if your budget allows, make sure you book accommodation on the rim of the crater with a view. The photo above was taken in 1999 from the balcony of our room at the Serena lodge, which at the time was considered very nice (Serena lodges have changed considerably). Since then, many more properties of higher quality and with better views have been built on the rim.
Ndutu is technically in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and when in Ndutu, you cross over between the two parks in order to follow herds or beasts of prey. For planning purposes, it is all part of the northern circuit, but 2 different parks.
The Njozi Camp is unique in that the owners of the camp are also the guides. It is a basic camp with nice tents but bucket showers, the food is good. The guides are top notch with extensive experience in the area’s wildlife. There is a concentration of lions here and the area is in the wildebeest migration route, so if you are here during the migration, you may wake up to wildebeest surrounding the camp. Njozi is a great camp in which to spend two days.
Masai tribesmen were brought in from a nearby village to guard our tent, mostly from lions but also other predators. They are part of the largest known tribe in Tanzania and Kenya. The British evicted the resident Maasai from the park in 1959 and moved them to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
Moving between the NCO and the Serengeti park
It is best to plan which day you will be crossing between the two parks, because park permits are tightly monitored.
Serengeti National Park
The word Serengeti means “the place where the land runs on forever”, an apt description for a land boasting the largest terrestrial mammal migration in the world. The northern Serengeti near the Mara River is a very popular safari destination during high season (June-Sept), mainly because this is where the famous river crossings occur, where many hundreds of thousands of migrating wildebeest cross the river.
Southern Serengeti – Kusini
Kusini is an area in the Southern Serengeti National Park, a remote and peaceful game-filled plains that is full of wildlife throughout the year. Sanctuary Kusini Camp is the only permanent camp in this remote area. Permanent camps have generally more facilities than seasonal camps (see our post on planning a safari).
The Kusini Sanctuary Camp is a luxury permanent camp with excellent facilities. The landscapes are vast and spectacular with an abundance of wildlife. The only drawback with this area is the concentration of tse tse flies. We had never experienced these pests at this level before, they are unrelenting and more than mere nuisances, their bites can cause redness and swelling and can require medical attention. Visitors are advised to bring ankle guards but these flies attack every part of the body, not just ankles.
While very popular, there is less lodging on the Tanzania side of the river than on the Kenya side, and consequently it is less crowded. Because these river crossings are on everyone’s bucket list, planning ahead is important; pre-pandemic lodging got booked years in advance, but in 2021 there was much choice.
Central Eastern Serengeti – Namiri Plains
The Namiri Plains in the central eastern Serengeti is an area famous for the Kopjes, large granite rock formations that are a great habitat for lions. The Asilia Lodge here is architecturally unique and the only permanent lodge in the area. It is astounding what they were able to build in such a remote location.
Central Serengeti – Seronera
We spent two days at the Lemala Nanyuki tented lodge. The area is a transition point between Namiri Plains and Central Serengeti. Baboons and antelope roamed outside our room, with a view of the endless plains.
This area is not far from Namiri Plains and it had not originally been on our itinerary. We had booked another Lemala property – Mara Mara Tented Camp (further west) that was subsequently closed due to the pandemic, so we were moved to their flagship Lodge, Nanyuki. Although a beautiful property, we had just spent four days in Namiri Plains and had planned for a different location with a different concentration of wildlife.
We moved to Kubu Kubu Tented Lodge, a Tanganyika property which is northwest and just south of the airstrip, for some variation in landscape and wildlife, closer to our original booking, Lemala Ewanjan Tented Lodge. Kubu Kubu Tented Lodge has some spectacular natural scenery, a huge pool and a hippo pool nearby. Lake Magadi, just south of the lodge is full of flamingos due to its dense sodium carbonate brine is also worth a visit. Two to three days here is a great addition to any safari itinerary.
We were in the Northern Serengeti twice during 2021, once in March and once in October. Both times we stayed at an Asilia property. Sayari in March and Olakira in October.
The holy grail of African safaris is the wildebeest migration along the Mara River between Tanzania and Kenya. Northern Serengeti is where the wildebeest cross the river to come to greener pastures. The timing of the crossings are becoming increasingly difficult. Generally, if the ‘short-rains’ season (about November to December, more or less) is wetter than usual, the wildebeest will arrive in the south earlier than normal. But if it is dryer than normal, they will arrive later than normal. The wildebeest prefer the southern plains, therefore as soon as the southern plains get rainfall the wildebeest arrive. See our post on how weather affects the migration.
During our October, 2021 trip, we were fortunate to see crossings every day, with the help of our excellent guide, Kanaeil. The Mara River is treacherous — we saw crocs capture a number of wildebeest but other hazards like the currents, depth of water and boulders can also lead to many more deaths, sometimes thousands at one crossing. We saw a couple of large crossings but nothing like the one our guide said he saw that was six hours long. The croc shot below is just one of the many unfortunate.
Because the great wildebeest migration spectacle is unlike other safaris due to the huge numbers of animals, the crowds can get large during high season and sometimes it seems the tourists outnumber the animals. See our post on how to avoid the crowds.
Mondisti’s safari trip tips:
- Tanzania’s Northern Circuit and its migration are not to be missed.
- The Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro National Parks are the two parks you must include in your itinerary.
- Be careful in planning your itinerary as each park requires its own entrance fees and the transfers between parks is heavily monitored.
- Arusha is a warm and vibrant town and you should spend a few days here, there are interesting accommodations.
- The Ngorongoro Crater is a one time visit, you don’t have to repeat it.
- Even though the great migration has changed over the years, the best time to visit is July to November.
- Please consider taking supplies for schools or medical clinics on your next African trip: http://www.packforapurpose.org/