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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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/