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Tanzania safaris – Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater

Tanzania boasts 2 of the most iconic safari areas in Tanzania and all of Africa: the Serengeti ecosystem and the Ngorongoro (Crater) ecosystem. We visited both of these areas and describe them in this post.

When visiting Tanzania, you will also want to look at Kenya (see our post). Both of these destinations offer unforgettable experiences (see our review of both). As well, you will want to look at the migration patterns (see our post) and weather (see our post) in order to assess the best time of year for travel. Another important consideration is the number of tourists you will have to contend with (see our post on how to avoid the crowds).

Although Tanzania and Kenya are premiere safari destinations, you may also want to look further south at Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa.

Both of these ecosystems are in the so called northern safari circuit of Tanzania, which also includes Lake Manyara National Park, Tarangire National Park, and Arusha National Park. The southern safari circuit is the topic of another post, but it is summarized below, at the bottom of this post.

Serengeti National Park

Tanzania, Serengeti, Mondisti author with lions

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 Serengeti is the oldest in Tanzania and by far its most popular. This means during peak season of June through September, it can get crowded.

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.

Tanzania, serengeti, Mondisti author at breakfast on river

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. More detailed description in our post on migration.

Tanzania, Serengeti, Lions stretching
Lioness doing some stretching

The sight of the mega river crossings, with thousands of animals is dramatic, as is calving season when thousands of wildebeest and zebras are born daily. The mega herds can virtually be seen year round, but their location during migration is season (rain) driven. The river crossings only happen in the north (Grumeti and Mara) but the massive herds are in Tanzania from December to July. (Click here for our detailed post on the migration to help you plan where and when to start your safari).

Tanzania giraffe close up

The British evicted the resident Maasai from the park in 1959 and moved them to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

When visiting the Serengeti, you have a wide choice of lodging: from luxury to basic and mobile camps to permanent lodges and every combination thereof.

Ngorongoro Crater – Tanzania

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area (8,288 km²) is named after its 2 million year old volcanic crater. The crater walls are 400 to 600 metres high and its floor covers 260 km². Because the crater is completely enclosed it has its own ecosystem of flora and fauna found all year round.

My wish is to stay always like quietly in a corner of nature – Claude Monet

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 and black-maned male lions. 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 shallow Lake Magadi, and in the east is Gorigor Swamp and the Ngoitokitok Springs where pods of hippo are to be found.

The only down side of the crater is the numbers of other vehicles and tourists that you will encounter. Every visitor to Tanzania wants a glimpse of this amazing natural wonder and the diversity of game within its confines.

The  Oscar-winning movie Out of Africa was filmed partly in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. One of the scenes you can spot the crater is when Denys takes off from the Olkurruk airstrip and flies over the Maasai Mara and Ngorongoro.

Arusha & Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s safari gateways

Tanzania zebra jumping

Sadly, sometimes the mini-buses out-number the animals here; you can find the side of mass tourism to Africa that we don’t like. Hence we’ve strived to find ways of visiting these areas, whilst avoiding the human hotspots. The ‘northern circuit’ remains its most famous safari area. The Ngorongoro Crater and the Rift Valley’s Lake Manyara are names to conjure with – whilst the Serengeti’s great migration is one of the world’s great wildlife spectacles; no wonder it attracts hundreds of thousands of human visitors every year!SOUTHERN CIRCUIT: Tanzania has always relied on its iconic northern circuit to carry its tourism and as it was a poor country was not able (or thought it unnecessary) to develop the southern parks.

Tanzania, leopard

Arusha is very close to Kilimanjaro International Airport which has flights from Kenya, Nairobi and Europe, and also connections to most airstrips serving the Serengeti. Arusha is near the Kenyan border in the foothills of Mount Meru, and is not as interesting or as big as Nairobi or Dar, and its economy depends heavily on the tourist dollar. If you have a couple of days between safaris, the Arusha National Park is only 45 minutes away, and one of the only places in Tanzania for canoeing safari (see our post here about different types of safaris throughout Africa).

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.

Tanzania’s Southern Circuit

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,

Zanzibar – it it worth a visit?

One of the recurring questions asked is whether Zanzibar is worth a visit, as part of a safari trip. Although you can sit on a beach in many places in the world and we would not recommend taking time out of a safari experience to visit a beach island, Zanzibar is different (if you are not going for the beach). It is an archipelago (part of Tanzania) off the coast of East Africa, with its main island, Unguja, home of Stone Town (UNESCO cultural heritage site). A historic trade center with Swahili and Islamic influences, it has winding lanes with minarets, carved doorways and interesting 19th-century landmarks. As a base for traders from the African Lakes region, India, and the Arabian peninsula, Zanzibar became a hub for the region’s slave and spice trades. Its diverse history makes it worth visiting.

Tanzania, Zanzibar, panorama

Most Zanzibaris consider themselves Zanzibari rather than Tanzanian, and their territory has its own leader and governing bodies. Due to its cultural diversity and proximity to two countries with world class safaris, it is now home to some of East Africa’s most posh luxury resorts. The island itself is extremely poor.

The high-speed boats run four times a day each way, take about two hours, and a ticket will run you less than half of what it costs to fly. The trip Dar/Zanzibar should take about 2 hours whilst the trip Pemba/Zanzibar will take about 70 minutes.

Zanzibar cuisine is a fusion of flavors, Indian, Arab, Chinese, Portuguese and African cooking traditions, all driven by local spices. Try some interesting fusion foods such as African ugali, Indian chapatti, Swahili curries, octopus curry and urojo, a turmeric and coconut-based soup with crispy fritters and spiced potatoes.

Mondisti’s seven takaways:

  1. Both Kenya and Tanzania should be at the top of your list if you want an authentic African safari experience.
  2. Both the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti National Parks are spectacular “must do” safari experiences. The Ngorongoro Crater is optional.
  3. Nairobi is an interesting city and you should spend a few days here but you may want to check out the political situation before you commit as it has experienced terror bombings.
  4. A very popular spot called “Treetops”, just outside Nairobi is included in the guidebooks as a must do experience. We would not recommend it as the experience is trivial and takes away valuable time you could spend elsewhere.
  5. Even though the great migration has changed over the years, the best time to visit is July to November.
  6. Please consider  taking supplies for schools or medical clinics on your next African trip:
  7. Zanzibar is worth a visit if you are not going for the beach.
F. J. St-Pierre

Frank is a founding Mondisto, whose favourite travel book is still The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain's first book, who also penned the following observation:
Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime...

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