Tanzania, in my opinion, has the best safari.
I’ve taken safaris in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Namibia, and India. Conservation initiatives, the scale of national parks, and a ban on off-road driving have all contributed significantly to Tanzania’s top-tier safari experience, in contrast to Kenya, where key parks have succumbed to mass tourism.
Safaris usually provide a one-of-a-kind experience, and it’s time to find out why. Imagine waking up in the middle of the savannah in a magnificent tent with a view of the red and purple sky at dawn. The whisper of the grass and the sounds of the woods transport us back to our primal selves. You get into a 4×4 Toyota Land Cruiser after enjoying some locally grown coffee and go on a drive.
At that time, the animals are still active, either feeding, hunting, or heading to a nearby water source while wandering the huge plains.
A guided walk on the savannah after early dawn is an even more enchanting experience. Zebras, giraffes, numerous antelope, and occasionally elephants can be seen from only twenty meters away. When they spot a human, they flee, although this is part of the savannah’s civilization. Everyone has a role to play. The wonderful sensation of tranquility that comes with walking over the grass at daybreak is an unforgettable experience.
Ballooning over the Serengeti
However, an even better experience is taking a hot air balloon ride at dawn. You need to set off quite early; we left at four in the morning to reach the balloon in time before sunrise. In the darkness, we saw lions feasting on a freshly caught gazelle and many other animals as they don’t sleep at night. Balloons are inflated with hot air and take off just before sunrise. It’s an unforgettable experience, as there are few like it in life. While the balloon peacefully floats a hundred meters above the savannah, herds of animals flee because they are disturbed by the occasional sound of the burner; it’s like scenes from African documentaries. Not all animals run away. Hippos bathe in ponds, and nothing can disturb their peace. Tracks show they have returned from grazing and now resting in the water.
In accordance with tradition, the hot air balloon ride concludes with champagne. We landed among giraffes, and a table was set up with chilled South African sparkling wine brought by the ground crew.
The pilot shared stories about the early days of ballooning and the tradition of sipping sparkling beverages. After that, a warm breakfast was served by the team of chefs and waiters who followed the balloon in Land Cruisers.
How to organize a safari
If these experiences have awakened your desire for a safari, it might be a good idea to consider booking a safari tour in Tanzania. But which safari to choose is now the question, so here are a few tips.
Safaris are organized through a local agency. In theory, you could go on your own, but I don’t see a reason to do so. An individual organization is possible. In Arusha, there are companies that rent cars and camping equipment. To drive on the roads inside the parks, 4×4 vehicles are required because the roads are in poor condition and full of potholes. The biggest problem is if the driver is not experienced in the local terrain, it can be challenging to navigate because there are no signposts. Navigating can be problematic. Additionally, the driver may not know where the animals are because some are territorial and stay within their own areas. Inside the Serengeti, there are organized camps at several locations for those who come with their own tents.
The agency provides a vehicle with a driver who is also a guide. These are usually large, modified Land Cruisers for six passengers and their belongings (soft bags are recommended). Prices (in 2023) range around $500 USD per day. You will also need to add entrance fees for the Ngorongoro, Serengeti, Tarangire, and Manyara National Parks, which range from $59 to $71 USD per day per person. Additionally, there is a fee for descending into the Ngorongoro Crater, which is $350 USD per vehicle.
Our driver and guide were George Munge, the owner of the Northland Tanzania Safaris agency in Arusha. I can recommend him for several reasons. He has a good car and knows how to drive, he is familiar with the locations because he has been doing this job for over 16 years, he organizes picnics in the wilderness during daily safaris, knows people in various places, and is an interesting conversationalist.
The most crucial factor is the driver because they know where to look for animals and the routes of the major migrations. Large herds of wildebeest, zebras, and gazelles are in constant motion throughout the year in search of food, moving through Tanzanian national parks and briefly crossing the Mara River before visiting Maasai Mara National Park in Kenya.
Keep in mind that a safari means spending a lot of time in a vehicle on rough dirt roads full of potholes. Sometimes, “game drives” are conducted at dawn and dusk, while other times, you may spend the entire day transferring from one camp to another.
Arusha local airport is connected by small airplanes to several grassy runways located in or near national parks, making it possible to fly one way and save several hours of car travel. It is also possible to fly between the parks by renting private planes.
Tented Camps: yes or no?
The word “tent” should be taken loosely when describing this type of accommodation. It’s not even glamping because it’s far above in terms of quality, offerings, and location. Prices range from around three hundred to nearly two thousand USD per night. Some have excellent à la carte restaurants, while others include buffet breakfast and dinner in the price. They offer good local beers like Serengeti, Safari, and Kilimanjaro, as well as imported South African wines, and there are also local wine options from around Dodoma. Beers cost between three to five USD.
These camps are rarely larger than a dozen tents and provide full comfort. Some even have pools, although you might not get a chance to use them if you’re out searching for leopards all day. They are not enclosed and are open to the savannah. At night, you can hear various sounds of birds and animals, often including the roar of lions, the laughter of hyenas, the snarling of wild dogs, and who knows what else. The roar of lions can be heard from a distance of about ten kilometers. There are armed guards at the camps, but there has never been a recorded attack by any animal. After all, they are animals, and in their consciousness, there’s no concept of “food” in a closed space – us. Whether the walls are made of canvas or brick, it doesn’t matter to them because they don’t perceive such structures. If you want to walk in the dark, please notify the guards so that there is always someone with you. Guards will escort you to dinner and, after dinner, back to your tent.
Some of these settlements organize nighttime safaris in open vehicles without doors and windows. At night, you can see many animals as they are active, making it easier to spot lions or cheetahs, and you might even witness a hunt or at least how they eat. Animals don’t see people in open vehicles, so they don’t pay them much attention. Being just a few meters away from a lion while in the vehicle is not dangerous, but it would be a different situation if you were to step out and startle the lion. Therefore, it’s essential to follow the guide’s or ranger’s instructions.
Most new accommodation facilities are Tented Camps because bungalows and hotels are no longer being built as they were at the beginning of the safari tourism development. During our recent trip to Tanzania, we spent seven nights in seven different camps. It became normal for everyone, and despite the initial fear on the first night, soon everything became routine, and no one paid much attention to the lion’s roar or similar sounds. You can quickly adapt to the good.
Serengeti National Park
One of the most popular wildlife-watching destinations is undoubtedly Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. It spans 14,763 square kilometers, and a large number of animals call this place home. You can see the Big 5, as well as numerous bird species and large herds of wildebeest, gazelles, zebras, giraffes, elephants, hippos, and other animals.
You will experience a unique phenomenon if you find yourself in the right place at the right time – witnessing the Great Migration. It’s a movement where wildebeests, together with gazelles and zebras, embark on an 800-kilometer circular journey. Of course, such large herds are followed by predators, so it is easy to see lions and cheetahs feeding, as well as hyenas, scavengers, and others who take their turn to feed on one prey, and then sleep for the entire day.
However, mammals are not the only creatures that adorn this park. The landscape is phenomenal, adorned with acacia trees, combined with forests, rocky terrain, and grasslands, creating a spectacular scenery. Although Serengeti is a tourist hotspot, its vast expanse diminishes the feeling of crowds and overcrowding.
In the Maasai language, Serengeti means “Endless Plains.”
Ngorongoro Conservation Area
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It boasts a lush landscape that appears dramatic, indescribable, and breathtaking – all in one! The reason for its magical backdrop is that it’s located within a volcanic crater with a diameter of 19 kilometers. However, there’s no need to worry because the volcano hasn’t been active for millions of years. Around the crater, there are tall jungle-covered walls, so almost all animals never leave the park. The number of large animals exceeds 30,000 individuals. Therefore, it gives the impression of a massive open-air zoo where animals live in harmony.
With a high concentration of animals, you can see almost all of them in a single day. It’s home to a significant number of lions, so it’s very likely that you’ll spot at least one of these magnificent and powerful cats. A visit to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area increases your chances of seeing a black rhinoceros, and this opportunity is higher than in any other park. It’s considered one of the seven wonders of Africa and is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Near the crater, within the protected area, lies the Olduvai Gorge. It’s a unique place where the oldest hominid fossils were discovered. Fossils were found in the volcanic rocks of Olduvai dating back approximately 3.6 million years, and they were crucial in understanding human evolution. These hominid fossils are believed to be the earliest known evidence of the human species. It’s safe to say that this area is often referred to as the cradle of humanity today.
Replicas of some of the fossils discovered in this area can be found in the Olduvai Museum, along with the footprints of Laetoli (the oldest human footprints ever found). The museum also displays actual fossils of some extinct animals that once lived in this region.
Tarangire National Park
One of the smaller parks in Tanzania is Tarangire National Park. It’s mostly visited by tourists on day trips from Arusha. However, this location is not significantly inferior to the more remote, larger National Parks. It is situated near the town of Arusha, which serves as the starting point for all safaris. You can see almost all animals here except rhinos. After six days in large parks, on the last day here, we spotted a sleeping leopard high in a tree.
Elephant herds come to the Tarangire River in this park. It has the highest concentration of these large mammals in East Africa. They usually have many young ones playing in the mud by the river. The park is home to around 300 of them. The landscape is unique due to the presence of baobab and acacia trees, giving it a typical East African appearance. In this park, you can also go for savannah walks, night and day safaris, and hot air balloon rides when available.
Lake Manyara National Park is one of the smallest in Tanzania and is best known for its spectacular flocks of nearly two million flamingos. Located below the slopes of the Rift Valley, Lake Manyara National Park offers a chance to explore a unique landscape of salt flats and acacia woodlands where elephants, giraffes, and the world’s largest population of baboons roam freely. In addition to its spectacular surroundings, the park is famous for its tree-climbing lions and Maasai giraffes, which are the tallest mammals.
The lake’s shores, when adorned with flamingos-like pearls, attract more than 400 species of birds, many of which are waterfowl migrants. Large herds of buffalo, cheetahs, Maasai giraffes, and impalas wander the lake’s shores and wooded slopes of the valley.
Arusha is the starting point for northern Tanzania safaris
The nearest major city to the parks in northern Tanzania is Arusha. It is an hour away from Kilimanjaro International Airport, which is connected to Europe and the Middle East with direct flights from Turkish Airlines, Qatar Airways, KLM, and others. While it takes between 2.5 to 4.5 hours to reach these parks from Arusha, the city is an excellent place to stay before and after exploring the parks. Arusha is one of the most popular cities for tourists, offering a wide range of hotels. This city is also an ideal place to gain an initial insight into the culture of the Maasai tribe.
Rising above the city is the stratovolcano Mount Meru (4,565 meters), which is part of Arusha National Park. It casts an impressive shadow over the city and provides an excellent alternative to the Kilimanjaro trails. During the climb of Mount Meru, you may have the opportunity to spot wildlife such as zebras, buffaloes, giraffes, and elephants. Mount Meru is sometimes referred to as the “Little Brother of Kilimanjaro,” located about seventy kilometers in the direction of Moshi and the Kenyan border. Interestingly, Mount Meru is considered a sacred mountain with five peaks in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist cosmology, representing the center of all physical, metaphysical, and spiritual universes. The mountain is also mentioned in some non-Indian religions, such as Taoism.
Kilimanjaro is entirely located in Tanzania, although many pictures of wildlife with this magnificent mountain in the background are taken from Amboseli Park in Kenya. The center of the eponymous region is among the richest in the country, with the main town being Moshi. The slopes of this mountain are suitable for growing coffee and various fruits. Unlike the dry savannahs, the landscape here is lush with green shades and plenty of roadside flowers and forests.
Kilimanjaro is a magnet for climbers of all kinds, offering several routes to the summit. The gentlest ascent to the top and back takes about seven days. Guides claim that anyone can reach the summit because all the routes and trails are well-established. At several points, there are shelters or tents, and porters carry the necessary equipment. The biggest challenge is adapting to the altitude. Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa, standing at 5,895 meters above sea level and 4,900 meters above its base. It’s part of Kilimanjaro National Park. The highest peak is called Uhuru, and it’s covered with permanent ice. Due to global warming, it is expected that by 2035, it will lose its glaciers.
This description covers only a part of the most popular safari offerings in Tanzania, known as the Northern Circuit. The country is actively working on establishing other similar wildlife-rich areas in the south. It is said that the plan is for more than a third of the country to become protected areas for wildlife. The Maasai tribe is the only one allowed to live within these protected areas. One of the reasons is that they do not hunt and eat wild animals due to their belief that these animals are part of their ancestors. When they die, their bodies are left on the savannah, where they are eaten by animals, making it a meaningful practice.
They raise livestock, so they do not need to hunt.
As part of their stay in Tanzania, after safaris, many often fly to the island of Zanzibar. Flights to Zanzibar depart from the regional Arusha airport, taking about an hour and a half. From this airport, smaller planes also fly to national parks, allowing you to fly to Serengeti and save several hours of driving on rough roads.
Traveling to Tanzania for a safari can be a life-changing experience that will be talked about for generations. Given global warming and the geopolitical situation in the world, there are very few places left where you can experience untouched nature, so it’s best to start as soon as possible because who knows how long it will last.
To enter Tanzania, a visa is required, which can be obtained online or at the airport. It is better to get it online in advance because it involves less waiting time at the border.