The best developed of Tanzania’s tourism routes is known as the Northern Circuit. Here there’s the chance to see the ‘big five’ – elephant, leopard, lion, rhino and buffalo – and huge herds of wildebeest and zebra on their annual migration.
The circuit includes many of the country’s most famous national parks, Arusha, Lake Manyara, Tarangire and the Serengeti as well as famous landmarks such as the Ngorongoro Crater, the Olduvai Gorge and Africa’s highest mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro.
Just 32 km away from the town of Arusha is the Arusha National Park, it consists of three spectacular features, the Momela Lakes, Mount Meru and the Ngurdoto Crater. On clear days’ magnificent views of Mount Kilimanjaro can be seen from almost any part of the park. The vegetation and wildlife varies with the topography, which ranges from forest to swamp. The park is famous for its 575 species of birdlife, both migrant and resident, and black and white colobus monkey – the only place they may be seen on the Northern Circuit. Elephant are rare, and lion absent all together, but other animals frequently seen in the park are baboon, buffalo, giraffe, hippo, hyena, warthog, zebra and a wide range of antelope species including dik dik and waterbuck.
Leopard are ever-present but, as always, difficult to find. An area of adjoining land was recently incorporated into the park increasing its size to 550sq km. Tourist attractions include canoe safaris on the Momela lakes, riding safaris on specialised car-free routes, and walks around the rim of the Ngurudoto Crater, and three or four day climbs of Mount Meru – good acclimatisation for Kilimanjaro.
Getting there: A short drive from Arusha or Kilimanjaro Airport.
At 5,895m, Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, so it can truly be regarded as the roof of Africa. “As wide as all the world, great, high and unbelievably white,” was Ernest Hemingway’s description. Now a World Heritage site, its outstanding features are its three major volcanic centres; Shira in the west, Mawenzi in the East and the snow-capped Kibo in the centre. The forests of the surrounding national park are inhabited by elusive elephant, leopard, buffalo, bushbuck, the endangered Abbott’s duiker, and numerous other small antelope, primates and rodents. They are however difficult to see due to the dense vegetation.
Getting there: A two-hour drive from Arusha or one-hour from Kilimanjaro International Airport.
This park is famous for its tree climbing lions, which spend most of the day spread out along the branches of Acacia trees six to seven metres above the ground. Nestling at the base of the Great Rift Valley escarpment the park is noted for its incredible beauty. As visitors enter the gate they pass through a lush forest, home to troops of baboons and both blue and vervet monkeys. Further along the forest opens up into woodlands, grassland, swamps and beyond these the soda lake itself, covering 200 sq km and sanctuary to over 400 species of bird including flamingo, pelican, storks, sacred ibis, cormorants and Egyptian geese. The park is particularly noted for its huge herds of buffalo and elephant. Also giraffe, hippo, reedbuck, warthog, wildebeest, zebra, a great variety of smaller animals and, more recently, a family of endangered wild dog.
Getting there: A half hour flight from Arusha or a 90-minute drive en route to the nearby Ngorongoro Crater, Olduvai and the Serengeti.
This former game reserve contains 90% of all botanic species found in Tanzania with one third classified as unique in the world. It is also home to the Mkomazi Rhino Project. This involves the re-introduction of a number of black rhino from South Africa and the UK which, it is hoped, will breed before being relocated to traditional natural habitats within Tanzania. The Captive Breeding Programme for the African wild dog is another project for the preservation of endangered species that is based in Mkomazi.
Getting there: By road from Arusha, Moshi or Tanga.
The Ngorongoro Crater, at 2,286 m. above sea level, is the largest unbroken caldera in the world. Surrounded by very steep walls rising 610 metres from the crater floor, this natural amphitheatre measures 19.2 km in diameter and 304 sq km in area. It is home to up to 30,000 animals, almost half being wildebeest and zebra. Buffalo, elephant, hippo, hyena, jackal, lion, ostrich, serval, warthog, bushbuck, eland, hartebeest, reedbuck, waterbuck and huge herds of both Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelle are easily seen on the crater floor.
Thanks to anti-poaching patrols, the crater is now one of the few places in East Africa where visitors can be certain of seeing black rhino, with the number now approaching 25.
Leopard may occasionally be seen in the trees of the forest surrounding the crater while cheetah are also present but rarely seen. Large herds of giraffe live on the rim of the crater and will be seen on the drive to the nearby Olduvai Gorge and the Serengeti. Countless flamingo form a vast pink blanket over the soda lakes while more than 100 species of birds not found in the Serengeti have been spotted here. The crater, which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, lies within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which covers more than 8,300 sq km. It is bounded by Lake Eysai in the southwest and the Gol Mountains in the north. Roughly in the centre is the Olbalal Swamp and the arid Olduvai Gorge.
Getting there: A three-hour drive, or one-hour flight, from Arusha. A two-hour drive from Tarangire or some 90 minutes from Manyara.
Located within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a short drive off the main road between Ngorongoro and the Serengeti, the name Olduvai derives from Oldupai, which is the Masai word for the type of wild sisal that grows in the gorge. It was here that, in 1959, Dr Louis Leakey and his wife Mary discovered the skull of first Zinjanthropus Boisei, or “nutcracker man”, and then, a year later, the remains of Homo Hablis or “handy man” at that time regarded as mankind’s first step on the ladder of human evolution. Many more fossils have since been discovered including those of prehistoric elephants, giant horned sheep and enormous ostriches. There is a small museum to view and an observation platform, where visitors can listen to an informative talk.
Getting there: A four-hour drive, or one-hour flight, from Arusha. A two-hour drive from Lake Manyara or Tarangire National Park.
The Serengeti National Park is arguably the best known wildlife sanctuary in the world. “Serengeti” means “endless plains” in the Masai language, and within its boundaries are more than three million large mammals. Some 35 species of plains animals may be seen here including the so-called “big seven” – buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard, rhino, cheetah and African hunting dog. Unfortunately, very few of the latter remain in the Serengeti.
Originally exterminated as a threat to domestic stock they have recently become victims of distemper. However, after being decimated by poaching, the black rhino population of the Serengeti has developed well in recent years thanks to constant surveillance and the shielding of the animals from mass tourism. There are now around 30 black rhinos in the Moru Kopjes area but they may be difficult to see as visitors are only allowed to drive through the area on certain roads.
White rhinoceros are not found in the Serengeti. In May or early June, huge herds of wildebeest and zebra begin their spectacular 600-mile pilgrimage. In their wake follow the predators – lion, leopard, cheetah, hyena and jackal – while vultures circle overhead and some of Africa’s biggest crocodile lie in wait. Other animals frequently seen in the Serengeti include aardvark, baboons, caracal, civet, bat-eared fox, genet, giraffe, hippo, honey badger, hyrax, mongoose, ostrich, pangolin, serval, both Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelle, vervet monkey, warthog and some 20 types of antelope including eland, hartebeest or kongoni, impala, kudu, reedbuck, roan, topi, waterbuck and the much smaller dik dik, duiker, klipspringer and oribi. There is, of course, also a great profusion of birdlife. Over 500 species have been recorded including bee-eaters, bustards, cranes, eagles, flamingo, herons, hornbills, guinea fowl, hoopoe, kingfishers, ostrich, parrots, storks, vultures, weavers, and the bizarre, long-legged secretary birds.
Getting there: A six-hour drive, or one-hour flight, from Arusha, or a two and a half hour drive from Mwanza.
Close to Arusha, 118 km away, Tarangire National Park gets its name from the river that threads its way through the reserve. It is famous for its dense wildlife population which is most spectacular between June and September, the dry period. During this time thousands of animals – elephant, buffalo, giraffe, eland, hartebeest, kudu, wildebeest and the rarely seen oryx and gerenuk – migrate from the dry Masai steppe to the Tarangire River looking for water. Lion, leopard and other predators follow the herds.
Tarangire has the largest population of elephant of any park in the northern circuit and is also home to 550 varieties of bird including the Kori bustard – the heaviest flying bird.
Getting there: A 90 minute drive, or 30 minute flight, from Arusha.