To the uninitiated, the mention of Arusha would certainly not set safari tongues wagging. However, the same can’t be said once you know what lies beyond its borders. We asked Philip Briggs, author of Bradt’s Northern Tanzania guidebook, to provide some insight to the city itself and to delve into the list of richly rewarding destinations that it provides access to.
Located on the fertile
southern foothills of Mount Meru, Arusha is Tanzania’s self-styled
‘safari capital’, the most popular and convenient springboard from which
to explore the world-famous Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti National Park
and Kilimanjaro, along with a host of lesser-known reserves and scenic
landmarks. Founded as a German garrison in the 1880s, it is now the
fourth-largest city in Tanzania, and per capita perhaps the wealthiest.
Its economy is buoyed not only by tourism but also by the recent
tanzanite mining boom and its prestigious role as capital of the East
African Community. For first-time visitors, Arusha, with its many
comfortable hotels and trendy eateries, provides an agreeable
introduction to urban Africa, with the volcanic outline of Africa’s
fifth-highest mountain on the northern skyline to provide an imposing
reminder of the many natural wonders that lie further afield.
Top 5 sites around town
Mount Meru Craft and Curio Market Also known as the Maasai Market, this
central collection of 50-plus stalls is a pleasingly down-to-earth
environment in which to buy – and bargain for – Maasai beadwork,
Tingatinga paintings, batiks, jewellery and so forth.
Natural History Museum The limited displays here include various fossils
unearthed at Oldupai, as well as life-size models of Australopithecus
hunter-gatherers, but the main point of interest is arguably the 1890s
German boma in which it is housed.
3 The Tanzanite Experience
(www.tanzaniteexperience.com) This fascinating and free multi-media
museum offers 45-minute tours about the discovery and extraction of
tanzanite, an exquisite blue gem mined only in Tanzania. A boutique
store sells certified gemstones.
4 Warm Heart Art Gallery
(www.warmheartart.com) This aptly named art gallery, complete with a
sunny garden cafe, is also home to the Rock Art Conservation Centre, an
NGO dedicated to the preservation of the rock art of Kondoa (a UNESCO
World Heritage Site).
5 Arusha Declaration Museum Though rather
pricey, this museum on Uhuru Monument Circle is a must for students of
20th-century African history, thanks to its illuminating displays on the
colonial and post-independence Nyerere era.
Top 5 short excursions
Lake Duluti Of particular interest to birdwatchers, this beautiful
forest-fringed crater lake 10km east of Arusha is circled by a
well-maintained walking trail, and can also be explored on organised
canoe trips run out of nearby Serena Mountain Village Lodge.
Camel Safari (www.mkurucamelsafari.com) Based at the village of Mkuru at
the northern base of Mount Meru, this highly regarded community tourist
site is best known for its organised camelback trips, which range from
half-day outings in the surrounding wildlife-rich plains to a week-long
trek to Lake Natron.
3 Longido The perfect antidote to the photo
centric boma visits offered along the northern safari circuit, the
cultural tourism project at Longido provides an opportunity for
uncontrived, genuine immersion in the fascinating Maasai culture. Be
there on Wednesday, when a hectic cattle market is held on the village
4 Ng’iresi (www.arusha-ngiresi.com) Set on the slopes of
Mount Meru, this is another worthwhile community tourism programme – it
explores the culture of the Wa-Arusha people for whom Arusha is named,
as well as some lovely walks in the lush countryside.
Heritage Centre This complex – where former South African and US
presidents Thabo Mbeki and Bill Clinton did their curio shopping –
stocks a vast collection of local craftwork, ranging from towering
carvings to colourful batiks, as well as Tanzanite jewellery and a
selection of Tanzania-themed books.
Arusha National Park
neglected due to its limited Big Five viewing, this extraordinary
conservation area, which incorporates the eastern slopes and peak of
Mount Meru, protects a rich habitat diversity only 30-minutes’ drive
from Arusha. Game drives lead through damp montane forest, its canopy
alive with black-and-white colobus, blue monkeys and the dazzling
Hartlaub’s turaco, to patches of open savannah inhabited by giraffe,
zebra, buffalo and waterbuck, as well as pretty lakes supporting large
seasonal concentration of flamingos. Factor in the grandstand views of
two of Africa’s five largest massifs - not only Mount Meru but also
Kilimanjaro - and this park is not merely a top-ranking itinerary-filler
for those with a half-day spare in Arusha but a truly alluring
destination in its own right.
Top 5 landmarks
Ngurdoto Crater You can’t descend to the base of this 3km-wide,
400m-deep ‘mini-Ngorongoro’ but the view from the forest-fringed rim –
over the swampy crater floor, home to buffalo, warthog and various
– is fantastic.
2 Momella Lakes Fed by subterranean
streams, this cluster of shallow alkaline lakes is a birdwatcher’s
delight. It is also flanked – cloud’s permitting – by the spectacular
pairing of Mount Meru standing tall to the west and Kilimanjaro on the
3 Fig Tree Arch This natural formation at the base
of an immense strangler fig on the road up to Meru Crater comprises an
arch large enough for a 4WD to pass through (provided no heads are
sticking out of the roof – take note!).
4 Meru Crater A three-hour
guided hike from the head of the road, and set at an altitude of 2500
metres, it breaches the crater’s collapsed eastern wall to reach the
base of the intact 1500m-high high cliff that forms the western wall and
the peak of Mount Meru.
5 Hatari (www.hatarilodge.de) Recommended,
especially to film buffs, this unique lodge bordering the national park
is named after, and decorated with memorabilia from, the film Hatari!, a
John Wayne movie shot below Mount Meru in 1961.
Plan your trip
• Best time to visit Good all year round, but the best time to climb Mount Meru is October through February.
Length of stay A day visit allows you to see all the landmarks
accessible by 4WD, but better to stay a night or two to truly take them
in. Overnighting also allows you to do the day hike to Meru crater.
Allow at least 3 nights for a full Meru hike.
Camping is permitted within the park. Numerous lodges (including Hatari)
catering to most budgets are scattered around its borders.
tip A tranquil canoe trip on the scenic Momella lakes is not just a
must for birdwatchers as you are also likely to see large mammals such
as buffalo and waterbuck.
highest mountain, Kilimanjaro is also arguably the world’s tallest
freestanding entity, an extinct volcano towering an incredible 5km above
the plains. On the rare occasions when it isn’t veiled in clouds, its
distinctive silhouette and snow-capped peak form one of the continent’s
most breathtaking sights. It is one of the highest mountains that can be
climbed without specialised equipment by any reasonably fit person, but
that doesn’t mean it should be undertaken frivolously. Aside from being
a major financial investment, a Kili climb can be genuinely tough
going, particularly at higher, colder altitudes... but the rewards speak
Top 5 hiking routes
The least arduous, it also has better rescue facilities, proper
overnight huts, and a fair chance of seeing some wildlife.
Unfortunately, its popularity means that it gets uncomfortably crowded. A
decisive factor for many is that it is the cheapest route – some
foolishly offer five-day options to reduce prices further, but this is
risky with regard to acclimatisation.
2 Machame The most scenic of
the main ascent routes, with great views across to Mount Meru, Machame
is also relatively gradual, meaning it requires at least six or seven
days, enforcing a longer period of altitude acclimatisation.
3 Shira A
relatively gradual ascent over six or seven days, this traverses an
area of high moorland where elephants and buffalo are regularly
4 Rongai The only ascent route from the northeast,
remote Rongai starts close to the Kenyan border and is relatively
undemanding in terms of gradients, offering spectacular views over the
Tsavo plains and good conditions for acclimatisation.
5 Mweka and
Umbwe These are the steepest and fastest routes. Neither is recommended
as an ascent for first-time climbers or those who haven’t acclimatised
by climbing Meru, but they are often used to descend by parties climbing
via Machame or Shira.
Plan your trip
• Best time to visit Trekking conditions are best in the dry seasons (January-February and August-October).
Length of stay At least seven nights, better eight or nine, allowing
for one night based below the mountain either side of a six- to
• Accommodation There are mountain huts on the
Marangu Route. Camping is the only real option on other routes, but it
will be organised by the company that arranges your hike.
• Top tip
Several routes, including Marangu and Rongai, can technically be covered
in a five-day hike, but the risks of altitude sickness are great – your
safety and the odds of summiting successfully improve if you opt for an
additional day or two.
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Tarangire National Park
large national park lies at the core of a much vaster
8000-square-kilometre ecosystem that also includes large unofficially
protected swathes of the semi-arid Maasai Steppes. It is named after the
Tarangire River, which is flanked by a sporadic ribbon of riparian
woodland dotted with the occasional palm tree, and forms an important
magnet for thirsty wildlife in the dry season, when – despite being
reduced to a meagre trickle – it forms the only reliable freshwater
source for miles around. The park is famed for its dense elephant
population, but it also supports healthy populations of lion and
leopard, along with large herds of wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, giraffe,
impala and warthog.
Top 5 sights
hills In more open parts of the park, spectacular red-earth termite
mounds are frequently used as dens by colonies of the delightful dwarf
mongoose, or as perches by beautiful red-and-yellow barbets to perform
their quaint clockwork duet.
2 Tarangire Safari Lodge
(www.tarangiresafarilodge.com) No better place to stop for lunch or a
drink than this tented lodge, which overlooks a stretch of the Tarangire
River where elephant, giraffe and other wildlife maintain a
3 Baobab trees The slopes of Tarangire are
liberally dotted with these ancient and extraordinary trees whose
bulbous trunks can have a circumference of 25m.
4 Elephants With arguably Africa’s highest elephant densities, it’s not unusual to see several hundred in a single game drive.
Endemic birds A fine birding destination, with around 500 species
recorded, Tarangire is the best place to see two species endemic to the
semi-arid savannah of central Tanzania: the spectacular yellow-collared
lovebird (which nests in baobabs) and the somewhat drabber ashy
Plan your trip
• Best time to visit
Inverting the pattern in the southern Serengeti, wildlife densities
here are generally highest in the second half off the year.
• Length of stay At least one night, better two or three.
• Accommodation Several camps and lodges are scattered around the park, as well as in various neighbouring concessions.
Top tip Only an hour’s drive from Arusha on good asphalt, Tarangire in
season is an excellent goal for those with time only for a day or
Lake Manyara National Park
perennially underrated national park is centred on a shallow alkaline
lake with a spectacular setting at the base of the Rift Valley
escarpment. It is renowned for its tree-climbing lions (I enjoyed an
excellent encounter in May 2012). More certain attractions, however, are
the large troops of olive baboon that haunt the groundwater forest,
often accompanied by the shyer blue monkey, and the elephant, buffalo,
giraffe and antelope that graze the lake floodplain. Manyara provides a
superb introduction to East Africa’s avifauna, with more than 400 bird
species recorded within 330 square kilometres, including plentiful
waterbirds and raptors, and a variety of colourful bee-eaters, barbets,
kingfishers and rollers.
Top 5 birding highlights
Silvery-cheeked hornbill The most conspicuous – and bravely vocal –
species associated with the groundwater forest around the park entrance,
this unmistakable character is distinguished by its impressive bulk and
heavy cream-casqued bill.
2 Yellow-billed stork The treetops around
the park entrance gate often support large and strikingly pungent
breeding colonies of this tall and handsome waterbird between February
3 Rufous-tailed weaver One for dedicated twitchers, this
atypical weaver, with its almost babbler-like jizz and behaviour, is the
most singular of half a dozen bird species endemic to the savannahs of
4 Crowned eagle Manyara is renowned for its varied
assemblage of raptors, with more than 50 species recorded, but none
more spectacular perhaps than this large eagle associated with riparian
woodland and forest.
5 Lesser and greater flamingos An erratic
presence here as elsewhere in East Africa, thanks to their dependence on
water conditions being suitable to support the microscopic organisms on
which they feed, flamingos are usually to be seen foraging in the
shallows, with tens of thousands being recorded at times.
Plan your trip
Best time to visit All year round, though avian activity peaks between
October and February, with the arrival of migrants from Europe.
• Length of stay Most safaris dedicate one half-day drive to Manyara, but you could easily spend longer.
Accommodation Only one lodge lies within the park, but there’s no
shortage of hotels, tented camps, budget guest houses and campsites
within 5km of the entrance gate.
• Top tip The vast majority of
safaris visit Manyara in the afternoon. So if you stay overnight or do
an early morning game drive you’ll find it far more peaceful, and you
are more likely to see big cats.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area
after the unique Ngorongoro Crater, this 8292-square-kilometre annex to
Serengeti National Park protects two distinct ecological zones: the
flat short-grass western plains that border the Serengeti, and a
sprawling volcanic massif studded with craggy peaks. The latter zone
includes the 3648m-high Lolmalasin (the country’s third-highest peak
after Kilimanjaro and Meru) and the Ngorongoro Crater, which is of
course the focal point of tourism. One of the world’s largest intact
volcanic calderas, the crater is also a shoo-in contender for any global
shortlist of natural wonders – not only for its inherent geological
magnificence, but also because its verdant floor doubles as a quite
extraordinary wildlife sanctuary, supporting some of the densest
populations of lion, elephant and black rhino. Other attractions include
the dense montane forest that blankets the crater rim, several smaller
(but still very impressive) craters, and the landmark palaeontological
site at Oldupai Gorge.
Top 5 landmarks outside the crater
Heroes Point The top of the switchbacked ascent road from Arusha is
where most visitors will catch their first breathtaking view of the
distant crater floor, often dotted with thousand-strong ant-like
formations of wildebeest, zebra or buffalo.
2 Empakaai Crater This
stunning 500m-deep, 8km-wide volcanic crater encloses a sparkling soda
lake, frequently tinged pink with thousands of flamingos, and reached
via a steep but wonderful footpath down the forested inner cliffs.
Olmoti Crater This rim of this immense sunken caldera – from where you
are bound to see pairs of augur buzzard cartwheeling high in the sky –
is reached along a footpath through montane forest.
4 Oldupai Gorge
It was here in 1959 that Mary Leakey discovered the fossilised
Australopithecine cranium that provided the first evidence that the
timeline of human evolution stretched beyond the million-year mark. An
excellent site museum stands there today.
5 Lake Ndutu This alkaline
lake on the Serengeti border is a good base for game drives, especially
in February when it’s at the epicentre of the wildebeest calving.
Top 5 things to look for in the crater
Lerai Forest Composed almost entirely of jaundiced fever trees, this
forest and the adjoining Gorigor Swamp are the main haunt of the
crater’s elephant population, which is dominated by massive-tusked
2 Lake Magadi This shallow soda lake is best known for the
thousands of flamingos that line its shore – they are hunted with
surprising regularity by the crater’s uniquely dense population of
3 Grassland birds The open crater floor supports
plentiful grassland birds ranging from the small but lovely
rosy-throated longclaw to the hulking kori bustard, which is reputedly
the world’s heaviest flying bird (it also performs a truly spectacular
4 Ngoitokitok Springs The most regularly visited of
the crater’s hippo pools doubles as a picnic spot enlivened by a flock
of black kites that have become adept at swooping down to snatch food
from visitors hands!
5 Black rhinoceros With a naturally confined
population, currently estimated at around 35, Ngorongoro is the best
place in Tanzania to see the endangered back rhino, which – though
normally a diurnal browser – here tends to spend most of the day
standing in open grassland.
Plan your trip
• Best time to visit All year round, but we rate the crater most highly in May, when tourist volumes are lowest.
• Length of stay Two nights and one full day in the crater, adding a third night if you want to visit Empakaai and Olmoti.
Accommodation Several upmarket lodges and a campsite line the crater
rim. These tend to be pricier than lodges around the nearby town of
Karatu, but possess a far greater sense of place.
• Top tip You pay a
hefty one-off fee to descend into the crater, so order a packed
breakfast and lunch from your lodge, and make a full day of it.
Lake Natron & Ol Doinyo Lengai
the most magnificently primal of African landscapes, Lake Natron is a
shallow sliver of hyper-alkaline water that forms the only known
breeding ground for East Africa’s 2.5 million lesser flamingos. The
southern shore of Natron is towered over by the volcanic Ol Doinyo
Lengai, the Maasai ‘Mountain of God’, which rises from the Rift Valley
floor to an altitude of 2960m. Its harsh black contours are softened, in
a bizarre parody of the snows of Kilimanjaro, by a glistening layer of
fine white volcanic ash. Around 350,000 years old, Ol Doinyo Lengai has
experienced almost continuous low-key activity in historic times, with
the most recent of its dozen recorded eruptions occurring over 2007 and
Top 5 activities and hikes
lakeshore Fringed by salt-encrusted flats and sinister black volcanic
protrusions, it hosts a profusion of waders and other waterbirds,
including large flocks of lesser flamingo.
2 Engaresero human
footprints Discovered by a Maasai herder in 1998, this set of 58 human
footprints, made around 120,000 years ago by hunter-gatherers, is the
oldest known such Homo sapiens spoor, underscoring the prehistoric feel
of the Great Rift.
3 Engaresero Waterfall A 45-60 minute hike,
recommended only to tolerably fit and agile walkers, leads through a
narrow gorge carved into the Nguruman Escarpment by the Engaresero River
– there you’ll find a dramatic waterfall and a chilly natural swimming
4 Ol Doinyo Lengai A relatively affordable favourite with fit
and adventurous travellers, the steep and shadeless 5-6 hour hike up
this active volcano offers spectacular views, before arriving at the
bleakly lunar expanse of the crater, with its ash cones, lava pools,
steam vents and other evidence of volcanic activity.
5 Engaruka Ruins
Set below the Rift Valley escarpment south of Natron, these extensive
ruins are all that remains of a terraced city and irrigation system
constructed at least 500 years ago by a mysterious late Iron Age
Plan your trip
• Best time to visit All year round, though it can be intolerably hot over Oct-Feb.
• Length of stay One night should is fine unless you are climbing Ol Doinyo Lengai.
Accommodation Two mid-range tented lodges, as well as budget rooms and
camping, are found in and around the main lakeshore village of
• Top tip To avoid dehydration and sunstroke, climb Ol
Doinyo Lengai at night, leaving before midnight and reaching the crater
rim in time for sunrise.
Serengeti National Park
largest and most famous national park, the 14,763-square-kilometre
Serengeti is also one of the continent’s top wildlife-viewing
destinations. It is best known perhaps for its annual ungulate
migration, which comprises up to two million individual wildebeest,
along with smaller numbers of zebra and various antelope, moving in a
clockwise direction around a vast ecosystem extending into the
Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Kenya. And even when the migration is
elsewhere, there is still possibly no better place to see large numbers
of lion – imperiously maned males pacing the roadside, slinky females on
the hunt, relaxed family prides dozing in the trees – while the park’s
southern third is also unusually good for leopards and cheetah. Best of
all, perhaps, the Serengeti is so vast that despite its popularity it
still offers plentiful opportunities to getting away from the crowds,
particularly in the west and north.
Top 5 Migration moments
December Following a long southward trek, the wildebeest disperse into
the short-grass plains on the Ngorongoro border to start their longest
sedentary period of the year, which coincides with the main rainy
2 February This is the peak of the calving season, with
thousands of foals dropping daily on the plains around Lake Ndutu, and
plenty of watchful predators keeping an eye on proceedings.
May/June Hundreds of thousands of wildebeest aggregate on the southern
plains in preparation for the northward march, generally amassing along
the south bank of the Grumeti as it runs through the western corridor in
4 June/July After milling around in the western corridor
for a week or two, the first suicidal individuals initiate the crossing
of the crocodile-infested Grumeti River, a breathtaking spectacle that
can last for days.
5 August-November The wildebeest disperse in the
far north, with large numbers crossing into Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve,
but just as many remain south of the border, where herds of several
thousand cross back and forth over the Mara River, an unforgettable
drama for the spectator.
Top 5 smaller wildlife
Serval This beautiful medium-sized cat, which vaguely resembles a
smaller cheetah, with its slender build and black-on-gold spots giving
way to streaking near the head, tends to be very secretive, but is quite
often observed in the Serengeti, usually shortly after sunrise.
Rock hyrax Resembling a guinea pig on steroids, but more closely related
to pachyderms (elephants), the rock hyrax can often be seen sunning
itself on the boulder-strewn kopjes (hills).
3 Agama lizards With its
psychedelic pink and purple plasticine appearance, this striking lizard
is frequently seen on kopjes and other rocky habitats.
monkey Larger and more spindly than the related vervet monkey, these
thinly distributed individuals are an isolated and possibly
taxonomically distinct population of a Sahelian species – they are most
often seen in the western corridor’s Mbalageti region.
Grey-throated spurfowl Perhaps the most conspicuous of half-a-dozen bird
species endemic to this part of Tanzania, this is a common roadside
bird around the park headquarters at Seronera.
Plan your trip
Best time to visit Any time of year, but highlights include February
(wildebeest calving), May (low season) and August-October (best time to
be in the northern Serengeti).
• Length of stay At last three nights, but more like a week to see several parts of this vast ecosystem.
• Accommodation Numerous upmarket lodges and campsite are scattered around the park.
Top tip The Seronera area offers the best year-round game viewing, and
is renowned for leopards and tree-climbing lion sightings, but it can
also get very crowded so don’t spend too long there.
Rubondo Island National Park - Now linked to the Serengeti by daily
flights, this tropical nirvana in the heart of Lake Victoria, with its
atmospheric jungle-swathed beaches, offers the opportunity to stretch
your legs or hop aboard a motorboat in search of the semi-aquatic
sitatunga antelope, the normally secretive yellow-spotted otter, and a
wonderful array of water and forest birds.
2 Lake Eyasi - This eerily
bleak and windswept body of water, surrounded by a white soda crust,
can be very beautiful in the late afternoon, when the sun sets
dramatically behind the 800m-high Rift Valley escarpment. Easily visited
overnight en route between Manyara and Ngorongoro, the lake hinterland
is the last refuge of the Hadza, hunter-gatherers who defiantly practise
their traditional lifestyle, and speak a click language related to
those of their few remaining southern African counterparts.
Enduimet Wildlife Management Area - Also known as West Kilimanjaro, this
1800-square-kilometre wedge of community land is Tanzania’s counterpart
to Kenya’s legendary Amboseli National Park. Serviced by a handful of
concession camps, it offers gobsmacking close-up views of Kilimanjaro, a
genuine wilderness atmosphere, and a good variety of wildlife,
including lion and cheetah, heavily-tusked elephant characteristic of
Amboseli, and a healthy population of the stretch-necked gerenuk.
Loliondo Game Controlled Area - This 4000-square-kilometre tract of
Maasai community land, buffered by the northeast Serengeti and Natron
escarpment, forms an integral part of the wildebeest migration route. A
handful of exclusive concession lodges, including Klein’s Camp and
Nduara Loliondo, function much like the private reserves of South
Africa, offering expertly guided game drives supplemented by night
drives and game walks.
5 Kondoa Rock Art Site - East Africa’s most
important cluster of prehistoric rock art, this UNESCO World Heritage
Site is best visited as a side trip from Tarangire. If you only have
time to see one of the 150-odd scattered panels, make it the ‘Dancers of
Kolo’, whose striking central image comprises five surreal humanoid
forms in what appears to be an attempted abduction.
Northern Safari Circuit Factfile
• Language Aside from KiSwahili and other indigenous languages, English is widely spoken in the tourism industry.
• Time zone GMT + 3
• International dialling code + 254
• Visas Required by most visitors, visas can be bought upon arrival at all regular ports of entry.
• Health A yellow fever certificate is required entering from elsewhere in Africa. Using malaria prophylactics is wise.
Money Foreign currency can be changed into Tanzanian shillings at any
bureau de change. Visa credit cards (less so other brands) can be used
to draw local currency at ATMs in Arusha and to settle most bills at
• Costs A basic camping safari will cost around
US$160-250 per person per day, depending on group size. Lodge-based
safaris might cost two to three times as much, and those using exclusive
tented camps even more.
• Safety Northern Tanzania is generally
safe. Occasional muggings occur in Arusha, but are unlikely to affect
tourists unless they wander around town after dark.
• Getting there
Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO), which is serviced by KLM and
African carriers, is on the main road near Arusha.
• Getting around
The Northern Safari Circuit is most commonly explored by 4WD on an
all-inclusive safari set up by a specialist operator. Scheduled flights
connect all the major reserves, and while they will increase costs, they
reduce transit time.
• Further information Bradt’s Northern Tanzania
(3rd ed, 2013) is the only guidebook specifically dedicated to the
region. Useful websites include www.tanzaniatouristboard.com,
www.tanzaniaparks.com and www.ngorongorocrater.org.