Arusha, the gateway to greatness
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
1 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.
2 National 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 ( 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 ( 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
1 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.
2 Mkuru Camel Safari ( 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 outskirts.
4 Ng’iresi ( 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.
5 Cultural 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
Often 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
1 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 antelope
– 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 eastern horizon.
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 ( 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. 
• Accommodation  Camping is permitted within the park. Numerous lodges (including Hatari) catering to most budgets are scattered around its borders. 
• Top 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.



Africa’s 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 for themselves!

Top 5 hiking routes
1 Marangu 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 encountered.
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 eight-day climb.
• 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.



To subscribe or buy back issues, click here     



Tarangire National Park
This 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
1 Termite 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 ( 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 near-permanent presence.
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.
5 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 starling.

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 overnight safari.



Lake Manyara National Park
This 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
1 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 and June.
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 northern Tanzania.
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
Named 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
1 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.
3 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
1 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 bulls.
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 spotted hyena.
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 mating dance).
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
Among 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 2008.

Top 5 activities and hikes
1 Southern 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 pool.
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 culture.

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 Engaresero.
• 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
Tanzania’s 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
1 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 season.
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.
3 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 late June.
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
1 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.
2 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.
4 Patas 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.
5 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.



Off-the-beaten-track Highlights
1 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.
3 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.
4 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 upmarket lodges.
• 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, and


< Previous   Next >
Safari Planner
Get started!!
Search The Site

How do you read a book or magazine on safari?
Please enter your email address to sign up

Royal Zambezi Lodge
0 queries executed