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The parks of the Northern Circuit

Tanzania seems unfairly blessed. In addition to having the continent’s biggest – and arguably the world’s most beautiful – mountain within its borders, just a couple of hour’s drive west of Arusha, where you will be based for your trek, is one of the most awe-inspiring destinations for a safari on this planet: the legendary Northern Circuit.

The Circuit itself comprises of five main parks – ArushaTarangire, Lake Manyara, Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (not strictly a national park due in part to the large numbers of Maasai who live within this region), each with their own character, topography and wildlife. Safari lovers will want to spend days or even weeks touring around this quintet; but even those who are constrained by time shouldn’t feel excluded, with four of the parks visitable as a day-trip from Arusha (only the Serengeti lies beyond reach of a day-trip, with four or, much better, five days required to sample the park properly).

Tarangire National Park

Tarangire National Park can be reached by means of a two-hour drive south-west from Arusha. Ignoring the wildlife for the moment, it is one of the most beautiful of the country’s parks, a dry savannah landscape with baobab trees dotted here and there amongst the acacia, all backed by a line of distant volcanic peaks.

More than neighbouring Manyara and Ngorongoro Crater, what you actually see in terms of wildlife depends very much on the seasons. I must admit that there was one occasion when I drove around the park and saw little except the large elephant herds for which the park is famed. (Indeed, elephant herds of over 300 hundred have been spotted along the river.) Any encounter with an elephant is a thrill, of course, but overall it was slightly disappointing that I didn’t see more.

So it’s important that you time your visit to Tarangire right. The best time to go is towards the end of the country’s two dry seasons – either September/October or February/March. These are the months where water is at its scarcest in the region, and as a result the local wildlife tends to flock to Tarangire, as it possesses one of the few permanent supplies of water in the region: the Tarangire River.

And how they flock. Creatures such as wildebeest, zebras, eland and oryx – as well as all the predators that follow and feed upon them, such as the lion (which, like their cousins in Lake Manyara, are prone to tree-climbing), cheetah and leopard. all gather and remain until the onset of the rains when the ongoing migration sees them disperse again to adjoining grazing areas. Other species include lesser and greater kudu, buffalo, fringe-eared oryx, Masai giraffe, spotted hyena, warthog, eland, olive baboon, bat-eared fox, impala, common waterbuck, bushbuck, coke’s hartebeest and Bohor reedbuck.

It’s not just the variety of wildlife in Tarangire, however, but the sheer number of them. In fact, the game numbers in Tarangire can be staggering: 30,000 zebra, 25,000 wildebeest, 5,000 buffalo, 3,000 elephant, 2,500 Maasai giraffe and over 1,000 fringe-eared oryx (gemsbok).

But even if you can’t make it during the pre-rany season months, don’t despair: away from the rainy season the wildlife often relies on the nearby baobab trees that become hollow and fill with rainwater, which ensures a healthy population of many animals all year round. You just may need slightly more luck in order to see them, as the park is vast – Covering 2,600 sq km, it’s the fourth largest in Tanzania and is beautifully unspoilt, providing plenty of cover for game throughout the year.

Mammals aren’t the only draw, however. Indeed, if you have any interest in birdwatching then you won’t want to miss Tarangire. The swamps, tinged green year round, are the focus for 550 bird varieties, the most breeding species in one habitat anywhere in the world. Species include the yellow-collared and black-collared lovebirds, rufous-tailed weaver, goliath heron, ashy starling, hamerkop, bateleur, helmeted guineafowl, the stocky kori bustard, long-toed lapwing, brown parrot, the wonderfully named white-bellied go-away-bird, members of the beautiful bee-eater family including the Madagascar bee-eater, the African hoopoe, and a variety of kingfishers, weavers, doves, plovers, sand pipers, owls, francolins, ducks…. the list goes on.

If on safari, be warned that the going can be rough and many of the tracks are impassable in the rainy season.

Lake Manyara National Park

Lake Manyara National Park is for those who want a fairly relaxing day-trip from Arusha, but would still like the possibility of seeing lions – something that Arusha National Park can’t offer. It also provides a convenient ‘stopover’ for those heading to the wonders of Ngorongoro, as it lies halfway between Arusha and the crater, about a two-hour drive west from Arusha along a newly surfaced road.

The park is fairly small, covering 330 sq km. Given that over half of that –  approximately 200 sq km – is made up of a picturesque lake, it does mean that the possibility of extensive exploration in the park is a little limited.

But while Manyara is one of the smallest parks, it is also, possibly ,the most ecologically diverse game reserve in Tanzania. In particular it has some great birdlife, which we’ll come to later on.

It is also very pretty. Lying at the foot of the impressive rise of the Great Rift escarpment, no less an authority than Ernest Hemmingway called the setting for Lake Manyara “the loveliest I had seen in Africa”. The landscape of the park is equally delightful, with the vehicle track twisting its way between the forests of acacia and mahogany to the banks of the lake, which is filled with alkaline soda water.

In terms of wildlife, the park was established in the 1960s specifically to protect the elephant herds. Unfortunately, it largely failed in that regard, for heavy poaching in the 1970s and 1980s decimated the herds. They are now recovering, however, and most safaris through Manyara will encounter plenty of them.

If I sound slightly less enthusiastic about Manyara than I do about the other parks of Tanzania’s Northern Circuit, it’s because I’ve been to Manyara several times, and am familiar with its layout and, for some reason, I always seem to see the same animals in roughly the same places each time. I know, for example, that on entering the park I’m likely to encounter a large troop of baboons; and when the road bends right at a certain point I’m almost guaranteed to see giraffes there; a left at another spot will bring me to one of the park’s buffalo herds.

As such, to those who’ve visited the park more than once it can feel a bit like a safari park in the UK, Europe or North America – as if the animals were in enclosures and all you have to do is follow a map to see them.  Which is not what going on a safari – with its sense of adventure, exploration and chance – is about at all!

But I’m complaining, and I shouldn’t be, because I’ve always had a lovely time in Manyara – and as a first time visitor, I’ve no doubt you will too.

Besides, the park’s incredible diversity and quantity of fauna and flora have qualified it as a World Biosphere Reserve. There are large buffalo, elephant, wildebeest and zebra herds on the plains that border the lake, as well as giraffes – some so dark in coloration that they appear to be black from a distance. While in the lake itself hippos bob, roll and roar.

Further inland, however, is the main star of Manyara: legendary tree-climbing lions. Lesser lights – but still fascinating, include banded mongoose and the tiny and incredibly endearing dik-dik, while on the rocks above the searing hot springs that bubble adjacent to the lakeshore you may make out klipspringer.

Manyara is another park where the variety and quantity of birdlife is remarkable. More than 400 species have been recorded, and it’s not unusual to tick off at least 100 species in a single day. Flamingos, pelicans, cormorants and storks may be the more spectacular, but even if you’re not especially interested in tracking down the park’s avifauna, there’s no doubt it’ll find you, with several multicoloured superb starlings and other species hanging around the picnic site near the lake, waiting for any dropped crumbs from your sandwiches.

The park can easily be seen in a day, and is at its best in the dry months, particularly  in the early morning, when it is peaceful and still (and when you may, if you’re incredibly lucky, spot the park’s shy leopards).

Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Jaw-dropping, gobsmacking, mind-blowing, breathtaking, spine-tingling – Ngorongoro has a strange affect on pretty much everyone who sees it. An enormous, collapsed volcanic crater, or caldera, into which has been emptied nearly all the celebrities of Tanzania’s animal kingdom. Lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, hippos, the county’s largest surviving population of rhinos, buffalo, zebra… if you want to tick off as many species in one day, Ngorongoro is by far and away the best place to do it. Only the giraffes are missing; apparently, who apparently find the outer slopes of the crater too difficult to conquer.

There’s something of the Jurassic Park, or Conan-Doyle’s Lost World, about Ngorongoro. Even if the 260 square-kilometre caldera was emptied of animals it would still be a must-see. It is, after all, the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled caldera; if the volcano that formed Ngorongoro hadn’t blown up, it is believed it would have dwarfed Kilimanjaro.

Your first sight of it, having climbed up the outer slopes to the crater rim, is just magical. A steep 600m descent then follows through lush forest to get to the caldera floor, where most of Ngorongoro’s 30,000 animals are to be found. The floor is not all uniform, however, for within the caldera you’ll find swampland, open savannah, grassland, forest, waterfall, and lake.

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area covers more than just the caldera itself, however, for it stretches west to an area known as Ndutu that abuts the Serengeti – one of the best places to see the wildebeest migration in January/February, even though it’s not actually in the Serengeti.

To the north and east, the Ngorongoro Highlands are home to Maasai, and a pleasant couple of days can be spent with them if you choose to take a trek around the Highlands, with the Maasai’s donkeys acting as porters.

Back on the caldera floor (which, incidentally, you won’t be allowed to visit on a highland trek), the stars of the park are the twenty-plus rhino, with Ngorongoro the only park that offers you a realistic chance of seeing them in the entire country. But even then, don’t expect to see them up close; rhinos are by nature solitary and shy animals, and for many people a distant view of some indistinct, grey, grass-chewing form is all they get; get close enough to make out the horns and you’re doing well. First thing in the morning is the best time to spot both them and most of the other animals.

For this reason, though you can see Ngorongoro in a day trip from Arusha (and if time restrictions means that this is all you can do, then it’s certainly better than nothing!), we would recommend at least. a two-day safari. This allows you to see either Tarangire or Manyara national parks on the first day, then spend a night on Ngorongoro Crater rim before descending to the caldera floor first thing the next morning.

The rhino’s reticence is in sharp contrast to the other animals in the park, many of which appear pretty well habituated to man’s presence to the point where they are virtually oblivious to us. Buffalo, zebra, wildebeest, hartebeest, gazelle, baboon, warthog, elephant, hippo – an average day in the crater will include encounters with all of these.

It is expensive to visit Ngorongoro (it costs US$200 just to secure a permit for the vehicle to enter the crater floor, with individual park fees on top of that), and you are limited to just 6 hours on the caldera floor itself.

But whatever it costs, it’s worth it. This place is not known as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World for nothing. Because Ngorongoro is truly awesome.

The Ngorongoro Crater also boasts the highest concentration of predators in Africa. Hyaenas, though much fewer than in other parks, stalk the park – as does a good population of lion. Indeed, together with the Serengeti, Ngorongoro provides you with your best chance of seeing the King of the Beasts, with 100 black-maned lions in Ngorongoro, together with skittish cheetah and leopards.

Herds of elephants graze the Lerai Forest of yellow fever trees and adjoining Gorigor Swamp; hippos inhabit the swamps and Ngoitokitok Springs; wildebeest and buffalo feed on the open grasslands in their thousands, and hundreds of flamingos live around Lake Magadi, much to the delight of the many hundreds of scavenging hyenas.

To add to this surreal environment of wild harmony, Maasai tribesman – easily visible in their traditional scarlet robes – can sometimes be spotted guiding their cattle down the steep crater walls.

Sounds perfect, doesn’t it, and it many ways it is, but for those interested in nitpicking there are a couple of drawbacks. There are no giraffes within the crater – you will need to go outside to south-west of crater for those. This is also one national park which you will really not have to yourself, thanks to its ever-increasing fame and its location within four hours of Arusha, making a daytrip just about possible. (That said, we really recommend at least a two-day safari that includes Ngorongoro if you can afford the time and money – it’s a heck of a long day otherwise.) As such, ehicles in the park are many – though, that said, you can still find your own quiet little corner of the park and sit in quiet contemplation with the wildlife.

Other features in the the Ngorongoro Conservation Area

The Ngorongoro Conservation Arera stretches beyond the crater itself – and those heading to the Serengeti will be able to visit these other areas.

Olduvai Gorge (or Wongo Valley) lies to the north west, en route to the Serengeti, the site of some of Africa’s most important fossil finds relating to early hominids.

Lake Ndutu is situated to the west of the crater and straddles the boundary between southern Serengeti and north western Ngorongoro Conservation Area. When full the Lake is used by the Maasai to water their cattle. Lake Ndutu offers excellent game encounters from December to April, and those aiming to enjoy a lodge safari within this time are strongly advised to book early so as to give us the best chances of securing accommodation at one of the few available lodges there.

The Gol Mountains are isolated and ecologically fragile mountains with pink granite cliffs divided by a grassy pass (Angata Kiti) through which we drive if visiting Nasera Rock and Irkarian Gorge. This area is barren and dusty; however the soil is very fertile and with just a little rain the grass grows. This grass attracts huge herds of animals during the migration.

While the Ngorongoro Crater Highlands, stretching from Mount Oldean – just above our bush camp beside Lake Eyasi – all the way through Ngorongoro Crater, Olmoti and Empakaai Craters, to the escarpment overlooking the slopes of Oldonyo Lengai, is situated within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, we have chosen to summarise this area separately, as we use this feature for walking safaris with the Maasai as opposed to game viewing.  Please see later on for further information.

The Serengeti

The most famous park in Tanzania – indeed, perhaps all of East Africa – is also its most fascinating. Translating from the original Masai as ‘Endless Plain’ (depending on which book you’re reading), the park is indeed for large stretches a vast, flat tree-less expanse of land – making game-viewing fairly easy.

But the Serengeti is such a huge place (14,763 sq km to be precise) that there is so much more to it than an endless expanse of nothing, with rivers (Seronera and Grumeti, where you’ll find some of the largest concentrations of wildlife) and lots of rocky hills known as kopjes – favourite hangouts for many creatures from hurrying hyrax to lazing leopard.

Few people know this but the park, along with its Kenyan neighbour to the north, the Masai Mara, was designed to cover the wildebeests’ annual migration (though this doesn’t stop the migration from regularly spilling outside the borders of the park too). In other words, the wildebeests year-long circuit in the hunt for rich pastures and a safe place to give birth to their young takes place almost entirely with the greater Serengeti/Masai Mara ecosystem. At any time of year you’ll find great masses of wildebeest herds congregating in one particular area of the Serengeti/Masai Mara ecosystem, the exact location of the migration depending on the season and the amount of rainfall the plains have received that year. (Don’t worry: whatever time of year you’re visiting, your driver will, if time allows, do his best to reach the main ‘hub’ of the migration.)

The Serengeti is about more than just the migration, however. Sure, should you be fortunate enough to catch the migration you’ll see a heck of a lot of wildebeest together with their fellow grazers such as zebra (which accompany the wildebeest for part of their clockwise journey around the park), buffalo, gazelle, impala, giraffe, topi, dik dik and elephant; and, of course, those that feed upon them, such as lion, cheetah, leopard, crocodile and hyaena. 

But your chances of spotting these beasts are fairly high anyway, and many parts of the Serengeti are heavily populated with wildlife all year-round.

There are other attractions, too, aside from the large mammals. Gaudy agama lizards and rock hyraxes scuffle around the surfaces of the park’s isolated granite koppies. Uniquely, all three African jackal species occur here too.

There are also 500-plus bird species, ranging from the outsized ostrich and bizarre secretary bird of the open grassland, to the black eagles that soar effortlessly above the Lobo Hills.

As enduring as the game-viewing is, the liberating sense of space that characterises the Serengeti Plains, stretching across sunburnt savannah to a shimmering golden horizon at the end of the earth. Yet, after the rains, this golden expanse of grass is transformed into an endless green carpet flecked with wildflowers. And there are also wooded hills and towering termite mounds, rivers lined with fig trees and acacia woodland stained orange by dust.

The Serengeti is so vast, and each area has its own character, so it’s probably easiest if we break down the park into different areas to help you understand the park.

The spritual centre of the park is the Seronera, where you’ll find the ‘entrance gate’, office, and several lodges and tented camps. This is a good place to spot both lion (which sometime hang out, literally, in trees) and the elusive leopard. East and south-east of here the short grass plains run all the way to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and are densely populated with wildlife all year through, and especially between December and May, when the rains act as a magnet to the migrant herds.

Neighbouring this area to the south,  the plains near Lake Ndutu (of which part belongs to the Serengeti) is a good place to spot the graceful, rapid cheetah, as well as more lions. South of here the park is drier and bordered by a hunting concession, and is thus, perhaps, the least popular place for a safari – indeed, much of it is out-of-bounds.

On the Seronera’s western side, however, is a generally flatter, wetter, area, with more vegetation than the southern plains. The Grumeti and Mbalageti rivers  flow through here from east to west on their way to Lake Victoria. Game viewing is pretty good throughout the year, here, especially between May and July when the migration attempts to cross the Grumeti, providing a banquet for the resident population of crocodiles.

North of Seronera, the northern third of the Serengeti is characterized by green, rolling hills that gently lead you towards the Kenya border. This part of the Serengeti has a cover of dense acacia woodland, only broken by occasional tracts of open grassland. It’s more difficult to spot wildlife here, but between September and October this part of the park (together with the neighbouring Masai Mara National Park in Kenya) plays host to the migration. Though you won’t be allowed to cross into the Masai Mara, there is still plenty to see on this side, including most of the park’s elephant population, some large prides of lions as well as cheetah, leopard and spotted hyena at the base of the Lobo Hills.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Well it is, but there are the disadvantages with a visit to the Serengeti? For one thing, it is 208 miles or 7 hours from Arusha and thus, unlike the other parks on the Northern Circuit, cannot be seen as a day-trip from the city. A four-day safari is the minimum, and five days is better, particularly if the wildebeest migrants are at the further reaches of the park and you really want to see them. On a four-day itinerary you’ll not only see the Serengeti, but can visit parks on the way too, including Ngorongoro and either Manyara or Tarangire.

But even if the migration is not reachable on your itinerary do not despair: parts of the park are teeming with game at any time of year, and your driver will know the best places to head at any given time of year.

And anyway, almost everybody who visits the Serengeti thinks it’s a magical place, regardless of the time of year and the location of the main herds; and so, we are sure, will you.

Visiting the Hadzabe and Maasai of Tanzania

In addition to visiting the four main parks, those of an adventurous disposition may wish to spend a day or two of their safari travelling with us to Lake Eyasi, home of the Hadzabe, the last ‘bush people’ of Tanzania, where you will be taught the survival skills on which they have depended for thousands of years. Or you can challenge yourself to a dawn ascent of Oldonyo Lengai, the sacred mountain of the Maasai tribe whose traditional bomas you can visit and study their fascinating lives. Or you can spend a few days trekking with them in the Ngorongoro Highlands, with donkeys for porters.

Whatever your preferences for a safari in Tanzania, just let us know and we will be happy to help!

Arusha National Park

Arusha National Park stands away from the other parks of the Northern Circuit, both literally (it’s the only park on the Northern Circuit that lies to the east of the city) and metaphorically. For most people who are taking a multi-day safari ignore the charms of Arusha National Park.

In one sense, they are right to do so. Though the park is gorgeous, there is no wildlife living in Arusha National Park that can’t also be found in the other parks mentioned above. There is one significant omission, too – namely lions, which reside in all the other parks, but not in Arusha National Park.

So perhaps those on a multi-day safari around the Northern Circuit are right to ignore Arusha National Park: why spend all that time and effort getting to a park that’s not particularly close to the others, and which doesn’t have any wildlife that can’t be seen elsewhere anyway?

Nevertheless, the park really comes into its own if you are looking for a relaxing, uncomplicated day-trip from the city, either before or after their trek. It’s by some distance the closest of the parks to the city, with the entrance gate just 25km from Arusha. And while it may lack lions, it does have enough species to warrant a visit, including elephant, giraffe, buffalo, zebra, warthog, dik dik and baboon. Indeed, all of these species can often be found together on the plain at the foot of Mount Meru, around which the park is built. Blue monkey and black-and-white colobus monkey are also present in some numbers – ideal if you’ve already done your Kili trek, and failed to spot them on the mountain.

If you’re really lucky, you may also catch a glimpse of leopard here too, though they tend to hang out on the forested slopes of the mountain, dropping to the plain only occasionally to hunt.

Further exploration of the park should bring you to a flamingo-filled Momela Lake. Indeed, the birdlife here is wonderful, with many forest species easier to spot here than anywhere else in the country, especially hornbills.