Tanzania Northern Safari Circuit Wildlife

© Shem Compion
Do you remember the first picture of Africa you saw when you were a kid? Vast, stretching plains of undulating yellow grass, broken only by flat-topped acacia trees and the odd strolling giraffe, all set beneath the dome of a perfect blue sky? Well here's the good news - it really does exist.

By Gemma Pitcher

For the first time visitor to East Africa, Tanzania can guarantee immersion in the quintessential African landscape immortalised in a million films, album covers and cheap aftershave advertisements. The country has one of the most forward-thinking conservation policies in Africa, with an impressive 38% of the country given over to protected wilderness areas.For the safarigoer, the country is divided into two distinct areas, or 'circuits'. The Northern Tanzania Safari Circuit is the better known and most-visited of the two, consisting of the area surrounding the town of Arusha. The Northern Circuit's main draw is the massive Serengeti ecosystem, encompassing the Ngorongoro Crater Highlands, which is one of the biggest remaining animal migration routes in the world. Also on the northern safari circuit are the lesser-known Tarangire, Arusha and Lake Manyara National Parks.

Serengeti National Park

Siringitu in Maasai - 'the place where the land moves on forever.' Home of mankind's first footprints and the spectacle of the Great Migration. One of the oldest ecosystems on earth. Waving golden grasses, flat-topped acacia trees, distant blue hills. Giraffes, lions, cheetah. How do you write about the Serengeti without using up every cliché in the Travel Writer's Handbook? Perhaps in the words of author Alan Moorehead, in the introduction to his classic book 'Serengeti Shall Not Die' - "Anyone who can go to the Serengeti, and does not, is mad."

But stay longer, come back again, and you'll get to know the Serengeti the chocolate-boxes have missed. The dry, blackened hills of the Lobo region, studded with granite outcrops and burnt by a thousand grass fires. The sulphurous, muddied waters of a dam churned to midden by the frantic hooves of a million migrating wildebeest. A vulture perched in a dead tree, stark against a pale-blue sky, contemplating the flat, featureless short-grass plains of the long dry season. These are the harsher, less easily ticked off aspects of Africa's most famous national park, but for the visitor with time enough to experience the full scope of the Serengeti, sights like these are none the less beautiful.

One thing is for certain - whether visiting the Serengeti for days, weeks or months, modern Tanzania has provided today's travellers with a wealth of cutting-edge, luxurious and innovatively designed tanzania safari lodges and camps, all forming entirely different yet uniformly satisfying bases from which to explore the most famous wildlife area in the world.

Serengeti Wildlife Highlights - The Great Migration

During The Great Zebra and Wildebeest Migration in Tanzania, some 1.5 million Wildebeest and thousands of Zebra and Gazelles move across the plains, Grant's and Thompson's gazelle littering the plains and topi standing on termite mounds whilst scanning for danger. Predators are prolific in the Serengeti with Lions, Hyenas, Leopards and Cheetah commonly encountered.

Ngorongoro Conservation Area

The Ngorongoro Crater more properly described as a caldera - actually the largest perfect collapsed volcanic caldera in the world. Calderas are created when the inside of an active volcano sinks during a period of inactivity, leaving vast hole inside the mountain. As the hole increases, the mountain eventually becomes unstable and the upper cone of the volcano collapses. The peak of the Ngorongoro volcano is thought to have been even higher than Kilimanjaro before it collapsed some 2.5 million years ago.

100 square miles in area, and with an average wall height of 600m, the Ngorongoro Crater floor forms a microcosm of African habitats, with grassland, swamps, lakes, rivers and forest all spread out over a relatively small area. The animal and bird species are as diverse as the landscape - bachelor herds of huge elephants roam the crater floor, browsing knee-deep in the yellow beitens flowers that carpet the area every spring; they ascend only when a signal, inaudible to human ears, tells them one of the females who live on the rim of the crater is in oestrus.

Lion, so accustomed to game-viewing vehicles that they barely raise their heads at an approaching engine, laze in the marshy grass of the Mandusi Swamp. In the Lerai forest, troops of baboon chatter angrily at the lazy form of a leopard stretched along a yellow-bark acacia branch. Flocks of delicately coloured flamingos, heads between feet, dabble in the salty waters of Lake Magadi. The crater floor has been described as 'a living Ark' - hundreds of species coexisting in harmony in a setting of outstanding natural beauty.

But Ngorongoro - encompassing both the crater itself and the surrounding three thousand square miles of dense rainforest, volcanic highlands and rolling plains - is not a national park, it is a conservation area, acting not only as a nature reserve, but as an eco-system whose protection and management includes the welfare of the people who consider it to be their traditional homeland. The Maasai are partners in the management of the area, driving their cattle to the crater floor for water and salt during the day, and returning to their traditional homesteads in the surrounding area during the night.

Ngorongoro Wildlife Highlights:

The Ngorongoro Crater is the best place to see the 'Big 5' in Tanzania. Most of Tanzania's wildlife species are concentrated in this edenic caldera. Lions and hyenas are plentiful and the lake is splashed in pink by the countless flamingos feeding in the shallows.

Lake Manyara National Park

Smaller and more low-key than its better-known neighbours, Lake Manyara National Park is a narrow strip of land tucked between the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley's eastern wall, and the soda-rich waters of Lake Manyara. The park is mainly covered with dense woodlands, watered by springs originating in the Ngorongoro Highlands, some of which are forced to the surface at temperatures exceeding 50 degrees centigrade. Perhaps because of its narrow breadth, Manyara has an other-wordly feel to it, the dark green, towering wall of the escarpment giving the impression of a lost kingdom, hidden from the outside world.

Great flocks of flamingos appear periodically on the alkaline waters of the lake, disappearing overnight in search of new feeding grounds. Even without the flamingos, however, Lake Manyara is a bird-watchers paradise, and even those with little interest in ornithology cannot fail to be captivated by the sight of a hundred white pelicans fishing together on the glassy blue surface of the lake, like a fleet of ocean-going ships. When dusk comes, the pink blush of the sky is reflected in the water, and the pelicans fly home, skimming the lake one behind the other in a great line.

Meanwhile, on the lake shore, a pride of lion climb into acacia trees, the great cats hanging limply like ripe golden fruit, while some of the park's huge elephant population take dust baths in a dry river bed. Buffalo wade into the water to cool off, still as statues and submerged to the neck. At the lake's edge, a lone, dun-coloured wildebeest stands, gazing wistfully towards the hills on the other side as though dreaming of migration.

Lake Manyara Wildlife Highlights:

Regarded as one of Africa's most beautiful parks, Lake Manyara is renowned for its birdlife that includes pelicans and millions of flamingos feeding in the shallows. Besides the incredible birdlife Manyara is also known for its elephant and buffalo herds, and for the tree climbing lions.

Tarangire National Park

During Tarangire's dry season, day after day of cloudless skies seem to suck all moisture from the landscape, turning the waving grasses to platinum blonde, brittle as straw. Gigantic baobab trees are the most noticeable feature of the terrain, standing bloated and squat, stubby, root-like branches reaching to the sky and trunks battered by hundreds of years of assault by elephant, who strip their bark in times of hardship. The plains for miles around, inside and outside the park, are dry and parched, with the only source of water being the Tarangire River, shallow and brackish yet the lifeblood of the park and the means of survival for a huge population of herbivores and their attendant predators.

Herds of elephant, three hundred strong, dig in the damp earth of the riverbed in search of underground springs, while wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, and gazelle mingle with rarer species such as eland and oryx around each shrinking lagoon. Python climb into the shade of the trees that line Tarangire's massive southern swamps and hang there, like giant malignant fruit, coils neatly arranged over the branches in a perfect sphere. Leopard and lion also ascend the trees, limbs loose and comfortable and tails twitching in the heat of the day, awaiting the coming of night and their imminent feast of impala, buffalo or hartebeest. Tarangire is home to enormous troops of baboon, insolently swaggering along the centre of the road or barking in alarm from the treetops at the approach of a predator, with tiny babies clutching their mother's stomachs, round-eyed and wondering.

In the wet season, wildlife populations scatter across the surrounding plains of the Maasai steppe, but the park's own beauty comes to life in verdant green pastures, lush swamps and carpets of sparkling wild flowers, reflecting the watery blue of the sky. Tarangire's endless variety of birds - the most breeding species in one habitat anywhere in the world - include plovers, larks, bustard and grouse, found wading in the swamps, perched on small bushes or pacing the dryer ground, sharp eyes alert for danger.

Tarangire's huge herds of elephant rival the park's baobab trees as its most celebrated feature - ancient matriarchs, feisty young bulls and tiny, stumbling calves are ever present to fascinate visitors with their grace, intelligence and power. Elephant populations are particularly dense during the dry season in the park's easily accessible northern reaches, with herds of cows with calves and massive, solitary bulls pacing casually across the roads in search of grazing, shade or water.

Tarangire's vast wilderness zone, a part of the park many casual visitors never even dream exists, is a paradise for walking safaris, the only form of tourism allowed in this precious southern region. Visitors can explore the rivers, swamps and plains of this huge slice of wild Africa on foot, camping by night in fly-tents pitched under shady trees or next to waterholes, and learning skills, such as tracking and stalking, that most of mankind has long forgotten.

Tarangire Wildlife Highlights:

The park is dominated by the elephant herds and giant baobabs that fill the senses. The dry season sees a concentration of animals on the river, drawn by the life-giving waters. Predators abound and Tarangire is also a renowned for its birdlife with almost 500 species, many of which breed in Tarangire.

Arusha National Park

Often overlooked, Arusha National Park offers a rich tapestry of habitats, well trodden by the various animals and birds that make their home there. From the lush swamps of the Ngurdoto Crater to the tranquil beauty of the Momela Lakes and the rocky alpine heights of Mount Meru, the terrain of the park is as varied as it is interesting. Zebra graze on the park's red grasslands, and leopard lurk next to waterfalls in the shadowy forest. More than 400 species of bird, both migrant and resident, can be found in Arusha National Park alongside rare primates such as the black-and-white colobus monkey.

The rewarding climb up Mount Meru passes through forests of dripping Spanish moss, carpeted with clover, before rising to open heath spiked with giant lobelia plants. Delicate Klipspringer antelope watch the progress of hikers from the top of huge boulders, and everlasting flowers cling to the alpine desert underfoot. Once astride the craggy summit, the reward is a sight of Mount Kilimanjaro, breathtaking in the sunrise.

The best time to visit Arusha National Park is during the dry season from July to Novemer, or after the short rains from December to March. The best months to climb Mount Meru are June to February, with the best views of Mount Kilimajaro seen from December to February. The park lies just 25km east of Arusha and is ideal for a rewarding day trip from Arusha or Moshi.

Arusha Wildlife Highlights:

Although overshadowed by the iconic parks to the north, Arusha National Park is an attraction in its own rite. Spectacular landscapes and great birding lend to a place of great hikes and nature walks. Wildlife includes leopards, hyenas, hippos, zebra and giraffe.
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