Wandering Tanzania’s national parks for an entire month taught me many things—like how to stay very quiet and still when there’s a 7-ton elephant rubbing against your tent. In all my travels in all the world, I have never had such rich and fulfilling wildlife encounters as I did in Tanzania, which is why I recommend it to so highly to anyone who loves animals.
As travel tastes are so varied and personal, I typically refrain from dispensing advice, but if my friends were to ask me for sugestions on Tanzania, this is what I would tell them:
- Take Time I spent a month in Tanzania and feel like I barely scratched the surface of this immense country. If you are going to travel all that way, it would be a pity not to stay for a minimum of two weeks (and preferably a month). Keep in mind that distances are grand and every destination rich with experience and wildlife. Skimp on time or pack your schedule too tightly and you’ll be sorry. I’d recommend 3-4 days for the larger parks and 1-2 days for the smaller ones.
- Skip the Serengeti —No offense to Tanzania’s most well-known national park (which is beautiful—I know, I was just there), but frankly, it’s the midtown Manhattan version of going on safari, complete with frenetic crowds and a jumble of jeeps skidding in a circle around some poor animal. I say, step away from the madness and venture into the areas where you will get much more one-on-one time with the wildlife. For huge herds of buffalo (and thousands of hippos), try Katavi, for big cats and big savanna, go to Ruaha. For a taste of the exotic and virgin Indian Ocean shore, stay in Saadani, for elephants and proximity to civilization, go to Mikumi, for total exotic, delve into Udzungwa, and for chimpanzees, venture over to Mahale and Gombe.
- Sleep Cheap Going on safari is not just a rich man’s game. By booking into the bandas (national park cottages), travelers only pay $30-$40/night compared to the $500-$1,000/night charged by some private safari lodges. Staying in the bandas offered total immersion into the park’s wildlife, from hunting geckos at night to prowling lions and baby elephants on my doorstep!
- Enjoy Endemics Elephants and giraffes and zebra are all very splendid to see (and you will see them) but Tanzania’s real treat are the outrageous amount of endemic species that inhabit so many of the national parks—species like the Sanje-crested mangabeys of Udzungwa and the rare flowers of Kitulo. Focus on the strange beauties that you can only see in Tanzania.
- Take the Train Very few travelers know that you can actually reach several of Tanzania’s national parks by railway. In fact, you can travel to some of the wildest stretches of the country in relative comfort by riding the train from Dar Es Salaam. One line goes right through the remote and brilliant high rain forest of Udzungwa National Park and is much cheaper than a bush plane or a private car with driver. For more information, check out TAZARA.
- Mind the Little Stuff Lions and leopards always seem to be the big prize on safari, but focusing all your energy on getting the big stuff makes you miss the big picture of the complex ecosystems and diversity of Tanzania. For me, the real thrill of safari were the dik-dik, jackals, genet cats, bush babies, honey badgers, chameleons, ant lions, reed frogs, water monitors and of course, the birds, which are glorious everywhere. Most parks in Tanzania average a staggering 400-500 different bird species!
- Read the Classics Tanzania is not lacking for good narrative, but I still prefer reading the cornerstones of travel literature in East Africa — books like Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, Stanley’s Through the Dark Continent, and Livingstone’s diaries. Also, check out National Geographic Traveler‘s Tanzania Guide. If you are looking for an in-depth comprehensive guidebook that covers all the parks, I recommend the Bradt Guide by Philip Briggs.
- Climb Kilimanjaro (at least some of it)—If I can do it, anybody can do it, however, if you’re not interested in conquering Africa’s tallest peak, you should still consider going and opting for a day hike near the base. It’s an amazing national park and well worth a visit simply for the landscapes and rare trees, plants and animals that surround the great mountain.
- Pack Light It’s the most generic and over-quoted travel advice in the world, but I wished I had followed my own counsel more closely in Tanzania. Hopping about the country in tiny bush planes, and moving in and out of tents, I would have preferred having less. To that end, I would suggest keeping your luggage to a 20 kg (44 lbs) maximum — your hiking boots and camera should be your heaviest items, Remember that much of Tanzania is quite high in altitude and can get very cold at night, so carry at least one warm cover-up. Also, bring a flashlight or miniature headlamp. I used those far more than I expected I would.
- Carry a Big Lens Though I preach strongly against gear snobbery (capture the best images you can with whatever camera you have), should you come to Tanzania hoping for stunning close-up shots of real wildlife, you will need a large (400mm) lens. If an animal is several hundred yards away from your jeep, the only way to get a crisp and full image is to zoom, so if you don’t own one, think about renting or borrowing one. That said, if (like me) you insist on shooting pics with your iPhone (or other point-and-shoot), use your safari vehicle to stabilize the camera before shooting — this should reduce shake and blur with the built-in zoom. Without surprise, I took my best animal photographs from between 5:30-7:00 a.m. and then the hour before sunset at around 5:30-6:30 p.m..
Most of all, have fun! I know I did. I cannot express enough gratitude for the many helping hands I had on my expedition throughout Tanzania. I could not have done this alone and to all of you who helped me I say asante sana . . . and to those intending to travel to Tanznia, I wish you safari njema!