Tanzania Safari Circuits Explained: North, South, West, Coast
Tanzania has so much to offer! To make it easier to plan your trip, Tanzania has been divided into regional circuits – all offering breathtaking landscapes, intriguing wildlife and a plethora of exciting safari activities! The two main Tanzania safari circuits are northern and southern, but to give you a comprehensive guide, we will also cover western safari circuit as well as the coastal circuit!
Northern Safari Circuit | Southern Safari Circuit | Western Safari Circuit | Coastal Circuit
If you are to do only one safari in your life, the northern safari circuit would be your perfect destination. It also has a strong National Geographic feels 🙂
But, if you would like to veer away from the crowds and enjoy a massive wilderness almost all to yourself, then the southern safari circuits may be your best bet. To say hello to the primates, go to the western circuit. Of course, if you want to spend time in a tropical paradise, the coastal circuit of Tanzania will always amaze you.
NORTHERN SAFARI CIRCUIT
Northern safari circuit encompasses some of Africa’s most iconic parks and reserves including Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tarangire National Park, Lake Manyara National Park, Kilimanjaro National Park, Arusha National Park and the Great Rift Valley lakes Natron and Eyasi. Due to the popularity of these parks, the northern safari circuit harbors more tourists than any other circuit in Tanzania. Sometimes, especially during peak seasons, it is not uncommon to see plenty of vehicles in one area.
The main gateway to this circuit is the city of Arusha, which is served by Kilimanjaro International Airport. Unfortunately, not a lot of direct flights to Kilimanjaro are available. Tourists coming from UK, US, Europe, Middle East and Asia usually fly directly into JRO from Amsterdam via KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. Other options are connecting flights via Nairobi in Kenya, Addis Ababa in Ethiopia or Dar es Salaam.
What’s great about it?
The great thing about the northern safari circuit is, parks are accessible by roads and so it’s easy to drive from one park to another. Since visitors usually spend a lot of time on the road during their game drives and some roads can be really dusty or muddy, closed vehicles with pop-up roofs are typically used in this area. The pop-up roofs and large windows allow excellent game viewing while maintaining safety and comfort all throughout the trip.
The world famous Big Five are also a common sighting all year-round, and a lot of accommodation options ranging from budget camps to luxury lodges and exclusive tented camps are widely offered. Also, adventurous travelers who aim to take their once-in-a-lifetime trip to greater heights can easily trek the world-famous Mount KIlimanjaro or the crater of Mount Meru.
Top Northern Safari Parks:
- Serengeti National Park
Home to Great Wildebeest Migration which has been consistently named “the greatest show on earth” and the World Cup of Wildlife, Serengeti National Park is arguably the main attraction of Tanzania. It displays a breathtaking scenery of a wildlife-ridden Africa all year-round and visitors never go zero when it comes to game viewing.
- Ngorongoro Conservation Area
Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Africa’s Garden of Eden, is where you can find the famous Ngorongoro Crater, the world’s largest unbroken, inactive volcanic caldera. It is another UNESCO World Heritage Site that promises sightings of the Big Five and all other wildlife including about 25,000 large mammals. The crater rim sits around 7,500m above sea level and is covered in ancient forests draped in lichen, making it a unique site to spot such an incredible diversity and concentration of animals and birds.
- Lake Manyara National Park
Imagine a vast soda lake filled with massive herds of vibrant pink flamingoes, white rhinos, zebras and other wildlife? In Lake Manyara National Park, you get to see this before your very eyes. Aside from such a sigh to behold, the main attractions in this park includes the tree-climbing lions and the prolific elephant population.
Best time to visit Northern Circuit Parks: June to October and December to March
SOUTHERN SAFARI CIRCUIT
For those who want to get away from the crowds and experience a remote safari adventure, the southern safari circuit would sound perfect for that. The parks in this region are enormous, untouched, remote and teeming with a spectacular diversity of wildlife. The parks included in the southern safari circuit are Selous Game Reserve, Ruaha National Park, Mikumi National Park and Udzungwa Mountains National Park. Although the Big Five isn’t complete here and cannot be found all in one area, a lot of other animals like roan antelopes, sable antelopes, black rhinos and cheetahs can be easily spotted. Also, this is where you can find the world’s thickest population of the last remaining African wild dogs.
To get to the southern safari circuit, the main entry hub is Dar es Salaam, a major city and commercial port in Tanzania. Tourists often fly to Julius Nyerere International Airport (DAR) and then take a light aircraft to one of the parks. The good news is, a myriad of airlines fly directly to DAR from many parts of the world, including US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Asia and Australia. However, since southern circuit parks are not accessible by road, travelers also need to take into account that they need to book a domestic flight into the parks as well.
What’s great about it?
For game viewing, open-sided vehicles are available. This enhances the game viewing experience as it offers 360-degree views of the virgin landscape and exciting game. Also, the proximity of the southern circuit to the coastal circuit makes it a perfect bush and beach vacation – sort of like an adventure in the true wild side of Africa and then a relaxing tropical getaway.
What makes the southern safari circuit even more appealing is that they offer activities that are not available in the more popular northern circuit. For example, guided walking tours, fly-camping and boating cannot be experienced in the north. On top of that, you get to enjoy a wealth of wildlife and untouched landscape virtually all to yourself.
Top Southern Safari Parks:
- Selous Game Reserve
Selous is one of the largest game reserves in the world. It is wildely popular for being the home to the world’s largest population of wild dogs as well as some of the country’s last remaining black rhinos. Considered a hidden gem of Africa, Selous boasts of a variety of vegetation zones, ranging from dense thickets to riverine forests and swamps to open wooded grasslands.
- Ruaha National Park
Covering 20,226 square kilometers (7,809 sq mi) of savannah, Ruaha National Park is Tanzania’s and East Africa’s largest park. It hosts 10% of the planet’s lion population as well as one of the largest elephant populations anywhere. The park can be reached by car on a dirt road from Iringa or by light aircraft in Dar es Salaam. If you drive from the town of Iringa, you will reach the park in 2 hours whereas if you drive all the way from Dar, it will be an approximately 10-hour journey all in all. Via plane, it will be about 2.5 hours through either Msembe airstrip or Jongomeru airstrip.
- Mikumi National Park
Mikumi National Park is the fourth largest park in the entire country. Since its road improvements connecting Dar es Salaam, Mikumi has become a hotspot for Tanzania tourism. Elephants, wildebeest, zebras, and buffaloes along with other mammals are abundant in this park. Although occasional, you can also spot lions potentially preying on other animals; giraffes browsing on the leaves of the acacia trees; and hippos resting on the Mkata river.
Best time to visit Southern Circuit Parks: June to October
WESTERN SAFARI CIRCUIT
Western safari circuit is where you get to explore the intriguing jungles of Tanzania to meet chimpanzees. But, it’s not all about the primates. In here, you can also find rare roan and sable antelope species as well as hippos, giraffes and if you’re lucky, you can spot elephants, leopards, zebras and maybe even a lion, too!
Western safari circuit comprises of Mahale Mountains National Park, Katavi National Park and Gombe Stream National Park. Although not the primary reason for visiting Tanzania, the western circuit promises a different kind of adventure and an exciting side trip to any wildlife safari. Since this area is very remote, the only way to get here is via light aircraft or boat. Flights may start from Arusha, Dar es Salaam or even Zanzibar.
Depending on your itinerary, the main entry hubs into the western safari circuit are Tanzania’s major international hubs: Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO) in Arusha or Julius Nyerere International Airport (DAR) in Dar es Salaam. Most attractions are only accessible by either charter planes or a boat ride from Kigoma town.
To get to Kigoma, the most accessible starting point is Dar es Salaam. If you come from Arusha, you have to travel to Dar and then from Dar, you can take the bus or train to Kigoma. You can also start from Dodomo (or travel from Arusha to Dodomo) and then take a bus or train to Kigoma. However, if you’re looking into visiting Katavi National Park first, it is most accessible through Arusha as plenty of flights are available from there via Safari Air Link and Nomad Safaris.
What’s great about it?
Western Circuit parks are not very popular with tourists as they usually go with Northern Circuit Safari Parks almost like a reflex. But, what’s great about this circuit is that it offers something different than the “usual” – it’s the road less traveled. It features a deep virgin territory, primate safari experiences like chimpanzee trekking and, given that most of it is probably one of the most inaccessible areas in the country, it displays an unspoiled wilderness that’s just too captivating not to stare at.
Top Western Circuit Parks:
- Mahale Mountains National Park
The popular primates destination in Tanzania, Mahale Mountains National Park hosts about 800 chimpanzees, one of Africa’s big apes. It offers guided treks to the forest and gives you a chance to meet and greet the chimps. The park also supports other primates including red colobus monkeys, red-tailed and blue monkeys.
- Katavi National Park
Katavi National Park is a very remote park, less frequented by tourists. It covers Katuma River as well as Lakes Katavi and Chada. Among the many animals that roam this park are antelopes, buffaloes, zebras, wildebeest, giraffes, cheetahs, leopards, lions and hyenas.
- Gombe Stream National Park
With only 13.5 square miles (35 km2) of protected land along the hills of the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, Gombe Stream National Park is one of Tanzania’s smallest parks. However small, the park is a world-famous chimp reserve that hosts plenty of habituated endangered chimpanzees along with numerous of baboons.
Best time to visit Western Circuit Parks: June to October (Mahale), February to June (Gombe), December to April (Katavi)
Tanzania is not all about the wildlife. In fact, there is also a slice of tropical paradise in this side of the world. In the coastal lands and towns of Zanzibar, Pemba and Mafia, you can find some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, most extravagant diving spots and fantastic historical experiences.
Zanzibar is the most popular beach and honeymoon destination in Tanzania. It features clear, turquoise-blue water, shallow sandbars and many small islands. Aside from the gorgeous stretches of white sand beaches and the many diving and fishing spots, Zanzibar also houses many historical and cultural areas including the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Stone Town. You can easily revel in the beauty of this island from other parts of Africa and even other parts of the world. It has an international airport that receives numerous flights via Condor, Ethiopian Airways, Kenyan Airways, KLM, Qatar Airways, Jetfly and many more.
If you come from southern safari circuits, you can easily reach Zanzibar since it’s very near to Dar es Salaam. If you come from northern safari circuits, you can either go to Dar es Salaam and catch a flight to Zanzibar from there or you can drive or take a bus to Dar es Salaam and then take a ferry to Zanzibar.
What’s great about it?
Do you know that some of the best beaches in the world are within this beautiful coastal stretch? Not only will you be able to relax and bask under the sun in gorgeous palm-fringed white sand beaches or dive into a world-class coral wilderness, you also get to explore the historic and cultural side of Tanzania. You can find quaint shops, bazaars, interesting architecture, caves, museums and excellent snorkeling and fishing spots as well.
Northern vs Southern Safari Circuits
Since western and coastal circuits are distinct from the two and people usually get caught in between northern and southern safari circuits for their wildlife adventure, here’s a nutshell of the pros and cons to the northern and southern safari circuits.
|NORTHERN SAFARI CIRCUIT||SOUTHERN SAFARI CIRCUIT|
|Main Entry Hub: Arusha (Kilimanjaro International Airport)||Main Entry Hub: Dar es Salaam (Julius Nyerere International Airport)|
|Home of the Big Five and the only place where you can see the Great Wildebeest Migration||Best place to see endangered African wild dogs|
|Can get crowded especially during peak season||Less crowds; feels more intimate and exclusive|
|Parks are accessible by road, and most parks are close to each other||Most parks are only accessible via light aircraft|
|Closed safari vehicles with pop-up roofs are mostly used although some parks also allow open safari vehicles||You can ride on open-sided vehicles, which offers an even more spectacular game-viewing experience|
|Has a myriad of accommodation options for every kind of traveler — from budget to mid-range to luxury lodges, tented camps and camping sites.||More options for cheaper accommodations on the same level of luxury to that of the northern parks|
|If driving to Serengeti from Arusha, many good parks are along the way so you can go into these parks for a short game drive if you like||Very near Dar es Salaam, a major city in Tanzania that caters to numerous direct and indirect international flights as well as transfers to Zanzibar|
|Offers a more diverse safari experience and game viewing is guaranteed to be unlike anything else in the world.||Offers guided walking safaris, boating and fly-camping|
|Parks fees can be expensive: Fee to Serengeti as of April 2018 is $60 for adults, $20 for non-resident students and children aged 5-16, children below 5 are free||Park fees are more expensive: Fee to Selous as of April 2018 is $50 per person per 24 hours regardless of age, plus $25 concession fee per person per day.|
A once-in-a-lifetime adventure nonetheless.
Whichever part of Tanzania you decide to explore on your next trip, you will surely gain a memorable adventure – one that’ll haunt your travel desires for a long time. Whether you opt for the remote and exclusive southern safari parks, the famous, unparalleled sightings in the northern safari parks, the exciting primate visit to the western circuit or the rejuvenating tropical getaway in the coastal circuit, there is no doubt that you will fall in love with Tanzania immediately! Besides, you can always combine them and have the African adventure of a lifetime.