Arusha National Park, often overlooked, is in fact a treasure, a rich tapestry of habitats, teeming with animals and birds. From the lush swamps of the Ngurdoto Crater to the tranquil beauty of the Momela Lakes and the rocky alpine heights of Mt Meru, the terrain of the park is as varied as it is interesting. Zebras graze on the park’s red grasslands, and leopards 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.
Gombe Stream is the smallest of Tanzania’s National Parks, a thin strip of ancient forest set amidst mountains and steep valleys on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Chimpanzees are Gombe Stream’s main attraction; they are the stars of the world’s most famous chimpanzee community, made famous by the pioneering British researcher Jane Goodall, whose years of constant observation since 1960 have brought to light startling new facts about mankind’s closest cousins.
Katavi National Park in western Tanzania is remote and wild, a destination for the true safari aficionado. The name of the park immortalises a legendary hunter, Katabi, whose spirit is believed to possess a tamarind tree ringed with offerings from locals begging his blessings.
The great mountain of Kilimanjaro is a metaphor for the compelling beauty of East Africa. Rising in absolute isolation, at 5,895 m (19,336 ft), Kilimanjaro is one of the highest walkable summits on the planet, a beacon for visitors from around the world. Just three degrees South of the equator, Kilimanjaro’s great peaks of Kibo and Mawenzi are nonetheless covered all year round with snow and ice. Most reasonably fit and properly guided climbers can experience the triumph of reaching the crater rim with little more than a walking stick, warm clothing and determination. Those who reach Uhuru Point, the actual summit, or Gillman’s point on the lip of the crater (Kilimanjaro is a dormant, but not extinct, volcano), will have earned their climbing certificates and their memories.
Kitulo, which has recently become a fully protected national park, is situated on the Kitulo Plateau, which forms part of Tanzania’s southern highlands. The area, which is known locally as the “Garden of God,” provides a home for a wide variety of wildflowers such as balsams, bellflowers, honey-peas, irises, lilies and orchids.
Tucked below the majesty of the Rift Valley wall, Lake Manyara National Park consists of a thin green band of forest, flanked by the sheer 600 m high red and brown cliffs of the escarpment on one side and by the white-hot shores of an ancient soda lake on the other. This wedge of surprisingly varied vegetation supports a wealth of wildlife, nourished by the streams flowing out of the escarpment base and waterfalls spilling over the cliffs. Acacia woodland shelters the park’s famous tree-climbing lions, lying languidly among the branches in the heat of the day. Feeding in the undergrowth or dozing in the dry riverbeds are the country’s densest populations of buffalo and elephant.
Like its northerly neighbour Gombe, Mahale Mountains National Park is home to some of the last remaining wild chimpanzees in Africa. Around 1,000 of these fascinating animals roam the isolated rainforest of Mahale, a chain of dramatic peaks draped in lush vegetation falling to Lake Tanganyika’s beaches far below. Visitors are led on guided walks in search of the chimpanzees, following clues such as the previous night’s nests, shadowy clumps high in the trees, or scraps of half-eaten fruit and fresh dung. Once found, the chimpanzees preen each other’s glossy coats in concentrated huddles, squabble noisily or bound effortlessly into the trees, swinging nonchalantly through the vines.
Forming the northern borders of Africa’s biggest game reserve – the vast Selous Game Reserve – Mikumi is one of the most popular of Tanzania’s national parks, the most accessible part of a 75,000 square kilometre (47,000 square mile) - wilderness that stretches almost to the shores of the Indian Ocean. The main feature of the park is the Mikumi flood plain, along with the mountain ranges that border the park on two sides.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area boasts the finest blend of landscapes, wildlife, people and archaeological sites in Africa. Often called an ‘African Eden’ and the ‘eighth wonder of the natural world’, it is also a pioneering experiment in multiple land use. For Ngorongoro, the idea of multiple land use means to allow humans and wildlife to co-exist in a natural setting. Traditional African pastoralists co-operate with Tanzania’s government bodies to help preserve the natural resources of the area and to ensure a fantastic experience for tourists.
Ruaha is a park where game viewing can begin the moment the plane touches down. A pair of giraffe may race beside the airstrip, with a line of zebra parading across the runway in their wake as nearby protective elephant mothers guard their young under the shade of a baobab tree.
Rubondo Island is tucked into the corner of Lake Victoria, the world’s second largest lake, an inland sea sprawling between three countries. Rubondo provides protection for fish breeding grounds, while tilapia and the rapacious Nile perch, some weighing more than 100 kg, tempt recreational fishers with challenging sports fishing and world record catches. But Rubondo is more than a water wonderland. Deserted sandy beaches nestle against a cloak of virgin forest. Papyrus swamps host the secretive sitatunga, a shaggy aquatic antelope, and the dappled bushbuck.
Saadani National Park is the perfect union of beach and bush. Located just 70 km north of Bagamoyo and immediately accessible by paved road from Dar es Salaam, Saadani has recently become a fully protected national park and is a popular day-trip from beach resorts scattered along Tanzania’s northern coast. The Wami River, which passes through Saadani National Park and empties into the Indian Ocean, hosts a large population of hippos, crocodiles, flamingos, and many large bird species. Elephants have been rumoured to be seen bathing and playing on Saadani’s beach, especially in the early hours of the morning.
At around 50,000 sq km, the Selous is Africa’s largest game reserve, a wilderness area bigger than Denmark or Switzerland. The Reserve covers more than 5% of Tanzania’s total land area, and is three times larger than the Serengeti. Although slightly off the beaten track of the more well-worn safari circuits, a visit to the Selous offers unforgettable game viewing in almost completely isolated surroundings.
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. The Tarangire River is a mere shadow of itself, just a trickle of water choked with wildlife; thirsty antelope and elephant have wandered hundreds of parched kilometres to Tarangire’s permanent water source.
Each year more than six million hooves pound the legendary Serengeti’s endless plains. Triggered by the seasonal rains, more than a million wildebeest, 200,000 zebra and 300,000 Thomson’s gazelle gather to undertake their long trek to new grazing lands. The wildebeest rutting season is a frenzied three week long bout of territorial conquests and mating, followed by survival of the fittest as the 40 km long columns plunge through crocodile infested waters on the annual exodus north. Replenishing the species is the brief population explosion that produces more than 8,000 calves a day before the 1,000 km pilgrimage begins again.
The Udzungwa Mountains are almost unearthly. An enchanted forest of leafy glades, freckled with sunshine, where fungus, lichen, moss and ferns ingratiate themselves into every damp crevice, it is at once both vivid in detail and larger than life. A new variety of African violet was discovered in the shelter of a 30m high tree. It is a hothouse, nurturing species found nowhere else on earth, a secret bank of precious genetic stock.