Tanzania Country Guide

Tanzania Overland Travel Parks and Reserves Destinations Activities History

At A Glance

  • At 950 000sqkm, Tanzania is East Africa’s largest country
  • Mount Kilimanjaro is on the Tanzania border, and is Africa’s highest mountain
  • The diverse landscape includes white sand beaches, savannah, volcanic calderas and rainforests
  • Tanzania’s main language is Swahili but English is spoken widely
  • The coast is hot and humid; the safari dry season is June to October

Tanzania Overland Travel

Red-robed Maasai tribesmen, wildlife-packed savannahs, lofty snow-capped peaks … Tanzania offers the Overland traveller what they’re looking for – and then some.  Besides the classic Tanzania destinations of the Serengeti, Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro Crater and Zanzibar, this huge East African country is also home to gorgeous tropical beaches, castaway-style desert islands, dripping rain forests and mighty lakes; if you’ve ever wanted to experience Africa in one country, you could do a lot worse than head for Tanzania.

And it’s made for Overlanding: shop for exotic fresh produce at colourful markets, haggle for souvenirs, try out your Swahili with wide-eyed children – there’s a world of experiences waiting for you in a country that devotes an astonishing 25% of its land mass to national parks and conservation areas, and protects around 20% of Africa’s large mammals.

It is also a country that combines well with its neighbours Kenya and Uganda, giving you the opportunity to experience other African highlights such as the Masai Mara and gorilla trekking.

Parks and Reserves

With a staggering 25% of its land mass devoted to national parks, reserves and private conservancies, Tanzania walks the walk when it comes to wildlife conservation. And so large and diverse are these parks that it is estimated that they contain not only around 20% of Africa’s large mammal population but well over 1 000 species of bird, making the country a naturalist’s delight.

Some of Africa’s most iconic parks and reserves are found in Tanzania – the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater – find out more with our travel guide to Tanzania’s parks and start planning your Tanzania overland adventure.

Serengeti

Put simply, the Serengeti National Park supports the greatest concentration of plains game in Africa. Frequently dubbed the eighth wonder of the world, it’s also a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve and the jewel in the crown of Tanzania’s formidable treasure chest of wildlife destinations.

Deriving its name from the Masaai word Siringitu – ‘the place where the land moves on forever’ – the park covers a whopping 14 763 sq km of classic rolling grasslands, patches of woodland and rocky outcrops, all of which is bisected by crocodile-infested rivers. Contiguous with the Masai Mara, game viewing in the Serengeti is good all year round but of course it’s the phenomenal migration that has the cameras clicking between October and July when hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, zebra and gazelles move in a clockwise circuit, giving birth, mating, grazing … and ending up as prey for the Serengeti’s multitude of predators.

The migration is a fluid affair and numbers and timing varies from year to year; don’t despair if your Overland adventure is at the ‘wrong’ time of year: huge numbers of animals don’t migrate and the Serengeti has healthy populations of giraffe, buffalo, many antelope species and all the big predators, especially lion, cheetah and spotted hyena.

Ngorongoro Crater

Forged in fire, the Ngorongoro Crater is a natural amphitheatre that was created when a once huge volcano collapsed into itself forming a 260 sq km caldera. Happily, the days of molten lava are long over and the grassy crater floor is a permanent home to an astonishing concentration of African wildlife that includes the continent’s densest population of lion, Tanzania’s few remaining black rhino and a host of other familiar names such as big-tusked elephant, buffalo, zebra, wildebeest and hyena.

Alternating between dry and rainy seasons, Ngorongoro’s main water source is Lake Migadi, a soda lake that attracts flocks of pink-winged flamingos and plenty of contented hippos while the pockets of woodland are prime real estate for leopard.

Needless to say, the views from the crater’s rim are sensational, and you can pick out the wildlife as dots on the crater floor. There is no accommodation on the crater floor however so just after dawn game viewing vehicles descend the steep road into the crater. It can get pretty busy during peak season so prepare for clusters of vehicles around good sightings but while there are wilder game viewing experiences in Tanzania, the Ngorongoro Crater offers an excellent opportunity to see a lot of animals at close quarters in a limited timeframe.

Kilimanjaro

Africa’s iconic mountain is the continent’s highest and provides visitors with classic images of its snow-capped peak towering above rolling grasslands. “Kili” is a popular 4 or 5-day climb – and no technical experience is necessary to get to the top – but its powerful allure can be experienced from the surrounding national park.

Olduvai Gorge

Sandwiched between the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater is one of the planet’s most important archeological sites – Olduvai Gorge. Known as “the Cradle of Mankind”, Olduvai is a fascinating insight into our prehistory and provides a welcome break from all that game viewing!

Lake Manyara

Don’t overlook this small but diverse park on your way to more famous destinations: Lake Manyara National Park boasts good game viewing, amazing bird watching and is home to tree-climbing lions and plenty of elephants.

Mikumi

Close to Dar es Salaam, Mikumi National Park is an ideal stopover on the way to the more famous northern parks. Adjoining the vast Selous Game Reserve, Mikumi’s grasslands and floodplains are home to an array of classic African wildlife and there are plenty of bird species too.

Destinations

Tanzania’s diverse natural environments have made it one of the best tourist destinations on the continent. Its 13 game reserves and national parks are home to a staggering range of African wildlife, with the Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area accorded World Heritage Status.

But that’s not all Tanzania has to offer: top beach and coastal destinations are also a highlight of the Tanzanian tourism offering.

Zanzibar

Central to most East African Overland experiences is a stay on that most evocatively named Indian Ocean island: Zanzibar.  Home to long white beaches, teeming coral reefs and spice-laden markets, exotic Zanzibar offers an utterly different take on an African safari.

Zanzibar is 35km from mainland Tanzania and is connected to Dar es Salaam by ferries, hydrofoils, and flights. Founded on the back of the ivory, spice and slave trades and long a trading centre for Persians, Arabs, Indians, and Chinese, today’s Zanzibar is a place of Islamic culture, Arabian architecture, romantic white-sailed dhows and miles of sandy palm fringed beaches.

And happily, it’s very accessible: Zanzibar is easy to get around, whether on a public bus, hired car or minibus, and it’s not very big. You could race round the whole island in a day, but there is so much of an atmosphere that to absorb it deserves more time. Top places to visit include ancient Stone Town, Jozani Forest – home to numerous black and white Columbus monkeys – and beautiful & exotic Prison Island – just 30 minutes from the main island.

Why not check out our top Tanzania & Zanzibar overland tours for more ideas on where to go in Tanzania on your overland trip.

Arusha

Tanzania’s top safari destinations of the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Mount Kilimanjaro, Lake Manyara and Tarangire National Park are fortuitously arranged in a cluster around the small town of Arusha, the country’s undisputed safari capital and logistics hub of the Northern Safari Circuit.

Lying 485km north-west of Dar es Salaam and only about 300km south of Nairobi, it’s also the halfway point between Cape Town and Cairo! There are plenty of handy amenities in Arusha – bureaux de change, internet cafes and booking agents – while 20 kms on the road to the Crater is the Meserani Snake Park – a mandatory stop for all overland trips on the way to the national parks.

Mto Wa Mbu

Conveniently located on the road between Arusha and the Ngorongoro Crater, this small village is a natural pit stop and chance to grab a cold drink and negotiate a price with the many souvenir and curio dealers who know a captive market when they see one.

If you’re lucky you might see one of the Maasai cattle markets that occur occasionally on the plains outside of town. This is a rare spectacle when thousands of colourful Maasai gather with their cows to trade.

Dar es Salaam

Any Overlander on their way to Zanzibar will dip into Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest and busiest city. It hardly resembles its translation – ‘Haven of Peace’ – but it’s a great place to restock, regroup and get a sniff of African urban life, both literally and metaphorically. Wandering the streets of Dar is nowhere more rewarding than in the Asian business district: here the flavours and smells are of a little Bombay rather than Africa. The Kariakoo Market has a colourful atmosphere and the stalls are adorned with piles of fresh fruit, flowers and Zanzibar spices.

Activities

The list of things to do on your Overland Tanzania adventure is a long one and probably deserves a website all to itself. However, we’ve identified the most popular activities based on what our past overlanders have enjoyed the most and find easiest to arrange.

Climbing Kilimanjaro

Clustered at Kilimanjaro’s base, everyone oohs and aahs at the classic view of this snow-capped mountain, but imagine what the view is like from the top.

Climbing Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, is one of those lifetime moments, an experience that puts you on the roof of a continent after taking you up through an amazing journey (of about 5 days) of changing environments that include rainforest, moorland and glaciers. And it’s not even that difficult: Kilimanjaro is a mountain that can be walked up – no technical climbing experience is necessary – but remember that at just under 6 000 metres, Kili is no pushover.

You’ll need to be reasonably fit, have proper clothing and equipment and be prepared for the random but often debilitating effects of high altitude. We’d strongly recommend going with accredited hiking companies that use qualified guides and doing some training before you lace your boots up at the start of the trail.

Ballooning

Every visitor to Africa remarks on the continent’s huge open skies: so why not explore them? Hot air ballooning has really (ahem) taken off in the last decade and the extraordinary vistas of the Namib Desert, the Serengeti/Masai Mara and diverse South Africa are now unfolding beneath adventurous types who are increasingly beginning their day at 1 000 feet.

Hot air balloon rides are best done in cool, still air so it’s usually a morning activity, over and done with before the sun starts to create havoc with thermals. Expect a wincingly early start and a bumpy drive to the take off point but once the big bird gets airborne, all the early morning grumbles will melt away as the spectacular scenery fizzes into life with the rising sun.

Some wildlife can be seen if you take a flight over the Serengeti/Masai Mara environments and your professional pilot will adjust the balloon’s altitude to get the best possible angles but you’ll hardly be getting close ups. Just lean back (not too far) and absorb the atmosphere.

Following the Wildebeest Migration

Nature’s greatest and most dramatic migration takes place in the greater Serengeti/Masai Mara ecosystem, an annual event of massive proportions and unparalleled drama.

Overstatement? Not if your timing is right and you get to see large chunks of the 2 million or so animals – wildebeest, zebra and gazelles – that move in great dusty columns clockwise around the region, grazing, giving birth, mating, and of course dying as they fall victim to the A – Z of predators that harry them on their way.

Be aware however that it is an event that is fluid, ever-changing and localised – you need to get your timing right if you want to see the classic images of, for example, river crossings or thousands of wildebeest calves, as different stages of the migration happen in different areas and at different times of year.

Things begin with the October rains. The herds have been patiently waiting in Kenya’s Masai Mara and come thundering out, moving south and moving fast, heading for the new grazing of the southern and central Serengeti.

Then, during the February – March wet season, one of wildlife’s most amazing spectacles occurs. In less than a month, 90% of the female wildebeest give birth, flooding the Serengeti plains with thousands of newborn calves each day.

As the southern plains dry out and become overgrazed by April/May, the wildebeest then gather in huge numbers and turn north, heading into the western and northern Serengeti where they face a number of river crossings, made hazardous by the presence of enormous Nile crocodiles that are silently waiting for the panicky herds to cross.

By June/July, the herds have drifted back onto the now-recovered Masai Mara grasslands to resupply before the onset of the October rains triggers them into movement.

The one thing to remember about the migration is that all is not lost should your timing be out or your Overland itinerary has you going to an area of the Serengeti that had the herds last month: there is always good game viewing in the Serengeti/Masai Mara and unless you are on a specialist trip to see the migration at a specific point and time, a certain amount depends on good old fashioned luck and what random factors have been added to the year’s climate.

Snorkelling & Diving in Zanzibar

With some of the best reefs in the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar offers unparalleled snorkelling and diving excursions – and since it’s just a short ferry ride away from Dar es Salaam on the Tanzania coast, it would be unfathomable to not include it in your Tanzania overland adventure!

Most of the resorts and hotels in Zanzibar offer PADI certified diving courses, while snorkelling gear can be found pretty much anywhere. It’s all a matter of booking yourself onto a boat trip out to one of the nearby reefs and getting into the water! You might see whale sharks, swim with dolphins or even come face to face with the rare dugong!

Other Zanzibar activities include everything from watersports to spice tours in Stone Town and hikes through Jozani Forest. But it’s definitely the diving and snorkelling that takes the cake!

History

Look in an old atlas and you’ll see that Tanzania used to be called Tanganyika. Its coast, along with Zanzibar, has long been visited by trading Persians, Arabs, Chinese and Indians and by the end of the 12th century the mainland settlement of Kilwa was ruled by Persians until it was destroyed by the Portuguese in the early 1500s.

The Portuguese claimed control over the entire coast before being ousted in turn by the Omani Arabs in the 17th century. Then things really began to change: European explorers and missionaries penetrated the interior of Tanganyika in the first half of the 19th century with the eminent explorer David Livingstone establishing a mission at Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. It was here that he was ‘found’ by Henry Stanley, an American journalist who had been commissioned by the New York Herald to locate him (and who uttered those immortal words “Doctor Livingstone I presume”).

As the ‘Scramble for Africa’ gathered pace in the latter half of the 19th century, Tanganyika fell victim to a deal drawn up in London and Berlin and was subsequently absorbed along with neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi into the colony of German East Africa.

Although the Germans brought cash crops, railways and roads to Tanganyika, European rule was often brutal and provoked African resistance. This resulted in the Maji Maji rebellion of 1905-1907 that claimed some 120 000 African lives, either killed by German troops or starved to death. Then World War I broke out and the British who had control over neighbouring Kenya, Uganda and Zanzibar attacked the German garrison at Tanga in 1914. The Germans won that battle but lost the war, and Tanganyika was awarded to the British in another colonial carve-up.

Growing resistance to British rule grew as the Winds of Change began to blow. In 1954 Julius Nyerere, a schoolteacher who was then one of only two Tanganyikans educated abroad at university level, organized a political party. Elections were held in 1960 and Nyerere became president with the British agreeing to the establishment of internal self-government and independence. Tanganyika was proclaimed an independent nation in 1961 and Zanzibar in 1963. The two countries combined as one and formed the modern state of Tanzania – a combination of both names – with Dar es Salaam as the capital. (The official capital now is inland Dodoma but no-one takes it seriously and ‘Dar’ remains Tanzania’s principle city.)

Nyerere turned to communist China for inspiration: rural development was reorganized and farmers were moved from villages into cooperative farms. The move was deeply unpopular and failed dismally resulting in dire consequences for the economy. To worsen matters, Uganda’s despotic dictator Idi Amin decided to invade Tanzania in 1978. After several months of fighting, the unprepared and ill-equipped Tanzanian army did manage to defeat Uganda and pushed them back across the border. But the war cost Tanzania US$500 million and they had no international financial support at all.

Nyerere retired as president in 1985 and was replaced by Ali Hassan Mwinyi who introduced market forces to Tanzania in an attempt to kick start the stagnant economy but it was the Rwandan genocide in the early 1990s that thrust the country back into the limelight:  thousands of refugees crossed into Tanzania and the subsequent war trials took place in Arusha.

In 1995 Benjamin Mkapa became president and soon had to deal with the results of global politics: in 1998 Tanzania was the scene of one of the year’s major terrorist incidents when a large truck bomb exploded outside the US embassy in Dar es Salaam killing 10 people. Many hundreds were killed when a second bomb went off at the same time in Nairobi. Jakaya Kikwete took over the presidential reins in 2005 and remains in power today.

 

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