Northern Tanzania - a journey through the cradle of mankind
25 million years ago a cracking started in a north-south direction on the African continent. Tectonic activity gave rise to Africa's Great Rift Valley. A gigantic wound, in places several kilometers in both width and height, cut straight through the rainforest belt that extends straight across the continent from the Indian Ocean in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. Over millions of years habitats and climate changed fundamentally over much of the continent.
One area where the result of this macro events gave unusually high biodiversity can be seen today in northern Tanzania. At a distance of 400 kilometers between Lake Victoria and Kilimanjaro one can find everything from snow and ice to rain forests, semi-deserts and savannas.
In the east sits the world's highest detached mountain six kilometers above sea level, Mount Kilimanjaro, and to the west the world's second largest lake, Lake Victoria. In between, we find the Serengeti plateau, Ngorongoro's extinct volcanoes, the active volcano Ol Doynio Lengai at Lake Natrons shores, Tarangire savanna forest, and Lake Manyara's and Mount Meru's southern rainforests.
Here most of the million tourists who visit the country arrive. Most people choose a "standard safari" which often include some days in Manyara, Ngorongoro, Serengeti and then a few days in Zanzibar. A first-time visitor is usually satisfied.
We believe that with the right approach, the journey does not only generate a satisfied traveler, but an overwhelmed. Although it is perfectly possible to drive the spectacular road through the rift from Mto wa Mbu to Lake Natron and from there hit the Serengeti plateau and drive into the Serengeti through the beautiful northern part of Lobo, there are very few operators that offer this option. Most of the tourists miss these spectacular two highlights that absolutely should be visited if one has made it to Africa and Tanzania.
In short: Tanzania is not the cheapest tourist destination. You should therefor seriously consider what you want to experience, and plan for that.
Natron - volcanoe and soda lake in the middle of the great rift
90 kilometers north of Lake Manyara norr om Lake Manyara boasts the volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai, the Masai's holy mountain, the peak 2,200 meters above the rift bottom (2,900 masl). Heavily active as late as 2007/2008 it characterizes the landscape by the soda lake Lake Natron, whose northern part is inside the Kenyan border. The lake is the most important breeding site in East Africa for lesser flamingo and also attracts a variety of other seabirds.
Climbing the volcano is done by starting at midnight to reach the summit at sunrise around 6 in the morning. A different experience, with the right motivation and decent fitness it is well worth trying.
A less demanding activity is a walk along the river Engare Sero where a dip in the natural spa pool at the top is thrilling and gives delightful coolness.
Serengeti - savannas and forests
The Serengeti ecosystem is almost 30,000 km2. In savannas, among volcanoes and soda lakes, live millions of large mammals; more than a thousand species of birds; reptiles like crocodiles, lizards and turtles; frogs, cicadas and many others that together create the nature's pulse of sound and rhythm that attracts so many Westerners to return once they have been here.
Central part of the Serengeti comprise Seronera Valley where Seronera River maintains a spectacularly wildlife. Not least because the valley is a border zone between the vast grass savannas in the south and the more hilly and wooded parts of the North. The problem with Seronera is that it sometimes feels heaped with tourists. Cars crisscross the roads in their quest to see animals, preferably cats. During high season, lion or leopard attract 20-30 cars at the same time and your experience will be in accordance.
Seronera is certainly worth seeing, but Lobo in the northeast is even more beautiful, filled with wildlife but far fewer tourists. From Natron, you can drive up the rift edges to reach the Serengeti Plateau 600 meters above the bottom to enter Klein's gate in the northern part of the park a couple of hours later. A few kilomenters to the south is where Lobo campsite offers exquisite views.
Smooth rounded grassy hills and protruding giant granite blocks, kopjes, provide a wonderful backdrop to the rich wildlife. Buffalo and other antelopes, not least Topi, occurs in abundance which feeds some unusually large herds of lions.
The alternative to camping is Lobo Wildlife Lodge nearby but then we talk about staying in a hotel in the Serengeti. Admittedly tastefully interspersed among some of Lobo's mighty kopjes but the rooms are still as hotel rooms. The feeling of being in the middle of nature is lost, according to us.
From December to March is the migration of the wildebeest in Ndutu in the southern part of the park and the adjacent Ngorongoro Conservation Area. If one chooses Serengeti during this time, a visit here is a must. This is the place where the savannah extends to the horizon in all directions and wildebeest choose to calve. On average, 8,000 calves are born each day in February/March, which transform the savannah into an orgy of life. A fact predators take advantage of. Ndutu have no public camping sites, but some "half-priced" and nice lodges worth the price considering the experiences the area offers.
More pictures from the Serengeti here.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area - breathtaking views
Ngorongoro highlands are traversed on the way to the Serengeti if you are making the "milk route" from Manyara and enters Serengeti through Naabi gate. Given highlight is the Ngorongoro Crater, but in addition there are more volcanoes that can be visited by vehicle or with different hiking options. Wilderness feeling is maybe not present in all places, given that here lives 100,000 Maasai. But shorter walks at selected venues offer breathtaking views, especially for a photographer.
Tarangire and Manyara
In addition to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro there are Manyara and Tarangire ecosystems which were previously part of the Serengeti/Ngorongoro ecosystem but because of human expansion they have been cut and now form their own ecosystem.
Tarangire National Park is a gem filled with elephants and Baoba tree. During the light rains in November/December turns the landscape into a green paradise. Around the Tarangire River flows life in every imaginable form. The park is probably the densest elephant range in Tanzania. There are two public camping sites, as well as several expensive luxury lodges.
Lake Manyara National Park is during the rainy season made up mainly by the soda lake with the same name together with the land area between the lake and steep rift edges in the west. The rain forest in the park, especially near the northern park entrance, is impressive. Not least at breeding time in January-March, when you especially early mornings should stop, turn off the engine and just allow yourself to be absorbed by the powerful bird song.
Camping and nice bungalows are located directly inside the park's northern entrance, expensive private lodges further south in the park.
More pictures from Manyara here.
Lake Eyasi - the last remaining hunter/gatherers
At the rift bottom south of Manyara is another soda lake, Eyasi. Here live Hadzape, the only surviving gathering hunting people of East Africa. Together with the San in Southern Africa and the Batwa of Central Africa they are the only remaining people who partly still practice our species original method of survival. The dry and hot climate is not something Hadzape have chosen. They have been driven to this semi-desert and San driven to Kalahari border zone.
Kilimanjaro and Meru - rain forests and snow
Between Arusha and Kilimanjaro are Africa's highest and fifth highest mountains. With their peaks at 6 and 4.6 kilometers altitude over the sea respectively volcanoes Kilimanjaro and Meru create their own weather systems and habitats. Because water supply is assured all year round, many people live in the mountains. Those parts of saved original southern rainforests are well worth a visit and can be combined with visits to some of the people who live here. You can roam with guides from the Chagga people of Kilimanjaro and see how people maintain themselves at the foot of the world's highest detached mountain. The Meru people at Mount Meru can show you how small-scale food and coffee production works down here.
To climb Kilimanjaro 5,895 masl is a challenge of at least a week, and proper equipment for alpine conditions and a good condition are required. Too cold and too much equipment are the reasons to why we have not tried it.
Mount Meru with its 4,566 m above sea level requires 3-4 days and sufficient equipment is rain gear and good condition. There, we snuck up in 2012 together with the guide Lauwo Abel, grandson of Yohanas Lauwo who guided the first European to Kilimanjaro peak 1889.
Highlights of northern Tanzania:
- Ndutu's short grass savannas
- Walking safari in Arusha National Park
- Canoing on Lake Duluti
- Bicycle tour at Lake Manyara's shores
- Lake Manyara National Park
- Volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai
- Lukuba Island in Lake Victoria
- Ngorongoro highlands
- Lake Eyasi
- Lake Natron
- Chagga people at Kilimanjaro
- Meru people at Mount Meru
- Bicycle tour among cultivations at Lake Manyara
- Visit to Hadzape people at Lake Eyasi