Tanzania safari planning advice

Tanzania safari planning advice

A guide to planning a safari - Northern Tanzania edition

We have been fortunate to travel to a variety of areas to experience the wildlife of our planet, but we have now returned 4 times to northern Tanzania.  We thought sharing our experiences would be helpful for those who are interested in such a trip, which can be quite daunting if you’ve never done it before!  

 Late afternoon leopard on top of a kopje

About Tanzania

Tanzania, in the heart of East Africa, is a vast and diverse country that welcomes adventurers with its breathtaking landscapes and rich biodiversity. One of its most iconic features is Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, which draws hikers and mountaineers from around the world. In addition to this towering summit, Tanzania boasts a plethora of captivating attractions, such as the archipelago of Zanzibar, the awe-inspiring Ngorongoro Crater, and the renowned Serengeti National Park.

Lion in a tree in Tarangire

The country contains an extensive network of protected areas, showcasing a commitment to preserving its natural wonders. For those seeking a safari adventure, Tanzania offers two prominent circuits: the well-trodden Northern Circuit, encompassing the legendary Serengeti, and the less-explored Southern Circuit, featuring the remote Ruaha and Nyerere National Parks. First time visitors, especially those on their first safari, will typically go to the parks of the Northern Circuit.  While this guide primarily focuses on the Northern Circuit, the Southern Route offers a unique charm, providing a quieter and more secluded experience for those who prioritize solitude.

Sunrise in Tarangire National Park

Entering Tanzania is typically performed through one of two main international airports. The bustling capital of Dar es Salaam hosts one, while the other, Kilimanjaro International Airport, located near the city of Arusha, serves as a gateway to the northern region. For travelers embarking on a safari adventure through the Northern Circuit, Kilimanjaro International Airport will generally prove to be a more convenient choice.

As you set off on your Tanzanian journey, let the allure of Mount Kilimanjaro, the culture of Zanzibar, the unique landscape of the Ngorongoro Crater, and the untamed beauty of the Serengeti captivate your senses. Whether you choose the well-trodden path of the Northern Circuit or venture into the tranquility of the Southern Route, Tanzania promises an unforgettable experience, blending the thrill of adventure with the serenity of nature. Discover the magic of this East African gem, where every step unveils a new chapter in the tapestry of natural wonders and cultural splendors.

Young male lion, Serengeti National Park

Getting there

Embarking on a journey to Tanzania from North America is undoubtedly a commitment, but we've found that the route through Amsterdam, courtesy of KLM, offers a well-balanced travel experience. The convenience of this route is the strategic layover, roughly halfway through the journey, allowing for a welcomed break to stretch legs and recharge before continuing the adventure.  One tip, if you have more than 4 hours layover in Amsterdam check out the Yotel, an airside hotel that can be booked by the hour (4 hours minimum) allowing for a quick nap, or a refreshing shower.  Secondly, the evening arrival in Tanzania is very convenient. Upon landing and navigating entry formalities, travelers can head straight to their hotel for a restful night's sleep. This sets the stage for a refreshed start to the Tanzanian adventure the next morning.

However, it's essential to be aware of a trade-off associated with the KLM flight's operational triangle route. After reaching Arusha, the aircraft continues its journey to Dar es Salaam before heading back to Amsterdam. This means that if you are also departing from Arusha, you will have a return flight that is at least a couple of hours longer than the arrival flight. 

While KLM has been our preference, there are certainly other airlines that should be explored.  One option is to consider a couple of days layover in one direction at your transfer airport city, allowing you to combine safari with some cultural exploration. 

Grey crowned crane from the Ngorongoro Crater

Organizing a trip

When planning a Tanzanian adventure, the majority of travelers opt to organize their trips through tour operators, and given the many options, choosing a trustworthy company is crucial. Among the reputable tour operators in Tanzania, Access2Tanzania (www.access2tanzania.com) has been in business for a long time, and has dual offices in both Tanzania and the United States. This seasoned company specializes in crafting safari experiences, recognizing that while safaris may not be the most economical trips, the convenience and security offered by a company with a North American component are often valued by travelers.

For those seeking a more personalized touch and a deeper connection to the local economy, Roam Serengeti Safaris is a notable choice (https://roamserengetisafari.com/). Founded by Mussa Rajabu, who served as our guide on initial trips before venturing out independently, this Tanzania-based company not only supports the local economy but may also present cost-saving opportunities. While dealing with a local company may introduce an additional layer of logistical considerations, our experiences suggest that the potential benefits have outweighed the challenges in our case.

Tanzania safari vehicle

Even though those two are our chosen operators, it's advisable to reach out to multiple tour companies to find the one that aligns with your travel style. Different companies may be able to accommodate different requests or requirements, and costs can vary by a surprising amount from company to company.  As such, first time travelers often contact 5 or 6 tour operators at the start of their trip planning. TripAdvisor provides a helpful list, although non-exhaustive, to aid in your search for the perfect match (https://www.tripadvisor.com.au/ShowTopic-g293747-i9226-k13155443-Looking_for_a_Tour_Operator_Mark_11_and_things_I_ve_noticed-Tanzania.html).

It is worth mentioning that there are two types of trips that can be arranged, either group departures, where you sign on to a pre-planned trip and likely will be traveling with strangers, and bespoke trips, where you work with your chosen tour operator to customize a trip to your specifications.  Unless you really want to get to know new people while traveling, we much prefer being in charge of our own itinerary and schedule.  You will still have lots of time to meet other tourists around your camp, without having to risk making compromises on what target animals to see, and how long to spend at a sighting. 

For those embarking on a Northern Circuit trip, the mode of transportation becomes a key decision. Many travelers opt for a driving expedition, with guides meeting them at the airport and accompanying them throughout the journey. This not only ensures a consistent guide, fostering an understanding over time, but also provides glimpses into local life as you traverse the landscapes. Alternatively, flying between locations, which is a common practice in other African regions, offers a different perspective on the vast and diverse Tanzanian terrain.

In summary, the choice of a tour operator significantly shapes your Tanzanian adventure. Whether opting for the convenience of a North American-based company like Access2Tanzania or the locally-rooted experience like that offered by Roam Serengeti Safaris, thorough research and reaching out to multiple operators can help tailor the trip to your preferences. As you embark on this journey, let the choice of your tour operator enhance the magic of Tanzania, where each safari promises not just wildlife encounters but an experience that may affect you for the rest of your life (Often people who are planning a “trip of a lifetime” end up returning over and over, as we have).

Elephant in Tarangire

The parks of the Northern CIrcuit

The Northern Circuit in Tanzania encompasses a captivating array of national parks and wildlife reserves, each offering a unique blend of landscapes, biodiversity, and cultural richness. 

Adjacent to the Serengeti lies the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, home to the breathtaking Ngorongoro Crater. This natural wonder is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and boasts a self-contained ecosystem within the crater walls, hosting an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. From the vast grasslands to the soda lake, the crater offers a microcosm of East African wildlife, including elephants, lions, and rhinos. The Ngorongoro Crater provides a unique setting for game drives and may offer the best chance to spot the elusive black rhinoceros in this region.   As impressive as the Crater is, it is worth noting that it is fairly small and everyone stops here, so it gets quite busy at times.  It’s worth a visit, especially on a first trip, but most people will only need a day or two before moving on. In addition, this Conservation Area also encompasses the Ndutu area.  This is a southern extension of the Serengeti, and is at its best when the wildebeest come to the area (typically January to March) to have their babies.  This is a mixed use area, so there are some Maasai that still live in this protected area.  It is also known as a great spot to see cheetah.  Definitely an area to visit  when the wildebeest are present.

Ngorongoro Crater viewpoint

Tarangire National Park, another gem on the Northern Circuit, showcases a landscape defined by ancient baobab trees, rolling hills, and the meandering Tarangire River.  Before we had arranged our first trip to Tanzania, we had never heard of this park, which is a shame because it is truly special. This park is famous for its large elephant population, making it a prime destination for elephant enthusiasts. During the dry season, the river becomes a magnet for wildlife, drawing herds of animals to its life-sustaining waters, offering an excellent opportunity for captivating game viewing.  One advantage of this park is that it is possible to do night game drives here, offering the chance to see some nocturnal animals that otherwise are hard to see, as most national parks in Tanzania prohibit night drives.

Tarangire baobab at sunset

Lake Manyara National Park, located at the base of the Great Rift Valley, offers a distinct contrast with its diverse habitats, including woodlands, grasslands, and the alkaline Lake Manyara itself. Famous for its tree-climbing lions, the park is a birdwatcher's paradise, with flamingos and pelicans frequenting the lake.  Unfortunately the park has suffered from bad flooding in recent years, and until it recovers may not be the best use of your safari time. Our guide Mussa told us in 2023 that he currently doesn’t recommend it to guests due to the flooding issues, hopefully it can recover in the coming years. When it is at its best, it is a nice place to see elephants in a different setting, and there are good opportunities to see monkeys and birds that aren’t as common elsewhere. 

Elephant in Lake Manyara NP

Further east, Arusha National Park presents a diverse mosaic of ecosystems, from lush rainforests to open savannahs. This is a relatively small and “tamer” park, located quite close to Arusha.  Mount Meru, the fifth-highest peak in Africa, dominates the park's skyline and provides a challenging trek for adventurous travelers. The Momela Lakes, nestled against the backdrop of Mount Meru, add a picturesque element to the park, attracting an array of birdlife.  It is a nice place to visit if you decide you would like an extra night in Arusha at the start of your trip, to help get over jetlag.  

Black-and-white Colobus, Arusha National Park

As you traverse the Northern Circuit, the diversity of these parks ensures a dynamic and enriching safari experience. Whether witnessing the spectacle of the Great Migration in the Serengeti, exploring the unique landscapes of the Ngorongoro Crater, or encountering the diverse wildlife of Tarangire, each park contributes to the tapestry of Tanzania's natural wonders, making the Northern Circuit an unmissable destination for safari enthusiasts and nature lovers alike.

Sunrise over the Serengeti

One of the crown jewels in this region is the Serengeti National Park, a sprawling expanse of grasslands punctuated by rocky outcrops known as kopjes (pronounced similar to “copies”) and acacia trees. Renowned for the annual Great Migration, where millions of wildebeest and other herbivores traverse the plains in search of greener pastures, the Serengeti promises an unparalleled safari experience. Visitors can witness the dramatic river crossings, predator-prey interactions, and the sheer abundance of wildlife that defines this iconic ecosystem.

Kopjes of the Serengeti

Serengeti National Park, a sprawling expanse of natural wonder in Tanzania, offers a multifaceted safari experience with distinct regions, each boasting its unique charm. One standout area, the southern Serengeti, including the Ndutu region, becomes a wildlife haven from January to March, witnessing massive concentrations of wildebeest during the Great Migration. This period unveils the breathtaking spectacle of these animals giving birth and navigating the vast plains, creating an unparalleled display of nature's wonders.

Wildebeest in Ndutu

Moving to the central Serengeti, specifically the Seronera Valley, visitors encounter the beating heart of the park. This area boasts the highest density of accommodation options and attracts the most vehicles. The Seronera River, a lifeline coursing through the valley, provides a constant water source, making it a year-round haven for wildlife. Leopard sightings are particularly noteworthy here, as the permanent water source supports a thriving ecosystem, making the central Serengeti a photographer's dream and a wildlife enthusiast's paradise.  There is a small but growing population of black rhinos in a part of this region, and it is possible to pay an extra fee to get quite close to them (guided by a ranger).  We did this in 2023, and I would say we were lukewarm to the experience. However, it almost certainly varies from day to day, and if this ends up being your only opportunity to see a rhino then it is worth a consideration.

Hippo in the Serengeti

Venturing westward, the Serengeti unfolds another layer of its mystery in the western region. While this area remains unexplored in our adventures, it beckons with the promise of unique landscapes, untold wildlife stories, and an untouched wilderness waiting to be discovered.

Meanwhile, to the east of the Seronera valley is an area of the park that is only now being opened up for tourists.  This area was closed off for many years to allow the population of big cats, and in particular the cheetahs, to expand and thrive.  It is now one of the best locations to see cheetahs around, as well as having healthy populations of lions.  

Lion in the Serengeti

Heading north, the Serengeti reveals arguably its most picturesque facet. This lush green expanse, punctuated by the iconic kopjes, provides an enchanting backdrop for wildlife enthusiasts. The kopjes, rocky outcroppings rising from the ground, serve as ideal locations for spotting lions and leopards, making it a prime area for captivating big cat encounters. Near the Mara River, the northern Serengeti is synonymous with the dramatic wildebeest river crossings, a spectacle that draws travelers from around the world. The high season in this region, spanning from July to early October, witnesses the migration climax as wildebeest and other herbivores brave the waters of the Mara River in search of greener pastures.

Wildebeest crossing the Mara River

In each corner of the Serengeti, the landscape transforms, offering a dynamic canvas for nature's theater. Whether captivated by the intimate moments of the Great Migration in the south, the bustling activity around the Seronera River in the central region, the uncharted territories of the west, or the picturesque beauty of the northern Serengeti, every segment contributes to the park's unparalleled allure. As you embark on a safari through Serengeti National Park, let each region unveil its unique narrative, creating memories that resonate with the untamed spirit of East Africa's most iconic wildlife sanctuary.

Serengeti sunset

The wildebeest migration

Experiencing the grandeur of the Serengeti's wildebeest migration is an unparalleled highlight of any safari adventure, and choosing the right lodging enhances this extraordinary experience. The migration's unpredictability makes selecting accommodations strategically vital, ensuring proximity to the anticipated action while providing comfort and convenience.

During the peak migration season from July to October, the focus shifts to the northern section of the Serengeti, especially around the Mara River. This is the epicenter of the iconic river crossings that feature in many wildlife documentaries. To witness this breathtaking phenomenon, strategically positioned lodges in the northern Serengeti become highly coveted. These accommodations offer not only the opportunity to witness wildebeest defying crocodile-infested waters but also the chance to observe the intriguing behavior of these animals deciding whether to make the daring river crossing. Guides play a crucial role, positioning vehicles strategically to maximize guests' viewing experiences during this intense and chaotic event.

Wildebeest crossing the Mara River

Alternatively, the Ndutu/Southern Serengeti region steals the spotlight during February, the calving season. Here, an ancient volcano once erupted, enriching the soil with nutrients that sustain lush grasses. During this period, the wildebeest migrate to give birth, creating an awe-inspiring spectacle as thousands of calves are born within a concentrated three-week period. Lodges situated in this region offer a front-row seat to the adorable spectacle of wildebeest calving, where the sheer number of newborns overwhelms predators, ensuring the survival of the majority.

Wildebeest walk through Ndutu

I could write more, but it would be hard to beat the website https://www.expertafrica.com/tanzania/info/serengeti-wildebeest-migration, which provides a wealth of detailed information. From the best times to visit each area to specific lodge recommendations, this resource is invaluable for safari enthusiasts seeking an immersive and memorable experience.

As you plan your Serengeti safari, consider the positioning of your lodging as an integral part of the adventure. Whether witnessing the daring river crossings in the north or the heartwarming spectacle of wildebeest calving in the south, the right accommodations not only offer comfort and relaxation but also serve as the perfect vantage point for nature's most extraordinary events.

Elephants sparring in the Serengeti


The safari circuit offers a diverse array of accommodations catering to varying preferences, ranging from traditional hotels to the more glamorous glamping experiences and even basic camping. Understanding the nuances of each option helps tailor the safari adventure to your comfort level and desired level of immersion in the natural surroundings.

For those seeking a more budget-friendly option, basic camping within the national parks is available. Shared campgrounds host travelers with communal bathroom facilities, and participants bring their own tents and sleeping bags. Tour operators often include a cook for preparing meals. While this is the most economical choice, it involves the most "roughing it," making it ideal for adventurous souls embracing the true spirit of the wild.

Example of a glamping tent, Serengeti

A step up from basic camping brings you to the world of glamping, a luxurious camping experience that provides a comfortable compromise between wilderness and comfort. These camps, either permanent or semi-permanent, offer a unique blend of rustic charm and modern amenities. Semi-permanent camps may relocate between the Southern and Northern Serengeti based on the migration season. Typically housing 6-10 tents, these accommodations are far from the traditional camping experience. Tents are spacious, equipped with real beds, and feature attached bathrooms. One distinctive aspect of safari glamping is the bucket shower, where hot water, heated over a fire, flows by gravity, providing a uniquely immersive experience. These unfenced camps, with canvas walls, allow you to immerse yourself in the sounds of the bush, from the distant calls of wildlife to the awe-inspiring roars of lions in the middle of the night.

Dining area from a tented camp

For those desiring a more conventional lodging experience, lodges akin to city hotels are available in various locations. While these lodges offer comfort, the downside is they distance you from the raw, untamed nature you came to explore. However, in specific locations like the Ngorongoro Crater, lodges situated on the crater rim at around 8000 feet above sea level provide a cozy retreat. The chilly nights at this altitude can be offset by the comfort of a lodge setting.

Bedroom in a permanent lodge

In essence, choosing the right safari lodging is about aligning your expectations with the adventure you seek. Whether it's the simplicity of basic camping, the glamour of glamping, or the comfort of a lodge, each option plays a unique role in enhancing your safari experience. As you embark on your Tanzanian safari, let your chosen accommodation become an integral part of the adventure, offering a perfect balance between comfort and the untamed beauty of East Africa.


Most visitors to Northern Tanzania will arrive in Arusha and drive around the parks with the same guide. Because the transfer from park to park is on main roads, this means that the typical vehicle in Tanzania is enclosed, with a pop-up roof for seeing out of.  

Safari vehicle

Photo tip:  Often photos of animals don’t look as good if you are taking the shot from above them.  So it’s a good idea, especially for an animal that is fairly close to your vehicle, to try to get more of an eye-level perspective.  Therefore, we take a lot of our photos through the sliding windows of the vehicle, rather than out the top.  If you have time, give both options a try to see which you prefer!

These vehicles will typically hold 4 or 6 safari-goers, although if at all possible it is much more comfortable to be able to have a few empty seats to allow everyone to spread out.  Often, but not always, safari vehicles will include outlets to allow you to charge electronics.  This is very convenient, especially if you are taking photographs, and so the presence of outlets should be confirmed with your tour operator.  

Alternatively, if you fly from park to park, you can stay at lodges that have their own vehicles and guides.  These vehicles will often be open to the elements, which some people prefer to the more enclosed trucks.  This is a bit of a double-edged sword though, as it also means the environment (dust, rain) can get in the vehicle more readily.  This type of trip allows you to have a camp-based guide to show you around the area, and there is a lot of discussion about whether that is better than having an Arusha-based guide.  On the one hand, the camp guide will be out every day in the same locations, and so will be more intimately familiar with the animals and their routines.  On the other hand, it can be useful to have spent your entire trip with the same guide, as you will be better able to fall into a routine that suits everybody.  This type of guide will also have a better understanding of what interests you have, and know what you have (and haven’t) seen so far in a situation where multiple potentially interesting sightings might be available.  In Tanzania we’ve always stayed with one guide, but in other countries we have switched at each camp and both were absolutely fine.  


While it might be a concern to be eating meals out in the wilderness, in fact the cuisine on a safari has always been of high quality in our experience.  Typically you will be woken up at camp in the darkness, and you will have two options.  To maximize animal viewing, it is recommended that you head out as early as possible, in which case you will leave with a packed breakfast.  Your guide will work with you to find a good time and location to stop and eat breakfast; sometimes in the car, if you’re with an animal, but often in a place where you can get out and stretch your legs.

Hot breakfast preparation in the Serengeti

For lunch you have the same two options - either taking a packed lunch if you want to stay out all day, or returning to camp for a hot lunch (and then a siesta). These options are especially valid if you arrange a private trip, in general group trips seem to typically return to camp for midday.

Dining room on safari

Dinner is often a fancier affair, and will typically involve a starter, a main course, and a dessert, or it will be a buffet.  Buffet can be nice when you prefer to eat quickly and get back to your room; it is generally going to be present in larger lodges.  The other major variation on dinner will be whether you eat at individual tables or at one large communal table.  This is more a personal choice than anything; in general we have found that other safarigoers are nice people and it’s nice to talk and compare sightings, but on the other hand safari can be surprisingly tiring for just sitting around all day, and sometime it’s easier not to have to make conversation.  There are resources on the internet that offer information on the type of dining at each lodge, and any tour operator should be able to give this information as well. 


You can write books (and many have been written) about photography on safari.  Ideally, you want to take the best camera that you can; some people use their cell phones, and when they want to zoom in they place the camera of the phone to an eye piece of a pair of binoculars.  This is probably not going to give great results, but a lot of people are satisfied with the photos they get. 

If you decide you want a nicer camera, it is important to give yourself time to buy a new one and to test it out quite a bit before heading out on your trip.  Try to find faster-moving, erratic subjects to practice with - young kids, pets, or local squirrels all make good targets. Settings that allow fast-moving animals to be in focus, with no blurring due to movement, are what you are aiming to identify.  

While there is no right type of photography, in general if your primary goal will be mammal photography you may be looking for something in roughly the 300-400mm (35mm film equivalent) range.  For birds, you likely will want more zoom, and would be looking at 600mm at least.  Of course, sometimes the animals will be much closer. 

Lion beside a safari vehicle

Hopefully this blog post has helped you understand the logistics of taking a safari to Tanzania.  Please feel free to reach out to us at info@nicholsonfineart.com if you have any questions!

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