Tanzania National Parks

Tanzania contains more of Africa's safari crown jewels than any other country, like Serengeti and Ngorongoro, which many people visiting them also tour through Tarangire , Lake Manyara or one of the others as well. A host of lesser known but equally fantastic parks provide very unique opportunities, including Selous Game Reserve, Arusha, Gombe Stream, Katavi, Kitulo, Mahale Mountains, Mikumi, Ruaha, Rubondo Island, Saadani and Udzungwa Mountains.

Selous Game Reserve

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 offer unforgettable game viewing in almost completely isolated surroundings.

The park supports enormous numbers of wild animals: 200,000 buffalo, 30,000 elephant (more than half of the countries population) and 80,000 wildebeest, as well as one of the healthiest populations of the endangered African Wild Dog. A successful project is underway to nurture the Reserve’s population of black rhino back to health following their depletion by poachers in the 1970’s and 80’s, and sightings are now possible in the tourist area.


Although the Selous is best known for its spectacular large mammals, it is equally celebrated for its abundant and varied birds. The most conspicuous bird life is to be found around the constantly changing pattern of sand banks, oxbow lakes, lagoons and channels along the Rufiji River. The river scenery is made all the more spectacular by the groves of Borassus palms, an indigenous species with tall fronds that sway majestically in the African breeze. Ancient baobabs, a tree held sacred by many tribal groups, stand majestically against the far-reaching horizon. Their dead hollow, leafless trunks provide vantage points for fish eagles and nests site for Egyptian geese and Dickinson’s kestrels.

Arusha national park

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 Mommela Lakes and the rocky alpine heights of Mount 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 birds, both migrant and resident, can be found in Arusha national park alongside rare primates such as the black and white colobus monkey.

The rewarding climb up Mount Meru passes through forests of dripping Spanish moss and rises to open heath, spiked with giant lobelia plants. Delicate klipspringer antelope watch the progress of hikers from the top of huge boulders, and everlasting flowers cling to the alpine desert underfoot. Once astride the craggy summit, the reward is a sight of Mount Kilimanjaro, breath taking in the sun rise.

The best time to visit Arusha national park is during dry season from July to November, or after a short rains from December to March. The best months to climb mount Meru are June to February with the best views of Mount Kilimanjaro seen from December to February. The park lies just 25 km east of Arusha and is a rewarding day trip from Arusha or Moshi.

Gombe Stream National Park

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’s 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.

Chimps are as individually unique as humans and no scientific expertise is needed to distinguish the different characters in the cast. The majority of the park mammals are primates — most of them forest species. In addition to the famous chimpanzees, visitors could be lucky enough to see blue or red-tailed monkeys. Carnivores are rare in the forest, making Gombe the ideal place for walking safari, or a swim in one of the streams.

The best time to find the chimpanzees at Gombe is during the wet season from February to June and November to December. The dry months of July to October and December to January are better for photo opportunities.

Katavi National Park

Katavi national park in western Tanzania is remote and wild, a destination for a true safari aficionado. The name of the park immortalizes a legendary hunter, Katabi, whose spirit is believed to posses a tamarind tree ringed with offerings from locals begging his blessings.

Despite being Tanzania’s third-largest park, Katavi sees relatively few visitors, meaning that those guests who arrive here can look forward to having this huge untouched wilderness to themselves. The park’s main features are watery grass plains to the north, the palm-fringed Lake Chada in the south-east, and the Katuma. Katavi boasts Tanzania’s greatest population of both crocodiles and hippos. Lions and leopards find prey among the huge populations of herbivores at Katavi. Impala, eland, topi, zebra and herds of up to 1600 buffalo wander the short grass plains. The rare, honey-colored puku antelope is one of the park’s richest wildlife viewing rewards. A kaleidoscope of birds flit across the riverbanks, swamps and palm groves while flotillas of pelican cruise the lakes and elephant graze waist-deep in the marshlands.

Katavi is best visited in the dry season between May and October, December and February.

Kitulo National Park

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” provide homes for a wide variety of wildflowers such as balsams, bellflowers, honey-peas, irises, lilies and orchids.

Lake Manyara National Park

Tucked below the majesty of the Rift Valley wall, Lake Manyara consists of thin green band of forest, flanked by the sheer 600m 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. The wedge of surprisingly varied vegetation supports a wealth of wildlife, nourished by 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 dozing in the dry riverbeds are the country’s densest populations of buffalo and elephant.

Deep in the south of the park, hot spring bubble to the surface as hippo wallow near the lake’s sedge-lined borders. The park’s dazzling variety of birds includes thousands of red-billed quelea flitting over the water, pelicans, cormorants and the pink streaks of thousands of flamingos. Manyara is a perfect location for an active safari-canoeing on the lake or mountain biking and abseiling outside the park’s borders.

The dry season (July to October) is best for large mammals, while the wet season (November to June) is best for bird watching, waterfalls and canoeing.

Mahale Mountains National Park

Like its neighbor, Gombe Stream, 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 rain forest 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 previous night’s nests, shadowy clumps high in the trees, or scraps of half-eaten fruits and fresh dung. Once found, visitors can view the chimpanzees preen each other’s glossy coats in concentrated huddles, squabble noisily or bound effortlessly into the trees, swinging nonchalantly through the vines.

In addition to a hike on the trail of chimpanzees, visitors can trace the Tongwe people’s ancient pilgrimage to the mountain spirits, trekking through enclaves of rainforest to grassy ridges chequered with alpine bamboo. After the hot walk in the forest, the clear waters of the lake, home to 250 species of fish, beckon for a refreshing swim.

Mikumi National Park

Forming the northern border of Africa’s biggest game reserve - the vast Selous - Mikumi is one of Tanzania’s most popular national parks. It is the most accessible part of a 47,000 sq miles of 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. Open grasslands dominate the flood plain, eventually merging with the miombo woodland covering the lower hills. The woodland is the favorite haunt of the lion, sometimes perching high in the trees to keep their feet dry from the sticky black mud of the wet season. Observation towers above the tree line allow panoramic views of the plain laid out below, home to formidable herds of buffalo.

Mikumi’s elephants are more compact than those in the rest of the country, but still a formidable sight when viewed close up. The rains swell the park’s population of birds to more than 300 species as European migrants seek refuge in Mikumi, joining residents stars like the lilac-breasted roller.

Mikumi’s road network provides visitors with easy game viewing drives, and there are hippo, zebra, giraffe, hartebeest and wildebeest in abundance. The park is accessible all year round.

Ruaha National Park

Ruaha is a park where game viewing begins the moment the plane touches down. A pair of giraffe may race beside the airstrip, with lines of zebra parading across the runway in their wake as nearby protective elephant mothers guard their young under the shade of a baobab tree.

Wildlife in Ruaha is concentrated along the great Ruaha river that is the park’s lifeblood. The river is a flooded torrent after the rains, dwindling to new precious pools of water surrounded by a sweep of sand in the dry season. Waterbuck, Impala and the world’s most southerly Grant’s gazelle risk their lives for a sip of water on the shores of the Ruaha river. This area is the permanent hunting ground for lion, leopard, hyena, jackal and the rare and endangered African Wild Dog. Ruaha’s 800 elephants are recovering strongly from ivory poaching during the 1980’s and remain the largest population in East Africa.

Ruaha is the only protected area in which the flora and fauna of eastern and southern Africa overlap, leading to fascinating combinations of the wildlife - both greater and lesser kudu live here, as do sable and roan antelopes.

Rubondo Island National Park

Rubondo Island is tucked into the corner of Lake Victoria, the world’s second largest lake, an inland sea sprawling between three countries. Rubondo provide protection for fish breeding grounds, while tilapia and the rapacious Nile perch, some weigh more than 100kg, tempt recreational fishers with challenging sports fishing and world record catches. But Rubondo is more than a water wonderland. Desert sandy beaches nestle against a cloak of virgin forest. Papyrus swamps host the secretive sitatunga, a shaggy aquatic antelope and the dappled bushbuck.

Rubondo is a birder’s paradise, with the malachite kingfisher’s azure brilliance competing with the paradise flycatcher’s glamorous flowing tail. Rubondo is home to fish eagles and is a global stopover for hundreds of migratory birds. It is also sanctuary for sweet smelling wild jasmine and 40 different species of orchid.

Ninety percent of the island is covered with humid forest, the remainder ranges from coastal grassland to lakeside papyrus bed. A number of indigenous mammal species, hippo, bushbuck, genet and mongoose, share their protected habitat with introduced species such as chimpanzee, elephant and giraffe.

Rubondo wildflowers are their best from November to March. For migratory birds, visit December to February. The island’s climate is at its most pleasant from June to August.

Saadani National Park

Saadani National Park is the perfect union of beach and bush. Located just 70km 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 rumored to be seen bathing and playing on Saadani beach, especially in the early hours of the morning.

A good choice for visitors in Dar-es-Salaam who do not have time for longer safaris to visit more remote parks around the country, Saadani is easily visited for a day trip or over a weekend.

Tarangire National Park

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 kilometers to Tarangire’s permanent water source.

Herds of elephant three hundred strong dig in the damp earth of the riverbed in search of the underground springs, while wildebeest, zebra, buffalo and gazelle mingle with rare species such as eland and oryx around each shrinking lagoon. Python climb into the shade of the trees that line Tarangire’s massive southern swamps and hang there like giant malignant fruit, coils neatly arranged over the branches in a perfect sphere. Tarangire in the dry season enjoy the greatest concentration of the wildlife outside the Serengeti eco-system.

Tarangire’s huge herds of elephant rival the park’s gigantic, squat baobab trees as its most celebrated feature — ancient matriarchs, feisty young bulls and tiny, stumbling calves are ever present to fascinate visitors with their grace, intelligence and majesty. The best time to visit Tarangire for wildlife viewing or walking is the dry season, from June to October.

Udzungwa Mountains National Park

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 detail and larger than life. A new variety of African violet was discovered in the shelter of a 30m high tree. It is a hot-house, nurturing species found nowhere else on earth, a secret bank account of precious genetic stock. Of its six types of primate, two are endemic - the Iringa red colobus monkey and the sanje-crested Mangabey, not discovered until 1979. Four previously unknown birds including the rufous-winged sunbird and the new species of partridge-like francolin, make this Tanzania’s richest forest bird habitat and among the three most important bird conservation areas on the continent. One of East Africa’s great forests, this undisturbed habitat undoubtedly has new treasures yet to reveal.

A link in the chain of Africa’s eastern arc mountains, Udzungwa is made for hiking and climbing on trails through the rain forests and along the escarpments. The plateau is a natural tower top, with views of sugar plantations against a patchwork of grassland and mountain forest extending over 100km. But the centerpiece is the Sanje river, which reinvents itself into a spectacular waterfall, plunging 170 m through the forest to land in a mist in the valley below. Visit Udzungwa year round but be prepared for rain any time.

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