This is the second part of our two part article on Tanzania – please click here for a general country overview of Tanzania.
For sure, most of us would need a fairly compelling reason (or two) to venture what is perhaps beyond the comfort zone of many of us, and what is also somewhat of a detour from the main tourism routes and regions, to Tanzania.
But clearly many people are finding sufficient reason to visit Tanzania, and the country’s tourism industry is flourishing. In 2014 Tanzania had just over 1 million international visitors, but this is far from reaching any type of capacity issues in terms of the country’s ability to handle tourism. Hotel occupancy rates remain low, and tourists don’t ‘take over’ regions and interfere with an appreciation of the country in its natural state.
To give an example of that, the Serengeti plains are partially in Tanzania (90%) and partially in Kenya (10%). But ten times more people visit the tiny section in Kenya than visit the much larger section in Tanzania. This is a major reason to choose the Tanzanian part of the Serengeti. Tanzania was rated the seventh most desirable destination in the world by the New York Times in 2012, and came 17th on its list of 52 places to go in 2015.
Tanzania offers a wide range of travel experiences and with a wide range of comfort levels, from world class deluxe to very basic. Whatever your budget and preferences, the chances are there’ll be an appropriate approach for you.
For ‘ordinary’ tourists seeking general travel experiences, there is one obvious reason to visit this country, and a possible second reason that might be surprisingly more appealing than you first consider.
Obvious Reason – Wildlife
The obvious reason is to visit Tanzania’s natural game parks. Tanzania has over 20% of African’s large mammal population, largely within its national parks.
The Serengeti National Park in particular is renowned the world over, and is a World Heritage Site (one of seven in the country, including also the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the Selous Game Reserve, and Kilimanjaro National Park as well as the cultural sites of Kiwa Kisiwani & Songo Mnara, the Stone Town of Zanzibar, and the Kondoa Rock-Art sites).
Serengiti, while the best known, is just one of sixteen national parks. Many of them allow visitors a reasonable chance of seeing all of the classic ‘Big Five’ animals (lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros). This pdf does a good job of explaining some of the differences between the parks, in terms of types of terrain and wildlife that can be seen, and here’s an excellent set of one line descriptions of the 13 game parks.
It is common for tourists to visit more than one of the parks as part of their tour, but this is not essential, depending of course on your time and dollar budget for your travels. There are several fairly standard tourist ‘circuits’ encompassing two or three parks that are reasonably close to each other, with the northern circuit (which includes the Serengeti National Park) being the best known and most popular.
On the other hand, the southern and western circuits, because they are less popular and therefore with fewer tourists, are thought by some to get you closer to the wildlife and the natural surroundings.
The best choice for you is probably something you should discuss with your selected tour operator (and make sure they are able to offer tours to the different areas so they can fairly give unbiased advice). When they know more about you, your interests, what you want to see and do and your preferred style of touring (and budget/time allowances) they can help put something together that best suits.
Obscured Reason – Mountain Climbing
The tallest mountain in Africa is Mt Kilimanjaro. At 5895m or 19,340 ft, it is a tall mountain, but dwarfed by the highest peaks in the Himalayas (Everest is 8850m or 29,029 ft). While not the tallest overall, it is the tallest free standing mountain in the world, and the fifth most ‘prominent’ (ie the vertical distance between its lowest and highest points). The mountain dominates the landscape for close on 150 miles in all directions (assuming a very clear day).
It is one of the ‘Seven Summits‘ – a surprisingly vague and controversial collection of the highest mountains on each of the seven continents, although the controversy surrounds some of the other inclusions, with most of the lists agreeing that Kilimanjaro definitely qualifies. Some people like to be able to claim they’ve climbed all seven (or possibly eight or nine) of them. It is one of the easier of the seven, although Mt Kosciuszko in Australia, at a mere 7,310 ft, is undoubtedly the easiest – indeed, until fairly recently there used to be a road that people could simply drive up to almost the very summit!
The nice thing about Kilimanjaro is that it is surprisingly climbable, even for ‘ordinary’ people. Whereas oxygen is almost essential on Everest, is is possible to ascend Kilimanjaro without external oxygen. While the rule of thumb in aviation is that it is desirable to have oxygen when exceeding about 15,000 ft, if you have some time to condition yourself to the higher altitude (ie by slowly climbing up a mountain rather than zooming up into the sky in a jet), it is possible to manage unassisted.
According to this interesting web page, there is a massive increase in success rates when climbers take extra time to acclimatize – whereas only 27% of climbers doing a five day ascent are successful, 85% of people on an eight day ascent succeed. If you choose to attempt the climb, be generous with the time you allow yourself.
Another success factor is being in a small group with a good ratio of guides to climbers – my four friends from Moscow had three guides, one cook, plus porters, all helping them on their expedition, and while all four of them succeeded in the climb, a couple found themselves heavily relying on the guides for support and assistance in the final stages.
There are several paths to the summit, some more demanding than others. My four friends went up the Machame route, taking six days for the ascent and return back down again. We’d suggest adding another day or more to this schedule.
My friends tell me that if you can jog 30 minutes without being severely winded, you can expect to make it up the mountain successfully, although of course if you do some general aerobic/cardio exercise prior to traveling, that will be a good thing. This article says that the youngest person to get to the summit was 6 and the oldest was 83. That’s not to belittle the experience, and the more fit you are to start, the more successful your climb will be.
Other Reasons to Visit
Other attractions include the lakes around the country’s border – Victoria, Tanganyika and Nyasa, the three largest bodies of water on the continent, and a visit offshore to Zanzibar. If you decide to go to Zanzibar, you can take a fast under two hour ferry from Dar es Salaam, or a short flight either from several locations in mainland Tanzania or from Nairobi in Kenya.
The historic Stone Town is the best known attraction on Zanzibar’s main island. Spice tours and beaches are the other major attractions in Zanzibar.
How Long to Stay
If you decide to climb Kilimanjaro, then unless you are appreciably fitter than average, you should allow yourself 7 or 8 days for that. Perhaps 3 or 4 days for a game safari, maybe a day in Dar es Salaam and another day in Zanzibar, and all of a sudden, you’re looking at two weeks total time for an in-country visit.
If you’re not climbing Kilimanjaro, you could spend longer going through the national parks, an extra day on Zanzibar, maybe go to one of the lakes, reducing your time down to possibly ten days, allowing you to perhaps add some time in Kenya or elsewhere in Africa, too.
When to Visit
It will be hot most of the year, and at some times wet as well (see the weather section in the first part of the article). The best time to visit depends in part on the reasons for your visit and what you’re wanting to experience.
If you’re wishing to climb Mt Kilimanjaro, then one source (the Travel by Mong’ateko site) suggests this is best done in January, February, or September, with the entire June – February period being okay and only March – May being less desirable.
If you wish to see the game migrations in Serengeti, different animals move at different times. The high season for tourism runs July to March, and this page has helpful information about the implications of different times of year. June to October is the driest time.
Matching the dates for the mountain and the parks would suggest that August or September are probably best.
Arranging Your Travels
Certainly you could book hotels and tours through any of the major internet travel services, or through a friendly local travel agent. You can also book an inclusive tour that arranges everything for you, perhaps with one of the major name brand tour operators.
Our preference and recommendation, however, would be to work with a Tanzanian tour operator and have them put together all aspects of your tour for you. While we admittedly have no experience of the conditions in Tanzania, our experience in other less well developed countries is that it is close to essential to be closely connected to a locally based operator – a company that has direct relationships with suppliers, who can anticipate and respond to problems if/when they happen, and who knows ‘how things are done’ and ensures that things go smoothly.
If you build your own itinerary piece-meal, then if something goes wrong somewhere, you have to make consequential changes, yourself, and that may not be the easiest thing to do, particularly if you’re already in-country. But if you have a local operator arrange your total itinerary for you, then if something is causing problems, they’ll probably know about it before you, and be calling you not so much to tell you of the problem, but to advise you of their already developed solution.
The Tanzania Association of Tour Operators lists more than 200 member/tour operators. My friends from Moscow speak very highly of their experiences with Travel by Mong’ateko, who appear to provide comprehensive travel services throughout the country.
Tanzania has yet to find a place on the main tourist paths, and perhaps is all the much better for being still semi-overlooked.
It offers natural beauty and wildlife in glorious abundance, plus has some history, culture, beaches, and even a bit of big city experience too, giving you a broad African experience. Due to the unsophisticated nature of some of its infrastructure, we would suggest you pre-arrange most parts of your travels in advance, and ultimately through a local Tanzanian tourist operator.
This was the second part of our two part article on Tanzania – please click here for a general country overview of Tanzania.