Tanzania is one of those magical places I’d dreamed of visiting for so long, it almost didn’t feel real once I finally got there.
From the bustling cities of Arusha and Moshi to remote villages of Chaga and Maasai people, the country is teeming with energy, with a constant stream of smiles and waves from people we passed on the road.
For nature lovers, it’s arguably among the world’s greatest travel destinations. Whether you’re walking in Jane Goodall’s footsteps in Gombe Stream National Park, learning about the history of mankind in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, or going on safari in Serengeti or Tarangire National Park, there’s an almost overwhelming abundance of wildlife to be found.
In truth, there are so many incredible things to do in Tanzania, even the two weeks we spent in the country weren’t enough to see all that we wanted to see. What follows is a few of our favorite activities, as well as some we hope to do when we inevitably return…
GO TO GOMBE STREAM NATIONAL PARK
When Jane Goodall met archaeologist/paleontologist Louis Leakey while visiting a friend’s farm in Kenya in 1957, she had no formal education in primatology. What she did have was a great passion for animals and Africa. Leakey initially hired her as a secretary, but secretly sought funding to make her his lead Chimpanzee researcher.
After a crash course in primate behavior and anatomy, she was sent to do field research in Gombe Stream National Park (Tanzania’s smallest at 20 square miles) in 1960. Goodall was soundly criticized for her anthropomorphic approach to the animals, giving them names and interacting with them rather than merely observing. But she soon became the world’s foremost expert on Chimpanzees, and has spent the last 55+ years studying their social and family interactions.
Gombe Stream’s impressive biodiversity makes it one of Tanzania’s most popular tourist attractions today. In addition to the Chimps, resident primates include Olive Baboons, Red Colobus, Red-Tailed Monkeys and Blue Monkeys. There are also over 200 Bird species, Hippos, Bushpigs, and Leopards.
CLIMB MOUNT KILIMANJARO
At 19,336 feet, Mount Kilimanjaro is both the highest peak in all of Africa and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. It’s also very accessible, located an hour from the airport and around 80 miles from Arusha.
As a result, climbing one of Kilimanjaro’s six trekking routes has become a popular rite of passage for adventure-seekers around the world. But the picturesque summit is just one of Kilimanjaro National Park‘s many attractions, including nature trails on the lower reaches, day or overnight hikes on the Shira plateau, and lush montane forest inhabited by Elephants, Leopards, and more.
One of our favorite things to do in Tanzania was taking a tour of a coffee farm on the mountain’s lower slopes. Here, the Chaga people use permaculture principles to grow remarkably robust coffee in Kili’s rich volcanic soil. It’s also a great place to learn more about the culture of the Chaga, which is the third-largest ethnic group in Tanzania.
EXPLORE NGORONGORO CONSERVATION AREA
Considered part of Serengeti National Park until 1959, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It’s the only conservation area in Tanzania that protects wildlife while also allowing human habitation, though cultivating the land for agriculture is prohibited for anything other than subsistence levels.
The park’s most famous feature is the Ngorongoro Crater, the world’s largest intact, inactive and unfilled volcanic crater. The crater, which was formed when a volcano exploded and collapsed on itself, is 2,000 feet deep and 100 square miles wide.
It boasts a stunning array of ecosystems, providing home to more than 25,000 large animals (Buffalo, Hippos, Gazelles, Wildebeests, etc.), a dense Lion population, and thousands of Lesser Flamingoes flocking to Lake Magadi during their mating season.
LEARN HUMAN HISTORY AT OLDUVAI GORGE
Louis and Mary Leakey concentrated their most significant archaeological efforts in northern Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, beginning in 1931. Inhabited by various hominid species for approximately 3 million years, the gorge proved to be rich in fossil remains because of its unique geological history.
Their first major find in 1957, now known as Australopithecus boisei, was vital in the evolution of paleontology, providing a missing link in our knowledge of hominid lineage at the time. Another major discovery in 1960, called Homo habilis or “handy man,” was believed to be a direct human ancestor who lived 2.8 to 1.5 million years ago.
Because there are still active digs going on in the gorge today, tourists are not permitted to enter. But many tour operators offer 2-hour or half-day visits to see the archaeological museum there, where you can learn all about the history of the gorge and the legendary Leakey Family.
SAFARI IN SERENGETI NATIONAL PARK
The Maasai people described this area as siringet, meaning “the place where the land runs on forever.” Although it was made a game reserve in 1921, Serengeti National Park wasn’t made official until 1951.
The annual Great Migration that ends in the Maasai Mara begins in this 5,700-square mile haven, which is divided into three regions– the grassland of the Serengeti plains, the riverine forest of the Western corridor, and the bushy savanna and open woodlands of the Northern Serengeti.
The park offers an immense array of wildlife, from the elephant and giraffes often seen in the north and the Nile crocodiles and colobus monkeys of the western swamps to the huge herds of wildebeest, zebra, gazelle, impala, and buffalo that crowd the plains during the wet season. It’s no wonder the UNESCO World Heritage Site is also Tanzania’s #1 tourist attraction.
TAKE YOUR TIME IN TARANGIRE NATIONAL PARK
Though not nearly as well-known as the Serengeti or Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania’s sixth largest national park (1,100 square miles) ultimately proved to be our favorite.
Tarangire National Park attracts an impressive array of animals to a relatively small region thanks to the continually flowing Tarangire River, which becomes a vital source of water for wildlife during the dry season that lasts from June through October.
We saw an impressive amount of Elephants, Giraffes and Leopards here. The park also has a number of other unique features, including monolithic Baobab trees, massive termite mounds that serve as home to Dark Mongooses, and tree-climbing Lions. It’s also a major draw for serious bird-watchers, as the swamps of Tarangire attract a stunning array of breeding birds (over 550 species).
VISIT THE MAASAI PEOPLE
The Maasai are a constant presence on northern Tanzania’s popular safari circuit. You’ll see their vividly colored Shúka (sheets worn wrapped around the body) nearly everywhere, gathering in markets in the more modern towns or walking alone across the expansive pastures on which they graze their cattle, as they have for more than 500 years.
It may be the prodigious wildlife that draws most tourists to East Africa, but these semi-nomadic pastoralists provide the region with its distinctive cultural flavor. The Maasai are renowned for their traditional music and dance, in which a leader sings a melody while others sing harmony on call-and-response vocals, with guttural throat-singing sounds providing rhythmic syncopation.
The warriors’ coming of age ceremony, known as eunoto, can involve 10+ days of singing, dancing, and ritual, including the competitive jumping for which the Maasai are perhaps best known. Getting a taste of Maasai culture during a visit to a remote village was one of our favorite things to do in Tanzania. –Bret Love; photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Rolling Stone to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. He is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.