With so many truly spectacular natural wonders within relatively close proximity, it’s no surprise Tanzania’s Northern Circuit and vast Serengeti plains are such popular first-time safari destinations. Along with that popularity comes the crowds and an overwhelming array of options to consider:
- What are the best camps and lodges for each season?
- Why are some camps so expensive while others seem too cheap?
- What order of destinations makes the most sense?
- What is the most efficient way of getting around?
- Where are the best guides or the best chefs or the best activities for kids?
Of course, the answer to all these questions is, it depends. It depends on you, your preferences and interests and how you envision your ideal safari. That’s why the team at Next Adventure invests so much in educational and familiarization trips throughout East and Southern Africa, and all of our safaris feature custom arrangements based on long running partnerships and our first-hand experience.
In November of 2016, Next Adventure’s Managing Director Kili McGowan spent 3 weeks on a comprehensive tour of some of Tanzania’s best camps and lodges. Read her trip report below, flip through her photos, and get in touch to find out what we would recommend for your safari on Tanzania’s Northern Circuit!
Touching down at Kilimanjaro Airport, I was full of excitement for the epic safari that lay before me. First, I needed to rest, and the nearby Rivertrees Country Inn provided just the right blend of understated luxury and comfort for my first night in Tanzania. The staff was attentive and full of Tanzanian hospitality. The restaurant welcomes a refreshing mix of Arusha residents and international guests, and the feel of the lodge is very local. I had a restful stay and believe that this is the perfect beginning or end to a safari in Tanzania – a mix of refreshment and convenience enhanced by plentiful birdlife and monkey antics in the gardens. Some of our other favorite places to land in Arusha are the Arusha Coffee Lodge or Lake Duluti Lodge.
Tarangire & Manyara
On my first morning, my private guide and I bumped along to Tarangire for about two hours, taking in the undulating hills and plains that welcome you to Tanzania’s Northern Circuit. Given that we know the Tarangire area quite well and our favorite lodges, Sanctuary Swala Camp and Oliver’s Camp are operating at the highest standards, on this trip I decided to investigate a private concession just outside Tarangire. I arrived at Little Chem Chem set amidst the Baobabs and overlooking the shore of Lake Burunge later that day. This intimate vintage safari camp is the perfect setting for big game walks, tracking animals across the plains, or visiting the village school where you can interact with students.
I enjoyed my chance to stretch my legs after being on the long haul flight and in the vehicle. This area between Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara National Park is home to elephant, buffalo, lion, cheetah, and plentiful plains game species. Seasonally (Dec-Mar), you can view flamingos and hopefully catch zebra and wildebeest calving. Game drives into Tarangire are possible from Little Chem Chem in addition to walking safaris on the private concession.
Sharing the concession to the West is Chem Chem Lodge, an elegant safari lodge known for exquisite culinary experiences and outstanding sundowners on the edge of Lake Manyara. While game drives can be arranged, Chem Chem is best for those who want to set out on foot with their Maasai guides and naturalists. Giraffe, zebra, and many bird species are often your companions on wilderness walks. Meaningful visits to community projects are often considered highlights by many guests. Both of the Chem Chem accommodations embrace the ‘slow safari’ concept where the sensual discovery of the wilderness is paramount. This location is an ideal reprieve from the busier mainstream wildlife viewing destinations and a chance to unwind in the natural beauty of the area while delving into the culture of the Maasai.
Climbing the Great Rift escarpment into the higher altitudes of the Ngorongoro highlands, my next destination was Lemala Ngorongoro Camp, located on the crater rim in an Acacia forest on the Eastern side of the crater. This homey mobile camp has spacious tents with heavy duvets, hot water bottles, and gas heaters to combat the chilly evening temperatures. Along with fantastic service and escorted walks in the forest and along the rim, Lemala Ngorongoro offers quick access into the crater at Lemala gate. We were the first car through at 6am to explore the wonders on the crater floor while most other groups did not arrive until an hour later, allowing for excellent photographic conditions and a bit of uncrowded wildlife viewing! Although it can get congested with visitors, Ngorongoro Crater always delivers incredible wildlife sightings of elephant, hyena, eland, zebra and sometimes rhino. This little microcosm of the Tanzanian plains set against that dramatic crater wall is definitely a sight to behold!
Following a full day of exploring the crater, we headed deeper into the foothills and other craters of the region. Approximately 45-minutes north of the Ngorongoro Crater lies a new camp focusing on the culture and natural history of the area, Asilia Africa’s The Highlands at Ngorongoro. Exclusive and remote, The Highlands is an architectural wonder that maintains coziness and luxurious comfort for active travelers in a truly unique setting. The location of the camp, nestled along the Ol Moti Crater, has steep walks between the guest tents and the main lodge. Wood burning stoves keep the domed tents toasty warm and comfortable. Exemplary hosting at family-style meals makes everyone feel welcome and involved in whatever conversation is being held. This camp feels removed from the bustle of Ngorongoro Crater and offers many options for curious travelers looking for something a little different.
Whether trekking around the Ol Moti Crater or descending into the scenic Empakai Crater with it’s tiny lake dotted with flamingos, the naturalist guides at The Highlands are experts on the local flora and fauna. Perhaps the biggest strength of The Highlands is the unobtrusive and genuine village visits. These manyattas are not your typical commercial cultural experiences but authentic opportunities to learn about the Masai lifestyle from the villagers themselves. A guest might participate in bringing the herds into the boma or hearing a local legend from an elder. No matter what your experience, it will be unique as visits are spread among many surrounding backcountry villages.
Another new experience in the Ngorongoro Crater area lies on the Western rim near the Serena access road at Entamanu Ngorongoro, operated by Nomad Tanzania. Although it feels more ‘traditional’ than The Highlands with its proximity to the Crater itself, Entamanu delivers in every way. Without question, the camp has the best view of any crater property–gazing out over the expansive plains of the Serengeti. With no surrounding forest to obscure views, guests are treated to a 180 degree panorama of one of the most famous landscapes on earth…and did I mention the sunsets? Just stunning…on a continent where marking the end of the day with a cocktail and exquisite bites has become a truly important daily ritual, Entamanu shines.
The cushy barefoot luxury of the camp is evident in throughout all 6 tents as well as the huge main area that feels like a big cozy living room. The camp maintains the highest standards of environmental care–and it is completely removable. The design considered ‘leave no trace’ to be a very important theme of the camp while not sparing any creature comforts for guests. Again, the Nomad management and guides provide outstanding hosting, and they make the family-style meals and excursions truly memorable as guests are welcomed as members of the ‘tribe’. The activity focus of Entamanu is bush walking with armed Ngorongoro Conservation Area Rangers and the Nomad guide team along the rim which can be just as exciting as drives on the crater floor. Relationships with the nearby villages are blossoming and soon will be integrated into the guest experience.
An advantage to the Entamanu location is the nearby access to the famous Oldupai Gorge, where paleo-anthropologists Mary & Louis Leakey’s ground-breaking archaeological discoveries changed the way we think of our earliest ancestors. Following a quick breakfast at camp, we were able to be at Oldupai by 8 A.M., well before any other visitors arrived at the museum. Plans are in place for new facilities to open at Oldupai in the coming year. Once we toured the museum, there was ample time for a visit to Shifting Sands, the fascinating crescent shaped dunes of volcanic ash are a rare scientific phenomenon. From there, we continued down the escarpment and onto the vast plains of the Southern Serengeti National Park near Ndutu.