The reviews of the parks on this page are my own subjective opinions based on the limited time I was there. In each case, I indicate the dates I was in the park and I offer a short description. I also give each park a rating of "G" (Good); "VG" (Very Good) or "E" (Excellent).
Tanzania has a split personality. The parks of the north (Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara, Tarangire and – I presume – the Serengeti) are very similar to Kenya in their popularity. Minivans or Land Rovers are the vehicles of choice. In the south, however, the mood is quite different. Both the Selous and Ruaha National Park receive far fewer visitors, offer very different landscapes and feature more open vehicles. Finally, the remote Mahale Mountains, along the shores of Lake Tanganyika, are unlike any of the other areas – a sparkling clear lake, lush vegetation, mountain highlands and chimpanzees.
I was in Tanzania off and on during July and August, 1998. July in northern Tanzania is very overcast (though there was no rain in the low areas – on Kilimanjaro was a different story). The cloud cover obscured all views of Kilimanjaro and also made it impossible to get a real sense of the Ngorongoro Crater (from the rim we couldn't see the far rim or the crater floor; from the crater floor we couldn't see the rim). Mornings were very cool but the day warmed up quickly (shorts and T-shirt weather).
In The Selous (which I visited in mid-August), the weather was quite warm and humid, even at night. Ruaha was cooler in the mornings and at night, but plenty warm in the day. The Mahale Mountains were very warm during the day, especially during the strenuous climb up to find the chimps. Nights were cooler but still pleasant.
I lump these three areas together because, as my schedule worked out, I had a rather whirlwind tour of the three. The Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area, in particular, deserved more time than I was able to give it. The crater is a remarkable ecosystem, sometimes referred to as the original Garden of Eden. Because water is available year-round, most of the animals never migrate. In the crater, we saw herds of zebra and wildebeest, several black rhino, spotted hyenas, a few jackals, vervet monkeys, Grant's gazelles and an enormous male lion. One of the highlights of the area was a visit to a Maasai village, where the people maintained their traditional ways as cattle herders. We stayed at the well-appointed Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge on the rim of the crater. The lodges during this part of the trip made no pretense of being a "camp." They were full-fledged luxury hotels – a nice break from the more traditional camps, but personally I wouldn't have wanted to spend too much of the trip in them.
The escarpment of the Great Rift Valley provides a dramatic background to Lake Manyara National Park. Within the park we saw large troops of olive baboons, giraffe, warthogs, impala and a large assortment of birds. The park offers some of the more lush vegetation of the trip. We stayed at the very luxurious Lake Manyara Serena Lodge on the edge of the escarpment.
Several items stand out in my mind in Tarangire National Park. One was a black spitting cobra that we happened upon (from the safety of the vehicle), another was being cornered temporarily by some cantankerous elephants, and the third was the magnificent baobab trees that dotted the area. In addition, we saw several lions and a wide assortment of birds. We stayed at the Tarangire Sopa Lodge, a luxury style hotel complete with swimming pool. ("Sopa," by the way, is a Maasai greeting used as a "hello.")
The main attraction of the Mahale Mountains is the chimpanzees (further north along the lakeshore is Gombe Stream National Park, made famous by Jane Goodall's work with chimps). Lush green mountains rise some 5,500 feet up from the surface of the Lake Tanganyika. A group of Japanese researchers has been studying the chimps here for 20 years (accordingly, the chimps are quite acclimated – otherwise one might never find them). Tracking the chimps through the dense forest and up the steep slopes can be strenuous, hot and dirty – depending on how willing the chimps are to be found. Finding them, however, is well worth the effort.
Just getting to the area is a challenge: a four-hour flight from Nairobi on a small plane (the bad part) followed by another hour or so cruising along the shore of the lake in a wooden dhow (the good part). The camp – the only one in the area – holds only a dozen guests, so crowds are never a problem. The camp is set on the beach in an absolutely idyllic location. The facilities are very rustic: canvas tents, pit toilets, no running water (all bathing is done in the lake with special biodegradable soap), and a minimum of electricity (from solar charged batteries). The lake, which is crystal clear and crocodile free, offers swimming, snorkeling, sunset cruises and a great place to cool off after a hot hike.
There is one memory of the Mahale Mountains that, for me, will always stand out. On Friday August 7, we were enjoying our last lazy afternoon in the camp, scheduled to return to Nairobi the next morning. Suddenly, word came over a guest's portable short-wave radio that the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam had been bombed, killing hundreds of people, mostly innocent Kenyans. Our sense of being a million miles from the "real world" quickly evaporated.
Ruaha National Park, in southern Tanzania, is one of the largest parks in Africa, yet one of the least visited. The landscape is often dramatic, with mountains, baobab trees and the Ruaha River. Much of the park, however, is dense brush that can make game spotting and photography difficult. The park offers large herds of elephants, as well as plenty of lions, hyenas, giraffes, cape buffalo, and a variety of large antelope, including defassa waterbuck, kudu and roan. The park also supposedly has some populations of wild dogs, but despite an all-day effort I was never able to find them (they range over very large territories). I stayed at the Ruaha River Camp, which had stone bungalows with hot and cold running water and a nice open pavilion that served as the bar and restaurant area.
The Selous was the last park I visited in Africa and one of my favorite places. I wish I had been able to spend more time there. The landscape is quite different than other areas I had visited, mixing tropical palm trees with acacia woodlands. The wooded areas can be quite dense, making game spotting a challenge, but there are also plenty of open areas. The animals here are less acclimated to vehicles than in other areas. Zebra, for example, which in the Masai Mara would barely bother themselves to move out of a vehicle's path, here would often run off at the first sign of a vehicle. Boat trips along the river offered wonderful opportunities to see hippos, very large crocodiles and a magnificent variety of waterbirds (fish eagles, yellow-billed storks, Goliath herons, saddle-billed storks, Egyptian geese, African skimmers, egrets and a great many others). On land, we saw lions, elephants, giraffes, zebra, wildebeest, baboons and impala.
For me, the Selous stands out for two other reasons, as well. First, I finally got to see the wild dogs, the only remaining item on my "wish list." Second, the Mbuyuni Camp, where I stayed, was one of the most memorable camps of the entire trip. It was a tented camp (in the African platform style) with ensuite facilities, running water and a beautiful location right on the river. But what made it particularly special (aside from the elephants that had taken up residence) were the managers of the camp, Sal (Salvatore) and Mark. Both made a point to learn the names of all the guests (more than two dozen at a time) and to do their best to accommodate everyone's wishes. The food was also among the best of the entire trip.
For reviews of game parks in other countries see: Botswana Game Parks, Kenya Game Parks, Namibia Game Parks, South Africa Game Parks, Uganda Game Parks, Canoe Safari in Zambia and Zimbabwe Game Parks.