Touring Tanzania’s Southern Circuit

By Joseph Lambert
This article appears on page 40 of the November 2015 issue.
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A herd of greater kudus.

The game parks of northern Tanzania are legendary: Serengeti, with its magnificent migrations; Ngorongoro, with its impressive concentration of game; Tarangire, with its climbing lions and giant termite mounds; Lake Manyara, with its flamingos, and, of course, Kilimanjaro, with its namesake mountain dominating the horizon. However, the very popularity of these parks creates their main drawbacks: overcrowding and commercialization. 

Fortunately, the southern half of this Wisconsin-shaped country has many less-visited parks and reserves, for which the accommodations are no less luxurious and in which the animals are equally abundant. Chimpanzees can be viewed in the wild near Lake Tanganyika, and the island of Zanzibar provides a cultural and seaside contrast for a comfortable prelude or finale. 

In August 2014 my wife, Mary, and I had a wonderful experience in these parks arranged by Gill Maskill of Africa 2000 Tours (Knysna, South Africa; phone +27 44 382 5845, www.africa2000tours.co.za), a regular advertiser in the pages of ITN. Although Gill and her husband, Graham, specialize in the countries of Southern Africa, Gill interfaced with Jane Fox of Foxes African Safaris to create a memorable Eastern Africa safari experience. 

Making plans

Planning began almost a year ahead of time. I selected four game parks, and Gill put together a proposed itinerary that I then tweaked. The plan was to spend three nights in each park and allow a travel day between parks. That meant we had at least two full days in each park. 

The distances between parks are large, so the best form of travel is small plane. There are bumpy roads between parks, but the time invested in traveling by car could better be spent exploring the parks. 

After I sent a deposit by electronic transfer, Gill began making our reservations, about six months in advance. (Given the small capacity of some of the facilities, a long lead time is advisable.) Then I made our international plane reservations through American Airlines, which now serves many African and Asian locations through their oneworld partnership with Qatar Airways. 

Starting from our house in San Antonio, Texas, and touching down on four continents, we arrived at our hotel in Dar es Salaam in just under 40 hours. 

We had built in 2- to 3-hour layovers in Dallas, London and Qatar, the last of which was especially memorable. Qatar’s airport had been open only one week, and to call it luxurious would be an understatement. The lounge was huge, uncrowded and filled with everything a tired traveler could desire. 

On arrival in Tanzania, we purchased our visas in the airport terminal, as we had been told that it was not necessary to apply in the United States. The cost ($100 in US currency per person) is the same by either procedure.

Dar es Salaam is not much of a travel destination in itself, but we thought it was worth a day’s layover to allow us to rest and get the flavor of the city as well as to ensure that we made our ongoing flight. We had arranged a city tour, on which we visited the famous fish market, the university campus, a museum of native Tanzanian living structures and the National Museum. 

Mikumi National Park

Several companies offer reliable air service around the Southern Circuit, with the Zanzibar-Dar-Selous-Ruaha route served multiple times a day. 

Located close to the international airport, Dar’s small-plane airport contains the office of Safari Air Link, the flight arm of Foxes African Safaris. Departure times, generally, are reliable but must be confirmed the day before, as schedules are finalized day by day. 

Our 14-seater carrying nine passengers stopped first at Selous Game Reserve before depositing us at Mikumi National Park, situated on the main road from Dar to the center of the country.

An open safari vehicle used in Tanzania’s southern parks, with Mary and Joseph Lambert in the front row of seats.

Mary and I stayed at the Fox property now called Stanley’s Kopje (formerly Foxes Safari Camp), where there was a total of eight guests. The camp was magnificently sited on a rocky hill, or kopje, with a view of the surrounding plain in all directions. 

Our ride from the airstrip to the camp was a splendid game drive in itself. We saw giraffes, zebras, baboons, impalas, elephants, wildebeests, warthogs, hippos and reedbucks plus a pride of lions feeding on a huge water buffalo. 

Bird sightings were no less rich and included superb starlings, which, indeed, are superb, with their blue backs, green wings and rose breasts; lilac-breasted rollers, with an endearing propensity to pose while being photographed; hammerheads; blacksmith plovers; African grey hornbills; yellow-billed storks, and Cape vultures. 

We were bothered by tsetse flies in wooded areas but, blissfully, were free of the pests in the camp as well as in open areas, which dominate the park.

The highlight of our stay was a daytime viewing of a leopard, which lasted over 30 minutes. Our guide, Yuston, spotted him characteristically lying on a lower branch of an acacia tree. When we stopped some distance away, he slowly descended, sauntered through the tall grass toward us and appeared just a few feet in front of our safari vehicle, almost as if he were posing for us. 

Safari vehicles in most of the southern parks are permitted to be open. That means that the occupants can view game in almost all directions, without having to stand up to look out a sunroof. 

During our three days in Mikumi, we took an all-day side trip to Udzungwa Mountains National Park, a 3-hour drive on mostly paved roads. The park’s main attraction is the Sanje Waterfalls, a series of cascades that drop a total of 550 feet amidst the lush mountains. 

A steep, rustic trail led us to a lookout for the lower falls, continuing to the middle falls and, finally, to the pools above the upper falls, offering a wonderful view of the plains and sugarcane fields below.

Ruaha National Park

Our next park, Ruaha, was an hour’s plane ride from Mikumi. Tanzania’s largest national park, Ruaha is defined by the Great Ruaha River, a magnet for throngs of birds. We stayed at the Ruaha River Lodge and enjoyed armchair views of lions, crocodiles, baboons and elephants from our balcony. 

A wild dog, part of a pack in Selous Game Reserve.

The elephants sometimes wandered around the lodge premises, preventing guests from freely walking between parts of the camp. Masai warriors were required company, for example, when we walked between the restaurant and our cabin. 

As at all of our park accommodations, electricity was provided by a generator and was available during very limited hours, usually a period of time in the morning after breakfast, when we were not there, and during the evening, after dinner. We always dressed in the morning by flashlight and went to bed when the lights went out at about 10:30. 

On our first game drive, we saw a group of greater kudu, a type of antelope, and also had a glimpse of another leopard. 

Part of Ruaha is called the Little Serengeti, a flat, open expanse broken by baobab and acacia trees. There we saw both lesser and greater kudus and, during one day, three separate prides of lions and several jackals, often with no other safari vehicles sharing the view. 

Birds are the glory of Ruaha. We saw dozens of different species, all identified by our guide, Whiteman. 

On our final day, we discovered that our expected lunch site had been taken over by a large pride of lions. I counted 15, each stretched out and gazing contentedly at the river. We found another site.

Mahale

The legendary work with chimpanzees begun by Jane Goodall continues in Gombe Stream National Park, located on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania. Facilities for viewing chimps, however, are better at a site somewhat south of Gombe called Mahale Mountains National Park, which is serviced by Safari Air Link only twice a week. Booking the visit to Mahale, therefore, is a critical part of structuring a tour of the Southern Circuit. 

Our pilot, a Canadian named Jake who also piloted us two other times, arose in Ruaha, as we did, well before 6 a.m. for our 7:00 departure to Mahale. 

Because the mountains come right down to the shore of Lake Tangan­yika, the airstrip for Mahale was an hour’s boat ride from our camp, Kungwe Beach Lodge, our only non-Fox facility. The 10 bandas, or cabins, were strung out along the beach looking westward toward the lights of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo-Kinshasa), which were visible at night. Its dhow-shaped restaurant provided excellent meals. 

Chimp sightings are not guaranteed in Mahale, and the rainy season, when the chimps frequent the lower, less-mountainous parts of the park near the camp, had passed. 

The modus operandi was for the camp’s trekkers to go out early in the morning, locate the chimps and call in, then the guests would trek out to meet them. Even so, chimps have a maddening habit of moving on, and at that time of year that usually meant farther up into the mountains. 

With some apprehension that we might go zero for chimp sightings in Mahale, Mary and I readied ourselves for our first chimp trek, scheduled for 8 a.m. We were prepared, in two groups of six (the maximum size permitted), with surgeon’s masks to wear in the presence of any chimps to protect them from possible human germs. We were told not to speak loudly and to keep our distance. 

At 7:30, we got a call that there were chimps in our camp. Excitedly, we followed one male a good distance to a large group and spent the entire morning enthralled by their activities. 

We, of course, could not touch them, but once I was brushed by a chimp passing through our crouching group. He seemed to consider us something akin to rocks. 

On our second day, we trekked laboriously over the terrain, following rumors of chimps. With machetes (called bush knives), our guides created paths in the forest’s thick underbrush where none had existed, always seeming to lead up steep and treacherous hills. 

We finally were rewarded with a long session with a single female preparing to bed down for the night. We learned the next day that the group at the other luxury camp, Greystoke, trekked all day and found no chimps.

Selous Game Reserve

When we arrived at the airstrip beside Lake Tanganyika for the flight to our final park, we found Jake, our pilot, taking a dip in the lake. We knew he had started his day at 6 a.m. in Ruaha, so this was a good opportunity for a refreshing swim, crocodiles notwithstanding. 

Selous Game Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was named after a British explorer with a French name. Frederick Selous (rhymes with “threw”), who was the model for H. Rider Haggard’s intrepid adventurer Allan Quatermain, was killed by a German sniper in the area during World War I. 

There are seven airstrips in Selous that serve numerous small camps, and our plane landed at three of them. It is important to deplane at the right strip; ours was for the Rufiji River Camp

Selous is one of the few East African reserves where safaris are permitted on foot, offering a wholly new perspective from the vulnerable point of view of being on the ground. 

On our second day, the two of us were accompanied by a guide and an armed security guard. We were impressed by the enormous amount of manure, to use a polite term. We learned how to distinguish hippo, impala and giraffe scat. 

Birds were everywhere, including the scarlet-chested sunbird, the cordon-bleu, the red-faced crombec and the collared palm thrush. The thrush was an amazing mimic that replicated our whistles and other sounds. 

Only on the ground could we appreciate the ferocious ant lion, which, in its larval stage, resembles a pill bug. This insect lurks at the bottom of its small, inverted cone in the sand, into which an unsuspecting ant slides only to be grabbed by the lion’s lethal pincers and sucked dry. 

We also had inspiring game drives in Selous, the highlight of which was discovering a pack of resting wild dogs. These canids are a distinct species from domestic dogs, with fewer toes. They are severely endangered, threatened by both habitat loss and disease. Their body markings in shades of brown make them very handsome animals. We shared this rare sighting with only one other safari vehicle.

Hitting the beach

We finished our trip with a 3-day visit to the island of Zanzibar, situated in the Indian Ocean opposite Saadani National Park and not far from Dar es Salam. 

Once again it was Jake who flew us via Dar to the island, where we had a nearly international processing. 

Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged in 1964 to form the modern country of Tanzania, a name constructed from the first two syllables of the components plus the country suffix “ia” (as in “Australia” or “Romania”), but Zanzibar still maintains considerable autonomy. 

A female chimpanzee prepares to bed down for the night in Mahale Mountains National Park.

We stayed at the Fumba Beach Lodge, just 30 minutes from the airport and away from the bustle of the town. More convenient than the many resorts in the north, it has a lovely site on Menai Bay. 

We arranged several tours with Zenith Tours (Stone Town, Zanzibar; phone +255 24 223 2320, www.zenithtours.com), including visits to Stone Town, the old slave market area and today’s busy market center; the slave coast, facing the continent, where the market continued after the forced abolition of slavery in 1873, and the beach resorts to the north. 

The western coast of the island is dotted with ruined palaces, remnants of the sultanate that ended with the union in 1964. 

The details

Gill Maskill made all our African reservations, many through Jane Fox, including all lodges, the Zanzibar resort, safari planes within Tanzania and all transfers. I would say, on whole, everything worked flawlessly. 

We booked our own tours in Zanzibar upon arrival, as Zenith Tours was providing our transfers. The all-inclusive cost for our 18 days in Africa, with three meals a day at all camps, breakfast in Dar and two meals a day in Zanzibar, was $18,394 for two, to which was added our 4-continent airfare of $4,509. Because of its isolation (access only by boat), the Mahale portion of our tour was particularly expensive, but the experience was unique and not to be missed. 

Southern Tanzania offered easy access (thanks to Safari Air Link and other air companies), outstanding accommodations, uncrowded game drives, all the hoped-for animals (except rhinos, which have been hunted to near extinction) and the change-of-pace culture of Zanzibar.     

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
A herd of greater kudus.

The game parks of northern Tanzania are legendary: Serengeti, with its magnificent migrations; Ngorongoro, with its impressive concentration of game; Tarangire, with its climbing lions and giant termite mounds; Lake Manyara, with its flamingos, and, of course, Kilimanjaro, with its namesake mountain dominating the horizon. However, the very popularity of these parks creates their main drawbacks: overcrowding and commercialization. 

Fortunately, the southern half of this Wisconsin-shaped country has many less-visited parks and reserves, for which the accommodations are no less luxurious and in which the animals are equally abundant. Chimpanzees can be viewed in the wild near Lake Tanganyika, and the island of Zanzibar provides a cultural and seaside contrast for a comfortable prelude or finale. 

In August 2014 my wife, Mary, and I had a wonderful experience in these parks arranged by Gill Maskill of Africa 2000 Tours (Knysna, South Africa; phone +27 44 382 5845, www.africa2000tours.co.za), a regular advertiser in the pages of ITN. Although Gill and her husband, Graham, specialize in the countries of Southern Africa, Gill interfaced with Jane Fox of Foxes African Safaris to create a memorable Eastern Africa safari experience. 

Making plans

Planning began almost a year ahead of time. I selected four game parks, and Gill put together a proposed itinerary that I then tweaked. The plan was to spend three nights in each park and allow a travel day between parks. That meant we had at least two full days in each park. 

The distances between parks are large, so the best form of travel is small plane. There are bumpy roads between parks, but the time invested in traveling by car could better be spent exploring the parks. 

After I sent a deposit by electronic transfer, Gill began making our reservations, about six months in advance. (Given the small capacity of some of the facilities, a long lead time is advisable.) Then I made our international plane reservations through American Airlines, which now serves many African and Asian locations through their oneworld partnership with Qatar Airways. 

Starting from our house in San Antonio, Texas, and touching down on four continents, we arrived at our hotel in Dar es Salaam in just under 40 hours. 

We had built in 2- to 3-hour layovers in Dallas, London and Qatar, the last of which was especially memorable. Qatar’s airport had been open only one week, and to call it luxurious would be an understatement. The lounge was huge, uncrowded and filled with everything a tired traveler could desire. 

On arrival in Tanzania, we purchased our visas in the airport terminal, as we had been told that it was not necessary to apply in the United States. The cost ($100 in US currency per person) is the same by either procedure.

Dar es Salaam is not much of a travel destination in itself, but we thought it was worth a day’s layover to allow us to rest and get the flavor of the city as well as to ensure that we made our ongoing flight. We had arranged a city tour, on which we visited the famous fish market, the university campus, a museum of native Tanzanian living structures and the National Museum. 

Mikumi National Park

Several companies offer reliable air service around the Southern Circuit, with the Zanzibar-Dar-Selous-Ruaha route served multiple times a day. 

Located close to the international airport, Dar’s small-plane airport contains the office of Safari Air Link, the flight arm of Foxes African Safaris. Departure times, generally, are reliable but must be confirmed the day before, as schedules are finalized day by day. 

Our 14-seater carrying nine passengers stopped first at Selous Game Reserve before depositing us at Mikumi National Park, situated on the main road from Dar to the center of the country.

An open safari vehicle used in Tanzania’s southern parks, with Mary and Joseph Lambert in the front row of seats.

Mary and I stayed at the Fox property now called Stanley’s Kopje (formerly Foxes Safari Camp), where there was a total of eight guests. The camp was magnificently sited on a rocky hill, or kopje, with a view of the surrounding plain in all directions. 

Our ride from the airstrip to the camp was a splendid game drive in itself. We saw giraffes, zebras, baboons, impalas, elephants, wildebeests, warthogs, hippos and reedbucks plus a pride of lions feeding on a huge water buffalo. 

Bird sightings were no less rich and included superb starlings, which, indeed, are superb, with their blue backs, green wings and rose breasts; lilac-breasted rollers, with an endearing propensity to pose while being photographed; hammerheads; blacksmith plovers; African grey hornbills; yellow-billed storks, and Cape vultures. 

We were bothered by tsetse flies in wooded areas but, blissfully, were free of the pests in the camp as well as in open areas, which dominate the park.

The highlight of our stay was a daytime viewing of a leopard, which lasted over 30 minutes. Our guide, Yuston, spotted him characteristically lying on a lower branch of an acacia tree. When we stopped some distance away, he slowly descended, sauntered through the tall grass toward us and appeared just a few feet in front of our safari vehicle, almost as if he were posing for us. 

Safari vehicles in most of the southern parks are permitted to be open. That means that the occupants can view game in almost all directions, without having to stand up to look out a sunroof. 

During our three days in Mikumi, we took an all-day side trip to Udzungwa Mountains National Park, a 3-hour drive on mostly paved roads. The park’s main attraction is the Sanje Waterfalls, a series of cascades that drop a total of 550 feet amidst the lush mountains. 

A steep, rustic trail led us to a lookout for the lower falls, continuing to the middle falls and, finally, to the pools above the upper falls, offering a wonderful view of the plains and sugarcane fields below.

Ruaha National Park

Our next park, Ruaha, was an hour’s plane ride from Mikumi. Tanzania’s largest national park, Ruaha is defined by the Great Ruaha River, a magnet for throngs of birds. We stayed at the Ruaha River Lodge and enjoyed armchair views of lions, crocodiles, baboons and elephants from our balcony. 

A wild dog, part of a pack in Selous Game Reserve.

The elephants sometimes wandered around the lodge premises, preventing guests from freely walking between parts of the camp. Masai warriors were required company, for example, when we walked between the restaurant and our cabin. 

As at all of our park accommodations, electricity was provided by a generator and was available during very limited hours, usually a period of time in the morning after breakfast, when we were not there, and during the evening, after dinner. We always dressed in the morning by flashlight and went to bed when the lights went out at about 10:30. 

On our first game drive, we saw a group of greater kudu, a type of antelope, and also had a glimpse of another leopard. 

Part of Ruaha is called the Little Serengeti, a flat, open expanse broken by baobab and acacia trees. There we saw both lesser and greater kudus and, during one day, three separate prides of lions and several jackals, often with no other safari vehicles sharing the view. 

Birds are the glory of Ruaha. We saw dozens of different species, all identified by our guide, Whiteman. 

On our final day, we discovered that our expected lunch site had been taken over by a large pride of lions. I counted 15, each stretched out and gazing contentedly at the river. We found another site.

Mahale

The legendary work with chimpanzees begun by Jane Goodall continues in Gombe Stream National Park, located on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania. Facilities for viewing chimps, however, are better at a site somewhat south of Gombe called Mahale Mountains National Park, which is serviced by Safari Air Link only twice a week. Booking the visit to Mahale, therefore, is a critical part of structuring a tour of the Southern Circuit. 

Our pilot, a Canadian named Jake who also piloted us two other times, arose in Ruaha, as we did, well before 6 a.m. for our 7:00 departure to Mahale. 

Because the mountains come right down to the shore of Lake Tangan­yika, the airstrip for Mahale was an hour’s boat ride from our camp, Kungwe Beach Lodge, our only non-Fox facility. The 10 bandas, or cabins, were strung out along the beach looking westward toward the lights of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo-Kinshasa), which were visible at night. Its dhow-shaped restaurant provided excellent meals. 

Chimp sightings are not guaranteed in Mahale, and the rainy season, when the chimps frequent the lower, less-mountainous parts of the park near the camp, had passed. 

The modus operandi was for the camp’s trekkers to go out early in the morning, locate the chimps and call in, then the guests would trek out to meet them. Even so, chimps have a maddening habit of moving on, and at that time of year that usually meant farther up into the mountains. 

With some apprehension that we might go zero for chimp sightings in Mahale, Mary and I readied ourselves for our first chimp trek, scheduled for 8 a.m. We were prepared, in two groups of six (the maximum size permitted), with surgeon’s masks to wear in the presence of any chimps to protect them from possible human germs. We were told not to speak loudly and to keep our distance. 

At 7:30, we got a call that there were chimps in our camp. Excitedly, we followed one male a good distance to a large group and spent the entire morning enthralled by their activities. 

We, of course, could not touch them, but once I was brushed by a chimp passing through our crouching group. He seemed to consider us something akin to rocks. 

On our second day, we trekked laboriously over the terrain, following rumors of chimps. With machetes (called bush knives), our guides created paths in the forest’s thick underbrush where none had existed, always seeming to lead up steep and treacherous hills. 

We finally were rewarded with a long session with a single female preparing to bed down for the night. We learned the next day that the group at the other luxury camp, Greystoke, trekked all day and found no chimps.

Selous Game Reserve

When we arrived at the airstrip beside Lake Tanganyika for the flight to our final park, we found Jake, our pilot, taking a dip in the lake. We knew he had started his day at 6 a.m. in Ruaha, so this was a good opportunity for a refreshing swim, crocodiles notwithstanding. 

Selous Game Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was named after a British explorer with a French name. Frederick Selous (rhymes with “threw”), who was the model for H. Rider Haggard’s intrepid adventurer Allan Quatermain, was killed by a German sniper in the area during World War I. 

There are seven airstrips in Selous that serve numerous small camps, and our plane landed at three of them. It is important to deplane at the right strip; ours was for the Rufiji River Camp

Selous is one of the few East African reserves where safaris are permitted on foot, offering a wholly new perspective from the vulnerable point of view of being on the ground. 

On our second day, the two of us were accompanied by a guide and an armed security guard. We were impressed by the enormous amount of manure, to use a polite term. We learned how to distinguish hippo, impala and giraffe scat. 

Birds were everywhere, including the scarlet-chested sunbird, the cordon-bleu, the red-faced crombec and the collared palm thrush. The thrush was an amazing mimic that replicated our whistles and other sounds. 

Only on the ground could we appreciate the ferocious ant lion, which, in its larval stage, resembles a pill bug. This insect lurks at the bottom of its small, inverted cone in the sand, into which an unsuspecting ant slides only to be grabbed by the lion’s lethal pincers and sucked dry. 

We also had inspiring game drives in Selous, the highlight of which was discovering a pack of resting wild dogs. These canids are a distinct species from domestic dogs, with fewer toes. They are severely endangered, threatened by both habitat loss and disease. Their body markings in shades of brown make them very handsome animals. We shared this rare sighting with only one other safari vehicle.

Hitting the beach

We finished our trip with a 3-day visit to the island of Zanzibar, situated in the Indian Ocean opposite Saadani National Park and not far from Dar es Salam. 

Once again it was Jake who flew us via Dar to the island, where we had a nearly international processing. 

Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged in 1964 to form the modern country of Tanzania, a name constructed from the first two syllables of the components plus the country suffix “ia” (as in “Australia” or “Romania”), but Zanzibar still maintains considerable autonomy. 

A female chimpanzee prepares to bed down for the night in Mahale Mountains National Park.

We stayed at the Fumba Beach Lodge, just 30 minutes from the airport and away from the bustle of the town. More convenient than the many resorts in the north, it has a lovely site on Menai Bay. 

We arranged several tours with Zenith Tours (Stone Town, Zanzibar; phone +255 24 223 2320, www.zenithtours.com), including visits to Stone Town, the old slave market area and today’s busy market center; the slave coast, facing the continent, where the market continued after the forced abolition of slavery in 1873, and the beach resorts to the north. 

The western coast of the island is dotted with ruined palaces, remnants of the sultanate that ended with the union in 1964. 

The details

Gill Maskill made all our African reservations, many through Jane Fox, including all lodges, the Zanzibar resort, safari planes within Tanzania and all transfers. I would say, on whole, everything worked flawlessly. 

We booked our own tours in Zanzibar upon arrival, as Zenith Tours was providing our transfers. The all-inclusive cost for our 18 days in Africa, with three meals a day at all camps, breakfast in Dar and two meals a day in Zanzibar, was $18,394 for two, to which was added our 4-continent airfare of $4,509. Because of its isolation (access only by boat), the Mahale portion of our tour was particularly expensive, but the experience was unique and not to be missed. 

Southern Tanzania offered easy access (thanks to Safari Air Link and other air companies), outstanding accommodations, uncrowded game drives, all the hoped-for animals (except rhinos, which have been hunted to near extinction) and the change-of-pace culture of Zanzibar.