Frances visits northern Tanzania

It had been a few years since I had been to Northern Tanzania and so many new properties had appeared and existing properties had developed, that it was time for me to return and refresh my knowledge. I started my journey with trying out Qatar Airways via Doha into Kilimanjaro. It felt a little bit like I was going in the wrong direction heading towards the middle east, but the impressive Doha airport, efficient crew and smart plane were a positive experience and the route is definitely worth considering as it can offer excellent value for money, especially when there are special offers around.

I spent the first two nights of my trip in Tarangire National Park. It really is a stunning park and the elephant sightings in particular are fantastic. The Tarangire River and surrounding swamps serve as excellent locations for game viewing. New properties are opening up and there is something for all tastes. I stayed at the delightful Kichuguu, a down to earth tented bush camp and after a busy first day back in the bush it was lovely to sit on the verandah of my tent listening to the sounds of the bush as dusk fell, before enjoying a gin and tonic around the camp fire with the cheerful staff. I visited Nomad Tanzania’s Kuro which I think might have been one of the most charming camps I’ve ever visited in Africa – striking just the right balance of a bush camp including a degree of comfort and sophistication. I also visited Sanctuary’s Swala in the deep south of the park that will suit those who would prefer a more hotel like atmosphere and the more remote location. I spent my second night at Lemala’s new property Mpingo Ridge. With views that take your breath away, and suites that are much bigger than your average one bedroom flat, this is a property that has wow factor. As with most properties that afford such expansive views however, the elevated position means a journey to the core game viewing area so it becomes a choice between quick access to game viewing or stunning accommodation.

From Tarangire I drove to the Ngoronogoro Crater where both Asilia Africa and Nomad Tanzania have opened properties in the Ngorongoro Highlands in the last few years, both offering high end, quality experiences so it was very useful to be able to compare them. I spent my first night at Entamanu Ngorongoro, Nomad’s offering. With views of the crater and an exclusive setting just thirty minutes from the descent road into the Crater (allowing quick access in the early morning to beat the crowds), this is an obviously good option in both practical and romantic terms. However there are downsides with staying in a tented camp on the crater rim with the famously capricious climate of the Ngorongoro Crater. The weather can turn any minute and often does. The night I stayed it was grey, windy and bitterly cold – which is not unusual for June. The main tent however was incredibly cosy with roaring open fires, blankets, drinks flowing and hearty food to keep you warm. The following night I stayed at Asilia’s The Highlands. Located about an hour away from the Lemala descent road, the location definitely offers something different from all other Ngorongoro properties. Although it can be used as a property to access the Crater, it offers more than that and it is well worth spending three nights here. I was collected by my guide Adam and my Masai guide Peter who came from one of the nearby Masai villages. We drove to the starting point for a hike up the Ol Moti Crater. It was a relatively gentle hike, but the high altitude can mean that you find that you’re short of breath quicker than you would be normally. We were hiking as dusk was setting in and all around us we could hear the bells of the cattle being brought home for the night by the local Maasai, which made it quite magical. As we reached the viewpoint, the landscape was astonishing and you could easily question whether you were in Scotland or Tanzania. After our hike, which was an extremely welcome break from the driving as Northern Tanzania can sometimes be heavily focused on driving, we drove into camp. The design of the camp is distinctive – domed suites with crackling fireplaces and the cosiest blankets you’ve ever seen. Falling asleep with the crackle of the fire, after a hot shower to wash off the dust I had collected from my hike up Ol Moti, I certainly felt like I had tapped into a different kind of experience. The next morning I met guests who were off to explore nearby Empakai Crater followed by a visit to a local Maasai village, whilst others had left early for a day in the crater. My personal feeling is that the location of The Highlands makes it more than just a quick stop to see the Crater. It offers you the chance to see local life, get out of the vehicle and move your body, and to explore a landscape that often people don’t take the time to discover.

Next I flew to the Serengeti National Park and my next four days was a fantastic reminder of just how vast and brilliant the Serengeti is. My first stop was the beautiful Namiri Plains, located in the remote south east of the Serengeti. Driving away from one of the busiest airstrips in the Serengeti (which has grown so much since I was last there I would question whether it actually counts as an airport now), you head into true open plains – huge scenes stretch ahead of you and the feeling of what you might spot along the way is exciting. The location of Namiri Plains is well known for cat sightings, lions and cheetah in particular, and the beauty of the area is the lack of other camps around. Where other parts of the Serengeti are becoming saturated with camps, this location has been protected from that and you feel like you have a corner of the Serengeti to yourself. My guide regaled stories of lions making kills in front of camp, and we stopped for two cheetah brothers on the hunt and two prides of lion as we meandered our way across the plains. The camp itself, a charming bush camp, is actually being replaced with a luxury lodge in the next month. I spent a happy night in the camp, enjoying an outdoor shower with a view of a relaxed bull elephant browsing the sweet grass nearby. The luxury lodge is definitely going to have a different feel to it, with spacious suites kitted out with huge bathtubs, double showers, extensive verandahs, a spa, a swimming pool, impressive light fittings, Wi-Fi – leaving you wanting for nothing – except perhaps a simple bush camp…! However the area is going to stay the same – remote, exclusive, away from the crowds and incredible cat viewing.

I spent the next three nights in the Northern Serengeti. In comparison to the never-ending open plains of Namiri Plains, the north is arguably much more varied and beautiful – full of rolling hills, the Mara River bubbling away, rocky kopjes and ever-changing scenery. There had been late rain this year so the grass was long, everything was lush and green and it felt a bit like the Garden of Eden. The longer grass made the game viewing more challenging, but that didn’t stop me from having some amazing sightings. A leopard in broad daylight in the beautiful Lamai wedge, lions mating at sunset, a lioness stalking a group of about a thousand wildebeest as they diligently moved in one line together. In early July, I had been hoping to see the masses of wildebeest, but as is always the case with wildlife, nothing is guaranteed. The rain had meant that some herds were already in the Masai Mara while some were further east and travelling towards us. I spent nights at 3 different camps, often falling asleep to the sound of the perennial bleats of the beests, convinced I was going to wake up and find my tent surrounded with herds. However, it turns out sound travels far in the night and the herds were still not in sight! It just goes to show how difficult it is to predict nature, especially with the ever changing climate.

The Serengeti is fantastic. Whilst the neighbouring Masai Mara in Kenya can offer exclusivity in the conservancies, easy access from Nairobi and a high concentration of fantastic wildlife in a small area, I feel the Serengeti offers a truer sense of wilderness – the landscapes stretching out ahead of you are breath-taking, the one acacia tree breaking the horizon, the incredible sunsets and the sounds of the Serengeti lions roaring around you as you fall asleep. Tourism in Northern Tanzania is rapidly changing and becoming more and more developed. Whilst this can sometimes take away from a more authentic style of safari, it does mean there is wide variety of properties to choose from, making it an accessible destination for all tastes – from luxury lodges through to basic tented camps with bucket showers.

Frances stayed at Arusha Villa, Kichuguu Camp, Lemala Mpingo Ridge, Entamanu Ngorongoro, The Highlands, Namiri Plains, Serian Lamai, Serengeti Safari Camp and Kirurumu Serengeti North.

Frances site inspected Machweo House, Onsea House, Kirurumu Tarangire Lodge, Tarangire Ndovu Tented Lodge, Swala Camp, Little Chem Chem, Gibbs Farm, The Manor at Ngorongoro, &Beyond Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, Lemala Ngorongoro Camp, Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge, Sanctuary Ngorongoro Crater Camp, Sanctuary Kichikani Camp, Kimondo, Lemala Mara Camp, Serian Serengeti North Camp, Chaka, Serengeti North Wilderness Camp, Kaskaz Mara Camp, Lamai Serengeti, Mkombe’s House, Kuria Hills, Legendary Serengeti Camp, Nimali Mara and Sayari.