Garden of Eden
Were — God forbid — every last breathing creature to be removed from its floor, Ngorongoro would still rank among East Africa’s most compelling scenic attractions. The relic of an extinct volcano which in its petulant prime stood taller than Kilimanjaro does today, Ngorongoro is the largest intact caldera in the world. The view from its forested rim — sheer walls dropping 600m to enclose a 260km2 expanse of fertile savannah — truly defies superlatives.
So, for that matter, does the game viewing on the crater floor. Massive old elephant bulls, weighed down by tusks of a stature elsewhere sacrificed to the ivory trade, haunt the fever-tree groves and swamps. A small but precious herd of Black rhino is regularly seen in more open terrain. Dense populations of lion and Spotted hyaena, as well as smaller numbers of leopard and cheetah (recent re-colonisers), gorge themselves on the abundant herds of grazers. An avian highlight is the thousands of Lesser flamingo that normally flock in the shallows of saline Lake Magadi.
Frequently likened in brochures to the Garden of Eden, Ngorongoro is more often dismissed by visitors as being “like a zoo” — a somewhat bizarre charge to level at an unfenced sanctuary which animals can enter or leave at whim. What the dissenters presumably object to is the traffic density within the crater (serviced by four large lodges, all perched on the rim) and the wildlife’s correspondingly high level of habitation. This habitation should really be seen as a bonus, allowing you to observe unselfconscious animal behaviour at unusually close range.
As for the “ten vehicles around the lion” syndrome, it can certainly become intrusive, but visit the crater at the crack of dawn and comparisons to the Garden of Eden don’t seem unduly fanciful — at least until the post-breakfast masses descend.
The Great Unknown
No list of this sort would be complete without a Best-Kept Secret. And Katavi is precisely that. Tanzania’s third-largest NP — recently extended southward to cover 4500km2 — remains one of the few viable savannah reserves anywhere on the continent where you might literally drive around for days without encountering another tourist. No crowds, then, but is the wildlife any good? Well, during the rainy season, no — not unless ploughing through black cotton soil quagmires or being eaten alive by mosquitoes and tsetse flies features high on your list of fun activities.
After April, however, when the seasonal swamps subside to uncover wide grassy flood plains meandered by feeble but life-sustaining streams, Katavi can be little short of fantastic. Big Five devotees have much to look forward to: lion and elephant sightings match those in almost any African reserve; thousand-strong herds of buffalo amass on the plains, and leopard, though less certain, are quite frequent in the woodland (rhino, predictably, haven’t been seen in years). An unexpected highlight is the pods of up to 200 hippo that jostle for wallowing space in practically any stretch of water deep enough to wet a knee in.
Tourist-class accommodation amounts to one seasonal tented lodge, set in a tall acacia stand alongside the flood plain — fabulously rustic, fabulously expensive and (assuming that you can afford it) worth every penny. Remote from any established safari circuit, the park is generally reached by charter flight and often combined with a visit to Mahale. Adventurous backpackers or self-drive overlanders could also think about visiting Katavi — it’s accessible by public road and there’s an affordable resthouse at the headquarters, from where game drives can be arranged.
Routinely damned with faint praise as a likeable but inessential appendage to a Serengeti-Ngorongoro safari, Lake Manyara is actually a park of considerable substance, with a setting extolled by Hemingway as “the loveliest I had seen in Africa”.
Manyara is the archetypal “grower” — it’s unlikely that any one game drive will compare with a few hours in the Serengeti, but protracted exposure leaves you with the feeling that here, more perhaps than in any other Tanzanian reserve, anything could lie around the next corner. Healthy numbers of ungulates roam the woodland and flood plain; the park’s vaunted tree-climbing lions are currently seen in arboreal activity with fair regularity, while the impressively tusked elephants, like the engaging Olive baboon and Syke’s monkey troops that haunt the forest, are unusually habituated. As for the birdlife — well, no quibbles with environmental writer Duncan Butchart’s recommendation that “if a first-time birdwatcher to Africa [could] visit only a single reserve in Tanzania, then this must surely be it”.
One small, luxurious tented lodge is sited within the park, complemented by several larger lodges on the escarpment and a glut of basic guesthouses in a nearby village. If you are restricted to one drive in Manyara (as many safaris are), note that the compact road circuit gets congested in the afternoon, but you’ll practically have it to yourself in the morning.
Heart of the “African Galapagos”
In 1991 researchers based in the Udzungwa Mountains were served a locally prepared “chicken” stew in which they found floating a decidedly unusual bird’s foot. The next day they were shown a specimen of the mysterious creature: a previously undescribed fowl, subsequently placed in its own genus, with fewer affinities to any African bird than to an Asian hill partridge — from which it’s been geographically isolated for 20 million years.
This story hints at the extraordinary degree of endemism that characterises Udzungwa — the largest of an archipelago of “montane islands” known collectively as the Eastern Arc and sometimes dubbed the African Galapagos. It also indicates the paucity of research that took place there until the 1990s. Swathed in forests that were isolated from similar habitats many millions of years ago, the Eastern Arc today is one of the world’s key biodiversity hot spots, hosting thousands of unique species (most familiarly, the African violet).