Traveller's Guide: Tanzania

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This stunning nation celebrates 50 years of independence on Friday, but its wonders have been millennia in the making.

From acacia-dotted plains to snowy mountain peaks and sandy shores of exotic islands where the air is scented with cloves, Tanzania delivers a heady and enticing mix that has lured visitors for centuries.

Vasco De Gama arrived in 1498, and his countrymen weren't far behind. The Portuguese ruled the coast for some 200 years until the Omanis muscled in. The Germans were next and, shortly afterwards, the British – whose arrival in the late 1800s marked the end of the gruesome slave trade that had thrived on Zanzibar since the early 18th century. The campaign was led by David Livingstone, who first visited Tanzania in 1866, searching for the source of the Nile.

This Friday marks 50 years of independence from British rule. Three years later in 1964, Tanganyika – as the mainland was then known – united with Zanzibar to form the Republic of Tanzania. The anniversary is being celebrated with a ceremony at the National Stadium in Dar es Salaam, the country's main gateway and commercial heart, but not the capital (that accolade goes to Dodoma).

Most visitors breeze through the city, bound for one of the 15 national parks or a patch of paradise along the 1,400km coast, but Dar deserves a day. The National Museum (00 255 22 211 7508; museum.or.tz/ dar.asp) on Shaaban Robert Street presents a fascinating insight into the national heritage. Tribal masks, traditional weapons and clothes made from tree bark are among the displays. Admission US$3 (£2). Across town is the district of Kariakoo, site of the city's liveliest produce market (dawn-dusk, daily).

Of course, it's not the markets or museums that draw people to this great and varied land. It's the call of the wild. While Tanzania is a destination that can be enjoyed all year round, many trips are planned to coincide with the annual wildebeest migration in the Serengeti National Park. Bordering Kenya's Masai Mara in the north of the country, the Serengeti is prime wildlife-viewing territory: home to mammals both large and small, as well as myriad bird species, sweeping savannahs and camps encapsulating the notion of "bush luxury".

The cyclical migration sees more than two million wildebeest, zebra and gazelle undertake a perilous 800km journey in search of water and grazing. Experts are divided as to when and where is best to view the spectacle. For pure drama, head to the north of the Serengeti in July when the nervous herds, a mass of animals 40km long, crosses the crocodile-infested Mara river – a dusty, noisy and frenzied business, with lions waiting to pounce on the beasts that have made it across. Seven nights in the northern Serengeti with Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2212; abercrombiekent.co.uk) costs from £3,180 per person, including flights.

If you crave something more heart-warming, then travel to the southern Serengeti in February when some 8,000 wildebeest calves are born every day. Africa Odyssey (020 7471 8780; africaodyssey.com) offers a six-night trip including four nights at Serian Camp during the calving season from £2,700 per person, including flights and full board.

The Serengeti attracts the lion's share of Tanzania's safari visitors, but it is still possible to lose the crowds. The park's verdant northern region has only a handful of camps, although seclusion comes at a price. Blending into the surroundings, the Lamai Serengeti lodge (020-3137 9904; nomad-tanzania.com) opened in July with chic tents costing from US$1,190 (£793), full board. Perched high on the rocks of Kogakuria Kopje, they look out over the Mara River Valley.

Sayari Camp (exclusivecamps. com) is another remote but cosy camp in the region. The 15 homely tents boast king-size beds and en-suite bathrooms. Doubles from US$900 (£600), full board.

Seronera, the park's central valley, offers cheaper accommodation. Try the Serengeti Serena Safari Lodge (00 255 27 254 5555; www.serenahotels.com) with doubles from US$270 (£180), full board. Travel during the long rains (April-May) for the best savings.

Moving south-east, the Ngorongoro Crater is the world's largest intact caldera. Formed three million years ago by the collapse of a volcano, the origins of its distinctive name is hotly debated. Many believe it was named after a Masai elder who lived here with his cattle.

At the bottom of the 630m sheer walls is the vast crater floor: a prime habitat for 30,000 animals. Most importantly, the arid terrain makes spotting black rhinos significantly easier. The eight-day Serengeti Trail trip with Intrepid (0800 781 1660; intrepidtravel.com) includes the Ngorongoro Crater and costs £585 (plus US$375/£250 kitty), excluding flights.

Southern comfort

The parks of the north – the Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Lake Manyara – get all the fanfare, but savvy travellers head south. Ruaha National Park, superbly located on an escarpment formed by the Great Rift Valley, doubled in size in 2007 to become Tanzania's largest national park.

Half the size of Switzerland, yet home to just six camps, Ruaha offers a refreshing safari experience. The plains of the north are replaced with dense bush, gargantuan baobab trees and rocky hills, but the wildlife is no less impressive. Expect an abundance of predators, herds of elephants totalling 20,000 and an unusually high diversity of antelope – including the rare and majestic sable.

For pure isolation, stay at Jongomero (00 255 22 212 8485; selous.com/jongomero-camp) with doubles from US$1,014 (£676), full board. This luxurious camp of eight spacious tents sits on the banks of the Jongomero River, its nearest neighbour 60km away ensuring secluded safaris.

Another southern highlight is Selous Game Reserve: Africa's largest protected wilderness offering excellent odds of spotting endangered wild dogs.

Jongomero's sister property, Selous Safari Camp (00 255 22 212 8485; selous.com/selous-safari-camp) has tents from $1,224 (£816), overlooking wildlife rich Lake Nzerakera and the forested Beho Beho mountains. Watch out for grazing hippos come nightfall.

Beho Beho (01932 260618; behobeho.com), the reserve's original camp, has eight doubles from US$1,066 (£710), full board.

Getting there and getting around

A trip to Tanzania requires some planning. If you want to see more than one location, be it a combination of surf and turf or a selection of wildlife reserves, the best way of visiting is with a tour operator. Those offering Tanzania include Cox & Kings (0845 867 2352; coxandkings.co.uk), Audley Travel (01993 838 000; audleytravel.com) and Tribes (01728 685971; tribes.co.uk).

The writer travelled to Tanzania with Expert Africa (020-8232 9777; expertafrica.com), which offers tailor-made itineraries throughout the country. A five-night safari to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, followed by a week on Zanzibar costs from £3,200 per person, including flights from London, domestic flights and transfers plus full board accommodation and game drives on safari.

British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) is the only airline to offer direct flights from the UK to Tanzania. It makes the 10-hour hop three times a week from Heathrow to Dar es Salaam from £561 return. Other options include Kenya Airways (020-8283 1818; kenya-airways.com) from Heathrow via Nairobi and Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com) from Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow, Birmingham, Heathrow and Gatwick via Dubai.

British passport holders require a visa to enter. These can be obtained on arrival at main points of entry for US$50 (£33) per person, dollars only.

The safest and easiest way to cover long distances is by air. Precision Air (00 255 22 286 0701; precisionairtz.com) links the main cities, while Coastal Aviation (00 255 22 284 2700; coastal.cc) serves the national parks and islands. One-way fares start at US$76 (£50). Bus travel is possible but distances are considerable, roads poor and accidents common. Scandinavia Express (scandinaviagroup.com) operates services around the country in air-conditioned coaches.

Frequent ferry services link the mainland to the Zanzibar archipelago, but these can be unreliable and overcrowded, sometimes dangerously so – hundreds of people died when a vessel en route to Pemba sank in September. If you choose to travel by ferry, be sure to use a reputable company such as Fast Ferries (00 255 22 213 7049; fastferriestz.com); fares start at US$35 (£23) one-way.

Mountain highs

Watching the sunrise from the "Roof of Africa" ranks as one of life's greatest travel experiences. "Reaching the top of Mount Kilimanjaro is always an emotional moment," says local guide Ake Lindstrom, who has climbed to the top of Africa's highest peak 38 times. "The vistas below and the sight of the clouds lacing the forests make all the hardship worthwhile."

There are six routes to the 5,895m summit, ranging in duration and difficulty. Machame and Marangu are considered the classics, the latter favoured for its gradual ascent; but the uncrowded Lemosho trail is Ake's choice. "It offers a high success rate with fewer people turning back and it passes the Barranco and Karanga valleys – two of the most scenic spots with towering junipers and alpine deserts," he adds. Anyone with a reasonable level of fitness can conquer the mountain but be prepared for eight hours of walking a day.

Altitude sickness presents a serious danger. Acclimatisation is crucial and trips of six or seven days are recommended. Aardvark Safaris (01980 849 160; aardvarksafaris.co.uk) has a fully-assisted six-night climb – with an extra night at either end – from £1,795, excluding flights.

Meanwhile, the Usambara Mountains, reaching heights of 2,440m, offer gentle trekking in a pleasing climate. A week's itinerary including four days in the Usambaras costs £449 with G Adventures (0844 272 0000; gadventures.com), with transfers from Arusha.

Sun, sea and spice

Conjuring images of palm-fringed beaches and dhows skimming across azure waters, the reality of Zanzibar lives up to the hype. The name actually refers to the chain of islands 40km from the mainland that also includes Pemba and Mafia, but is commonly attributed to the archipelago's main isle of Unguja.

Stone Town – the historic quarter of the capital, Zanzibar Town – started life as a fishing village but changed dramatically when the Omanis arrived. The Sultan transformed the island into a trading centre for spices and slaves.

Wandering around Stone Town's maze of coral stone buildings and beautifully carved wooden doorways – relics of bygone opulence – without purpose or destination is an unbridled joy.

Later, watch the returning dhows with a sundowner in hand on the terrace at the Africa House Hotel (00 255 77 443 2340; africahousehotel.com) – a popular spot with the British during the colonial days – before retiring to the Zanzibar Palace Hotel (00 255 24 223 2230; zanzibarpalacehotel.com) where B&B starts at US$280 (£186).

Meanwhile, the island's lush interior thrives with tropical fruit trees, lofty palms, giant ferns and swathes of fragrant spices. Examine the cinnamon, cardamom and cloves at the island's plantations. Half-day tours organised by Eco and Culture Tours (00 255 24 223 3731; ecoculture-zanzibar.org) cost from US$25 (£17).

However, the undeniable attraction here is the beach. Enjoy the year-round balmy temperatures on the unspoilt north-eastern coast where Essque Zalu (00 255 77 360 1799; essquehotels.com) opened this summer. The hotel fuses five-star comfort (butler service, villas with private pools) with local touches. The spa uses indigenous plants and oils while the gallery showcases works by local artisans. Doubles from US$500 (£333), half board.

For something a little more rustic, Mchanga Beach Lodge (00 255 77 356 9821; mchangabeachlodge.com) is a delightful, family-run property with doubles from US$230 (£153) including breakfast. Six of the eight rooms have sea views (all boast Zanzibari four-poster beds) while the flour-like sand extends from the beach into the restaurant and bar – dine on fine Swahili cuisine and enjoy a game of bao (a much-loved game). Ask the barman Osman for lessons, but don't expect to win.

Lakeside living

The silky waters of Lake Victoria stretch towards the horizon, interrupted only by a sprinkling of islands. Somewhere in the distance, lies Uganda to the west and Kenya to the north. Africa's largest lake is truly magnificent.

Cruise to one of the outlying islands such as Lukuba, accessible from the town of Musoma. Day trips are available through Lukuba Island Lodge (00 255 27 254 8840; lukuba.com) and cost from US$90 (£60) per person. Once there, walk through mahogany forests and spot birds and spotted-necked otters.

Victoria isn't Tanzania's only lake worthy of acclaim. Lake Nyasa's long, spindly course flows south into Malawi and Mozambique while Lake Tanganyika, in the far west, completes the set.

Arguably the most scenic of the three, Tanganyika is also the world's longest lake, its waters lapping against powder white sand bordered by jungle-clad mountains. Deep within the misty peaks are the wild chimpanzees of Mahale Mountains National Park. Small groups (maximum of six) track the primates, which can be seen often in groups as big as 30. Scott Dunn (020-8682 5070; scottdunn.com) offers three nights at Greystoke Mahale Camp and a three-night safari in Ruaha from £4,988 per person, including flights, full board and activities.

Only two scheduled flights a week operated by Coastal serve Mahale, making it an expensive destination. Those with pockets deep enough should travel during the dry season (Sept-Nov) for easier trekking conditions.

Make it personal

In 1996, the Tanzania Cultural Programme (00 255 27 205 0025; tanzaniaculturaltourism.com) was created with the aim of helping the country's 120 ethnic tribes preserve their heritage and prosper through tourism. Profits from day tours and interactive cultural experiences are ploughed back into projects designed to reduce poverty and provide local jobs.

The scheme is mutually beneficial, with some extraordinary opportunities for the taking. Highlights include spending the night with the Chagga tribe near Arusha; fishing with the Barbaig hunters; receiving health advice from Morogoro's traditional healer and learning the closely-guarded recipe for edible soil cake. Day tours range from US$20-45 (£13-30) per person.

Beach and bush

Saadani is Tanzania's only coastal national park; a place where you can gaze at giraffes in the morning and relax on the shores of the Indian Ocean in the afternoon.

Located 160km northwest of Dar es Salaam, the park has recovered from the 1990s when poaching was rife. As a result of its past, mammals are shy and require patience but it's still possible to track big cats, cruise the mangrove waterways in search of crocodiles and spot flamingos to African fish eagles.

Meanwhile, waterbuck and baboons are partial to a paddle by the beach, while bottlenose dolphins and nesting green turtles may be seen out at sea.

Rainbow Tours (020-7666 1250; rainbowtours.co.uk) has a seven-night Saadani trip costing £2,285 per person. The price includes flights from Heathrow, transfers and full board at Saadani Lodge.

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