With its huge, unspoiled wilderness areas and plains loaded with game, the vast landscapes of Tanzania reflect an Africa of old. This tour, timed to coincide with the arrival of masses of wildebeest in the central Serengeti, explores northern Tanzania’s exceptional diversity. With the rains having fallen recently, the landscapes display a fabulous palate of colors, from the fresh green grass to the red sands, to the billowing black afternoon thunderstorm clouds. Almost every night, the epic skies produce a spectacular orange and vermilion sunset. Birds are in full breeding regalia, and watching the long-tailed, testosterone-laden widows and black, red, and yellow bishops frantically displaying and chasing each other is a major highlight. Our optional pre-trip extension visits the arid landscapes of the Tsavo corridor, the endemic-rich Usambaras, and the exotic Pemba Island.
Day 1: Arusha. After arrival at Kilimanjaro airport, we head to a lodge near Arusha National Park.
Day 2: Arusha NP. We’ll spend the day on Mt. Meru, which looms over Arusha. The mix of habitats here includes montane forest, and offers us many exciting birds including Crowned Hawk-Eagle, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater, and splendid songster Rueppell’s Robin-Chat. As we head up the mist-shrouded slopes, the yellowwood trees become draped in Usnea old man’s beard lichen and we search for skulking gems such as White-starred Robin and the dapper Brown Woodland-Warbler. The park is also an excellent place to find large herds of buffalo grazing the mountain’s lower slopes, not to mention a remarkable abundance of giraffes and a chance for scarce forest antelope like Harvey’s duiker and suni.
Day 3: Arusha district. We drive around the looming Mt. Meru to the lark plains. These grasslands are home to the last 100 or so Beesley’s Larks on Earth, and we will search long and hard for this critically endangered Tanzanian endemic. Other interesting species here include Chestnut-bellied and Yellow-throated Sandgrouse, shrikes, migrant wheatears, pipits, and larks galore. The plains are lined by Drepanolobium whistling thorn trees, while hills offer a scrubby habitat that can deliver Red-fronted and Black-throated Barbets, Red-throated Tit, eremomelas, and crombecs. Thicket habitat and riparian strips offer many great birds, including Slate-colored Boubou, Nubian Woodpecker, the highly gregarious Gray-headed Social-Weaver, and the possibility of migrants like Spotted Flycatcher and Common Nightingale.
Days 4-6: Tarangire National Park. From Arusha we head to Tarangire, where we shall enjoy some of northern Tanzania’s finest birding. The low baobab-clad plains and fever-tree groves here support many cool species including three Tanzanian endemics and near-endemics: Ashy Starling, Yellow-collared Lovebird, and Rufous-tailed Weaver. The lush grasses are full of ground birds like Northern White-bellied Bustard and both Red-necked and Yellow-necked Francolins. This is one of the better places to see elephants, which can occur in great numbers along the Tarangire River. We also stand a good chance of seeing our first lions, and maybe even a leopard or cheetah.
Day 7: Tarangire to Ngorongoro Crater. After leaving Tarangire, we’ll stay in the Rift Valley, spending most of the day birding the fabulous Lake Manyara National Park. This diverse gem of a park holds lush forest with Silvery-cheeked Hornbill and Crowned Eagle, vast mudflats which might be covered in migrating shorebirds, and marshes that support the likes of African Swamphen and a range of herons and egrets. This park is also good for mammals like African Buffalo and Hippo. Around mid-afternoon, we’ll drive up the western Rift escarpment, wind through some pleasant agricultural areas, then enter the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Our lodge here enjoys spectacular panoramic views of what might be the world’s most famous wildlife preserve, and with good reason.
Day 8: Ngorongoro Crater. We have a full day to explore the magical Ngorongoro, though in the morning we won’t be in a hurry to descend into the crater, as the forest and heath along the rim offers excellent birding. We’ll keep our eyes peeled for flowering Leonotis; if we find a patch, we might be get to savor the coolest sunbird spectacle in Africa: the impressive Golden-winged, coppery-colored Bronze, and iridescent-purple Tacazee Sunbirds all competing for nectar from the same flowers. Descending into the crater with its towering vertical walls is like finding Africa’s Garden of Eden. Inside, we seek myriad grassland and woodland birds, as well as scavenging vultures amidst a thronging wildlife spectacle virtually unequalled on earth. Thirty thousand-some big mammals are resident here, and a decent proportion of them can be seen from a single view point within the crater, an indescribably magnificent sight.
Days 9-10: Ndutu. From the crater rim,we move through the Malanja depression and onto the Serengeti plains, where sandgrouse, bustards, and larks abound. Grant’s gazelles are scattered across the plains, while Ostrich and giraffe walk swaying in the haze. Towards Ndutu we enter beautiful mature Acacia woodland with alkaline lakes and swamps. The lodge’s waterhole is a bird magnet with ever-present Fischer’s Lovebird, a variety of bishops, waxbills, and widowbirds, and the endemic Gray-breasted Francolin. The woodlands harbor Rufous Chatterer, Cardinal and Bearded Woodpeckers, Black-faced Babbler, and Green Woodhoopoe. With a bit of luck, and depending on the rains, the wildebeest will have recently calved in this area, and up to half a million females may be in attendance with their young, presenting a wildlife spectacle of awesome proportions, impossible to describe and enthralling to experience. The attendant predators, particularly lions and hyenas, follow their movements closely, and the vultures await each kill with renewed enthusiasm.
Days 11-12: Serengeti NP. We explore the vast acacia-studded plains of Serengeti NP, encountering herds of wildebeest, zebra, gazelle, and giraffe alongside their associated predators. Although it’s always difficult to find, this is one of the best places in East Africa for leopard. The birds, of course, are party to this drama. We’ll search for Meyer’s Parrot, Tanzanian Red-biled Hornbill, Bare-faced Go-away-bird, Usambiro Barbet, and Gray-headed Silverbill.
Day 13: Serengeti to Kilimanjaro Airport. We return to Arusha, stopping for lunch at the picturesque Gibbs Farm, a good place for Green-headed Sunbird and Grosbeak Weaver.
Usambaras & Pemba pre-tour extension (10 days)
This trip begins nine days before the main tour, and adds even more birds and biomes to an already fantastically diverse tour. We’ll bird a diverse set of areas, ranging from arid thornscrub with birds like White-headed Mousebird and Purple-banded Sunbird; up to montane forest with an exciting mix of endemics including two tailorbirds, Spot-throat Modulatrix, and Usambara Akalat; ending on clove-scented Pemba Island, with its four endemic birds.
Day 1: Arusha to Same. First, we head for the arid Tsavo-corridor woodlands of Same. Nestled in the rain shadow of the Usambaras and Pares, the thornscrub here offers fantastic birding. There is a whole range of species that are found between here and Somalia, the Somali-Masai endemics. These targets include Black-throated Barbet, Purple Grenadier, White-bellied Go-away-bird, Orange-bellied Parrot, Red-fronted Warbler, Rosy-patched Bushshrike, Somali Golden-breasted Bunting, and many others.
Day 2: Mkomazi to Lushoto. After a morning birding in the thornscrub, searching for whatever eluded us on the previous day, we’ll drive up into the heights of the West Usambara Mountains. The lush landscape of montane forest and agricultural fields here is a radical change of scene from the dry country below.
Day 3: West Usambaras. The West Usambaras are higher than their eastern counterpart, and also feature more intact forest, though both ranges have been heavily deforested. One of our main targets here is Spot-throat Modulatrix, a weird sort of relict of evolution. Although it is fairly common by voice, it is devilishly difficult to see well. Another major target is Usambara Weaver, endemic to this mountain range, though seeing this bird requires a lot of luck. The mountains also offer good general birding, with extra chances to see birds like Bar-tailed Trogon, which we’ll also be seeking in Arusha NP, on the main tour.
Day 4: Lushoto to East Usambaras. Transferring from the West to the East Usambaras requires a fairly long drive, back down into the lowlands, along the southern flank of both ranges, then up the eastern slopes of the East Usambaras.
Days 5-6: East Usambaras. Next on the agenda are the East Usambara Mountains, which are part of an ancient arc of crystalline mountains. These treasure troves are full of endemics and montane species not easily available elsewhere in Africa. Highlights may include a bird that is found nowhere else in the world, the Usambara Akalat. Other rare specialties we’ll search for include Usambara Thrush and Long-billed Tailorbird, a relict species of Asian affinities, which requires much luck to see. The lowland coastal forests in the East Usambaras at the Amani-Sigi reserve support Chestnut-fronted Helmetshrike, Red-tailed Ant-Thrush, and the beautiful Green-headed Oriole.
Day 7: Tanga to Pemba. Driving down the mountains, we head to the coast, where we’ll catch our ferry to the island of Pemba. Along the way, we’ll certainly be watching for any coastal birds like shorebirds or terns to “pad” our trip list!
Day 8: Pemba Island. Our final stop is the idyllic and laid-back Pemba Island. One of the Spice Islands, cloves are spread throughout Pemba’s streets. Here we bird Ngezi Forest Reserve looking for the island’s four endemic birds: the dainty Pemba Scops-Owl, Pemba Sunbird, Pemba White-eye, and Pemba Green-Pigeon. There may also be an opportunity for some snorkeling on the nearby Manta Reef.
Day 9: Pemba to Arusha. We catch a short domestic flight that will bring us back to Arusha, where we started the pre-tour.
Day 10: Departure from Arusha OR connect with main tour. Anyone who isn’t joining the main tour will fly out today. The others will meet the rest of the group, for the start of the main tour, exploring the avian and mammalian riches of northern Tanzania, including the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater.
PACE: Moderate. We’ll typically be up early (around 6 am), and stay out until around 5 pm. Where possible we will use the middle of the day to rest up, or travel between localities. There will also be a few days that are full days in the field. There will be a few optional nocturnal outings to search for owls and nightjars; these are normally done just before dinner and seldom last for more than an hour (typically between 6–7 pm). Tanzania is a large country, and driving can often be slow because there is so much to see along the way! Most drives are under 4 hours in duration with the exception of a 5-6 hour drive on day 13 and a 6-7 hour drive on day 9 of the extension. There will be packed lunches on many days; but sitting with a packed lunch for a siesta under a tree is often a far more relaxing way to do things than spending a long time driving back to camp for lunch, only to head out again in two hours.
PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. Almost all the birding is done from mostly flat roads and other easily accessible areas, and much time is spent birding from the safari vehicle. There is little walking on this tour, at the most you can expect to walk about 2 miles (3 km) on a few days; there is a bit more walking required on the extension than on the main tour.
CLIMATE: Quite pleasant both on the higher plateau and in the main Rift Valley localities (usually 65°-80°F, 18°-27°C). At the Ngorongoro Crater rim, and in the Usambara highlands on the extension, it is cooler, with some rain highly likely.
ACCOMMODATION: Very good to superb on the main tour (including some of the nicest accommodation available on a birding tour!), all have private, en-suite bathrooms, and full-time hot water. In most places electricity is available 24 hours a day. Several lodges have generators, and they will switch it off for part of the night, but alternate light sources are provided. On the extension, the accommodation at Same and in the East Usambaras is fairly rustic.
PHOTOGRAPHY: If you are a casual photographer, you will love this trip! Nowhere in Africa are birds more cooperative, and nowhere are mammals so easier to see. We are visiting many places where birds are common and approachable, so there are ample of opportunities for the casual photographer to indulge and enjoy shooting. However this is primarily a birding trip, and if you are a serious photographer, you may want to consider some of our Photo and Birding with Camera Tours in other parts of Africa.
WHEN TO GO: We usually run our set-departure trip around April trip when the birds are all breeding, in plumage and very vocal. This trip can be run as a custom tour at almost any time of the year, and in the boreal winter (October – March) many migrants flood into Tanzania meaning your bird list can even be longer. If you want to include Grumeti river crossings, June –August is the best time. In our opinion, the best of the wildebeest and zebra migration is during the birthing cycle, when the set-departure tour runs.
TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Visas are required for most nationalities. They can be obtained on arrival by citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India and China, most European countries, and others. However it is a good idea to obtain a visa in advance just in case travel requirements change at short notice – it is important to double check about six weeks before the tour.
WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 9 (extension), and the night of day 1 through the night of day 12 (main tour); meals from lunch on day 1 to breakfast on day 10 (extension), and from dinner on day 1 to lunch of day 13 (main tour); reasonable non-alcoholic drinks with meals; safe drinking water between meals; Tropical Birding tour leader from mid-day of day 1 to the afternoon of day 9 (extension), and from the evening of day 1 to the afternoon of day 13 (main tour); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary in suitable safari pop-top vehicle(s) from day 1 to day 9 (extension), and from day 1 to day 13 (main tour); entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; flight from Pemba Island to Arusha (extension only); a printed and bound checklist to help you keep track of what you have seen (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).
WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters at hotels (if you require their services); flights other than those included on the extension; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; excess baggage charges; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.
NOTE ABOUT FLIGHT TIMES: On Day 13, participants should plan to depart from Arusha no earlier than 8pm. Most international departures from Arusha are in the late evening. In the event that you choose a flight leaving on the next day, we will be happy to help arrange a hotel for this night.
Gallery of the Top 20 Wildlife Targets of Northern Tanzania: