A local guide in Tanzania gave me a tip for going on safari, and it’s the opposite of anything you’ve ever been told

A boat in the Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania. Shutterstock
  • Tanzania, and Africa’s, best-known safari destination is the Serengeti, 12,000 miles of grasslands, forests, swamps, and woodlands teeming with wildlife.
  • On a recent trip to Tanzania, I was told by my guide that many repeat safari tourists end up preferring Tanzania’s far larger, Southern Circuit, which includes the 21,000-square mile Selous Game Reserve.
  • Eighty per cent of tourists to Tanzania visit the Northern Circuit, where the Serengeti is located. During peak season the parks are flooded with safari jeeps.
  • Tanzania’s southern parks are far more remote and far more wild. With far fewer tourists, they are often cheaper due to the lack of developed tourist facilities.

Most people only go on safari once in their lives.

It’s far from the cheapest vacation you can take – costing a few thousand dollars at minimum – and, outside the lucky few who live in places like South Africa or Kenya, it’s a long flight away.

For many, the safari they dream of is the Serengeti. Spanning 12,000 square miles in northern Tanzania, the Serengeti looks like the plains of Africa you see in the movies. The setting of The Lion King is supposedly modelled after the Serengeti.

It’s by far one of the most popular safari destination, too. Out of the 1.4 million visitors to Tanzania, 80% visit either the Serengeti, the adjacent Ngorongoro Crater, or Mount Kilimanjaro – the three destinations that make up Tanzania’s Northern Circuit.

Naturally, when I made my plan to go on safari this winter, my heart was set on the Serengeti. I booked a trip with African Budget Safaris and Tanzania Experience, who fashioned a packed five-day itinerary through the north. Both companies arrange safaris throughout Tanzania.

The morning that I left, I went over the itinerary with my guide Charles, a Tanzanian who has spent the last decade leading safari tours through just about every route the country has to offer.

As he talked over the map, my eyes kept darting to a Google Map on my phone of Tanzania. There were giant green splotches in southern Tanzania that looked far bigger than the Serengeti. I asked him what they were.

A map of Tanzania’s Northern Circuit. Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider

“People’s first time on safari, they go to the Serengeti. Then they come back and visit the south. After that, they go to the south every year,” he said. “It’s something else.”

When I asked him which park was his favourite, he smiled sheepishly and dodged the question by explaining what is in the south.

Tanzania’s more-remote Southern Circuit consists of the Selous Game Reserve and Ruaha, Mahale, and Gombe national parks. At 21,000 square miles, the Selous alone trails only Greenland National Park for the world’s biggest conservation area and is the only park in which you can find wild African hunting dogs. Meanwhile, Ruaha is home to 10% of the world’s lion population and a considerable percentage of the elephant population.

An elephant in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania. Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider

Most people visit the Northern Circuit for a few reasons, Charles explained. It has a developed tourist infrastructure, is only a few hours from the airport in Arusha (where I flew in), the roads are easy, there are hundreds of safari companies, and there are plenty of luxury lodges, camping sites, and mid-range tented lodges to choose from. The landscape of the Serengeti is breathtaking – it is a Masaai word for “”endless plains.”

The downside is that during peak season (January through February, and July through August) in the north, there are always other safari jeeps around you as you scout for wildlife. Anytime something spectacular is happening – like someone spots a pride of lions – you can bet that half a dozen jeeps are close behind.

The south is a different beast all together.

The southern parks are about as off the grid as you can get, requiring a day’s drive or an extra flight on heart-stopping Cessna plane. There is little in the way of development, with most people staying at camping sites or a few high-end lodges. If you want to do a walking or boat safari, the southern parks are usually where its done. It’s not a safari for those afraid of a few bugs.

Those that do make the trek south, Charles added, are rewarded. Because so few tourists visit, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see another jeep during your jaunt through the wilderness. It’s practically untouched by tourism, a near impossibility in 2019.

That could soon change.

Last year, the Tanzanian National Parks service announced that it is targeting parks outside the Northern Circuit for development and promotion to attract more tourists. In 2017, the World Bank approved $US150 million to finance tourism development in the Southern Circuit.

I guess I’ll be doing a second safari after all.