What makes Tanzania special, what are the typical things people think about when they think about Tanzania? Here is the A to Z of Tanzania. A list to wet your appetite for a visit, make you aware of some of the lesser-known things Tanzania is known for. But of course, also includes the most famous and popular items on everybody’s travel bucket list.
A – African animals
The biggest reason most people hop on a plane and fly to Tanzania is to see the African animals. The Big 5 remain incredibly popular, but also the world-famous wildebeest and zebra on their annual migration and the rest of the African animals are high on everybody’s wish list.
With 364 species of mammals calling Tanzania home and more than 1,100 birds recorded within its borders, it is no wonder animal lovers come from all over the world to Tanzania to see its animals.
Going on safari in Tanzania is one of the best places in the world to see all the African animals.
B – Beaches
There is no shortage of exotic beaches in Tanzania. In the east, Tanzania has more than 1,400km of beach bordering the Indian Ocean. And that is without counting the many kilometres of beach on the islands of Tanzania, the islands in the lakes and of course the beaches surrounding the lakes themselves.
It doesn’t matter if you are looking for the perfect beach to put your towel down, sunbathe and read a book, or if you are after a beach where you can leave your footsteps in the sand after a romantic walk or an invigorating run. Maybe you want to find the elusive turtles and watch them lay their eggs in the sand, or you want to be there when the eggs hatch and the tiny baby turtles all find their way to the ocean. There are also beaches perfect for kite surfing, windsurfing or wave surfing. Others are ideal for kids to go swimming and exploring, some have an underwater paradise waiting to be explored by snorkelers or scuba divers.
Whatever your perfect beach looks like, you can find it in Tanzania.
C – Chameleons
Not the animals you would probably think of first when you picture Tanzanian animals in your mind, but if you want to see something different, then these cute little critters are kind of cool. Heading out with torches at night, walking at a snail’s pace through the forest, finding these grumpy looking chameleons sleeping on a branch is a unique and awesome safari experience.
After Madagascar, Tanzania is the country in the world with most species of chameleons. Nearly 100 have been identified so far, but new ones are still added to the long list. Just over 20 of these chameleons are endemic to Tanzania.
The best spots to see chameleons in Tanzania are Amani Nature Reserve and the Udzungwa NP, although they are present in most wooded areas.
D – Diving in Tanzania
Diving in Tanzania is incredibly popular and for good reasons. Excellent visibility pretty much year-round, warm waters and an incredible diversity of corals, fish, and other creatures, mean Tanzania ranks high on the list of places to go for any underwater adventures. Snorkelling, as well as diving, are hugely popular and both can be done in many locations in Tanzania. Check out this list of the top dive sites in the Zanzibar Archipelago, but don’t forget there are excellent snorkelling and options to dive at both Lake Nyasa (also known as Lake Malawi) and Lake Tanganyika too.
E – Elephants
A trip to Tanzania without seeing some of its many elephants would not be complete. Seeing these gentle giants is like a dream come true and high on the list of nearly everybody coming to Tanzania. Excellent places to see elephants are for example the Serengeti NP, Tarangire NP, Ruaha NP, Mikumi NP or the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
This majestic animal can live up to 70 years, weigh 7,000kg, and can measure up to 4m tall. Watching a herd of elephants, being led by the oldest female, the matriarch, is wonderful. And to see them in the wild, where they belong, is something every person on this planet should witness at least once in their lifetime.
F – Flamingoes at Lake Natron
A flamboyance of flamingoes can be seen at the right time on Lake Natron. This is a spot not well known in Tanzania, but very well known in the flamingo world. Around 75% of all lesser flamingoes in the world are born on Lake Natron, and in breeding season you can find several thousands of birds here, up to a million if the conditions are right.
One reason the flamingoes like this place is that there is plenty of food for them. But one of the most important reasons they choose to nest here is that the highly alkaline and hot waters mean predators cannot reach the islands where the flamingoes breed. But the water level needs to be just right for this to happen. Too much rain and the islands flood, causing the flamingoes to desert their nests, not enough rainfall and the predators can reach the islands through the shallower water.
The flamingoes start to lay their eggs towards the end of the dry season, in September or October. The eggs hatch during the wet season, but mostly in December. When you are in the area, consider hiking to the top of Ol Donyo Lengai, a beautiful active volcano or take a scenic flight over Lake Natron to see its incredible red colour really stand out.
G – Gombe NP
Lots of people when planning their holiday to Tanzania forget the fact that Jane Goodall spent many years with the chimpanzees in Gombe National Park. It is well worth the effort going to the small Gombe National Park or Mahale NP, both in the west of Tanzania right next to Lake Tanganyika, and go trekking with the chimpanzees there.
Similar in setup to Uganda and Rwanda where you can spend an hour with the gorillas, you spend one hour with the chimpanzees in Gombe or Mahale after you find them. It is a hike in hilly country, and after you spent one hour with these amazing, humanlike apes, there are plenty of other things to see and do in both national parks. Lake Tanganyika is also ideal for swimming and snorkelling as there are many cichlids (little fish often seen in aquariums) in its crystal clear waters.
H – Highest peak of Africa
Yes, the highest mountain of Africa lies in Tanzania, close to the border with Kenya in the north. It is a stunning looking volcano with snow and glaciers gracing its top and you can walk to the top of Africa at 5,895m.
There are 7 popular routes: Machame and Umbe (both start in the southwest, Machame is often said to be the most scenic route), and Shira and Lemosho (from the west). All these approach the summit via Barafu camp and Stella Point and descend via the Mweka route.
The Marangu route runs from the east and has huts at every camp, ideal if you don’t want to sleep in a tent. If you come up this way, you also descend using the same route. And lastly, there is the Rongai route, coming up from the north-east and descending also on the Marangu route.
Make sure you are physically fit if you want to include this into your trip. This is a high altitude mountain and reaching the top should not be taken lightly. Plan for 6-7 days to reach the top and return back to town.
I – Impala
When you visit Tanzania and go on safari you will be almost guaranteed to see impalas. It is a medium-sized antelope with beautiful colours; reddish brown on top, a slightly lighter band underneath and a contrasting white belly. Around the tail and on the tail it has black stripes, making it look like the letter M on its bum. This sometimes brings a joke out from the guides that the impala is the McDonald’s of the bush, a reference to the fact that impalas are often an important part of the diet of the predators like lion, cheetah, and leopards.
It is not totally defenseless though and its leaping and pronking are very impressive to watch. They can leap up to 3m in the air! Pronking is quite comical to watch, they lift all 4 legs off the ground at the same time with the head usually looking down. They then bounce around like this, trying to tell the predators ‘I am healthy and fit, don’t bother chasing me’.
J – Jambo
Jambo means hello in Swahili and is still used to greet tourists. When somebody says jambo to you, you can answer jambo back. The technically more correct version of this would be ‘hujambo’ (how are you?) and the person answering would say ‘sijambo’ (I am fine).
Swahili is the language spoken by many people in East Africa, including Tanzania, where it is one of the official languages, English being the other one. More people speak Swahili in Tanzania then English and learning a few words and greetings will be much appreciated by anybody you meet.
You might also hear other greetings, like ‘habari’ (any news?). As an answer, you would then give ‘nzuri’ (fine). As a colloquial greeting you might also hear ‘mambo’ to which you could respond ‘poa’ (cool).
K – Katavi NP and Kitulo NP
Both parks are relatively unknown to most visitors to Tanzania, but well worth a visit. Katavi NP is vast, wild and rugged. A real wild west with large numbers of wildlife. It is Tanzania’s 3rd largest national park and quite remote, meaning it needs somebody keen for an adventure, or willing to throw some money at it to fly, to get there.
Kitulo NP is fairly easy to get to and especially spectacular in wildflower season. The botanists call it the ‘Serengeti of Flowers’, as it is one of the biggest flowering events in the world. The best season to see the flowers (from late November to April) is also the wettest (and muddiest) and as the park sits between 2,600m and 3,000m altitude it can get quite chilly here. Around 45 species of orchids have been identified and more than 350 species of flowers. They even discovered a new species of monkey here about 10 years ago, called the kipunji. Tourist infrastructure is not very developed yet in the park, so come prepared for an adventure.
Wild flowers in Kitulo National Park
Image courtesy: https://afktravel.com/
L – Leopard
The leopard, a stunning cat and for many the most desirable animal to see on a safari. It is elusive, capable of hiding very well, and an excellent stealth hunter. It is smaller than the lion or the cheetah, but packs an incredible punch. A leopard often kills and then takes its meal up a tree, mainly to protect it from being stolen by another predator like a lion or some hyenas.
Black leopards, melanistic, do occur, although they are not very common. They are called black panthers, just like the black jaguars. The colour of the normal leopard though is almost golden, with spots and rosettes on its fur. The spots are unique for each animal, like a fingerprint for humans. A good location to see leopards is the Serengeti, in the central Seronera area. Every day the guides will check the few locations available for leopards to hide. Once found they will share this information with other guides and you might be able to see a leopard relaxing on a kopje (rocky outcrop), or hiding a kill in a tree.
M – Migration
The biggest land migration in the world takes partly place in Tanzania, in the Serengeti area. The other country involved is Kenya, with the Masai Mara. Hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra follow the seasons as they travel in a clockwise circle across the vast plains bordering the two countries. Depending on the time of the year you might be able to see some of this mighty spectacle many of us have seen on tv on National Geographic.
It all starts on the Ndutu Plains in the south of the Serengeti (and the neighbouring Ngorongoro Conservation Area) where thousands of calves are born usually around January and February. Together with the newborns the wildebeest slowly eat their way west towards the Western Corridor and the Grumeti area. From there they head up north, crossing the mighty Mara River and ending up in search of fresh grass in Kenya in July and August. In September and October they are on their way down south, slowly making their way back to the Ndutu plains where the next wave of baby wildebeest will be born. Of course the times vary slightly year by year, but then, nothing is certain when watching wildlife.
N – Ngorongoro Crater
The view of the crater as you stand on the rim is spectacular. 600m below is the crater floor and if you look carefully (or use binoculars), you can already see the ant-sized shapes of animals walking around. The lake is glistening in the distance and the shape of the crater can be admired, all completely surrounded by this unbroken rim. This huge volcanic caldera is teeming with wildlife and is part of the world heritage site called the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. It is as iconic to Tanzania as the Eiffel Tower to Paris and should be on everybody’s travel bucket list.
It is home to the big 5, and having them in a relatively small area of around 600 square kilometers means you have a good chance of spotting them all, although the leopard and rhino remain, as always, hard to find.
O – Olduvai Gorge
Olduvai Gorge is a steep ravine in the Great Rift Valley, close to the Ngorongoro Crater, and is one of the most important paleoanthropological sites in the world. It is extremely important in helping us understand the history of human evolution, and many early human remains, as well as tools, were found here.
As you drive from the Ngorongoro Crater to the Serengeti it is only about 5km from this main road and makes an interesting detour. Be aware that the road can be quite bumpy and dusty. A lot of the original material found in the gorge can be seen on display here, although some skulls are casts.
P – People of Tanzania
The nearly 57 million people of Tanzania fall into more than 120 ethnic groups of which the Maasai people are probably the most famous. When you are in Tanzania it is possible to visit a village from one of the tribes in the area you are in.
In the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater area you will most likely visit a Maasai village. It is a great way to learn something about a different culture, to see their houses, to watch some of their craft making or dances, and to ask as many questions, and take as many photos, as you want.
Q – Quills of the porcupine
The porcupine, an elusive nocturnal creature not many will see when coming to Tanzania for a safari. If you have the option to do a night drive where you are staying it is a totally different experience from a daytime safari and highly recommended. You might see a porcupine wandering around if you are lucky. If you can’t do a night drive, then keep your eyes open after dark around camp. Some camps have regular nocturnal visitors at night to check if any food is accidentally dropped and the porcupine could be amongst them.
But, if you don’t see the actual porcupine, you might see proof that a porcupine was there if you keep your eyes open. When a porcupine is threatened they turn their back and try to shove their tails with the quills into the attacker. As the quills detach quite easily you might find them on the ground in those areas.
By the way, these porcupines are not small. This is not a tiny little hedgehog. An adult porcupine is between 60 to 83cm long and that doesn’t include the tail.
R – Rainy season
Tanzania has a tropical climate, but the mountainous areas are cool and humid due to the altitude. The coolest, most pleasant months of the year in the tropical areas, are from May to August. This is technically the winter season, but don’t bring your gloves and woolly hat unless you plan to hike to the top of Kilimanjaro or spend time at altitude elsewhere in the country.
The north and the east of the country have 2 distinct rainy seasons. One is called the short rains, they are from October to December with most rain falling in November and December. The long rains, where a lot more water comes out of the sky, are from March to June, April and May usually being the wettest. This is also the time when some of the lodges in the national parks close for the rainy season.
In the south, west and central areas of the country it is more one long rainy season from October to April or May, with December to March usually getting the highest rainfall.
S – Serengeti
The Serengeti, a mystical name that conjures up images of stunning scenery, and amazing wildlife. One of the best places in the world for a safari, a must-see on every animal lover’s wish list.
The Serengeti has it all. The Big 5, the migration, the high density of wildlife, the number of different animals, a bird lovers paradise, the classic African sunsets, the hot air balloon trips with champagne breakfasts, the thrill of watching predators hunt, the tenderness of the mums caring for their babies, the rawness of it all, the realness… This is nature at its best. If you go on one safari in your life, go to the Serengeti and you will not be disappointed.
The Serengeti NP is huge, covering 14,750 square kilometers. The central area called Seronera is the best place for a first safari, offering a high chance of seeing the Big 5 and loads of other animals.
T – Tingatinga paintings
Tingatinga art is uniquely Tanzanian. It was started by a man called Edward Saidi Tingatinga who was born in 1932 in a village in the south of Tanzania. In the 60s he was working in Dar es Salaam whilst developing his own style of paintings. He taught some of his relatives his style, and nowadays many Tanzanians create art in the tingatinga method, which is still taught at the Tingatinga Arts Co-operative Society.
The paintings are excellent pieces of art to take home as a souvenir, and many places will have paintings in this style for sale. You can roll up the canvas and carry it home as hand luggage. Back at home all you need to do is frame it and find an empty spot on a wall. A great way to be reminded of your safari in Tanzania.
U – Ugali
Ugali is definitely part of Tanzanians’ staple diet. It is made of maize flour and looks a bit like mashed potato. The Tanzanians, like many other Africans, love it. You can’t leave Tanzania without at least trying a little bit. Eat it with a stew of meat or veggies as it is rather dry on its own. A true Tanzanian will eat a mountain of it.
V – Vitumbua
What to eat for breakfast in Tanzania? Join the locals and grab a vitumbua with a cup of tea. Vitumbua is a little deep-fried rice flour and coconut ball of goodness, slightly flattened. Get one when it is still warm and it will melt in your mouth.
Other breakfast favourites are a chapatti or a mandazi with tea. Mandazi is a donut-like deep-fried dough ball, incredibly tasty at any time of the day. Some Tanzanians drink coffee, but tea, with milk of course, remains very popular.
Image courtesy: Thomson Safaris
W – Whale sharks
Each year from October to March you can snorkel with the whale sharks near Mafia Island. These gentle giants are the world’s biggest fish, and they come here to feed on the plankton and other tiny little critters living in the ocean. The whale sharks here are usually around 6 – 10m, but they have measured individuals longer than 20m!
The moment you hop into the water in the path of one of these whale sharks, and you get your first glimpse of the large open mouth coming towards you is something you will remember forever. Mafia Island is one of the few places in the world where you can be lucky enough to see multiple whale sharks in one day and you can swim with as many as you want, until you are exhausted.
Make sure you book a reputable organisation that doesn’t harass the whale sharks.
X – Xhosian languages
You may have heard of the xhosian or clicking languages of South Africa, but what few people know is that there are also two tribes in Tanzania with a clicking language; the Hadza and the Sandawe people. The xhosian languages may have even originated from the Sandawe language as it appears to be older than the ones from the south.
The Sandawe people can be found around the capital of Tanzania, Dodoma. There are an estimated 40,000 left. The Hadza people live near Lake Eyasi, bordering the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. There are less than 1,000 people left from this tribe.
Y – Yellow fever trees
The beautiful tall trees with yellow bark were called ‘yellow fever trees’ because the early explorers thought they were the reason they were getting fevers (malaria). But as these trees need a lot of water to grow, the real cause for the fevers were of course the mosquitos which also love the swampy areas with water. You can see these magnificent trees in lots of national parks.
It is also one of few trees where photosynthesis takes place in the bark. The same bark is turned into a powder and taken as a prophylactic against malaria. Although as a visitors to Tanzania it might probably be best to stick to the malaria medication as prescribed by your travel doctor.
Yellow fever trees along the river
Image courtesy: safaribookings.com
Z – Zanzibar
The most famous island of Tanzania, an excellent place to spend some time on the beach, explore Stone Town, go diving or game fishing, snorkel with dolphins, learn everything about spices on a spice tour, try to find the Zanzibar red colobus monkeys, and generally have a great time before or after your safari.
Zanzibar is part of the Zanzibar Archipelago, which also includes other famous islands like Pemba and Mafia. The official name for the island everybody calls Zanzibar is Unguja, and its capital is Zanzibar City. Stone Town is the historic part of Zanzibar City, famous for its narrow alleyways and Swahili architecture.
Don’t miss the exotic beaches with white sands, hot sun, and palm trees of this tropical paradise.
So there you have it, the complete A-Z guide on Tanzania. What are you waiting for? Book your flights today!