The airstrip of Mikumi National Park is clearly in view, but the pilot of the six-seater plane banks to the right and begins slowly circling the grassy plain. The passengers, eager to see some wildlife, wonder what might be causing the delay.
“It’s the zebras,” the pilot says, pointing to a cluster of the striped creatures standing near some bushes. “We can’t land if they’re on the runway.”
Satisfied that the way is clear, the pilot finally begins the descent. His passengers are delighted to see a half dozen elephants darting in the other direction. A bit farther away, a trio of giraffes stands its ground. They keep an eye on the plane, however, until it touches down.
Although Mikumi is Tanzania’s third-largest national park, few people have heard of it. That is good luck for these visitors, who find that they have the entire game reserve to themselves.
For decades, most visitors to Tanzania have headed to the game reserves that make up the so-called “Northern Circuit.” And with good reason, because here you’ll find the grasslands of the Serengeti National Park. The annual migration of more than a million wildebeests through the golden grasses is one of nature’s greatest shows.
The spectacle attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year, so along with the wildebeest, you’re likely to spot dozens of minivans rushing to find the best vantage point. And the other attractions, including the astounding Mt. Kilimanjaro, are just as crowded.
That’s why those in the know are heading south, basing themselves in the coastal city of Dar es Salaam instead of the northern town of Arusha. Dar es Salaam, which contains most of Tanzania’s top hotels, including the resplendent Royal Palm, has become a gateway to the cluster of less-crowded game reserves that are becoming known as the “Southern Circuit.”
“People are just starting to hear about the Southern Circuit,” says Adrian Landry, general manager of the Royal Palm. Most of his guests are business travelers, but he expects that to change. “I think that as word gets out about our parks, the number of people heading here is going to explode.”
Where the Wild Things Are
Standing on the roof of her Land Cruiser, Zoe Bridger scans the horizon with a pair of high-power binoculars. Bridger, a guide with Tembowengi African Adventures, a tour operator, is looking for the cape buffaloes that passed this way the night before.
The buffaloes are nowhere to be found – “How do you hide a herd of buffaloes?” someone jokes – but Bridger does point out a family of black-backed jackals lounging about in the tall grass. Their comically large ears prick up as the vehicle passes.
“This is the part of Tanzania that I love,” says Bridger, gesturing toward the open plain dotted with baobab trees. “If people only want to go to the Northern Circuit, I’ll suggest another guide. The national parks in the southern part of the country are still wild.”
The largest park in the south – and the largest in all of Africa – is the Selous Game Reserve. It borders with Mikumi, and it isn’t difficult to see both in one trip. Whereas Mikumi is grassland dotted with a few watering holes, Selous is dense and at times hilly and mountainous woodland divided by the Rufiji River. An amazing array of game, including hundreds of hippopotamuses, is in residence here.
To the west of the Selous Game Reserve is Udzungwa Mountains National Park, with the highest peaks in the region. Primates are the main attraction here, including rarities like the Sanje crested mangabey and the Iringa red colobus monkey. Beyond that is Ruaha National Park, with rolling plains that are the home of one of the country’s largest populations of elephants.
A few years ago, the south of Tanzania was a destination for those who didn’t mind roughing it. Accommodations were spartan, at best. Today you don’t have to give up creature comforts such as hot showers and flush toilets. Many of the lodges, such as the Vuma Hill Tented Camp near Mikumi, are quite luxurious.
After an afternoon game drive, Bridger drives her tired troops back to Vuma Hill. The sun slowly sets over the plains as they retire to the terrace for a cocktail. A crackling fire keeps away the chill.
The conversation this evening is particularly lively, as a pair of naturalists from the Mikumi Baboon Project, one of the longest-running field studies in Africa, have dropped by for a drink. They are new to the project, but are already in love with the country. Everyone agrees.
“I’ve traveled to other parts of Africa,” says Bridger. “But I keep coming back to Tanzania.”
There are no direct flights to Tanzania from the United States, so you’ll have to make a connection. The most convenient is through South African Airways, which has frequent flights from Johannesburg.
From Europe, KLM offers the only daily flights to Dar es Salaam.
British Airways also has frequent flights to Dar es Salaam.
When to Go
The best time to visit the game reserves in the Southern Circuit is during the dry season, when animals gather near watering holes, making them easier to spot. The dry season runs from June through November.
What It Will Cost
A week’s excursion into southern Tanzania with a guide from Tembowengi costs between $950 and $1,500 per person, depending on whether you will be roughing it in tents or staying in luxe lodges. A one-night stay at Vuma Hill Tented Camp costs $140, including all meals.
A double room at the Royal Palm in Dar es Salaam costs about $185.