Expert Reviews – Tarangire NP

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A lesser-known gem on Tanzania’s Northern Circuit
Overall rating

Named after the river that runs through its heart, Tarangire National Park is one of the smaller members of the celebrated Northern Circuit family and probably the quietest, but it’s a lovely park with a lot to offer, including one of the highest densities of elephant of any park in Africa, a large number of beautiful baobabs, and pretty rolling hills and valleys of golden grass, acacias and ebony woodland.

Within five minutes of entering the park on my only visit, we saw a lone lioness stalk, chase and kill an impala without another car in sight. We soon lost track of the number of elephants we saw over the next couple of days, sometimes in herds of up to 50 or more, and plenty of buffalo, plains game and birdlife too. During our whole time in the park, seeing another vehicle came as a sudden and unexpected shock. Most of the time it felt like we were in our own private reserve.

You’d think from the lack of visitors that Tarangire wasn’t the most accessible of places, but this isn’t the case. It’s an easy two hour drive from Arusha on a good tar road. But once your inside the park, it’s certainly still got plenty of good old-fashioned bush charm, if not quite such as impressive game as it’s bigger and more famous relatives.

An elephant’s tale
Overall rating

Despite being renowned as having the greatest concentration of wildlife outside of the Serengeti, Tarangire National Park is the most overlooked of Tanzania’s northern game parks. But that’s a bonus in my books as the tourist crowds here are much thinner on the ground. The dry season (July-October) is the best time to visit with hundreds of elephants vying for position around the park’s only permanent source of water, the Tarangire River, while migratory wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, impala, gazelle, hartebeest and eland graze close by. You’ll find plenty of predators also on the prowl during this time. As much as I enjoy wildlife watching, I’m equally drawn by the park’s dramatically beautiful landscape with its open plains scattered with thousands of spindly baobabs and acacias. And while I’m not much of a birder, even I was impressed by the flutterings of the park’s 550 odd bird species, especially the screeching flocks of the colourful yellow-collared lovebird.

Tarangire: Elephants & Baobabs
Overall rating

Smaller and more manageable than many East African parks, Tarangire is a firm favourite on Tanzania’s northern safari circuit. Numbers tell part of the story in this park that ranks close behind the Serengeti when it comes to wildlife densities: around 450 bird species recorded within the park’s boundaries, not to mention some 700 resident lions and more elephants and baobab trees than I could count. The swamps in the park’s south add intrigue and mystery to your wildlife-watching experience, but it’s along the Tarangire River that most of the action takes place – it was high on a Tarangire riverbank that I watched the unfolding action of a lioness with cubs playing, then going off to hunt zebra and then returning with her kill. As a general rule, the further south you go in the park, the quieter the safari trails, while there are some fine, private conservancies just beyond the park’s eastern boundaries.

Baobabs and elephants
Overall rating

If any one image encapsulates the Tarangire experience, it is the sight of two great grey giants in close proximity: a herd of the park's ubiquitous elephants walking along slopes studded with ancient specimens of the bulbous ‘upside-down’ baobab tree. True, Tarangire – named after the perennial river that runs through the heart of the park – is the least celebrated of the quartet of reserves that comprise Tanzania’s northern safari circuit, but it is still a fine safari destination in its own right, particularly for elephant enthusiasts. Over several visits, I’ve had limited luck with big cats, though I have come across both lions and leopards lounging in the trees, signalling their presence with a telltale tail twitch. In the dry season, large numbers of wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, impala and hartebeest concentrate along the river, and it is the best place in Tanzania to seek out two dry country antelope: the stately fringe-eared oryx and rubber-necked gerenuk are seen with regularity. It is a great ornithological destination, with more than 550 bird species recorded – my favourites being the red-and-yellow barbets that often platform their outrageous clockwork duet on the red termite mounds where they nest.

Famous for its large herds of elephant and impressive baobab trees, and wilder and less crowded than
Overall rating

Often overlooked in favour of Tanzania’s other Northern Circuit parks, and although you may not see as many animals, I think Tarangire is a wonderful park. I found the most noticeable feature was the baobab trees; instantly recognizable by their massive silvery trunks and gourd-like fruits. Well-known for its high concentration of game during the dry season (less so in the wet season), we saw plenty of wildebeest, zebra, Thompson’s gazelle, buffalo and eland along the Tarangire River, and elephant feeding in the adjacent woodland. The birdlife was good too; herons, storks, vultures, kites and falcons, and at the viewpoint on the cliff near the Tarangire Safari Lodge I watched some particularly tame white-headed buffalo weavers. There are a number of circuits to follow through the variety of vegetation zones and habitats, and the park is large enough not to feel crowded even when there are quite a few visitors.

Elephants on the March
Overall rating

Tarangire National Park is the oft-overlooked park on Tanzania’s renowned northern ‘safari circuit’. Perhaps when you have the Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater fighting in the same corner for tourism attention that’s not a surprise, but it’s certainly a shame.

Tarangire covers a diverse array of habitats which range from open savannah grasslands, thorny, dense woodland, open plains spotted with grand old baobab trees (about the only place in northern Tanzania where these wonderful trees, which are virtual living eco-systems in their own right, can be seen) and squelchy green swamps and ponds. And it’s this last habitat that makes Tarangire so special.

Tarangire, and a great swathe of the countryside around it, is a place of seasonal extremes. In the wet season it’s very wet indeed and the greater Maasai steppe that surrounds the park has water aplenty where wildlife (and cattle) can quench their thirst and where the grass is short, nutritious and green. But in the dry season, when the land gasps for water, the wildlife is drawn magnetically toward the year round water of the giant swamps of Tarangire and at such a time the quantity of wildlife in Tarangire is second only to the Serengeti itself.

Lions are common (and have developed a habit, most likely for water evading purposes) of climbing trees, buffalo congregate into some of the biggest remaining herds in East Africa and wildebeest and zebra stream into the park, but it’s the elephants who rule Tarangire. What can seem like hundreds of them lumber and splash about the swamps and re-shape the forests. As an experience there is, in my opinion, simply no better park in East Africa in which to enjoy the company of elephants.

But although Tarangire in the dry season is arguably one of the best possible safari destinations in Tanzania – and often considerably quieter than other parks particularly if you can base yourself in the harder to reach southern sector – in the wet season it’s a different story altogether. In 2016 I actually spent almost a full month based in Tarangire doing some work during the rainy season. And although the bird life was fantastic (this is regarded as one of the best parks in northern Tanzania for birds), the landscape deliciously green and elephants still relatively easy to see, I would have to say that in all honesty I wouldn’t rush their again at that time of year. Aside from some of the elephants almost all the other large mammals appeared to have waved good-bye to the park and dispersed across the Maasai steppe which meant that any safaris I went on tended to be fairly vegetarian affairs. But worse were the tsetse flies. Maybe I’d visited during an exceptionally bad year for them but there were literally clouds of the ravenous beasts and the moment my vehicle stopped for us to look at something they descended in a painful biting mass. In the end I had to go out in long sleeves, coat, hat and socks to keep them off me. And when it’s 30+ degrees that’s not much fun. So, my advice? Avoid visiting in the wet season but when the land is dry and the sun is shining then Tarangire is one of the most rewarding parks you can hope to visit.

Time it right and you can’t go wrong
Overall rating

As waters wane across the vast Maasai Steppe during the dry season, great herds of buffaloes, zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, hartebeest, oryx and more congregate around the permanent rivers and swamps in this park. From August to October the density of wildlife here is second only to Serengeti National Park – and for elephants, the real stars of Tarangire, it’s the highest in the world. Because of this incredible abundance, I give Tarangire a wildlife rating of 5 even though it has no rhino. But come November, when the short rainy season begins, most of the animals spread out over a vast area outside the park. During this stretch of the year, if your safari is short, your time will probably be better spent elsewhere. Lions, leopards and other territorial predators stay in the park, but they are harder to find in Tarangire than at others. The birdwatching, however, is good year-round and some consider it the best birding spot in the country.

One thing I particularly like about the park is the bounty of baobab trees. You can find this landscape elsewhere in Tanzania, but not at any other Northern Circuit park. Another highlight of Tarangire is that a couple of the tented camps inside the park lead walking safaris and night drives, as do most of those located outside park boundaries.

A dry season must
Overall rating

I love Tarangire, but remember that this is a seasonal park – if you’re after mammals you’ll need to visit during the dry season (June-November) to get the best out of it. It’s nice and accessible – only two hours from Arusha – and relatively easy on the budget too. In the dry season the park has a beautiful yellowy colour from the dry grasses that coat the landscape, punctuated by stubby baobab trees. Game drives in the evening are just stunning, as the setting sun turns everything golden.

Since the only source of water is the river, animals come here in their hundreds – on my last visit I spent hours watching a 300-strong elephant herd, plus tiny calves, digging and wallowing in the oozing black mud of an underground spring.

If you’re a birder, rainy season is the time to visit Tarangire, with the most breeding species of one habitat anywhere in the world. The park also looks gorgeous at this time, with the golden grasses turned emerald green, flowers everywhere and the muddy river turned to crystal clear waters.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.8/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star 1
  • 4 star 8
  • 3 star 4
  • 2 star 0
  • 1 star 0
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