Traveling through Northern Tanzania is a journey of discovery through the heart of East Africa’s raw and rugged wilderness. A tapestry of landscapes, the sunken beauty of the Ngorongoro Crater, the mesmerizing spectacle of the great migration, the Serengeti plains stretching out before you, the silhouette of Kilimanjaro piercing the sky, the smoldering fires of Ol Doinyo Lengai, and the vast Lake Natron stretching out to the horizon. This is the land of the Maasai tribe, who graze their cattle in this wild and largely uncultivated place, striding across the landscape in their traditional red shuka robes.
Remote Lake Natron is one of the most visually dramatic locations in Africa. Fed by natural springs, the lake’s waters are rich with a mixture of salts and minerals, called ‘natron’ – hence the name. In the dry season, the water temperatures can reach 140 °F, and as the water levels decrease, the lake’s salts and minerals form a crimson crust over the surface. Lake Natron’s waters are the only regular breeding ground in East Africa for 2.5 million lesser flamingos, who nest on mounds of salty mud from August to October, protected from predators by the lake’s toxic water. These flamingos have evolved to withstand the lake’s extremely high temperatures and salt content. Salt-loving phytoplankton flourish here, giving the lake its red tinge and feeding the flamingos, who get their pink color from the algae they consume. The best time to see these magnificent birds is at sunset when the day’s heat starts to die away.
Lake Natron Camp is a unique eco-camp with incredible views of the lake, the Great Rift Valley and the dramatic rise of Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, which towers in the distance. Guests can relax with a drink in the camp’s natural spring pool, stroll to the lake, go on hikes, or cool off in nearby waterfalls. A short walk from camp is some well-preserved human footprints, estimated to be between 5,000 and 19,000 years old – a scarce find. No other site in Africa has so many ancient Homo sapiens footprints.
Lake Natron is backdropped by the magnificent Ol Lengai Doinyo, East Africa’s only active volcano, the only active carbonatite volcano in the world, and the toughest day hike in East Africa. Hikers face a challenging ascent to the top but, once there, are rewarded with endless views. An overnight ascent to the 9,718ft summit of the famous’ Mountain of God’, sacred to the Masai, is an unforgettable experience. The mountain base is about an hour’s drive from Lake Natron Camp, and the ascent takes 4-6 hours, depending on your fitness level. The top third of the volcano has some very steep and rocky stretches, so you need to be steady and prepared to scramble. The crater itself is wide and steep-sided but walkable. Looking down into the caldera from the top, you can see the boiling, sulfurous lava, and the views are incredible at sunrise. The climb down is roughly 3-4 hours. This is not a trek for the faint-hearted, but it is worth it for the spectacular and otherworldly views.
From Lake Natron, head to the famous Ngorongoro Crater, the world’s largest unbroken, inactive volcanic caldera. With its stunning landscapes and views, the crater is an exceptional geological landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that promises sightings of the Big Five and plenty of other wildlife as well. The crater measures around 12 miles across, with a rim that rises 2,000ft from the floor and is covered with ancient forests draped in lichen. The 102 square mile caldera is home to 30,000 animals; it’s a year-round home to black rhino, black-maned lion, wildebeest, zebra, hippos and buffalo, as well as the continent’s densest population of spotted hyena and some of Africa’s largest elephants.
Perched on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater &Beyond’s Crater Lodge has been called the game lodge on the top of the world. Victorian furnishings and whimsical African touches create a sumptuous atmosphere, as elegant as it is unique. Each suite is decorated with antiques, grand chandeliers and eclectic African treasures. The bedrooms, sitting rooms and bathrooms all boast floor-to-ceiling glass windows and are built on stilts; they embrace breathtaking panoramic crater views.
Away from the crater, but within the protected area of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area lies Olduvai Gorge. Formed roughly 30,000 years ago and known as ‘The Cradle of Mankind,’ the gorge is a steep-sided ravine approximately 30 miles long and 295ft deep. It feels like stepping onto Mars with red dust and boulders, barren and waterless, with the occasional small green bush creeping out between the cracks in the rocks.
Here at Olduvai, in the early twentieth century famous archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey uncovered some of the earliest hominid fossils – the origins of man could now be placed in the heart of Africa. The fossil-rich deposits at Olduvai cover a period ranging from 2,100,000 to 15,000 years ago. They are a remarkable chronicle of human ancestry and the evolution of many of the animals found in the area today. It’s easy to drive past Olduvai Gorge en route from Ngorongoro Crater to the Serengeti, and many people do, but it’s worth the detour to stand in the place of our early stirrings as a species.
One of the undisputed highlights of northern Tanzania is the Serengeti National Park. The name “Serengeti” comes from the Maasai word “seringit,” language meaning “endless plains,” apt for the 5,700 square miles of rolling grasslands dotted with flat-topped acacia trees.
The immense size of this World Heritage Site national park is greater than the size of Ohio, Belgium or Wales, and you are almost guaranteed to have sightings of the ‘Big Five’ and a host of other species. The birds of the Serengeti are just as spectacular and varied as the bigger animals, with almost 500 species of bird recorded in the park. Add 1.5 million wildebeest, 200,000 zebra, 18,000 eland and 500,000 gazelles to the picture, and you have a wildlife spectacle second to none.
The movements of the wildebeest herds are triggered by the annual rains and their search for fresh grazing, and the Great Migration is one of the greatest events in the natural world. For a classic mobile safari experience, Serengeti Under Canvas moves camp five times a year, so it’s always in the best location for proximity to the migrating herds.
When traveling, we are responsible for making it as sustainable as possible. On a Tanzanian safari, as on most trips, we can decide what kind of impact we will have on a place. There is no such thing as total sustainability on a trip like a safari, but making conscious decisions when planning your travels means you can positively impact the land, wildlife and people of the places you visit.
It can be challenging to start planning a safari, especially if this is your first time in Tanzania or Africa. &Beyond, who own both Ngorongoro Crater Lodge and Serengeti Under Canvas, are leaders in eco-tourism and have sustainability at their core, with “care of the wildlife, care of the people, care of the land” as their central ethos.
Leonotis Adventures, which has the extraordinary Lake Natron Camp, one of the world’s most sustainable eco-camps, has an excellent reputation for ethics and environmental responsibility. African travel experts Mahlatini Luxury Travel were recognized for their commitment to sustainable travel in 2022 when they won Europe’s Leading Sustainable Tour Operator Award at the World Travel Awards. They believe “Sustainable travel is about making smarter choices in every aspect of the trip.” Mahlatini has a fantastic Tanzanian Odessey itinerary that includes all the places mentioned above.
This story was co-reported with African travel expert Sarah Kingdom. Follow Kingdom’s travels on Instagram.