When to visit
There is no truly bad time to visit Tanzania; the optimum months depend on which parts of the country you plan to visit and your main interests. Peak tourist season in the north coincides with the European winter, with Jan/Feb being particularly good since it is when the wildebeest calve. The low season typically runs from mid-April to September, but tourism surges over June and July when migratory activity peaks in the Serengeti and June. May, though sometimes wet, can be an excellent month to visit, with a good chance of catching the migration in the far south, and relatively few other tourists around.
The coast and offshore islands are best avoided over the high rainfall months of March to May. This hot and humid part of the country is most pleasant during the relatively cool and dry months of June-Oct, which is also when the risk of malaria is lowest. The southern circuit is best between July and Nov and should be avoided from April to June when several lodges close in anticipation of the peak rainy season.
The dry months of March and September are generally rated best for trekking on Mount Kilimanjaro and Meru, though both mountains can be climbed at any time of year. November to April offers the best bird watching, with resident species supplemented by a number of Palaearctic and intra-African migrants.
A valid passport is mandatory, and it shouldn’t expire within six months of your intended date of departure from Tanzania. Visas are required by most visitors and cost US$30-60, depending on your nationality. They can be obtained on arrival at any international airport or land border – a straightforward procedure that requires no photographs, nor any other documentation aside from a passport. A standard tourist visa is normally valid for three months after arrival and allows for multiple entries to Tanzania from neighbouring Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, but not from other countries. For those who prefer to arrange a visa in advance, Tanzanian embassies or high commissions exist in Angola, Belgium, Britain, Burundi, Canada, China, CIS, Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Guinea, India, Japan, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Netherlands, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sudan, Sweden, Uganda, USA, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
There are three international airports. Dar es Salaam is used by most international airlines and is convenient for business travellers or those exploring the southern safari circuit. The mainland alternative is Kilimanjaro International Airport (KIA), which lies midway between Moshi and Arusha and is well placed as a springboard for safaris to the Serengeti and other northern reserves. Some international flights land at Zanzibar.
Air Tanzania, British Airways, Gulf Air, KLM, Lufthansa and Swissair all fly to Tanzania from Europe, while African airlines servicing Tanzania include EgyptAir, Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways and South African Airways.
Once in Tanzania, a good network of domestic flights connects Kilimanjaro, Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar, as well as other less visited towns. Private airlines also run scheduled flights connecting to most parts of the country, including Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar, Pemba, Mafia, and Serengeti (Grumeti and Seronera), Ngorongoro, Lake Manyara, Mwanza, Rubondo Island, Kigoma, Selous, Ruaha, Katavi and Mahale.
Many tourists land at Nairobi (Kenya) and then fly on to Arusha with several regional operators. Several safe and affordable shuttle bus services connect the two cities via the Namanga border post, departing at around 08.00 and 14.00 daily and taking four hours in either direction.
Carry at least one change of shirt and underwear for every day you will be on safari, as it can be tedious to organise laundry en route. Dusty conditions practically enforce a daily change of clothes, so it can be a good idea to set aside one or two shirts for evening use only.
Shorts and a tee-shirt are perfectly adequate daytime wear on safari, but long trousers and warmer clothing might be required at night, to protect against cold and against mosquitoes. Socks and underwear should be made from natural fabrics. Anybody who intends to climb Kilimanjaro should seek specialist advice about clothing from their operator.
The predominantly Islamic inhabitants of the coast and offshore islands are used to tourists and are reasonably tolerant of Western dress codes. Nevertheless, it is still advisable to err on the side of modesty, especially in urban settings and inhabited areas.
Binoculars are essential to watch distant wildlife in the game reserves. For most purposes, 7×21 compact binoculars will be fine, but birdwatchers will find a 10x magnification more useful, and should definitely carry a good field guide.
If you wear contact lenses, bring all the fluids you need, possibly a pair of glasses as a fallback – many safarigoers find the combination of sun, dust and dryness irritates their eyes.
Cash, travellers’ cheques, credit cards, passports and other important documentation are best carried in a money belt that can be hidden beneath your clothing. This should be made of cotton or another natural fabric, and the contents could be wrapped in plastic to protect it against sweat. Other useful items include a torch, a penknife, a compact alarm clock and strong mosquito repellent.
The unit of currency is the Tanzanian shilling, divided into 100 cents. The exchange rate of around US$1 = Tsh 1,150 is reasonably stable, but like most African currencies the shilling has steadily devalued against hard currencies in recent years. Bills come in denominations of Tsh 10000, 5000, 1000, 500 and 200, and is often very difficult to find change for larger bills, so carry a spread of notes.
Most safari companies and tourist-class hotels quote rates in US dollars, and many will expect to be paid in hard currency. National park fees and port and airport taxes must be paid in hard currency, and are treated as foreign exchange transactions. Otherwise, restaurant or bar bills, goods bought at a market or shop, and most other casual purchases are best paid for in local currency – indeed, service providers geared towards the local economy seldom have the facility to accept foreign banknotes.
Foreign currency cash and travellers’ cheques can be changed into Tanzanian shillings at any bank or bureau de change (known locally as forex bureaux). Banking hours are 08.30-12.30 on weekdays, staying open until 15.00 in larger towns, and 08.30 to 11.30 on Saturdays. Most private forex bureaux stay open until 16.00 or later, but deal in cash only.
The legalisation of private forex bureaux has killed off the black market that previously thrived in Tanzania, and you can assume anybody offering to change money on the street is a con artist.
US dollar bills printed before 2002, particularly larger denominations such as US$100 and US$50, may be refused by banks and forex bureaux.
Credit cards are widely accepted in at tourist-oriented shops and similar facilities in Arusha, Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar, as well as most game lodges and upper range hotels. They can also be used to draw cash directly from an ATM in Dar es Salaam, Arusha and Mwanza. Away from these few major centres and upmarket tourist lodges, cards are of limited use and are best carried as a fallback than as a primary source of funds. Visa is the most widely accepted card by a long chalk, but MasterCard and American Express are also accepted at a limited number of outlets.
Wildlife photography will be very frustrating without a reasonably big lens, ideally 300mm or larger. Fixed fast lenses offer the best quality but are costly and cumbersome, so most people settle for a zoom, which allows you to play with composition without changing lenses. Tele-converters are a cheap and compact way to increase magnification, but incur a loss of quality.
A solid beanbag, which you can make yourself very cheaply, will help avoid blurred images when photographing wildlife from a vehicle. Another option is a clamp with a tripod head screwed on.
Plan ahead when it comes to charging digital camera batteries and storage devices. Most hotels/lodges have charging points, but it’s best to enquire in advance. When camping you might have to rely on charging from the car battery. Either way, make sure you have all the chargers, cables, and converters with you, as well as sufficient memory space to store your photos.
Tanzanians generally find it unacceptable to be photographed without permission, and many people will expect a donation before they agree to be snapped. Don’t try to sneak photographs as you might get yourself into trouble, especially with the Maasai, who are very touchy about this.
In addition to Good Friday, Easter Monday, Idd-ul-Fitr, Islamic New Year and the Prophet’s Birthday, which fall on different dates every year, the following public holidays are taken in Tanzania:
January 1 New Year’s Day
January 12 Zanzibar Revolution Day
February 5 CCM Day
April 26 Union Day (anniversary of the union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar
May 1 International Workers’ Day
July 7 Saba Saba (Peasants’) Day
August 8 Nane Nane (Farmers’) Day
October 14 Nyerere Memorial Day
December 9 Independence Day
December 25 Christmas Day
December 26 Boxing Day
Internet cafés are prolific in larger towns such as Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar, Arusha, Mwanza and Moshi, and browsing is faster and more affordable than in most African countries, though it may seem rather ponderous to Europeans used to ultra-fast broadband.
Internet access is not usually available in game reserves and national parks, and the few lodges that do offer browsing facilities or email services tend to charge very high rates. It will simplify matters greatly to warn people at home that you’ll be out of internet range whilst on safari.
International phone calls can be made at any TCC Extelcomms centre or upmarket hotel.
The satellite network for mobile phones is excellent in and around towns, but patchier in national parks and game reserves.
An alternative to paying the expensive international rates that apply to calls made from Tanzania on a non-Tanzanian mobile phone would be to buy a local SIM card and use the local pay-as-you-go service, which is very cheap for local and international calls and text messages.
Tanzanian numbers starting with 07 are mobile, while all other numbers are landlines. In both cases, the leading zero must be dropped and an international code of +255 added if you are dialling from outside of Tanzania (e.g. 0741 555555 becomes 00255 741 555555 dialled from the UK or other EU countries). Three zeros must be prefixed to any international number dialled from within Tanzania.
A good selection of accommodation, ranging from local budget guesthouses to world-class business and boutique hotels, is available in regularly visited urban centres such as Dar es Salaam, Arusha and Zanzibar, but hotels in less popular towns tend not to meet international standards.
Accommodation in the game reserves and national parks is almost uniformly excellent, and range from large and impersonal but well-run ‘hotels in the bush’ with up to 100 rooms, to exclusive tented camps that usually consist of 6-20 accommodation units.
Relatively affordable camping facilities are available in most parks and reserves.
Food & drink
On safari, all meals are usually taken at your lodge or camp, and standards range from adequate to excellent. Most lodges offer a daily set menu, so it’s advisable to specify in advance if you are vegetarian or have other specific dietary requirements.
Most lodges offer the option of a packed breakfast and/or lunch box, which are variable in standard but do allow you to eat on the trot rather than having to base game viewing hours around mealtimes. In larger towns such as Dar es Salaam, Mwanza, Morogoro, Arusha and Moshi, several bespoke restaurants offer high-quality international cuisine, with Indian eateries being particularly well represented.
Local staples include a stiff maize porridge called ugali or a cooked plantain dish called matoke or broke, both of which are typically served with bland stews made with chicken, beef, mutton or beans. Excellent seafood is available along the coast. The usual bottled soft drinks (known locally as sodas) are available. Around ten different lager beers are bottled locally, of which Castle, Kilimanjaro and Serengeti seem to be the most popular.
South African wines are widely available at lodges and hotels, and they are generally of a high standard and reasonably priced by international standards.
Popular items include Makonde carvings, Tingatinga paintings, batiks, musical instruments, wooden spoons, and various small soapstone and malachite carvings. The colourful vintage (the singular of this is kitenge) worn by most Tanzanian women can be picked up cheaply at any market in the country.
The curio shops near the clock tower in Arusha are the best place to shop for curios, offering decent quality at competitive prices, but a good selection is also available in Zanzibar and in many upmarket hotel shops. Prices in shops are fixed, but those offered at stalls are highly negotiable. Unless you are good at bargaining, you may well end up paying more at a stall than you would in a shop!
Formal greetings are taken seriously; even if you speak no Swahili it is polite to greet somebody with a smiling ‘Jambo’ or ‘Habari’ before you enter into conversation. It is considered poor taste for men and women to display open affection, for instance by holding hands in public, or kissing or embracing would be seriously offensive. Oddly, it is quite normal for friends of the same sex to walk around hand-in-hand.
In Islamic societies, it is considered offensive for a woman to expose her knees or shoulders, a custom that ought to be taken on board by female travellers, especially on parts of the coast where tourists remain a relative novelty. It is customary to tip your guide at the end of a safari and or a Kilimanjaro climb, as well as any cook or porter that accompanies you. A figure of roughly US$5-10 per day is accepted as the benchmark, though it is advisable to check this in advance with your safari company.
In restaurants, a tip of anything from 5-15% would be acceptable, depending on the circumstances.
Crime levels are relatively low, though it’s wise not to walk around an unfamiliar town after dark – taxis are readily available. The risk of casual theft is greatest in bus stations and markets, where you should avoid carrying loose valuables in your pocket or daypack
In any urban situation, try to avoid advertising your wealth in the form of a dangling camera, expensive jewellery, handbag, or externally worn money-belt.
The main concern is malaria. All visitors should take prophylactic drugs. It’s also strongly recommended to cover up in the evening, wear repellent, sleep under a net or burn a coil to reduce the risk of bites.
Tap water is suspect, but mineral water is widely available and reasonably priced
- Tanzania by Philip Briggs (Bradt Travel Guides, 5th edition 2006)
- Northern Tanzania: Bradt Safari Guide by Philip Briggs (Bradt Travel Guides, 2006)
- Kingdon’s Field Guide to African Mammals by Jonathon Kingdon (Christopher Helm, 2003)
- East African Wildlife by Philip Briggs (Bradt Travel Guides, scheduled for Sept 2007)
- The Safari Companion by Richard Estes (Green Books UK, Chelsea Green USA, 1992)
- Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Terry Stevenson & John Fanshawe (Christopher Helm, 2002)
- Birds of Africa South of the Sahara by Ian Sinclair and Peter Ryan (Struik Publishers, 2003)
- Field Guide to the Reptiles of East Africa by Stephen Spawls, Kim Howell, Robert Drewes & James Ashe (A&C Black, 2004).
- Amphibians of East Africa by Alan Channing & Kim Howell (Comstock Books, 2006)