Frequently likened in brochures to the Garden of Eden, Ngorongoro is more often dismissed by visitors as being "like a zoo" — a somewhat bizarre charge to level at an unfenced sanctuary which animals can enter or leave at whim. What the dissenters presumably object to is the traffic density within the crater (serviced by four large lodges, all perched on the rim) and the wildlife's correspondingly high level of habitation. This habitation should really be seen as a bonus, allowing you to observe unselfconscious animal behaviour at unusually close range.
As for the "ten vehicles around the lion" syndrome, it can certainly become intrusive, but visit the crater at the crack of dawn and comparisons to the Garden of Eden don't seem unduly fanciful — at least until the post-breakfast masses descend.
No list of this sort would be complete without a Best-Kept Secret. And Katavi is precisely that. Tanzania's third-largest National Park - recently extended southward to cover 4500km2, it remains one of the few viable savannah reserves anywhere on the continent where you might literally drive around for days without encountering another tourist. No crowds, then, but is the wildlife any good? Well, during the rainy season, no, not unless ploughing through black cotton soil quagmires or being eaten alive by mosquitoes and tsetse flies features high on your list of fun activities.
After April, however, when the seasonal swamps subside to uncover wide grassy flood plains meandered by feeble but life-sustaining streams, Katavi can be little short of fantastic. Big Five devotees have much to look forward to: lion and elephant sightings match those in almost any African reserve; thousand-strong herds of buffalo amass on the plains, and leopard, though less certain, are quite frequent in the woodland (rhino, predictably, haven't been seen in years). An unexpected highlight is the pods of up to 200 hippo that jostle for wallowing space in practically any stretch of water deep enough to wet a knee in.
Tourist-class accommodation amounts to one seasonal tented lodge, set in a tall acacia stand alongside the flood plain — fabulously rustic, fabulously expensive and (assuming that you can afford it) worth every penny. Remote from any established safari circuit, the park is generally reached by charter flight and often combined with a visit to Mahale. Adventurous backpackers or self-drive overlanders could also think about visiting Katavi — it's accessible by public road and there's an affordable resthouse at the headquarters, from where game drives can be arranged.
Routinely damned with faint praise as a likeable but inessential appendage to a Serengeti-Ngorongoro safari, Lake Manyara is actually a park of considerable substance, with a setting extolled by Hemingway as "the loveliest I had seen in Africa".
Manyara is the archetypal "grower" — it's unlikely that any one game drive will compare with a few hours in the Serengeti, but protracted exposure leaves you with the feeling that here, more perhaps than in any other Tanzanian reserve, anything could lie around the next corner.
Healthy numbers of ungulates roam the woodland and flood plain; the park's vaunted tree-climbing lions are currently seen in arboreal activity with fair regularity, while the impressively tusked elephants, like the engaging Olive baboon and Syke's monkey troops that haunt the forest, are unusually habituated.
As for the birdlife — well, no quibbles with environmental writer Duncan Butchart's recommendation that "if a first-time birdwatcher to Africa [could] visit only a single reserve in Tanzania, then this must surely be it".
One small, luxurious tented lodge is sited within the park, complemented by several larger lodges on the escarpment and a glut of basic guesthouses in a nearby village. If you are restricted to one drive in Manyara (as many safaris are), note that the compact road circuit gets congested in the afternoon, but you'll practically have it to yourself in the morning.
In 1991 researchers based in the Udzungwa Mountains were served a locally prepared "chicken" stew in which they found floating a decidedly unusual bird's foot. The next day they were shown a specimen of the mysterious creature: a previously undescribed fowl, subsequently placed in its own genus, with fewer affinities to any African bird than to an Asian hill partridge — from which it's been geographically isolated for 20 million years.This story hints at the extraordinary degree of endemism that characterises Udzungwa — the largest of an archipelago of "montane islands" known collectively as the Eastern Arc and sometimes dubbed the African Galapagos. It also indicates the paucity of research that took place there until the 1990s. Swathed in forests that were isolated from similar habitats many millions of years ago, the Eastern Arc today is one of the world's key biodiversity hot spots, hosting thousands of unique species (most familiarly, the African violet).Udzungwa, the only Eastern Arc range accorded NP status, is no conventional safari destination, but — accessible, pedestrian friendly and serviced by a pair of moderately priced hotels — it's highly alluring to budget travellers and hiking enthusiasts with a broad interest in Africa's ecology. A trail network emanating from the park headquarters leads through lowland forest inhabited by endemic Red colobus and Mangabey taxa, as well as the bizarre Giant elephant shrew and numerous localised birds. The legendary Udzungwa partridge has yet to be observed near the park headquarters — it's more common along the remote western side of the range, accessible from the town of Iringa.
Landmarks include the superb cliff-top location of Tarangire Safari Lodge — even if you don't stay here, stop in for a drink to watch the animals and birds on the river below — and seasonal Lake Burungi, more often than not a flat, dry expanse of mirage-inducing sand.
Two lodges and a campsite lie within the park, and several lodges are situated outside its borders, mostly on private Maasai concessions. Here (unlike in the national park) night drives and game walks are permitted, the latter usually guided by traditionally attired and traditionally armed Maasai warriors. It's worth noting that game viewing in Tarangire is generally poor in the rainy season, when many roads become impassable.
Ask seasoned Tanzania safarigoers which is their favourite game reserve and odds are the answer will be Ruaha. The country's second-largest NP and core of a far more extensive block of lower status protected areas. Ruaha has a mood all its own - a rugged, remote, almost spiritual quality embodied by the bulbous silhouettes of ancient baobabs that haunt its semi-arid plains and rocky slopes.
Complementing this evocative wilderness atmosphere is some sterling and exceptionally varied game viewing. Ruaha is one of that select crop of reserves where visitors can reasonably expect to encounter all three of Africa's large cat species, with prides of 20-odd lion capable of reducing a large male buffalo to a skeleton in a couple of hours. One pack of African wild dog is regularly encountered on the main tourist circuit, while Spotted hyaena and Black-backed jackal are common.
Transitional to the southern miombo and northern savannah biomes, Ruaha harbours an impressive tally of antelope species: Grant's gazelle and Lesser kudu at the south of their ranges, and more significant numbers of sable, roan and (majestically horned) Greater kudu than occur anywhere further north. Impala, waterbuck, bushbuck, buffalo, zebra and giraffe are all likely to be encountered on most game drives, together with some of the 12,000 elephant resident within the greater Ruaha ecosystem.
There is perhaps a "catch it now" imperative to Ruaha. Two established lodges (one medium-sized, moderate-to-upmarket on the banks of the perennial Great Ruaha River, the other offering exclusive tented luxury alongside the seasonal Mwagusi) are reputedly soon to be joined by a clutch of upstarts, which will inevitably dilute the park's untrammelled character. Basic but affordable huts are available at the park headquarters.
The most publicised fact about the Selous is a red herring. Yes, it is the largest conservation area in Africa, a 45,000km2 tract of wilderness at the core of a thrice-larger ecosystem extending into Mozambique. But as an ordinary tourist you'd hardly know it: almost 90% of the Selous lies south of the Rufiji River and is comprised of exclusive hunting concessions, while the half-dozen upmarket tourist camps strung along the north bank are clustered within perhaps 2% of the reserve's total area.Let's ignore the hype and concentrate instead on the Selous's tangible assets. First and last, there is the Rufiji itself, one of Africa's truly mesmerising waterways: sandbanks lined with outsized crocs, palm-fringed banks massed with thirsty herds of elephant and buffalo, water teeming with grunting hippos — and a veritable showcase for Africa's rich aquatic avifauna.
Back on dry land, the low profile maintained by leopard and cheetah is compensated for by a good chance of running into wild dog (25% of the continent's free-ranging population is centred on the reserve). Diurnal lion kills are unusually commonplace too, especially towards the end of the dry season, when prides habitually congregate around the lakes waiting to nab any grazer unfortunate enough to pass within pouncing range.A key feature of the Selous is the range of activities offered by the camps. Motorboat trips offer a thrilling hippo's-eye perspective on the great river, while foot safaris, led by armed rangers, routinely involve close encounters of the pachydermal kind.
If that's not sufficiently exciting, ask to spend a night or two fly-camping next to one of the lakes, separated from the nocturnal wanderings of hippo and other large mammals by nothing but a sheet of canvas or netting.
There's one thing that no photograph of Kilimanjaro - the world's largest free-standing mountain ever reveals, which is that this most instantly recognisable of natural landmarks is normally so shrouded in cloud you could be seated on its footslopes and have no idea that a mountain of any description was within eyeshot. Scenically, then, Kilimanjaro at its most wilfully coy can be a complete non-event. But when the clouds do lift, typically in the late afternoon or early morning, it is difficult to imagine a more gaspingly inspirational sight than this distinctive snow-capped outline, towering a full 5000m above such obvious vantage points as Moshi, Amboseli or Arusha NPs.
Any opportunity to spend a night within view of Kilimanjaro is to be seized, but for the energetic, a more alluring prospect is actually standing on the Roof of Africa. No climbing expertise is required for the ascent to Uhuru Peak, in essence a long uphill walk,but nor should it be underestimated: the combination of steady climbing, sub-zero temperatures and giddying altitude is sufficient to test anybody's physical and mental resources. For many, a successful ascent of Africa's greatest mountain is the achievement of a lifetime. For those who turn back, the vegetation en route. lush montane forest, moorland studded with giant lobelias, the rocky and sparsely vegetated Afro-alpine zone, provides rich consolation.
The full range of accommodation (from plush hotels to basic local guesthouses) is available in Moshi and Marangu, the popular bases for ascents. Once on the mountain, basic huts and campsites are the sum of it. The five-day round climb is not cheap, and many travellers are tempted by freelance guides of debatable honesty and qualification, offering relative bargains. But it's asking for trouble to use an unproven operator to arrange the ascent of a mountain that still claims lives annually.
Eulogised by snorkellers, divers and game fishermen alike, the Mafia Archipelago, protected by extensive barrier reefs, harbours fauna as diverse as anything East Africa has to offer: 400 fish and five turtle species, along with 50 genera of coral. Ecologically compromised by years of human abuse, coral mining and dynamite fishing, for instance, the archipelago was in critical need of formal protection by 1995, when an 820km2 area, embracing the southern and eastern shores of Mafia Island and several isolated atolls, was gazetted as Tanzania's first marine park.
For those whose experience of African fauna is restricted to terrestrial habitats, it will take perhaps five minutes below the waters off Mafia to experience something akin to epiphany. Swirling around the base of mushroomed coral outcrops is a veritable piscine kaleidoscope of reef dwellers, their brilliant, luminous hues reflected in equally colourful common names: Clown fish, Butterfly fish, Rainbow fish, Lionfish et al. In deeper waters, such as the Dindini Wall, divers often come across larger species, groupers, sharks, tuna and rays, while the open sea verging the marine park is renowned for game fish such as marlin, barracuda and sailfish.
Mafia is one of several marine parks proclaimed off the East African coast in recent years and probably the most dazzling in terms of piscine variety, but any one of them will thrill first-time visitors. It's also the case that Mafia - accessible only by air and serviced by three superb upmarket lodges, is a daunting target for the budget conscious. Realistically, it's probably best to head for the marine park that fits best with your other travel plans (and budget) - excellent diving and snorkelling sites include the Watamu/Malindi area in Kenya and the reefs off western Zanzibar.
Mahale's slopes harbour a diverse forest fauna, including readily observed troops of Red colobus, Red-tailed and Blue monkey and a population of 800 chimpanzees, the subject of Japanese research for four decades. Walking in the midst of these intelligent, sociable creatures - humanity's closest genetic allies, is truly unforgettable and the chimp tracking at Mahale far surpasses that in any other African park (bar Gombe Stream), with the apes brushing past visitors as though they were just another natural obstacle. Furthermore, when the wonders of the forest pall, there is always the lake, great for a refreshing dip and home to an estimated 1000 colourful cichlid and other fish species.
Lake Tanganyika lies away from any beaten tourist trail and Mahale serviced by a pair of low-key luxury tented camps, as well as more affordable NP huts, retains a wonderfully isolated and tranquil mood. Charter fly-in packages can be arranged at a price, but Mahale is also accessible by motorboat and an inexpensive weekly ferry service from Kigoma port.
It's the soul-stirring sense of space that, for some, endures in the memory: the oceans of grassland, cropped and yellow in the dry season, tall and green after the rains, alluded to in the Maasai name Serengit ("endless plain"). For most, however, it's the staggering volume of game, in particular the annual migration of up to two million wildebeest, zebra, gazelle and other grazers. Hyped? Possibly. Over-hyped? Says who, exactly? This vast cross-border ecosystem, centred on Tanzania's Serengeti NP and Kenya's abutting Masai Mara Reserve, is Africa's premier game viewing destination - no ifs or buts about it.
Impressive on every conceivable level, the Serengeti-Mara is surely without equal for predators. Trademark blond-maned lions lounge nonchalantly in the shade, solitary cheetahs pace the open plains, hyaenas lope and sniff around their subterranean dens - even leopard are seen regularly in specific areas. Smaller plains residents include the dainty Bat-eared fox, all three African jackal species and half-a-dozen endemic birds, while punctuating kopjies (granite outcrops) are frequented by the colourful Agama lizard, scurrying Rock hyrax and dainty klipspringer.
A great many upmarket lodges - some say too many, operate on both sides of the border, ranging from impersonal "hotels in the bush" to intimate luxury tented camps. Somewhat obtusely, crossing directly between the Mara and the Serengeti is forbidden, so most visitors opt for one or other reserve or country.
For pure game viewing, the Mara possibly has the edge, but the Serengeti is more extensive, with remote corners such as Lobo and the Western Corridor still carrying remarkably little tourist traffic. If it's wildebeest you're after, December to March is when they calve in the southern Serengeti, moving northward through Lobo or the Western Corridor over May to July, then concentrating in the Mara from August to October.