Two Weeks in Tanzania: Southern Safari and Zanzibar

Begin in Tanzania’s great southern wildlife reserves, Selous and Ruaha. Climb aboard the Tazara Railway to Dar Es Salaam, stopping to wander the bustling markets and sample the fantastic cuisine in this cosmopolitan city. Then it’s a speedy ferry trip to Zanzibar, stopping at Stone Town. And onto the beautiful beaches of northern Zanzibar to swim amid the coral reefs!

The Selous Game Reserve is an unspoiled wilderness, the second largest game reserve in Africa, and home to the crocodile-infested Rufiji River whose tributaries and lagoons ensure excellent game viewing even during the dry season. Named after the English explorer and conservationist Sir Frederick Selous, the reserve was designated a World Heritage site in 1982, and only a small percentage of the northern extremes of the reserve are a designated tourist destination, the largest southern part being set aside for game hunting. Many visitors choose to fly into one of the Reserve’s airstrips, as the remote and limited roads can become impassable during the wet season. Perhaps the most exhilarating activity available in Selous is a walking safari, allowed only if accompanied by an armed ranger. Nothing quite beats the adrenaline-pumping freedom of walking amid the truly wild African bush. To quote the Victorian gentleman and epic hunter Sir Frederick Selous, “But anyone who hunts big game ought to be prepared to take some chances; and after all, if the element of danger were entirely eliminated, where would the fun come in?”
Kilawani, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
A great feat of engineering from the colonial era, the Tazara Railway leaves Dar Es Salaam and rattles its once-grand carriages through the vast uninhabited Selous Game Reserve, treating its passengers to spotting giraffe, antelope, elephants, and zebra. Crossing the Great Ruaha River, it winds its way through swamps and valleys before climbing into rugged mountains and crossing a remarkable bridge perched 164 feet above the Mpanga River Valley. This incredible journey ends in Kapiri-Moshi in Zambia, a staggering 1,860 kilometers later. The first-class carriages are comfortable, with pull-down beds and food served in the restaurant carriage. This is an experience that will fill you with nostalgia for years to come, and it’s absolutely not to be missed if you want to see some of the most remote areas of Tanzania.
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
In the heart of Dar es Salaam, the Mwenge Woodcarvers Market is filled with artisans hard at work creating beautiful and unique items. Wooden masks are particularly popular, but you’ll also find treasures in craft shops selling a whole range of goods from fabrics to sandals, beaded necklaces, and more. Unlike some tourist markets around the world, the sellers here tend not to hassle customers. They’ll encourage you to come into their store, but you won’t be pestered to buy anything. Don’t forget to bargain and shop around at the market, as prices are negotiable and you may find a similar item for half the price at another stall.
“Oh, look, it’s a spicy chicken innit?” Ali T exclaims in a rather ridiculous cockney accent as he points at a hen scurrying amongst the foliage. My son belly laughs excitedly, he has actually managed to make a spice tour exciting for a four year old, in the rain. When my husband first suggested a spice tour, I must admit I was not that enamored. But as we climbed out of the car into a foot of red soggy mud, Ali T firmly shook my hand and promptly handed me a very kitsch floral umbrella with a cheeky smile. As he took us through the plantation I was astounded by his knowledge. In between the cockney rhyming slang, toilet stops, me finding a tiny bushbaby on the floor and wanting to take it home, he managed to impart a fair amount of information, and through smelling and tasting we identified pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and turmeric, to name but a few. In fact, a whole spice rack. We were then invited into a makuti (thatched) hut to sample the extremely potent yet delicious spiced brews on sale. I bought a few packets to make a good Ruby Murray.
In search of Zanzibar’s best snorkeling, I learned of Chumbe Island Coral Park. Visitors to the protected coral reef are limited to those who stay on the small island. However, less expensive day trips can be arranged up to a few days in advance, provided the eco-lodges are not fully booked. Visitors are invited to follow a schedule, planned according to the tides, that includes snorkeling and a nature walk. In order to protect the reef, no SCUBA diving is allowed and snorkeling is only permitted during hours when the tide is sufficiently high.
R5QQ+QHJ, Zanzibar, Tanzania
Each evening as the sun sets, Stone Town’s Forodhani Gardens park transforms into an open-air food market. Skip the fish kebabs and head straight to the vendors selling urojo, a thick mango-and-tamarind soup served alongside chickpea fritters, boiled potatoes, cassava flakes, chutney, and as much hot sauce as you dare. Follow it up with hand-pressed sugarcane juice with ginger and lime.
Suicide Alley, Zanzibar, Tanzania
The crumbling architecture of Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the town’s carved doors are one of its most recognizable features. I spent a lot of time searching for the door of Swahili merchant Tippu Tip, a notorious 19th-century slave and ivory trader who grew fabulously wealthy from his exploits in the interior of Africa. He showcased his wealth by slapping Stone Town’s most elaborately carved door on the front of his mansion in the mysteriously named Suicide Alley. If you can find Suicide Alley (it’s unmarked, near the Shangani Post Office in Stown Town), keep your eyes on the ground: the alternating black-and-white tiles of Tippu Tip’s front stoop might be the first thing you see. The house is now inhabited by several families, so be respectful when taking pictures and exploring the area.
Sokoku St, Zanzibar, Tanzania
If you step off the ferry in Stone Town and don’t know anything about Zanzibar, the House of Wonders (or Beit al-Ajab, as it’s also known) has you covered. Just a few steps away from the ferry terminal, you’ll get a crash course in Swahili history. The House was built by Sultan Barghash bin Said in 1883 and now that he’s gone, it houses the Museum of History & Culture of Zanzibar & the Swahili Coast. The inner courtyard is the unlikely home to a huge Swahili sailing vessel and an old car that belonged Zanzibar’s first president (didn’t know Zanzibar had a president, other than the Tanzanian president? Yeah, neither did I. This is why you’re in the right place to learn about these things.) Despite the many cool - even, I daresay, wondrous - items in the museum, it was actually known as the House of Wonders because it was the first building in Zanzibar to boast electricity and the first building in East Africa to have an elevator. Now that those things have become commonplace and boring, you can do a scavenger hunt through the building to find other wonders. Search for David Livingstone’s medicine chest (let me just say - I do not think he ventured into central Africa adequately prepared), a Christmas-themed kanga, and a centuries-old charm that reportedly contains the nose of a dog. As if that weren’t enough, the gift shop is pretty well-stocked with interesting curios, too.
Tharia St, Zanzibar, Tanzania
My guide leads me underground into a dark, damp, stone-walled holding cell which, I am told, was reserved for women and children only. The atmosphere is oppressive and stifling and my mind wanders to imagine what these poor souls must have felt, in our not-so-distant past, as they were ushered, fearful, silent, and waiting to be auctioned. This is all that remains today of an original fifteen holding cells, a grim relic of the sordid East African slave trade. As I escape the chilling chamber where so many suffocated and starved, I surface outside and spot a memorial, erected in 1998, an unapologetic, sobering monument depicting four slaves wearing original neck collars and chains, their expressions beaten and devoid of hope at becoming nothing more than a commodity. I am told that the Anglican church was built, symbolically, on the site of the slave whipping post, where a slave’s value was determined by whether or not he cried out in pain. In my opinion, being accompanied by a quality official guide will really enrich your understanding of this incredible Zanzibari monument and bring it to life.
Iringa, Tanzania
The largest of Tanzania’s state-administrated national parks, Ruaha is home to the Great Ruaha River, imposing baobab trees, and one of the greatest populations of elephants in any African park. It has few lodges and therefore few tourists. It is also wilder than its close neighbor, the Selous Game Reserve, and boasts a truly authentic safari experience. Night driving is not permitted, nor are walking safaris, generally, due to the large number of elephants here. But hidden away on the Jongomero River in the remote southern area of the park is the Jongomero Camp, which is both fantastically luxurious as well as truly one with its surroundings. It is possibly the best camp in the whole of Tanzania, and its guides are second to none. In addition to the breathtaking campsite itself, it offers “fly-camping” trips on which the adventurous traveler can spend the night under the stars.
Kigamboni, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
When I initially heard about the ferry trip to Zanzibar, I was expecting this to be an old worn-out boat in dire need of repair, slowly shuffling out of the harbor, jam-packed with passengers jostling to find a seat. Instead, I boarded a brand spanking new boat, after a rather pleasant wait in the ferry terminal in the first-class area. The ferry even has a safety video, plush reclining seats, and a cafe. There are several “fast ferry” operators offering this service throughout the day, every day. The journey takes about 90 minutes and gives you a fantastic view of Zanzibar and Stone Town harbor, I would definitely recommend first class because your luggage is handled separately and this will avoid you having to join in the absolute mayhem at the baggage carousel.
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AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
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