Tanzania without the crowds
Kilwa Kisiwani was once the seat of sultans and the centre of a vast trading network. (Ariadne Van Zandbergen/LPI)
As the home of the Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater and a string of other world-famous wildlife sanctuaries, Tanzania is well-established as one of Africa's premier safari destinations. But the country is more than a series of wildlife trails.
Hike through flower-clad valleys in remote Kitulo National Park; explore the magnificent ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani; snorkel in the fish-filled waters of the Mafia Archipelago; spot water birds in lovely Rubondo Island National Park; and discover Swahili culture in the old trading outpost of Pangani. Tanzania’s off the beaten track sights are every bit as alluring as the country's famous safari circuits.
Kitulo National Park
Tucked away in Tanzania's southwestern corner is this gem of a park, full of flower-clad meadows and secluded valleys. It is especially famed for the more than 40 species of orchids that carpet its grassy expanses, together with irises, aloes, geraniums and many more. The December to April rainy season, when the park explodes in a profusion of colour, is the best time to visit. But even during the dry months of June through September, wildflowers dot the meadows and shades of blue and violet blanket hills that roll into the horizon. The closest major town to Kitulo is Mbeya, about 90km to the west, where you can organise transport up to the 2,600m Kitulo Plateau and the park entry gate. Once inside the park, the best way to explore is on foot. Bring your own food, camping equipment and supplies, as well as a compass or GPS.
The small island of Kilwa Kisiwani, located about 300km south of Dar es Salaam, was once the seat of sultans and the centre of a vast trading network that linked the old Shona kingdoms and gold fields of Zimbabwe with Persia, India and China. Sail on a dhow from the mainland to the Unesco World Heritage Site, and explore the well-preserved ruins of one of the most significant groups of Swahili buildings on the East African coast. The buildings date from the 12th to the 19th Centuries, and some have been beautifully rehabilitated. The 15th-century Great Mosque, once the largest mosque in the region, has still-intact columns and graceful vaulted roofing. Nearby is a well-preserved smaller mosque, also dating to the early 15th Century. There is no accommodation on Kilwa Kisiwani, however the mainland gateway town of Kilwa Masoko has several modest hotels, an airstrip with regular flights to Dar es Salaam and nearby Mafia Island, and daily buses to Dar es Salaam.
Quiet and often-overlooked, the Mafia Archipelago is an ideal destination for relaxing and getting acquainted with the Swahili coast. Stroll along sandy lanes through coconut palms on the main island of Mafia. Explore tiny Chole Island, with its atmospheric 19th-century ruins and the wonderful Chole Mjini Eco-Lodge. Take a dhow across to Jibondo – an island famed for its boat builders -- or to lush Juani, with ruins, water birds and green turtle nesting sites. Or sail out for a morning of snorkelling around Mange, a pristine sandbank populated only by sand crabs and water birds and surrounded by clear, aqua waters. Mafia is reached by a 20-minute flight from Dar es Salaam or Kilwa. The main island has a small but fine collection of upmarket lodges in the town of Utende on its southeastern side, overlooking Chole Bay. From Utende, it is just a few minutes sail across the channel to Chole and Juani Islands, and about half an hour further to Jibondo. All the hotels in the archipelago offer dhow trips between the islands.
Rubondo Island National Park
Fish eagles circle overhead. Herons and storks wade in the shallows. Sitatungas hide among the reeds and small waves lap gently on the sand. Rubondo Island, nestled in the southwestern corner of Lake Victoria, is one of Tanzania's least-visited national parks and also one of its most tranquil. Spend days bird watching, walking and hippo- and croc-spotting. At night, listen as a symphony of insects, bats and other night creatures fills the star-studded darkness. Rubondo can be reached by boat and vehicle within half a day from either of the cities of Bukoba or Mwanza, or by short charter flight from Mwanza. There is one lodge on the island, Rubondo Island Camp, as well as park-run cottages.