Visiting the Zanzibar Archipelago

Tanzania Zanzibar

Aerial view of the coast, Zanzibar

An ancient crossroad of continents and trade routes, an Indian Ocean confluence of history, culture and waterborne activities, Zanzibar is a fascinating world unto itself.

History of Zanzibar

A thousand years ago, Zanzibar (also known as Unguja) was one of the world’s most important trading hubs, an entrepot for spices and silks and a meeting place for the traders of Africa, Arabia, Persia and India. In the 16th century, Portuguese explorers muscled their way in and brought European trading goods and military power into the mix.

A century later, with Portugal’s resources stretched across the globe, the Sultanate of Oman seized control of the archipelago and went on to stamp its influence upon Zanzibar until it became a British colony in 1890. Under both the Portuguese and the Omanis, Zanzibar was an important hub in the African slave trade. Zanzibar became independent in 1963, but joined a union with Tanganyika (as Tanzania was then called) a year later.

Tanzania Colobus endemic monkey in jozani forest lowres

Colobus monkey, Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park, Zanzibar

What to do in Zanzibar

There are two main focal points for visitors to the Zanzibar Archipelago: the main island of Zanzibar and Pemba. Ferries connect Zanzibar and Pemba with Dar-es-Salaam on the mainland, and Zanzibar with Pemba. There are also flights from the mainland to both Zanzibar and Pemba.

Zanzibar Town is the highlight of any visit to the archipelago. Stone Town, its core, is a mix of Africa-meets-the-Orient architecture, spice-laden winds, and a growing sensibility as one of Africa’s most stylish and innovative urban destinations.

Anchor your visit around the astonishing House of Wonders and Darajani Market. The House of Wonders is one of the most important landmarks in Zanzibar and was the first building in East Africa to have electricity and an elevator. It houses exhibitions on Swahili culture and Zanzibar’s history. While there, head to the next-door Palace Museum — built by Zanzibar’s past Omani rulers — to experience Arab architecture.

The dhow (traditional wooden sailboat) is synonymous with Indian Ocean trade and a dhow excursion to Menai Bay, a gorgeous marine reserve, is another highlight, while Jozani Forest is an off-the-beaten-track natural wonder.

For an insight into Zanzibar’s darker past, take a 30-minute boat ride to Prison Island. Here, in the 1800s, slaves were detained before being transported to the Middle East. After Zanzibar became a British protectorate in 1890, the island became a prison for criminals from the mainland before being used as a quarantine for those with infectious diseases. You can visit the ruins of the old prison and the rickety bridge into the sea on a day trip, but most people now visit for the colony of giant tortoises that live on the island.

Away to the north, Pemba is emerging as a quieter alternative to the main Zanzibar island and surroundings. While the main town sees a full complement of tourists, places like the isolated Kigomasha Peninsula is a jewel of the entire archipelago: expect pristine beaches, traditional villages largely untouched by modern tourism, and some of the best snorkelling and diving you’ll find anywhere in the waters of East Africa. Cultural tours can be arranged in Stone Town, but the adventurous can explore independently. Climb the 95 steps of the Ras Lighthouse on the northern tip for views out to sea and back over the peninsula.

Tanzania Kimimanjaro2

Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

Rising 5,896m above northern Tanzania, the snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro is Africa’s tallest mountain, the world’s highest-altitude volcano, and one of the most dramatic sights anywhere on the continent. The mountain is still crowned by snow and glaciers, although the latter has shrunk by nearly 90% in the last century. While some of the best views of the mountain are from Amboseli National Park across the border in Kenya, the mountain lies wholly within Tanzanian territory and can only be climbed from the Tanzanian side.

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is a serious undertaking, but it can be summited by anyone with a good level of fitness and no climbing expertise is required — this is a high-altitude trek, not a rock-climbing undertaking. It’s possible to climb throughout the year, although the best months are undoubtedly June to October and from December to February.

Overall costs for a five-day hike to the summit at Uhuru Peak start at US$1,500, but this can easily move closer to US$2,000 for longer treks. Costs usually include a guide, porters, food, cooking and camping equipment, as well as national park fees, camping fees and a compulsory fee in case you have to be rescued in an emergency. Wet-weather clothing and a good sleeping bag are essential parts of the Mount Kilimanjaro climbing kit — if you don’t have your own, you’ll need to rent from your trekking operator.

Although treks to the summit can be organised online and in advance, most operators are based in the northern Tanzanian town of Moshi and can arrange trips with a few days notice. If you have the time, spend a few days in Moshi discussing your trip in detail with operators before making a final decision.

Tanzania Mount Kilimanjaro hiking

A group trekking Mount Kilimanjaro

Trekking Kilimanjaro routes

There are seven routes up the mountain and it is strongly recommended that you add an extra day to most of the itineraries recommended by local companies. The extra day can be important in helping you acclimatise to the gains in altitude — the overwhelming number of hikers who experience difficulties when climbing do so due to altitude sickness, which can be life-threatening.

The two most popular routes are Marangu and Machame — these can be crowded in season, but the climb is more gradual, which helps many first-time climbers to find their mountain legs. More challenging is the Umbwe route (which is more direct but extremely steep) and the Shira Plateau route, which is difficult if you’ve never hiked above 3,000m before as it begins at 3600m.

Other possible routes include Rongai (on the mountain’s northern flank), Lemosho (an excellent all-round trek that begins on the mountain’s less-busy west side), and the Northern Circuit (a longer, ten-day hike).

Accommodation on all routes is in tents, except for the Marangu Route, where there are huts.

Tanzania View of Ngoro Ngoro crater

View of Ngorongoro Crater

Visiting Ngorongoro Crater

Nothing can prepare you for your first sighting of Ngorongoro — it’s a place like no other in Africa. From high on the rim of this crater formed from an extinct volcano high in northern Tanzania, the view is extraordinary — a lush carpet of green, forests, a salt lake with steam vapours rising like spectres from the crater floor, all encircled by the steep walls (some over 600m high) that have kept an isolated ecosystem preserved for millennia. This is Tanzania’s lost world, a place of remarkable wildlife and astonishing beauty.

The Ngorongoro Crater is a part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), an area governed by the local Masai community. The NCA encompasses extinct volcanoes, the Gol Mountains along the eastern flank of the Serengeti National Park, and an extensive plateau of high-altitude grasslands. Most visitors explore Ngorongoro on their way to and from the Serengeti. All the accommodation is high on the Crater Rim, and visits down into the Crater can only occur during daylight hours. Even the Masai are not allowed to stay overnight down in the Crater, although they graze their cattle there during the day.

There are two main entrance/exit gates into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area — Lodare Gate (which lies along the main paved road to the Crater from Arusha) in the east, and Naabi Hill (which is also a major entrance to Serengeti National Park) in the west. There are other smaller entrances along the rough dirt tracks that connect the NCA with Lake Natron and Ndutu.

The cost of entering the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is US$50/10 per adult/child per day — this fee must be paid even if you’re continuing on to the Serengeti and not venturing down into the Crater itself. There is also a US$200 ‘crater services fee’ for every vehicle that spends the day down in the crater. Official guides (US$20) are also compulsory for visiting the Crater.

Once down in the Crater, a wonderful world of wildlife awaits. There’s a world-famous population of lions with around 50 spread across three or four prides. You can also see more than 200 elephants, especially in the Lerai Forest, and close to 600 spotted hyenas, as well as wildebeest, buffalo, zebra, golden and black-backed jackals, hippos around Ngoitoktok Springs, and flamingos in Lake Magadi.

Perhaps the greatest prize, however, is a lost population of approximately 30 critically endangered black rhinos.

Tanzania Baobab tree in Tarangire National Park lowres

Baobab tree, Tarangire National Park

Alternatives to the Serengeti for wildlife

Tarangire National Park

One of Tanzania’s best safari parks, Tarangire is best known for its forests of baobab trees and large elephant population. It also has large populations of big cats, some dramatic scenery and a handful of excellent places to stay both inside and beyond the boundaries of the park. Tarangire is usually visited as part of the country’s northern safari circuit that includes the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, and is a three-hour drive from Arusha.

Lake Manyara National Park

This narrow, deeply forested strip of protected land sits in the shadow of a dramatic wall in the Great Rift escarpment. The lake is a haven for waterbirds, and the park is famous for its population of tree-climbing lions, as well as one of Tanzania’s most-studied elephant populations. In addition to wildlife drives, walking safaris are possible, and there’s a treetop walkway that takes you up into the forest canopy.

Selous Game Reserve & Ruaha National Park

The Selous is a near-mythical safari destination, best known for having Africa’s largest lion population, large elephant herds and the possibility of river safaris. Also in the south, Ruaha is a vast tract of arid wilderness home to big cats and other wildlife, while nearby villages, home to the Barabaig traditional people, can also be visited.

Lake Natron & Ol Doinyo Lengai

In a remote corner of far-northern Tanzania, Lake Natron is a Rift Valley lake famous for its flamingo populations. And watching over the lake from the north is Ol Doinyo Lengai, a perfectly formed volcanic cone and one of the most picturesque sites in the barren Crater Highlands. Getting to each can be an adventure in itself, and you’ll need a 4WD and your own guide, but the rewards are immersion in wild and beautiful country.

Udzungwa Mountains National Park

South east of the capital Dar-es-Salaam, the Udzungwa Mountains rank among East Africa’s most underrated hiking destinations. Rich in primates (ten species), birds and all manner of unusual plant species, the park has waterfalls, accessible mountain peaks and a palpable sense of having a lush, yet rugged corner of Africa all to yourself.

Gombe National Park & Mahale Mountains National Park

In Tanzania’s far west, Gombe is the world’s premier place to see chimpanzees. It is here that legendary conservationist Jane Goodall has conducted one of the longest-running wildlife research projects on earth, and the habituated chimps here and in nearby Mahale Mountains National Park can be tracked through the forest, one of the great experiences in nature.

And for culture…


This lively Tanzanian city is the gateway to the country’s north — many Tanzanian safaris begin here. It even has a small national park close to the city. But it is the cultural programmes on offer here that provide visitors with a unique window onto the lives of the region’s people. All cultural visits can be arranged through the tourist office in Arusha and usually include a guided local hike, village tours, visits to local community projects and sometimes a meal cooked by — and eaten with — local villagers. Participating local communities include the Masai, Wa-arusha and Meru people.

Tanzania near Arusha

Small community near Arusha

What to do after a Tanzania safari

Anthony Ham

Anthony has been travelling around Africa for more than a decade. He has returned many times, seeking out stories about the people and wildlife of west and north Africa.

In recent years he has broadened his horizons into more traditional wildlife haunts, exploring Kenya, Botswana and South Africa. You can see his work in Lonely Planet and Africa Geographic.

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