With its Indian Ocean islands, abundance of animals, lush mountains and welcoming people, Tanzania is on almost everyone’s Africa bucket list. If you have the opportunity to travel here, take it and relish the chance to experience a way of life that is still closely intertwined with age-old rhythms and the cycles of nature.
After living in and traveling around Tanzania for more than 20 years, the top tips I have for visitors are: learn some Swahili, spend time with the wildlife and tuck in your mosquito net. Then, there are other things, like figuring out how to get the best seats on a bus and knowing which months to trek or go on safari. Keep reading for more on these and other tips to maximize your enjoyment and ensure smooth travels.
1. Don’t cut your trip too short
Experiencing Tanzania’s wildlife parks – even just one or two – takes time. And then there’s beach- and island-hopping along the coast, hiking in the highlands, trekking on Kilimanjaro, visiting village markets and so much more. A week is barely enough for a quick introduction, but your visit will be more rewarding with at least two weeks and ideally three or more.
2. Wildebeest have their own clocks
Seeing wildlife is a sure thing. But logistics can get trickier if you’re hoping to experience a specific event, such as the peak of the wildebeest migration. Camps along the migration route generally get booked up well in advance, and the wildebeest move to nature’s rhythms and their own internal clocks. To catch the excitement, start planning early. Check with the camps for recommendations, as their guides will be tracking the rains and the movement of the animals. If the wildebeest don’t cooperate, take things in Tanzanian stride: hakuna matata (“no problem”) – there’s so much other wildlife to see.
3. Tailor your travels
Tanzania is a year-round destination, but it’s worth considering the seasons. Check LP’s Tanzania guidebook for details, but in general: travel in the dry months from June to September for wildlife-watching, hiking and Kilimanjaro treks. Visit in the wet months (February to May) for birding, lower prices and fewer crowds. Also remember, while the rainiest months from March to May can get really rainy, there’s still plenty of sunshine.
4. Set aside money for tips
Safaris and treks can be costly, but the fees you pay shouldn’t be considered as full compensation for the drivers, guides, cooks, and porters who will be the ones helping to make your trip memorable. Tipping is a standard part of the experience, and a generous tip for a job well done will be greatly appreciated by those who depend on this income for their livelihood. Your safari or trekking company will be able to provide guidelines.
5. Carry a credit card for parks and ATMs, and cash for everywhere else
Credit cards (Visa or MasterCard) are required for paying national park fees and can be used in major tourist establishments. Elsewhere, you’ll need cash. Change is rarely available, so carrying some smaller denominations will come in handy.
6. Tanzanian time
It’s not just the wildebeest who have their own clocks. Tanzania does, too. When checking things like opening hours and transport schedules, confirm whether the listings are in Western time, or according to the Tanzanian clock. This is a 12-hour system that works in accordance with sunrise and sunset. It starts at 1 o’clock just after dawn (7am), moves towards 12 o’clock in the evening (6pm) and then repeats during the night.
7. A safari is about so much more than just spotting the “Big 5”
Take time, plenty of it, in wildlife and birding areas. To begin, plan for at least several nights in a single park to get a sense of the subtler rhythms of the bush and the wealth and diversity of the local wildlife. Sometimes you may have to ask your guide to turn off the motor and just sit, waiting to experience whatever may come by.
8. Take time for greetings
Tanzanians have a wonderful sense of community, and greetings are an essential part of any conversation. Styles range from streetside-casual (Mambo vipi? “How are things?”) to more formal (Habari za asubuhi, Habari za leo, “Good morning, good day”). Whatever the form, they are never omitted and never rushed. Conversations with an older person should always start with the respectful Shikamoo (literally, “I clasp your feet”). If you forget, some older Tanzanians might even remind you by first saying marahaba (the standard reply). Handshakes also aren’t rushed – Tanzanians will often continue to hold hands throughout their conversation.
9. Learn some Swahili
You’ll probably do this anyway without even trying, as everywhere you go you’ll hear karibu (“welcome”), pole pole (“slowly”) and asante (“thank you”). Beyond this, Swahili is such an inclusive, melodic language and attempts to learn it are greatly appreciated. Making the effort to master even just a few simple phrases will go a long way in facilitating cultural interactions and easing your travels.
10. The right hand
In Tanzania, the left hand is traditionally reserved for sanitary purposes. Always use your right hand for eating and for passing things. Receive gifts with both hands, or with the right hand, while touching your left hand to your right elbow.
11. Know the dining routine
Getting invited into a local home is a highlight. Before the meal, someone will come around with a basin, soap, pitcher of water and a towel for hand washing. Food is generally served in communal dishes, and will always include ugali (a thick meal made of maize or cassava flour) or another staple and sauce. Using your right hand, break off a bit of ugali, roll it into a ball, and scoop up some sauce. Don’t worry about getting sticky – the hand washing routine is repeated after the meal. Leaving a bite or two on your plate at the end lets your host know you’re not still hungry.
12. Dress respectfully, especially on the coast
Tanzania is a conservative society, especially along the Muslim Swahili coast. As a general guideline, everyone will be more comfortable with looser-fitting clothes that cover the shoulders and knees. Similarly, try to avoid public displays of affection.
13. Be savvy at bus stations
Don’t accept open drinks, and keep your wits about you. Touts may approach you, but it helps to know in advance which bus company you’re taking (get advice on this from your hotel), and only purchase tickets at a clearly marked bus office or directly from the driver.
14. Find the shady side of the bus
For long journeys, sitting away from the sun makes things more comfortable, as does getting the right seat; front seats on the shadier side are the best. “Luxury” buses are well worth the extra few dollars. Most have rows with just two seats on each side, plus a no-standing rule. On rural routes you may not have this option: many buses are configured with two seats on one side, three on the other and a jump seat in the middle, so the more comfortable places are by the front windows, away from all the jostling. Since everyone else will be angling for these seats, too, book in advance or arrive early at the station.
15. Tuck in your mosquito net
Malaria is present in much of Tanzania and most hotels have either mosquito nets or air-con (mosquitos don’t like cold). It’s well worth using the nets, especially in the rainy season and in coastal areas; take the time to fully tuck in the edges so you can have a buzz-free, bite-free night.