The famous Northern Circuit of wildlife reserves in Tanzania includes the Arusha, Lake Manyara, Tarangire and Serengeti national parks, plus the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The only one that I had never visited was Tarangire, so on this trip I decided to correct the omission. After an hourlong flight by light aircraft from Nairobi, we landed at Kilimanjaro International Airport, which is roughly equidistant from the two sizable cities of Arusha and Moshi. As our Cessna Caravan taxied from the runway — which is long enough to take the largest intercontinental jets — there were no other aircraft to be seen. Due to the pandemic, the acres of asphalt were deserted. We headed to the cavernous arrivals hall, where the seven passengers from the Nairobi flight were outnumbered by immigration and customs officials. Our visas, passports and negative COVID-19 tests were swiftly checked, and in less than half an hour, we were heading west on the 33-mile drive to Arusha.
Nowadays a sprawling city of around 420,000 inhabitants, Arusha would be a place of little interest to international travelers were it not for the fact that it is the jumping-off point for all the parks and reserves of the Northern Circuit and hence is, somewhat implausibly, the self-styled “safari capital of the world.” Driving into town, its teeming streets looked like good places to avoid under the present circumstances. No one was wearing a mask, and the concept of social distancing was clearly not well understood. As ever, Arusha’s redeeming feature was the imposing green cone of 14,968-foot Mount Meru, a dormant volcano and the fifth-highest mountain in Africa, which looms over the city.
Pulling off the main highway onto an obscure side road, we were shortly confronted by a large metal gate and a tall security fence. Once admitted, we headed up a smooth driveway to the principal building of Legendary Lodge, a handsome colonial-style mansion surrounded by manicured lawns and gardens, which was constructed in the early 1900s as the centerpiece of a coffee estate. Virtually everything about the lodge came as an unexpected and pleasant surprise. I had opted to overnight there prior to a flight down to Tarangire the following morning, but within minutes I was regretting not having booked a longer stay.
On arrival, the manager and his staff were extraordinarily polite and solicitous, ushering us through an atmospheric bar with a polished wooden counter into an elegant, traditionally furnished living room. Formalities complete, we were taken to one of the 12 nearby freestanding cottages. Tiny dik-dik antelopes scampered across the grass between the jacaranda trees. Our accommodations comprised a tranquil and dignified lounge with leather sofas and a large log-burning fireplace; a sizable bedroom with polished wooden floors, a white rag rug and a king-size bed swathed in mosquito netting; a dressing area; and a well-appointed, well-lit bath with both an effective walk-in shower and a claw-foot tub. Sitting outside on our terrace, all I could hear was birdsong. The city of Arusha might as well have been 100 miles away. Legendary Lodge, I decided, was a place where, on a future occasion, I would spend several days, reading, swimming or indulging myself in the spa. Later, my favorable impression was augmented by an excellent dinner served outside on the veranda of the main house.
The lovely old colonial mansion; our exceptionally comfortable cottage; the tranquility of the manicured gardens; the excellent food; the charming and hospitable staff.
The lodge is very close to downtown Arusha; fortunately, security seems to be taken seriously.
This may be a place primarily for overnights en route to somewhere else, but the atmosphere is so relaxing, the property is well worth a longer stay.
Arusha’s small domestic airport is located a 15-minute drive from the lodge. The 65-mile flight south to Tarangire National Park took just 20 minutes, and we had the 12-seat plane to ourselves. We were picked up at the dirt strip by Mike, a Maasai driver-guide from Little Chem Chem camp, who suggested that we spend the morning on an extended game drive.
Tarangire is a large reserve, and its 1,100 square miles are an intriguing mixture of swamps, acacia woodland and savanna dotted with enigmatic conical hills and crisscrossed by long granite ridges. Its name derives from the perennial Tarangire River, which meanders through the park into Lake Burunge. As the flow is year-round, the reserve has a large permanent wildlife population. This increases significantly in the June-to-October dry season, when Tarangire becomes a refuge for animals from more-arid surrounding regions. In January and February, wildebeests and zebras from the Great Migration can push this far south, but by the time we arrived, in late March, they had gone.
Although the park contains several camps and lodges, Tarangire sees many fewer visitors, even in normal times, than more-famous game areas to the north, like the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater. But due to the pandemic, we seemed to have the place to ourselves. Driving along dirt roads that had clearly not seen another vehicle for days, we followed the river, a muddy, crocodile-infested flow interspersed with rapids. It had a powerfully immemorial appearance. For me, some African rivers, flowing through wild untouched landscapes seem to create a connection to the ancient past, a time when the human species was in its infancy. Dozens of giraffe browsed the acacias near its banks, while sizable herds of buffaloes grazed the lush riverine grass.
Tarangire National Park is particularly famous for the density of its elephant population, with herds up to 600 strong. Unlike other areas of Tanzania, notably the Selous Game Reserve, where the elephant population has been decimated by ivory poaching and the survivors are terrified of humans and extremely aggressive, the Tarangire elephant clearly have not been harassed or hunted. As a result, they are astonishingly calm, and even mothers with young calves seem completely relaxed. We pulled up close to one group, turned off the engine and sat quietly to watch. After a while, the elephant had come to within 20 or 30 feet and, completely unconcerned, continued snatching up trunkfuls of grass.
Eventually, Mike decided that it was time for a late lunch, so we drove to the northwest of the park and entered the contiguous 62-square-mile private concession that has been leased to Little Chem Chem camp. The property’s six large tented suites, as well as the lounge and dining areas, survey an expanse of an open savanna that extends to the shore of Lake Burunge. When we arrived, this was occupied by a dozen or so impala, a family of wart hogs and five waterbuck, all of which were staying well away from any areas of longer grass. The local lion pride was in the vicinity, the manager explained, and even in the daytime it paid them to be careful.
Our spacious safari tent came with a king-size bed, rush matting, a large lime-green armchair, freestanding fans and campaign-style furniture, including a writing desk. One side of the tent opened into a dressing area with generous hanging and storage space and a bath with twin sinks set into a huge slab of varnished tree trunk and a walk-in shower. The water pressure was strong, the lighting was good, and as well as robes and abundant towels, a selection of Molton Brown toiletries had been provided. Through a screen we discovered an outdoor shower that was enclosed by a stone wall that was tall enough to provide a sense of security but low enough to allow its occupant to observe the antelopes grazing nearby. Overall, our accommodations seemed to provide an ideal combination of sophistication and rusticity. They possessed a genuine safari atmosphere but came with both a good cellphone connection and effective Wi-Fi. As there are just six tents, Little Chem Chem would be ideal for an extended family group.
In previous careers, the owners of Little Chem Chem, Fabia Bausch and Nicolas Negre, were a Swiss banker and French safari guide, respectively, and their nationalities seem to inform the outstanding cuisine at the camp. (The couple also own the eight-tent Chem Chem Lodge, a 50-minute drive away on the southern shores of Lake Manyara.) On my first evening, for example, I enjoyed a twice-baked cheese soufflé with tomato chutney, roasted onion and a baby leaf salad, followed by flank of lamb, with fondant potatoes, baba ghanoush and crushed peas with mint, and a cardamom-infused bavarois, with berries, burnt orange and whipped dark chocolate. Eaten outside under a star-flooded sky, listening to the lions roaring nearby, it was a meal I will not soon forget.
Aside from game drives (including night drives), activities at Little Chem Chem include animal tracking, Maasai cultural visits and hot-air ballooning, as well as excursions to see the vast flocks of pink flamingos on Lake Manyara. And each evening, guests enjoy fireside sundowners on a beach at the edge of Lake Burunge.
Although Tarangire is perhaps the least known of the parks on Tanzania’s Northern Circuit, it is an exceptional wildlife area. And Little Chem Chem, secluded within its private concession, is a friendly, well-run and aesthetically pleasing place in which to stay. A convenient charter flight on Grumeti Air would enable the camp to be combined with a contrasting sojourn at Singita Saskawa Lodge, a property long favored by Andrew Harper members, in Grumeti Game Reserve at the edge of the western Serengeti.
The stylish and comfortable tented suites; the delicious cuisine; the privacy of the 60-square-mile private concession; being able to watch wildlife from the daybed in front of our tent.
Biting tsetse flies can be an irritation, so a thick long-sleeved safari shirt is a useful purchase.
Nearby Chem Chem Lodge, where there is a spa and pool, can be visited by arrangement.