Southern Circuit

The sheer vastness of southern Tanzania makes for some spectacular game viewing and superb African vistas. An additional benefit of a visit to the southern circuit is the remoteness of the location, which means that most visitors rarely see another car during their long game drives. Whereas wildlife and big game are the focus of the northern circuit, a trip to the parks of southern Tanzania allows visitors to learn in-depth knowledge about complex ecosystems and diverse living creatures that are usually skimmed over in more crowded areas. A visit to the southern circuit is a trip into an unexplored and wild Africa.

On the southern Swahili Coast, the little-visited old town Mikimazi is a good base for diving explorations and trips to the abandoned ruins of the ancient Swahili trading post. The old German boma in Mkomazi is also a historical site of interest.

Katavi National Park

Isolated, untrammelled and seldom visited, Katavi is a true wilderness, providing the few intrepid souls who make it there with a thrilling taste of Africa as it must have been a century ago.

Tanzania's third largest national park, it lies in the remote southwest of the country, within a truncated arm of the Rift Valley that terminates in the shallow, brooding expanse of Lake Rukwa.

The bulk of Katavi supports a hypnotically featureless cover of tangled brachystegia woodland, home to substantial but elusive populations of the localised eland, sable and roan antelopes. But the main focus for game viewing within the park is the Katuma River and associated floodplains such as the seasonal Lakes Katavi and Chada. During the rainy season, these lush, marshy lakes are a haven for myriad waterbirds, and they also support Tanzania's densest concentrations of hippo and crocodile.

It is during the dry season, when the floodwaters retreat, that Katavi truly comes into its own. The Katuma, reduced to a shallow, muddy trickle, forms the only source of drinking water for miles around, and the flanking floodplains support game concentrations that defy belief. An estimated 4,000 elephants might converge on the area, together with several herds of 1,000-plus buffalo, while an abundance of giraffe, zebra, impala and reedbuck provide easy pickings for the numerous lion prides and spotted hyena clans whose territories converge on the floodplains.

Katavi's most singular wildlife spectacle is provided by its hippos. Towards the end of the dry season, up to 200 individuals might flop together in any riverine pool of sufficient depth. And as more hippos gather in one place, so does male rivalry heat up - bloody territorial fights are an everyday occurrence, with the vanquished male forced to lurk hapless on the open plains until it gathers sufficient confidence to mount another challenge.

Mikumi National Park

Swirls of opaque mist hide the advancing dawn. The first shafts of sun colour the fluffy grass heads rippling across the plain in a russet halo. A herd of zebras, confident in their camouflage at this predatory hour, pose like ballerinas, heads aligned and stripes merging in flowing motion.

Mikumi National Park abuts the northern border of Africa's biggest game reserve - the Selous - and is transected by the surfaced road between Dar es Salaam and Iringa. It is thus the most accessible part of a 75,000 square kilometre (47,000 square mile) tract of wilderness that stretches east almost as far as the Indian Ocean.

The open horizons and abundant wildlife of the Mkata Floodplain, the popular centrepiece of Mikumi, draw frequent comparisons to the more famous Serengeti Plains.

Lions survey their grassy kingdom - and the zebra, wildebeest, impala and buffalo herds that migrate across it - from the flattened tops of termite mounds, or sometimes, during the rains, from perches high in the trees. Giraffes forage in the isolated acacia stands that fringe the Mkata River, islets of shade favoured also by Mikumi's elephants.

Criss-crossed by a good circuit of game-viewing roads, the Mkata Floodplain is perhaps the most reliable place in Tanzania for sightings of the powerful eland, the world's largest antelope. The equally impressive greater kudu and sable antelope haunt the miombo-covered foothills of the mountains that rise from the park's borders.

More than 400 bird species have been recorded, with such colourful common residents as the lilac-breasted roller, yellow-throated longclaw and bateleur eagle joined by a host of European migrants during the rainy season. Hippos are the star attraction of the pair of pools situated 5km north of the main entrance gate, supported by an ever-changing cast of waterbirds.

Ruaha National Park

The game viewing starts the moment the plane touches down. A giraffe races beside the airstrip, all legs and neck, yet oddly elegant in its awkwardness. A line of zebras parades across the runway in the giraffe's wake.

In the distance, beneath a bulbous baobab tree, a few representatives of Ruaha's 10,000 elephants - the largest population of any East African national park, form a protective huddle around their young.

Second only to Katavi in its aura of untrammelled wilderness, but far more accessible, Ruaha protects a vast tract of the rugged, semi-arid bush country that characterises central Tanzania. Its lifeblood is the Great Ruaha River, which courses along the eastern boundary in a flooded torrent during the height of the rains, but dwindling thereafter to a scattering of precious pools surrounded by a blinding sweep of sand and rock.

A fine network of game-viewing roads follows the Great Ruaha and its seasonal tributaries, where, during the dry season, impala, waterbuck and other antelopes risk their life for a sip of life-sustaining water. And the risk is considerable: not only from the prides of 20-plus lion that lord over the savannah, but also from the cheetahs that stalk the open grassland and the leopards that lurk in tangled riverine thickets. This impressive array of large predators is boosted by both striped and spotted hyena, as well as several conspicuous packs of the highly endangered African wild dog.

Ruaha's unusually high diversity of antelope is a function of its location, which is transitional to the acacia savannah of East Africa and the miombo woodland belt of Southern Africa. Grant's gazelle and lesser kudu occur here at the very south of their range, alongside the miombo-associated sable and roan antelope, and one of East Africa's largest populations of greater kudu, the park emblem, distinguished by the male's magnificent corkscrew horns.

A similar duality is noted in the checklist of 450 birds: the likes of crested barbet, an attractive yellow-and-black bird whose persistent trilling is a characteristic sound of the southern bush, occur in Ruaha alongside central Tanzanian endemics such as the yellow-collared lovebird and ashy starling.

Selous Game Reserve

The Selous is one of Afica's great game reserves. About 45 minutes by air from Zanzibar or Dar es Salaam it is the size of Switzerland and holds the continents largest elephant, buffalo, crocodile and hippo populations, as well as great numbers of lion, giraffe, bushbuck, eland, greater kudu, leopard and antelope. All the lodges in the Selous are situated on or near the Rufiji River in the north of the reserve. This river system and its network of associated lakes and waterways is unique in East Africa and forms a giant highway of sand and water gently 'S' bending its way through the bush. Safari activities in the Selous include games drives and motorized boat trips on the Rufiji river. The sandy banks of the Rufiji are also ideal for walking safaris and fly camping.