Those that head to Tanzania usually have in mind one thing above all others: the Serengeti and The Great Wildebeest Migration. Indeed, that's not an attraction to overlook and the migration is such a special natural phenomenon to witness that it has inspired countless books, films and cartoons.
There is a reason it has made Tanzania famous and a one-of-a-kind in Africa, and the world, for animal observation. If you're only coming to Tanzania once in a lifetime, you should definitely plan on seeing the Serengeti, or any other major wildlife reserves with ample safari and game driving opportunities where you can follow the migration patterns depending on the time of year.
Then there are other UNESCO-listed marvels like Ngorongoro Conservation Area, attractions like Lake Victoria, meeting a Maasai tribe and basking in the idyllic beach-perfect beauty of Zanzibar.
But what is there to do beyond the typical circuit of Arusha to Tarangire, Ngorongoro and Serengeti before heading back to Arusha again?
Of course there is also the very attractive option of ending it all with a couple of days relaxing on a Zanzibar beach, but if you're a true explorer at heart that wants to dig beneath the surface and head into the unknown or at least, in this case, the relatively less known Tanzanian wonders, there are few pit stops along the way if you can afford to make them.
Or, if you've already been to Tanzania before and done all the safari game-viewing and on your second or third visit seek a deeper, more personal experience off the beaten path, this guide will give you some inspiration on where to go.
First things first - getting acclimatised
Before you immerse in a rogue adventure and try to fly solo in the wilderness of Tanzania, you should read up on the country and the places you plan to visit as much as possible and well in advance of your trip. Don't wait to get there and make it up as you go along, as a matter of fact, in order to have the freedom for the spontaneity of suddenly changing plans you should know where you are and how moving about works here. Investing in a good map is of the essence, and familiarising yourself with it a must before you endeavour this kind of adventure. Especially if you want to go it alone. Alternatively, you can do your research and find out which local agencies and tour companies take you to certain less trodden areas if you want the ease and peace of mind of an expert escorting you there.
Straying off the beaten path on your own, if that's what you want, can be infinitely rewarding if that's your kind of thing and what you seek to get out of the experience. But it can also be tough and hard work all the way, especially if you come with no other travel partner - it's much better to come accompanied and I would strongly recommend it. It helps to first spend some time with the people, get familiar with the culture before you do that, building your own itinerary as you go along
Also, diverting from the beaten path doesn't necessarily mean you have to rough it up backpacker style, you can if you want but, as I said earlier, you can contact local tour companies to help get you to the most untrodden, hard to reach places faster and easier, and you can sleep in comfort at modern lodges. How rough the experience or how exotic with added comforts and conveniences is up to you.
Top off-the-beaten-path attractions to explore in Tanzania
Located at a mid-way point the Serengeti and Arusha, this beautiful salt and soda lake is a Ramsar Wetland and a place worthy of a stop. If you start your Tanzanian journey in Arusha, as most travellers do, you'll find this visually stunning lake at the north of the city, touching the border with Kenya, in close proximity to the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which means it's an ideal stop either before or after you've explored the riches of either of the two reserves.
Covering an area of some 56 km, the landscape (and seascape) of this singular lake varies from season to season, with water levels diminishing considerably due to evaporation in the driest, hottest months. This wetland is of great international and biodiversity significance, despite the fact that the water's high temperatures (reaching up to 60 degree Celsius) and high salinity makes it inhospitable to fauna. Yet, this is the only regular breeding area for the 2.5 million population of lesser flamingoes in East Africa, making the lake key to their survival.
But Lake Natron's most peculiar and compelling feature is perhaps the stretch of soil that intactly preserves ancient human footprints - over 400 of them! The tracks cover an area about the size of a tennis cross, crisscrossing the southern shore of the lake's dark grey mudflats. No other place in Africa has as many primitive footprints, which in this case belong to Homo sapiens from between 5,000 and 19,000 years ago.
But a visit here isn't just special because of the fascinating human footprints left behind (so clear you can easily distinguish which ones belong to children and who appeared to have a big broken toe), what makes a stop here all the most endearing is the lovely people you will encounter with the locals being famously warm and friendly. You can spend the night at Lake Natron Tented Camp and devote more time to interacting with these wonderful people. A gem of a place that isn't too touristy (yet!). Raw, real and beautiful.
Rock Art between Kondoa and Babati
The small town of Babati is found at the end of the Tarangire National Park, so another great deviation after you've enjoyed one of the more famous Tanzanian parks. This charming community at the base of Lake Babati and nestled under Mount Kwaraa doesn't have any particular attraction of its own were it not for the amazing rock art sites found on the relatively hard to find village of Kolo, in the Arusha-Dodoma road that stretches between Babati and Kondoa.
The prehistoric rock art in this part of Tanzania is the most ancient and aesthetically varied anywhere in Africa, and the more prolific in equatorial Africa too. Little wonder then that UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 2006, yet few people hear or know about it when planning a trip to Tanzania.
The art spreads over an area of over 2,000 square kilometres but the most famous murals are concentrated between Kolo and Kondoa. The paintings themselves are amazing, done by seriously good artists from a long-gone era and found mainly within small caves and arch-like granite outcrops that helped preserve their state. The art is between 200 and 4,000 years old but the story behind him remains shrouded in mystery and debated by locals and historians alike. A really refreshing stop, very different from most other attractions in Tanzania.
This is a stop for hikers, so if trekking, climbing and generally wondering amidst lush scenery for days, is your thing, you will love Lushoto. However, this is also a place for those interested in local culture and experiencing real rural life away from tourist spots. Here you can get to meet the Wasambaa people, also called Usambara, and get to the heart of a very strong, deeply-rooted culture, where Kisambaa is the predominant language of choice for most residents and where you can really get lost in the purest nature.
Nestled in a fertile valley that spans some 1,200 metres and encircled by fragrant eucalyptus and pine trees, this leafy highland is a green paradise on earth and a fantastic base for hikers keen to explore the surrounding hills. It feels unadulterated and authentic and there are other activities for visitors to do beyond hiking hills, from cultural visits to the Irente and Usambara farms to exploring the Magamba rainforests.
Whatever money you spend here, either on local guides or activities, it will help fund development projects in the area like primary schools, reforestation efforts and well-drilling in remote areas. Upon leaving this place you're likely to feel like you've made a really positive contribution that has been mutually beneficial and enriching for both parties. Charming Lushoto truly is a breath of fresh air.
Moshi as a stepping stone to wild discoveries
Widely regarded as a base for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (another great adventure on its own but which would require anywhere from 5 to 10 days to do, depending on fitness levels, budget and time), there are many more attractions to Moshi than reaching the tip of the so-called "Roof of Africa". Here I list a few that will add much colour and depth to your trip
In close proximity to Moshi's town centre, you'll find the trickling beauty of Materuni Waterfalls, cascading down a gigantic mountain, like a sliver of liquid silver of. An enjoyable hike to the waterfall's base is an exciting adventure and later on, you'll be able to cool down in its waters whilst admiring sweeping views all around. While making your way to the falls you'll stumble upon the Chagga people with unique chances to observe their local day to day life.
A tour of the Materuni Falls is often combined with a tour to a nearby coffee farm, and the proceeds of your visit directly support the enchanting local community. It's a great way to not just learn about coffee production but also mingle with the local villagers. An experience you won't forget.
A walk with rescue monkeys
One of the most endearing experiences you could have in Tanzania if you love animals (and if you've made the long trip here you probably do) is to learn first-hand how local activists participate in rescue missions, healing injured or orphaned animals in the jungle and then providing them a safe haven. This is exactly what Kilimanjaro Animal CREW do in the Makoa Farm Lodge, on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, where their main purpose is to help wildlife via educational tours that help fund their efforts. A tour here is money well invested, as you'll be taken on a beautiful hike with monkeys following you along, stopping to meet some of the other residents of the farms. An amazing day trip for animal lovers from all walks of life.
Close cultural encounters with the Maasai
If you can afford to, spending some time (a full day or preferably two) in the heart of a Maasai community will be incredibly eye-opening and enriching. You will come across Maasai people virtually everywhere in East Africa, easily distinguishable by their slender, tall figures and coloured shukas. But interacting with them on a more personal level is an unforgettable experience. You have to be very selective when it comes to experiencing authentic Maasai life, as plenty of tourist meet-and-greet traps abound. In Moshi, do your research and you'll enjoy the cultural experience of a lifetime, taking it all in and doing things the Maasai way for a couple of days.
If you seek a more secluded coastal experience than the quintessential, popular Zanzibar, there are a few alternatives that are not only just as beautiful but far more secluded and private.
Often ignored in favour of the more popular Unguja Island (typically referred to as Zanzibar) this is the second-largest island in the Zanzibar archipelago. Its main draw is the abundance of pristine dive sites with steep drop-offs. If you want to witness abundant marine life and untouched coral, a visit here will prove more than. Unlike Zanzibar, this island feels relaxing and isolated. You can stay at the mid-range Fundu Lagoon or for a more budget option, the Pemba Island Hotel. If you want a more upscale experience, stay at the exclusive Manta Resort, beautiful in every way and with a rustic feel.
Get on a bus and roam free
There are plenty of places in Tanzania that enjoy good transport links, so making your own way around is indeed a possibility. Hopping from bus to bus to get from one adventure to the next is a very liberating experience. Public transport to main districts and cities like Dar es Salaam, Arusha, Moshi and Tanga are available daily and at affordable prices. Of course that, for reaching more inland areas or sites of peculiar interest, getting informed both onsite and prior to arriving is a must so that you can make the most efficient use of your time.
Reaching even less trodden parts of Tanzania
Geographically speaking, the parts of Tanzania that see the fewest visitors are the southern highlands and the south-western part of the island. Accessing these areas on your own might be trickier but certainly not impossible. As always it helps to get familiar with locals and ask for help.
This national park is ell off the beaten track with the additional allure of being one of the best places in the world for getting close to chimpanzees. Bordering the shores of Lake Tanganyika and perfectly cocooned amidst forested mountains, this is one of Tanzania's most remote parks, and therefore one of the most beguiling. Inhabited by a healthy population of some 1,700 wild chimpanzees roaming an area of some 1600 square kilometres, you might not spot any on your first day, but is rare to go beyond three days without seeing one.
An overnight stay at the Greystoke Mahale you will put you in the most spectacular location with a quirky, rustic design.
Final tips for a smooth(ish) rogue adventure in Tanzania
Like I said earlier, the most important thing to do is plan, plan, plan! And while you're at it, search and research for the tour companies that can lend you in a hand in the more remote areas. The other essential step is to read up on Tanzania as much as you can, not just the typical guides (which will no doubt help) but literary masterpieces that will help the places come to life in your mind before they do in real life. This guide on books to Tanzania is a good place to start.