As with any safari destination, Southern Tanzania is best explored at a leisurely pace and with the dictum "Less is more" firmly in mind. Put simply, visiting fewer reserves for longer periods is likely to prove more rewarding than trying to squeeze in as many different places as possible into one holiday. The best way to get around the region is by air, a minimum of 3 nights in any given reserve is recommended, and given the remoteness of the terrain, it is strongly recommended you book through an operator with regional knowledge. The itinerary below is spread over 12 days and takes in the region's top four reserves, but you could add an extra night at Selous to fly-camp, or stay on at Mahale to enjoy the beach, while those with more limited time could split off the Selous/Ruaha component or Katavi/Mahale component and do either as a 1-week safari.
Days 1-3: Selous Game Reserve
The short flight from Dar es Salaam to Selous is a real thriller, especially as you fly low over the swampy maze of channels and lakes fed by the Rufiji, with elephants wallowing in the swamps below and giraffe trotting nervously along the plains in response to the engine's roar. Three nights in the Selous is a must, and make sure you take advantage of the varied activities offered by most camps; this is the only place in Southern Tanzania where you can view game from a boat, and guided walks are also offered to supplement game drives. All the camps in Selous offer something special, but for those whose budget knows no limit, our pick is Sand Rivers. And think about adding a fourth night if you want to fly-camp on the lakes (highly recommended, though not for the nervous).
Days 4-6: Ruaha National Park
Another short but exciting plane ride takes you to Ruaha National Park, which feels even more remote than Selous and offers more varied game viewing; this is your best shot on the Southern Circuit for seeing leopards and cheetahs, and chances of sighting these elusive cats are very good if you stay 3 nights. Game drives dominate proceedings at Ruaha more than in Selous, but several camps offer guided bush walks, too. It's difficult to pick a favorite among the superb quartet of established camps here, but we're going with Mwagusi for its wonderful location, top-notch guides, unforgettable bush dinners, and the peerless quality of game viewing in the surrounding area.
Days 7-9: Katavi National Park
And you thought Ruaha was remote? When you land at Katavi, you really do feel like you've slipped back 100 years, staying at one of a handful of camps whose Edwardian bush ambience has you half expecting Karen Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton to pitch up at the dinner table. The wildlife here is not as varied as Ruaha, but dry season concentrations can be staggering; try a herd of 1,000 buffalo, a group of 50 elephants, and a pride of lions in one binocular sweep of the floodplain. But for students of animal behavior, it's the hippos that steal the show at the height of the dry season, when hundreds of individuals might congregate in one pool, and bloody male dominance fights are a daily event.
Day 10-12: Mahale Mountain National Park
Another short scenic flight crosses the Mahale Mountain to bring you to the shore of Lake Tanganyika and a complete change of pace. Chimpanzee tracking is the main activity here, and at least 2 nights is required (3 or 4, even better) to be certain of coming face to face with these charismatic forest dwellers. When you're not scrambling through the undergrowth, you can pretend you're on a beach holiday; catch a tan on the sandy beach, swim in the insanely clear water, or kayak or snorkel out on the lake. Greystoke is the top camp here, but its more affordable competitor, Kungwe, is also very good and just as idyllically located.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.