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.