THE NORTHERN CLIMATE
The Tanzanian Northern Circuit proper stretches from the eastern shores of Lake Victoria to Arusha town.
Demarcated in the North by the Kenyan border and in the South by Maswa Game Reserve, lakes Eyasi and Manyara and by Tarangire National Park, it includes Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. To this we have added the Northern mountain circuit – Arusha National Park, Mount Meru, Mount Kilimanjaro, Mkomazi and the Usambara Mountains.
The Serengeti plays host to the annual migration.
With an elevation of between 900 and 1800m, an annual temperature range of between 21°C and 27°C and a precipitation range of 950 to 1150mm, the area’s climate – in normal years – is temperate and experiences a bimodal rainfall pattern, with the short rains occurring in November and December, the long rains in March – May. As the rain moves to South – between October and January – the migration can be found first above the western Loliondo and Lobo Hills area (October), then a halfway down the eastern corridor, in the Nyabogati and Ngare Nanyuki rivers areas (November and December), before arriving in the South East.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area (January and February), where it spends the short dry season.
From here it gradually moves West and – between April and June – North, following the long rains, and can be found on the Grumeti waterfront (June / July) and massing along the Mara River (July / August), before crossing the border into Kenya.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area has an altitudinal range of 960m to 3,648m, its climatic zones ranging from semi-arid to montane forest, all of which accounts for its widely ranging levels of precipitation (from under 500mm to 1700mm) and for the fact that temperatures oscillate between 2°C and 35°C.
The Ngorongoro Crater is – at 260km2 – the world’s largest volcanic caldera. At an altitude ranging between 1700m (the crater floor) and 2,235m (the crater rim), and subject to the vagaries of the easterly trade winds, rainfall levels depend on height and position, with the forested eastern slopes receiving between 800mm and 1500mm a year, the crater around 700mm and the western slopes 400 – 600mm. Average annual temperatures range from 14°C to 25°C, the crater floor much hotter than the rim, which is often swathed in morning fogs and, depending on the time of the year, can be anything from warm to chilly to freezing at night.
Olduvai Gorge and surrounding environs is semi-arid, receives 566mm of rainfall a year and averages out at a temperature of 22.8°C. The rains here are particularly unpredictable, and temperatures regularly soar into the early thirties. The main dry season is long, the rainy seasons limited to April and May and November. The beginning and end of the year is hotter, but only marginally, and the nights chilly (which accounts for the relatively low mean temperature of 22°C – don’t be fooled: it can get extremely hot during the day).
The Lake Manyara basin has an altitudinal range of around 950 – 1500m, which means that while it receives an average of 650mm of rainfall, the climatic picture is slightly more complicated than one might think, ranging from arid (Masai Plains) to semi-arid (Arden Plains) to humid (highlands). The park itself is equally varied, with the North twice as dry as the South. The lake lies at 945m is flanked to the west by the Rift Valley’s escarpment and receives an average of 750mm a year, a semi-arid to humid yield supplemented by both ground and surface water sources. The upshot is an area rich in flora – groundwater forest, acacia woodland, mixed woodland, grasslands and swamp – and therefore in fauna, with especially dense populations of elephant and buffalo providing evidence of the area’s relative wetness. The average temperature for the park is 22°C
So, in terms of visiting Lake Manyara National Park, March – May is great for bird watching, while June through to October and January and February (when it is dry and the animals are forced to utilise fewer standing water sources) is fantastic for game viewing.
Tarangire National Park receives an average of 650mm of rain a year, has a bimodal precipitation pattern, with the long rains occurring in March – May, the short rains in November and December. It is especially hot between November and the beginning of January, with temperatures peaking around 29°C, and the nights are warm. While daytime temperatures rare fall below 25°C, the nights are considerably cooler during the long dry season.
Best visited during the dry season, when much of the game is concentrated around the Tarangire River, the park’s wildlife either heads northwest or disperses across the Masaai Steppe during March-May and November and December.
Mkomazi National Park with an average of 778mm of rain per annum, and an average temperature of 25°C, Mkomazi National Park has a semi-arid climate. Subject to a bimodal precipitation pattern, the long rains occur in March – May, the short rains in November and December. With its only source of permanent water being the Umba River, the movement of its wildlife is influenced by the rains. Best visited during the dry season, Mkomazi’s wildlife disperses between March and May, and in November and December.
Arusha and Mount Meru : Arusha is the Northern circuit’s arrivals and departures, and services both the Serengeti and Kilimanjaro. At 1400m it is both relatively cool and wet. Temperatures average out at 19°C and the town and surrounding area receives in the region of 1052 mm of rain a year. March – May and November and December are the rainy seasons, April by far the wettest month, and January – February is mildly wet in good years. Late May through to October is very dry. Given the relatively low levels of precipitation during November and December, October through to February is the best time to visit nearby Arusha National Park and to climb Mount Meru.
Mount Kilimanjaro As we shall see, Kilimanjaro is a climate unto itself. Even so, the mountain is subject to the oscillating effects of the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), experiences a bimodal precipitation pattern, and is generally avoided during the long and short rains (March-May and November), when it’s lower regions get particularly wet. The very best months for climbing are January, February and September.
Kilimanjaro has 5 altitude influenced climatic zones:
At 800 – 1800m, the mountain’s base is heavily cultivated, experiences an average temperature of 27°C
Between 1800 – 2800, the mountain is heavily forested, receives 2000mm of rain a year and is home to a range of wildlife, most of it very well hidden, whatever the time of year. The temperature decreases by one degree for every 200m climbed
The vegetation changes dramatically at 2,800m, from forest to moorland, and temperatures decrease from around 22°C – at the forest-moor fringe – to a relatively cool but manageable 16°C at 4000m
An alpine desert habitat constitutes the next 1000 metres. Here the temperature ranges between 15°C and 10°C, but can drop to 5°C during cold spells, and the area receives no more than 200mm of rain a year
The final zone is sometimes referred to as the arctic zone, more commonly the summit. Here the one degree to 200m ratio does not hold true : temperatures can range between -10°C and 10°C, and at night can fall into the minus twenties. Average rainfall is 100mm.
Above 4500m, the mountain is not subject to the area’s climatic patterns, and so the weather is unpredictable and fast changing. Clearly, in terms of preparation, climbing Kilimanjaro is more than a trek, involves a certain amount of risk, and requires that climbers are well equipped and fit, and that they are guided by experienced professionals (see Mount Kilimanjaro for further information).
Usambara Mountains are situated in the North-East of Tanzania. Over 100 kilometres long and 60 wide, they range from 1,600m (Lushoto town) to 2,440m, with the wettest areas receiving 2000mm of rain per annum. Like much of the rest of the North, the Usambaras are subject to a bimodal rainfall pattern, with the long rains occurring in March-May and the short rains in October and December. Divided – by the Lwengera River – into East and West, the Usambaras provide excellent hiking and bird watching opportunities. While best visited during the dry seasons, the West and Northern facing slopes are in the mountains’ rain shadows and receive just 600mm a year, making them perfectly accessible during the short rains. Temperatures decrease the higher one goes, and there is a chance of mist during March and May.
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