Tucked at the foot of Mount Meru, the town of Arusha is the first stop on the northern safari circuit and is the undisputed safari capital of East Africa.
The streets of this vibrant town are filled with 4×4 game viewing vehicles criss-crossing the potholed roads. Maasai warriors in full regalia walk around, mingling with tourists in crisp khaki, fresh off the plane from Europe or the United States.
If you’re flying in on a pre-organized safari, you are unlikely to spend much time in Arusha, as your hosts will whisk you through on the way to one of the great game parks. This is a pity, because Arusha is the kind of place where you can get a real sense of what modern Africa is all about.
At the nearby International Conference Centre, some of the most important peace treaties and international agreements in modern African history have been signed. The Rwandan war crimes tribunals are currently taking place here, as have been several attempts to broker peace in the Great Lakes States.
The curio markets crammed between the Clock Tower and India Road are filled with high quality crafts, and are a great deal cheaper than the purpose-built curio shops outside of town to which most tour guides take you. A friendly warning – beware of pickpockets in the busy streets.
For independent travellers, the offices of the National Parks authority in the International Conference Centre is a good place to pick up literature and maps, and to find out details of entry to the parks. The coffee-growing town of Moshi is the nearest town to the trailheads on Kilimanjaro, although most travellers do their outfitting and organising in Arusha.
For birders, anglers and primate lovers with a bit of time on their hands, Lake Duluti, on the Moshi road, is one of Africa’s hidden gems. There’s a campsite and small, rudimentary pub, and it is a classic place to while away a lazy afternoon.