Arusha National Park
Arusha National Park
A Jewel in the Shadows Of the Giants
The closest national park to Arusha town – the northern Tanzania safari capital – Arusha National Park is a multi-faceted jewel, often overlooked by safari -goers, despite offering the opportunity to explore a beguiling diversity of habitats within a few hours as Let’s view Tanzania discovered.
I have a Iove affair with Kilimanjaro; there is something magical about the roof of Africa. My current pilgrimage is my third to this African giant. Kilimanjaro is always my main focus when I visit Tanzania, although on a previous trip a visit to Zanzibar was included. Experience has taught me that a rest day before climbing the Great Mountain is recommended, because of two reasons. Often baggage gets lost. On all three trips at least one member of our group has lost a bag.
That meant that we had to wait for the missing luggage, which often arrived late the following day on the next available flight. The second reason is that we often get to bed at two or three o’ clock in the morning and then have to get up again at five to start ascending the mountain. We are tired even before we start the arduous journey!
On the so-called “off day” I decided not to hang around the hotel, but to visit the often overlooked Arusha National Park. I was the only one in our group to undertake this outing, the rest wanted to sleep late, hang around the pool of the Springlands Hotel or visit the markets and shops of Moshi, the town at the foot of Kilimanjaro.
After a short night’s sleep I woke up at 05:30 local time. The breakfast was delicious, but as always, the colour of the eggs intrigued me; as in East Africa the egg’s yolk is always white. I had to wait a while for my guide to arrive, and we left just before eight. Unlike most game drives in other game parks in Africa.
I decided to leave later, because it was overcast and the mist around Mount Meru at the Arusha National Park first had to clear. It is better to take photographs during the middle part of the day, because there is direct sunlight and the animals tend to be more active compared to those in other game reserves, because of the high altitude.
The hotel staff introduced me to my guide, Bakari Shabani. Like all Tanzanians, he was very friendly. He looked slightly intoxicated, probably from a good party the previous evening, for his eyes were a yellowish red. I later learned that he was a Muslim, but not a practising one, which explained a lot.
I was the only mzungu (“white man” in Swahili), in our safari vehicle. This was great, for I could decide when and where to drive. But it was bad for business and I missed the company of fellow adventurers. There were fewer eyes to spot game and I would have liked to learn other mzungus’ impressions of the Arusha National Park.
“We first have to pick up lunch,” said Bakari when we stopped at a shop with its customary Coco-Cola signboard outside. Bakari seemed to know everyone and he had to establish their well-being in detail, so I waited quite a while at Chrisburger Snacks for the lunch boxes.
I realised that I was in ‘Hakuna Matata’ country. Apparently everything took “only one minute”, which normally meant five minutes or longer, but suddenly I didn’t care. I was a bit tired, but as always when travelling in Africa, I felt I was living a dream – visiting an African game reserve is always a joy.
It was overcast and Kilimanjaro was hiding behind its fog blanket. Moshi was very busy. On our way through the town I saw the typical wooden handcars with an old tyre as a break, laden with fruit and pulled by their owners. Women wore their coloured clothes with style, while carrying baskets of bananas on their heads. All in a day’s work.
Our vehicle was a fine-looking Land Rover with its typical East African roof, which can be pushed open, enabling the occupants to stand. On our way we stopped at a filling station to fill up with diesel. As in the rest of the world, the oil price had an effect here too, and I learned from Bakari how the fuel price had rocketed in Tanzania.
Taking the good tarred road to Arusha town, we passed fields of sunflowers, maize and other crops growing in the fertile soil at the foot of the mountains. An ox with a plough was led from one field to the next.
I was impressed with myself when I recognised a beautiful red-breasted Hildebrandt’s starling. A while later I saw a dead large-spotted genet lying in the road not far from the turnoff to Kilimanjaro International Airport (KIA), where I had landed a few hours before. Arusha National Park is about 30km south-west of Arusha town, Tanzania’s safari capital. The town is located midway between Cape Town in South Africa and Cairo in Egypt.
A signboard indicated a right turn to the north to Arusha National Park. Road works were underway on this stretch of road due to the long rains, and some parts of the gravel road were atrocious. But that is Africa – a rough trip to an astounding sight. While experiencing some bone-crushing, lurching and banging towards the gate, I watched the surroundings and thought about the interesting geology.
Arusha National Park lies on the eastern edge of the Great Rift Valley. The rift is part of a fault in the earth’s crust that stretches 6 500 km from the Jordan Valley to the mouth of the Zambezi River halfway down Mozambique.
Apparently the Rift Valley was formed 20 million years ago. Amidst the terrestrial turmoil that accompanied that massive upheaval, subsidiary vents opened north-east of Arusha town, and Mount Meru and Ngurdoto Crater were born as volcanoes. The thought that I would soon become acquainted with these two phenomena made me feel as excited as a child about to open a present.
We passed a signboard advertising fluoride-free water. The fluoride-rich water in some of the mountain waters negatively affects the bones of many young people and it also causes the brown, discoloured teeth common among Arusha residents.
Around an hour after leaving the hotel we entered at the Ngongongare Gate, and a little later we stopped at the Ngongongare Reception kiosk to pay. Again, Bakari was in a hurry, but it gave me time to learn something from the information signboards in the empty parking lot near the offices, and I also read a few pages about the park in my guide book.
History of Arusha National Park
According to my guide book the European history of the park goes back to 1876 when Count Teleki, a Hungarian, visited the Momella area. He commented on the vast number of hippopotamus and black rhinos he had seen. Sadly, the latter are now no longer found in the park. In 1907 the Trappe family moved to Momella to farm, using large areas of the present park as a cattle ranch.
The elder Mrs Trappe, the first woman to become a professional hunter in East Africa, voluntarily set aside a large part of the Momella estate for a game sanctuary. When the park was established in 1960, the farm was incorporated into it.
In 1960 the then Ngurdoto Crater National Park was established. In 1967, the Mt Meru area also became part of the park. The name of the park was then changed to Arusha National Park. The name Arusha was derived from the local Waarusha people who used to live in the area.
When the formalities were over, we headed for a place called Serengeti Ndogo (Little Serengeti). There was not another vehicle in sight, unlike many of the other more popular National Parks in the northern safari circuit in Tanzania. Bakari explained that we would drive anti-clockwise and would see the four types of habitat, each attracting its own plant and animal species. The first of these was scrubland interspersed by seasonal riverine strips and small seasonal pools.
I saw a beautiful sausage tree and then Bakari showed me the first of many giraffes. The sub-species in Arusha National Park is the Maasai giraffe. Bakari, like most guides in East Africa, was first class. He was an excellent driver (unlike many of his countrymen), committed, knowledgeable, relaxed and easily able to identify animals, birds and plants in good English.
He remarked: “Take as many photographs as you like, but leave only footprints”.
Little Serengeti is a clearing in the bush, and it was covered with green grass after the long rains. Herds of savannah buffalo and plains zebra were grazing the grass. Unlike the plains zebra from Southern Africa, these zebras are without the shadow stripe. The mist started to clear. After an enjoyable time at Little Serengeti, we drove to the Ngurdoto Crater. We passed many swamp areas as the dirt road wound to a higher altitude and spotted various birds species like sacred ibis, spur wing goose, large white egrets and grey herons.
I was grateful for our 4×4 vehicle, as the road was very wet. Fresh vehicle tracks showed that there was at least one vehicle ahead of us. I saw a handsome little building and read on a sign above the door that it was the Ngurdoto Museum. The inside, however, was disappointing. Many Biology classrooms in schools have a better collection of mounted mammals, birds and insects. Still, the surroundings were beautiful as the building overlooked the Ngurdoto natural forest.
Soon after the stop at the museum, there was great excitement as a whole troop of about 50 olive baboons was spotted in the road in front of us. The troop included mothers with young, easily recognisable adult males and adolescent males awaiting their transfer to another troop.
Olive baboons are one of the three primate species which are frequently spotted in the Arusha National Park. On our way to the Ngurdoto Crater we saw flashes of black and white stripes among the trees, indicating that zebras are even found in the forest.
Countless trees, buttressed on wide, fluted root systems, soared upwards through the canopy several metres overhead. Brightly coloured bracket fungi step-laddered up dark, rotting stumps, lurid mosses lurked in gloomy wooden root crotches. As a South African there was something about the forest that reminded me of the Knysna forest back home. Maybe it was the damp misty atmosphere where the green moss, yellowwood trees, ferns and lichens flourished.
Maybe it was the smell so typical of rainforests. You could easily imagine seeing Tarzan or even fairies here. In the midst of this forest stands the spectacular Ngurdoto Crater, whose steep, rocky cliffs enclose a wide marshy floor dotted with herds of buffalo.
The Ngurdoto volcano is now extinct. But from the pear-shape of the present-day crater it seems that towards the end of its activity there were two cones lying very close together. When the molten rock below the cones withdrew to deeper levels, the cones were left without support. They then collapsed, forming the present crater, or more precisely, a caldera, just like a miniature Ngorongoro.
There are seven viewpoints around the crater rim; Leittong, at 1853 metres, being the highest of them all. Beautiful views are also possible from Mikindu Point on the southern side of the rim. Ngurdoto is three kilometres across. The crater floor is at 1474 metres and it comprises of forest and swamp interspersed by open plain. Visitors are not allowed on the crater floor, but you will see the well-marked tracks where animals ascend and descend.
Much of this 137sq km park combines an audible forest experience with a visual one. At first sounds were drowned by our vehicle’s engine noise. So I asked Bakari to switch it off and we remained silent for a while, listening to the calls of the wild. I heard the frog-like gwaa, gwaar, gwir, gwir calls of the black & white colobus monkey, but could not spot them crashing through the trees.
The silvery-cheeked hornbill’s raucous braying call echoed through the forest. Beautiful wild fig trees seemed to appear out of the fog. I was amazed at the beauty of the crater and the forest, and I felt as if chimpanzees would walk out of the forest at any moment, even though the nearest populations could only be found hundreds of kilometres away.
Should the mountain gorilla ever run out of space, we could introduce them here, I thought. I could have spent the whole day in the forest, but we had to move on.
At one of the viewpoints we observed more olive baboons, and their fresh droppings could be seen everywhere. Because the tracks on the crater rim do not converge, it is necessary to retrace the route back to the Ngurdoto Gate. While driving through the mud, I thought about the following day when I would be trudging through this same mud in the rainforest on Kilimanjaro. I was glad that today, at least, I was driving though the forest without getting my shoes dirty.
While I was still thinking about the next day I was pulled back to reality when Bakari showed me a magnificent male waterbuck with its large lyre-shaped horns. It was a kringgat or the subspecies that we encounter in Southern Africa, not the defassa subspecies as I would have expected in East Africa.
Often I saw a whirlwind of butterflies in the forest with brilliant white, orange, red and speckled splashes of colour. Soldier commodore, African monarch and Green banded swallowtail, recognisable by its distinctive colouring – even when hurtling past, are some of the many beautiful flutterers which can be observed in Arusha National Park.
Giraffe necks were visible above the bushes almost everywhere, but unfortunately there was no sign of the wide-eyed dik-dik darting into scrubby bush like overgrown hares on spindly legs, which I have often seen in the Etosha National Park in Namibia. On our way to lunch, Bakari explained that elephants are rare in Arusha National Park, and that one seldom sees the less than 200 individuals.
Lions are altogether absent, while leopards and spotted hyenas may be seen slinking around in the early morning and late afternoon. It is also at dusk and dawn that the veil of cloud on the eastern horizon is most likely to clear, revealing the majestic snow-capped peaks of Kilimanjaro, only 50km away. My guide, Bakari, was more informative than any book and I used the field guides merely to confirm the details of species we had seen.
Sooner than expected, we arrived at the picturesque lookout point. Unfortunately the upper reaches of both Mount Meru and its bigger brother Kilimanjaro were covered by mist and I could not lay my eyes on “the eternal snows of Kilimanjaro“, to use the famous words of Ernest Hemming about the even more famous mountain. As I thought about how long the glaciers would last on Kili, I started eating my lunch, which consisted of a scone, an egg burger, a piece of chicken and juice.
There were lovely views further north of the rolling grassy hills, enclosing the tranquil beauty of the Momella Lakes of the park, which we would soon visit, according to Bakari. Unfortunately in the distance I saw settlements, which was a reality check that in a pristine area like this, the human footprint is never too far away. Five giraffes glided across the grassy hills in the direction of Kilimanjaro.
After lunch we passed various small lakes. One was Lake Longil, one of the few fresh water lakes in the park, as Bakari explained. Apparently fish, like the Tilapia species, are found there. We saw more buffalo, zebra, giraffe and waterbuck, and spotted our first warthog. Time seemed to stand still while we watched two male giraffes fighting with big hammer-like blows.
One of the drawcards of the Arusha National Park is the Momella Lakes, each one a different hue of green or blue. The Momella Lakes in the north-east of the park were formed by depressions in the drying mud. These lakes are mainly fed by underground streams and are not very deep. They are alkaline, meaning they are salty and animals do not use them for drinking. They contain few fish, but many micro-organisms can grow in alkaline water.
That is why these lakes’ shallows are sometimes tinged pink with thousands of lesser flamingos, as seen on postcards and guide book photos. But this time, there were very few flamingos present. Despite fewer flamingos the lakes still support a rich selection of resident and migrant waterfowl, which include many sacred ibis. Their mainly white body, black tail, bare black neck and head and large decurved bill make them easily identifiable. I also saw a white-breasted cormorant, maccoas ducks and some southern pochard.
It is always amazing to listen to arguably Africa’s best known sound, the unmistakable call of a fish eagle announcing its presence. Near the lakes I spotted a white-browed coucal, a colourful grey headed kingfisher and many helmeted guinea fowl, which were only some of the 575 species of birds already documented in the park.
The birding was outstanding and I was pleased to add quite a few ‘lifers’ to my modest list, even though I didn’t actively search for birds. For those used to the Southern African birding menu, Arusha offers noticeably more options and certainly more colour.
I saw a female bushbuck graze on the watery fringes, but I saw none of the hippopotami, which are supposedly found in the Momella Lakes. Stands of fever trees, candelabra trees on islands in the lakes and wild dagga or lion’s paw were some of the plants I recognised at the lakes. The countryside around Momella Lakes is natural grassland.
A canoeing safari is another tourist activity in this national park and is conducted on one of the Momella Lakes, known as “Small Momella”. Canoeing on this lake offers a closer view of animals that are not easily seen on an ordinary game viewing safari. We spent two hours in the lake area, but didn’t see a single canoe. In fact we only saw two other vehicles.
Again there were lots of giraffes and the cattle-like smell of fresh buffalo dung hung in the air. We saw many buffalo in the clearings, unlike many other game parks where they are seldom seen because they graze in the thickets.
This sombre mountain, known by the Maasai as Ol Doinyo Orok, meaning the “black mountain”, dominates Arusha town, the national park and surrounding countryside by towering over them. Its moods can change overnight and during the winter months the mountain is visible above the clouds.
Mount Meru is Africa’s fifth highest at 4 566 m above sea level. Its peaks and eastern foot slopes are protected within the national park. Meru offers unparalleled views of its famous neighbour, Kilimanjaro, but is also a rewarding hiking destination in its own right. Its last minor eruption occurred around 1877. Since then activity has been negligible, with small tremors occurring occasionally.
Hikers climbing Mount Meru depart from the Momella Gate. I saw quite a few rangers at this departure point and many of them were armed. Although today’s hikers for the four-day hike to the summit of Meru had already left, I learned that they were being accompanied by an armed national park guide.
It provided a real African experience, but also made me realise how vulnerable mankind is in this environment. Because of the theoretical absence of lions, Arusha National Park also pioneered the increasingly popular one-day walking safaris. But big – and dangerous – game such as elephant and buffalo still roam the park. Even transitory lions have been seen twice in the past decade or more, while secretive leopards are ever-present.
At the Momella Gate I saw the African pencil cedar (Juniperus procera) which I had not seen in the southern parts of Kilimanjaro. The under stocked shop sold a few old souvenirs, but nothing really interesting or special. On our way back to Little Serengeti and the entrance gate, I saw the inquisitive blue monkeys in the shadowy mountain forest. Close to them was a troop of black-and-white colobus monkeys.
Arusha National Park is the only place on the northern safari circuit where the acrobatic black-and-white colobus monkey is easily seen. For quite a while we, along with some German tourists from another vehicle, watched the primates and tried to take pictures, but it seemed almost impossible to get good photos.
Colobus monkeys are extremely handsome animals, distinguished by long flowing hair that forms a white mantle around the body, and by their bushy white tails. To me they looked like little bearded men in dress shirts and tailcoats. Bakari told me that the young are initially all white, changing colour after three months.
Again we listened to their calls, a guttural roar rapidly repeated in chorus. They are the most arboreal of all African monkeys, rarely descending from trees to the ground. They live in family troops of one adult male with several females. Young males leave the group, forming new troops or becoming solitary.
The ancient forest habitat of black-and-white colobus monkey living outside the park is threatened by logging operations and banana Shambas. This in turn threatens the animals’ feeding grounds. Today, I found their aerobatics, as they jumped and swung through the forest canopy, a truly memorable sight.
Whereas the Big Five embody the spirit of the African savannah, primates bring the forest into focus. They are the laughing, squabbling, leaping lords of this domain. Without them the great equatorial forest would be lifeless. Without the forest, they would become caged, sad monkeys – or pot roast.
I find myself torn between telling others about the treasure that is Arusha and keeping quiet in the hope that my silence will help preserve the pristine state of the area for a while longer. But in the end my doubts give way to the hope that future visitors to Arusha National Park will respect nature and that their support will bring economic prosperity to the area.
The park, near to Moshi and Arusha, is an ideal day trip destination, even for visitors who are attending seminars, workshops or business in these two towns. Unlike any other national park in Tanzania, here visitors can see a variety of wildlife in different habitats in a very short time.
Some visitors are rewarded when visiting Arusha National Park on their second African safari when they have tired of viewing the large species. They are astounded by its diverse beauty which includes scrubland, forest, lakes, craters, ash cone and Mount Meru. Then they might wonder why their travel agent omitted Arusha National Park on their first African safari.
Maybe next time I will climb Mount Meru . . .
Northern Tanzania, north-east of Arusha town.
An easy 40-minute drive from Arusha. Approximately 60km from Kilimanjaro International Airport. The lakes, forest and Ngurdoto Crater can all be visited in the course of a half-day outing at the beginning or end of an extended northern safari.
Game drives, canoeing, walking safaris (through different types of vegetation and habitats), Mt Meru climb (good acclimatization for Kilimanjaro), numerous view points and some picnic sites.
Best time / When to go
To climb Mt Meru, June-February although it may rain in November. Best views of Kilimanjaro December-February.
Arusha Safari Accommodation
2 rest houses, camp sites (3 public and 2 special), 2 lodges inside the Park, 2 Mountain Accommodation centres, 8 lodges just outside the park and many more in Arusha town.
A yellow fever vaccination certificate. Also take medical evacuation insurance, malaria prophylaxis (consult your doctor), sun protection gear and creams, insect repellent and anti-histamine creams. Tsetse bites are harmless but painful, and often cause swellings that itch for days. Due to altitude mosquitoes or tsetse flies are not that common as at lower altitudes.