Slowly the dark silhouette of Mt. Meru (about 4700 m) begins to appear in the distance. You cross a wide river; the water comes from the summit of Mt. Meru and cuts deep into the soft, fertile soil.
Some fields have been turned over to rice plantations and in the vicinity of Arusha National Park you will see acres of banana trees interspersed with glossy, Mango trees and Acacias.
After three quarters of an hour you have reached the park entrance of your first safari destination, the Arusha National Park.
This game reserve, although one of Tanzania’s smallest parks, is one of its most beautiful and topographically varied, with Mount Meru, Ngurdoto Crater and the flamingo swathed Momella Lakes within its boundaries. This often-overlooked park is a perfect introduction to your Tanzanian safari experience. Gaze at the 15,000 foot (4,565m) mighty extinct volcano, Mount Meru with its craggy peak; it is almost as high as Europe’s tallest mountain, the 4,807m high Mont Blanc.
Mt Meru completely dominates the skyline of the entire Arusha Park region. From Arusha town the volcano presents a typically cone-shaped profile. But that view is deceptive: coming from the eastern side, as you travelled, from Kilimanjaro Airport, it reveals that half the mountain is missing. A quarter of a million years ago, the Meru-volcano exploded. Its entire eastern wall was blown away in a disaster similar in scale to the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens. Over time, forests grew on the slopes of fertile soil and the Momella lakes formed among depressions in the rubble thrown out by the blast. A landscape of utter desolation metamorphosed into one of the prettiest spots in Africa, an extremely worthwhile addition to your Tanzania itinerary.
The area around Mount Meru is quite beautiful and fertile, benefiting from two rainy seasons. The local people are great agriculturalists and farm various crops depending on the altitude of their farms. You can see acres of banana plantations with a bewildering variety of bananas: red sweet ones, a savory one, some used to brew local beer and others as fodder for cattle. However, Arabica coffee is the main cash crop, as it is well suited to growth on the upper slopes of the mountain. There are also impressive waterfalls nestled in the woods, one of which you will explore on foot the following day.
Having entered the park, your driver begins to climb a hill and you have reached a spectacular crater called Ngurdoto Crater. Actually it is not a crater as such but a caldera. Calderas are formed by the inward collapse of volcanoes. This crater/caldera is also called “mini-Ngorongoro”, because it’s just like a miniature of its big brother Ngorongoro. The only difference is it is much smaller (only 3km across); it cannot be explored by car or on foot, due to the swampy, crater floor. Its slopes are dense with highland forest; creating a perfect place for you to spot black-and-white colobus monkeys and the huge crowned eagle that preys on them.
From your view point on the crater rim (Buffalo Point, 1,800 m), you look into a small and very pretty volcanic bowl. You’ll see the well-marked tracks where animals ascend and descend. The crater floor comprises forest and marshy areas interspersed by open plains. You may be able to see buffalo and warthogs down there, sometimes even giraffe and waterbuck. It is almost a reserve within the reserve. Even elephants are able to climb down the steep crater-walls. After finishing their vegetarian meal, they climb up again and it is hard to imagine them on the precarious path. Baboons and many bird species can also be spotted down in the caldera. The caldera bottom is not far, so you can spot the animals with your naked eye or your binoculars, if you have them at hand.
From Ngurdoto crater your driver makes his way on a track to Momella area, passing through deep forest before skirting a series of pretty papyrus-filled pools where you can often see bushbucks, warthogs and spur wing geese. The going is slow as the road continues over mounds of bush-covered volcanic rubble. Passing through this area you’ll encounter many giraffes, which are abundant in this park. Soon your driver turns off to the right and your track leads through a seemingly manicured grove of African olive tree before emerging at the beginning of the Momella Lakes circuit.
This one-way track winds through a wonderland of lakes and swamps, each separated from another by small hills and volcanic debris. The area looks quite picturesque, especially because of the acacia trees around the lake-shores and the many giraffes in the foreground. Beyond in the distance, you can see the majestic Kilimanjaro towering over the hot plains. Flocks of guinea fowl are very common in the scrubby bush. You can also spot DikDiks quite frequently, disappearing in the bush next to your vehicle. DikDiks are cute looking mini-antelopes, little bigger than a hare. Normally you see two of them together as they live in monogamous pairs, a very rare thing in nature; only if one dies will the remaining one look for another mate. When alarmed the DikDik makes a “zik-zik” whistling noise through its flexible, elongated nose, which might explain its name. The species here in Arusha Park is Kirk‟s DikDik (Madoqua kirki); it is the most widespread variety in East Africa.
There are no lions in this park; the forest habitat does not suit this big cat, which prefers open, savannah country. Waterbuck, bushbuck and buffalo feed on the grassy lakeshores. Each of the several lakes has its own charm. In all there are seven lakes, and because of their varied mineral contents, each lake supports a different type of algal growth and therefore appears as a different color: One of the lakes is more reddish because of red algae, the next one is greenish because of green algae, and the third one has a bluish color because of blue algae. The algae are important to feed the masses of lesser and greater flamingos, which are abundant here during certain times of the year. Hippos have a favorite refuge in Little Momella Lake; Big Momella is more alkaline and usually has a flock of greater flamingos.
Both lakes attract impressive numbers of stationary and migratory waterfowl, especially during Europe’s winter months. Rafts of migrant shovelers, pintails and garganeys then mingle with African red-billed, pochard and Maccoa ducks. At all times, great cormorants and pelicans can be seen fishing in the open waters, while a collection of waders and herons hunt the marshes and shores.
Also the well-known African spoonbills are common here, together with sacred ibis, yellow billed storks, hornbills, kingfishers, Egyptian geese, Cape teals, various waders and also the big African fish-eagle, with its distinctive cry. You can also hear the trill of the dabchick, a little grebe, whose cry rings continually over the lake region.
If the lakes circuit is a birder’s paradise, the rest of the park is scarcely less interesting. There are extended marsh areas, where buffalos and warthogs wallow. Zebra, Bohor reedbuck, bushbuck and Common waterbuck also commonly frequent these areas. Because of the patchy mix of forest and bush, avian life is extremely rich. The augur buzzard, a bird of prey with a red tail that makes it easily identifiable is very common and you’ll definitely notice the brilliantly colored white-fronted bee-eater, especially around Momella.
Forest birding in general is a bit harder than in the open grass land, but views of Hartlaub’s turaco, olive pigeon and red-fronted parrot await the patient observer.