Arusha National Park, Tanzania
This small, 137 square km, park is located an easy 40 minute drive from Arusha and is only 60km from the Kilimanjaro International Airport. The home of Mount Meru, this delightful little park is seldom used by the majority of visitors to Tanzania; being popular only with hikers using Mount Meru (14,990 feet) to acclimatize for their Kilimanjaro climb.
However, the Arusha National Park has more to offer than mountain hiking! The park has three distinct habitat zones that contribute to the amazing variety of wildlife in the area. From the lush green swamps surrounded by thick forest in the Ngurdoto Crater, up through the scenic beauty of the Momela Lakes, each a startlingly different hue, through to the chilly alpine like tundra on Mount Meru.
The remains of a large volcano, the Ngurdoto Crater is a steep sided bowl of lush swamps and riverine forest, which is home to elephant, buffalo, baboon, reedbuck, Colobus monkeys and duikers. Mosses, ferns, lichens and orchids thrive in the damp atmosphere of the crater, giving way to huge mahogany, olive and date palm trees on the drier crater walls.
Descent into the Crater itself is not allowed, in effect creating a sanctuary within a sanctuary and leaving a large area of the park to the wildlife alone. However, driving along the high ridges on the edge of the crater provides a stunning view of the forests, glades and animal tracks that abound in this lush habitat.
Leaving the crater, the forest gives way to mixed moor and grasslands where numerous buffalo make their home. In fact, when climbing Mount Meru on foot, an armed guard is required for safety due to the number of buffalo in the area. Other game is also abundant, zebra, dik dik, reedbuck and elephant. Leopards also are commonly spotted on Mount Meru, lurking in the shadowy forests.
The seven Momela Lakes are all alkaline, shallow, and fed by underground streams. Each lake contains a slightly different mineral content, which supports different algae growths. The results are seven lakes, each of which has a different colour and which different birds and wildlife visit. Blue green algae in Lake Rishateni supports a flamingo population with other lakes providing homes for the common little grebe, African pochard, ibis, heron and egrets of all varieties. Over 380 species of birds have been confirmed at the Momela Lakes.
The third and final habitat in the Arusha Park is the open alpine heath on the summit of Mount Meru. The lower levels are covered in heather, which gives way to hardy grasses.
Yet even these cannot survive on the barren sands of the crater rim, which curves along a series of rocky crags and lava boulders to the rocky summit itself. You may be lucky enough to spot lammergeyers, a large, rare bird of prey, floating on the up draughts from the crater, or a delicate klipspringer bounding over the rocks, but otherwise the beauty of this area is in the scenery rather than the wildlife.
A very rewarding, gentle hike, a three or four day safari in the Arusha National Park is rewarding in itself and is a delightful alternative to a Kilimanjaro climb.