The closest national park to the town of Arusha – Northern Tanzania’s safari capital – Arusha National Park is a multi-faceted jewel, often overlooked on an African safari, despite offering the opportunity to explore a beguiling diversity of habitats just a short distance from the starting place of most Tanzanian safaris.
The entrance gate to this 212 sq mile park leads into shadowy montane forest inhabited by inquisitive blue monkeys and colorful turacos and trogons; this is also the only place on the northern safari circuit where the acrobatic black-and-white colobus monkey is easily seen. In the midst of the forest stands the spectacular Ngurdoto Crater, whose steep, rocky cliffs enclose a wide marshy floor dotted with herds of buffalo and warthog.
Further north, rolling grassy hills enclose the tranquil beauty of the Momela Lakes, each one a different hue of green or blue. Their shallows sometimes tinged pink with thousands of flamingos, the lakes support a rich selection of resident and migrant waterfowl, and shaggy waterbucks display their large lyre-shaped horns on the watery fringes. Giraffes glide across the grassy hills, between grazing zebra herds, while pairs of wide-eyed dik-dik dart into scrubby bush like overgrown hares on spindly legs.
Although elephants are uncommon in Arusha National Park, and lions absent altogether, 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, just 30 miles in the distant. However, it is Kilimanjaro’s unassuming cousin, Mount Meru – a prominent volcano rating fifth highest in Africa at 14,990 feet – that dominates the park’s horizon. Its peaks and eastern foot-slopes protected within the national park, Meru offers unparalleled views of its famous neighbor, while also forming a rewarding hiking destination in its own right.
Passing first through wooded savannah where buffalo and giraffes are frequently encountered, the ascent of Meru leads into forests aflame with red-hot pokers dripping with Spanish moss, before reaching high open heath spiked with giant lobelias. Everlasting flowers cling to the alpine desert, as klipspringers mark the hike’s progress. A quick day trip to enjoy the wildlife and beautiful scenery of Arusha National Park is a great way to step out of the bustling city rather the beginning or end of your Tanzania safari adventure.
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