Expert Reviews – Arusha NP

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Tiny, Green Gem in Mt Meru's Shadow
Overall rating

This lovely little park has stunning scenery that is very different and considerably more lush than that of its northern neighbours. Glimpses of both Mt Meru (which is part of the park) and Mt Kilimanjaro are possible on clear days. The wildlife watching is satisfying, with sightings of elephants, zebras, giraffes and dik-diks common. However, it cannot be compared with that in the other northern parks, and there are neither lions nor rhinos in Arusha park.

For me, a favourite attraction is the black-and-white colobus monkey, which is frequently spotted here. Another highlight: the small Momella Lakes, which attract flamingoes and other water birds. If you're arriving at Kilimanjaro International Airport and have a few extra days at your disposal, I recommend Arusha park as a convenient and enjoyable stop for a night or two before heading further afield for your main safari. There is a good range of accommodation in and around Usa River, the park access village.

Below Mount Meru
Overall rating

This small national park doesn’t score too highly as a conventional safari destination – of the so-called Big Five, elephant and leopard are scarce, and lion and rhino absent altogether. Taken on its own terms, however, it makes for a wonderful excursion from northern Tanzania’s self-styled ‘safari capital’, the town of Arusha, which lies less than an hour drive away. Geographically, its dominant feature is the 4,566 metre Mount Meru, the fifth highest mountain in Africa. My favourite part of the park is the forested slopes of the stunning Ngurdoto Crater, a good place to see the acrobatic black-and-white colobus, the inquisitive blue monkey, and a host of forest birds including brightly coloured turacos and noisy hornbills. There is also a lovely viewpoint from the rim to the swampy green crater floor, a favoured haunt of buffalo and warthog. Water birds are the main attraction of the Momella Lakes, which sometime host large concentrations of flamingos, and can also now be explored on canoe safaris, a welcome change of pace after a few game drives. The lakes offer splendid views west to Kilimanjaro, whose snow-capped peak, only 50km distant, often emerges from its cloudy shroud in the late afternoon.

Mountain lakes and Forest Glades
Overall rating

Small it may be, but this gem of a park on Arusha’s doorstep contains Mount Meru (4,565 metres), Tanzania’s second highest mountain after Kilimanjaro. High in the forests are the Momella Lakes, whose sheltered waters attract flamingos and huge flocks of migrating waterfowl. The scenery is stunning – especially looking down from the rim of Ngurdoto – a miniature Ngorongoro with a crater floor measuring three kms across. This is not a Big Five destination although elephant, buffalo and leopard are present; but a day spent exploring its 50 km of forest trails offers a tantalising glimpse of a different world to the plains below, with its own special birds and animals. On my last visit I saw long-crested eagles and a narina’s trogon, watched red forest duikers slipping through the trees and listened to the eerie calls of black-and-white colobus monkeys echoing in the forest glades.

Accessible and under-rated park watched over by Mt Meru
Overall rating

The small Arusha National Park certainly can’t boast the big game of Tanzania’s flagship parks, but it’s got more going for it than you might think. First, it’s an easy day trip destination just a short drive from the town of Arusha, which also makes it a good bet for Kili climbers who might not have time to fit a proper safari into their itinerary before flying home again. You’ll most likely see zebra, buffalo, giraffe and various antelope. Leopard and elephant are also found but are certainly not common sightings. Arusha is also one of the few parks in Tanzania where the black-and-white colobus monkey is regularly seen.

The scenery here is stunning, with the imposing Mount Meru, the second highest mountain in Tanzania after Kilimanjaro, presiding regally over the park in the background. There are great views across the dense woodlands and lakes from some of the park’s higher points, and when the skies are clear (particularly early in the morning and at dusk) there are also good views of Kilimanjaro itself. Walking safaris and canoeing trips are both available and good ways to get a little more intimate with the interesting surrounds.

Meru and the Flamingos
Overall rating

Arusha National Park is a small, attractive and easily accessed African reserve. At 13,700 hectares, the park offers a surprising diversity of habitats and wildlife within a remarkably compact area. But, wildlife aside, Arusha National Park is one of the most beautiful and topographically varied park’s in Tanzania, boasting rugged Mount Meru (4,566m), the multi-coloured and flamingo-filled Momela lakes, and three-kilometre-wide Ngurdoto Crater (a miniature version of Ngorongoro).

Arusha National Park is not a good choice for serious Big Five enthusiasts. Although buffalo are common, the park’s elephants and leopards are shy, and there are no lions or rhino present. The prime attraction is Kilimanjaro’s little brother with trekkers coming from far and wide to scale Tanzania’s second highest peak. After hiking through wooded savannah popular with buffalo, zebra and giraffe, the ascent continues into forests ablaze with red-hot pokers and drenched with Spanish moss. There is a good chance you will find arboreal blue monkeys and acrobatic black-and-white colobus up here before high open heath and giant lobelias take over on route to the summit.

Arusha’s backyard
Overall rating

With so much attention focused on the climb up Kilimanjaro, many travellers forget that Mount Meru (4566m), Tanzania’s second-highest mountain, is the shapelier of the two mountains. And despite its proximity to Arusha, the quiet four-day trails make it less of a scene – it’s on very few visitors’ bucket lists, but that’s only because very few people know about it. This is the quintessential African volcano climb, an opportunity to experience the extraordinary beauty of the Rift Valley rim and its montane forests and fine views, yet it lacks the sometimes-daunting large-scale expedition requirements of Kili just up the road. It’s also less than an hour’s drive from Arusha.

The combination of lakes and altitude ensures that birders will love the opportunity to see flamingos and raptors with some fabulous finds in between. And wildlife is a bonus here, rather than the main event – watch for zebra, giraffe, klipspringer and buffalo, and even elephant, leopard, red duiker and colobus.

Not ideal for everybody
Overall rating

Just 25km outside Arusha city, this tiny but beautiful national park is home to 4566m Mt Meru, whose spectacular crater creates a climb more beautiful than nearby Kilimanjaro. As a safari destination, Arusha National Park is usually sold to backpackers looking for a short, cheap trip. Most standard safaris skip it since the wildlife is less abundant and less varied than other national parks, and many of the most thrilling species are either hard to spot (elephant, leopard) or don’t live here (lions, cheetahs, rhinos). Zebras, giraffes, buffaloes, and hippos are pretty common. Despite having no chance for a wildlife extravaganza, there are several factors that make it worth considering – especially for repeat safariers looking for something new. The main one is the chance to do a half-day canoe safari on the lovely Momella Lakes, home to flamingos and overall one of the best wildlife spotting areas in the park. Walking safaris are also allowed here and because there is plenty of forest the birdwatching is excellent. It’s also the only Northern Circuit park with black-and-white colobus, which are quite easy to find.

A scenic park with a range of interesting habitats in the shadow of Mount Meru
Overall rating

The drive to Arusha National Park was through cultivated coffee bushes, but the landscape abruptly changed to shadowy dense montane forest at the park’s Ngurdoto Gate. (It’s always good to see a large tract of trees, given that most of Tanzania’s hardwood forests have been decimated for firewood). I was delighted to see acrobatic black-and-white colobus monkey, and from the rim of the spectacular Ngurdoto Crater, I could make out buffalo and warthog on the wide marshy floor. Further north, the forest thinned out to grassy hills where I saw giraffe and zebra and a fine view of Mount Meru, and the Momella lakes were lovely, each one a different hue of green or blue. Unless you want to hike on Meru, this is an easy day tip from Arusha, though there aren’t the large numbers of game as the other parks in the Northern Circuit.

Dancing flaming pink flamingos
Overall rating

One of Tanzania’s smallest parks, Arusha National Park is often overlooked by most
safari tourists. Not without reason, as it sadly lacks the big game drawcards of its northern park
neighbours which for me is usually a priority. Having said that, the park is one of the few places
in Tanzania where the black-and-white colobus monkey is easily seen. And what the park lacks
in wildlife, it certainly makes up for with spectacular scenery. Situated between the peaks of
Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru and punctuated by the Momella Lakes, it really is a visual feast
for the eyes. The park’s lakes also are home to seasonal flocks of flaming pick flamingos and are
excellent lures for variety of other birdlife, so twitchers will be well-pleased.

Momella lakes, painted pink by flocks of flamingo, at the base of Mount Meru
Overall rating

Although very accessible, this small park next to Arusha town is not on many safari itineraries. With mount Meru as a backdrop and the Momella lakes as its main feature, the park boasts great scenic beauty, but it lacks the big 5 animals many come to see on safari. The park is however close enough to Arusha, the gateway to the Northern safari circuit, that you could spend your first night here, instead of in Arusha town. What a way to start a safari! The lakes are seasonally home to flocks of flamingo and are good for birding all year round. A track around the lakes is a great loop for an early morning drive. Also recommended is a canoe safari on the lake. Of the big safari animals, giraffe is very common. Along the forested road climbing up to the rim of Ngurdoto crater, I’ve had many great sightings of the beautiful black and white colobus monkeys, which you’ll battle to see elsewhere on safari in Tanzania. Another personal favorite and special for the park is the delightful Kirk’s dik-dik with its twitchy nose.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.1/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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