Expert Reviews – Lake Manyara NP

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Elephants, Flamingos & Rift Valley Vistas
Overall rating

Manyara is small, scenic and mostly covered by the large, shallow Lake Manyara. Despite this, the park is notable for its great diversity of habitats, and for its remarkably high biomass density of large animals. Hippos, elephants, zebras, giraffes and buffalos are all frequently spotted, and with luck, you may see one of the tree-climbing lions for which Manyara is famed. Manyara is also one of the few parks where you can do night drives. Among the things I like best about the greater Manyara area are the wonderful views down over the lake from the top of the escarpment.

Many northern circuit safari itineraries relegate Manyara to a quick day visit. If your time is limited, this may be 'enough' in favour of additional time in the more action-packed Serengeti or Ngorongoro Crater. However, if you are a repeat safari-goer, or if you are interested in birding (for which Manyara is wonderful), then plan on at least a night or two here.

A vision in pink
Overall rating

Lake Manyara is an unassuming yet attractive park that in truth deserves more time and attention - most people dash through en route to Ngorongoro Crater. Two-thirds of it is taken up by the lake itself and the rest is squeezed between the lake shores and the red cliffs of the Manyara Escarpment of the Great Rift Valley. As such, its varied habitat attracts myriad birdlife and the lake becomes a blanket of pink when thousands of flamingoes descend upon it on their migration. It’s well-known for its huge population of baboons – they seem to be everywhere here. But it’s perhaps better known for its far smaller numbers of tree-climbing lion, a rare but beautiful sight. I saw a lioness and three young cubs perched quite precariously in an acacia tree on my last visit and would have stayed to watch them for hours were it not for the tsetse flies that can make life quite uncomfortable. One school of thought is that the lions climb the trees to avoid the flies!

Lake of elephants
Overall rating

This park had occupied a romantic corner of my imagination ever since childhood, when I read about Ian Douglas-Hamilton’s pioneering work with elephants during the 1960s. When I finally got there for myself I found it every bit as beautiful as I’d envisaged, with lush forest carpeting the rugged walls of the Rift Valley escarpment, and the shimmering waters of the lake crammed with water birds. However, there was no escaping the crowds. The park is small, and attracts a high concentration of day visitors passing through en route to the greater attractions of the Serengeti. Many of these visitors don’t have time to venture far into the park so cluster along the near lakeshore, which can mean an unseemly build-up of traffic in this area. It’s a shame, because time to explore deeper into the park would, I’m sure, be rewarding. I saw the famous elephants, of which there were plenty, plus enormous numbers of baboons, and forest species such as bushbuck and colobus monkeys. The lake was impressive, with plentiful hippos and waterbirds – including flamingos.

Like most day visitors, I missed the famous tree-climbing lions, which generally require more time and a trip deeper into the park. A stay inside the park would also allow canoeing and night drives, which are both excellent options. It’s a lovely destination, and rich in wildlife, but suffers from its position as gateway to the ‘Northern Circuit’, which means that for many visitors it will always serves as an introduction to – and subsequently poor comparison with – the Serengeti.

Pretty in Pink
Overall rating

Lake Manyara is a small and very picturesque park that is largely overshadowed by the neighbouring Ngorongoro Conservation Area. On safari in Tanzania in the early 1930s, Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway said that Lake Manyara , which takes up most of the national park, was the “loveliest” in Africa. Many might still agree today. Hugged by the green and densely-forested Manyara Escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, the mirror-like surface of the shallow lake is covered in a thick blanket of pink flamingoes.

Manyara has also become known for its leopards and tree-climbing lions, though I had no luck with either and was told by my guide that both were very rare sightings here. I was also informed that in fact lions have been seen climbing and lounging about in trees in many of Tanzania’s parks. Easier to spot were the large numbers of baboons, elephants and hippos.

Sadly the small size of the park and its proximity to the two biggest stalwarts on the Northern Circuit mean that Manyara can get rather busy. But it’s still worth at least a morning’s game drive and a few landscape pictures.

Night drives, bush walks, and dramatic scenery
Overall rating

The namesake lake covers a third of the park and during the rainy season it hosts millions of flamingos. During the dry season the lake withers down to nearly nothing and I found the shimmering salt flats left behind to be eerily beautiful. Even more spectacular is the Rift Valley escarpment which soars along the park’s western border providing stunning views from above and a dramatic backdrop from down below. As for the wildlife, Lake Manyara is second tier compared to other parks in the area, but it’s still good enough to deserve a day on any Northern Circuit safari, and your visit will be especially enjoyable if you take enough time to get beyond the busy northern end of the park. The stars are the tree-climbing lions, which while very hard to find, are more likely to be seen here than in any other park in Tanzania. The leopards are equally hard to spot. Elephants, buffalos, hippos, zebras, and giraffes, however, are abundant, and the diversity of habitats (there are 11 different ecosystems within its 648 square kilometer borders) makes it one of the best bird-watching parks in Tanzania. The best thing about the park is the variety of activities available. Night drives, bush walks, and canoe safaris (lake levels permitting) give the typical safari itinerary a little variety.

Manyara: Among the elephants (and flamingos)
Overall rating

Lake Manyara’s geography is very different from Tanzania’s other parks – it’s long and thin, sandwiched between the lake itself and the high cliffs of the Rift Valley. In my opinion, it’s a bit underrated, and often overlooked in favour of the more glamorous Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti.

Manyara’s two best features are the appealingly ‘Lost World’ feeling of the towering cliffs and wheeling flocks of birds, and the beauty of the lake. Game drive vehicles are allowed right down to the water’s edge, where you’re bound to see buffalo grazing in the emerald green swamp grass, and in season, impressively large flocks of flamingos and pelicans on the lake. I also love Manyara’s abundance of elephants, which were studied intensively by famous biologist Ian Douglas-Hamilton in the 1970s. As a result, they’re well accustomed to human visitors and tolerate close approaches by people. The classic book ‘Among the Elephants’ by Douglas-Hamilton is one of my favourites, and essential reading if you want to get the most out of your visit.

Manyara is also famous for tree-climbing lions, but be warned - lions can be frustratingly hard to find here either in or out of the trees, especially if you just come in for one or two days. On my last visit, though, a night drive yielded no less than THREE leopard sightings, which more than made up for the lack of arboreal cats in the daytime.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.6/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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