Expert Reviews – Lake Manyara NP

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Lake Manyara-one of the most scenic of Rift Valley lakes teeming with wildlife on its shores
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Lake Manyara National Park is one of the most scenic parks in Tanzania. Patches of yellow fever trees are dotted around the grassy lake shores and the rift valley wall is a prominent feature throughout the park. The entrance of the park is in a very special environment: a ground water forest. There are always lots of monkeys and baboons around, but don’t forget to look up higher in the trees as the silvery-cheeked hornbills like this habitat as well. There are always lots of elephants around and you might be lucky to spot some of the famous tree-climbing lions. Unfortunately, the road that used to run close to the shore has been closed for the last few years and might not be re-opened. So seeing the flamingoes isn’t that easy anymore unless you head out by canoe, one of the activities on offer. Because of the proximity to Arusha, most visitors limit their visit to an afternoon on the way through to Ngorongoro. I’ve found the park almost devoid of tourists in the morning and if you have time, a 2-night stop is certainly not excessive.

Lake Manyara NP is famous for its tree-climbing lions and astounding views over the lake
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We drove through Lake Manyara National Park en-route to Ngorongoro and Serengeti and it was pretty much our first initiation to Tanzanian parks. The views are spectacular (as is to be expected in this part of Tanzania) and as a warm-up to Ngorongoro Lake Manyara is perfect. The lions eluded us (although there were plenty in the crater) but the lake, with its great pink-tinged acres of flamingos is an unforgettable sight in itself. Hemingway called it ‘the loveliest lake in all Africa.’ I wouldn’t want to argue with him.

Lake Manyara: Lions in Trees
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This thin sliver of a park is often bypassed in the rush between Tarangire and Ngorongoro and the Serengeti, but that would be a mistake. For a start, the dramatic escarpment that forms the western wall of the Great Rift Valley makes this one of the easiest places in East Africa to get a sense of the drama of the great gash that slices through the heart of the continent. And then there’s the promise of tree-climbing lions – these lions defy nature and, unlike other parks where lions take to the trees, have done so since before tourists began arriving here. Elephants, buffalos and blue monkeys are other highlights.

And Lake Manyara has another very special reason to visit – this is one of few East African parks where night drives and walking safaris are both possible (though not at the same time). And if, like me, you’ve read and reread Peter Matthiessen’s The Tree Where Man Was Born, you’ll recognise that some of his most famous scenes come from Lake Manyara.

A diverse variety of landscapes in a small area, sheltered by the magnificent Rift Valley escarpment
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Lake Manyara is easily seen from the road that climbs up the Rift Valley, where all safari vehicles stop for a gawk at the pink flamingos, but what I like about this park is its simplicity for a game drive. There’s essentially one track through the permanent oasis of lush greenery, with the algae-streaked lake on one side and impressive baobab-strewn cliffs on the other. Despite looking for a tail dangling down through the branches, I never seen Manyara’s famous tree-climbing lions (a rare sight), and have had better luck with cats on the short plains of the other parks. But I’ve seen numerous plains game, elephant among the giant acacia and fig trees, pods of hippo in the Simba River, and pelicans, storks, geese, herons and cormorants, which share the lake with the flamingos. It’s a perfect accompaniment on a longer safari to the Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti.

Lions in trees
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Lake Manyara National Park is an ideal stop en route to/from Ngorongoro and the Serengeti. The park may be small in comparison to its northern counterparts, but it’s excellent for birdwatching and a good area to find elephants. What’s more, the scenic park is also renowned for its potential to see its legendary tree-climbing lions. While sightings are not always common, on my last visit I was treated the spectacle of three young lion cubs playfully fighting with each other for the best position in the crook of an acacia branch. The park’s horseshoe-shaped driving route takes you through a heavily wooded forest and then wends its way between the banks of the lake - described by Ernest Hemingway as the "loveliest [lake] I had seen in Africa" - and the impressive rise of the Great Rift escarpment. Elephant, giraffe, buffalo and wildebeest can often be found gazing in these flood plains. Over the years I’ve found it’s best to visit the park in the morning as it is pleasantly quiet with most tourist groups choosing to stop via the park in the later afternoon on their return to Arusha.

Flamingos and tree-climbing lions
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Lake Manyara National Park is dominated by the lake, which engulfs a whopping 65% of the total park area when full. However, its water levels fluctuate wildly between the seasons with the lake all but disappearing at the height of the dry season. Most of the terrestrial sector of the park is sandwiched into a narrow strip of land between the lakeshore in the east and rift valley escarpment to the west. As a consequence of its small size, limited land area and proximity to Arusha, there are few game-viewing tracks and the park has a reputation for getting quite crowded during the safari season. So pick your time to visit carefully and try to avoid the peak tourist months of July and August.

The highlight attraction for most visitors is the shallow alkaline lake, which – when filled by the seasonal rains (December to May) – becomes obscured by a pink carpet of feeding flamingos. With the rift valley escarpment providing a beautiful backdrop, enjoying an early morning coffee or late afternoon sundowners on the lakeshore – with hundreds of thousands of flamingos for company – is certainly one of the quintessential African safari experiences and not something you’ll forget in a hurry.

The migratory flamingos are just one of over 300 bird species that frequent Lake Manyara and its varied habitats. But non-twitchers will probably place more emphasis on the park having four of the Big Five (no rhino), although you need some luck to spot a lazy leopard or lion lounging on the boughs of a big fig or mahogany tree.

For those who are allergic to crowds, it’s worth noting that Chem Chem lodge – located within the Kwakuchinja wildlife corridor linked to Tarangire – and AWF’s neighbouring Manyara Ranch conservancy (where lesser kudu is a notable wildlife sighting) are great safari options if you have the budget to afford this more exclusive safari experience.

Average Expert Rating

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

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