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Arusha National Park – a safari in itself

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A day in Arusha National Park will cost you, and your best friend, one hundred dollars. At least that’s the entrance fee for two “non-citizens”, i.e. for a couple of foreign non-resident adults plus car and driver, assuming that’s what you are. Yet assuming that you’re traveling in a local hire car with a local driver. And it’s for twelve daylight hours (0700 – 1900). To my mind a day in Arusha National Park is evidently worth that amount of money. So I go as often as possible, each visit yields at least one fabulous surprise. Every visit becomes a safari in itself.

Despite being a small protected area, by Tanzania’s giant standards, the 542 square kilometres of Arusha National Park provide a very varied ‘park’ indeed.

Firstly, there’s an incredible cliff, the red crescent. One of the highest cliffs in the world, created 8,000 years ago, when a massive explosion blew away half the giant cone of mighty Meru; although she’s been compensated since then with a breeding pair of Lammergeiers! The cliffs vault above an immense grey crater where an ash cone looms and hot springs bubble. Secondly, only eight kilometres to the east, there’s the ancient double caldera of Ngurdoto filled with untouched swamp and forest, three kilometres wide, and overlooked by seven perfect viewpoints. Thirdly, there’s forest. Magnificent highland, that’s afro-montane, forest of at least three types. Elsewhere there’s mature yellow-barked acacia woodland along rushing mountain rivers; several types of thicket, of bush-land and of grassland. And finally there’s a chain of crater lakes; each a different blend of freshness or of alkalinity.

Best of all perhaps, the park’s main gate is only 32 kilometres from the centre of Arusha. So our bustling little safari city provides the perfect base to sample some marvellous wonders, natural pleasures, in an increasingly overcrowded world. Wonders that start right here at the tourist hub of northern Tanzania.

The entire exploded cone of Mount Meru, at 4,566 metres, the eighth highest mountain in Africa, has only recently been incorporated within the park.  Yet ‘she’ utterly dominates the scene. Forty kilometres to the east the ice-capped fist of her brother, ‘Kibo’ of Kilimanjaro the world’s highest free-standing and truly independent mountain, bursts the horizon. And at 5,895 metres Kibo provides the summit of all Africa.

Mount Meru was first described to Europeans by Karl Klaus Von der Decken in 1862 after he glimpsed her during his second survey on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. In 1876 Count Teleki (a Hungarian) arrived in the region and enthused about the great abundance of hippos and black rhinos in that area of our park that surrounds the glorious, pristine, yes I mean ‘pristine’, Ngurdoto Crater. This crater forms a sanctum sanctorum within Arusha National Park. Well of course the rhinos were completely shot-out by the 1980s but that is another story.

In 1907 the Trappe family settled as ranchers at Momella and herded their cattle, chiefly across the lands of the Wameru people, all along the northern periphery of the present park. Mrs Trappe the elder became a legendary big game hunter and decided to turn a large proportion of the land which they controlled into a private hunting reserve.

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One hundred years is a long time in Africa. After the Second World War the winds of change blowing right across the continent gathered pace. In 1960 Ngurdoto Crater became a National Park. In 1967 with a foresight, that’s now been well and truly blinded, Mount Meru’s eastern cliff-face and forested slopes were included within the protected area. And the name was changed to Arusha National Park. This acknowledged the Warusha people, who live below what is now the western half of the national park. Despite developments outside, the park was again extended in 2006 to its present 542 sq km. (only 137 sq.km previously) in an audacious attempt by TANAPA to protect the upper forests (and their water), of the western and northern slopes of Mount Meru. Save them further degradation by the clamour for fuel and farm-land, among a massively increased human population, which for now has the mountain completely surrounded.

With such a great variety of habitats within a small compass this ‘forested oasis-island’ of Arusha National Park is obviously going to be excellent both for bird-watching and for padding that big safari list. It’s also a great place to find certain species of ‘difficult’ mammal, rare or hard to see elsewhere in Tanzania; as well as many kinds of ‘lesser wildlife’, reptiles and amphibians, and some remarkable invertebrates. Consequently a day or two birding, or accompanying birders, in Arusha National Park can provide the perfect add-on, both for the visiting birders themselves and for their non-birding colleagues! A very rewarding extension for all those undertaking a mainstream big game or wildlife safari around Tanzania’s northern circuit.

So we would highly recommend that visitors should stay in Tanzania for at least a couple of extra nights; preferably at one of the tranquil lodges nearest to Arusha park: Hatari Lodge by Momella Gate or Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge or Meru Simba nearer to the Main, that is the southern, Gate. Or else that they should stay at one of two less expensive, yet quite peaceful and green, lodges hidden-away in Arusha city itself; either at Karama Lodge or at Ilboru Safari Lodge, since even in Arusha you are only 40 minutes from the main gate.

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Once you have entered the park; and no doubt spent some minutes watching the first of many Maasai Giraffes – for Arusha National Park has the highest density, tamest and most epicurean giraffes anywhere – it is probably best to go straight to Serengeti Ndogo, a soft green marshy glade only two kilometres from the main gate. If you are a birder as you approach the glade keep a sharp look out for, the rare and as yet imperfectly described, Nairobi Pipit Anthus (similis) chyuluensis which feeds in the early morning along the roadside; here at its southernmost location. When flushed these Nairobi Pipits invariably fly up into the open leafy crown of one of the nearby heart-leaved Croton trees Croton macrostachyus. Once at the glade, park-up on the right hand side of the track, to enjoy close views of the herds of larger mammals, some of whom will be found grazing in this perennially lush meadow at any time of day. Typically there’s four of Arusha’s big five: Maasai Giraffe, African Buffalo, Common Zebra (Equus burchelli) and Common Waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus) together with that minister of magic the Warthog. Such large animals are invariably closely accompanied by small yet noisy flocks of slim brown birds – beady-eyed Red-billed Oxpeckers. Listen meanwhile for the simple yet evocative song of the Trilling Cisticola, which sounds as if an eighties trim-phone was ringing somewhere close, up atop the surrounding sage-bush (Ocimum suave). This big glade is a good place for,  scarce and exciting Palearctic wetland migrants, birds such as Black Stork or Corncrake in season; and for getting great views of, fabulously archaic and utterly exotic, Saddle-billed Stork searching for fish and amphibians such as Puddle Frogs and Bubbling Kassinas. A pair of these immense birds breed somewhere in the park in most years. Here you will find Spur-winged Goose and Egyptian Goose, large flocks of Sacred Ibis (because they were revered for delivering that vital Nile flood water to the Pharoahs) and Hadada Ibis; Black-headed Herons, three species of egret (Cattle, Great and Intermediate – often side by side) Three-banded Plover and numerous Wood and Green Sandpipers.

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There are often several hirundine species hawking amongst the larger ungulates; these frequently include fifty or more spatula-tailed Black Saw-wings as well as at least three species of martin. Last Sunday morning an adult male Martial Eagle (clearly the definitive eagle of war), all chocolate spotted and crisply white,  came hunting to the glade. First we knew there was a mighty dread among the regular fowl. Then he appeared. At the climax of two long leisurely sweeps, through circling skeins of terrified waterfowl, he took two Egyptian Goose goslings in the space of just five minutes. Like an airborne outcast gymnast, swinging-in to the olympic stadium to snatch both gold and silver from a stuttering official; accompanied by the hysterical honking grief of onlookers; especially the parents, both goose and gander, with all those gawky watching waterbirds. However he dropped his first fist-full of silver gosling as he landed in an isolated croton; and so retired to a tree in the farthest forest edge. He allowed the commotion to settle, prior to a second sweep and successful strike. It was fifteen minutes before we left him, still diligently preening in different Croton tree; since he’d eaten that hapless gosling, a mere morsel for him, gulped in two rips.

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From Serengeti Ndogo one should turn and retrace one’s steps slightly before branching east toward Ngurdoto Crater. For two kilometres you will pass wayside pools; where cryptic Malagasy Pond-Herons (aka Madagascar Squacco Heron) lurk away the austral winter; through slow growing dry forest before you reach the stream and former gate of the Ngurdoto Crater reserve. Here you enter a wall of tall evergreen forest which guards the lower slopes of this fairy-tale location. Among the many species of tree growing here are three species of slender graceful African Olive. Yet for me pride of place in this forest must go to the wild mango, otherwise known as Eastern Toad Tree (Tabernaemontana usambarensis). Named after the fruit, bufotine mangos that appear as warty green, peach-sized, doublers (paired mericarps) at the end of the twigs, peeking-out beneath straps of shiny crinkle-edged leaves. These mango and the wild figs of Ficus thonningi are beloved by that fast and agile, yet highly photogenic primate, the Blue Monkey Cercopithecus (nictitans) albogularis, whose ‘easy-going’ habituated troupes are frequently encountered within this shady forest. And by exciting Nymphalid butterflies. These include at least five species of my all-time favourites; large, robust and very fast-flying, the Emperors (Charaxes); and four species of Swallowtail which sometimes crowd together along with the Gold-banded Forester Euphaedra neophron on damp and pungent earth, beneath a branch where the lives of tree and monkey met. Or at some smelly scat, which marks that special place, where the coolest spotted jungle cat must have passed the night before.

WHITE-BARRED EMPEROR, charaxes brutus natalensis

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From the viewpoints along the Ngurdoto crater rim, furnished with a decent telescope, one can carefully scan the pristine marshy floor below. Hippos can be heard, haughtily snorting and guffawing, from the cool seclusion of great stands of papyrus; whilst large herds of buffalo graze or loaf, just chewing the cud, in the lush encircling pasture. In the tree tops all around you black and white robed Guereza Colobus (Colobus guereza caudatus) munch, seemingly interminably, on the poor nutrition of countless forest leaves; their guttural roaring chorus of audio-segregation is often joined by the tinny braying of ‘forest burros’, the cacophony which accompanies the effusive and distinctly clown-like antics of Silvery-cheeked Hornbills as they fly between the tree tops or bound through the crown of some forest noble.

In any one day many birds of prey traverse the skies above Ngurdoto crater. Augur Buzzards are seen frequently throughout the day. Last Sunday from our carefully chosen vantage point we watched three African White-backed Vultures sail past. Sadly finding these once abundant scavengers can no longer to be taken for granted. Even here in the safari-land of Tanzania. One pair of African Crowned Eagles, that “ogre of the monkey population”, armed with two four centimetre hind talons, breeds in the Ngurdoto forest. And there’s a further three pairs in the forests of Mount Meru. So the tremulous whistling call of this mighty bird may frequently be heard rising and falling somewhere above the surrounding leafy canopy. There are pairs of two falcon species breeding here. Little African Hobbys, alternately flashing slate grey above and rusty rufous below, dash after Mottled Swifts, Nyanza and Black Swifts, all three of which breed somewhere in the many cliffs and bluffs within Arusha National Park. The hobbys also capture dragonflies and butterflies; chasing them past the cliff-top guard rail often at, or even below, eye-level; and the heavily barred resident african race of Peregrine (Falco peregrinus minor), whose wickering calls reverberate around the crater during the breeding season, has a nest on a ledge just below one of the viewpoints in the cliff-face of Ngurdoto crater. The rather delicate looking, slightly crested, African Baza or African Cuckoo-Hawk is also occasionally to be seen at Ngurdoto, typically hunting arboreal Jackson’s Forest Lizards, two-horned chameleons or cicadas, in the upper storey of the forest.

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After an hour or so at one or two of these viewpoints our schedule must drive us on, so we descend back through the cool submontane forest to where the road branches to Momella. Along this track we come to the freshwater of Lake Longil. In some seasons there is a good variety of waterfowl here. Whilst Little Grebe, chunky Southern Pochard, Yellow-billed Duck, Hottentot Teal, the secretive White-backed Duck, Red-knobbed Coot, African Jacana and those two geese and ibises mentioned earlier (at Serengeti Ndogo) are often present whatever the time of year. A pair of African Fish Eagles hunt the fish in Lake Longil and often they may be seen perched on the snags of dead trees near the lake. A very local and near-endemic weaver the brilliantly-hued, chestnut-collared Taveta Golden Weaver breeds here in the tall emergent vegetation, not far from the road.

Further from Longil the road provides outstanding views westward to Mount Meru’s gaping eastern aspect and in the opposite direction to the dusty plains below the mighty bulk of Kilimanjaro. This area provides an excellent funnel for migrating birds, especially raptors in the appropriate season, and by taking an extended picnic here we have watched as many as twelve species passing in a single day – all from just one perfect spot. Best for me are the large flocks of insectivorous Central Asian Lesser Kestrel and especially the Amur Falcons (from easternmost Siberia), together with the occasional Sooty Falcon (from Arabia), that pass southward in November and early December.

After an early lunch, especially if you have only one day to spend here in Arusha National Park, it is best to press on to Momella gate; pick up an armed ranger ($20) and, by fording the turbulent Jekukumia or Engare Nanyuki river, ascend the steep mountain track toward Kitoto viewpoint which, on the lower edge of the heath zone at 2,500 metres, is a full one thousand metres higher, up on the eastern flank of Mount Meru.

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Whilst crossing the rushing waters of this boulder strewn river you should notice chunky White-fronted Bee-eaters, and possibly white-rumped Horus Swifts, circling overhead. These two species share the same clay tunnel breeding sites in the banks of the Engare Nanyuki by ‘hot-holing’; that is as the bee-eaters business ends the swifts move in. Also along the river bank, especially if it’s warm and sunny, Rock Agamas will be basking quite conspicuously; each adult male, perched-up on a favoured grey boulder, will be bobbing his orange-red head, in that typical agamid press-ups display.

Driving on you will enter evergreen forest once again. Especially in the moister months the forest interior is a magnificent exuberance of greens; there are enough shades to make an Irishman blush; this is because the trees are draped and festooned with epiphytic plants of many kinds. By mosses, orchids, many varied fern species and several beard lichens; all of which draw their sustenance from the often misty air, and are using the trees solely for support.

The large herds of buffalo now effectively isolated, by increasing human settlement and peripheral hunting or poaching, within Arusha National Park ensure that many of the forest areas are so heavily grazed and browsed that tree regeneration is anything but natural. Consequently in many areas the forest floor is remarkably open. However this makes it relatively easy, in certain places, to watch small groups of very handsome Bushbuck foraging in the open; the females smaller and light rufous, the males spiral-horned and greyish; and even to spot the two smaller forest antelope of this park, the plump and rather nervous-looking, deep bay-coloured Harvey’s Duiker and with luck, especially if it is even a bit misty, the diminutive, light eschewing, grey-olive Suni.

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The track climbs up toward Miriakamba, the lower of two climber’s hut on Mount Meru, passing through a variety of subtly different forest zones, out of which former clearings and more open hill tops protrude, and from which forest-living African Elephant can be seen. Along this road the beautiful Narina Trogon gives way with increasing altitude to the even more beautiful Bar-tailed Trogon, whilst the noisy Singing Cisticola of lower elevations is replaced by the even noisier Hunter’s Cisticola; clearly audible from Itikon campsite upwards. Similarly the Collared, Variable, Scarlet-chested, Amethyst, Olive and Bronze Sunbirds of lower elevations are replaced by Eastern Double-collared, Golden-winged, Malachite and Tacazze Sunbirds as you climb toward Miriakamba. The latter are especially evident if the Kniphofia thomsoni (red hot poker) are flowering.

You will notice that the forest changed profoundly at about 2000 metres; in the vicinity of Maio waterfall. True mountain forms dominate the scene. The indigenous Pencil Junipers (Juniperus procera), which began appearing along the wayside just before Momella gate, attain a far greater stature up here in the cool mountain air, and it seems very likely that these are amongst the tallest of their family anywhere in the world. They are joined by other Coniferophyta, the Podocarpus trees, known colloquially as East African Yellow Wood (Podocarpus falcatus) whose hard rounded fruit provide a major component of the diet of the large green, truly montane Red-fronted Parrot. In the undergrowth at this elevation, especially if there are knee-high grasses and red-flowered nettles (Urtica masaicus) flowering in partial shade, one should listen attentively for the high pitched ‘siip’ notes of Abyssinian Crimsonwings. With care very good views can be obtained.

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The higher forest zone resounds to the monkey-like guttural calls of another large, deep green bird the Hartlaub’s Turaco. This is the only turaco on Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru; in Tanzania each major mountain group supports a different species. Even if you have not hired an armed ranger it is permissible to get out of the 4×4 at Kitoto viewpoint and walk around a very short distance. Kitoto provides superb views across the northern half of the park. Birds of course are all around. One can watch pairs of African Crowned Eagles engaged in their roller-coaster display far above and frequently they are mobbed by mewing Mountain Buzzards. Look for Black-headed Mountain Greenbuls (Andropadus n. nigriceps) whose nasal laughing whinny is such a feature of these forests, the gorgeous Starred Robin, confiding Dusky Flycatchers and our delightful and vociferous resident leaf warbler – Phylloscopus umbrovirens – the unimaginatively named Brown Woodland Warbler. Special attention should be paid to finding the orange-billed, dark-coloured and regionally-endemic (Northern) Mountain Thrush (Turdus abyssinicus oldeani) and study those Montane White-eyes, they are of the regionally endemic form Zosterops (poliogaster) eurycricotus. Noisy groups sip nectar with their brush-tipped tongues at many of the flowers in bushes near to a rusty old trailer, itself an ancient relict, seemingly it’s been parked here as long as anyone can remember.

Stay here until after five, to enjoy the sun setting behind the great palisade of Meru and to savour the deliciously cool late afternoon air. Then sadly you must tear yourselves away from this tranquil scene; re-in-vehiculate (as the old shotguns at Birdquest used to say); and descend whence you came; presumably (yet with luck) to the rather dubious electrified pleasures of twenty-first century civilized life.

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Thanks to all the hard-pressed staff at Arusha National Park and thanks, as always, to Anabel Harries and Martin Goodey, thanks also to Rob Tizard for three images of rare and beautiful brown things, to Charles Davies for the Bar-tailed Trogon, and to Debbie Hilaire for allowing me to use her two photos – of  those Lesser Flamingos at Momella Lakes and for the pair of Cape Teal. All the photos were taken here near Arusha in Northern Tanzania.

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