Lake Manyara: A priceless tourism jewel


LAKE Manyara National Park is a small reserve (330sq km) with nearly twothirds of its area covered by the lake. Despite this, the park can claim a higher diversity of plant and animal species than the much larger Serengeti National Park, including a number of large animals.

The park was originally established to protect the legendary elephant herds that have made Manyara part of their home range. A Lake Manyara tour is a fascinating experience as the park features a wealth of diverse habitats. Stretching for 50 kilometres along the base of the 600-metre high Rift Valley escarpment, Lake Manyara is a scenic gem, with a setting extolled by British book author Ernest Hemingway as “the loveliest I had seen in Africa.”

From the entrance gate, the road winds through an expanse of lush jungle-like groundwater forest where hundred-strong baboon troops lounge nonchalantly along the roadside. Blue monkeys scamper nimbly between the ancient mahogany trees as dainty bushbuck tread warily through the shadows. A visitor is also greeted by forest hornbills honk cacophonously in the high canopy.

Contrasting with the intimacy of the forest is the grassy floodplain and its expansive views eastward, across the alkaline lake, to the jagged blue volcanic peaks that rise from the seemingly endless Maasai Steppes. Large buffalo, wildebeest and zebra herds congregate on these grassy plains, as do giraffes–some so dark in colour that they appear to be black from a distance.

The floodplain, a narrow belt of acacia woodland, is also a favoured haunt of Manyara’s legendary tree-climbing lions. Other residents in the park include impressively tusked elephants. Groups of mongoose dart between the acacias as the diminutive Kirk’s dik-dik forage in the shade. Pairs of klipspringer are often seen silhouetted on the rocks above a field of searing hot springs that steam and bubble near the lakeshore. Lake Manyara National Park provides the perfect introduction to Tanzania’s birdlife, a TANAPA brochure says. More than 400 species of wild birds have been recorded.

Even a firsttime visitor to Africa might reasonably expect to observe at least 100 bird species in a single day. Highlights include thousands of pink-hued flamingos on their perpetual migration. The birds also include large pelicans, cormorants and storks which spend most of the time fishing in the marshes. The park has an area of 330 square kilometres of which 200sq km comprise a lake– when the water level is high. The habitats include ground-water forests, acacia woodland, the tranquil soda lake, hot springs (Maji Moto), to the steep mountain escarpment that forms part of Africa’s Great Rift Valley.

Where the valley enters the lake the scenery becomes most impressive, with the escarpment dropping some 500 metres down to the flamingo-rimmed shores of Lake Manyara. Renowned for its numerous elephants and treeclimbing lions, Lake Manyara is also well-known for its flamingos and other bird life in and around the soda lake.

Due to the vastness of the lake, Manyara is a birding hot-spot. Nearly 400 species have been sighted and recorded particularly for waterfowl variety and migrant species. The forests provide an interesting and unusual habitat for lion sightings, where the lions are renowned for climbing and lounging in trees. The lions also hunt along the shores of the lake.

The park was once a favorite spot for big game hunters. However, today, Lake Manyara’s wildlife is protected and nearly all the mammals known to have occurred here historically are still present, says Game Officer Mwasenga. This includes large herds of buffaloes, the endangered African wild dogs (or painted dogs), cheetahs, Maasai giraffes and impalas. Other mammals at Manyara include olive baboons in troops numbering several hundred animals.

Also readily seen in the park are Syke’s monkeys, short-eared galagoes (bush babies), Cape clawless otters, Egyptian mongoose, hippos and klipspringers. Manyara National Park is a study in contrasts--with a dry, dusty brown heat haze filling the air, a vivid, green vegetation fringe surrounding the lake and the shimmering blue water of the lake itself spreading out to the horizon.

An ancient trading post for tribes such as the Mbugwe, Iraqw, Gorowa, Chagga and Maasai, the village of Mto wa Mbu, at the entrance to the Park, is the only place in Africa where you may hear all four of the major African language groups. These are the Bantu, Khoisan, Cushitic and Nilotic— all spoken in the same area. The Manyara area has an unreliable rainfall which varies between 10 and 47 inches a year.

In 1961 the lake dried up completely-- yet just one year later, in 1962, it flooded the area. In this area of rainfall extremes, the forests and plants find an alternative water supply that sustains them—underground springs that surface at the base of the cliffs. Entering the park, one is surrounded by the tall trees of the “ground water” forest with their lush foliage and a variety of birdlife.

Blue monkeys pick insects and fruits from the high branches while elephants feed off the wild figs. Baboons, bushbuck, civet, leopard and the nocturnal aardvark are all present in the forest and some of the few remaining Manyara rhinos may also be spotted.

Reeds, sedges and star grass cover the forest floor in small clearings. Venturing further into the park takes tourists past huge hippo filled pools in the Simba River where the grunts and splashes of the huge animals are accompanied by bird song and the quick, darting movements of birds on the wing. Over 380 species of bird have been recorded at the pools. The landscape opens out into the African acacia tree woodlands, filled with giraffes, zebras, impala and elephants. This is also the area known for its tree climbing lions.

During the heat of the noon day sun, entire prides of lions may be seen draped over branches of the acacias, escaping both biting insects and the heat in the long grass. Lake Manyara itself is slightly alkaline and maintains a huge population of water birds--pelicans, storks, cormorants, geese, ducks and flamingoes. All are supported by the rich waters of the lake.

“Maji Moto”, literally ‘Hot Water’ in Kiswahili are natural hot springs where heated water bubbles out of the ground at temperatures of up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The water itself is fresh although there are the occasional sulphur smelling gas emissions. Also located in Manyara Region is Tarangire National Park which extends to Mkungunero Game Reserve on the border between Kondoa and Kiteto districts. Mkungunero forest is rich in wildlife, especially during the wet season. It is hemmed in by Idindiri, Ihari, Kwadelo and Mlongia villages in the south.

In the east the forest borders on Kimotorok Village near the demarcation between Simanjiro and Kondoa districts. Lake Manyara National Park is located in Manyara Region in northern Tanzania. The entrance gate is located west of the city of Arusha along a newly surfaced road, close to the ethnically diverse market town of Mto wa Mbu. The park is reachable by road, charter plane or scheduled flight from Arusha. The scheduled flight passes through Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater, according to Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA).

Accommodation for tourists includes one luxury tree house-style camp, public bandas and campsites inside the park. One tented camp and three lodges perched on the Rift Wall outside the park overlooking the lake also offer luxurious accommodation.

There are several guesthouses and campsites in Mto wa Mbu to add to the list. Lake Manyara National Park may be one of Tanzania’s smaller wildlife reserves, but it is beautifully scenic and incredibly diverse

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