Arusha safari capital of Northern Tanzania

The town of Arusha is the safari capital of northern Tanzania, and the National Park closest to the town is Arusha National Park, a relatively small jewel among parks in Africa.  Given its proximity to the modern conveniences of the town, it’s surprising that most visitors give it a miss, but that can be a bonus for the ones who choose to explore this magnificent landscape just an easy 40-minute drive northeast of Arusha town.

The park has a wonderful diversity of terrain and wildlife, dominated but not defined by Mount Meru; at about 15,000 feet (4,566 metres) it is Africa’s fifth tallest peak.  Its lofty cousin Kilimanjaro is visible from higher elevations in the park, usually at dawn and sundown, about 30 miles in the distance.

The entrance to Arusha National Park leads through cool, shadowy rainforest to the abrupt cliffs of Ngurdoto Crater, and on  the way you will probably see dozens of the distinctive black and white colobus monkeys performing acrobatics and observing you observing them.

Ngurdoto Crater forms a lush green valley where herds of buffalo and warthog roam the wide, marshy plain.  Ngurdoto’s ring road provides panoramic views, and you may spot elephants, baboons,  leopards and hyenas, though you won’t see a lion here.  When you proceed a little further north you will reach the rolling hills surrounding the Momela Lakes.

The tranquil beauty of these lakes is enhanced by their varying hues; they appear in different shades of blue and green from one to the next, the shallows often pink with flamingos.  The lakes are home to many other waterfowl, both resident and migrant, as well as waterbucks displaying their lyre-shaped horns.  On the rolling grasslands around you will see herds of giraffe, zebra and the quick-daring dik-dik that look something like rabbits on springs.

Park rules do not allow you to descend to the valley floor on foot, but you can walk around the rim and be rewarded with spectacular views. There are also canoeing opportunities, an ideal way to get a close-up look at the gorgeous habitat of the lakes.

For climbers, the ascent of the park’s Mount Meru is a challenge and reward in itself.  It leads through forests that drip with Spanish moss into the higher regions where the open heath is dotted with huge lobelias and fragile-seeming klipspringers, whose delicate pointed hooves can fit together on a piece of rock the size of a large coin.  The summit of Mount Meru is the best spot for viewing snow-capped Kilimanjaro that soars in the distance.

The best time to visit Arusha is between June and February, especially if you plan to climb Mount Meru, a three to four-day excursion.  The best views are usually found from December to February.  The park has two lodges, two rest houses and two mountain huts, plus scattered camp sites, and there are plenty of modern accommodations in nearby Arusha town.