The Lake Manyara National Park entrance gate lies 1.5 hours drive west of Arusha along a newly surfaced road. The park covers 330 sq km, of which up to 200 sq km is made up of picturesque alkaline lake when water levels are high. While the park is one of the smallest, it is also possibly the most ecologically diverse game reserve in Tanzania, boasting a great birding reserve.
Lake Manyara provides a gentle introduction to the safari experience. It is a scenic park that winds its way around a mainly forested driving route between the banks of the soda water filled Lake Manyara and the impressive rise of the Great Rift escarpment. Ernest Hemmingway is quoted as saying that the setting for Lake Manyara “is the loveliest I had seen in Africa”.
Lake Manyara National Park was established in the 1960s specifically to protect the elephant herds that have made the area world-renowned. However heavy poaching in the 1970′s and 1980′s decimated the herds. Although they are now recovering, elephant numbers are significantly less than in the past.
From the entrance gate, the road winds through a range of lush jungle-like groundwater forest where hundred-strong baboon troops lounge along the roadside, blue monkeys play between the ancient mahogany trees, bushbuck tread carefully through the changing shadows, and forest hornbills announce their presence in the high canopy.
Contrasting with the character of the forest is the grassy floodplain that surrounds the lake, and its expansive views eastward, to the jagged blue volcanic peaks that rise from the endless Maasai Steppes. Large buffalo, elephant, wildebeest and zebra herds gather on these grassy plains, as do giraffes – some so dark in coloration that they appear to be black from a distance.
Inland of the grassy floodplain, a narrow belt of acacia woodland is the favoured haunt of Manyara’s legendary tree-climbing lions and impressively tusked elephants. Squadrons of banded mongoose dart between the acacias, while the diminutive Kirk’s dik-dik forages in their shade. Pairs of klipspringer are often seen silhouetted on the rocks above a landscape of searing hot springs that steam and bubble adjacent to the lakeshore in the far south of the park.
Manyara provides the perfect introduction to Tanzania’s birdlife. More than 400 species have been recorded, and you might reasonably expect to observe 100 of these in one day. Highlights include thousands of pink-hued flamingos on their perpetual migration, as well as other large waterbirds such as pelicans, cormorants and storks.
The park can easily be seen in a day. Best game viewing months are December to February and May to July, tapering off in August and September.The best time to visit Lake Manyara National Park is in the early morning, when it is peaceful and still (this is almost certainly the only way to see the park’s shy leopards).