The annual Serengeti-Mara migration might be the main act, but Geoff Dalglish and Adelle Horler urge you not to miss the area’s equally worthwhile curtain-raisers – Tarangire and Lake Manyara national parks.
With up to two million plains animals on the move in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, it’s easy to get caught up in migration fever and the need to witness the greatest spectacle on earth. We should know – we confess to repeatedly flashing past Lake Manyara in our quest to reach Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti (although we’ve always taken time to savour the magnificent views of the lake from the rim of the escarpment). But in February we vowed not to repeat that mistake.
These days both Tarangire and Lake Manyara are readily accessible via good main roads and are situated just minutes off the Great North Road between Dodoma and Arusha, the safari capital of Tanzania. If you’re coming from the south you’ll find the turnoff to Tarangire on the right, just over 100 kilometres from Arusha and around 25 kilometres before the main turnoff to Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti at the small village of Makuyuni. Look out for signposting near the Minjinju phos-phate mine and village of Kwakuchinja – from here it’s an eight-kilometre dirt road to the park gate and access to Tanzania’s fifth largest national park, which covers 2 642 square kilometres.
Like Lake Manyara, Tarangire National Park is caught in the pincers of human development, becoming an ‘island park’ as the growth of human development along its boundaries blocks off traditional migration routes. Hippo, black rhino and wild dog have disappeared, but the park remains a wildlife gem, especially during the main dry season between June and the end of October, when viewing is best and the dirt roads are easier to traverse.
There’s a good infrastructure of unsurfaced roads within the park, the most popular spots being near the Tarangire River where game concentrates. Our two short visits dished up an abundance of game and great elephant sightings. With enough to keep you and your binoculars busy for days, it would be a pity to spend less than a couple of nights here.
But be warned: certain roads along the boundaries of the park are suitable for 4x4s only, while accessing some game lodges on the periphery, notably Tarangire Treetops Camp, requires an off-roader with good ground clearance because of the deep sandy tracks. Within the park there are a number of campsites and two hotels: Tarangire Safari Lodge is conveniently located near the gate and the main road, while Sopa Lodge caters more for package tourists.
Getting to Lake Manyara has never been easier, although we were happy to be travelling the park’s sandy and sometimes muddy tracks in a 4×4 camper. The superb new tarred road from Makuyuni has you in the bustling market town of Mto wa Mbu (which means ‘river of mosquitoes’) in minutes and shortly thereafter, 36 kilometres from Makuyuni, lies the turnoff to Manyara. Then it’s only another 700 metres to the entrance gate.
One peep at the park’s campsite at the entrance gate, set in dank and dripping forest on a drizzly day, convinced us that we didn’t wish to put the mosquito legend to the test. We’d arrived too late to find a possibly more appealing campsite deeper in the park, especially as the new officials at the gate couldn’t give us directions. So, we decided to explore the 330-square-kilometre park as day visitors and returned to Mto wa Mbu to book into a campsite there, a mission that is entirely practical and eminently worthwhile.
Besides the town’s campsite, other accommodation options include lodges on the rim of the escarpment, where you enjoy breathtaking views of a lake that, being the victim of notoriously fickle rainfall patterns, varies dramatically in size and depth. In February it was the lowest we’d seen in years, but still a joy.
Once in the park, you drive through lush vegetation reminiscent of a tropical rainforest (it is a groundwater forest fed by seepage and a high water table), with a chorus of animal and bird sounds reverberating through the dense foliage, among them the call of a silvery-cheeked hornbill and the trumpeting of elephant on the nearby lakeshore. It’s heaven.
Naturally we’d hoped to see the tree-climbing lions for which Manyara is famous, but they were not on the programme that day. Great sightings of elephant family groups, along with Maasai giraffe (the subspecies with distinctive roseate or star-shaped markings) were among the main highlights. The park is also a birder’s delight, dishing up forest species and waterbirds, with lesser flamingos often counted in the thousands.
Mostly we revelled in scenery so different to what we’d encountered in Ngorongoro Crater and the plains of the Serengeti. Small as the park is, it made a big impact and we will definitely revisit it soon. Even if you only have a few hours to spare, grab the chance.
Geoff Dalglish and his partner, Adelle Horler, are leading contributors to a variety of 4×4 and travel magazines. They specialise in photo-journalism and the planning of earth-friendly 4×4 expeditions. Geoff is a UK-trained 4×4 instructor and has participated in the Camel Trophy and Malaysian Rainforest Challenge.