Well, we went to our local park - Arusha National Park where, on average, we go twice a month.
It costs $80 (US) in TANAPA entrance fees for two adult 'foreigners', in a local car with a local driver, for a day visit; that's for twelve hours 0700 to 1900. Every visit is well worth the money; being completely different from the visit before. Every visit yields fabulous surprises. Each visit becomes a safari in itself. Sunday September 7, 2008 was no exception; even though it was my fortieth trip to Arusha National Park.
Despite being a small protected area, (to some a theatre of biodiversity), at least by Tanzania's impressive standards, the 542 square kilometres of Arusha National Park 'secures' a very varied park indeed. For the moment at least.
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 with Verreaux's Eagles and a resident pair of Lammergeiers! The cliffs vault above an immense grey crater where an ash cone looms and infernal hot springs bubble.
Secondly, only eight kilometres to the east, there's the ancient double caldera of Ngurdoto Crater; filled with swamp and forest, three kilometres wide and untouched by human hand; overlooked by seven perfect viewpoints.
Thirdly there are forests. Magnificent highland forest - that's afromontane - forest of at least three distinct kinds.
Elsewhere there's mature yellow-barked acacia woodland along a rushing mountain river; several types of thicket, of bushland and of grassland.
And finally there's a chain of crater lakes; each of different freshness or salinity.
Best of all perhaps, for all us civilized folks, the park's main gate is only 32 kilometres from the Clock Tower - the centre of town. Midway twixt Cape and Cairo.
So this bustling little city, also named Arusha, is clearly the perfect gateway, to some marvellous wonders, pure natural pleasures. Wonders which begin right here; if you can pay the entrance fee; 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. 'She' utterly dominates the scene. Forty kilometres east the ice-gloved fist of 'Kibo Kilimanjaro', the world's highest free-standing or truly independent mountain, formerly an impervious overseer, of mankind's great follies, bursts the horizon. At 5,895 metres still-frozen Kibo is 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' which surrounds the gloriously pristine, (well, I should write 'pristine'), Ngurdoto Crater. This slightly pear-shaped crater forms a sanctum sanctorum within Arusha National Park. And yes, of course, the rhinos were completely shot-out, during the 1980s but that is another story.
In 1907 the Trappe family settled as ranchers at Momella and herded their cattle, across the lands of the Wameru people, along the northern periphery of the present day park. Mrs Trappe the elder became a legendary big game hunter and she decided to turn a large proportion of the land which they controlled into a private hunting reserve.
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. With great foresight on the part of President Julius Nyerere's african-socialist government, the eastern cliff-face and forested slopes of Mount Meru were added to the protected area in 1967; and the name changed to Arusha National Park. This acknowledged the Waarusha people, who used to live in what has become the western sector of the national park. Contrary to the overwhelming orthodoxy of the very recent past, now known as 'ecological modernisation theory', the park was again greatly expanded in 2006; enlarged to its present 542 sq. km from only 137 sq. km previously. An audacious attempt by TANAPA to 'secure' the upper forests (Arusha's water supply), on the western and northern flanks of Mount Meru. Protecting the forest from further degradation, the clamour for fuelwood and any remotely cultivable land, by a human population which today totally surrounds the mountain.
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 racking-up a big list. It is also a great place to find certain species of localised 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 three peaceful and green lodges, hidden-away close to Arusha itself; either at Onsea House, Karama Lodge or at Ilboru Safari Lodge, since even in Arusha you are only 40 minutes from the main gate.
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, the 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), a pair of gorgeous Grey Crowned Cranes, Three-banded Plover and numerous Wood and Green Sandpipers. 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 (Polemaetus bellicosus); all majesty, stealth and power, so clearly the definitive eagle of war, tunic crisply white with chocolate spots; came hunting to the glade. The first we earthbound bipeds knew was a mighty dread among the regular fowl. Then the torpedo rent the scene. Two great sweeping arcs, at the culmination of which, through a merry-go-round of shrieking waterbirds, he took two Egyptian Goose goslings in the space of just five minutes. Like an airborne outsider, or gymnast, rocketing into the olympic stadium to snatch both gold and silver from the stuttering officials. Accompanied by hysterical honking, grief of all the onlookers; especially the parents both goose and gander, and all the other gawkily watching waterbirds. However he'd dropped his first fist-full of silver gosling when he landed in an isolated croton tree; and had thus retired to a hiding place on the farther forest edge. Here he allowed the commotion to settle, prior to a second sweep and successful strike. It was a further fifteen minutes before we politely left him, diligently preening in a different croton tree; for he'd eaten that hapless gosling seemingly an age before, a mere morsel for him, gulped-down in a couple of rips.
From Serengeti Ndogo one should turn and retrace ones 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). It's named after the fruit, bufotine mangos that appear as warty green, peach-sized, doublers (paired mericarps), at the very end of the twigs, peeking-out beneath straps of shiny crinkle-edged leaves. These mangos 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 favourite; the large, robust and very fast-flying 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 life of tree and monkey met. Or at some smelly scat, which marks that very special place, where the coolest spotted jungle cat must have marked the night before.
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 guerza 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 sailing past. Sadly finding these once most abundant of 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 razor talons, breeds in the Ngurdoto forest. And there's a further three pairs in the forests of Mount Meru. So the tremulous whistling calls 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 more easily 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, most likely hunting the arboreal Jackson's Forest Lizards, Kilimanjaro Two-horned Chameleons or the plentiful cicadas, in the upper storey of the forest.
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.
Whilst crossing the rushing waters of this boulder strewn river you should notice brilliant White-fronted Bee-eaters, and monochrome 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 manic press-up 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 sustenace from the often misty air, and are using the trees solely for support.
Large herds of buffalo are now effectively isolated, by increasing human settlement and peripheral hunting or poaching, within Arusha National Park. They ensure that many of the forest areas are so heavily grazed and browsed that tree regeneration in the park 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.
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 now 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.
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 permissable to get out of the 4x4 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 the endemic north-east Tanzanian volcano form - Zosterops (poliogaster) eurycricotus. Noisy groups sip nectar with their brush-tipped tongues at the many flowers in the bushes near to an old and rusty trailer, itself an ancient relict form; seemingly it's been parked here for as long as anyone can remember.
Stay here at least until after five, to enjoy the sun setting behind the immense palisade of Meru, and savour the deliciously cool air of late afternoon. Then sadly you must tear yourselves away from this tranquil scene; reinvehiculate (as the old shotguns used to say at Birdquest); and descend whence you came; presumably (yet with luck) to the rather dubious electrified pleasures of twenty-first century civilized life.