After successfully completing our 8-day Kilimanjaro trek, we returned to Arusha for a brief rest before embarking on a private, 5-day safari across northern Tanzania. We began in Lake Manyara National Park, a reserve containing some of the country’s greatest bio-diversity and boasting more than 400 species of local and migratory birds. The park is densely vegetated, extending along the base of enormous cliffs delineating the boundary of the Great Rift Valley. When water levels are at their highest, Lake Manyara – a shallow, Soda lake – occupies almost two-thirds of the national park area.
To access Lake Manyara, we drove two hours west of Arusha in our safari jeep along seemingly endless roads that oscillated between pavement and a combination of large holes, rocks, and billowing dust. Our guide, Francis, joked that this was our special “African massage.”
Upon arriving at the gate, we were met by towering trees that appeared to have enormous sausages dangling from the branches. Appropriately enough, these are called sausage trees (Kigelia africana), and their brown, woody fruit pods can grow to an astonishing 3 feet in length and weigh over 20 pounds!
As we drove through the park, along a winding dirt road, our surroundings flourished with wildlife – blue monkeys clambered in the trees over our heads, hippos lazed in a few shallow pools, and families of elephants and impala sought refuge from the hot African sun under some shady trees.
The park did, indeed, live up to its reputation as a bird-watcher’s paradise as well. We were able to photograph the most amazingly beautiful birds (25 different species in total), such as the lilac-breasted roller and gray-headed kingfisher, and were just awe-struck at Francis’ bird knowledge. He correctly identified nearly every species, and carried two birding guides in the vehicle as additional resources. He told us that most guides are not particularly familiar with birds, likely because most visitors are more interested in seeing only the “more exciting” mega-fauna, and in checking the ‘Big Five’ (African lion, African elephant, leopard, rhino, and Cape buffalo) off their lists. Knowing we were also keenly interested in birds, I wondered if our agent, Trevor (Peak Planet), specifically arranged for Francis to be our guide. Regardless, we couldn’t be more grateful to have such a fantastic, knowledgeable, enthusiastic leader for our adventure.
We stopped for lunch at an isolated picnic table, overlooking the expansive blue lake dotted with dozens of pink flamingos, cranes and spoonbills. A few feathered guests joined us at our secluded rest stop – a red and yellow barbet hopped curiously around our feet, and superb starlings watched with envy from the branches above.
We spent the rest of our day touring wide-eyed around the park area, our shutters snapping excitedly, and stayed until the sun hung low in the sky. The park seemed relatively isolated, as we passed few other vehicles during our excursion. As sunset neared, we exited the national park and drove up the soaring cliffs (~600 meters) of the Manyara Escarpment, enjoying breath-taking views of the valley below.