Lake Manyara National ParkLake Manyara National Park was established in 1960, the park itself is 330 square kilometers in size of which 200 square kilometers is covered by water (lake). It stretches for 50km along the Great Rift Valley escarpment while offering a virtual microcosm of the Tanzania safari experience.
Lake Manyara National Park is located 120 kilometers west of Arusha town, on the way to Ngorongoro crater.
It can be reached by road, charter or scheduled flight from Arusha or Kilimanjaro airport, en route to Ngorongoro crater and Serengeti national park.
Things to do:
You can indulge in activities like game-drives, mountain biking, forest hike, ultra-light flight, night game drive, nature walk and much more.
The most famous spectacle in this park are tree climbing lions, elephants , bush-buck, waterbuck, baboons, aardvarks, civets, the shy pangolin and leopards, buffalos and hippos, giraffes, impalas, and zebras.
Lake Manyara itself is a magnet for birdlife and a kaleidoscope of different species including huge flocks of flamingos.
Facilities: Campsites, tented camps and lodges outside the park along Mto WA Mbu Village. Guesthouses near the park also offer a comfortable accommodation.
Stretching for 50 km along the base of the rusty-gold 600-meter high Rift Valley escarpment, Lake Manyara is a scenic gem, with a setting extolled by Earnest Hemingway as “the loveliest I had seen in Africa”. The compact game-viewing circuit through Manyara offers a virtual microcosm of the Tanzanian safari experience.
Size: 330 sq km, of which up to 200 sq km is the lake when water levels are high.
Location: Northern Tanzania. The entrance gate lies 1.5 hours (126km) west of Arusha along a newly surfaced road, close to the ethnically diverse market town of Mto wa Mbu.
Getting there: By road, charter or scheduled flight from Arusha, en route to Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater.
What to do: Game drivers, canoeing when the water level is sufficiently high. Cultural tours, mountain bike tours, abseiling and forest walks on the escarpment outside the park.
When to go: Dry season (July-October) to see large mammals; wet season (November-June) for bird watching, the waterfalls and canoeing.
Accommodation: One luxury tree-house-style camp, public bandas and campsites inside the park. One luxury tented camp and two lodges perched on the Rift Wall overlooking the lake. Several guesthouses and campsites near Mto wa Mbu.
Lake Manyara has a considerably different landscape from any of the other parks. Picture lush woodlands and the beaches of this Rift Valley Lake where giraffe, elephants and wildebeest enjoy an endless supply of water. You will often see these enormous animals in the water, sitting, sipping or just cooling off. Due to this unique habitat, there are hundreds of bird species able to live in the forests and the ultimate site-seeing prize of this area is the tree-climbing lion.
Although this park is relatively small, it is still quite impressive. Most of the park is covered in forest or thick bush, sometimes making it difficult to spot wildlife. On shorter itineraries, we usually recommend omitting Lake Manyara, but it still is visited frequently because of its convenient location between Tarangire and Ngorongoro Crater. This is the only park where you can do night game drives within the park boundaries.
Location: Approximately 2.5 hours from Arusha on the road to the Ngorongoro Crater
Time: Can be visited in one day, but biking or hiking require a separate day. Might be excluded on a short itinerary.
Animals: Elephants, wildebeests, buffalo, hippo, impala, bush buck, water buck, klipspringers, zebra, giraffe, mongoose, warthog, leopards and the famous tree-climbing Lions, blue Monkeys, vervet monkeys,baboons, and over 380 bird-species including impressive flocks of Flamingos feeding on the lake’s algae.
Looking down from the western Rift wall along the road to Ngorongoro and Serengeti, it is easy to see why Lake Manyara National Park was once described as “The Emerald of Africa.” The lake shimmers below in the heat haze, home to flamingos, pelicans and innumerable water birds. Between the lake and the Rift, the park, with one main road and several loops, stands out in luscious greens that contrast with the arid, brown and windswept countryside. Lake Manyara National Park is renowned for its tree-climbing lions. Why they do so is unknown, the most likely explanation is that they climb into the branches to get away from the unwelcome attention of flies and large mammals that may threaten them. The park is reputed to have the highest of elephants of any park in the world.
Lake Manyara is a beautiful little park and is well known for its tree-climbing lions, elephants and three species of primates including the vervet monkey, blue monkey and baboon. The park boasts one of the highest concentrations of elephants in Africa and is home to the largest baboon troops ever documented. The park provides the only opportunity on the traditional safari circuit to see the striking blue monkey. Lake Manyara is home to an amazing variety of birds and animals, especially considering its small size. A short visit to this serene park will greatly diversify your safari experience as the lush green jungle habitat is of stark contrast to the other parks you will visit during your safari.
Lake Manyara National Park fills roughly 125 square miles of territory but the shallow, alkaline lake consumes the majority of this area. The Great Rift Valley itself is an immense rupture in the earth’s surface, splitting the landscape along a fault some 6500 kilometers all the way from the Red Sea to the Zambezi River; it is one of the earth’s few geological features that can be seen from the moon. It is here, with cliffs towering some 2000 feet above Lake Manyara, that the Great Rift Valley is at its most dramatic.
From whichever direction you approach Lake Manyara, it is a stunning sight. Nestled at the base of the Great Rift Valley, the lake appears like a shimmering mirage in the distance. The mirror like surface of the water reflects the shifting shades of the sky above – from dawn’s rosy hue in the early morning to glittering blue as the sun rolls directly overhead to golden glass as the yellow rays of sunset strike across the Great Rift Valley.
The wooded slopes that blanket the steep escarpment down to the valley are lush and green. This densely forested slope eventually opens up to a vast expanse of floodplains that surround the lake itself and meld into the endless plains beyond the lake that are eventually lost in the hazy distance. The strip of trees between lake and escarpment is so narrow, and the pressure on elephants in the surrounding farm country so great, that Manyara can claim to have the greatest elephant concentration in East Africa. For this reason and also because the Manyara animals are used to vehicles, it is one of the best places to watch elephants in the world. The first long-term field study of elephants in the wild was conducted in Lake Manyara and the book entitled Among the Elephants by Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton documents this pioneering work.
The landscape of Lake Manyara National Park is a mosaic of varied flora and habitats that hosts an amazing variety of wildlife. This intricate patchwork of complex bio-networks include the groundwater forest, the acacia woodlands, the grassy floodplains and of course the lake itself. In just a two-hour trip foray into the park, it is possible to see all the main highlights in the groundwater forest and the floodplains leading up to the lake. Overall Lake Manyara National Park is an exquisite gem. Small but lovely, and splendidly diverse, this park is a true scenic retreat for the eyes and the soul.
In addition to the striking scenery, game viewing can be quite rewarding here at the base of the Great Rift Valley. Resident herbivores that you will likely encounter include elephant, hippo, giraffe, wildebeest, buffalo, warthog and impala. Primates include vervet monkey, blue monkey and baboon. Lake Manyara boasts the highest concentrations of baboons in Africa. The baboons are among the more exciting animals to watch in the park as they squabble and feud in their large extended family groups. Baboons live in large communities called ‘troops’ of up to 200 individuals and defend fixed territories belonging to the females.
The baboons, elephants and impala can be found in the groundwater forest in the immediate area around the park gate. This lush green forest of giant fig trees and mahoganies is fed from underground springs that are constantly replenished from the crater highlands directly above the Manyara basin. The forest gives way to floodplains that lead up to the lake about 30 minutes from the gate. On the flood plains and fringes you will encounter buffalo, wildebeest and giraffe. There are also several pools supporting large concentrations of hippos.
Carnivores include lions and leopards. There are several resident lion prides in the park but they are much more difficult to see as compared to their cousins in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. The leopards of Manyara, though abundant, are elusive and only the occasional lucky visitor ever glimpses one in Manyara. If you are keen on seeing a leopard, make sure to spend two nights in the Central Serengeti as the Seronera River Valley is your best place to see a leopard in perhaps all of Africa.
It is commonly said that Lake Manyara is one of best the parks in Africa for birdwatchers. With over 300 species including migratory birds, even the most seasoned bird enthusiast will not be disappointed. The lake itself attracts thousands of greater and lesser flamingos along with many other aquatic species. Two of the more interesting species commonly seen are the long-crested eagle and the grey-headed kingfisher.
We find that a quick day visit to Lake Manyara incorporated on any itinerary between the Ngorongoro Crater and Arusha or the Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire is ideal for most travelers. The park gate is just a few feet from the main road and this combined with the fact that the park is small allows for quick and rewarding forays into the park. In addition, the majority of the wildlife found in the park is usually located in close proximity to the park gate. The walkway around the visitors center at the park gate is actually the best spot to see the stunning blue monkey. A two to four hour visit to Lake Manyara makes a superb addition to any safari itinerary.
Ground Water Forest
Upon making the descent from the ridge of the Great Rift escarpment, the first of the unique habitats you will encounter as you enter the northern edge of the park is the jungle like groundwater forest. Nurtured by a permanent supply of ground water from the area’s high water table, it is a dense evergreen forest of mahogany trees and wild date palms tower overhead. Gnarled vines and mossy covers drape their branches, giving the forest an ancient and mysterious allure. Sunlight filters through the leafy canopy of foliage and dances over a verdant carpet of wild hibiscus, ginger, and other leafy plants that thrive in the moisture and shadows below. Abundant freshwater springs spill out from the wall of the Great Rift Valley, and moisture seeps from the volcanic rock into the water table just below the surface of the earth. Beautiful Antiaris and Quinine trees shoot up through the canopy from the forest floor, stretching their leafy arms to the heavens.
This rain-forest like habitat could never survive if it wasn’t for the permanent reservoir of water available. The water table here is high enough that it is easily tapped by the thirsty network of roots that zigzag below the dense growth. Otherwise known as a “swamp forest”, the habitat found in this area can be quite boggy at times. In some places the water table is actually too high to support trees; in such areas the landscape gives way to marsh and swampy glades. Spiky reeds and star grass thrive in thick clumps around the quagmires, soaking in nourishment from the abundant water source beneath them.
In their book titled Among the Elephants, Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton write:
“The luxuriant forest could not be classified as a rain forest, since Manyara was a relatively arid area with an average rainfall of less than twenty inches. In fact, under such a climatic regime, it was only possible for the forest to grow because it was well-watered by innumerable streams. These issued from springs all along the foot of this part of the Rift wall, but the water originated some thirty miles away from the Ngorongoro Highlands. Rain falling there was prevented from running away too quickly by a thick cloak of mountain forest. It trickled down to the root and through layers of porous volcanic soil and rock, until it hit an impermeable layer of rock which finally surfaced at the foot of the escarpment within Manyara. Therefore, the Ground Water Forest, as it was named, with all its natural wealth, was dependent on water falling well outside it. If the Ngorongoro Forest were ever to be cut down the Manyara Ground Water Forest might well wither into extinction.”
There are many places where the road is the dividing line between the ground water forest and the rift wall vegetation. As you drive into the park, you will notice the distinct difference between the towering forest on your left and a completely different type of vegetation on your right. The steeply rising slope on your right, strewn in granite boulders, is blanketed with entirely different types of trees and shrubs including the hulky forms of silvery baobab trees stretching their gnarled branches to the sky. The primitive looking Baobab tree has a massive, hollow trunk that collects rainwater; the trunk also often serves as a cradle for a nest of wild bees. The Baobab’s ancient forms looming next to the road seem to take on a personality of their own, and one won’t doubt why they are fabled to be the dwelling place of ghosts or spirits.
Elephants, big fans of both water and vegetation, are commonly seen munching away in the groundwater forest. Shrieking blue monkeys chase each other through the leafy shadows, and inquiring vervet monkeys peer at you from the dense foliage. Many colorful birds flit between the shady branches of the trees here; one of the most brilliant of these birds is the lilac breasted roller, a vibrantly colored specimen with shimmering rainbow plumage of almost every hue. This habitat is especially ideal for baboons, which thrive in large troops here. These fascinating primates practice acrobatics in the surrounding trees, screeching with great enthusiasm in mock fights or demonstrations; they are also often seen drinking from pools of water formed by the springs or lounging lazily in the shade. Mother baboons trek down the road with inquisitive babies riding jockey style on their backs. These baby baboons may have never seen a human before and look quite endearing cocking their little heads in animated expressions of curiosity as they peer up at you with beady amber eyes.
The majority of the land between the lakeshore and the wall of the Great Rift Valley is dominated by acacia woodlands. Especially common is the flat topped, or umbrella, acacia tree that extends its leafy sunshade over the star grass that carpets the ground below. Also prominent are the stately tamarind and sausage trees, rising up with regal presence. This habitat is favored by a wide variety of herbivores for the generous shade and food these trees provide.
Giraffe can be seen gliding through the gnarled treetops, casually browsing the twisted thorny branches with purposeful care. Impala are also commonly seen here, delicately picking their way through the undergrowth and pausing nervously at the slightest suspicion of danger. Squads of banded mongoose scurry through clearings in the underbrush. Keep your eye open for leopards; although rare, it is possible to see these aristocratic cats lounging in the treetops – clothed in a camouflage attire of spots that blend perfectly with the dappled sunlight of leafy branches.
In every tour and guide book you will undoubtedly find a description of Lake Manyara that references ‘the famous tree climbing lions’. Most of these publications and write- ups seem to indicate that Manyara is a very special place as you can easily see these rare tree-climbing lions. It is true that there are lions in Manyara and they have been known to climb trees. However, this behavior is not special or endemic to Manyara. Lions are commonly seen climbing trees in both the Serengeti and Tarangire. Additionally, lions in Lake Manyara are generally very difficult to spot. The truth is that you will generally have a better chance of seeing lions in trees in the Serengeti as opposed to Lake Manyara. It is thought that tree climbing behavior may be related to the avoidance of parasites and diseases from biting insects and wet and muddy conditions on the ground.
Throughout the acacia woodlands you will see a beautiful species of gardenia, otherwise known as Jove’s Thunderbolt tree. The waxy white flowers of Jove’s Thunderbolt have a sweet fragrance that hangs heavily in the air around the trees, and the peculiar ridged fruit this tree produces is a special delicacy to elephants. The specific name of Jove’s Thunderbolt tree is based on an ancient Angolan belief that the tree provides protection from lightning, although it is not clear why.
Large areas of shrub land are also common here, including the bright green Toothbrush Tree and Grey-leaved Cordia which rarely exceed three meters in height. The prickly thickets of this shrub land are the favorite hangout of the small but charming dik-dik, a tiny antelope that finds protection in the thorny bush.
Elephants commonly trump through these thickets and woodlands, fanning themselves with their giant Africa-shaped ears. In fact, Lake Manyara boasts one of the highest elephant concentrations in all of Africa. In their book Among the Elephants, Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton document their historical writings of these giant beasts. Among the Elephants details the first long-term study of elephants in the wild, and this study was conducted in Lake Manyara National Park. Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton spent several years living in Lake Manyara and gradually became accepted by many of Manyara’s estimated 600 elephants. Elephant behavior and biology are discussed in detail along with Iain and Oria’s adventures in Manyara as they become intertwined in the trials and tribulations of various resident elephant families. This pioneering field study is a must read for any elephant enthusiast and will greatly increase your enjoyment when elephant watching in Lake Manyara National Park.
Throughout this area you are bound to see the handy work of the resident carpenters in the area, otherwise known as termites. The towering forts erected by these industrious little insects are quite impressive, especially when one considers how the scale of one of these structures may exceed the tallest building made by man, when considering the size of the builders. These palatial homes are quite sophisticated, and the societies of termites that team within them are quite complex. Temperature and humidity are kept at a constant level through a multifaceted system of galleries, an “air conditioning system” of sorts. Termite family members are divided into castes of Queen, King, Soldiers and Workers. The Queen is much larger than all the other members of the colony, and may grow to be as large as your index finger. She is a busy girl may lay as many as 10,000 eggs in a single day. During the wet season, many winged termites may leave the colony in the hopes of starting a family of their own. Most of these hopefuls will be eaten by birds or lizards, and only a few lucky couples will manage to find an underground shelter where they can start a new life together and a brand new colony will begin.
In stark contrast to the dense forest is the grassy floodplain and vast views that stretch beyond it, across the glassy lake, to the hazy blue volcanic ridge of the Maasai Steppes on the far horizon. This unique habitat of grassy shoreline emerges during the dry season when the water recedes, exposing vast stretches of land alongside the lake. This flat spread of bare earth, which is waterlogged during the wet season, now basks in direct sunlight and allows saline-tolerant grasses to spring up. A temporary park like habitat soon develops and persists till the rains of the wet season flood it over again. In the meantime grazing herbivores gather in these wide open spaces to indulge in the nutrient-rich grasses.
Because of the fresh food source and spacious views, a menagerie of different animals gathers here. Wildebeest and zebra favor the wide open spaces of these shoreline plains since they can easily see predators approaching, and they are among the most commonly seen mammals that come here to crop down the tender shoots. Majestic buffalo can be seen dotting the landscape, milling about like a herd of cattle in relatively dense numbers here. Impressively tusked elephants can also be seen strolling in the sunshine on the shore of the lake, with a sea of pink flamingos shimmering in the shallow lake behind them.
Taking a break from browsing their favorite acacia woodlands, giraffe can be seen on these open plains, towering above the otherwise flat landscape. Giraffe can sometimes be seen lying down in the grass in the open clearing around the shore, perhaps more comfortable relaxing here knowing they have an unobstructed view of an approaching lion or leopard. Otherwise quite graceful, these statuesque creatures look rather awkward when they bend down to take a drink; due to their incredible height giraffe have to splay their legs out from side to side in order to get their muzzle down to water level.
Groves of ivory palm trees hem the outer banks of the floodplain like leafy sentinels, overlooking hippo families as they froth about in the distant hippo pool. At night these same hippos will leave their watery refuge and gorge themselves on these grassy flood plains. On overcast days these generously proportioned beasts can be seen basking on the shoreline, but on a sunny day they usually prefer to wallow in the cooling waters of their pool till dusk tempers the heat.
Although the floodplains can seem somewhat desolate compared to the leafy forest behind it, the clear shoreline is an excellent place to spot wildlife since there are no obstacles to obstruct your view. It is so interesting and a little odd to see so many different types of animals grazing and living together in perfect harmony. Lake Manyara is a very special park, and the floodplains here are part of what make it so unique and appealing to so many different types of wildlife.
With a myriad of animals frolicking along the glittering shoreline and clouds of pink flamingos dusted over its glassy surface, Lake Manyara itself is a beautiful sight to behold. The mirror like surface reflects the shifting shades of the sky above – from dawn’s rosy hue in the early morning to shimmering blue as the sun rolls directly overhead to golden glass as the yellow rays of sunset strike over the valley.
Lake Manyara was formed as a result of the Great Rift Valley – over millions of years as the rift grew wider, streams cascaded down its continually eroding slopes and pooled into what is now the famous lake. Typical of lakes formed in this way, Lake Manyara has no outlet and is thus subjected to intense evaporation, allowing salt and other minerals to accumulate. Crusty white deposits of soda glitter like diamonds around the water’s edge and the saline water appears almost soapy in texture due to the concentrated minerals. However the water is not too salty for animals to drink and hippos happily make their home in these brackish waters.
Algae vivaciously thrive in the high saline content of the lake, and their growth supports large numbers of fish. Huge and colorful flocks of birds gather in or near the water to feed, including many different varieties of birds that coexist together. In fact, well over 300 different species of birds have been recorded here!
Among the stunning sights of the entire park is a view of the great masses of pink hued flamingos that often congregate together – feeding on the garden of blue green algae that flourish in the shallows. Posing in large numbers on their tall stilts of legs with their pink plumage reflecting in the still water, the first sight of these colorful birds is really quite remarkable.
The specialized diet of flamingos limits their distribution to alkaline or saline lakes where blue green algae prosper. This unique habitat includes a series of lakes and water pans along the Great Rift Valley that were formed similarly as Lake Manyara. Flamingos communicate with a wide range of visual displays, and are very vocal birds as well. When they congregate in great numbers, as they often do here in Lake Manyara, the air is heavy with their noises, which range from a brash nasal honking to a loud grunting even growling.
These statuesque birds have excellent hearing and sight, including well developed color perception; however their sense of smell is quite poor. Since flamingos have long legs, they can wade into much deeper water than most birds and their webbed feet help support them on soft mud. Flamingos have an endearing habit of standing on one leg. The reason why they do this is because curling a leg under the body keeps the foot warm and conserves body heat; flamingos practice this habit in both cool and warm environments.
Before taking flight, a flamingo must run several steps before it lifts into the air; great wings outspread to catch the lifting undercurrents. They fly with their body completely extended – neck and head outstretched in front of their body with legs trailing horizontally behind. It is interesting to note that the flight speed of a flock of flamingos can reach up to 60 kph (37mph) and groups of these birds have been known to fly up to 600 km (373 mi) each night between stops for food.