Snug between Kilimanjaro and Mt Meru, Arusha National Park is one of the lesser-known safari destinations in Tanzania. It boasts densely wooded forests and secluded lakes, offering wildlife safaris, iconic hiking trails and more.
The park’s landscape is dominated by the towering Mt Meru, a near-perfect volcanic cone with a deep and impressive crater. Sheltered by the mountain is the Ngurduto Crater, whose densely wooded slopes are home to a range of exotic forest birds and the extremely rare colobus monkeys.
Arusha – the Geneva of Africa
The town of Arusha is the launchpad for safari-goers visiting Tanzania’s Northern Circuit of parks made up of the Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara, Tarangire and the Serengeti. The bustling metropolis is the epitome of African urban living and is in stark contrast to the untamed natural wilderness beyond the city’s borders.
Known as the Geneva of Africa, Arusha is one of the fastest-growing cities in Tanzania. Iconic destinations, such as Ngorongoro, Serengeti and Karatu are at most a two-hour journey from the town. Arusha National Park lies 32km east of the eponymous town and covers only 552 square kilometres.
The park may not harbour as much wildlife activity as the other northern parks, but what it lacks in animals it makes up for in breathtaking vistas and exhilarating hiking and outdoor opportunities.
Momella Lakes – Pink Colonies of Flamingos, Hiking and More
High in the forests is the secluded Momella Lakes that attract a variety of water birds – the majestic pink colonies of flamingoes being a favourite. The lakes offer an enjoyable change of pace to the usually dry and arid Tanzanian landscape. The tranquil waters can be explored with canoe while taking in the stunning views of Mt Kilimanjaro 70km to the west, with its snow-capped peak.
The forest trails in the Ngurduto Crater offer 50 kilometres of footpaths winding their way through the belly of the jungle. The beautiful network of trails leads hikers to the top of the crater rim where the panoramic views of the forest and plains below are simply spectacular.
Climbing Mount Meru
Mt Meru tops out at 4556m, making it the fifth-highest peak in Africa and second highest in Tanzania. Being so closely located to Mt Kilimanjaro it can be an excellent choice for climbers trying to acclimatize before attempting one of the world’s Seven Summits.
The first ascent of Mt Meru is still a hotly contested topic and is widely thought to have been undertaken and achieved by either Carl Uhlig in 1901 or Fritz Jaeger in 1904. It is not to be confused with Mt Meru in the Himalayas, which was the site of the 2015 movie ‘Meru’.
The Challenge of Meru
Meru is a challenging climb in its own right and although no technical climbing gear is needed, it is high enough to bring upon the effects of altitude sickness. Most journeys to the summit take three to four days with a guide and usually porters. An armed ranger accompanies hiking parties through the entire expedition to alleviate the threat of wild animal attacks.
There is only one route up the mountain – the Momella Route. Starting at the Momella Gate, the first portion of the hike passes through plains and forests filled with waterfalls and wildlife. There are two huts along the route up to the summit:
- Meriakamba Hut is roughly a five to six hour walk from the gate and is an ideal place to spend the first night on the mountain.
- Saddle Hut is the second hut and is normally used for lodgings on the second night.
On the final day of the hike, climbers will negotiate their way past Rhino and Cobra Point, relishing views of the Tanzanian highlands as the rising sun gently illuminates the plains below. The last part of the hike traverses the narrow crater rim path – an exhilarating section, especially when the summit is capped in snow.
The view from the summit is breathtaking with a 1500m drop down a sheer cliff to the crater floor on one side, and the vast plains of Tanzania stretching out on the other.
An additional summit, Ash Cone, was formed during the eruption in 1910 and is worth exploring. After drinking in the unparalleled views at the summit, most hikers will make their way all the way back down to the Meriakamba Hut or right back to the gate.
Meru the Volcano
Adding to the mountain’s allure is the fact that it is still an active volcano. The mountain burst into life with its first explosion around 500,000 years ago. That explosion blew apart half of the mountain and the eastern rim was shattered. This left behind the distinctive 5 km wide breached caldera. The most recent eruption was in 1910 but it now stands dormant.
Monkey Population in Arusha National Park
A highlight of the park for many is the chance to spot the black and white colobus monkeys performing their acrobatics high up in the canopies that decorate the Ngurduto crater’s edge. Walk through the forest and listen as the eerie calls of the monkeys reverberate through the trees.
Blue monkeys or diademed monkeys have also prized sightings in Arusha. Part of the ‘old world monkeys’ family, these natives of central and east Africa are a rare find.
Safari in Arusha
Arusha is a spectacular safari park waiting to be discovered. Safaris along the plains offer up sightings of Cape buffalo, various antelope and the occasional elephant, rhino, and leopard – if you’re lucky! Adding to the park’s allure is the opportunity to go experience mountain bike, canoeing and walking safaris.
How to Get Here
Kilimanjaro International Airport (60km east of Arusha) is the main port of entry for visitors entering northern Tanzania. From the airport, it is a quick bus ride into Arusha town or directly to the park. Alternatively, there is a small domestic airport in the west of Arusha itself.
Climate and Weather
Arusha enjoys a temperate climate due to its proximity to the base of Mt Meru and its altitude of about 1300m. The Park is generally lush and green all year round and is comprised of a large forest section, even the rainy season can make for successful safaris.
Best Time to visit Arusha National Park
Dry season (June-October):
The ideal time to visit Arusha, as with most of the parks in Tanzania, is during the dry season between June and October. The vegetation is thinner and water is scarcer in the dry season, which makes it easier to spot animals.
Another perk is fewer mosquitoes is the dry months and ultimately a reduced chance of catching malaria.
Wet season (November-May):
There are two rainy seasons in Arusha National Park. The season of ‘short rains’ is between November and December with sporadic showers generally clearing up quite quickly. The wet season of March to May brings long, rainy days and outdoor activities and safaris offer slim pickings. Most lodges also close their doors during this season.
The scenery is most spectacular during the wet season and many lodges offer low-season rates, which make the accommodation more affordable.
Where to Stay
Africa’s ‘Safari Capital’ is home to several great lodges and hotels. With the Arusha National Park being so close it makes sense for most Park visitors to stay in the town rather than in the Park where accommodation is scarce.
The most famous of the city’s lodgings in the Arusha Hotel. Frequently visited by John Wayne in the 1960s during the shooting of ‘Hatari’, guests will feel like they have been transported back in time when they visit the hotel’s famous bar.
Mount Meru Game Lodge and Wildlife Sanctuary is a retreat for discerning admirers of wildlife and nature. The sanctuary was created as a home for injured and orphaned animals, and the lodge provides a magnificent backdrop to the surrounding wildlife.
Other lodges set around the town of Arusha offering unique and memorable stays include Arusha Coffee Lodge, Arusha Safari Lodge, Kigongoni Lodge and Lake Duluti Serena Hotel. Africa Safari Lake Natron offers camping and caravan options just outside the park and has exquisite semi-permanent tents.
Hatari Lodge is one of just a handful of lodges inside the National Park’s perimeters. This classy establishment offers nine rooms situated in the acacia woodland. Views of Mount Meru can be enjoyed from the terraces of the main building. Guests can also enjoy highly professional game drives and walks.