Yesterday we were lucky enough to make it to Arusha National Park. It is not one of the large well known parks of Tanzania, but it is close to where we are staying, and the entry fee (at $35 USD per person per day) is about half that of parks such as the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. Those who are looking for the “big five” African animals will be very disappointed but I remembered reading , a long time ago, that the park is a bit of a hidden gem when it comes to the wonderful world of plants. It did not disappoint.
We are here in Tanzania in the middle of the dry season so almost everything that flowers has already done its thing, and in the lower non forested areas of the park everything is tinder dry and looks pretty much dead but there were still gems to be found.
We met our first giraffes about 30 seconds drive into the park. Stunning. We then headed to a dormant crater which is “mostly filled with a bog”. There were a few tropical palms on the crater rim and forest – with some amazing fig trees – outside the crater.
From there we headed into scrubby “bush” then into a savannah like area. We saw freshwater pools with resident hippos, then to the unique salt lakes. The salt makes these lakes toxic to almost everything but the bugs that were breeding in them had attracted tens of thousands of swallows. There were also Flamingos (that’s pretty exciting).
We saw a few more boggy areas, and a small freshwater stream, then headed towards Mt Meru. As we drove onto what looked like an alluvial plain the vegetation changed again and was dominated by a large shrub I hadn’t seen before growing amongst very stunted grasses and smaller shrubs. This gave way to conifers of some sort. They looked like the Thuja we saw in Morocco but again – I need to do some work to identify species from the photos I took.
We headed straight up towards the peak of Mt Meru and went through quite tropical forest similar to that on the crater mentioned earlier, then into some of the most stunning podocarp forest I’ve ever seen with good numbers of massive straight trunked giants. Amongst the podocarps were another type of conifer which was their equal in size and height. We finally arrived at Kitoto and were at the lowest level of the alpine heather dominated vegetation that the mountains of this region are famous for (in some circles anyway). The vegetation here gets a lot more moisture from fog and higher rainfall. As a result of this there were so many things flowering – not as many as at some other times of the year but still very impressive. We saw flowers on some of the heather, and many small herbs in flower. We also saw a Kniphofia (red hot poker) flowering which was for me the first time I’d seen this in the wild.
So what an amazing day. We went through at least 11 very distinct plant habitats. We drove up to 2500m (still 2km from the summit of Mt Meru) and saw an amazing array of plants. Obviously a good guide, or guide book, and a week in the park (in each season) would have been nice, but what a fantastic day.
As we were headed to the park we had a crystal clear view of Kilimanjaro. Once in the park we saw about 6 different antelope species, many giraffes, zebras, buffalo, flamingos, a stack of other birds including a few turaco. We saw dozens of warthogs, a family of banded mongooses (mongeese?), 3 different monkey species, baboons, and a 4WD that had rolled off the road – an don the way home we stopped at a crazily busy market to buy some of the luscious fruit that is in season (10 mangoes for £0.40) so all in all a packed day.
(for those of you who are just a bit nerdy when it comes to plants I found a nice link to vegetation on Mt Kilimanjaro which explains the regions flora quite nicely and then another one specific to Mt Meru)