At just 325 square kilometres Lake Manyara National Park is a relatively small slice of land, tucked in between the Rift Valley escarpment and the lake itself.
It is a beautiful little park, tucked in between the Rift Escarpment and the lake itself … much overlooked and under-rated.
Most people tend to just visit the park for a couple of hours during the middle of the day, but for those who stay inside the park overnight, either in the one luxury lodge, Manyara Tree Camp, or at one of the private campsites, there is a much deeper and worthwhile experience to be had here.
The main reason for its recognition as a national park is its ‘groundwater forest’. Almost all the rain in this region falls on the Ngorongoro Highlands above Lake Manyara. This water permeates down through the rock until it meets the fault of the Rift Escarpment, where it is forced upwards towards the surface along the foot of the escarpment. The forest is therefore watered from below all year round and whilst the rest of the landscape turns yellow as the dry season progresses, Manyara remains an oasis of greenery, which acts as a magnet for animal populations which migrate into the park at this time.
This water which is being forced up to the surface here is heavily loaded with volcanic minerals such as phosphates and sulphates. As the lake here evaporates under the hot summer sun, the concentrations of these minerals increases, giving the lake a coloured tinge and attracting the flamingo which feed on the algae that thrive in this hostile environment. Compared with other Rift Valley lakes, Manyara is in fact not so hostile and plays host to good populations of barbel (catfish) and hippopotamus, as well as large flocks of flamingoes and storks for most of the year.
The lake itself varies in size enormously over the years. Back in 1994, it was reduced to an intensely toxic puddle in comparison to the lake we see today. In 1996 there was so much rain in the region that the lake rose to unprecedented levels, washing away most of Maji Moto Camp. The main road was blocked by the floods for hundreds of metres, leaving many safaris stranded on the far side. For some weeks visitors and their luggage were carried across the flood, with all the safari companies pulling together to share the use of those vehicles on the far side.
In two locations within the park, the ground-water comes to the surface as hot springs, but these are more of the nature of a small leak than a full-blown geyser: Kiswahili : Maji Moto = hot water
The main literary connection with Manyara is the fact that the hot springs at Maji Moto are famously the location for one of Hemmingway’s hunting camps, portrayed in his book The Green Hills of Africa. The old Hemmingway thing is much overplayed … although people do seem to get very hung up on it for some reason.
Manyara was brought to the attention of a wider audience by the 1975 publication of the book Among the Elephants. Husband and wife team Ian and Oria Douglas-Hamilton spent several years here during the 1960s studying the elephants of the park and their famous book recounting their experiences is a real tale of joie de vivre. Ian’s studies were intended to find a solution to the destruction of the groundwater forest by the elephants of the park. Attempts at keeping them fenced out had failed miserably and it was up to him to find a solution …
Among the Elephants is now sadly out of print. We are presently trying to get permission from Ian & Oria to reproduce the whole text here in a printable format.
The famous tree-climbing lions of Manyara are extremely elusive. We have driver guides who have never seen them in nearly twenty years in the parks. On the other hand, we also had three safaris in December 2001 which saw a full pride in various acacia and fig trees to the southern end of the groundwater forest. Lions are not generally tree-climbers and it is thought that they do it to avoid a certain type of fly which becomes prevalent during the dry season. The strange thing is that we didn’t manage to retrieve a single corroborating photograph from these sightings.
Generally, though Manyara is not considered premium cat-spotting territory as the visibility is limited by long lakeside grass and dense forest foliage year-round. Cats are generally much better viewed in the Serengeti and in the Ngorongoro Crater.
Regular sightings in Manyara include baboon, elephant, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, impala, klipspringer, hippo and flamingo.
Since 2001 at least one of the big bull elephants in the groundwater forest has taken to approaching vehicles very close, even rubbing up against the side of them. One of our safaris even reported that he even put his trunk down through the viewing hatch and sniffed around inside the Landrover, inches from nervous faces.
Baboon can usually be viewed at very close quarters too here at Manyara and they are usually very mild-mannered and indifferent to the presence of a vehicle. One notable exception to this was a story told recently of a parked vehicle which was attacked by a large male, apparently because it was playing music. Guess someone has to enforce the park regulations.
In January 2002, one of our safaris was camped out at Bagayo Campsite, when they suddenly became aware that the campfire had been surrounded by a pride of lion, prowling around in the shadowy long grass. Apart from a few heart flutters, nothing untoward occurred since the lions were simply demonstrating their typically feline curiosity. The funny part came in the morning when one of the drivers (Little Hassan) was found sleeping in the Landrover. He claimed that it was not because he was scared, but because the other driver (Gerry) snored too loudly for him to sleep in the tent.
For safaris staying overnight in or near to Manyara, it is possible to build in half-day canoeing on the lake. Ask the sales office for more details.