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Zebras graze in Arusha, seen as the starting point in Tanzania for many safari-goers and gateway to other big sanctuaries in the north.
Zebras graze in Arusha, seen as the starting point in Tanzania for many safari-goers and gateway to other big sanctuaries in the north.
The relatively small size of Arusha National Park means you can cram a lot of big game spotting into even a few hours, while avoiding the crowds of tourists who flock to bigger, better-known safari spots.
The relatively small size of Arusha National Park means you can cram a lot of big game spotting into even a few hours, while avoiding the crowds of tourists who flock to bigger, better-known safari spots.

Tanzania's smallest national park is big on scenery

Arusha in Tanzania is often overlooked as a safari destination, but it is the ideal choice for those on a tight schedule – a few hours is all you need to spot a wealth of wildlife.

It's a cool, misty morning in the lush Ngurdoto forest of Arusha National Park and I'm on the lookout for black and white colobus monkeys - striking and acrobatic creatures that have become the park's mascot.

As we quietly creep along the dusty track in our jeep, our guide scans the surrounding foliage for signs of movement. The only sound comes from the low hum of the engine, interspersed with the occasional hoot of an olive baboon - one of the most common mammals to be found in the park.

Moments later, to my delight, I spot the flash of a bushy white tail in the rustling fig-tree branches overhead. A majestic male colobus monkey emerges into full view, his distinctive black and white-bearded head peeking through the quivering leaves. Holding his pose for a moment, he surveys the scene around him before leaping to a nearby branch, his long mantle of fur catching the wind as he soars through the air.

Arusha - at 549 square kilometres, one of Tanzania's smallest national parks - is where I'll be spending the day. Having travelled to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, a day trip to the park proved to be the perfect way to incorporate spotting some of East Africa's wealth of wildlife into our already jam-packed visit to northern Tanzania, before flying to Zanzibar for some well-earned rest.

The park, which was founded in 1960 as part of an increased effort to conserve Tanzania's rich natural habitats and wildlife, can be explored within a few hours and is only a half-hour drive from Kilimanjaro airport, a small but well-connected hub.

For those that want to devote more time to wildlife-watching, Arusha is seen as the starting point in Tanzania for many safari-goers, and the gateway to the northern safari circuit that includes the ever-popular Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Lake Manyara and Tarangire national parks.

It may not boast the amount of wildlife found in Tanzania's larger national parks, but Arusha is considered to be one of the most beautiful and topographically diverse safari parks in northern Tanzania and is well worth a trip in its own right.

Situated in the East African Rift Valley, Arusha is part of a fertile and undulating volcanic landscape that includes the highest peak in Africa - Mount Kilimanjaro, which rises 5,895 metres above sea level. Its iconic, snow-capped summit can be seen from the verdant pastures of the park on a clear day - but here, the topographic centrepiece a is its unassuming cousin, Mount Meru, the second-highest peak in Tanzania.

The perfectly cone-shaped Mount Meru is one of the park's three distinct areas. The others are Ngurdoto Crater (often dubbed Little Ngorongoro) and the Momella Lakes.

The altitudes range from 1,400 metres above sea level at the lakes, to more than 4,565 metres at the summit of Mount Meru, which explains the variety of habitats found throughout the park. More than 400 species of bird have been found in this small area alone.

Lions and rhinos - two of Africa's famed "big five" - unfortunately are not found in Arusha - a downside for those with serious safari ambitions. A rhino's damaged, hornless skull on display in the park's small visitor centre, showing the fatal serrations of a poacher's snare, reveals one of the reasons why.

However, about 72 species of mammals are known to thrive in the park, including giraffes, hippos, warthogs, zebras, water buffalo, elephants and several species of monkey and antelope - more than enough to keep visitors snap-happy for a day. It's even possible, if you're lucky, to spot the occasional leopard slinking around the park at dawn and dusk.

The first thing I had noticed when entering the park at Ngongongare Gate that morning was the blissful silence - a completely different world to the colourful chaos of Arusha Town, which is a mere 20 minutes away.

However, our young, animated guide soon filled the silence, evidently loving the chance to practise his English as our jeep bounced and lurched its way down the dusty track.

The vivid green landscape surrounding me was much the same as what I had been trekking through in Kilimanjaro National Park days before - fertile, volcanic scenery that seems slightly at odds with the stereotypical safari scene of open, golden savannah that can be found in many other parts of east Africa.

Before I could even get my camera out of its case, we were greeted with the impressive scene of an open grassland, known as "little Serengeti", dotted with the unmistakable form of Tanzania's national animal - the giraffe (called "twiga" in Swahili).

"Tanzanians like giraffes because they are polite animals," our guide cheerfully informed us as we watched the graceful group of giraffes graze, their long, lithe necks intertwined as they huddled together. Herds of zebra trotted about nearby, their distinctive black and white markings contrasting strongly with the jade-green landscape.

Just ahead of us, a family of olive baboons meandered into our path. One was carrying a tiny, pink infant who peeked out through his mother's thick, brown fur. Giving us a lingering stare, she made for the cover of the trees, her bright-red rear visible as she gave us one last look.

Moments later, our guide excitedly told us that there was a sighting of a large male elephant ahead - not often seen in the park due to their small numbers and a preference for dwelling in the thick forest. Hot-footing it back to our jeep, we soon spotted him at the edge of the grassland. Sporting impressive tusks, he emerged fully from the dense forest to graze in the open, his ears rippling and trunk swaying rhythmically to and fro.

Our next stop was the Momella Lakes, and the chance to see some hippopotamus and waterbuck.

As we climbed back into the jeep, a tiny bambi-like dik dik pranced into our path. Endearingly small, with big brown eyes and two miniature horns atop his head, the dik dik - one of Tanzania's cutest animals - tottered around on its spindly legs, seemingly unaware of our presence. Darting about sporadically (a way to confuse predators, I was told), it soon leapt into the long grass and was gone.

Our lunch stop was a quiet bench overlooking the lakes. Salty and alkaline, they each support a different type of algae, giving each a distinct hue of teal and pink. As we ate our packed lunch of chicken legs and sandwiches, I gazed out over the tranquil lakes and the miles of undulating landscape beyond, a land free from civilisation apart from the occasional group of Masai pastoral nomads who share the park's borders.

Keeping my eyes peeled for any hippos in the lake below, I couldn't believe how much I had seen in a matter of hours.

A flock of flamingos taking to the sky, causing a cloud of pink feathers to float across the horizon, took my attention away from the rippling water. As they settled, with a splash, in another area of the lake, I spotted a couple of dark brown mounds. Dismissing them instantly as round rocks, two twitching ears and a pair of big, blinking eyes surfaced - a hippo. Before I could raise my arm to point, it was gone and the lake was serene once more.

By the time we had finished our lunch, we had also spotted a herd of fluffy brown waterbuck grazing in the grassy swamp, a striking red duiker and warthogs, who had inadvertently crashed their way through the undergrowth into our lunch spot. Realising their error, they bounded off as quickly as they had arrived, with a loud snort and tails in the air.

As the sky turned a moody shade of grey, we began to make our way back to Ngongongare Gate.

Entering the forest, just as the heavens opened, we were joined by a troop of blue monkeys that leapt from tree to tree alongside the jeep. With thick grey fur and wise-looking features, the monkeys dropped to the forest floor in search of fallen fruit. Soon, we were in touching distance - the monkeys barely batted an eyelid at our presence as our cameras snapped away.

It was only moments later when, to our excitement, we spotted the black and white colobus monkeys up ahead, their jet-black fur contrasting with their bright, white features as they leapt and swung through the fig trees, patches of forest shuddering with the impact as they landed.

Our base for our time here was Serena Mountain Village, nestled in the foothills of Mount Meru, on the site of an old coffee plantation. We were staying in one of the thatched, stone huts - designed to echo the traditional style of a colonial coffee farm - overlooking the green waters of Lake Duluti.

The property was safari-chic, with swathes of muslin nets and dark-mahogany woodwork. But the view from the hut was the highlight: acres of landscaped gardens and wooded areas, dotted with orange Kniphofia - also known as "red hot pokers" due to their vibrant orange spikes - and Lake Duluti in the distance.

As the sun descended, our thoughts turned to dinner and we made our way to the main building, its stone walls lit up in the growing darkness.

Opting for the very reasonably-priced set menu, we dined on steaming vegetable soup, served with warm rolls, followed by tender sirloin steak with creamy, mushroom sauce.

As we curled up in the lounge in front of a roaring wood fire, we regaled each other with tales of the day's tour to Arusha National Park.

A little safari adventure - and all in one day.

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