Arusha National Park

True to his word, and much to my relief (you just never know when in Tanzania), Gerrard pulled up outside the volunteer house spot on 4:30 this morning to take us to the airport. I’m getting pretty used to early starts; not loving getting up at 3am but when it means we can spend the whole day on safari, it didn’t really phase me. The flight was short and sweet (an hour and 15), in a tiny propeller powered plane that didn’t ascend beyond 2000 foot. I observed the mass of corrugated roofs and palm trees as Dar disappeared into the distance – excited to be off on another adventure, but ever mindful of what I was leaving behind.

Perhaps somewhat over-enthusiastically, the in-flight magazine described the descent in the small aircraft as being similar to ‘dancing around like butterflies.’ Not quite the phrasing I would use, but it was certainly a world apart from our steadfast flight from Heathrow, ducking and diving to avoid the gusts of wind channelled by the highland. Mount Kilimanjaro was peeking above the clouds as we approached our destination, a fitting welcome to the beauty of the Northern territory.

A glimpse of Kili from the plane

A glimpse of Kili from the plane

After touching down right on schedule at 8:45, we promptly made our way through the small airport to be greeted by a lovely lady called Mwanaidi with whom I have been corresponding via email (apparently she undertook her secondary education in Mwenge, near Dar, where we would sometimes go shopping for food and souvenirs) and our driver, Dennis. They welcomed us on behalf of the tour company and we made our way to the car park where a sturdy looking safari jeep was parked, pretty much our home for the next three and a half days.

My first impressions of Northern Tanzania? Well it’s a bit chilly for starters. Almost feels like you’re not in Africa; a similar air temperature to that of back in England (without the clouds and precipitation). This is of course in stark contrast to the climate of Dar. I also found the area to have a more ‘developed’ feel than in Dar. White lines painted on the road, much more comfortable looking dalla dalla and the feeling that the people here are far more accustomed to dealing with mzungos (or perhaps more appropriately, white tourists). Hardly surprising, Arusha being the gateway to the Northern safari circuit and the wealthiest city (3rd biggest) in Tanzania. In many ways, it is difficult to believe I am still in the same country.

The airport is about halfway between Moshi (to the East) and Arusha (to the West), serving both districts. A 50 minute journey lay ahead before our first stop, the Impala Hotel in Arusha. On arrival we ditched our bags and waited for our room to be cleared so we could check in. The reception area of the hotel was magnificent, adorned by ornate African sculptures of mammals and Maasai. The abundance of mzungos was also difficult to ignore. We sat and chatted for a while with Mwanaidi before deciding to check in later rather than waste any time. And without further ado, we said our goodbyes to Mwanaidi and took off with Dennis for a day’s game drive in Arusha National Park.

The first sighting in the park was a field of giraffe, zebra and buffalo all grazing on the same patch. What I found truly fascinating as the day rolled on (this coming from a man who’s not overly enthusiastic about the animal kingdom) was witnessing these amazing creatures in their natural habitat. I’ve already seen most of these animals in captivity where they are paraded around for our enjoyment and subjected to man’s own whim. But here, I felt very much like an intruder, treading on foreign territory that I don’t have any automatic right to.

Amongst the most memorable sightings of the day were the Cape Buffalos; Black and White Columbus monkeys, Yellow Baboons, Buchell’s Zebras, Hippopotamus’, Giraffes, Flamingos, Common Waterbuck and Bushbuck (Antelopes), Warthogs and a Breasted Eagle.

Trio on tour, Arusha National Park

Trio on tour, Arusha National Park

At one point Steve swore he could see a Rhino through the binoculars, a figure in the distance similarly shaped and coloured to that of a Hippo, lighter coloured than a Buffalo yet with tusks. I agreed that it looked suspiciously like a Rhino, but Dennis responded with a fast and brunt reply that there are no Rhino’s in the park and such a sighting is impossible. However, we later discovered from reading the guide book that Black Rhinos can be spotted in the park on rare occasions. However, to prevent word getting out and the few remaining Rhinos from being hunted, safari drivers tend to keep very quiet about it. This made very interesting reading… we shall never know if we really did catch a fleeting glimpse of the elusive Black Rhino in Arusha National Park.

Our tour of the park consisted of a short a circuit around the Ngurdoto crater (a Caldera similar to that of the Ngorongoro crater only on a much smaller scale, where the concentration of Cape Buffalos makes it too dangerous to venture inside) and a brief climb up the foot of mount Meru. We were all very impressed with Dennis’ driving skills in the latter part of the afternoon as we motored our way up the foot of Meru, winding around a steep and narrow rocky path that looked more of a footpath than driving terrain. Our jeep is also quite the machine, handling every bit of abuse that Dennis could hurl at it with ease. Dennis is a great guide, and although his English is sometimes difficult to interpret through his accent (he is apparently more fluent in French), he knows his stuff. Fortunately, the rooftop of the jeep opens out allowing the three of us to stand up and view the game from above rather than sitting down behind the windows, which is awesome.

After returning from a long day on safari Dennis dropped us at the hotel where we checked in and dumped our bags in the room. Very nice accommodation, if a bit impersonal, but well above all of my prior expectations of a ‘budget’ safari. If anything, this must surely lie within the ‘luxury’ bracket. We then took a brisk walk into Arusha town to gain more of an understanding of our surrounds. Clearly, a much more affluent area than I have been used to in the past three weeks, but I can see why many people from Dar say they prefer the coast to the North. It’s colder and doesn’t have quite the same vibe. Still, with the towering mount Meru as an imposing backdrop, Arusha is an impressive city.

Walking in Arusha, Mt. Meru as a backdrop

Walking in Arusha, Mt. Meru as a backdrop

Back in the nick of time for dinner, we took our seats in the continental restaurant (there were separate Chinese, Indian and Italian restaurants also on offer) for a satisfying meat and ugali dish (a Tanzanian speciality), before retiring for an early nightcap. I am thoroughly looking forward tomorrow; today has set the precedent, and tomorrow we should get to see an even greater abundance of wildlife in Lake Manyara National Park.

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