160km (99 miles) from Arusha, 69km (43 miles) from Tarangire, 60km (37 miles) from Ngorongoro, 145km (90 miles) from Serengeti (entrance gate)
Curling along the western shores of a shallow soda lake, the emergence of the Gregory Escarpment -- a sheer 500m (1,640-ft.) drop, making this the most impressive wall in the Rift Valley -- signals your approach to Lake Manyara, heart of Tanzania's second-oldest national park. A shallow 390-sq.-km (152-sq.-mile) expanse, of which 230 sq. km (90 sq. miles) fall within the national park boundaries, Lake Manyara lies in a closed basin with no outlet. Fed by waters that percolate through the volcanic ash and lava of the Ngorongoro Highlands before seeping and spilling from the ever-eroding walls of the Rift Valley, the lake is highly alkaline, its chemical salts further distilled by the high rate of evaporation -- hence the tell-tale crusty white soda deposits that line the lake's shores during the dry season. The ideal breeding ground for blue-green algae and other micro-organisms, the lake is thus a nutrient-rich home to large numbers of fish (including an endemic species of tilapia), which, in turn, attract an astonishing variety of waterbirds. Of these, the most spectacular visitors are the migrant flamingos, who hover like pink clouds in and above the blue-gray bands of Manyara's lakeshore.
Despite the fact that the lake covers two-thirds of the park, the slim wedge of land between the shore and the baobab-studded escarpment wall offers a remarkably varied ecosystem: Visitors enter the lush groundwater forest in the north, crossing rivers and pools to traverse stretches of acacia woodland and bushland, and finally emerge to sweeping views of floodplain grasslands, its thin strips of yellow and green blending into a soaring skyline.
Along the way, you are sure to encounter elephants, whose numbers have recovered dramatically since the ban on ivory trade stopped what East African conservationists somewhat dramatically refer to as the "poaching Holocaust" of the '70s and '80s, as well as olive baboons. The park has the highest density of baboons anywhere in Africa, with troops numbering up to 200 family members. Another large mammal species you are assured of seeing are hippos, lazing in and around the aptly named Hippo Pool. Stream-fed with freshwater, this area is not as alkaline as the deeper waters of Lake Manyara, and hence favored by these lumbering amphibians. In the dry season, the park's most prolific herbivores -- wildebeest, zebra, and buffalo -- are spotted grazing on tender new grass shoots on the floodplains, keeping a wary eye out for approaching predators, while lone giraffe nibble on acacias that line the shore. Lake Manyara is also known for its prolific butterflies that float like confetti in the groundwater forest or acacia woodland, and, of course, its famous tree-climbing lions -- a taught behavior, virtually unique to the lions of Lake Manyara, and one of the primary reasons why, despite not being a true wilderness park like Tarangire or Serengeti, this is considered an important stop on the Northern Circuit itinerary.
Two Commonly Asked Questions
Why is it called Manyara? -- Manyara is the Maasai name for a rather unassuming thin succulent cactus (euphorbia tincalli) that the Maasai plant as a living stockade to keep their cattle from straying. You will see one, clearly marked, growing at the park entrance.
Why do Manyara's lions climb trees? -- Unlike leopards, lions do not typically climb trees, preferring to rest under them during the day. The reason for the unusual behavior in Lake Manyara National Park is thought to have arisen during a major tsetse fly epidemic: Blood-sucking tsetse flies appear not to bother the lions once they have ascended 5m (16 ft.) or higher. Manyara's lionesses now teach their cubs from a young age, seeking out trees that offer maximum shade, good views, and a relatively easy climb, and the image of a lioness in a tree has become synonymous with Lake Manyara.