Mount Meru, Arusha National Park: December 23-26, 2010

Foreseeing the fatigue that a three-week driving safari in northern Tanzania could inspire, Aimee and I made sure to schedule some activities during our long vacation that would force us to get out of the car and stretch our legs a bit. The first of these was a four-day climb of Mount Meru, Tanzania’s second highest peak at 4566 meters (it’s the continent’s seventh highest mountain). In clear sight of Kilimanjaro, Meru is generally recognized as being the more rewarding, beautiful, and fun climb, as the ascent is more varied and difficult, the habitat more pristine, and the trail and huts far less crowded. Indeed, the experience didn’t disappoint as Aimee, Mark, and I were treated to fabulous wildlife while enjoying an interesting and dynamic hike, culminating with our arrival at the summit at dawn of the third day.

I’ve been on several excursions now that have promised to be a dual trekking and wildlife viewing experience, most notably our 8-day adventure on Sumaco in Ecuador, where we birded up and down an isolated jungle volcano. Although the climbing involved on Meru was much less intense, there was still a fair amount of pressure on the trail to hurry along and stay on schedule. While it had been my original plan to linger long at each hint of birdsong, I was frequently forced to abandon pursuit of a bird to avoid being left behind. Normally, it’s not a bid deal for a climbing party to spread out over a trail, but on Meru it’s imperative that hikers are accompanied by an armed ranger at all times, as elephant, buffalo, and even leopard pose a serious threat. Taken out of context, this was a bit frustrating, but ultimately I was grateful for opportunity to watch birds from a perspective other than behind a steering wheel.

The entire morning of our first day was spent organizing our expedition party, which included an armed ranger, half a dozen porters, and several guides connected to Safari Makers, the company we paid to set up the trip ($180 per person per day). Actually, I’m not sure exactly how many people contributed to our ascent, but I’m confident it was at least a three to one ratio. One noteworthy reason for the impressive size of our party was that there are such strict regulations about the number of kilograms that porters can carry. In fact, the system of climbing Meru, and I imagine at Kilimanjaro, is so organized and regulated that it’s almost an out of country experience for expatriate residents accustomed to the splendid chaos that permeates so many activities in Tanzania, from catching a bus to buying some bananas. So, while the team packed and weighed, and unpacked and weighed, each porter’s pack, we sized up the mountain over lunch.

Mount Meru is a spectacularly blown-out crater with a massive resurgent cone. Its lower flanks are covered in gorgeous montane forest filled with large game, monkeys, and birds. The forest become more stunted as the elevation increases, leading eventually to high-altitude moorland and rocky bare earth along the crater rim. There are two huts, Miriakambo and Saddle Huts, and climbers typically summit on the second night arriving at the summit in the early morning after climbing for approximately six hours in the dark. The views of Arusha National Park and Mount Kilimanjaro to the northwest are simply breathtaking, making this one of the most unique climbing experiences in all of Africa. As with all other tourist activities in Tanzania though, climbing Meru is ridiculously expensive and nearly impossible to arrange and conduct independently.

The birding is similar to what Aimee and I had experienced the previous three days while exploring the park in our car. My two target birds for the hike were the east African endemic Hartlaub’s Turaco, a large arboreal crested bird, and the bizarre Lamergeier, a massive bearded vulture that sticks to barren rocky heights where it is sometimes seen dropping animal bones on boulders to access the marrow. Along the way, I was hoping to pick up several of the stunning long-tailed sunbirds of the region as well as some of the more common montane forest species that we had missed on our drives, including the Montane White-Eye, Yellow-Bellied Waxbill, and Mountain Greenbull.

On that first afternoon, we took the long route to the Miriakamba Hut, passing through beautiful forest draped in mosses and epiphytes. We encountered a raucous group of Silvery-Cheeked Hornbills, dozens of Olive Pigeons diving overhead, and many male Eastern Double-Collared Sunbirds. The Montane White-Eye indeed proved to be common, and Olive Thrush was shy but also frequently seen. As Mark and I stopped every few meters to gaze at our surroundings or consider a thoughtful point in our conversation, we fell further and further behind, irritating our ranger to the point where he questioned our ability to summit the mountain. This misunderstanding cost me my first look at Hartlaub’s Turaco, one of which I had determined to be in the crown of a tree but not quite located. The bird of the day ended up being a lovely White-Starred Robin, which I saw briefly as it passed along the forest edge in a clearing during one of our many breaks.

The following day was easily my favorite of the trip, as we ascended slowly up the steep trail to the Saddle Hut. The weather was clear and sunny, and the shrubs along the trail were in glorious bloom attracting hordes of nectar-feeding sunbirds, including Tacazze, Golden-Winged, and Eastern Double-Collared Sunbirds. Elegant, iridescent, and a bit hyperactive like hummingbirds, these high-altitude long-tailed sunbirds are worth lingering over as they argue over territories and display for females. At one point, Aimee and I witnessed eight male Tacazze Sunbirds on a single giant lobelia flower, one of the region’s more exotic flora standing at over five meters tall. Of course, on this day I finally lock onto the Hartlaub’s Turaco, leaf green except for its striking red, white, and blue facial pattern. The birds are best seen actually in swift flight overhead, as their crimson-colored wings make a powerful impression against the blue sky.

Reaching the summit at dawn after only a few hours of sleep and a long, slow march to the top, I realized irritably that I wouldn’t discover the Lamergeier on this trip. None of the guides on the mountain that night had seen one for several years, and the crater itself just seemed too isolated to support a mating pair. Supposedly on Kilimanjaro they are seen regularly, and according to my guidebook a few years ago a juvenile would hang around one of the huts on the popular Marangu Route during the day. Initially disappointed, I was soon gladdened by the sight of hundreds of Alpine Swifts soaring around the summit. Eventually, I warmed up to the spectacular scene with the massive crater plummeting down before my feet, and Kili standing sentinel in the rosy distance. It’s just like a birder to miss the forest for the bird.

Our two-day descent was plagued by poor weather, and Aimee and I were thoroughly soaked by an afternoon thunderstorm on my favorite section of the trail. Before nearly catching hypothermia and having to do jumping jacks in the rain to stay warm, I did find a few new birds, including Scaly Francolin and another east African endemic, Hunter’s Cisticola. Yellow-Bellied Waxbill was easy to find along the trail from the Miriakamba Hut to the Momela entrance gate, and we also noted White-Fronted and Little Bee-Eaters in the plain just before the hike ended. This final stretch is a remarkable one, as the trail passes through an open area frequented by buffalo, giraffe, warthog, and various ungulates, making for a true walking safari experience.

Notable birds seen: Scaly Francolin, Olive Pigeon, Silvery-Cheeked Hornbill, Little Bee-Eater, White-Fronted Bee-Eater, White-Starred Robin, Olive Thrush, Mountain Greenbull, Common Stonechat, African Dusky Flycatcher, Variable Sunbird, Tacazze Sunbird, Golden-Winged Sunbird, Eastern Double-Collared Sunbird, Montane White-Eye, Common Fiscal, Hartlaub’s Turaco, White-Naped Raven, Alpine Swift, Hunter’s Cisticola, Yellow-Bellied Waxbill, Streaky Seedeater.

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