I guess I'll start with the bottom and work my way upward on this subject. So from the bottom, you may want to use egg-grate on the bottom of your aquarium before adding a substrate, especially if you are using a glass tank and plan on using any kind of rock as decor.
Egg-grate will even out the pressure applied to the bottom of the aquarium by heavy rocks. Egg-grate will also help absorb the impact of an accident. You know, the kind of accident where you shout "Sh*t! - Sh*t! - Sh*t!" before the rock even hits the bottom of the tank.
It's a bit tougher to get egg-grate into an acrylic tank because the top of an acrylic tank has cut-outs rather than an open top. That's quit all right though because acrylic tanks need to go onto stands with solid surface tops and acrylic is more impact resistant than glass to begin with.
Next you'll have to decide on a suitable substrate. Being as Mbuna like hard water with a high pH, the obvious choice would be a substrate that would help you achieve your desired water chemistry. This pretty much narrows your options down to three reasonable choices: crushed coral, coral gravel, and sea sand.
Crushed Coral - I have used crushed coral in the past. It looks good but because it has been crushed it has sharp edges that may cut the mouths of your Mbuna when excavating. If you end up using crushed coral make sure you use a course coral such as grade-4 or grade-5, which is less likely to cut the mouths of your Mbuna.
Coral Gravel - A far better option than crushed coral, coral gravel is not crushed and has no sharp edges. Coral gravel is less uniform but has more personality and looks more natural than crushed coral. Coral gravel looks somewhat like tiny little bones, I want to call it bone coral for some reason.
Sea Sand - A very cool look and a good choice, especially if you're going for the salt-water look or just want something natural looking. However, sea sand is not the best option if you have an acrylic tank because the sand can scratch the acrylic when cleaning the aquarium. Sea sand may also chew-up the impeller assemblies of your filters.
Some of the best looking coral gravel I have seen so far is the Kordon Brand, Coral Beach - Natural Tropical Coral Rubble by Novalek Inc. I like the grade-5 stuff myself, in fact I recently replaced the eighty pounds of crushed coral I had with one-hundred pounds of the Kordon - Coral Beach, Natural Tropical Coral Rubble by Novalek Inc.
Ok, now let's move on to the good stuff. Let me start by saying that I absolutely hate fake stuff. I hate skulls, I hate treasure chests, and I hate plastic plants. There are plenty of natural things you can use to decorate your tank to keep it real. Beside the fact that a natural tank looks so much better than a fake tank.
I personally like driftwood even though it can lower the pH of your water. This lowering of the pH happens mostly when the wood is new and leaching organic material into the aquarium. When this is happening, you will notice a slight discoloration of your aquarium water. You will need to do weekly water changes until the wood stops bleeding color into the water. Another option is to buy wood right out of the tanks at local fish stores.
The reason I like Driftwood is that it's light and it's soft. Driftwood won't squish your fish or break the tank if you drop a peace and it won't scratch the acrylic if you have an acrylic aquarium. What I like best about Driftwood though, is the countless ways you can arrange the pieces in your tank.
Texas Holey Rock is also cool but it will cost you, especially of you want decent pieces. If you want Texas Holey Rock, make sure you get pieces your Mbuna can actually use. The holes should be at least two or three inches in diameter.
I have two pretty big peaces of Texas Holey Rock that measure about fifteen inches long with three-inch holes in them. The rest of my decor is all driftwood, about ten or more pieces, three of which are twelve inches in length. I also keep two or three live plants in the tank.
The key to setting up an Mbuna tank is to make as many caves as possible. Mbuna love nooks and grannies to swim into, and holes to swim through. When choosing Texas Holey Rock get a few foundation pieces with usable holes. When choosing Driftwood try to get pieces that have arms and legs that lift the main body off the ground. Try to use your imagination when deciding on which pieces to buy.
Driftwood and Texas Holey Rock will both cost you a small fortune. Driftwood cost a little less than Texas Holey Rock but the stuff isn't cheap. I have links on my link page where you can find good stuff at the best possible price. The key when buying your Driftwood and Texas Holey Rock is patience. Keep it real!
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