Tanzania: Trekking the Usambara Mountains

1st March - 5th April 2002


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Dave, who worked at the Mashele Guesthouse organised a bus to take Gerald and I to Lushoto, the main town in the Usambara Mountains. The bus company had free pickups from around town and a taxi shortly arrived outside the guesthouse. The Usambara Mountains are about halfway between Arusha and Dar es Salaam; it was becoming a familiar journey now travelling along this road. The weather was not good today, the skies above Arusha were heavy with cloud and soon along the road to Moshi it began to rain heavily, water pouring off the surrounding fields in torrents. After about five or six hours we arrived in Mombo, a small village at the junction with the road to Lushoto, the weather had cleared up and it was once again warm and sunny. As promised by the bus company a dalla dalla was waiting for us, all included in the price of the bus ticket. We squeezed into the last two seats and before we even had a chance to catch our breath, we were travelling again with Bob Marley blaring out from the stereo.

The Eastern Arc Mountains, which the Usambaras form a part of, stretch from Morogoro and the Southern Highlands in a crescent shape to the Taita Hills to the north in Kenya, encompassing the Pare Mountains to the north-west of the Usambaras as well. The Usambaras are divided into two ranges, the eastern and western ranges separated by a 4km wide valley; Lushoto is in the western Usambara. The range is not volcanic in origin like many of the other mountains found in East Africa but were formed by uplift some 100 million years ago leaving sheer escarpments at the edge of the mountains dropping away to the plains below. The rocks that form the mountains are thought to be almost 600 million years old. Due to the stable and climatic isolation of the mountains, many plant species have been able to develop since the mountains were created, leading to an exceptional degree of biological diversity. They contain about a third of Tanzania's flora and fauna species and of the approximately two thousand plant species found in the mountains, about a quarter are endemic. The most famous plant from the Usambara Mountains is the African violet; this is the only place in the world where the flower grows wild.

It is 32km from Mombo to Lushoto, the overloaded dalla dalla slowly chugged its way up into the mountains following the gorge of the Bangala River. It was one of those typical mountain roads, hugging the side of the steep valley with hairpin bends that had you praying that no traffic was coming in the opposite direction. The scenery was stunning, I suddenly felt a very long way from my home in Dorset. In contrast to the plains we had travelled across to reach the mountains, which were fairly dry and hot, the mountains were green and fertile from the rainfall brought by the moist winds off the Indian Ocean. The slopes were covered in terraced fields growing maize, bananas and other vegetables and dotted between the fields were isolated houses, small mud huts with thatched roofs. The steeper slopes and tops of the surrounding mountains were covered in a thick, lush forest. About half way to Lushoto we reached the small town of Soni. This is where the Mkuzu River becomes the Bangala River as the water cascades down Soni Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in this mountain range. We were stopped at a police roadblock in Soni, just at the bend where the road crosses the Mkuzu River. The hold up was worth it just so that we could gaze at the view looking over the falls and back down the valley towards the plains.

By 16.00 we arrived at the small but noisy bus park in Lushoto. Lushoto is at an altitude of 1,200m and the climate is always pleasantly cool compared to the surrounding plains. It is also the main town in the western Usambara with a very busy and colourful market full of produce grown on the surrounding, fertile hills. Thanks to some errors with our guidebook's map of the town, we ended up walking in the wrong direction to find our hotel. It gave us a good chance to look around the small town before we checked into the Green Valley annexe. We planned to do a four-day trek through the mountains to the town of Mtae, but before we could head off we needed to find a guide. We gave ourselves the following day to make all the necessary arrangements, it should be simple compared to our previous trek up Mt Meru. Our trekking guidebook said that a lot of the mountain guides hang out at the Green Valley Bar and Restaurant, just back along the road towards the bus park. We went along and sat down for a beer and waited for people to approach us offering their services. As is normal in these situations, when you are looking for a guide or a tout, you can never find one, a bit like taxis; they are always parked on every street corner until the moment you need one.

We failed in our efforts that night to find a guide by just hanging about in the local bar, so decided to go to the tourist information office in the morning and ask after a couple of guides recommended in our trekking guide. For a small town nestled in a valley between forested slopes it was very noisy; the neighbours next door to the Green Valley Annexe spent the whole evening singing and dancing. It was almost like living in student accommodation where everyone is playing his or her music just that bit louder than everyone else. I had hoped to escape to a quiet mountain town, but this place was livelier than Arusha. The neighbours finally stopped singing at 22.30 and I at last managed to fall asleep.

Cultural tourism has been pioneered in the Usambara Mountains. Following a survey of the tourism potential of the mountains in August 1995 the Netherlands Development Agency (SNV), provided funding and training for a group of young people who had just finished Shambalai Secondary School in Lushoto to train as tour guides. The youths organised walking tours in the area, which proved to be very successful and certainly showed that there was potential for tourism in the area and for the people of Lushoto district to benefit from cultural tourism. In May 1996 a workshop on tourism was held to discuss how the area could be developed into a major tourist destination. During this meeting the idea of forming the Friends of Usambara Society was first proposed; this society would oversee and guide cultural tourism development in the district. A year later in 1997 the Friends of Usambara Society was registered and members, with the technical help from SNV, started carrying out activities. The overall goals of the society are to develop and promote tourism in the Usambaras and to contribute to the conservation of the area's cultural and natural resources.

When arranging a walking tour of the area, tourists pay for the services of a guide and also pay a small development fee to the Society. The Society uses this money to support activities that help to conserve the area's cultural and natural resources. So far the money that has been raised has been used to improve irrigation systems, build terraces to help prevent soil erosion and build several school projects. The society has set up the village development fund to support community-based projects. The communities that have so far benefited from the fund have been located along the tour routes. These communities were deliberately selected as a way of involving them in the work of the society and in helping to build the tourism industry in the area. This scheme has allowed communities to see real tangible benefits from tourism and is aimed at involving the communities so that the programme can be successful. Money from the fund has also gone to community-based projects, building new primary schools, repairing dilapidated school buildings and also building new health clinics.

In the morning we walked to the tourist information office, which is funded by SNV and is the public face of the cultural tourism programme. We asked for one of the two guides mentioned in our guidebook, Yassin Madiwa and Jeromy Mwamboneke. They were both founding members of the society and took part in the tourism trial back in 1995. It was our lucky day today; as we were asking about Yassin and how we could find him he walked into the office. We arranged with him to trek to Mtae for four days, leaving early tomorrow morning. The total cost of the trip was TSH178,000 each, which included a fee to the village development fund of TSH16,000 as well as guide fees, accommodation, forest fees and transport by bus back to Lushoto. Once all the arrangements had been made we took the rest of the day off and just relaxed in Lushoto.

Before leaving the Green Valley annexe the next morning, the owners made a feeble attempt at double charging us for our rooms, claiming that we had not paid the previous night, which of course we had. After a brief but loud argument we left and met up with Yassin outside the tourist information office at 08.00. We stopped at the market to buy some fruit and bread for lunch, left our excess luggage in the office and by 09.00 began our trek through the mountains. The trekking here was very different to both the previous treks I had done on this trip, to Mt Kenya and Mt Meru. Here it has been described as very similar to trekking in the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco or the Himalayas in Nepal. We walked along roads and paths that linked together the villages, passing through small villages, across farm land, through forest and along paths that clung to the sides of valleys, the slopes terraced around us with fields of maize. Each night we stopped in a village and stayed at a local guesthouse and ate at nearby eating-houses. At least on this trek we did not have to carry our own supplies of food, so I could manage to carry a few creature comforts in my pack, which must have weighed in at about 15kg.

The path lead uphill out of Lushoto to the ancient village of Kwembago, which is situated on a mountain ridge with views over the Lushoto valley. Along the way Yassin explained to us the problems created by deforestation in the mountains and what is being done to combat it. Part of the problem has been created by the huge increase in population over the years and the need for new grazing ground for cattle. The indigenous cattle had a very poor milk yield and families herds used to number sometimes up to a hundred head of cattle. A Portuguese cow was introduced and crossbred with the local species, this created a hybrid cow with twenty times the milk yield of the local cow. This greatly reduced the number of cattle and now most people just keep one or two cows, which provide enough milk for their family and some spare to sell at market. There has been such an increase in milk yields that there has been a surplus supply. To make use of this milk surplus dairies were built, with the help of SNV, and now cheese making is a new and fast growing industry in the mountains. There are plans to start producing yoghurt as well. This change in cattle has had one drawback though with traditional life. When a man gets married it is traditional to give the family of the bride ten cows but today no one keeps large herds of cows, so a cash payment is made instead.

To also help stop soil erosion, one of the most dramatic effects of deforestation, tree planting and terracing has been introduced. Farmers are encouraged to terrace their fields on the slopes of the valleys and use elephant grass, a very tall, thick grass with a large root system, to divide the terraces. This elephant grass has a dual role and also provides fodder for the cattle. Tree nurseries have been set up, partly funded through the cultural tourism project and seedlings are distributed free to villages to replant slopes and between fields to help prevent soil erosion. When commercial forests are felled the land is given free to the local villages to grow crops on; there is one condition though, that they must buy and plant tree seedlings on this land. This gives the villagers a few years harvest from the land before the trees become too big and prevent crops growing.

From Kwembago we crossed over a valley to the Magamba rain forest. A line of eucalyptus trees marks the boundary between the public forest and the protected rain forest. We entered another world as we hiked up through the forest over a ridge and into the next valley. The undergrowth was thick and green, tree ferns grew everywhere together with wild banana palms, which must have the largest leafs of any plant. Growing amidst the undergrowth were huge bushes of busy Lizzies, their bright red flowers adding some exotic colour to the green jungle. Amongst the tall trees we could hear the occasional monkey, although seeing them was a lot more difficult. The forest was very humid and sweat poured off me as we slowly made our way to the top of the ridge. Along the way we stopped at a small stream to collect some much needed water to drink. We came out of the forest into a valley, which we followed until we reached a dirt road that lead the rest of the way to Lukozi, our first stop for the night. The village is at a junction where there was a small market. It was about 16.00 when we checked into the guesthouse, it felt like we had walked a very long way; I was exhausted and collapsed onto my bed and immediately fell asleep.

The second day was much easier and it only took us about four hours to reach the next village of Emao. Everyone we met on this trek was extremely friendly, we didn't get a single negative reaction from anyone along the way. All the paths we used were also the main paths used by the villagers, along the way we passed women going off to the local market, carrying baskets of fruit and vegetables on their heads or men herding goats or cattle to new pastures. We were definitely a novelty though to the locals, especially the children. The locals always carry everything on their heads, the only thing the women ever carry on their backs are babies, so of course we got a lot of strange looks carrying backpacks on our backs. The children don't see white people that often and when we entered a village the cry of 'Mzungu', Swahili for white-person, began to echo in our ears. It was a constant chorus coming from all around us, from the huts in the centre of the village to the smallest isolated hut high up on a valley side. The children would all come out of the huts screaming, 'Mzungu' and wave, their Mamas coming out too to see what all the noise was about. One little boy saw us coming down the road, took one look at us and ran screaming all the way home and into Mamas arms, we were probably the first white people he had ever seen. Yassin told us that he only brings tourists along this route maybe a couple of times a month; I could see why our presence was causing such a commotion amongst the children.

At Emao we had a choice of two places to stay, the local guesthouse in the village or the guesthouse at the catholic mission at Rangwi. Yassin told us that the sisters at the mission cook the best food and when we found out that they also serve cold beer there was really no competition with the village guesthouse. The mission guesthouse was a bit like staying at grannies flat, it was all very tidy, prim and proper. The sisters were very busy when we arrived with some dignitaries visiting and were rushing about everywhere. In their haste they showed us to our room where we left our luggage and then sat down outside to look at the view; in the meantime the sisters locked our room and left with the key leaving us locked out. It took over two hours to finally find the sister with the key, they all looked the same dressed in white. Dinner and breakfast was served in an empty dining room, we were the only guests dining there, it was deathly quiet and every clink of cutlery echoed about the room; the only other sound was a dripping tap in the corner. The food was excellent, the beer cold and after the hassles of being locked out of our room earlier we finally forgave the sisters.

Day three took us to Mtae, another fairly short hike of about four hours. It was Saturday today, the weekend and one of Yassin's friends from Emao joined us for the rest of the trek over the weekend. His name was also Yassin, we called him junior so as not to get confused as he was just finishing secondary school. He also wanted to become a tour guide and Yassin spent the day showing him the ropes and also teaching him about the history and culture of the Usambaras. Mtae is literally at the end of the road and sits perched on the escarpment in the far northwest of the mountains, the escarpment drops almost vertically 1,000m to the plains below. From the viewpoint we could see across to the Tsavo Plains in Kenya to the north, the Pare Mountains across a plain to the west and the Maasai Steppe to the southwest. On a clear day it is also possible to see the distant snow-capped dome of Kilimanjaro, although today the visibility was not so good. We stayed at a very nice guesthouse in town, although it didn't have any electricity or running water, but that just added some rustic character to the place; at night the rooms and corridor were lit by kerosene lamps. The owner heated up a large pot of water on an open fire outside that we used to have a bucket shower with. The views from the small shower room window looked out north across the Tsavo plains, it was definitely the best view I've seen from a bathroom window. Only one building in town had electricity, powered by solar panels, the rest of the town was dark, candles and oil-lamps illuminating the small windows in the basic buildings along the main dirt road.

On day four we did a circular hike to the Shagayu forest and up to the second highest point in the western Usambara Mountains, Shagayu Peak at 2,200m. Just outside Mtae on the side of the road, where a small stream splashed down some rocks, we saw our first African violets growing in the wild, it is the one flower I really wanted to see growing in these mountains and I was delighted to at last see one. On the way we passed through a village and the house of a local medicine man before climbing up into the Shagayu forest. It was wonderfully peaceful up in the forest, at times it felt like walking in the woods at home, bracken and ferns grew everywhere, except unlike at home, the bracken grew taller than me. Unfortunately a large section of the forest was destroyed a few years ago by a terrible fire that got out of control, it is only thanks to the firebreak that we were walking along that the fire was controlled and finally extinguished by a heavy rainstorm. Today the forest is regenerating and the bare hills are now thick with undergrowth, although the blackened trunks of the dead trees will stand for many years to come, a sad reminder of what used to be. I must admit that I found the summit of Shagayu Peak rather disappointing, it is more like just another hilltop in the range rather than the second highest peak in the Western Usambaras. In Europe, at this altitude, you would be nearing the tree line, but here the whole mountain, including the summit, was covered in a commercial forest plantation. The trees were still quite young so we could still see the views looking down over Mtae. It was hot and we rested for an hour or so at the summit; I snoozed under a shady tree, one of my favourite African pastimes while Yassin continued Yassin juniors tour guide training.

On day five we returned to Lushoto by public bus. There are only two buses a day that leave Mtae, one goes to Arusha and the other to Tanga, but they both leave at around 04.00 in the morning. I woke at 03.30 when I heard the bus sounding its horn and revving its engine, it was time to get up. We quickly packed our bags and stumbled out of the guesthouse and down the dark main street, where in the distance the bus waited, its lights the only illumination in the town. I didn't expect many people to be on the bus at this hour of the night, but it was almost packed, we were lucky to get some of the last seats. At 04.00 we left nosily, sounding the horn as we wound along the dirt road through Mtae waking everyone up in the process. The headlights of the bus peered into the dark as we crawled along the mountain road, which was badly rutted in places, lighting up groups of cold looking people waiting in the dark. More and more people got on the bus until eventually nobody could move. I had a seat but found I couldn't even move my head from side to side. It was then that a young boy standing in the aisle began to get travel sick and vomit; there was nothing either of us could do, he couldn't move and nor could I, so he vomited over my trousers. I made a mental note to do some laundry tomorrow.

By daybreak we had reached Lukozi, where we had stopped for our first night and finally after a very rough and uncomfortable journey were back in Lushoto at about 07.30. We booked a bus ticket for Dar es Salaam that departed at 09.30 and went back to the tourist information office to collect our left luggage and thanked Yassin for the excellent job he had done at guiding us through the mountains. I would definitely recommend him to anyone who is planning to trek through the Western Usambara Mountains.

Continue reading this journey: Relaxing on Zanzibar