March 2013

March 13, 2013

South From Kilimanjaro – South Pare Mountains

Filed under: South Pare Mountains — Tags: , , — Tanzania Odyssey @ 3:35 pm

South Pare Mountains

The rural spread of the Southern Pare mountains is also a magical, forested expanse of hidden villages, valleys and homesteads clinging to steep handmade terraces, with plenty to inspire an inquisitive mind. The tourism project here is located in high in the Mbaga Hills, in an area with an extraordinary local and colonial history. The traditional Pare culture is still much in evidence, and witch doctors from here are so renowned that people travel long distances, even urban dwellers from Arusha venture this far south to decipher unusual problems. Areas such as Malameni Rock, where children were sacrificed to appease evil spirits until the 1930s, can now be climbed after receiving special instruction from the hut below. It is not far from here to the legendary Mghimbi Caves, which provided a natural hideaway and haven for local tribes during slave raids. Both of these can be visited on a half day walk. More spiritualism can be found among the tropical fruit trees and banana palms in Ikongwe Village, reached in a full day excursion from Mbaga, a beautiful and fruitful area that is believed to be a gift from the heavens, and where now a very distinct religious community has developed. Another area considered with great respect by local communities is Mpepera Viewpoint atop Mpepera Hill, where a cross has been erected to represent the peace between the resident Catholic and Protestant communities. The viewpoint is used by locals as a peaceful area for prayers, and gives excellent views of Mount Kilimanjaro, or the Mbaga Hills and Mkomazi Game Reserve when the skies are clear. Full day walks can also be arranged into local villages to visit families practising traditional methods to brew quantities of beer or longer hikes through unspoilt woodland such as Shengena Forest. Here it is possible to camp under the stars and wake up for a sunrise hike up Shengena Peak, the highest point in the Pare and Usambara Mountains at 2,463m above sea level, and discover fresh springs and troops of colobus monkeys and enjoy magnificent views over Same and Lushoto. All or any of these can be visited with the great company of local Pare guides contacted via Tona Lodge (see below), who are keen to explain any questions regarding their cultural and natural environment with an ever improving command of English.


The Pare are known to have had an extensive fortified capital, under their chief Ghendewa. He started and managed a conscript army and masterminded a unified tribe with a ‘sophisticated social system’. Ghendewa was killed fighting the Chagga. Reverend Jacob Jenson Dannholz missionary from Leibzig came to live in Mbaga for approximately 10 years between 1908 – 1917, and built a church and farmhouse on Tona Moorland. Locally known as The White Man’s House, but it is officially named ‘Dannholz Cottage’ in honour of the man who built it. This has been used by the missionaries ever since, and four bedrooms are available for visitors.

March 12, 2013

South from Kilimanjaro – Usambara Mountains

Filed under: Usambara Mountains — Tags: , , , — Tanzania Odyssey @ 3:51 pm

There is only one tarmac road into the Usambara Mountains, and this is the one that wends from Mombo to the small waterfall-focused town of Soni, and along a wonderfully lush and picturesque river valley to Lushoto, the centre of regional administration. This extraordinary region is tucked high in the hills, with a surprising local and colonial history. Again the region has an aura of sublime natural beauty, with deep valleys and rushing mountain streams at the foot of steep terraced hillsides that rise up to meet the misty morning. In their dense thicket an abundance of plant species has earned this often overlooked hidden corner of Tanzania a name as ‘the Galapagos of the plant world’.

The Usambara Range divided into East and West by the 4km wide Lwengera Valley, that lies in between.

The West Usambaras

All of the mountains in this eastern arc are ancient, far exceeding the age of Kilimanjaro and Meru, and are thought to have formed as mountains around 25 million years ago, although the rock itself was up to 600,000 years old. When this rock was forced upwards it formed an island of plant life that has since enjoyed a haven of climatic stability, so rescuing such species from the intensive heat of the plains. But while the indigenous African Violet thrived in its quiet, natural state, subsequent populations of man in these mountains suffered a endured a far less stable existence. There is evidence of early iron-working Neolithic settlements in these mountains between 3000 and 3,500 years ago, and then an influx of Bantu peoples around 2,000 years ago who are thought to have migrated from the Congo. Some of these intermingled with the original tribes, and thus originated the Shambaa, or Sambaa, people of the Usambaras today. The Shambaa clans traditionally welcomed refugees to their mountainous realm and supposedly lived harmoniously with their neighbours although little is known historically until the early 18th century and the arrival of the first king of the Usambaras, Mbega, father of the Kilindi Dynasty. Family members of this ruling class are remembered with reverence and awe, and rumours abound as to how their magical powers were strong enough to make rain, and their pale coloured eyes and distinctive pale skin coloration. King Mbega was also reputedly a professional bushpig hunter from the Nguru Mountains, who considerately took a wife from each clan and provided each with a son to rule it. But when the infamous Maasai tribe assembled on the westward plains and began to threaten the Shambaa livelihood in a determined and warlike quest for grazing land and cattle, the mountain tribe developed greater political and military structures under the leadership of Mbegha’s grandson, Kinyashi. From the middle of the 1800s the Usambaras were fraught with violent struggles as they were subject to attacks from their neighbouring tribes plundering livestock and food, and from slave traders, but thanks to its elevated position and respected cultural hierarchy the kingdom survived. On Kinyashi’s death his son Kimweri (of the Kilindi dynasty) was proclaimed ‘Simba Mwene’, the Lion King, and he became a powerful military leader, eventually controlling of much of the Southern Pare Mountains from his base at Vuga, near Soni. But as the local clan chiefs, Kimweri’s sons, became more adept at raiding the slave caravans for arms to retaliate invasions, they then began infighting for greater power, so decentralising and weakening the dynasty. Vugu was just retained as the Shambaa capital, and the background of military organisation enabled the Shambaa tribes to support 1888/9 Abushiri Uprising, but the weakening power base allowed the German Administration to walk in at the latter end, having quashed the rebellion. Arriving at a time of chaos and disarray enabled the Europeans to persuade individual chiefs to sign away their territories for small reward. The cool, pleasant climate of the Usambaras attracted a number of settlers to its wide green valleys and so charmed the German administration that they originally wanted to make it their colonial capital, and called the town Wilhelmstal after Kaiser Wilhelm. The land is wild and steep, but the newcomers implemented building and engineering that still reflect their governmental attitudes. They constructed a solid cobblestone road to climb the 33km between Mombo and Lushoto which remains mainly unchanged to this day (although resurfaced), and it is still possible to see their original brickwork in the many mountain stream bridges along the way. This rises on a gentle incline, to allow their oxcarts to pass back and forth with heavy loads, and is shaded by an imposing avenue of wide trunk plane trees. Settler farming flourished, encouraging a number of stone homes designed in the colonial style, still much in evidence today, and the area was cultivated, albeit with some shaky starts. The Germans set out with grand plans to develop coffee plantations here, but having cleared the forest and planted crops it became evident that the new plots did not provide enough shelter. Fruit trees, however, flourished, especially pears and plums, and the area continues to export fresh produce around the country. Success was also found in plantations of sisal, which made certain planters wealthy men with the freedom to set up country retreats in areas such as Lushoto, where crops also extended to rubber, cotton, tobacco, sugar, wheat and maize. After the Versailles Treaty of 1919 Tanganyika was made a Mandate Territory under the League of Nations and then awarded to Great Britain for administration. Although the British discouraged settlers, there were many civil servants who did need and build their own houses. Many of these good-looking buildings can still be found around the Lushoto area, adding to the bizarre combination of old colonial German and British alongside African homesteads all situated in a distinct natural and yet well cultivated landscape.

What to do in the West Usambaras

The excellent tourism office in Lushoto town (signposted left past the bank) is extremely helpful in organising guides for driving, walking or hiking around the area. They provide numerous options for camping, overnight stays with local families or days out, and guides are likely to charge a fee per person per day on top of the $10 charge paid to the Tourism Project. One of the easiest and most impressive natural areas to reach on an enjoyable walk from the town centre is Irente Viewpoint. This is a wild rocky outcrop, approached along a narrow, flower-fringed walkway and emerging at a giddy windblown height above the Maasai steppe. Views are superb, and nearby scenery is impressively dramatic. The round trip takes between three and four hours on foot from the town, although anyone with private vehicles are able to drive a large portion of the way if desired. An old campsite cunningly named both Viewpoint and Bellavista Campsite has been renovated and improved by Louis, the charismatic proprietor who obviously has exciting plans for his campsite and his cooking, although so far guacamole is the only recommendation. Prices presently seem to reflect future aspirations, and are no doubt negotiable (Tsh 5000 rent, Tsh 2000 park) . Any guide from the tourism office can show you the way to Irente viewpoint, but the route is clear from Irente Farm. The farm has developed as a worthwhile stopover for buying picnic goods, since it has established as a reliable producer of wholemeal breads and jams and fresh dairy products, (and any traveller to Tanzania for any length of time will appreciate the joy of a delicious cheese supplier!). The farm has also received attention from the legendary local homemaker, known as Comrade ‘Kipepe’, meaning ‘butterfly’, who has sculpted his family home entirely from mud, including the table, benches, shelves and water system. Kipepe has now built a mud shop, ‘duka’ in Swahili, at Irente, artistically headed with a wide head of a horned cow.

More homemade goods can be found in production at the landscaped and lovingly tended Catholic Mission of the Montessori Sisters in Ubiri, where wines, cheeses and jams can also be inspected, tasted and bought. The mission can be visited on a three to four hour walking round trip from town. A slightly longer walking trip of between four and five hours leads up to the farmlands of Jaegertal, through an impressive fruit tree nursery and on up to the village of Vuli which has benefit from irrigation, conservation and farming projects. This walk can also include a return trip via the Lushoto Arboretum or Herbarium, an impressive collection of pressed plants and leaves that were collected from all around Tanzania during the German era. To see the collection independently, ask for Mr Msangi or Mr Mabula.

Guides can also lead on a rewarding walk to the Magamba Rainforest, inhabited by troops of dashingly collared colobus monkeys and numerous species of forest bird, including the Usambara akalat and Usambara weaver, making this a particularly rewarding destination for anyone with special interests in birdwatching. It is possible to camp at the quiet site equipped with a loo and running water, near a disused sawmill at the centre of the forest, or to make your way to the comfortable and welcoming lodges at Mkuzi and Migambo, mentioned below.

The walk to Mgamba from town also goes via the royal mountain top village of Kwembago, the ancient centre of the Daffa family, a subclan of the traditionally revered ruling class the Kilindi Dynasty. This trip takes between five and six hours on foot, and returns through the village of Magamba, from where it is also possible to catch a bus back to Lushoto or on to Mlalo.

Longer trips can be made over a period of days, either camping or staying in guesthouses on route. An excellent longer trek leads through the forests, mountains and valleys and villages between Lushoto and the quaint and historic village of Mtae, an important elevated boundary post between the Maasai plains and lands of the Shambaa high on the westernmost rim of the West Usambara escarpment. The first German European missionaries were allowed to build their church in Mtae (sometimes written Mtii), having survived the ordeal of being led to an ancestral burial site by the local chief and amazing him when they were not destroyed or distracted by the potentially fatal mizumu, the spirits of the dead. The panoramic views from here are worth the climb, with mile upon mile of extraordinary landscape stretching to the far horizon to reveal the Southern Pare mountain ranges and Mkomazi game reserve, Nyumba ya Mungu reservoir and sometimes even the peaks of Kilimanjaro some 250 kilometres distant. The first road down the western face is presently being constructed to Mtae with donations from the ancestors of the first european visitors, so forging a historic link between these mountains and the Maasai plains below. A couple of simple but welcoming guesthouses in Mtae provide rooms for just two or three dollars, the Mwivano II is just slightly more costly than the Kuna Maneno. A local café near the bus station provides wholesome plates of local food and homemade breads, and a nearby bar sells beer – although not necessarily cold. Buses between Mtae and Lushoto take around two hours, leaving Lushoto in the mid afternoon and leaving Mtae at 5.30 am.

New tours have recently been added to the range organised by the Cultural Tourism Program, on of which heads even further into the Usambara range, to discover the isolated and idiosyncratic town of Mlalo, clinging high in the hills 30 km from Lushoto. Surrounded by a dramatic backdrop of wild mountain peaks, Mlalo is a rambling sprawl of extraordinary homes designed with two storeys and prettily carved wooden balconies in a neatly cultivated and terraced valley irrigated by the Umba River. The town produces a number of hand crafted pots in the tradition of the Shambaa, who once believed that the creator god Sheuta formed people from the earth as a potter works her earthen vessels. Ancient beliefs hold that pot making is the work of women, with techniques passed down the matrilineal line from mother to daughter. Their pottery and pots made in the nearby village of Kileti are then transported to the Lushoto market for sale. Buses run daily between Lushoto and Mlalo, via Magamba, and take around two hours. The Afilex Hotel is generally recommended as the best guesthouse, although be prepared for reading by gaslamp, as there is no electricity this far into the mountains.

February 21, 2013

Central Tanzania – The Southern Highlands – Udzungwa Mountains National Park

Filed under: Udzungwa Mountains National Park — Tags: , , , , , — Tanzania Odyssey @ 5:36 pm

The Udzungwa Mountains National Park is a sumptuous forested reserve that has recently been declared the sacred preserve of hikers and walkers. The land is ancient, a portion of the Eastern Arc mountains pushed upwards by faulting in the earth’s crust millions of years ago, and its steep slopes preserve a rare tropical forest that is home to a realm of unique plants, birds and animals. It is also the only area in Tanzania where the forest cover remains unbroken from the lowlands all the way into the high mountain forests.

These forests are remarkably unspoilt; a wilderness of extremely beautiful woodland routes – with no driving tracks at all. Of the five official trails, two bring walkers to the spectacular 170 m drop of Sanje Falls, with colourful and long ranging views of up to 100km across the Kilombero sugar plantations and mosaic of grasslands from the top. The areas around the Sanje Falls become an incredible blur of butterfly colour after the rains in December, April, May and June, when flowers and air alike are often filled with hundreds of Swallowtails and Blue Salamis. Another leads up to Mwanihana’s peak, a demanding but rewarding hike that demands a degree of fitness from those who choose to climb. The highest peak of all is Luhomero, reaching 2,576 m (8,587 ft), above sea level, a distance requiring two nights and three days to climb there and back.

A number of rivers, streams and waterfalls make their way down these slopes into the Great Ruaha River, accumulating enough velocity to power the majority of the country’s electricity from the hydro-electric turbines at Kidatu, and irrigate the crops to the south.

Udzungwa Mountain National Park – Specialist and endemic species

Among all the species of wildlife in the Uzungwa forests, there have been found several that are unique to this area. The endangered Iringa (or Uhehe) Red Colobus monkey (Colobus badius gondonorum) is found here, and a much more rare and shy Sanje Crested Mangabey (Cercocebus galeritus sanjei), discovered in 1979 as a result of an unusual encounter by two wildlife ecology researchers from Dar es Salaam University. While collecting plants in the forest, they heard a strange sound that seemed to resemble a Mangabey monkey call, but as the next nearest populations of Mangabey are thought to be limited to those in forests in Southern Kenya, the researchers imagined that they were suffering hallucinations. However, their Tanzanian guide described the animal that they had heard, although he only knew it as ‘n’golaga’, the Swahili name for the species, and clearly distinguished it from a colobus, vervet or Sykes monkey, or a baboon. When he took them to find some n’golaga in the forest canopy the next day, the researchers glimpsed the first sight of this unique species of Mangabey in the early morning mist. Unlike the Kenyan species, the Sanje Mangabey has a pale face and light grey body, and stands about 0.75m tall, excluding its long tail. But the researchers wanted to get a better look, and were delighted when their guide took them to see a tame n’golaga which had been adopted by local children after their father accidentally shot her mother when he mistook her for a yellow baboon. The researchers knew that this species was unique, and were even more excited to discover its unusual tufty fringe, which seemed to indicate a very distinguished strain of Mangabey – until it became clear that the children had styled her Mangabey crest an extreme haircut, to keep the hair out of her eyes.

The other extremely rare species unique to the Udzungwas is a bird, the ‘globally threatened’ Udzungwa forest Partridge, which was first recognised as a significant, unusual species of Partridge in July 1991. Legend tells how a researcher living in the forest had just devoured his partridge supper when, on closer inspection, he realised that the bird was unfamiliar, and for a time became concerned that he might have eaten the last one. Fortunately, although still rare in the Udzungwa forests, the Partridge has since been spotted more frequently in the west of the National Park, and recently also near Luhomero Mountain.

The Udzungwa Partridge is just one of many extremely rare bird species in this region, and features among many other unusual species, such as the Iringa akalat (Sheppardia montana), mainly spotted between 1,600 and 2,400 metres in regions around the outskirts of the National Park, and the White Winged Apalis, (Apalis Chariessa), which may be seen feeding among other birds on the forest floor. The recently discovered Rufous red-winged sunbird (Nectarinia Rufipennis) was identified here in 1981, and is more common in the forests between 600 and 1,700 metres – it joins two other very rare species of sunbird in the Udzungwa forests, the Amani (Anthreptes pallidigaster) and the Banded-green sunbird, (Anthreptes rubritorques).

Other rare species exist in the Udzungwas in denser populations than found elsewhere, such as the Dappled Mountain Robin (Arcanator Orostruthus) the Olive-flanked ground robin (Cossypha anomala), the Black-backed cisticola (Cisticola eximus) and the Red-capped forest warbler, (Othotomus Metopias). Another pretty bird common to the area is the red-brown-headed Mrs Moreau’s warbler, (Bathmocercus Winifredi), named by the highly acclaimed Africa ornithologist R.E Moreau after his wife, Winnifred. The Moreaus were also responsible for naming another warbler after a family member, when they called a small tail-wagging warbler after their daughter, Prinnia.

Five amphibian and reptile species have also been discovered to be unique to the area, including a new species of toad, a tree frog, a chameleon, a forest gecko, (Cnemaspis Uzungwae) and a skink. The tiny Udzungwa Puddle frog, with its distinctive band across its eyes, was distinguished and recorded in 1983.

Udzungwa Mountains National Park – History

Udzungwa Mountains National Park is the most recently gazetted of Tanzania’s National Parks, although it has been a forest reserve since the British created the Mwanihana and West Kilombero Scarp reserves in the early fifties. The park covers 1,990 sq km, almost one-fifth of the 10,000 sq km that comprises the Udzungwa mountain range, and is bordered by the Great Ruaha River to the north and Kilombero Valley to the southeast. The present park was discussed for a decade before its fruition in 1992, and is the first National Park to be declared on the merits of its forests rather than animal population. The history of this land is an ancient one. The base of these mountains dates from 450 to 650 million years ago, and the dense tropical forest that covers the mountain is thought to be a pocket of vegetation preserved from the time of the Gondwanaland supercontinent that existed up to 30 million years ago. Leaping forwards through the spectrum of time, archaeological finds around this area and Isimila have unearthed Stone Age hand axes and tools that were carefully crafted by hunter-gatherers. The somewhat limited archaeological study that has been carried out here also provides evidence of a major migration through this area during 1st and 2nd centuries, during which iron-working Bantu tribes progressed eastwards and displaced native hunter-gatherers.

Later, the Wadzungwa people, one of the 6 sub-groups of Hehe who resisted German colonisation for seven years before the Maji Maji rebellion, were pushed out of the Iringa area by their fellow tribesmen and took up resistance on side of mountain. From the position of weakness that saw them succumbing to the pressure to move, the Wadzungwa found themselves in a stronger position around a richly fertile mountain, watered with abundant rain and spring source rivers. Their name means ‘people who live on the side of the mountain’, and the name Udzungwa has probably evolved as a result of another linguistic corruption by German interpreters.

Such a naturally attractive area has not been overlooked by other peoples from different areas, and has attracted a migration of tribes including the Wapogoro (farmers and hunters), the Wabena from the Upper Kilombero valley, some WaChagga from the region around Kilimanjaro and others. The people on the Eastern side of the mountain believe in a mountain god they call ‘Bokela’, and they use certain regions of the park for sacrifice and worship, especially during hard times such as drought, disease and famine. There was great unease when TANAPA started to assess the mountains, as it was thought that Bokela would be offended if the area was to be farmed or used for logging. Happily, it is now widely believed that Bokela is contented with the present situation, and supports this conservation of his mountain.

The late development of the National Park has meant that it has benefit from recent TANAPA and CCS (Community Conservation Services) policies that take account for the people that will be affected by the conservation measures. The Udzungwa local communities have therefore not suffered quite as drastically as their country people surrounding previous national parks, and they have been party to a new policy of communication, consultation and compromise with regard to the implications the new restrictions will have on their lifestyle. Local people have traditionally relied on the forests for centuries, using the wood for building, fuel, medicines, household utensils and weaving materials, honey gathering and utensils. Bamboo and reeds are used to make baskets for carrying agricultural produce, and animals such as the bush pig, tree hyrax and forest antelopes have traditionally been hunted for protein. The Hehe people traditionally used the furs of the Black and White Colobus monkeys as a part of their ceremonial dress.

Since the National Park has been established, local people are allowed into the forests on Fridays and Sundays to collect dead wood for cooking and grass for thatching, but any form of axe or knife is prohibited within the boundaries. If you are between Kidatu and Mang’ula on either of these days you will see scores of women of all ages emerging from the forests with vast bundles of wood balanced on their heads. Frequently the load is so great that it might exceed her own height and require the help of someone else to lift it into position. But once arranged, she will often then carry it a number of kilometres home. The WWF are supporting an extensive reforestation program, to educate and encourage the community to plant trees and seedlings, for both fruit and wood, around their land, and another concession grants those with practical knowledge of traditional medicines a three month pass to gather the required ingredients from the forest.

There is a good atmosphere in this local enclave, slightly reminiscent of the mountain-dwelling communities around Kilimanjaro and Lushoto in the Usambaras. The mountains obviously once attracted missionary zeal, and there are a number of schools and various denominations of churches dotting the steep sloping hillsides. Yards are well-kept, and gardens grow with fruit and flowers for decoration. Fat chickens and bright coloured khangas give a good air of contentment and well-being here, and the road passes high numbers of lime stacks for burning limestone, showing a growth in construction and hand made housing.

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