October 2018

October 16, 2018

Dry Season Safaris in Southern Tanzania

Southern Tanzania is made for dreamy dry season safaris.

Tanzania is a stunning destination for an authentic African safari experience and the southern circuit is particularly ideal dry season safaris. Already a highly productive region of Tanzania, from June to October the sparse vegetation in the Selous Game Reserve and Ruaha National Park make wildlife easier to spot and spectacular sunsets make way for cloudless, starry skies.

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Lions in Ruaha National Park © Mwagusi Camp

Dry season safaris are enjoyed in relative peace and quiet, away from the bustling crowds that are expected in the northern circuit parks. Safaris to southern Tanzania are great value for money and the dry season means reduced humidity and risk of malaria.

Selous Game Reserve

Africa’s largest game reserve is a little-known gem of unspoilt Africa and home to impressive concentrations of wildlife. Vast herds of elephants and buffalo as well as beautiful predators like lion, leopard and the endangered African wild dog roam the 48000 square kilometres of Selous.

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Sighting a giraffe at Sand Rivers Selous © Nomad Tanzania

With minimal water sources, game and birdlife remain close to trusted waterholes. This increases the chances of regular sightings of diverse wildlife at the same place. The density of plains game congregating at these few waterholes means exciting predator-prey action as well as skirmishes amongst these predators fighting to secure their next meal.

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Fly fishing at Sand Rivers Selous Camp © Nomad Tanzania

The plumage of and interactions between the 450 species of birds inhabiting Selous will stand out amongst the bare bushes and trees. These feathered beauties can be spotted on the ground during a walking safari or out on the water in a motorised boat. Fly fishing is available in various areas around Selous.

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Open plan luxury suite © Beho Beho

Safari accommodation in Selous offered by the Selous Safari Company and Beho Beho matches the natural surrounds and adds intimate luxury to the classic safari experience in the heart of Tanzania’s southern circuit.

Ruaha National Park

Even fewer tourists make it to Ruaha National Park making it a peaceful and tranquil haven for discerning safari enthusiasts. The largest national park in Tanzania is part of the southern circuit, and therefore, best visited in the region’s dry season.

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Sunset over Ruaha National Park © Mwagusi Camp

Numerous prides of lion along with cheetah, leopard and wild dog roam the massive wilderness that is Ruaha. Elephants and buffalo wander the plains passing under the magnificent baobabs that dot the horizon.

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An open-sided game vehicle at Jongomero Camp © Selous Safari Company

Game-viewing in southern Tanzania offers a fantastic cross-over of south and east African species. As with Selous Game Reserve, game drives in Ruaha National Park are in open-sided vehicles resulting in an exhilarating drive through wild Tanzania.

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Elegant poolside setting at Jongomero Camp © Selous Safari Company

Safari accommodation provided for by Selous Safari Company and Mwagusi Camp capitalises on the exclusivity of Ruaha’s solitude. Tranquil and elegant, these camps are perfect for guests looking for a getaway in a romantic and rustic setting.

February 23, 2013

Central Tanzania – The Southern Highlands – Morogoro

Filed under: The Southern Highlands — Tags: , , , , — Tanzania Odyssey @ 5:31 pm

Morogoro town is a small but green and industrious agricultural market town in the lea of the Ulguru mountains, with a freshness of mountain air and abundance of fresh fruit and veg., and a relaxing, laid-back atmosphere. Its situation between north and south, coast and interior, mid-way between Dar es Salaam and Dodoma or on route to any westerly destination, makes it a bustling transit point and welcome break for travellers passing through. While there is little of specific interest to merit a special journey, anyone exploring this route at an unhurried pace will find invigorating rural scenery to explore and a decent choice of accommodation alternatives. Others may wish to make the most of an opportunity to play a round of golf on the old colonial 9 hole course.

Economically, Morogoro struggled to find its feet until the middle of the twentieth century, after suffering the devastating effects of nationalisation on its factories during the 1970s. Although a familiar sense of dog-eared disintegration still clings around many of the old colonial stone buildings and crossroads, today its tree-lined streets are shady and cool, and the dusty roads are known to probably every transit lorry in the land. The town now thrives on its popular reputation as a central agricultural market, (the largest and most well-favoured market for fresh produce in the country), and the old soap, oil and canvas factories that closed in the ‘70s have recently re-opened under new schemes for privatisation. Now this small town supplies the greatest proportion of its wares to vendors in Dar es Salaam.

Beyond the town, the Morogoro region is a wild, rural expanse, with local cash crops of mainly coffee and sisal. The sisal is exported to Europe, the United States and China, and is used throughout Tanzania to make items such as rope, string, stuffing for mattresses and bags for coffee export. The Kilombero Valley, just south of the Udzungwa Mountains and Udzungwa National Park, is especially rich in natural wildlife, and grows an abundance of staples such as rice, maize, millet, fruit and vegetables, and sugar cane, which supplies two sugar factories in the valley. The local town of Ifakara is home to a number of extremely talented women who weave fabulous thick and colourful lengths of cloth on their looms, and give visitors a far better price than they would get otherwise in Dar es Salaam.


Its central situation and accessibility from the coast made Morogoro a colonial focus. Typical indications of their residence remain evident in an old boma and numerous old churches, as well as wide streets lined with avenues of trees and second storey balconies – and a rather smart golf course in the scenic foothills of the mountains. The town was the site of yet another magnificently exasperating evasion by German commander Paul von Lettow Vorbeck when he was pursued by (General??) Jan Christiaan Smuts in 1916, then commander of the British East African army, during the East African events of WW1. Smuts, still entirely unaware of the distances over which von Lettow would elude him, was firmly smug in the opinion that his adversary would find himself trapped in Morogoro, because the Uluguru Mountains would inhibit their southerly progress. The British troops were therefore mildly dumbfounded to discover the music that they had heard on approach was a mechanical piano playing in the Barnhof Hotel, (now the rather dishevelled, government run Savoy Hotel, near the railway station), and they inside they found the Schutztruppe barracks horrendously defecated on throughout, and abandoned.

What to do and See

One of the main joys of Morogoro is its proximity to the Uluguru Mountains, which rise up around the southern reaches of this little town and provide excellent ground for easy forays into unspoilt countryside.

There is also the very unusual and worthwhile botanical garden called ‘Rock Garden Resort’, which although small and largely untended, remains an impressively lasting gift from thoughtful Japanese benefactors. A minimal entrance fee allows you to follow the few paved stone paths through this strangely both natural and nurtured botanical ‘rock’ garden at leisure. The paths lead to a bubbling river that dances through vast rock boulders, and parties of mothers and children wash and play beneath the pleasant shade of the palms and natural woodlands. It is a good place to relax if you have time on your hands, and must be the best option for anyone with their own tent to pitch up in one of their clean and picturesque camping sites. There is a café just inside the entrance gate, providing drinks, snacks and taped music in a friendly atmosphere. To get there, follow Kingalu Road southwards past the post office, just over 1 km beyond the Morogoro Hotel, (the old golf course on your right creating a nostalgic sense of the colonial parklands of yore), and the Rock Garden Resort is signed on the right. (Admn. Tsh 500/ 75c)

Guides for further excursions into the Uluguru Mountains can be arranged through the Rock Garden Resort, and through Morogoro or Oasis Hotels. Anyone visiting the rock gardens may then find themselves inspired to climb higher and discover the even finer waterfalls and beauty that lies beyond. Guides can be arranged for walks and hikes to popular destinations such as the old German villa called ‘Morningside’ in a scenic forest clearing just a couple of hours walk from the town. To get there is a good and interesting route from the town centre, following Boma Road southwards for about 10km, passing the old German Boma on the way, and then meandering along the hill path past trees and streams.

February 22, 2013

Central Tanzania – The Southern Highlands – Mikumi National Park

Filed under: Mikumi National Park — Tags: , , , , , — Tanzania Odyssey @ 5:35 pm

Back on the road again, 96 miles south of Morogoro and north of the Selous Reserve lies Mikumi, the most accessible of all Tanzania’s National Parks. Mikumi National Park has the attraction of being an easy driving distance from Dar es Salaam with a couple of good options for accommodation, which makes it a fairly inexpensive option for a self-drive weekend safari in scenic wide open savannah.

The park actually straddles the highway near the Uluguru Mountains south of Morogoro, and offers the chance of a brief safari thrill for anyone travelling through by bus or truck. Unfortunately in the past vehicles used to thunder through this 50km stretch heedless of the speed restrictions, and road kill has been a major problem. This has recently been addressed with the introduction of a number of brightly painted speed bumps that might increase the chance of seeing something still alive.

Mikumi is remarkably the 3rd largest park in Tanzania, enclosed to the south and east with a semicircle of Uluguru Mountains, rising to 2,743m, and the Vuma Hills. These look down across the wide, flat expanse of the Mkata flood plains, which provide a good spotting ground for a variety of larger animals. Lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo range among the numerous baobabs and palms around the edge, while unusually large herds of up to 100 impala range across the plains. Towards the centre of the park, water collects into watercourses and swamps attracting hippopotamuses, as well as the odd monitor lizard and various water birds. The close proximity to the northern border of the Selous means that a number of animals migrate between the two areas, including the Lichtenstein’s hartebeest and African Hunting dog. The miombo woodlands in the south east are also a stalking ground for sable antelope and families of shaggy white-collared Colobus monkeys, and herds of eland and small family groups of Greater Kudu may also be seen between these two areas.

Central Tanzania – The Southern Highlands – Selous Game Reserve

Filed under: Selous Game Reserve — Tags: , , , , , — Tanzania Odyssey @ 5:34 pm

The Rufiji River with its lagoons, sandbanks and lakes, and the surrounding forests and woodlands that make up the Selous Game Reserve create a unique and very unusual safari environment. The spectrum of wildlife is equally diverse, and distinct in that this southern location attracts a unique combination of East and Southern African wildlife, both resident and migratory, and particularly a curious and colourful assortment of over 440 known species of birds. The vast area contained within the boundaries of the Selous Game Reserve accounts for 5% of the landmass of Tanzania, and yet there are just a few options for tourist accommodation, and all are high quality, low-impact lodges that maintain high standards. The freedom to take walking and boating safaris within the reserve means that guiding standards are also especially good and can extend to include excellent options to fly-camp overnight in the bush. All of these allow visitors to enjoy memorably varied perspectives on life in this green and lush southern corner.

Covering almost 50,000 square km, an area greater than the size of Switzerland, the Selous game reserve is one of the largest areas set aside for wildlife preservation anywhere in the world, although only a small northern portion is allocated for photographic tourism. This is also an area that naturally appeals to a photographic lens, as the waterways and plains reflect all the changing colours of the sun and attract numerous well-feathered water birds and raptors.

The Selous was declared a ‘World Heritage site’ by the UN in 1982, but the number of visitors is still below 5,000 per year and this lack of mass tourism ensures that those who do visit the Selous enjoy a true wilderness experience. The tourist sector north of the Rufiji River extends to Stiegler’s Gorge in the west and the TAZARA railway in the north, and contains all the various forms of vegetation to be found in this ecosystem. A combination of the Rufiji River with its meandering streams, ox-bow lakes and swamplands, as well as open woodlands, plains and dense thicket forests makes the Selous an interesting ecological environment and an ideal location to explore over a number of days by vehicle, on boat trips and on foot.

Selous Game Reserve – Landscape and bearings

The scenery is varied, with unusually green grasses and tangles of vegetation, and inspires a film depleting string of photographic moments with each turn in the path. The river routes are characterised by legions of tall Borassus Palms along the banks that grow up to 25m tall, and leave a tall headless totem when the water courses change direction and they become too thirsty to survive. The same demise is thought to explain the spooky silhouettes of ancient leadwood trees that remain preserved intact when they die after up to two millennia of life, leaving a skeletal perch for songbirds and raptors that retains a perfect yet utterly lifeless photogenic poise. The Selous conserves a surprisingly colourful African landscape, and the white forms of the leadwoods are in stark contrast to the surrounding vibrancy of well-watered greens and a ranging palette of sandy terracottas that reflect with the moods of the sun on the waters.

The eastern area of the reserve around Selous Safari Camp, Rufiji River Camp and Mbuyu Camp is mainly a grassy woodland, with a mass of Terminalia trees and sweet-scented African mahogany providing fragrant shady areas through which to enjoy walking safaris. Further north, and westwards towards the rise of the Beho Beho Mountains, the land is mainly covered by low miombo woodland. These can be reached as a full day trip from the south-easterly camps such as Mbuyuni. The Western reaches of the reserve are the least developed, with Sand Rivers Selous presently the only camp in the area, and the elevation gives magnificent views across the woodlands and plains of the southerly hills. Here the Rufiji River forms a narrow 8km creek through a chasm in the hard rock. This scenic region is now called Stiegler’s Gorge, after the unfortunate Swiss fellow who came to a sorry end when he met an elephant here at the turn of the last century.

Selous Game Resrve – Wildlife and birds

The many intricate waterways and tributaries of the ever-meandering Rufiji River Delta attract a healthy population of elephant, and are packed full of grunting hippopotami and yawning crocodile that lumber ominously into the water at the first sound of a boat. The banks attract different sized herds of plains game depending on the season. Herds disperse after the rains and then later regroup when the water sources concentrate and they are forced to venture into the open to drink, so risking predator attacks with the protection of the crowd. A mass of water birds can be seen along the sandbanks, lagoons and riverine channels, where colourful-legged terns and long legged yellow-billed storks make up a comical feeding trio with huge beaked pelicans in the shallows, and twitchers might watch out for the Madagascar Squocco or a White-Backed Night heron. The swift and elegant flight of African Skimmers is a delight to see, as is feisty interaction between birds – such as the statuesque Goliath heron vying for territory with a broad-chested African Fish Eagle. Boat trips along the river are coloured with glimpses of at least eight different species of kingfisher, and up to nine different bee-eaters can be found in the woodland areas. Special examples of the latter include the Bohm and Swallowtail bee-eaters and, in the height of summer, the northern species of carmine bee-eater can be seen. The lucky birdwatcher may also catch an evening glimpse of Pel’s fishing owl, a small nocturnal fellow who only fishes under the cover of night.

Safaris in the Selous provide a rare opportunity to spot an uncommon range of animals, but the terrain makes chances of seeing them much harder than flat, short grass plains – such as those of the Serengeti. Nevertheless, these woodlands and savannah support a wide range of wildlife, particularly antelope and wildebeest and a famously large population of elephant.

A number of lion prides reside in the Selous, and there is always the possibility of a chance encounter in the bush. More often their roars can be heard from your lodge beds at morning and night, and their trails then spotted nerve-rackingly close to camp. The river and bush habitat also suits the reclusive nature of the leopard, who have a reputation for being frustratingly hard to find although they are also prolific in the area, and again it is possible to catch a tantalising glimpse of scratches and signs of their activity in trees. There remains a fair chance of spotting leopard, or at least arriving at camp just the day after reports of the best sightings all year. Much less likely is the hope of seeing cheetah here, although there is a reported tiny population, whereas they are prolific on the Serengeti plains. Conversely, African Wild Dog are a rare and protected species throughout Africa, but are thriving in the Selous where they are less plagued by hyenas than elsewhere in Tanzania, (although hyenas are also common here). Giraffe seem to extend their necks above bushes around every turn in the road, and are often surprised into their cinematically slow motion but surprisingly graceful flight. Skittering zebra are an impressive sight against the burnished grasses, and you might encounter either of the two resident species of wildebeest, the black-bearded gnu and the southern species of Nyasa wildebeest, or come across a herd of grumpy buffalo.

There is a possibility of a chance sighting of a less moody but more beautiful rare sable antelope around Matambwe and up to Stiegler’s Gorge, and sometimes the impressive figure of a greater Kudu is seen standing proudly with its long spiralled horns aloft. The Selous is home to large herds of eland, the largest antelope of all, and the Selous eland are reputed to grow the longest horns of any in East Africa. These huge record-breaking antelope with astonishing agility for their size are a fairly common sight. You may also come across an Eastern Bohor reedbuck, smaller than an impala, or the hefty features of the Lichtenstein’s Hartebeest, a breed unique to the Selous. Maybe you will see a shy white-banded bushbuck or more common waterbuck, with its target-like ring characterising its round rump.

Selous Game Reserve – History

After an unknown ancient people left stone tools and bowls in the region that is now the Selous, the next documented stage in its history tells how the northern boundary village of Kisaki became an important junction for two important caravan routes that connected with Kilwa for the trade of ivory and slaves. Although the town remained a major centre for successive generations, later reports from early explorers, such as Burton and Speke and then Thompson described the area in the mid-19th century as being sparsely populated by people or game.

Selous game reserve was named in 1922 after the English explorer, Captain Fredrick Courtney Selous, who met his fate beneath Sugar Mountain in Beho Beho, in combat with the Germans during the 1st World War. His name is generally pronounced with a French affectation that does not enunciate the final ‘s’, and this is the common pronunciation of the park’s name today. Fredrick Courtney Selous was the son of a chairman of the London Stock Exchange, and finished his public school education with a passion for Africa inspired by the writings of Livingstone. In 1871, defeating his family’s desires for him to follow up a medical profession, he travelled to South Africa and embarked on an extraordinary, and now legendary, expatriate lifestyle. His friendship with King Lonbengula in Bulaweyo allowed him to travel freely through Matabeleland, one of the last areas of wild big game herds that had survived the extermination of the first Europeans. Selous has been described as the ‘greatest of the white hunters’, and distinguished himself from other trigger-happy ex-pats by promoting a keen interest in nature and early theories on conservation and natural history. His skills as a tracker and hunter, as recorded in his best selling accounts sold to an enthralled audience in Victorian England, were widely celebrated, and he began leading safaris through the bush. Selous was responsible for organising the extravagant hunting safari expedition for Theodore Roosevelt and his entourage in 1909.

Although retired and living in Surrey at the outbreak of WW1, Captain F.C. Selous felt that he could contribute to the war effort in East Africa. He joined the 25th Royal Fusiliers in Nairobi, and pursued the retreating German Schutztruppe through Southern Tanzania…an arduous journey that Selous is said to have refused to ride, insistent that he should march alongside his increasingly sick and depleted column of men. Each night when his men retired to their tents, Selous was reported to disappear into the bush with his butterfly net to collect specimens. The Captain was 64 years of age when he finally died in action.

There are still trenches evident in the Selous as a legacy of the German campaign, led by the commander Paul von Lettow Vorbeck who remained resistant to the more populous allied troops here for four years during the First World War.

Much later, another expatriate Englishman, Constantine Ionides, developed his own extraordinary reputation as a hunter with bent for conservation. He played an important role through the 1990s in assisting with the work of controlling poaching of the elephant population with the support of Tanzanian Game Officer, Mzee Madogo.

Such a history provides a background to the present demise of the reserve being divided between photographic tourism and a hunting zone, the latter being the major source of income required to police the area against poaching and thus support the entire conservation area. Around 210 foreign hunters pay a vast sum of money to visit the reserve between July and November, and fulfil a quota to shoot up to 2,000 designated animals. The central principle of the Management Plan is to keep human impact to a minimum, and plans are underway to expand the area set aside for photographic tourism south of the Rufiji River.

February 21, 2013

Central Tanzania – The Southern Highlands – Iringa

Filed under: Iringa — Tags: , , , , — Tanzania Odyssey @ 5:38 pm

The town of Iringa nestles on a 1600m plateau at the heart of the Southern Highlands, almost entirely hidden from view until you come upon it. It is an unusually attractive town, with wide streets lavishly lined with flowering jacaranda – a legacy of its colonial origins. An overall impression of the town is one of clean organisation and investment – all major roads throughout were immaculately re-gravelled and resurfaced in 1999 – and the central market is vibrant, busy and amply piled with fresh, colourful goods. The high-altitude climate has attracted a healthy population of expatriates, many of whom have returned to the area as a result of the extensive tea plantations further south at Mufindi, and continue to nurture business interests in the town. There are a number of pleasant hotels and restaurants as a result, and a thriving Christian community. Their grand cathedral is raised high on the hill at the entrance of town, its brick façade and whitewashed knave and aisles beneath a neat tile roof form an imposing feature against the Iringa skyline.

Iringa – History

Iringa town developed following the eventual victory of the German colonialists over the Hehe tribe and its supporting sub-tribes during their valiant resistance to European rule through the 1890s.

This resistance was spearheaded by the infamous Hehe Chief Mkwawa, whose formidable war-cry is thought to have inspired the naming of the tribe. The Hehe reputation for warfare was already well established among neighbouring tribes before that advent of the colonial era, and Mkwawa had established a formidable fortress at Kalanga – just a few kilometres outside Iringa, now on the road into Ruaha National Park – with outer walls measuring 13km end to end. The walls are said to have been ‘4m high and as wide as a road’, and contained a smaller, also fortified, inner courtyard. Mkwawa’s tribe practised archery with poisoned arrows, and these became a worthy deterrent for groups of slave-raiding Arabs, until he secured their allegiance with supplies of ivory and leopardskins instead. But no such alliance was made with the European colonialists, who remained irreconcilably at odds with the warrior-like Hehe and their supporting sub-tribes. Mkwawa’s men made a lasting impression on the German troops in 1891 when they carried out an ambush at Lugalo, outside Iringa, and trounced the colonial forces.

Humiliated and furious, the Germans retreated in order to regroup and to plan their retaliation. Three years later, in 1894, they returned for a rematch, and successfully destroyed Mkwawa’s fort. Now the remnants of this ancient rock and clay-moulded stronghold have been whittled down to a rather large mound in the middle of Kalenga village, from the top of which Mkwawa was said to have addressed his people. The vague outline of the old fort walls can just be made out around the edge of a sun-scorched football pitch, but the final onslaught of bullets and grenades launched by German troops from the top of a nearby hill comprehensively obliterated the fortress. On the 19 June 1899, after seven years of resistance, Chief Mkwawa shot himself through the skull rather than surrendering to his German foe. Somewhat ungraciously, the thwarted colonialists chopped his head off and sent it back to Germany, where it came to rest in the Bremen Anthropological Museum for more than fifty years, gathering dust and hardly considered. But the Hehe did not forget, and continued to demand its return, until, on the 19th June 1954, it was finally returned to Mkwawa’s grandson, Chief Adam Sapi. June 19th has traditionally been a holiday for the Wahehe, entailing everyone drinking a popular brew of fermented millet and maize and contributing a cow or money for the celebrations. Although this memorial was forbidden by the original dictate of the 1967 Arusha Declaration concerning distinct tribal practices, it has recently been reinstated since the centenary of Chief Mkwawa’s death.

Chief Mkwawa’s skull is now on display in the small memorial museum on the outskirts of Kalenga village. The path of the final bullet is clearly revealed from chin to crown. Entrance to the museum is arranged by the caretaker, presently Francis Kalenga, who provides a detailed and amusing account of the local history in return for a donation of around Tsh 1000 each. Even if you turn up and find the place locked and apparently deserted, any of the cheeky children that slowly materialise from the shade of the trees can be willingly despatched to find the caretaker and the key, especially if showered with rewards on their return! (Toffees are an ultimate treat). To the right of the museum you can see the impressive ‘palace’ built by the Wahehe people to honour their Chief and his family, even though their rule became only nominal after Independence and the devolution of tribal powers. The ‘palace’ looks surprisingly similar to an English country estate house, and was built on the proceeds of a collection taken from each member of the tribe. Mkwawa’s grandson, Adam Sapi, was Speaker of Tanzania’s first parliament and a highly regarded politician. He died in June 1999, and his son, Mfuimi, takes on the nominal role as head of the Hehe.

Iringa – Around Town

Iringa is small and friendly enough to explore on foot in the course of a day, with a few interesting old colonial buildings such as the Old Boma, Town Hall and Hospital and a bustling although fairly typical local market. A monument outside the police station commemorates the native warriors who died in the Maji Maji rebellion. The surrounding area provides good walking country, with views over the surrounding plains from the plateau. A good destination to the North of the town is Mkwawa’s favourite spot for meditating, known as Gangilonga Rock, the ‘Talking Stone’ in Wahehe. It takes a few minutes to climb to the top, with good views of the town once there.

Just outside Iringa, Isimila Stone Age Site is considered one of the most exciting areas for Stone Age archaeological findings in East Africa. The site is a dry lake bed, and was discovered in 1951, by a schoolboy who came across an axe head. It is thought that Stone Age man camped on the shores of the lake and shaped and worked his tools here, based on the prolific number of tools found in the area and a number of blocks and boulders that were probably used to shape the granite and quartzite rock. A number of fossilised bones have also been found showing the prehistoric forms of species of elephant, hippo and giraffe. The site is signposted from the main road to Mbeya just less than 20 km (12 miles) south of Iringa. The site’s office and small museum is about 1km further from this turning, and this houses an exhibition of some of the tools, bones and fossils found in the area that are thought to date from around 60,000 years ago. There is a $2 entry fee. A guide can also take you around the site, a walk that takes about an hour. A short walk along the valley brings you into the Isimila Gully, a scenic red earth area that has been naturally sculpted and eroded into impressive sandstone pillars and eerie formations that loom overhead on each side of the valley – a good spot for a picnic! A taxi from Iringa will cost around $20, or take a dala dala in the direction of Tosamaganga and get out at the Isimila turn-off.

The small village of Kalenga is just a short drive from Iringa town, and makes for an interesting venture if you have a yen to see the tiny memorial museum to Chief Mkwawa of the Hehe. From here it is also possible to cast an imaginative eye over the sandy remnants of his fortress, now more obviously a football pitch with hummocks of earth around the edge.

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.

February 20, 2013

Central Tanzania – The Southern Highlands – Mbeya

Filed under: A guide to Tanzania,Mbeya,The Southern Highlands — Tags: , , , , — Tanzania Odyssey @ 5:43 pm

Beyond Makambako town the region becomes green and mountainous to the south, and the landscape all around Mbeya is rucked and pitted with a staggering variety of strange and fabulous formations. Here the eastern arc of the Great Rift Valley almost meets the Mbeya range, which extends in a north-westerly arc, rising up beyond Mbeya town and crowned by the glittering quartz-crystalline silhouette of Mbeya Peak. South of the town, the Uporoto Mountains form a dense and fertile region punctuated with volcano-top villages, waterfalls and blue circles of crater lakes that range all the way down to the shores of Lake Malawi. To the east of the town is Mbeya Plain, stretching out to the Safwa scarp and the great flat-topped mountain of Ishinga, all shaped by time from a vast expanse of sandstone layers. In the midst of all lies Mbeya town, the third largest town after Dar and Tanga, a sleepy but still thriving metropolis that has grown from a now abandoned government gold mining station established in 1927. The town has developed in industrial pursuits, and although not the prettiest place in itself, the surrounding area is very peaceful, with exciting natural landscapes and interesting homesteads and coffee farms to discover by car or on foot.


The most recent serious volcanic activity to shape the Mbeya-Iringa region occurred between 20 and 4 million years ago as a result of the rift action between underlying tectonic plates. As a result, this region presents a wide spread of moutains, crater lakes and lava or ash plains, with a mass of natural interest throughout. The open plain between the Eastern Arc mountains and the Mbeya range was converted into a research station in 1927 to assess the potential for mining gold in the area. The rifting faults of the surrounding mountains certainly appear to contain a wealth of riches, but what glitters here is less often gold, as most of the exposed strata of these mountains are composed of quartz crystals sparkling in sunlight. The Lupa goldfields north of the town became a goldrush region in the 1930s, but were then closed a couple of decades later. Panning continues here today on a very small scale, in the form of local backyard industry, and is occasionally rewarded by a small granule of gold. A continual growth of small industries has supported the expansion of the town since, especially commissioned work on the road and railways.

Much of the information for this chapter has been researched on the basis of an excellent old publication entitled Welcome to Mbeya, a collection of detailed walks and excursions recorded around the Mbeya region, rewritten and compiled mainly by Father Phillip Leedal of the White Fathers.


While it is possible to arrange guides for walks and days out in this region with the more upmarket hotels in the region, (Utengule Country Hotel is probably the best), there is an extremely well recommended and worthwhile organisation in town who provide reliably informative and friendly guiding and assistance. Sisi Kwa Sisi, PO Box 1562 or 2869, is a locally run initiative managed by Nico Ntinda and Felix Amndo, who have a shared reputation for being ‘lovely’. They will meet travellers from the train or bus station, and arrange and accompany on walks and excursions around Mbeya for a very reasonable price and their travel expenses. They speak good English themselves and are teaching other local guides as their enterprise expands, and you can find their offices at the bottom of the hill near the bus station, beside the roundabout with the rhino sculpture. Even if the following directions are so good that you feel a guide might be superfluous, they are worthwhile to have around for the benefit of translating more interesting Swahili exchanges as you explore – they can arrange for you to visit local traditional healers or to visit rural villages. There have also been security concerns for tourists wandering the outskirts of Mbeya unaccompanied.

Walks and activities

There are an endless number and combination of walks in all these surrounding mountains, with landscapes and unusual attractions to suit all time schedules and energy levels.

Around Mbeya Town

A couple of spare hours can be well spent on the outskirts of town, enjoying a good circular walking route that leads into the forests to the north of the town and provides panoramic views back over Mbeya along the way. Head northwards all the way to the top of Lupa Way until it crosses over Kaunda Avenue, turn right and almost immediately left onto a cul-de-sac and follow the pathway at the end to the top of the hill. This leads through a forest of eucalyptus and wends its way along a ridge at the base of Loleza Peak, which stands 2,656 metres high above. Half way along the side of the ridge, fork right and head for a mature pine forest, crossing the stream as you go. Continue through the pine trees to the track, turn right and then right again when the path divides. This will lead you back onto Kaunda Avenue and finally Lupa Way via Nzowa Road.


This whole region is awash with hundreds of species of bird, even in Mbeya town where Fiscal shrikes, Robin chats and Tropical Boubous can often be spotted or heard, or various different hornbills such as the black and white Silvery Cheeked and smaller Crowned hornbills.

Birdwatchers will find many more species to delight them on the Usangu Plain, ranging dramatically in size from long-legged families of ostriches roaming alongside turkey-sized secretary birds and a colourful array of equally charismatic smaller birds such as the Yellow Collared Lovebird or the

Paradise Whyder, or Beautiful Sunbirds.

An amazing array of waterbirds can be found on the crater lakes around town, such as the Ngosi Crater lake, or Ndwati Lake. These are always home to small water birds such as the yellow billed duck, the little grebe and more curiously, the Red-knobbed coot. Around Lake Nyasa the Fish eagle, open billed stork and amazing balancing African Jacana can often be seen, and swift flying Grey-headed gulls and Darters. The mountain forests, such as those around Ngosi and Rungwe craters provide an entirely different environment in which to find birds, although the density of the undergrowth does make them much harder to spot. One of the most popular and colourful is the small and delicate Bar-tailed trogon, or perhaps you might glimpse another brilliantly coloured bird with a shining blue head and green back and a distinctive yellow belly – the white-starred forest robin. Both of these are quiet little bough hoppers, but can sometimes be seen if not heard when the watcher is patient and still.

Further Afield

The Mbeya Mountains, heading north to Chunya

The most magnificent peak towering above the many around the town is Mbeya Peak, which stands at 2,826 m high. There is more than one way to climb this mountain, and the easiest of these begins with a fantastically scenic drive along the road towards the old, now near-desolate goldrush town of Chunya. This town was the centre of the last gold rush during the 1920s and 1930s, and a 3,000-gram carat of gold was reportedly found here at the height of its fame. Remains of the old mines can still be seen, and occasionally this dusty old town receives a brief revival of gold-panners interest. For the mountain, follow the road for about 13 kilometres out of Mbeya, until you reach the sign to Kawetire Farm, after which a left turn heads west through the forest plantations. Follow this road under Loleza Peak past two villages until you reach the end of the driving road and a mature pine plantation. Ensure the vehicle is safe, even guarded, and then follow this track on foot to the ridge, where you head right then across the saddle to the peak. Low-grade garnets can be found along this way, and fantastic views are afforded from the top if the weather is good. Continuing northwards along the Chunya Road brings you to excellent hidden picnic spots, such as the World’s End Viewpoint at the end of the track leading to Chunya forest, with stunning views overlooking the Usanga Plain beyond Mbeya. Follow the track to the right and all the way to the end. The second route to Mbeya Peak goes via the coffee-growing stronghold of Lunji Farm, near Mbalizi around 10km west of Mbeya and 7km from Utengule Country Hotel, from where there are four different possible paths to follow up to the summit.

Walks up Mbeya Peak and through the surrounding area can be arranged through Utengule Country Hotel. Although the route up is said to be steeper than the ascent of Kilimanjaro, it presents excellent photographic opportunities across the wide African savannah on one side and a patchwork of fields on the other, especially at dawn. The walk takes around three hours up and two hours down, by the steepest route, and if arranged with Utengule they will often combine a trip to Lungi Farm and the peak with a visit to the Songwe Bat caves on route, and Malonde Hot Springs nearby. This area is incredibly scenic, but also prone to hidden crevices and unusual rock formations, such as those that form the ‘bat cave’, and it is recommended that walkers take a guide.

The Uporoto Mountains, heading south to Lake Nyasa via Tukuyu

The driving route south from Mbeya is green and fertile and full of interesting off-road diversions. The tarmac route connecting with the Malawi and Mbamba Bay ferry service is excellently smooth and well finished, weirdly reminiscent of the Riviera scenery in ‘The Italian Job’, as the road neatly curves around the mountain edge with occasional impressive drops to either side. This is an enjoyable driving route through constantly changing and impressive scenery – past volcanic mountains, crater lakes and waterfalls flowing over basalt rock, wending though bouncy tea plantations coloured a striking new-born green, and on down to the perennially lush and bountiful forests of the Livingstone Mountains – land of the Nyakusa people.

Ngosi Crater and Lake, just a short distance south of Mbeya, is the remains of an old volcano that has now collapsed to form a wide caldera filled with a shining alkaline ‘soda’ waters. The waters of the lake are said to have magical medicinal powers. Ngosi means ‘the big one’; it stands at 2,621m. Dedicated climbers are well rewarded with excellent views from the top of the sharp crater rim, from where the lake gleams below with an overwhelming tranquil air, and beyond the land is pocked with the points of smaller volcanic peaks. The walk to the rim leads through upland grasslands and tropical forests where families of Colobus monkeys chatter and play, and a miasma of birds take refuge, and take about an hour ascending.

To reach Ngosi, take a right turn about 2km past the village of Isongole (Idweli), which lies about 33km from Mbeya on the Tukuyu Road. After 2km take the right hand road when the road forks, and after almost 1km further it will be necessary to leave the car and walk. It is well advised to leave someone with the car here, as a guard against break-ins. The path leads into the forest for about 2.5km and then begins the climb to the crater top, just opposite a large, single tree. Just before the top, the path branches in two; the right hand path leads swiftly to the peak, and the left leads down to the water’s edge, taking about half an hour to descend.

Unlike Ngosi Crater, the volcanic cone of Mount Rungwe still stands, dominating the landscape to a height of 2,960m. The forests around Rungwe are still wild and unkempt, and almost entirely uninhabited by people, although there is a healthy population of colobus monkeys and other forest creatures. It can be climbed from the Kagera Estates timber camp, (turn left at Isongole onto the Kiwira Forest Station Road, and then right after 11kms, just before the Forest Station), but this is only recommended during the dry months between June and November, or during a clear spell in February. Follow the old road up on foot, and head right at the foot of the volcano – even though this path slants downwards initially. An alternative climb is possible from the Rungwe Moravian Mission, from where it is worthwhile to take guide to follow the complicated route from there to the top. Rungwe volcano remains active in parts, and hardened basalt lava flow is frequently passed along the way – estimate on a full day to climb.

The market town of Kiwira, (also called Mwankenja…), is 50 km from Mbeya on the Tukuyu road, and lies close to the Kiwira river. The undulating land around this valley has formed a number of waterfalls close to the town, and scenic watery rock formations. The most accessible waterfall is just 4.3 km from the main road, (leave Kiwira on the road signposted to Igogwe Hospital, and follow the road over a bridge over the river. Turn left and cross the Igogwe stream, and then park and ask directions to the Marasusa Falls. It is necessary to follow a thin path along a line of trees between the cassava plantations.) The Marasusa falls are an impressive basalt drop, with a number of consecutive pools. They are popular for family washing sessions, and provide a scenic rural setting for a picnic.

To reach the Ndulilo Falls requires a less complicated driving route, but a more adventurous walking route, through a dark, bat filled cave. To get there, park at the Igogwe Hospital and walk for 10 minutes to the river, where there is a sink hole on the top of the south bank, where the river used to flow before it changed its path.

IF you follow the sink hole down you are liable to disturb a few sleepy bats, but eventually reach the base of the falls.

Unfortunately the most impressive of the water and rock phenomena in this region has evolved rather too close to a temperamental military-run Prison College for complete comfort. The wonderfully named Daraja ya Mungu (Bridge of God) is an inspiring stretch of rock arching over the rushing river, which has eked its stoic pathway beneath. The rock over which the lava flows is estimated to date from the Pre-Cambrian period, approximately 1800 million years ago…The view is especially pretty as the sun sets, and the land around is mainly picturesque, until you reach the college. The proximity of this erstwhile school of learning means that the road closest to the bridge has been iron-fenced and covered in signs prohibiting photography, and beware the wrath of ranting officials who find you bending the rules! To get there, turn right at a tiny village (that seems to be called KKK), just before Tukuyu, on a corner approximately 7km from Kiwira. The road is pretty good, as a hydro-electric power station was planned here, and of course, there is the college. It is best to follow the road around until the bridge can be seen, then to park and walk down the incline from there. There are a number of interesting features around this region, but it is now harder to access the nearby hole where the river falls into a rock ‘cauldron’, known as Kijungu (Cooking Pot) because the Prison College insists that you must acquire a permit.


The small town of Tukuyu perches on top of Ntukuyu volcano, almost halfway between Mbeya and Lake Malawi (formerly Lake Nyasa) at an altitude of 5,300ft. Its elegant vantage point makes it most worthwhile for the views that it affords of the surrounding countryside, and if you are planning a leisurely foray through the mountains it is probably worth fixing up some accommodation, either at Tukuyu, or on the shores of Matema Beach on Lake Malawi, as a round trip including walks and diversions will take at least two days. The accommodation possibilities in each of these are very basic, although slightly nicer on Matema Beach.

The town flourished in importance for a while during the German era, and earned the name Neu-Langenberg for a short period after 1901, when it became the centre for German administration in the region. This followed the demise of their previous headquarters on the Lake, Alt-Langenberg, after the doctor died of malaria there. They have left in their stead an Old German Boma, which is in a fairly poor state of repair, but worth a visit if you are in town. You can see lines of basalt lava flowing down the hillsides nearby.

The great range of the Livingstone Mountains south east of Tukuyu is the result of extreme rift action that would have occurred prior to the volcanic eruptions in the region; Lake Malawi lies in the rift floor. As a result, there are a number of good alternatives for trekking in this region, both north of Tukuyu around the features mentioned above, or south, around Masoko Crater Lake. This old volcanic crater, 19km south of Tukuyu, is an impressive lava formation, now covered in lush vegetation. A short walk through the trees takes you to the water’s edge, where it is possible to swim, and a number of old coins from the German era have been found (and sold) along the way. The crater lake is just off the eastern road from Tukuyu, which also passes Kalambo Hot Springs on route to Ipinda (not to be confused with Kilambo Hot Springs before Kyela, below). This is a far more dusty and less smooth route towards the lake than the western road, which has a smooth tarmac surface almost all the way through Kyela to the port at Itungi. About 8km down this fine westerly road you come to the village of Ushirika, (also signposted Mpuguso…)

Good walking and swimming possibilities are found close to here (but requiring a 2km walk!) at Kaporogwe Falls. To find them, turn right at Ushirika following signposts to Kaporogwe, and then follow signs to the Leprosarium – where it is possible to get permission to park vehicles – then walk past the buildings and head down the hill beyond, continuing straight on for about 2kms. This brings you to the top of the falls, where a precarious bridge crosses behind a pretty Gardenia tree to a good picnic area and vantage point over the falls, sheltered beneath an impressive overhanging slab of basalt. It is also possible to climb down the falls, with care, and to find routes into caves behind the curtain of water plummeting down before you, and to swim in the pool beneath.

Continuing southwards, 44km from Tukuyu and just before Kyela, a signpost points left to Kilambo Hot Springs. These are definitely springs and not pools – entertain no illusions of therapeutic bathing! – but the track leads right to the springs at the base of the hillside, and the surrounding woodlands are a haven for orchids.

Kyela is a small town 56km south of Tukuyu with little to recommend it to visitors, unless here for reasons of commercial trade or seeking a bus to Itungi Port for the lake steamer to Mbamba Bay on the southern border of Tanzania, or Nkhata Bay in Malawi. But for relaxation and peace and quiet, it is better to abandon Kyela for Matema Beach, where there is fine accommodation almost at the water’s edge, plenty of fresh fish and wide open views. The thick, golden, granular bay of Matema is lapped by the fresh waters of Lake Malawi, and provides a refreshing point for quiet contemplation in the lea of the Livingstone Mountains, which run down to the eastern shore of the lake. It is a rural region where the focus of activity is fishing and the chores of daily life – mending fishing nets, repairing local dug-out canoes, preparing for night-time excursions – yet it seems that most people along the beach have time for a chat. The land here is hot, a strong contrast from the volcanic mountains behind you, and to the east and west, and much life on Matema is spent seeking shade after mid-day. Sunburn is a regional hazard for pale skins.

But Matema provides a good central base for exploring the local countryside and mountains, which give a cool cover from the sun. The beach is approached through stunning forested regions, where dense greenery and thickets conceal clusters of Nyakusa houses, many of which demonstrate inspired building methods involving complex palm weaves and raised platform storage huts for pots, chickens, water and grain. A number of these have also been painted and decorated with unique designs and images, apparently drawn with local dyes. There are also plenty of fine earthenware pots in evidence in every household and fireplace, generally the product of the Kisi people who also live in this area, and who are famed throughout Tanzania for their clay-working skills. These pots are sold wholesale from Ikombe, south of the of Matema, where you may also have the chance to see them being made, and in Matema itself on the Saturday morning market, for which they are shipped from Ikombe by canoe. The are also often found sold for extremely good value at morning roadside stalls between Matema and Mbeya. From here they are exported to Arusha, Iringa and Dar es Salaam, and increase in price with distance!

(Beware potential Swahili-English confusion here…it can be a very disappointing moment when you catch a lift with a driver to find a pot, and are proudly driven dusty kilometres to reach the port…)

Central Tanzania – The Southern Highlands – Ruaha National Park

Filed under: Ruaha National Park — Tags: , , , , , — Tanzania Odyssey @ 5:40 pm

The wide distances of Ruaha National Park have a drama and atmosphere quite unlike any other Tanzanian park. Here the land has its own kind of remoteness that seems to emanate through time itself. It is an ancient place in the valley of the Great Rift, where mile upon mile of sandy red earth feels worn and bleached by an age-old sun, and the hilly distances are punctuated with distended elephant-battered girths of countless massive baobabs that live for a thousand years. Such a charismatic combination of ochre-red earth, pale russet grasses and the parched paths of wide sand rivers appeal to all old preconceptions of an archetypal African land.

Part of the present-day attraction of Ruaha is its distant location, which demands a long drive or an expensive flight to get there, and means that the park is consequently hardly visited by tourists, and major tracts of the landscape are still largely inaccessible. Covering 10,300 sq km, Ruaha is the second largest National Park in Tanzania after the Serengeti. It flows down from the high plateau around Njombe River in the northwest and then slopes across a wide valley to the Great Ruaha River in the southeast. Such a vast and fascinating landscape makes it an ideal location for a longer safari, with between four and seven nights recommended, not least to make the flying costs worthwhile. There are presently just two alternatives for permanent accommodation within the National Park, each run by brothers who explored this land as children, but two other sites have been awarded for semi-permanent development to The Selous Safari Company and Coastal Travel. Trips to Ruaha are often combined with the Selous Game Reserve, as the two locations are entirely complimentary for their differences, and part of the same scheduled flight route.

Ruaha National Park – History

The park was originally a part of Rungwa Game Reserve until it was classified as a fully protected National Park in 1964. It now forms an important component of the massive 30,000 sq km of protected ecosystem that covers Rungwa, Kisigo and Ruaha.

Ruaha National Park is named after the Great Ruaha River – and the word Ruaha is the Hehe tribe word for ‘Great’. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s dams were created at Kidatu and Mtera to use the strength of this river to power the majority of the nation’s hydro-electricity – yet many visitors to Ruaha during the dry season today might be a little disappointed when their experience of the Great River is just a meandering trickle, even if it does concentrate the wildlife around the remaining pools. Until recently, the Great Ruaha was never known to run dry, barring one occasion during a serious drought in the late 1970s. But recently, the Great Ruaha has been drained dry in areas of Ruaha National Park for two consecutive years. Its power and might as a perennial water reserve has been depleted by agricultural practices and certain rice-growing initiatives upstream. These are responsible for reducing the quantity of water and creating a present situation that is near-disastrous – especially for the serious ecological threat that it presents to the resident variety of wildlife. The river fish population has already suffered, and crocs and hippos are forced to squeeze into smaller, more rarefied patches of water. Having flourished in the wet season until waters dry and shrink off, the new situation has given the whole park the nature of an annual round of musical chairs.

Since a bridge was built across the Great Ruaha nine years ago, Ruaha National Park has experienced a seasonal transformation, no longer limited to access only during dry months. It is now possible to enter the park all year round, although the River Lodge and Mwagusi close for a couple of months during the long rains in April and May.

Ruaha National Park – Wildlife

The joy of Ruaha is that there are hardly any people there at all, but a variety of heavy-duty wildlife lays claim to its hilly savannah and bush. Ruaha has one of the greatest elephant populations of any African park, and the dry, open hillsides encourage antelope and buffalo to gather into protective large herds. This terrain is particularly good for seeing predators, especially lion and potentially leopard, as well as packs of African hunting dog. The many rivers and swamps around the Ruaha River are alive with huge numbers of hippopotami, crocodile and fish, and the many giraffe and zebra that roam the plains make their way to the shores of the water to drink. Ruaha is the only east African park with both Greater and Lesser Kudu and sable and roan antelopes, and, like the Selous, has an unusual combination of East and Southern African wildlife and birds. The Red-billed wood hoopoe, Violet-crested Turaco and Racquet-tailed roller are among the many coloured migrants, and just a small selection from the 480 species of bird that have been sighted within the park. The wetter months during the first third of the year are the best months for bird-watching, and the beauty of the park is enhanced by the blooming miombo woodland flowers. The miombo woodlands are dominated by 15 species of Brachystegia trees, while the rolling grass plains are covered with various different acacias, spiny Commiphora and plenty of baobab trees; around 1,650 plant species have been identified within the park, the majority of which flower.

Ruaha National Park – Baobab Trees!

The vast and bizarre features of the baobab tree are a striking feature of the African bush. Of all the eight species of baobab worldwide, the African variety, Adansonia digitata, is the largest, and the most impressive. While these trees may inspire a certain awe in most passers-by, they represent a deep-rooted significance in the lives of those people and animals that live around them. The baobab is brimming with life-giving properties that are nutritional, medicinal and practical, and consequently it has earned a popular reputation for being an important, even spiritual tree. Every part of the tree can be put to use; the fibrous, stringy bark can be largely stripped, without killing the tree, and used for string, rope, fabric and netting. Various parts of the tree are used for medicines, to reduce malarial fever and relieve eye infections, gum diseases, boils, burns and dysentery to name but a few, and the fruit has such a high vitamin C content that it is popularly used to combat symptoms of scurvy. A drink made from the bark is said to make a person strong, and one made from the soaked baobab seed has a reputation to protect the drinker from crocodiles. The trunks and cavities store water that enables them to survive in dry areas through the hot summer months, and thirsty elephant batter the trunks to plunder their supply. The baobab can sustain an amazing amount of abuse, and will continue to flower and function even when elephants – assisted by zebra and giraffe – have chewed a hole right through its middle. They live for generation after generation of human life, as the baobab is known to continue to grow for 800 years, and some say even up to 2,000 years. They become the focus of rural village life, as their broad branches and tangled roots provide a naturally comfortable and shady communal area and their longevity ensures their historical place in the community. The massive trunk can grow a circumference of up to 25m round and often becomes hollow, and this area has been used across southern Africa to provide a spiritual tomb for chiefs, and a home to many unknown spirits which are widely believed to inhabit their peculiar gnarly forms.

In past years poaching has been a serious problem, decreasing the famously huge population of 22,000 elephant recorded in 1967 to only 4,000 in 1987. This still represents one of the largest populations in any African National Park, and it is more heartening to know that numbers have recovered up to 12,000 during the last decade as a result of the Park’s very successful anti-poaching action, which has made exemplary efforts to involve local communities. The result of this serious dent to the elephant population now means that there are fewer mature animals that have grown to full size (usually around 60 years of age), and it is rare to see any elephant with a fully developed pair of tusks.

These days it is more common to come across tuskless and small tusked elephants, once an anomaly and yet now represented in a far higher proportion since these survived the brutal culling. This often inspires ruminations on the miracle of natural selection, but it still remains to be seen whether future generations will breed a larger proportion of small tusk and tuskless elephants, or whether the large tusk gene that produced the 8ft tusks plundered by the ivory traders will prove dominant once again. It is more encouraging that the elephant in Ruaha are still breeding enthusiastically and large number of female elephants around the park can be seen with babies.

Their longevity and intimate social structure is complex and they have been proven highly intelligent animals. They show collective grief over death within their groups, often gathering around the dead elephant, and may try to carry the body away.

It remains surprising how the Ruaha elephant populations do not show great signs of nervousness around humans, considering the brutal culling that has occurred here.

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