My Travel Map

My Travel Map

17 July 2016

The Usambara Mountains

After Zanzibar, we had a quick night in Dar before catching a very, very early bus to Mombo, in the northeast of the country.  Why Mombo?  Well, that is the bus stop where you can catch a ride to Lushoto, the gateway to the Usambara Mountains.

The Usambaras are Tanzanian backcountry, but they have become a popular destination on the backpacker and adventurer route for that exact reason.   The Usambaras are a place to escape, and thankfully, you wont find any luxury hotels or all-inclusives here.  So, what I'm saying is, you can truly escape there.

The Usambara range bursts up out of the surrounding Maasai plains.  None of the mountains in the Usambaras are really high, especially considering that the nearest mountain to the range is the one and only Kilimanjaro, but the Usambaras are blessed with some wonderfully severe gradients.

Pretty much as soon as we turned off of the main highway and started the approach into the mountains, we hit this traffic jam... all thanks to a bus that broke down on the narrow road.  Other buses piled up behind it, and people then got out of them to relax in the shade (most of the buses were not air conditioned).  All of this combined to an enormous mess of vehicles and humanity scattered wantonly along the road.  

Fortunately, my friends and I had arranged a private vehicle (high rolling for a total of $5 each), and our driver was able to navigate through the spaces between bus and groups of people where the bigger buses couldn't fit.  I'm definitely glad we negotiated that private ride and didn't end up stuck and waiting for goodness knows how long along the side of that road!

The go-to mode of transportation around the range and much of rural Africa.  Toyota Land Cruisers are tested and proven by the variety of harsh conditions that Africa can (and does) throw at them.

On the way up, the views just got better and better.

The road twisted and turned as it worked its way up and up and up, further into the range.   This was all on the way up to Lushoto, which really isn't that far in.  Our final destination there was Mambo village, which was about as far from the main highway as you could get.  We still had a long way to go.

As I've come to find the norm in rural mountain settings, there were plenty of roadside stalls along the main road.  This guy was selling enormous breadfruit and what look like sweet potatoes.  As you can tell from the three guys sitting, business isn't quite booming.  I wonder if that was because of the traffic jam further down the road?

After a quick stop in Lushoto, where I quickly tucked into some fried food (meat and potato filled pockets... pretty much identical to empenadas or samosas) from a local restaurant, we were back on the road on the way to Mambo.  On the way, our driver pointed out the giant eucalyptus trees... a non-native species, popular for plantations due to their fast growth, that turned into invasive water hogs.  It turns out (such a surprise...) that such large, fast-growing trees require a lot of water.  No shit.  And in a place as water starved as much of Africa, these giant trees were sucking up a lot of water that would otherwise have gone to people and agriculture.  I mean, technically, the trees are a form of agriculture, since they are harvested for their wood (including for firewood, the number one reason why so much of East Africa is deforested now anyway).  But a single mature eucalyptus tree will suck up hundreds of liters of water per day.  In some tests, the eucalyptus plantations reduce water flow in the catchment in which they are planted by 100%.  That means no more water for anyone or anything living below those trees.  You can see why they are a pretty hot topic... one I never would have considered if it wasn't for chatting with our driver.

Another thing that you notice on the drive through the mountains is just how many people are walking everywhere.  Being in a rural place with little money, the most cost-effective form of transportation is your own two legs.  These people walk very long distances too, and all through those extreme gradients.  Impressive indeed.

Something that is a great treat in the Usambaras are its markets.  Different villages host market days on different days of the week, and people are seemingly ever on the move to one market or another.  We saw a bunch of people hauling everything they wanted to sell... goats, cows, fruit, veggies, and random products like clothing, kitchen-ware, and toys.  The best though was definitely the kids along the side of the road, who would yell out "mzungu!!!" at the sight of white faces in the passing Land Cruiser.  I loved it.  Mzungu means "one who wanders aimlessly" in the Bantu languages of East Africa, and it has become the term used for foreign travelers.  My wandering definitely isn't aimless, but hearing kids shout out in excitement with big smiles on their faces is something that brings a smile to my own any day of the week.

The Usambaras are a stunningly beautiful place.

That said, they are also racked by extreme levels of poverty. As a Chinese fisherwoman once told me, "yes, we live in a beautiful place, but we still have no money." It's a profoundly sad and true statement for people living in such places and conditions; they don't have the means to travel and see the rest of the world and come to appreciate just how lucky they are to live in such beautiful places. I'm so lucky that I have the means to travel and see such places and meet such people. For some reason unknown to us all, I won that birth lottery and they did not. It's not fair in any way, but nature so often is exactly like that.

The people in the Usambaras live in a largely agrarian society.  Most of the countryside we passed through was being farmed for one thing or another.

I can't stress enough how beautiful it was there... and these pictures really do little justice.

Yep, another picture like this.  Most of the landscape looks like this.  It is rural and steep, but people are still everywhere.

In addition to the beautiful views, the Usambaras offer some amazing hiking and climbing opportunities for any outdoor enthusiasts...

One of the major reasons we came to the Usambara Mountains was to hike.  And hike we did.  The first wander we took was to some caves below Mambo village that were used historically as a hiding place during tribal warfare and raids.

Mambo is famous for its viewpoint, which I'll focus on in the next post.  Not so long ago, throughout the Usambaras, viewpoints like this one allowed mountain villagers plenty of warning of marauding raids from Maasai that lived in the plains below.

The local villagers used caves like this to hide from the Maasai, when they came raiding.  Sitting in that cave and looking out, I could just imagine how terrifying and horrible it would be to sit in there as a villager during a raid.  I would feel so cornered and helpless and angry at the raiders and life in general.  It would be awful, and I'm glad that at least here in Mambo, society has left that awful situation behind.   

Witch doctors do exist... these tools, which look so much like what Rafiki toted in the Lion King, are those of a local witch doctor.  We came across his hut while hiking too, and fortunately, the witch-doc was not in.  I'm not superstitious in any way whatsoever, but I'm more nervous about the fact that many people there do believe in witchcraft and the mob mentality that can arise provided the stubborn ignorance of blind belief and fear.  I'd prefer to just stay the hell away from all of that.

So, I have to say that it was really good to have a local guide on our hikes... there are a ton of trails through the mountains and few/no maps.  Plus, our guide, Ally, was local and knew so much about the history and nature of the place and all the people that live there.

For instance, this is a candelabra tree; its milky sap is poisonous and can cause blindness.  Don't walk into it and watch when you're near one.  Good advice.

Our big hike was up to the equatorial forest, which is protected land meant to preserve some small amount of the original flora and fauna.  This was an incredible hike, and we covered a lot of ground over around 5 to 6 hours or so.  Again, we couldn't have done it without our guide Ally.  More good advice from Ally was to watch for snakes.  In particularly, he mentioned the boomslang and green mambas, both of which you may just find hanging out at head level in the bush or tree right next to you (he's had that happen several times before).  Oh yea, and there are spitting cobras too... just something else to threaten excruciating blindness.  Those three kick off East Africa's fifth through third most deadly snakes... he made us feel ever so slightly better by telling us we didn't have to worry about black mambas or puff adders, which are only found down at lower elevations.  Real relief let me tell you.

Like I said, the equatorial forest is being preserved as a scarce resource... now it is just a very, very small pocket of natural habitat in a sea of farmland, but once, forests like that covered the whole mountain range.  What are we doing to this world?

The forest was lush... thick with life and dense.  I would have hated to navigate that tangled mess without a trail... and the trail was incredible too.  We covered quite a bit of elevation along it, going down into valleys and up along ridge lines and several times hugging steep cliffs.  I imagined falling into steep undergrowth full of poisonous snakes on several occasion.

Did I mention that it's dense in there?

Every once in a while though the forest opened up to views like this.  In the middle of the hike, it was as if there wasn't a sea of humanity all around us.  At several points, there was seemingly no trail at all; the forest commanded respect at those points.  The darkness, claustrophobic atmosphere, and lack of distinct landmarks made me realize how difficult it would be to traverse such terrain off-trail, even with a good map. 

Some of those old growth trees were huge... it was impressive.  

Eventually, signs of humanity and civilization started showing themselves again.

So we didn't see any snakes... probably a good thing.  But we did see plenty of these little guys.  The Usambaras are a hotspot habitat for chameleons!

As expected, nature is abundant in the forest... this mantis is quality chameleon food.

Do you see it?

This one sticks out like a sore thumb.  These chameleons were incredible and so very, very slow and docile.

This little guy was being manhandled by local kids, and they ended up handing it over to us when Ally reprimanded them for their disrespect of nature.  Ally commanded a lot of respect amongst the local kids... that part was very clear.  Don't worry, this guy was unharmed, and we let him go back into a bush beside the trail.  
Anyway, there it is, Tanzania's beautiful Usambara Mountains... but I'm not done with the Usambaras yet.  Next post is on the villages we visited and the epic Mambo Viewpoint.

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