A tranquil slice of Tanzania
Hiking trails through the western Usambaras cut through mountains and rainforests before opening into tiny village valleys. (Brendan Spiegel)
From Mtae, a tiny cliff-top town in Tanzania’s Usambara Mountains, the morning view unfolds slowly, revealing a shockingly complete African panorama that gradually appears from under the clouds. Verdant farms cascade down the hillsides into the wide, grassy expanse of the Mkomazi Game Reserve, which is backed by the red-dirt fields of Kenya’s Tsavo Plains. Beyond, purple-shaded mountains rise from the deep blue mist like ships floating on water. When the sky finally clears, the snowy peak of Kilimanjaro looms above it all.
According to local lore, this colourful vantage point is the spot where Sambara watchman once stood guard to look for invading Maasai warriors approaching from the plains. In order to warn the village, they would count exactly how many Maasai were on their way — hence the name Mtae, the Sambara word for “counting”.
Today, the Usambara Mountains are a quiet, peaceful corner of northeastern Tanzania, rarely visited by outsiders -- invading or otherwise. Their relative seclusion stands in stark contrast to the tourist crowds that clog the country’s better-known natural wonders, like Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater and Mount Kilimanjaro. Over the last decade, a small, community-centric tourism industry has sprung up here, with local guides leading village-to-village treks through the mountainous farmland. Despite the area’s gradually growing popularity among independent travellers, the Usambaras remain a remote slice of Africa where a solo traveller might be the only person walking the paths on any given day.
The gateway to the mountains is Lushoto, a valley market town reached by a painstakingly slow and bumpy bus ride from either Dar es Salaam (250km) or Arusha (170km). Asking how long the ride will take is likely to be met with a shrug and a laugh. Several outfitters in Lushoto, including SED Adventures, offer trekking tours of the region, with prices starting at $50 per person per day, including meals, lodging and guide services. At that rate, there are none of the luxe comforts typically seen on the African safari circuit. Rather, nights are spent at bare-bones guesthouses with simple rooms and bucket baths, such as the dormitory at Rangwi Convent, a serene, lushly flowered compound that can only be reserved through one of the tour companies and where young nuns prepare warming meals of spicy banana soup and curried goat. (The hearty meals are welcome during the crisp, cool mountain nights.)
A 55km hike from Lushoto to Mtae, the most popular route through the Usambaras, takes three or four days, walking up wooded mountains as high as 2,400m, then down through rainforest filled with black-and-white colobus monkeys and two-horned chameleons. But the region’s real attraction lies in emerging from the mountains and walking into any of the tiny, one-road valley villages set in between, stopping at a local tea house or thatched-roof bar for a glass of boha (fermented sugar cane beer).
Local residents — particularly the youngest ones — tend to react with unbridled joy at the arrival of outsiders in town, which are not unheard of, but still rare enough to draw a crowd. Each visitors entrance to a village is inevitably greeted with the echoing sounds of what seems to be every child in town running down the mountainside with ecstatic shouts of “mzungu-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u” — the Swahili word for foreigner, literally meaning “one who wanders aimlessly”.
One of the most striking aspects of these places is the sheer number of children — 45% of Tanzania’s population is under 15 — and sometimes it almost seems as if these tiny villages are run by kids. Ten-year-old boys watch goats and cattle; six-year-old girls carry younger siblings on their backs; and children of all ages march off to the fields after school, machetes in hand, to help their parents tend the crops.
While the children politely chirp English greetings at passing mzungus (“hi-how-are-you-good-morning” is a favourite phrase any time of day), people here primarily speak Sambara (in addition to Swahili — the region’s common language). In many places traditional religious and healing practices are still widespread, with red-and-white flags marking the homes of witch doctors. Some guides will offer to take travellers inside to observe a healing ritual.
Further afield, the more remote eastern Usambaras are home to the lushly vegetated and excellently protected Amani Nature Reserve. Sometimes known as “the Galapagos of Africa” for its biodiversity, Amani is home to thousands of species of plants, birds and other wildlife. Far off the main roads, tourism here is even sparser than the route from Lushoto to Mtae, but the violet-covered hills and butterfly-filled cloud forests do lure some visitors, who can access the park independently or through a tour. The small information centre in Zigi (basically, the only building in town) has maps for self-guided tours and park entrance fees are $20 per person. As elsewhere in the Usambaras, the draw is not so much a list of specific sites or activities, but the allure of having a tranquil slice of Africa completely to yourself.