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.
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”.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.