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Usambara Mountains

Why Usambara Mountains In your Tanzania self-drive trip. An oasis of cool (in both senses of the word) in northeast Tanzania, the Usambara form part of the ancient Eastern Arc chain of mountains that run in a broken crescent from the Taita Hills in Kenya to Tanzania’s Southern Highlands. They stretch 90km in length, spread up to 50km at their widest point, and reach as high as 2200m. The cool climate offers a welcome break from the hot Savannah below, with panoramas aplenty, enticing winding paths, intriguing villages, and welcoming people providing a peek into traditional rural life. Believed to be at least 100 million years old, the Usambara Mountains are home to a vast assortment of plants and wildlife; while signs of human habitation date back some 1.5 million years.

Why you should visit Usambara. While most tourists will venture along the same path – going from one national park to another – a detour up to the Usambara Mountains offers a real sense of hiking in Tanzania. As it is somewhat off the regular trail, life up here is, in many ways, unaffected by modern times. The combination of natural beauty and a sense of getting away from [first-world] comforts is quite exciting.

Relatively untroubled by tourism, the Usambara provide a sense of seclusion. Often, you will find yourself the only one walking the mountain paths and, at times, it feels like you are in a different country – the contrast to the plains being so pronounced. In addition, there are bustling markets, traditional healers, caves, forests, a plethora of birdlife, and unbelievable hikes to enjoy. Or you can just while away the hours on your verandah taking in the view. The combination of ancient caves and charming villages with some of the most friendly and genuinely hospitable people, it makes a paradise for slow travel. If you like landscapes, being active and interacting with authentic people, the Usambara is one of Tanzania’s few hidden gems

Hiking, biking, birding, culture, and relaxing, are few things you can do in Usambara. Walking naturally is the number one pursuit. There are a variety of hikes around the area, ranging from one hour to eight days in length. They include:

  • Mambo Footprints and Caves, these prehistoric sites are located close to each other. It is thought that the early humans who made the footprints also occupied these natural caves.
  • Shagayu Natural Forest, day walks and overnight trails can be arranged into this ancient forest, which covers around 100 sq km. Known as a “botanist’s heaven”, it is home to a wide variety of endemic species.
  • Viewpoints and cliff-edge walks, there are several options that afford glorious vistas over the Maasai plains.
  • Trekking, one of the most popular routes is a three-to-four-day, 55km hike from Lushoto to Mtae, walking up wooded mountainsides, then down through rainforest and numerous tiny villages.
  • Soni waterfall, these beautiful falls are well worth a day hike, or a bus ride, to visit.
  • Lushoto, with several colonial buildings and a bustling market, the area’s main town is the gateway to all things Usambara.
  • Village visits, meet the locals, experience the markets, enjoy the humour of the schoolchildren, and visit a traditional healer.

The Usambara Mountains are divided into two ranges (West and east) separated by a 4km-wide valley. Mountain paths take you through forests, woodland, villages, farmland, and up onto the cliffs, affording spectacular views across the plains and beyond, on a clear day to the coast and, in the other direction, Kilimanjaro. In stark contrast to the wildlife-filled plains of Tanzania’s national parks, this is a lush and green area. Its natural sub montane forest supports a wide variety of flora and fauna (some 2000 species), much of which is endemic. The Saintpaulia, or African violet as it is commonly known, for example, originates from northeast Tanzania and the East Usambara is one of the few places where it still occurs.

The area is the proverbial birders’ paradise, with more than 500 species spotted around Mambo alone, including rare and endemic breeds such as the Usambara weaver and the Usambara eagle-owl. Some experts believe it is one of Africa’s best birdwatching locations. As well as birds, numerous varieties of reptiles, frogs, butterflies, and monkeys can be found in the forests. The more remote East Usambara are home to the Amani Nature Reserve – sometimes referred to as ‘the Galapagos of Africa’ due to its biodiversity, which features thousands of plant species, birds, and other wildlife.

 The climate here differs from much of the rest of Tanzania. While you can visit year-round, rain can fall at any time and, because of the altitude, it is naturally cooler than the rest of the country. During the long rains – March to May – paths can become too muddy for trekking. The best time to visit is June to November, after the rains and when the air is clearest.

Lushoto can be reached by a slow self-drive of indeterminable duration from Dar es Salaam (356 km) or Arusha (335 km). Roads to Lushoto are tarmacked, but after that are unpaved. A 4×4 Suzuki Escudo or Land cruiser is advisable, as rain can leave the dirt roads somewhat swampy.

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