Tanzania’s wildlife reserves are usually synonymous with sun-baked acacia-studded plains. But it’s possible to combine the savannah with a refreshing visit to the jungle-cloaked Udzungwa Mountains National Park. Here’s our guide to this remote region. By Lizzie Williams
We’d already skirted the rain-shadowed north-western side of the Udzungwas along the Great Ruaha River gorge coming up the Tanzam Highway from Ruaha National Park. The deliciously moist and brilliantly green tree canopy had looked cool and inviting, especially after our hot and dusty game drives along the park’s dry sand rivers. So we ventured to the Udzungwa Mountains as part of our self-drive safari of Tanzania’s ‘southern circuit’ — the Selous, Ruaha and Mikumi. It was a chance to get out of the vehicle and stretch our legs, enjoy the fresh air and beautiful forest and perhaps see an unusual creature or two.
The approach to the park is from Mikumi, the truck-and-bus stop town haphazardly strung along the busy Tanzam Highway — the major A7 road linking Dar es Salaam with land-locked Zambia. From here a scenic 60km drive took us south along the Ifakara road and onto the 35km-wide floodplain of the Kilombero Valley, a prosperous and intensively cultivated agricultural area fed by the streams coming down from the Udzungwas. Neat fields of crops bursting from the rich soil, and red-brick villages of well-kept yards with fat chickens and mango trees, exuded an air of contentment and well-being, an atmosphere reminiscent of other mountain communities such as those around Morogoro at the base of the Ulugurus and Lushoto in the Usambaras.
We drove through the sugar cane fields of the Kilombero Sugar Company and rice paddies of smallholder farmers, and crossed several bridges over frothy rivers, including the Great Ruaha with its hydroelectric power station at Kidatu. The steep eastern escarpment of the Udzungwas rose ever higher on our right, cloaked in a dense, sweet-smelling, closed canopy of giant trees, waterfalls cascading prettily down the exposed rock faces.
Once in Mang’ula village, the location of the gate and headquarters for the Udzungwa Mountains National Park, we settled in at Hondo Hondo Udzungwa Forest Tented Camp, a charming, small, rustic lodge on the edge of the park’s boundary. Hondo Hondo means ‘hornbill’ in Kiswahili and refers to the camp’s many resident silvery-cheeked, crowned and trumpeter varieties. While sipping sundowners and admiring the brooding, primeval mountains stacked steeply just beyond the lawns, a troop of Udzungwa red colobus monkeys scampered through the branches. With their infectious chatter, lively brown eyes and bright red mohawks, they were a great meet-and-greet introduction to this enchanted landscape.
Located between Morogoro and Iringa, the Udzungwas form a portion of the ancient Eastern Arc Mountains. This complex, fragmented collection of peaks, with dense forests and high rainfall, lies to the east of the East African Rift and stretches from the Taita Hills in southern Kenya, south-west in a roughly crescent-shaped curve through a dozen separate mountain blocks, including the Pare, Usambara, Uluguru, Ukaguru, Udzungwa and Rubeho mountains of Tanzania. The Eastern Arc was pushed upwards by faulting in the Earth’s crust at least 100 million years ago, and its forests, fed by moisture-laden winds from the Indian Ocean, are thought to be 30 million years old and were once connected to the Congo Basin.
The ranges are separated from each other by great expanses of lowland habitats. Once upon a time in wetter periods, forests spread across these valleys, but when the climate dried, the jungle shrank back to their moist elevated refuges. In an evolutionary sense, the Eastern Arc is an ‘archipelago’ of ‘mountain islands’. As such, populations of different plants and animals became genetically isolated. Today, many species are endemic to the Eastern Arc as a whole, and some to a single mountain range or ‘island’. It’s no wonder it is often dubbed the ‘African Galápagos’.
The Udzungwa is the only mountain block in the region where a part has been designated as a national park (although the Amani Nature Reserve protects an area of the East Usambaras). It is bordered by the Great Ruaha River in the north and the Kilombero Valley Floodplain to the south-east and covers 1990sq km, almost one-fifth of the entire 10,000sq-km Udzungwa range. The area has had some protection since the British created forest reserves in the early 1950s, but was officially inaugurated as Tanzania’s first national park to be declared on the merits of its forests in 1992 by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) founder and president, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands.
The Udzungwas’ closed-canopy forests are completely intact (or unbroken) and span altitudes of around 250m in the low-lying Kilombero Valley to the highest mountain, Luhombero Peak, at 2579m. This gradient, along with annual rainfall of 2000-2500mm and high numbers of streams and waterfalls, creates an environment that produces astonishing botanical diversity. Of the 2500 trees and plants, 25 per cent are endemic and include some highly rare species of saintpaulias (or African violets). Of more than 400 types of bird, endemics are the rufous-winged sunbird (identified or ‘discovered’ in 1981) and the Udzungwa forest partridge (identified in 1991). Of the several forest antelope, the Abbott’s duiker is only found in a few scattered enclaves, and classified ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Of the dozen or so primates, the Udzungwa (or Iringa) red colobus and the Sanje mangabey are unique to the Udzungwas and, again, both IUCN-classified as ‘endangered’. Six of these primates are nocturnal, such as galagos (or bushbabies), of which the mountain dwarf galago is found only in the Eastern Arc and IUCN-classified as ‘near-threatened’. Udzungwa’s smaller endemic creatures include the grey-faced sengi, a type of elephant shrew and IUCN-classified as ‘vulnerable’, and several reptiles and amphibians such as toads, tree frogs, chameleons, forest geckos and skinks. Additionally, there are thousands of species of spider and 539 butterflies, among the highest recorded numbers of any range in the Eastern Arc.
Visitors to the park are highly unlikely to find any of the rare or tiny creatures, and although elephant, buffalo and leopard are present too, they are infrequently seen in the thick foliage. But easily spotted are the plentiful and colourful birds, from fly-catchers and hornbills to sunbirds and shrikes. Forest antelope such as bushbuck and red duiker may appear quietly in a glade, and seen boisterously bounding through the trees are Angolan black-and-white colobus, Sykes and vervet monkeys and yellow baboons. Even the mountains’ two ‘specials’ are not always that shy; as well as the Udzungwa red colobus we spotted a family of partially habituated Sanje mangabey next to a stream not far from the park headquarters.
A hiker’s paradise
There are no roads in the park, but the several walking trails vary in length from less than an hour’s stroll to challenging hikes over three to five days. The paths weave through sunshine-dappled glades, blurred by the colour of butterflies, and up into the mountainous jungle thick with hanging vines and monstrous trees rising to 30m, their trunks covered with mosses, lichens and ferns. A good start is the walk to the Prince Bernhard’s Falls only 500m from the park gate, named after WWF President Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands who ‘cut the ribbon’ so to speak when the park opened in 1992.
We enjoyed what is the most popular hike in the park, the half-day return to the top of Sanje Falls, a stunning series of cascades that plunge 183m through misty spray into the gorge below. The track zig-zagged steadily up the mountain over an elevation of 430m but was fairly easy and the beautiful tree canopy shielded us from the heat of the sun. There were plenty of viewpoints from which to admire the impressive three-tiered falls, and rock pools to cool off in. The plateau of smooth boulders at the top was a perfect picnic spot, and the views south across the mosaic of farms in the Kilombero floodplain were tremendous. We could clearly see the jagged slopes of the Mbarika Mountains rising out of the lowlands of the Selous Game Reserve 100km away.
Other options are trails to the Njokamoni Waterfall, a 40m single drop into a shallow pool where you can swim. Fit hikers with camping gear can attempt the more challenging three-day, 38km Mwanihana Trail to the second-highest peak at 2150m, or the extremely challenging four- or five-day, 65km Lumemo Trail from Ifakara on a tough trek through a wide range of habitats and up into the remoter regions of the Udzungwas.
Udzungwa is easily combined with the other Southern Circuit parks on a safari from Dar es Salaam, booked through a tour operator. A three-to-four-night safari could combine Mikumi and Udzungwa, and at least two nights each at Selous Game Reserve and Ruaha National Park would bring it up to a week or more. An alternative to a road safari is to fly between Mikumi, Selous and Ruaha — Coastal Aviation and Safari Airlink serve these airstrips — with the additional vehicle excursion to Udzungwa.
• Getting there Udzungwa Mountains National Park is roughly 380km (or five to six hours’ drive) from Dar es Salaam. Turn off the Tanzam Highway (A7) at Mikumi on to the Ifakara road (B127) for 60km to Mang’ula village, where Msosa Gate and the park headquarters are located. Hondo Hondo can arrange transfers from Mikumi (and the airstrip at Mikumi National Park), and buses and dala dalas (shared minibus taxis) between Mikumi and Ifakara drop off in Mang’ula. Day trips to Udzungwa from Mikumi can also be arranged from Tan-Swiss Lodge on the Tanzam Highway in town or Stanley’s Kopje and Vuma Hills Tented Camp within Mikumi National Park.
• Where to stay Within the park are basic campsites just uphill from the park headquarters. Relaxing and peaceful Hondo Hondo Udzungwa Forest Camp at Mang’ula has six comfortable en-suite tents (doubles from US$216, B&B), cheaper budget huts and a campsite. It even does package deals, with tents, bedding, food, a cook and porters for the longer hikes. An alternative is the 40-room Udzungwa Falls Lodge (doubles from US$240, half board) back towards Kidatu, 12km north of Mang’ula.
• When to visit The park can be visited at any time of the year and daytime temperatures are moderately warm and humid. The dry season is June to October, but even then, be prepared for occasional light showers. The heavier annual rains are usually November to December and March to May. At this time, the hiking trails can be slippery underfoot but clouds of butterflies and beautiful flowers appear and the waterfalls are at their best.
• What to pack Hike with good walking shoes, swimwear, waterproofs, insect repellent, water, snacks and a picnic lunch to enjoy at the top of Sanje Falls. A fleece or sweater is needed in the evening, as it can get chilly and damp on the edge of the forest.
• Health Visit your local GP or travel clinic well in advance of your trip to find out which vaccinations you need and the best antimalarial to take.
• Further reading Udzungwa: Tales of Discovery in an East African Rainforest by Nikolaj Scharff and others; Tanzania Safari Guide (7th edition) by Philip Briggs and Chris McIntyre.