Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Usambara Mountains of Northern Tanzania

Hi folks, I am writing from Moshi, Tanzania right now and it's been nearly three weeks since my last post! I've unfortunately fallen behind with everything we've been doing as well as a lack of a decent internet connection, but I will do my best to catch up quickly. We actually just returned from a 5-day safari trip where we climbed Ol Doinyo Lengai, an active volcano and then visited Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater, so check back for that post as well in a few days.

So when I left off, I had rejoined Weon on the mainland at Peponi and was planning the next move after Chris decided to stay on Zanzibar to work. I was reading in the book, doing research online, talking to Weon about his thoughts and trying to sort out just what I wanted to do with myself out here. While doing all that, I had to do a repair job on my flip flops. This was the third time I'd used super glue to fix them and after all they have been through I wasn't ready to give up on them yet!

Once both of us had gotten our affairs in order we set off heading north, first to Tanga to get cash and fuel.

Tanga doesn't seem to have much going on, but we were just about out of fuel an money, so it was a necessary stop. On the way we came across what I can only assume was a school graduation ceremony, with a student marching band parading through the streets.

After about three hours of driving, we turned off the main highway at Mombo and into the Usambara Mountains, heading towards Lushoto. After spending so much time on the coast and beach, it was a welcome change to get into the forest and into a much cooler climate. As a mountain person, it was also great to see something other than flatland again!

The mountains are fairly heavily populated, with the majority of people living as farmers. Two major crops are corn and sugar cane, which I am told goes mostly for making Konyagi, the cheap alcohol of Tanzania.

We chose a place called Irente Farm and Biodiversity Reserve. It is run by an expat couple who took the place over in 2002 if I remember correctly, and it has rooms and camping, makes and sells bread, cheese and jam, is partnered with a school for autistic children and another school for blind children. We turned out to be the only people staying at the time, but it was a fantastic place to just relax and enjoy the scenery.

For two or three mornings, I woke up early to watch the sun rise, the clouds move in the valleys and the countless birds that kept me company.

Irente Farm makes cheese as I said (pretty good cheese I might add, but at tourist prices) and the dairy farm and cheese making area is just a short walk from the camping area.

I spent much of my days here sitting in a chair overlooking the forest and reading books. In the five or so days we were at Irente, I read two and a half books.

Near to Irente Farm is another hotel called Irente View Point. It is a big new and fancy place right on the cliff where the mountains drop off back into the plains below. They charge to visit the viewpoint, but if you are staying at the Farm and bring a little note, you can check it out for free. A nice place to watch the sunset for sure.

In the evenings for the first time in many weeks I had to put pants and a jacket on! Irente is at 1452 meters, or a bit over 4,500 feet in elevation and the cooler weather was a welcome change from the heat of Zanzibar and the beach.

Besides just relaxing and enjoying the scenery, the big activity to do up in the Usambaras is hiking through the villages and forests. Weon and I hired a local guide to take us on a day hike through the area and see a bit of the local culture and village life.

Chameleons are a common sight around here, at least if you have a good eye for spotting them! I felt like I was back in Hawaii with Nick and Ellen because of the chameleons and wattle trees!

After about an hour and a half of walking farther up into the hills and past villages, we entered the Mazumbai Forest Reserve. This area is a section of dense untouched forest and home to some rare monkeys we saw at a distance and a beautiful little area in its own right but I don't feel like our guide was very good, and after paying a 10,000 shilling fee for walking through some trees for an hour I felt like it really wasn’t worth the money. Maybe with a better guide and more time it would have been better, but it seems like a fair bit of money for almost nothing really...

We walked into Lushoto for lunch, an interesting little town that was built in large part by Germans who moved into these mountains over 100 years ago and still contains the homes, churches and graveyards of it's past.

After lunch we hopped a dalla dalla to Soni Falls, a nice little spot just off the main road. From there, we returned to town vial the dalla dalla, and walked another hour or so back up to Irente Farm. For this day hike, we each paid 20,000 (10,000 of that for the forest fee, plus what we paid for lunch and two dalla dalla rides) and while it was nice I can't help but feel it could have been a lot better with a better guide. Oh well...

Hornbills are all over the place up at Irente. Each morning they would gather in the quinine tree above our tents to eat the seeds, noisily call to each other and flap their wings loud enough to almost wake you up. I spent hours watching these birds.

That day I decided to go for a walk around the area myself and do a little exploring. This is the local school.

Trees and old tilling equipment near the dairy farm.

A mud hut on the road to Lushoto.

The large Catholic church in town.

This is pretty typical for how meat is bought and sold in most of Africa. Note the ax and chopping block on the left!

I explored the local covered market for some food and ate some rice, veggies and meat a local woman had cooked for less than $1, then at a stand I bought three bananas, a carrot, avocado, a handful of green beans, two tomatoes, a green pepper and a cucumber for $1 as well, made two delicious stir-frys!

After five wonderfully relaxing nights at Irente Farm we decided it was time to move on. As we did, we passed through countless small villages and agricultural land. People clearly don't have much money around these parts, but it does seem they do fairly well.

Weon got a kick out of this two story mud hut, so we got out and took a picture, haha.

It took about three and a half hours of mostly dirt road driving, but we reached our goal for the day, Mombo View Point, another lodge on the edge of a cliff and overlooking the plains below. Again we were the only people here and the price was a little high but it has hot showers, a great view and free (though quite slow) internet.

After watching an excellent sunset from one of their view points, I had a little fun with my camera and long exposures, trying to photograph the moon, the stars the trees and my tent. My penmanship (errr, lightmanship?) isn't perfect, but I think I did a pretty good job here writing out 'Hi mom and dad!' with my headlamp.

Waking up above the clouds.

And then heading right into them as we drove down the long and winding road out of the mountains and onto the plains again.

Kids are always the friendliest.

We really had no idea how to get out of the mountains, and there are certainly no road signs or maps that could help in this maze of dirt and farms and shacks. It was a fantastic little drive though, as every ridge seemed to have a small town or at least a cluster of homes and shops.

The way to navigate out here is to pick a place, say a large town in the direction you are traveling (in our case it was Moshi) and at every intersection ask where that is. Sometimes it works and you actually believe they understand you and know the way, sometimes you just have to go on faith. We essentially just took the biggest road (which isn't saying much) that seemed to go downhill and hope for the best.

The farther and farther we got, the smaller and rougher the road got until parts of it seemed nothing more than a foot path. Clearly this section doesn't get many cars, and we certainly didn't see any ourselves. It was without a doubt the nastiest road we have driven on so far, but the switchbacks and ruts and bumps were a lot of fun, as well as simply being out on some unknown road with no other people in sight.

Eventually we made it to the bottom, and once gain I was greeted to one of those views that really makes me feel like yes, I am really in Africa.

Driving through villages like this also reminds you where you are, haha. This one in particular obviously doesn't see many vehicles, and in particular many white people. As we drove through, I am pretty sure every little kid in the village came running and shouting and waving their hands to say hello.

We thought about stopping at Same for the night, but as we drove through the town quickly realized there was absolutely no reason to bother, haha. Instead we continued on to Moshi, which took about five and a half hours of driving.

Moshi is known mostly as the base city for climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa at 5896 meters. We had no intention of doing that (because of price mostly, over $1,000 at the least once you pay for the 5-7 day trip and tips for the guides and porters) but wanted to see the city and meet some other travelers again.

Need any shoes? Trees and sidewalks become shops every morning and are taken down again in the evening.

Mt Kilimanjaro looming large over Moshi.

As I was sitting in the lounge area of a hotel using the internet, I was approached by two German guys, Nico and Markus. They asked if I was interested in going on a safari, as they were looking for people to join in a group with them to share the cost. Weon and I hadn't planned on arranging it from here in Moshi, but Nico and Markus had already done all the legwork to find the best deal, they seemed like cool guys and it fit right in with our schedule so we said yes. We went with Bryson Adventures and Safari, who were charging $750 each for a five day trip. It's a lot of money to me, but still about as cheap as it comes out here and going on safari in the Serengeti is just one of those things you have to do in Africa, right? (plus, I know park fees are a huge part of that, the owner told us $380 of that was just park fees alone) We arranged the details and planned on leaving in two days.

That night we all went to Glacier Bar to get better aquanited. Glacier is a short taxi ride out of 'downtown' and clearly the most hip place in town for both foreigners and locals.

The next day it was time to pay for the safari, and I was paying for myself as well as covering for Weon since I owed him fuel money for the return drive as the group is splitting up. Because I didn't come with piles of US dollars to pay with (the parks ONLY take US dollars, funny a country won't take it's own money... so you have to exchange for dollars or have the company do it for you for that part of the trip) I paid Bryson all in Tanzanian shillings, about 2.4 MILLION of them!

After that was all sorted out and we were on schedule to leave the next morning for our trip, I did one of my favorite travel activities: wandering. Moshi is a small place, and as soon as you get off the main road it's nothing but local shops and local people. This is a stand making flip-clops out of old tires. Fantastic repurposeing and recycling.

People tell me I should get a pair since I love flip flops, but I don't like these kind. For one they are heavy, two they are ugly and three, while they will last forever that means they will never get that worn-out 'personality' like mine have!

Well, that was the beautiful Usambara Mountains and Moshi, both thoroughly enjoyable and worth a visit. The safari is next, so check back for that soon, it will certainly be worth your time!