Hiking in Tanzania: the Usambara Mountains

green valley views from mountain viewpoint

We didn’t have enough time to climb Mount Kilimanjaro after our safari, but we still wanted to experience some hiking in Tanzania. The Usambara Mountains are the perfect place to do this, and Lushoto made a good base for exploring the area.

So we hopped on a public bus in Arusha for the 5-hour ride to Lushoto. We sat crammed together in vinyl seats, tufts of stuffing poking out from tears in the fabric. We alternated between opening the window to super strong blasts of wind & dust while feeling relatively cool and sweating in the stifling heat with the window closed. African pop music blared over the sound system – the same CD played over and over again.

Many, many, many stops with vendors clamouring at the windows selling water, peanuts, popcorn, toothpaste, hair combs, hats, toys, sunglasses, and anything else that is relatively portable. As we neared Lushoto, we started to climb into the mountains. Red clay and lusher foliage. Some gorgeous views of cliffs and waterfalls as we rounded switchbacks and hairpin turns with scary-steep drops.

Lushoto

As soon as we stepped off the bus, a handful of young men representing various hotels clamoured for our attention, shouting prices and assuring their property had hot water and other basic amenities. We knew we wouldn’t find luxury, but that was just fine by us.

A very clean single room with private bathroom at the Lushoto Sun Hotel was just $10 including breakfast. The only problem is that the advertised hot water never materialized, meaning icy cold bucket showers. It certainly was refreshing!

On the positive side, the food was a tremendous bargain. Three of us devoured a huge lunch with ugali (the main starch in the East African diet), chicken, drinks and a shared plate of chips for $5 total. The chips in Tanzania are amazing – always fresh cut and eaten with a little “tomato sauce” (sweet ketchup) or pile pile (hot sauce).
women carrying bundles on their heads

Hiking to Irente

Through the Tourist Information Centre, we booked a guide to take us on a day hike in the area. Our trek with Amil followed an uphill trail through a cool forest ruled by numerous species of noisy monkeys chattering and screeching at us from the treetops.

There was an itchy encounter with army ants, a simple lunch of bread and cheese enjoyed at the rough-hewn kitchen table of a dairy farm, a climb to Irente viewpoint (stunning panoramic views), and winding trails back down through the outskirts of the village.

We ran out of water a little past the half-way point, so all of us became quite dehydrated before finally making it back to a store to buy more. I had never before experienced the tingling of fingers, flushed skin, chills and light-headedness associated with dehydration, and hope that I never do again.

Throughout the day, children called out to us “Jambo, jambo!”, or  “Mzungu, Jambo” (foreigner, hello), and sometimes “Give me pen?”. One group of kids just wanted to slap our hands in “high 5’s”. Another little toddler took each of our hands in turn and walked a few steps with each of us. Almost everyone we met smiled and responded warmly to our grins and greetings.

We remarked to Amil about how amazed we were that women and children carry such large loads on their heads. He told us that Tanzanians are similarly amazed by how we mzungus carry such heavy loads on our backs. Touché!

Tourism’s toll

Amil spoke about both the positive and negative impacts of increased tourism on the community. Much needed cash from guided hikes like ours is appreciated and is usually invested back into the community. On the other hand, the presence of tourists has given kids a reason to beg for money instead of going to school, even though begging has not traditionally been part of the culture. Another point of cultural unease is the style of dress displayed by some visitors, which is often in contrast to traditional conservative local dress.

Many travelers are unaware of these issues, but we owe our hosts the courtesy of being informed and respectful of local customs. After all, experiencing authentic culture is the reason we travel at all. Most travel guides, whether print or online, have sections on culture, so there’s really no excuse. I’ve found the Journeywoman website a good resource for advice on what to pack, what to wear and cultural taboos.

Water and power (or lack thereof)

The power went out as we were eating dinner in the hotel cafe. Candles were quickly provided, and now a generator is supplying noisy intermittent power. The water isn’t working either, so there will be no shower to wash off the day’s sweat and dust. I lay here dirty, hot and smelly, but really quite at peace in the flickering candlelight.

For more ideas on what to see and do in Tanzania, take a look at my Tanzania planning post and this story about my amazing Tanzanian safari.

 

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