Pros: no other tourists, stunning scenery, lovely campsites, lots of wildlife
Cons: the ascent to the peak is very steep
I was recently contacted by a tour operator friend in UK who asked my advice on where to hike in south Tanzania. The brief I was given was that a young couple would like to hike Mount Kilimanjaro but did not want to spend 9 days of their holiday in Tanzania purely on a trek, so could I suggest a challenging trek of about 3 or 4 days duration as an alternative.
In a flash of inspiration I realised that this was the perfect opportunity for me to become better acquainted with the Udzungwa Mountains, specifically the Mwanihana trail, a hike I had heard much about but never found time to take myself.
The Udzungwa Mountains are located about 6 hours drive or 8 hours by train south from Dar es Salaam in the Eastern Arc Mountains. The most popular hike is the Sanje Falls trail which is a pleasant 5-6 hour hike with stunning views over the Kilombero floodplain and 3 sets of waterfalls where you can take a refreshing swim. Having been up to the Sanje trail on numerous occasions I had visions of the Mwanihana trail being a slightly longer version spread out over a few days rather than a few hours. Perhaps I should have listened to a friend in Dar es Salaam who mentioned that the trail can get a bit steep in places .
I met Susie and Simon at Dar es Salaam International airport and we drove down directly to the small village of Mangula, gateway to Udzungwa Mountains National Park. The drive down from Dar passes through Mikumi National Park and as we passed herds of elephant, zebra and giraffe the contrast to autumnal Hertfordshire where they had departed from a few hours before proved a cheery welcome to Tanzania. After the boys had tucked into an environmentally unfriendly evening meal of impala (much to the disgust of the vegetarian Susie) we all headed off for an early night in anticipation of an early start the next day.
The Udzungwa Mountains National Park is one of the worlds 25 biodiversity hotspots (to qualify as a hotspot, a region must meet two strict criteria: it must contain at least 1,500 species of vascular plants as endemics, and it has to have lost at least 70 percent of its original habitat) and is one of the ten most important areas for bird conservation in Africa with at least 2 endemics in the Udzungwa partridge and Rufous winged sunbird.
The park is famous for its ten species of primates including the endemic Iringa red colobus and Sanje crested mangabey and in 2005 a new species of primate previously unknown to science was discovered in a remote section of the park. Whilst I am familiar with the primates which are often seen in the Udzungwas I was curious to see if rumours of elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, hyena, sable antelope and duikers to name but a few were fact or fiction.
The facts of the Mwanihana trail were laid before us by our guide, David, at the park headquarters. The 3 day/2 night, 38 km long hike goes straight up and down by the same trail and the Mwanihana peak at 2,500m is the second highest peak in the mountains. We were to take an armed ranger with us for protection as there was a high chance of encounters with wildlife. We planned to camp the first night at the GMP campsite at the base of the ascent to the peak, then come back down to spend the second night at the Mzima campsite and finally a short walk out on the third morning. It all sounded pretty straightforward really.
We drove about 10 minutes to the start of the trail where we met our team of porters who began dividing up the equipment as we set off into the forest. The Sonjo river was bubbling away on our right hand side, giant leaves melted under our feet and I had a good feeling that this was to be a weekend to remember in the mountains away from all forms of civilisation and a memorable weekend it turned out to be. Before long we came to a small waterfall and it was at this point the trail started to ascend. Susie and Simon are a pretty fit couple with regular sessions at the gym and a few months earlier had walked Hadrians Wall in the north of England on a week long walk. My last burst of sporting activity had been cheering on England in the soccer World Cup ensconced in a bar in Dar es Salaam, and after about 20 minutes of continual ascent I began to wonder if perhaps my ambitions to ascend Mwanihana may have exceeded my abilities.
Susie and Simon proved to be extremely sympathetic co walkers and we made several stops on this initial steep patch, not really a hardship as the forest scenery is stunning and the Sonjo river our constant companion and cooling system. After a couple of hours the trail began to level out and I became more aware of our surroundings thick forest on our left and beyond the banks of the river on our right. For some time we had been following large piles of elephant dung and now the trails which the elephants cut through the bush were clearly evident. In fact the elephant trails were everywhere and it wasnt long before Susie and our armed ranger spotted an elephant cooling off in a mud bath. By the time I reached them the shy beast had disappeared which provoked the question of how on earth can you miss seeing an elephant which is standing less than 75 metres away.
The trail by this stage was at a very manageable gradient and our spirits soared as we trudged on in glorious scenery with wild flowers and African wild ginger plants besieged by hundreds of colourful butterflies. Troupes of red Iringa colobus and black and white colobus monkeys performed acrobatics above our heads and I almost expected to meet David Attenborough inspecting a pile of elephant poo around the next bend. Our happy harmony took a reality check not long after when the ranger knelt down and showed us the very clear and very fresh print of a lion paw. It became evident we were following the lion up the path and it was a mixed blessing when the spoor disappeared into the bush as on the plus side it meant we were no longer following it but on the negative it may now be behind us. I picked up my pace and nobly offered my place at the rear to our guide David.
As we neared the campsite we found a delightful variety of spoor on the trail with buffalo, hyena, leopard and bush pig all serving us notice of their presence. At least I can now verify that the marketing material proffered by TANAPA is correct in most of the variety of wildlife we may encounter in Udzungwas.
We reached the campsite at about 1 oclock after a 5 hour morning walk and ate a much needed picnic lunch. We then all promptly fell asleep in the afternoon sunshine.
When I woke up I was staring at Mwanihana peak looming large over the campsite and reminding us of what we had to face the next day. I wandered down to the river to have a wash and hoped that the peak may not look so far away if examined from a different angle. This proved to be a futile experiment.
The porters eventually arrived exhausted after taking a wrong turn and walking an extra 5 km before realising their mistake. The Swahili word sense of humour failure was etched into their faces with one miserable soul looking positively mutinous. Over a well deserved glass of red wine we discussed the world of today and I crassly commented that stuck half way up a mountain in the Udzungwas we were at least safe from a terrorism. After dinner we were just preparing to turn in to our tents when a loud crash came from the direction of the bin and a sweep with the torch revealed a honey badger. I was extremely excited by this as it was only the second sighting I have had and certainly I have never been this close to one before. David and me went to inspect the badger whilst everyone else crammed into the fragile confines of the cooking banda. Thirty seconds later David and myself had joined them as we were chased backwards by a somewhat inquisitive honey badger. For those unfamiliar with the ratel it is one of the most feared animals amongst its peers and has been known to take on and see off lion and leopard, with very powerful jaws, long, sharp claws, an incredibly thick skin and absolutely no sense of humour it is not an opponent to take lightly. So we had the face off between one black and white terrorist and 10 grown men and one grown woman cowering in a shed. We tried several tactics, I particularly favoured our first idea which was to crack it as hard as we could on the head with a blazing log. This did partially stun it but unfortunately did not seem to lighten its mood. After half an hour of jousting it suddenly seemed to get bored and disappeared and we all ran for our tents.
The only two facts I know about the honey badger are that
1. It tries to steal honey from a bees nest by placing its backside at the entrance to the nest and emits such a foul stench that the bees are forced to flee leaving the badger the honey and
2. When it attacks humans it goes for the groin and once latched on wont let go.
So I drifted off to sleep in fear that I could see a black and white bottom pushed into my tent at any moment then as I fled with tears streaming down my face I would collect a badger the size of a small dog on my genitals. It was with some relief that I awoke the next morning unscathed after a good nights sleep only punctured once by the yipping of a hyena.
The second day of the Mwanihana trail can best be described as unforgettable.
We awoke to find ourselves enveloped in cloud which proved to be a small mercy. For the next 3 hours we climbed up and up and up without being able to see more than 10 feet ahead of us. We passed over a patch of grassland then hit the montane forest when the trail stopped becoming steep and became extremely steep. Our guide David found revenge for being placed as lion bait the day before by constantly reminding us that it would be this steep all the way to the top and also managed to point out to me that my shoes were totally unsuitable for this trail. As I slipped for the umpteenth time onto my backside the phrase stating the blindingly obvious leapt to mind. Eventually we emerged above the tree level onto another patch of grassland and then walked through a bamboo thicket. As we crossed a smooth area of rock David announced that we had reached the viewpoint and we all gazed out in admiration at the thick cloud in front of our faces. A hop, skip and a jump later David announced we had reached the summit and once more as we gazed into the cloud we marvelled at our insanity at torturing our bodies in such a manner to be rewarded with no view.
I was depressed and began to question the meaning of pitting oneself against a mountain. Susie looked close to collapse and even Simon appeared to be less than happy with the mornings exertions. As it became apparent that I was not going to need an oxygen tent after all, the clouds started to disperse and wonder of wonders we finally reaped the rewards of our endeavours as the full glory of the mountain range revealed itself. I nearly ate some humble pie but then my legs reminded me what I had done to them.
The walk back down was just as tough but we had stunning views of the forest, the Luhomero mountain to one side and, in the distance, the Kilombero floodplain to the other. A pair of Hartlaubs turaco screeched over our heads in a blue and red blur, trumpeter hornbills made noises like helicopters as they whirled above us, the colobus clowns were out in force and as we finally made it back to the GMP camp the mood had lightened a bit and we began to feel a sense of achievement in conquering Mwanihana.
After a brief refreshment stop we then continued down to the Mzima campsite beautifully located by the river. Just before we reached camp we encountered an elephant and I was amazed to see how big he was, I had previously thought the forest elephants would be smaller than their cousins on the plains.
Susie and Simon swiftly headed off to take a romantic bath for 2 in a plunge pool near the camp and I collapsed totally exhausted. When the others returned I took myself off to the river and threw myself in to what must have been the most enjoyable wash of my lifetime in a freezing plunge pool complete with power shower waterfall.
Next day we were faced with just 2 hours back down to the road and as we cracked another bottle of red wine we reflected on 2 tough days of hiking.
That night I asked Simon and Susie for some words which could sum up their experience.
Im pooped offered Susie - a sentiment which I shared though I had expressed it with a more Australian phrasing.
Merciless said Simon on a more realistic level.
Relentless from Susie who was getting the idea.
Not to be under estimated Simon.
Stunning views on the way down and a beautiful forest walk up to the base camp from Simon who was mellowing after his second glass of wine.
Take it steady, walk with a stick and eat lots of chocolate, practical advice from Susie.
Plunge pool bath almost worth the walk in itself from Simon.
Wear proper shoes from David the guide - and at that point I discovered a new place to put my walking stick.
Many thanks to our armed ranger, a man who did not break a sweat once on our trip, David our guide for keeping us going with some brilliant observations (Whats that David? Its a flower,What type of flower?,Its a yellow flower), Simon and Susie for putting up with me as a walking companion and a terrorist attack on their second night in Tanzania, Hamisi our cook, and our team of porters who did what we did but carrying all our equipment too respect!
If you feel up to the Mwanihana challenge contact David at Authentic Tanzania in Dar es Salaam