The Usambara Mountains, located in North Tanzania offer awe-inspiring views, a chance to get to know local village culture and steep, sweat-inducing hiking terrains. During our week in the mountains we got to know the region’s largest city, Lushoto, and a string of tiny villages where the way of life is traditional and seeing tourists is still something exotic. Apart from the insane views, the best part was the climate – perfect temperatures and fresh mountain air! Here’s a post about our week in the Usambara Mountains.
Waving Goodbye to Dar es Salaam
If you’ve read my blog post about our stay in Dar es Salaam, you know I wasn’t feeling so great healthwise.
An 8-hour bus ride is never fun, but with a stomach bug it’s a whole other level of discomfort. Either way, we were both happy to leave Dar behind us, even if that meant a long and bumpy bus ride.
You can read my blog post about our stay in Dar here: Travel Diary: Getting More Than Our Fair Share of Big City Life in Dar es Salaam
The journey from Dar to Lushoto was a complete nightmare! Ubungo bus station is like nothing I’ve ever seen: 250 buses spewing out fumes for hours, all departing at once (why on earth?) and thousands of people, shouting, horns honking and vendors shoving their products at you.
The bus was scheduled to leave at 6 am, but it departed an hour late. By then the heat was already insufferable. After hours and hours inching our way out from the city I almost lost hope: would we ever get to Lushoto?
Slowly, but surely though, the houses grew scarce. The flat landscapes started to give way to rolling, green hills. Traditional mud huts emerged and field after field of sunflowers and corn crops swished by.
Arriving in Usambara
After 7 hours of uncomfortable – and slightly horrific – driving suddenly the Usambara Mountains appeared in the distance. The bus started the near vertical climb up towards the top.
It was breathtaking – and not just because of the incredibly beautiful views. I had the window seat and just centimetres from the bus there was a terrifyingly steep, vertigo-inducing drop down to the valley below.
After 8,5 hours in total, the bus finally rolled into Lushoto. There we met our guide who we’d be spending the next three days with.
Originally we were meant to hike to Irente Viewpoint, a gorgeous lookout point around 6 kilometres from Lushoto centre. But the rain was coming down so hard it wasn’t an option to go by foot. We hopped in a car and arrived just as the sky cleared up.
The sunset had the mountains bathing in wonderful warm colours. It felt like being on top of the world sitting this high up, watching the ridge of the mountain slope down into the valley. Covered in lush, green vegetation the mountainsides almost appeared to be made of velvet.
Looking out at those spectacular views, suddenly the ordeals of the day seemed completely worth it.
Seriously Challenging Climbs
Our early start got a bit delayed as we realised we were short on cash. We’d be spending the next four nights in tiny rural villages so any cash we wanted to withdraw or exchange we’d have to get sorted in Lushoto.
At around 9.30 am we finally got going. The climate in the mountains is very enjoyable. At night, the air is fresh and cool, but during day the temperatures are nice and summery. Although of course the higher up you go, the colder it gets.
By the time we started our hike, however, it was already pretty hot. I’ve done plenty of hiking before, but never with more weight than a rucksack (perhaps 3-4 kilos). Now for the first time in my life I was hiking with a backpack, carrying around 10 kilos.
I don’t know what I was thinking – obviously hiking in the mountains you assume there’s some climbing involved. But the steep ascents still caught me off guard and had my thighs burning in no time. And we had 26 kilometres to get through this first day!
Butterflies, Chameleons and Monkeys Along the Route
As we’d got a late start we had to move at quite a fast pace. Climbing Kigulu Hakwewa Peak at 1840 metres above sea level at a fast pace was a challenge. The name even translates to something like “hard to climb with short legs”.
After conquering it – with my very short legs, mind you – I was completely knackered. Yet, at this point we’d only done like 9 kilometres! And out of our three-person group, I seemed to be the only one out of breath. Our guide, who basically grew up climbing these hills, and my long-legged brother weren’t struggling at all and they always seemed to be a hundred metres ahead of me.
Tough as it was, boy was it rewarding! During our first day we hiked through nature reserves with a rainforest feel, through terraced fields, we climbed steep hills and saw stunning scenery. A myriad of colourful butterflies fluttered by and up in the trees we could hear the black-and-white colobus monkeys – and occasionally even catch a glimpse of them!
Being in the middle of this spectacularly beautiful nature I felt so lucky and always found new energy to continue along the path. I also find myself picking up the pace a little extra every time our guide called out he’d spotted another chameleon. These masters of camouflage might just be the funniest and most fascinating creatures on this planet!
Aching Muscles and the Not-So-Glamorous Hiking Fashion
Getting up from bed the next morning I could certainly feel the previous day’s hike. It seemed there wasn’t a single muscle in my legs that wasn’t sore!
In an attempt to pack lightly I’d thought I’d hike in the same clothes every day, then have another fresh set of clothes for post-shower dinnertime. While I still think it was a good idea to reduce weight, I wasn’t prepared for the amount of sweat my hiking outfit would have to endure. My clothes were drenched! Needless to say, with the damp air at night, my clothes were neither dry nor fresh the following days.
Getting to Know Village Life
Day two of our hike was all about local culture and amazing views. From the narrow path we’d look out to see rolling green hills and terraced farmland with terracotta-coloured soil peeking out here and there where the land was bare. We’d admire locals working on their plantations and carrying heavy weights on their heads.
The kids would spot us from hundreds of metres away and cry out “MZUNGUUU!”, whereupon all the village kids would come running up to us chanting “mzungu bye” or “mzungu good morning”.
We’d made an effort to learn a few phrases in Swahili and would greet the elderly with a respectful “shikamoo” and the young adults with an informal greeting like “safi” or “mambo vipi”. The few Swahili phrases we knew were often met with surprised laughter or happy smiles.
Bucket Shower and Sleeping at a Convent
My left heel blistered really badly so when we finally completed our 13 kilometres for the day I was pretty relieved. It might not sound like a long distance, but with yesterday’s hike still burning my legs, a painful blister and steep climbing it sure felt like an accomplishment.
This night we’d be staying at a convent. It’d be just the three of us and 70 nuns and one priest. It’s safe to say this is definitely one of the most unusual places I’ve slept at.
After a bucket shower and a change of clothes we headed over to the nearby village. Our guide took us to a local bar to try out sugar cane wine and an even stronger alcohol. Let’s just say the experience was more enjoyable than the drinks.
An Extra Day in Mambo
My blister was so bad I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to hike at all during our final hiking day. But with two Compeeds, band-aids, bandage and double socks I was able to do it. We did opt for a slightly easier route than intended though.
Easier or not, it was still beautiful. We saw eucalyptus trees and walked through a forest and spotted black-and-white colobus monkeys. We hiked through tree plantations and saw a local timber factory as well as plenty of small villages.
After around 12,5 kilometres of hiking we arrived at our destination, right by Mambo village. The view from our accommodation was amazing, but it was about to get even better. We hiked another 6 kilometres in total to Mambo Viewpoint and it was so beautiful. We decided to stay for another day.
Recharging and Resting Post Hike
After constantly moving from one place to another it felt nice to stay in the same place for two nights in a row. We’d had no wifi during our hike so being able to reconnect with the outside world was welcome.
We spent the day wandering around Mambo, relaxing at our cottage and sorting out some of the details for the rest of our Tanzania trip.
As the view from Mambo Viewpoint was so stunning, I really wanted to see that again. We decided to have dinner and drinks at the hotel there and hike even further out from Mambo Viewpoint, out to a natural viewpoint on a cliff with an even more amazing view.
One of Those Moments I’ll Never Forget
The last part of the trail to the natural viewpoint was dangerous and challenging and my heel was quite painful. Yet, I just knew that this was something I just had to experience.
Finally we got to the end of the trail. Here, at the northwest edge of the Usambara Mountains, at an altitude of around 2000 metres above sea level, the mountain suddenly dives straight down into the valley below.
Because of this it really feels as if you’re sitting at the edge of the world. The landscape stretches on as far as the eye can see over the Maasai plains and out towards Mkomazai National Park and even onwards to Kenya.
It was just the two of us there. It was so peaceful, yet there was such a powerful energy. The sun started to set and the colours grew warmer. I found myself moved to tears by the beauty of it all. I’m still at a loss for words when trying to describe this experience. Hands down one of the most amazing and unforgettable moments of my life!
Back to Lushoto
We were so lucky to happen to sit next to the woman who runs the hotel at Mambo View Point during dinner. We got to talking and turns out she’s such a nice person who’s lived in many different countries (and she’s a dog person as well!). She happened to be going to Lushoto the next morning and had room for us in her car.
Together with her local business partner the four of us all ended up having lunch together at Irente Farm. I’d struggled with food during our hiking days, since I prefer not to eat meat. I was really craving a nice full meal and getting my stomach full. I finally got that at the farm, as well as some excellent coffee!
We checked in at Castaway Inn, a budget-friendly hostel with wifi and a light breakfast included.
The rest of day we spent sorting out our bus tickets back to Dar es Salaam, strolling around Lushoto, checking out the local market and enjoying a well-earned and surprisingly good pizza at Mamma Mia restaurant.
What Did I Think of the Usambara Mountains?
Neither my brother nor I had heard about the Usambara Mountains before we started planning our trip to Tanzania. One of the numerous guidebooks we read while planning mentioned the Usambara Mountains and the rest, as the say, is history.
I was expecting this part of our nearly five weeks long stay in Tanzania to be one of my favourites. Beautiful views, being in the middle of nature, hiking and a chance to get to know rural life were all things I was looking forward to.
Enjoyable Temperatures and Unparalleled Views
Even with such high expectations, the Usambaras managed to blow me away. No pictures or videos can do these amazing views justice – this is by far one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited. Yet, there are barely any other tourists around.
The week we spent in the Usambaras also gave us a chance to really immerse ourselves in local culture. The experience was very genuine.
In addition to this the climate was wonderful – not too hot and not too cold. I can’t even describe what a relief this felt like after the unbearable heat of Dar and Mafia Island. Getting some real hardcore exercise after a lot of sitting around also felt amazing.
I can’t recommend this enough. In fact, if you’re planning on visiting Tanzania, make sure you don’t miss the Usambaras!