Hiking in Lushoto, Tanzania
October 2, 2014 – October 11, 2014
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
After baking on the Arabian peninsula for a few days it was time to head to our next destination, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania in Africa. One of the first things we learned about Tanzania is that Americans are saying the name wrong (oops). It is called Tan-zAHn-ia, with the accent on the second ‘A’ and not on the ‘I’. Our trip to Tanzania actually started with a layover in Kigali, Rwanda which turned out to be longer than we expected as our Rwandair flight to Tanzania had to return to Kigali due to technical issues (broken plane bits). After returning to Kigali and swapping our plane out for another we made a second, and this time successful attempt to reach Dar.
Our first impressions of Dar were not the best, arriving in darkness, and waiting at the exit to the terminal are dozens of taxi drivers all vying for your business. The taxis in Tanzania are always small white cars, and if they are official they have white license plates. The unofficial taxis – privately owned cars – have yellow license plates, just like all other privately owned vehicles. We hopped in a taxi with a white license plate and probably overpaid with our US$30 10 minute ride to our hotel.
We stayed at Al Uruba Hotel which offered rooms for just $20,000 Tanzanian Shillings (TSH) or just under US$12.00 a night. It was not the nicest hotel but would work just fine for the couple nights we intended to stay in order to get bus tickets out of town. The hotel had a decent restaurant downstairs, an ATM across the street and the rooms were clean enough.
We arrived at our hotel at night, and the light of day in the morning did little to improve the streets of Dar. It is a crowded, dirty and dusty hot city and if there are any nice parts we did not see them. Our recommendation if you are going on a safari or anywhere in Tanzania would be to pass through Dar as quickly as possible or avoid it altogether.
Dar Bus Station
Not liking Dar very much we wanted to get bus tickets for the next day and head to our first real destination of Lushoto as quickly as possible. The bus station in Dar Es Salaam was our first introduction to the chaos of Tanzanian bus stations. We took one of the many dalla dalla’s – overly crowded minibuses that race all over the city for cheap – to the Ubungo bus station, on the minibus we met a man who worked at a local school who told us it might be better to take a private car. A bit worried by this comment, but confident that we had tackled the many South American bus stations successfully we pressed on to buy tickets.
The part of the bus station where you purchase tickets is a collection of about 40 small wooden buildings in a line with the names of dozens of bus companies, and outside is a crowd of about 50 people who come running at anyone coming near, especially Mzungo’s (white people), trying to pull you in dozen different directions, all asking where you’re going and trying to sell you tickets that may or may not be real or trying to talk you into going to a different place altogether. Our guide books referred to these people as ‘touts’ and we encountered them all over Tanzania, especially around bus stations. They will try to be a middle man to every transaction you make, and will offer you just about any service you could want. It is best to avoid them, unless you really do need assistance, but even then it is probably best to avoid them. We already had a couple bus company names in mind from our guide books and made the mistake of asking where they were. The helpful touts immediately pointed to one of small shops which definitely did NOT list the name of the bus company we wanted. We walked inside and asked if they sold tickets for a company that we had researched beforehand called Dar Express. The man flashed a piece of paper which had the name Dar Express on it and immediately said it was sold out and wanted to sell us a ticket with another company. We walked out and repeated that process at a couple more places, everyone wanted to sell us a ticket with their company and the companies we wanted were tragically all sold out. After forceably pushing our way through a dozen men trying to get us to go in a few different directions than the one we wanted, we finally walked the full length of the line of bus companies and found, near the very end, a sign that said Dar Express. Suddenly the touts all disappeared and we entered and found that were not sold out and bought our tickets. Taking a bus in Tanzania is definitely the cheapest way to travel and is possible, but its best to go into the bus station with a company and route in mind and make sure that you ignore the dozens of people asking where you are going and speak only with the rep from the actual company you want. Even if the touts take you to the correct company they will try to get in on the sale of the ticket and get a ‘cut’ of the sale by talking to the salesman quickly in Swahili and suddenly the price will be higher than it should, or by asking for a tip for harassing you until you made the mistake of telling him what company you are looking for so they can ‘direct you’, so its best just to ignore them.
Tickets purchased and 80% confident that they were real we returned to our hotel to get packed for our 7am bus out of Dar. At 6am the next morning we hopped in a taxi to the bus station. Taxis are generally safe anywhere you go in the world but there are always horror stories we have read of taxis robbing people or having another person ‘jump in’ to rob you, or snatch your bags. So we have always locked our doors and never take a cab with anyone in it other than the driver. The cab we took from our hotel to the Dar bus station drove a few blocks and then suddenly pulled over and said a ‘friend’ was going to the bus station as well and a man started to get in the front passenger door. We immediately yelled that we did not want anyone else to get in and were ready to exit the cab immediately if he did. The driver said okay and drove on without the ‘friend’ while it is possible that what he said was absolutely true, that it was just a friend, it seemed very odd and we recommend never letting a cab driver randomly pick up anybody, even if they claim it will lower the cost of the ride.
The rest of our ride was uneventful and we arrived at the bus station. We recommend asking your driver to take you right to the bus you are taking as walking around in the bus station with all your eye catching bags is not a good idea, and the cab drivers seem to know exactly where each bus company leaves from. The cab took us to a dozen feet from our bus and we got out and were immediately surrounded by helpful ‘touts’ wanting to carry our bags and asking which bus we were looking for. One man hoping to get a tip for ‘helping’ continued to ask me which bus we were looking for, where we were going, and where we were from even after I kept telling him we didn’t need any help and were actively loading our bags on our bus. If you actually do need help finding your bus they are certainly around to help for a small fee but again if you can find the bus and carry your own bags, that what I would recommend. Overall we found the bus stations in Africa to be far worse than anything we had experienced in South America, but still cheap and easy, you just need to stay vigilant.
We found out that most of the buses in Tanzania and probably most of Africa are five seats across, two seats then and aisle then three seats. Our first bus in Africa, on Dar Express was only four seats across, it would be our last in Tanzania. We found the buses to be not quite as nice as the buses in South America and more crowded as they stop along the way to pick people up who are willing to stand packed in the aisle for hours to get where they are going. The buses do not have bathrooms on board but not to worry they stop every couple hours along the side of the road to let people out, if you’re lucky there might even be a bush or two wherever they happen to stop. The buses and roads aren’t in the best shape and the buses race at break neck speeds, far faster than anything we experienced so far in our trip. After our bus hit a particularly large pothole and made a particularly loud crashing and metal breaking sound the bus pulled over for half an hour to weld something that had broken on the door.
After 7 sweaty hot hours on the crowded bus we got off at the small town of Mombo where we took a small and even more packed minivan up into the mountains to the town of Lushoto. Once again we made the mistake of letting the touts know we were looking for a ride to Lushoto and they wanted us to go to a certain minivan a block away, there were minibuses that were labeled ‘Lushoto’ right next to us, but after we walked towards them ignoring the touts they rushed ahead and spoke quickly with the drivers in Swahili and they refused to let us on so we had no choice but to take his packed minivan and overpaid for the privilege. Once again it is best not to let them know what you are looking for.
Lushoto is a town set high in very lush green hills of the Usambara mountains, with great views in every direction. An oasis of green jungle in the otherwise dry brown plains we drove through to get there. The town is a bit dusty, or muddy if its raining, but it is surrounded by lots of great hiking and places to stay in the encircling hills.
We stayed at the Irente Biodiversity Reserve about ten minutes out of town, a collection of nice lodges with views over the valley. They have their own organic farm and make their own milk, cheese, honey, bread, jams and juices. There is also a school for the blind and an orphanage which you can visit. We have been to many hotels and hostels and this is one of our favorite places. The food was amazing and the hotel manager Uta even invited us to dine with her along with other guests and we swapped stories of travel and learned what it was like to live and raise a family in Tanzania.
The main reason we wanted to go to Lushoto was to do a three day hike through the surrounding mountains, jungle and small villages to the town of Mtae. A total of 57 km and a great way to see how the local villages and farms work. We arranged for a guide to take us along the three day walk to Mtae. We met our guide Chris before the hike. There are many guides in the area offering a wide variety of hiking options as long or as short as you would like. The three day hike to Mtae seems to be the most typical and three days felt about right so we went with that. We paid about US$80 per day for the guide, food, lodging, return bus ride to Lushoto, etc.
Hike Day One
Our first day would prove to be the wettest as we would be walking through a rainforest. Thick jungle and small farming villages greeted us, along with a lot of rain. Along the way we passed by an old German bunker dug into the side of the mountain by the German colonists who lived in the area during World War I.
We also saw a lot of wildlife up close, blue monkeys, black and white colobus monkeys, as well as lots of birds and we discovered that chameleons were everywhere, if you can spot them. The chameleons are slow moving and not aggressive, they rely on their camouflage to protect them. It is easy to pick one up just put your hand in front of it and it will climb right on. They have soft mitten like hands, no teeth, no claws and move very slowly. Our guide spotted a few along the way and we stopped to pick them up and take some pictures.
We also met up with some other hikers, Colleen and Elizabeth, one from the US and one from New Zealand, who we would be joining for the majority of our hike. They were both teachers in Tanzania and told us some good stories about what it was like living and working in Tanzania. Together we hopped in the back of a truck for 7 kilometers or so to the town of Malindi, where we spent the night in a local guesthouse.
Hike Day Two
The second day we hiked through more farmland and small villages. We had crossed over a ridge separating the wet and lush jungle side of the mountains and were now on the more dry and populated northern side. Farms dot the landscape and just about every vegetable crop you can imagine was growing between irrigation ditches.
We also got the opportunity to visit a local school. The classrooms were packed with at least 80 children each of various ages all learning together and happy for the little diversion from their studies that our arrival provided. Colleen and Elizabeth, being teachers at another school were particularly excited to visit with the children. We introduced ourselves, and spoke our very limited Swahili, and took some photos.
That night we would be staying at a local convent in Rangwi which had rooms for travelers. At the convent we met two other travelers who would be joining us as well, two guys from Germany, Constantin and Phillip.
Hike Day Three
We started out day three by heading straight up one of the rocky hills nearby for a great view of the surrounding valleys.
Later once we were nearing Mtae we split off from the girls who would be staying at a different hotel that night, and continued into the town of Mtae. The small town of Mtae is perched up atop the high hills, nearly cliffs, which overlook a vast flat plain where you can see all the way to Kenya.
Rain storms can be seen moving across the valley in the distance.
We went to a western facing cliff to watch the sunset over the valley.
There are no power lines here, instead they rely on solar power by day, and solar charged batteries by night. However they were just putting up power poles when we arrived and they would soon by strung with power lines, all paid for by George W Bush, he was quite popular there.
On the fourth day after spending the night in Mtae we slept in a little and boarded the 5am bus back to Lushoto. It was still pitch black outside with no street lights anywhere, the only light coming from the very clear and bright stars in the sky. Once back in Lushoto we decided to walk to the local Irente viewpoint later that day once more since it was no longer cloudy to check out the view.
Lushoto proved to be a great first experience in East Africa, and whet our appetite to see wildlife, which was convenient because our next stop was Arusha, Tanzania for our African safari.