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Exploring The Udzungwa Mountains – The Mwanihana Trail

When you mention the Udzungwas to the vast majority of people, the first question they ask is ‘Where’s that?’ which is closely followed by ‘what is there to do there?’

The Udzungwas are part of the Eastern Arc Mountain Range. The forests that cover these mountains are the remnants of the great forest that used to cover the country. The climate changed, this combined with pressure from people and elephants pushed the forest back until it fragmented. These forest islands have been dubbed the ‘Galapagos of Africa’ due to their divergent evolution and consequent high degree of endemism. The importance of the Eastern Arc is not limited to its high biodiversity; the catchments provide the majority of the country’s fresh water and hydroelectric power. Having spent some time working as a biodiversity scientist in the East Usambara Mountains that start the Eastern Arc in Tanzania I was very keen to visit the Udzungwas.

My first visit to the Udzungwas started in Dar es Salaam where I boarded the 10.00 am TAZARA train with a group of friends. Our compartment had 4 bunk beds and we settled in as city gave way to shamba and then the vast wilderness of the Selous Game Reserve (where there was a brief halt due to elephants on the tracks!). We were well fed on the train and took advantage of the bar’s cold drinks. At about 8.00 pm we arrived at Mangula station where we were met by Furaha, our guide. We made a short transfer by safari Landrover to our campsite on the edge of the forest. The fire was burning and there was hot water for a much needed shower before dinner. After a superb meal we drifted off to the sound of bushbabies in the trees above.

I woke early with the dawn chorus and was greeted with fresh coffee and a full breakfast. Our guide explained our program and the safety aspects of hiking in the forest. We picked up an armed ranger from the park headquarters and made the short drive to the Sonjo Waterfall, the beginning of the Mwanihana trail. We left the road and shouldered our day-sacks, the heavier gear was gathered by a cheerful team of porters. The ranger led the way, then the guide, us and the porters bringing up the rear. It felt as though I was part of one of Stanley’s expeditions. We walked in silence to have the best chance of seeing animals. Our efforts were soon rewarded when we were treated to and excellent view of a Red Duiker in the miombo woodland that borders the road.

On fording a picturesque river, the miombo gave way to forest, the temperature dropped and the air filled with butterflies. Giant trees with buttress roots and hanging lianas towered above us. The Vervet monkeys that had chattered over us in the miombo were replaced by elusive glimpses of black and white Colobus and the endemic Iringa Red Colobus. These beautiful primates sometimes form mixed troupes for mutual defence, as they do not compete for food. It seems strange the name ‘Colobus’ comes from the Greek ‘Colobe’ meaning ‘cripple’ when these monkeys are so agile. They are so named because the fingers are fused into a hook shape perfectly adapted to their arboreal existence.

Suddenly there was a booming alarm call and the Colobus descended to an unusually low level in this leopard-stalked forest. As we entered a clearing we saw the reason for this strange behaviour, a Martial Eagle glided above. Our guide explained that eagles take baby Colobus and drop them from a great height before consuming them. As we voraciously consumed our packed lunches, he went on to add that there was on incident where a heroic adult male Pied Colobus had actually jumped from a huge tree onto an eagle that was making off with a baby, plunging them both to their deaths (apparently the baby lived!). The eagle in question is stuffed in the Udzungwa Mountains Park office.

We continued to walk through the forest for a further 10km, with occasional halts when the ranger checked the way was clear of buffalo. The guide showed us a variety of animal tracks and signs, explaining how to tell how recent they were and which way the animal was heading. We saw stunning birdlife including Turacos and colourful Orioles. We also had a close encounter with a large column of army ants that were wreaking a trail of destruction across the forest floor. These are the only insects that consider humans prey, they will kill a tethered goad and have left many a chicken coup containing only bones and feathers. Apparently the jaws of the soldier ant can be used as a surgical staple should the need arise. Our guide explained that villagers welcome them into their houses as they remove all unwanted insects as well as rats and mice. Needless to say we fled before them.

We emerged from the forest into a clearing with a spectacular view of Mwanihana Peak. We had arrived at Njia Ya Panda campsite (the ‘climbing path’). Camp was quickly pitched as we had tea and biscuits. We were again treated to a hot shower before dinner. This time however, Furaha had rigged it up with one side open and a view of Mwanihana peak. Whilst we dined the ranger and guide positioned watch fires and lanterns round the camp explaining that there were many elephants and buffalo in the area. During the night we heard some distant crashing and trumpeting, on sticking my head out of my tent I saw that the ranger had stoked up the fire considerably, he smiled and said ‘Tembo’, I listened for a while and retired once more.

The next morning we were awakened early and, after a swift breakfast, began to climb the Udzungwas’ second highest peak, Mwanihana at 2150m. The ranger told us to move silently and to stay a little back so that he could scout ahead. The lowland forest of the valley floor gave way to moss clad suhmontane forest. Curious Pied Colobus watched us from above as we filled our water bottles from an idyllic waterfall. The beauty of the Udzungwa Mountains National Park is the diversity and pristine nature of the forest. Because of the range of altitude it is possible to walk from miombo fire sustained sub-climax woodland through lowland forest to submontane and montane forest in just one day.

As we left the submontane forest and entered bamboo groves we could see signs of extensive elephant damage. Further up we came upon a strange site, the earth was churned and terraced in 6 distinct areas, each about the size of a car. Fruaha explained that this was where the elephants had slept and that they had terraced the ground as they do not like to sleep on a slope. On looking more closely we could see the tusk marks. When we left the bamboo we paused to rest in a grassy area and were treated with a view over the entire valley. We ate oranges and looked at the cascading ridgelines. Over each ran a spider’s web of criss-crossing elephant trails. In the distance we briefly glimpsed 6 grey shapes dropping into the next valley.

Invigorated by our good fortune we continued up the steep slope towards the summit. Here we entered a montane world of stunted trees, giant heathers and wispy lichens. The climb was hard but short and we were pleased to reach the top where celebrated with chocolate and drinking coconuts. The view was spectacular in all directions, with forested hills, jagged outcrops, patches of grassland and Luhombero, the highest peak in the Udzungwas, looming in the distance.

We descended quickly and had a substantial cooked lunch back at the Njia Ya Panda campsite whilst the guide and the porters broke camp. We walked about 6 km through the forest until we came to Kima campsite. This campsite was first used by researchers studying the relatively recently discovered and endemic Sanje Mangeby, which we really hoped to see. Unfortunately the noise of our arrival at camp meant the trees were bare. Camp was quickly set up and we showered, ate and retired in short order, exhausted from our day’s climb.

I was awoken shortly after dawn by the quiet yet insistent voice of our guide. ‘Wake up, come look!’ On emerging our tents we were treated to the site of about 20 Sanje Mangebys literally festooning the trees all around our campsite. It was incredible to think that this many of such a rare primate had just decided to come and hang around our camp. Once we had got over our surprise we breakfasted watching these peculiar mid-canopy, rather fluffy monkeys go about their morning grooming. Mischievous youngsters hanging from each other and unpicking the grip of the one holding on to the tree, falling squawking before catching a lower branch. All watched by a disapproving wizened old male and an anxious batch of mothers.

We regretfully packed up camp and walked the remaining few kilometres out of the forest. We were joined first by |Sykes monkeys near the river and then a large troupe of Yellow Baboons in the Miombo. When we exited the forest we had walked a total of 35km, seen 5 species of primate, including 2 endemic to the Udzungwa Mountains, in just 3 days. Our safari car was waiting to transfer us to Mikumi where planned to enjoy some game drives, hoped to find tree climbing lions and have a relaxing stay in a comfortable lodge.

visit Wild Things Tanzania Safaris for more information.

About the Author: Roy J. Hinde is currently a director of Wild Things Safaris ltd. He previously worked as a biodiversity research scientist in Tanzania and completed his M.Sc. in Environmental Monitoring and Assessment during that time. For information on visiting the Udzungwa Mountains contact or Wild Things Tanzania Safaris also has some superb safari gallery pictures.

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