In Search of Some Fresh Air (From Lushoto to Mtae)

The equatorial summer’s gotten pretty oppressive as of late (bar yesterday’s freaky monsoon storm which covered Kili in unprecedented amounts of snow), so we were really glad to escape last weekend into the Usambara Mountains in the northeast of the country, a (terrible) 7-hour bus ride and a literal world away from the dusty plains of Moshi. After weeks of intense heat and pretty much relentless sunshine we were both craving a cold, crisp morning or two and a good night’s sleep in cooler climate. And we got what we craved for.

Although our accommodation in both Lushoto (the central town in the mountains) and Mtae (a tiny little village at the western edge of the range) was fabulous and actually much better than we expected, the road to the Usambaras was a little on the rough side and probably exactly what we should have expected (there’s always a reminder somewhere to keep your expectations in check in Africa). To get to these beautiful mountains and without your own car, you really have no option except to take a local bus from Moshi and sit through the very rough-around-the-edges 7-8 hour ride on one of the crappiest buses and one of the crappiest highways I have ever laid my eyes on.

The bus, packed to the rim with locals, rice, bags and us left Moshi a solid one and a half hours late, made its way through the plains of northern Tanzania with a dirt-soaked, decade-old curtain flapping in my face and a window rattling, shaking and almost exploding from the power of the bus hitting a bump on the road and sending everyone at the back of the bus into the air. It was hot, it was sweaty, it was uncomfortable and it was nasty, but we made it to Lushoto in the end and even met a nice Bob Marley-obsessed tour guide called Elvis Presley (?) who ended up taking us on our hike the next day.

After a pit-stop at his back-of-the-shop tourist ‘office’ and a hastily arranged but tasty enough potato omelette-out-of-a-bag lunch (the local delicacy ‘chips mayai’ served with even less finesse than usual), we headed up to our lovely, cozy hotel – the very aptly named Swiss Farm Cottages – and settled into our shockingly authentic, European-feeling surroundings. Nestled in the hills high above Lushoto (at about 1,500 m altitude) the place was actually founded by a Swiss man, later taken over by his local family, and is a deceptively good substitute for home, complete with 70s cottage decor (lots of oranges, reds and funky lamps), a beautiful wooden dining table and a proper fireplace. We spent our first afternoon drinking a beer in the fields outside our cottage under the watchful eyes of the suspiciously Swiss-looking cows, and chilled out in the evening by said fire place, just reading and listening to the soft crackle of the soothing flames.

The next morning we started off on an unexpectedly epic 25km hike with Elvis (we talked through Bob Marley’s life and analyzed English football in quite a bit of detail during that day) through pristine rainforests and hundred-year old, German-era eucalyptus plantations to the gob-smackingly majestic cliffside of the mountains. As one of the oldest and most untouched mountain ranges in the world (100 million years of relative isolation) the forests are teeming with butterflies and unique plant life. To us the views themselves were the most stunning – I can’t say I’ve ever stood on a cliff with a 1km sheer drop below and a hundred kilometers of savannah vistas 180 degrees around us.

Our second day took us on another ever-so-slightly hair raising ride to our next stop, Mtae, actually closer to Moshi than Lushoto but almost totally inaccessible from the western side of the mountain range, along tiny little dirt paths hugging the side of the cliffs. As we drove through the countryside a beautiful scene of well tended farms, lush, fertile fields and five-year old shepherd boys herding their goats and sheep on the tiny dirt roads unfolded before us. This was the kind of idyll, born out of isolation and an uncharacteristically generous climate, that most Africans weren’t lucky enough to enjoy. But like always, the idyll had its deceptive side: although people have much more to eat in the Usambaras (and a more solid livelihood), extreme poverty is never far off and the communities there still struggle to get access to basic things like schooling and health care.

Enter Mambo View Point, the lodge/community development project we stayed at in Mtae, run by a very friendly elderly Dutch couple. Perched on an even more unbelievable cliff (almost 1,300m above the plains below) our hut was beautiful, very eco (nothing superfluously luxurious here) and had absolutely insane views across to Kili (visible in the distance about a 160km away on clear days) and into Kenya. The vista was by far the most awe-inspiring I’ve ever seen, so vast it made you feel infinitesimally small and lost as the winds traveled across the plains and licked the mountain side. We’d intended on doing one more hike in Mtae but I got a stomach bug on Saturday, so Sunday was spent resting, sleeping, sunning and freaking out over malaria test kits (negative, in case you’re wondering).

To get home the options were stark: get up at 3am to catch the same shitty (now) 10-hour bus to Moshi, back via Lushoto (those mountain paths must be loads of fun in complete darkness), or hire a driver to take us via an infamously bad and steep road (check the last picture) directly from Mtae to the highway that leads back to Moshi in about half that time. Given my queasy state it wasn’t much of a choice in the end and the drive back ended up being about a million times more relaxing than the way there. We even squeezed in a relaxed morning spent admiring the beautiful dance between sunrise and clouds as the latter enveloped the hills around us, rising and shedding their mist in preparation for another pristine day.

Overall we’d both really recommend the Usambaras: Nothing like a little fresh mountain air, lovely meadows and cool nights to soothe the sun-parched, home-sick soul…

Enjoy the weekend. And peace.

-K&B

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