A guide to Tanzania,Mbeya,The Southern Highlands
Beyond Makambako town the region becomes green and mountainous to the south, and the landscape all around Mbeya is rucked and pitted with a staggering variety of strange and fabulous formations. Here the eastern arc of the Great Rift Valley almost meets the Mbeya range, which extends in a north-westerly arc, rising up beyond Mbeya town and crowned by the glittering quartz-crystalline silhouette of Mbeya Peak. South of the town, the Uporoto Mountains form a dense and fertile region punctuated with volcano-top villages, waterfalls and blue circles of crater lakes that range all the way down to the shores of Lake Malawi. To the east of the town is Mbeya Plain, stretching out to the Safwa scarp and the great flat-topped mountain of Ishinga, all shaped by time from a vast expanse of sandstone layers. In the midst of all lies Mbeya town, the third largest town after Dar and Tanga, a sleepy but still thriving metropolis that has grown from a now abandoned government gold mining station established in 1927. The town has developed in industrial pursuits, and although not the prettiest place in itself, the surrounding area is very peaceful, with exciting natural landscapes and interesting homesteads and coffee farms to discover by car or on foot.
The most recent serious volcanic activity to shape the Mbeya-Iringa region occurred between 20 and 4 million years ago as a result of the rift action between underlying tectonic plates. As a result, this region presents a wide spread of moutains, crater lakes and lava or ash plains, with a mass of natural interest throughout. The open plain between the Eastern Arc mountains and the Mbeya range was converted into a research station in 1927 to assess the potential for mining gold in the area. The rifting faults of the surrounding mountains certainly appear to contain a wealth of riches, but what glitters here is less often gold, as most of the exposed strata of these mountains are composed of quartz crystals sparkling in sunlight. The Lupa goldfields north of the town became a goldrush region in the 1930s, but were then closed a couple of decades later. Panning continues here today on a very small scale, in the form of local backyard industry, and is occasionally rewarded by a small granule of gold. A continual growth of small industries has supported the expansion of the town since, especially commissioned work on the road and railways.
Much of the information for this chapter has been researched on the basis of an excellent old publication entitled Welcome to Mbeya, a collection of detailed walks and excursions recorded around the Mbeya region, rewritten and compiled mainly by Father Phillip Leedal of the White Fathers.
While it is possible to arrange guides for walks and days out in this region with the more upmarket hotels in the region, (Utengule Country Hotel is probably the best), there is an extremely well recommended and worthwhile organisation in town who provide reliably informative and friendly guiding and assistance. Sisi Kwa Sisi, PO Box 1562 or 2869, is a locally run initiative managed by Nico Ntinda and Felix Amndo, who have a shared reputation for being ‘lovely’. They will meet travellers from the train or bus station, and arrange and accompany on walks and excursions around Mbeya for a very reasonable price and their travel expenses. They speak good English themselves and are teaching other local guides as their enterprise expands, and you can find their offices at the bottom of the hill near the bus station, beside the roundabout with the rhino sculpture. Even if the following directions are so good that you feel a guide might be superfluous, they are worthwhile to have around for the benefit of translating more interesting Swahili exchanges as you explore – they can arrange for you to visit local traditional healers or to visit rural villages. There have also been security concerns for tourists wandering the outskirts of Mbeya unaccompanied.
Walks and activities
There are an endless number and combination of walks in all these surrounding mountains, with landscapes and unusual attractions to suit all time schedules and energy levels.
Around Mbeya Town
A couple of spare hours can be well spent on the outskirts of town, enjoying a good circular walking route that leads into the forests to the north of the town and provides panoramic views back over Mbeya along the way. Head northwards all the way to the top of Lupa Way until it crosses over Kaunda Avenue, turn right and almost immediately left onto a cul-de-sac and follow the pathway at the end to the top of the hill. This leads through a forest of eucalyptus and wends its way along a ridge at the base of Loleza Peak, which stands 2,656 metres high above. Half way along the side of the ridge, fork right and head for a mature pine forest, crossing the stream as you go. Continue through the pine trees to the track, turn right and then right again when the path divides. This will lead you back onto Kaunda Avenue and finally Lupa Way via Nzowa Road.
This whole region is awash with hundreds of species of bird, even in Mbeya town where Fiscal shrikes, Robin chats and Tropical Boubous can often be spotted or heard, or various different hornbills such as the black and white Silvery Cheeked and smaller Crowned hornbills.
Birdwatchers will find many more species to delight them on the Usangu Plain, ranging dramatically in size from long-legged families of ostriches roaming alongside turkey-sized secretary birds and a colourful array of equally charismatic smaller birds such as the Yellow Collared Lovebird or the
Paradise Whyder, or Beautiful Sunbirds.
An amazing array of waterbirds can be found on the crater lakes around town, such as the Ngosi Crater lake, or Ndwati Lake. These are always home to small water birds such as the yellow billed duck, the little grebe and more curiously, the Red-knobbed coot. Around Lake Nyasa the Fish eagle, open billed stork and amazing balancing African Jacana can often be seen, and swift flying Grey-headed gulls and Darters. The mountain forests, such as those around Ngosi and Rungwe craters provide an entirely different environment in which to find birds, although the density of the undergrowth does make them much harder to spot. One of the most popular and colourful is the small and delicate Bar-tailed trogon, or perhaps you might glimpse another brilliantly coloured bird with a shining blue head and green back and a distinctive yellow belly – the white-starred forest robin. Both of these are quiet little bough hoppers, but can sometimes be seen if not heard when the watcher is patient and still.
The Mbeya Mountains, heading north to Chunya
The most magnificent peak towering above the many around the town is Mbeya Peak, which stands at 2,826 m high. There is more than one way to climb this mountain, and the easiest of these begins with a fantastically scenic drive along the road towards the old, now near-desolate goldrush town of Chunya. This town was the centre of the last gold rush during the 1920s and 1930s, and a 3,000-gram carat of gold was reportedly found here at the height of its fame. Remains of the old mines can still be seen, and occasionally this dusty old town receives a brief revival of gold-panners interest. For the mountain, follow the road for about 13 kilometres out of Mbeya, until you reach the sign to Kawetire Farm, after which a left turn heads west through the forest plantations. Follow this road under Loleza Peak past two villages until you reach the end of the driving road and a mature pine plantation. Ensure the vehicle is safe, even guarded, and then follow this track on foot to the ridge, where you head right then across the saddle to the peak. Low-grade garnets can be found along this way, and fantastic views are afforded from the top if the weather is good. Continuing northwards along the Chunya Road brings you to excellent hidden picnic spots, such as the World’s End Viewpoint at the end of the track leading to Chunya forest, with stunning views overlooking the Usanga Plain beyond Mbeya. Follow the track to the right and all the way to the end. The second route to Mbeya Peak goes via the coffee-growing stronghold of Lunji Farm, near Mbalizi around 10km west of Mbeya and 7km from Utengule Country Hotel, from where there are four different possible paths to follow up to the summit.
Walks up Mbeya Peak and through the surrounding area can be arranged through Utengule Country Hotel. Although the route up is said to be steeper than the ascent of Kilimanjaro, it presents excellent photographic opportunities across the wide African savannah on one side and a patchwork of fields on the other, especially at dawn. The walk takes around three hours up and two hours down, by the steepest route, and if arranged with Utengule they will often combine a trip to Lungi Farm and the peak with a visit to the Songwe Bat caves on route, and Malonde Hot Springs nearby. This area is incredibly scenic, but also prone to hidden crevices and unusual rock formations, such as those that form the ‘bat cave’, and it is recommended that walkers take a guide.
The Uporoto Mountains, heading south to Lake Nyasa via Tukuyu
The driving route south from Mbeya is green and fertile and full of interesting off-road diversions. The tarmac route connecting with the Malawi and Mbamba Bay ferry service is excellently smooth and well finished, weirdly reminiscent of the Riviera scenery in ‘The Italian Job’, as the road neatly curves around the mountain edge with occasional impressive drops to either side. This is an enjoyable driving route through constantly changing and impressive scenery – past volcanic mountains, crater lakes and waterfalls flowing over basalt rock, wending though bouncy tea plantations coloured a striking new-born green, and on down to the perennially lush and bountiful forests of the Livingstone Mountains – land of the Nyakusa people.
Ngosi Crater and Lake, just a short distance south of Mbeya, is the remains of an old volcano that has now collapsed to form a wide caldera filled with a shining alkaline ‘soda’ waters. The waters of the lake are said to have magical medicinal powers. Ngosi means ‘the big one’; it stands at 2,621m. Dedicated climbers are well rewarded with excellent views from the top of the sharp crater rim, from where the lake gleams below with an overwhelming tranquil air, and beyond the land is pocked with the points of smaller volcanic peaks. The walk to the rim leads through upland grasslands and tropical forests where families of Colobus monkeys chatter and play, and a miasma of birds take refuge, and take about an hour ascending.
To reach Ngosi, take a right turn about 2km past the village of Isongole (Idweli), which lies about 33km from Mbeya on the Tukuyu Road. After 2km take the right hand road when the road forks, and after almost 1km further it will be necessary to leave the car and walk. It is well advised to leave someone with the car here, as a guard against break-ins. The path leads into the forest for about 2.5km and then begins the climb to the crater top, just opposite a large, single tree. Just before the top, the path branches in two; the right hand path leads swiftly to the peak, and the left leads down to the water’s edge, taking about half an hour to descend.
Unlike Ngosi Crater, the volcanic cone of Mount Rungwe still stands, dominating the landscape to a height of 2,960m. The forests around Rungwe are still wild and unkempt, and almost entirely uninhabited by people, although there is a healthy population of colobus monkeys and other forest creatures. It can be climbed from the Kagera Estates timber camp, (turn left at Isongole onto the Kiwira Forest Station Road, and then right after 11kms, just before the Forest Station), but this is only recommended during the dry months between June and November, or during a clear spell in February. Follow the old road up on foot, and head right at the foot of the volcano – even though this path slants downwards initially. An alternative climb is possible from the Rungwe Moravian Mission, from where it is worthwhile to take guide to follow the complicated route from there to the top. Rungwe volcano remains active in parts, and hardened basalt lava flow is frequently passed along the way – estimate on a full day to climb.
The market town of Kiwira, (also called Mwankenja…), is 50 km from Mbeya on the Tukuyu road, and lies close to the Kiwira river. The undulating land around this valley has formed a number of waterfalls close to the town, and scenic watery rock formations. The most accessible waterfall is just 4.3 km from the main road, (leave Kiwira on the road signposted to Igogwe Hospital, and follow the road over a bridge over the river. Turn left and cross the Igogwe stream, and then park and ask directions to the Marasusa Falls. It is necessary to follow a thin path along a line of trees between the cassava plantations.) The Marasusa falls are an impressive basalt drop, with a number of consecutive pools. They are popular for family washing sessions, and provide a scenic rural setting for a picnic.
To reach the Ndulilo Falls requires a less complicated driving route, but a more adventurous walking route, through a dark, bat filled cave. To get there, park at the Igogwe Hospital and walk for 10 minutes to the river, where there is a sink hole on the top of the south bank, where the river used to flow before it changed its path.
IF you follow the sink hole down you are liable to disturb a few sleepy bats, but eventually reach the base of the falls.
Unfortunately the most impressive of the water and rock phenomena in this region has evolved rather too close to a temperamental military-run Prison College for complete comfort. The wonderfully named Daraja ya Mungu (Bridge of God) is an inspiring stretch of rock arching over the rushing river, which has eked its stoic pathway beneath. The rock over which the lava flows is estimated to date from the Pre-Cambrian period, approximately 1800 million years ago…The view is especially pretty as the sun sets, and the land around is mainly picturesque, until you reach the college. The proximity of this erstwhile school of learning means that the road closest to the bridge has been iron-fenced and covered in signs prohibiting photography, and beware the wrath of ranting officials who find you bending the rules! To get there, turn right at a tiny village (that seems to be called KKK), just before Tukuyu, on a corner approximately 7km from Kiwira. The road is pretty good, as a hydro-electric power station was planned here, and of course, there is the college. It is best to follow the road around until the bridge can be seen, then to park and walk down the incline from there. There are a number of interesting features around this region, but it is now harder to access the nearby hole where the river falls into a rock ‘cauldron’, known as Kijungu (Cooking Pot) because the Prison College insists that you must acquire a permit.
The small town of Tukuyu perches on top of Ntukuyu volcano, almost halfway between Mbeya and Lake Malawi (formerly Lake Nyasa) at an altitude of 5,300ft. Its elegant vantage point makes it most worthwhile for the views that it affords of the surrounding countryside, and if you are planning a leisurely foray through the mountains it is probably worth fixing up some accommodation, either at Tukuyu, or on the shores of Matema Beach on Lake Malawi, as a round trip including walks and diversions will take at least two days. The accommodation possibilities in each of these are very basic, although slightly nicer on Matema Beach.
The town flourished in importance for a while during the German era, and earned the name Neu-Langenberg for a short period after 1901, when it became the centre for German administration in the region. This followed the demise of their previous headquarters on the Lake, Alt-Langenberg, after the doctor died of malaria there. They have left in their stead an Old German Boma, which is in a fairly poor state of repair, but worth a visit if you are in town. You can see lines of basalt lava flowing down the hillsides nearby.
The great range of the Livingstone Mountains south east of Tukuyu is the result of extreme rift action that would have occurred prior to the volcanic eruptions in the region; Lake Malawi lies in the rift floor. As a result, there are a number of good alternatives for trekking in this region, both north of Tukuyu around the features mentioned above, or south, around Masoko Crater Lake. This old volcanic crater, 19km south of Tukuyu, is an impressive lava formation, now covered in lush vegetation. A short walk through the trees takes you to the water’s edge, where it is possible to swim, and a number of old coins from the German era have been found (and sold) along the way. The crater lake is just off the eastern road from Tukuyu, which also passes Kalambo Hot Springs on route to Ipinda (not to be confused with Kilambo Hot Springs before Kyela, below). This is a far more dusty and less smooth route towards the lake than the western road, which has a smooth tarmac surface almost all the way through Kyela to the port at Itungi. About 8km down this fine westerly road you come to the village of Ushirika, (also signposted Mpuguso…)
Good walking and swimming possibilities are found close to here (but requiring a 2km walk!) at Kaporogwe Falls. To find them, turn right at Ushirika following signposts to Kaporogwe, and then follow signs to the Leprosarium – where it is possible to get permission to park vehicles – then walk past the buildings and head down the hill beyond, continuing straight on for about 2kms. This brings you to the top of the falls, where a precarious bridge crosses behind a pretty Gardenia tree to a good picnic area and vantage point over the falls, sheltered beneath an impressive overhanging slab of basalt. It is also possible to climb down the falls, with care, and to find routes into caves behind the curtain of water plummeting down before you, and to swim in the pool beneath.
Continuing southwards, 44km from Tukuyu and just before Kyela, a signpost points left to Kilambo Hot Springs. These are definitely springs and not pools – entertain no illusions of therapeutic bathing! – but the track leads right to the springs at the base of the hillside, and the surrounding woodlands are a haven for orchids.
Kyela is a small town 56km south of Tukuyu with little to recommend it to visitors, unless here for reasons of commercial trade or seeking a bus to Itungi Port for the lake steamer to Mbamba Bay on the southern border of Tanzania, or Nkhata Bay in Malawi. But for relaxation and peace and quiet, it is better to abandon Kyela for Matema Beach, where there is fine accommodation almost at the water’s edge, plenty of fresh fish and wide open views. The thick, golden, granular bay of Matema is lapped by the fresh waters of Lake Malawi, and provides a refreshing point for quiet contemplation in the lea of the Livingstone Mountains, which run down to the eastern shore of the lake. It is a rural region where the focus of activity is fishing and the chores of daily life – mending fishing nets, repairing local dug-out canoes, preparing for night-time excursions – yet it seems that most people along the beach have time for a chat. The land here is hot, a strong contrast from the volcanic mountains behind you, and to the east and west, and much life on Matema is spent seeking shade after mid-day. Sunburn is a regional hazard for pale skins.
But Matema provides a good central base for exploring the local countryside and mountains, which give a cool cover from the sun. The beach is approached through stunning forested regions, where dense greenery and thickets conceal clusters of Nyakusa houses, many of which demonstrate inspired building methods involving complex palm weaves and raised platform storage huts for pots, chickens, water and grain. A number of these have also been painted and decorated with unique designs and images, apparently drawn with local dyes. There are also plenty of fine earthenware pots in evidence in every household and fireplace, generally the product of the Kisi people who also live in this area, and who are famed throughout Tanzania for their clay-working skills. These pots are sold wholesale from Ikombe, south of the of Matema, where you may also have the chance to see them being made, and in Matema itself on the Saturday morning market, for which they are shipped from Ikombe by canoe. The are also often found sold for extremely good value at morning roadside stalls between Matema and Mbeya. From here they are exported to Arusha, Iringa and Dar es Salaam, and increase in price with distance!
(Beware potential Swahili-English confusion here…it can be a very disappointing moment when you catch a lift with a driver to find a pot, and are proudly driven dusty kilometres to reach the port…)