Forget Patagonia or Nepal, why you should go trekking in Tanzania’s Usambara Mountains

Published in Evening Standard on July 23, 2018

Standing under the raffia porch, I watch an unexpected, unseasonal shower painting two rainbows across the sky. They seem to be growing right out of the clifftop where my guesthouse is perched, then leaping down towards the Maasai plains below. On my other side, the sun is setting, turning the lushly green Usambara Mountains into, well, a pot of gold.

I’ve just finished a three-day, 65km hike, from Lushoto to Mtae in north-eastern Tanzania, during which I’ve been blown away by how spectacular and ever-changing the scenery is. Part of me can’t help feeling that this picture-book panorama is one final reward for all that hot dusty walking.

Each day reveals higher mountains and greener valleys, ending with 270-degree views over the Tsavo Plains and Mkomazi National Park, stretching all the way to Mount Kilimanjaro. And I practically have it to myself.

Unlike trekking in, say, Patagonia or Nepal, where paths start to feel like conveyor belts and getting a selfie stick in the eye is an ever-present danger, I saw only one other walking group in a guesthouse. I was visiting in February, off-season but perfectly suitable weather-wise (though avoid the rainy season between March and May).

When the area is spoken of, it’s described as “the Switzerland of Tanzania”. Certainly, the terrain isn’t what you expect of the East African country, more usually associated with Serengeti safaris or the beaches of Zanzibar than alpine forests and verdant vistas.

I took a six-hour coach journey from Tanzania’s capital Dar es Salaam to get to Mombo. From there, a tiny, overcrowded minibus wound up to Lushoto — a good base for all sorts of hiking — around craggy stone outcrops and into the lush, darkly green mountains.

Lushoto is at 1,200m but the mountains rise to more than 2,200m, making the air cooler and fresher than almost anywhere else in the country, although the sun is still fierce.

There are actual pine forests, as well as cacti, banana and mango trees — a strikingly bizarre combination for a European visitor. Tall, thin eucalyptus trees stand like silver sentinels. Lushoto retains a German, colonial influence, and has banks, hotels, and a pizzeria, but beyond that this is agricultural territory. Most of the villages are very simple, with farmers living in basic shacks made of mud.

Hiking village-to-village, you wade through rustling fields of corn, around stepped hills of blue-grey cabbages and past local women in colourful kangas taking produce to markets.

My guide, Richard, was from Friends of Usambara Mountains, a tourism centre in Lushoto that helps to support reforestation and educational projects. He was full of information about the landscape and culture — there are three different tribes in the region — not to mention having a keen eye for spotting lime-green chameleons.

Accommodation is basic, but what it lacked in amenities it made up for in character: my second night was spent in a Catholic convent deep in a valley where the hills were soon alive with the sound of hymns and African drumming.

My third night was at Mambo Viewpoint, a new guesthouse of circular huts, balanced atop a cliff. Somehow the views just kept getting better. From here we walked on to the bar at Mambo Cliff Inn for a cooling beer.

I sat on a wooden terrace hanging over the edge of a rocky outcrop. Beneath me, the plains stretched giddily away, red and umber snaked with green-edged rivers, to far-distant rumples in the landscape of teal-green lakes and mountains. In the Usambara mountains I felt like I’d found my own somewhere over the rainbow.


Turkish Airlines ( flies from London to Dar es Salaam via Istanbul for £388 return. Lawns Hotel ( offers doubles from £33 B&B.

Friends of Usambara ( offers individually tailored tours, including food and accommodation, from about £50 per person per day.

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