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Mysterious mountains of the south
High up on a distant plateau in the southern highlands of Tanzania, perched beside Lake Malawi in the fertile Mbeya region is Tanzania’s newest national park, the Kitulo plateau. There is almost no information for potential visitors to the park and, fow now, a lot of personal research is necessary to pull off the trip. Most visitors won’t have the time to do the trip planning I did, and some visitors might not be able to put up with lack of travel amenities and typical safari-style luxury on offer.
However, if you want to experience a real African adventure into the unknown, and something different from the usual game parks where you are forced to sit through hours in a 4X4 vehicle in search of elusive animals, this might be for you.
Kitulo is primarily a hikers’ and botanists’ paradise, but the place would appeal to anyone who wants to get away from it all and experience remote mountain life with stunning and varied scenery. Like the green, cool mountain area of Lushoto, it would make a great getaway spot in the summer months for those living on the coast in Dar es Salaam or Zanzibar and wanting to escape the heat in December-February. This also happens to be the best time on Kitulo for the spectacular flower bloom season that earned it the name “Serengeti of Flowers” by researchers or “Bustani Ya Mungu” (‘Garden of God’) by locals.
Day 1: My journey began in Zanzibar just after the Zanzibar International Film Festival. I slept at home in Dar es Salaam overnight, and promptly set off at 5.30am. Yes, 5:30am - pay attention as this is the time you’ll need to get up every day to make the trip happen smoothly. Road trips in Tanzania need maximum daylight time. Driving at night is simply not advisable. Distances travelled on known stretches of road often exceed 400km and lesser-travelled and mapped roads can be almost any distance, therefore the odds of completing each stretch successfully with time to spare and explore increase the earlier you wake up.
By 2pm we reached Iringa, where I met with family friends of the Asas Group, transportation and dairy products producers, who helped us ask around and research how to get to the Kitulo plateau. There is no readily available information (even online) to book a guide or room and board in Kitulo, let alone which road drive on to approach the park. We used our time wisely to source this information - after a few phone calls we were finally put in touch with Solo, a guide at Tanzania National Parks , who told us to take the Chimala turnoff on the Iringa to Mbeya road to reach the plateau - and that was that...
Dar-Iringa Road leading to the Southern highlands
Day 2: At 5am, we set off and about 260 kilometres down the Iringa-Mbeya road we reached the Chimala turnoff, which was also signed for the Kitulo plateau National Park. Iringa is fairy temperate in June (for Tanzanians, read COLD) and so is the rest of the Mbeya region, so expect lots of low lying fog on the road in the morning. At times this creates strikingly beautiful scenery, especially as the sun rises.
Ascending up to the plateau begins the first adventure - the driving conditions are tough to say the least. The road can test even the bravest 4X4 drivers as you climb from 1,100m to over 2,000m (6,000ft) to reach the lowest levels of the plateau. Occasionally, you see overloaded buses full of locals coming the other direction and you can only wonder how often they get stuck. I wouldn’t recommend public transport for tourists. One thing is for sure, you’ll need a very reliable and powerful 4X4 vehicle to get up here safely.
At the top, a further 30 minutes’ drive along a nicer road leads to the busiest town on the plateau, Matamba, where the park headquarters is located. We arrived around noon. I had planned to do a tour of the park and descend onto Matema beach that very day, but was quickly given the information I should have been able to obtain before setting off on the trip:
"No, you can’t do that all in one day, the hike itself takes up to eight hours, and Kitulo Park itself take a few hours to just browse… There are at least seven hiking trails to explore in the park itself..."
It became clear that we would have to stay the night up on the plateau and proceeded to check in at Mama Izengo, the local guesthouse in Matamba (there are no fancy hotels). We paid about TSH5,000 (USD3) for the night, excluding meals. Whilst at the park headquarters, I proceeded to check the guestbook. I counted no more than 100 tourists during all of 2010, about half were German or Swiss. The park officials told me that they had seen dramatic rises in numbers in the past few years! Just to put the 100 visitors in perspective, I was the first visitor in the last two weeks. This is not surprising given the park is barely ten years old and is not on the main tourist circuit.
Iringa-Mbeya road – low-lying fog at dawn
The flattest part of the climb to Kitulo plateau on the Chimala turnoff
Mama Izengo Hotel – a local guesthouse where rooms start at USD3 a night
After hiring a guide and paying park fees, we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the park itself, which was even higher in altitude at 3,000 metres. The place is incredibly tranquil and resembles something you’d see in the Scottish highlands with meadows and rolling hills full of bright and unique flowers. I had come in the dry season so the flowers were not in full bloom, especially the unique orchids the park is famous for (these had been eaten by locals or had dried out), but despite that there were enough year-round flowers to see.
Other attractions included waterfalls and small caves to explore. As you wonder around the plateau there is evidence of fresh water everywhere as little streams wind their way across the plateau and down the mountains. I was reminded that the plateau is the ultimate source of water of Lake Malawi, Mtera dam and the mighty Ruaha river that winds through huge areas of Tanzania towards the Indian Ocean. Without the plateau these ecosystems, which support a wide range of life, would not exist.
Rolling hills of Kitulo plateau
Waterfalls within the Kitulo plateau
Walking on the Kitulo plateau
Caves in Kitulo
Day 3: The next day was the highlight of the trip – descending from the plateau onto Matema beach on Lake Malawi. Setting off at 5am again, we picked up two guides including one that was a trainee and another who had done the hike regularly.
A quick note on guides: it is strongly advised to hire one as you do not want to get lost out here - I heard stories of visitors who were stubborn and ended up getting lost for days on the plateau. Phone reception is spotty; for those concerned, Vodacom works best, and Airtel kicks in once you start descending through the Livingstone mountains.
The roads were frosty and temperatures hovered between one to three degrees Celsius at dawn. At times the road led to some spectacular scenes down below where you could see the distant Lake Malawi - after 68km by road we reached the town of Bulongwa. On the way we passed through the park again as day broke to reveal some amazing landscape photo opportunities in the dawn light.
From Bulongwa, I said goodbye to the vehicle to meet me later that day at Matema beach. Gaspa, my driver, had to drive down the plateau and rejoin me at the beach, a distance of at least 100 km to circumvent the mountains. Meanwhile, I was some 2,500m above sea level and would descend through the Livingstone Mountains/Kipengere Range onto Lake Malawi at about 500m. Talk about a short cut... this is a full 2,000m descent over about 11km...
Matamba to Bulongwa Road - temperature 2 degrees Celsius at more than 2,000m above sea level
Village mountain life near Kitulo
Beginning of hike at the edge of Bulongwa - Lake Malawi shore below
As the hike began, I became concerned about the frosty path. Both the guides and myself slipped several times and before long a passer by climbing the path the other way had to cut me a walking stick that I badly needed to help me balance. We walked across knife edge ridges that are not for the faint hearted.
Interestingly I saw more flowers here than I did on the plateau. Some species looked similar but slightly different - further showcasing the amazing biodiversity in the area. The plateau environment quickly gave way to the Livingstone forest - if you have hiked Kilimanjaro one can’t help but be reminded of that hike, especially on the day 2-3 ascent or on the final descent, when the environment is constantly changing as you change altitudes. To me Kilimanjaro is about the sheer rapid ecological zones you transition through quickly.
We saw numerous migratory bird species and at one point spotted a Thomson’s Gazelle that was being shouted at by a group of monkeys protecting their territory – and where there are monkeys and gazelles, there must be leopard! I had to banish the thought and remind myself that leopards mainly hunt at night. I had other things to worry about like navigating the perilous knife edge hiking trail. I was hoping to see the recently discovered and endangered primate species unique to the region, the Kipunji, but no luck this time.
Flowers still present at the top of the Livingstone mountains/Kipengere range
About three hours into the hike, the temperature had risen enough to dry out the frost and make it more safe for hiking. However, unlike many hikes I have been on, the trail did not seem to flatten out - in fact at times it only seemed to be getting steeper. This was alarming for me as my knees and thighs were beginning to give way. In the end the hike was a seven hour continuous downhill at about 15-20% gradient.
The GPS reading later told me I only ascended 300m but descended well over 2,000m. The views give way to even broader spectacular Lake Malawi scenes pretty quickly and then the view of Matema beach, a fishing and tourist town.
The last hour of hiking was the most painful for me as my legs were hurting the most, my pace probably halved and it was incredibly frustrating how steep the trail remained right to the very end. The sun was also strongest at this time overhead and we quickly finished all our water. By around 4pm the sun begun to get weaker and we could hear the sounds of children playing on the lake beach. Some children came up to the lower slopes to collect firewood from the forest.
The hike ends abruptly right in the heart of the village - it is as if you emerged right into the town square or high street and then this gives way right onto the lake. The time it took me was seven hours, whereas the guides had quoted between five to eight hours.
I would estimate that fit hikers who are not afraid of continuous downhill could certainly do it in five hours or less. However, I heard some parties taking up to ten hours - which is alarming given you only have 12 hours of daylight. The guides pointed out to me along the way maybe one or two areas large and flat enough for a camping spot, so that is an alternative to break up the hike but would require bringing your own camping gear and would not be suited for larger or multiple groups at once.
Knife edge ridges along the Livingstone mountains breaking into forest
After the hike I stayed at neighbouring Kyela Resort, about 20km from Matema beach, but visitors could choose to spend more time at Matema beach as it has some notable tourist hotels, not to mention the lake and beach. I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure – the limited infrastructure was made worth tolerating by the barely touched trails and biodiversity that is unique on earth, as well as utter peace and quiet.
The people of Kitulo plateau are very friendly and I had lively conversations that grounded me in the realities of life in the rural Southern highlands - many people are totally self sufficient and reliant only on the mountains.
I was left wondering whether mass tourism would ever reach this area - it is unlikely in the near future so long as the road to access the plateau remains such a perilous one. It’s also bound to be a niche destination appealing to hikers and botanists mainly - right now maybe a third of the visitors are researchers.
I plan to return to see the plateau in full bloom during the rainy season, however here lies the dilemma - the road conditions will be much worse yet the plateau will be even more rewarding in terms of floral display.
The other limiting factor is the lack of decent accommodation. There are plans for the Government-owned dairy farm on the plateau to open up a ranch for horse riding, and hopefully this will be matched with decent accommodation. Camping is a real option here if you have your own gear and allows you to bypass the town and experience the park to full effect without driving in and out.
Given most tourists won’t want to visit just Kitulo, I can see this being a great addition after a safari at nearby Ruaha National Park to end with an active or relaxing week. Rather than drive all the way from Dar you can fly into Ruaha via Coastal Aviation or into Mbeya region.
Emerging out of the Livingstone forest - steep all the way to Matema beach