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July 4, 2013 / samwilson60

Mountains, mountains and more mountains

After a morning dip we hit the road, or rather that same disastrous gravel track, up to Tanga this time for a mediocre wheel fix (they missed a hole) and some fried maize meal. From Tanga we’d been planning to take a back route into the Usumbara mountains but this was apparently ill-advised so we backtracked to Korogwe and took a more major route up. The checkpoint just before leaving the main road was quite amusing – the guy seemed to want to fine Sam for driving with “open” shoes but he was a little shaken by our request to see the offence in writing and was distracted for long enough for Sam to put the back straps on his sandals. He looked as relieved as we were that he didn’t need to fine us after all and we turned off into the mountains before his mates could have a go.

Within minutes of entering the Usumbara, we realised they were much more densely populated than expected. It was beautiful but there was barely anywhere even to stop to admire the view, and what places there were had been claimed by villages or errant children. Still, it was an awesome drive and eventually we found a layby (outside of a hairpin bend) big enough to park and sleep on. It was stunning and cold enough to sleep in the truck. Without the tent we went almost unnoticed, or as close as it gets, and after some long-neglected Pass the Pigs we slept miraculously on our mountainside perch.

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After surprisingly few visitors, we set off again through village after beautiful village. We were having so much fun on our little mountain jaunt but knew we’d struggle to camp any more wild than the first night. As a result we wanted to make it to a farm-come-campsite we’d had recommended but did an extra loop to get there, to take in as much of the mountains as we could on the way.

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The farm has been rebranded a ‘biodiversity reserve’ but it still offered camping and the added bonus of a ‘cheese emporium’. Our evening was mainly spent marvelling at how much noise a lone hornbill can make but we also discussed our plans for the morrow. The owners of the farm were dubious about our being able to get out the north side of the mountains – it was apparently a particularly treacherous pass – but they had never driven it and sounded slightly melodramatic about the state of what we’d already seen, so we were in the market for a second opinion. Everyone agreed we could at least make it up to Mambo, and from there we could either down the pass behind or loop back south to an impossibly but undeniably deserted river perfect for camping by (possibly the only real wild camp to be had in the Usumbara). Both were such appealing options, on setting off we almost couldn’t decide which we’d prefer.

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On the way up to Mambo, we shared a moment admiring the view and agreed that all this day needed to be perfect was a chameleon sighting (two, three or soft horned, we weren’t fussy). You can doubtless imagine our glee when, within minutes of restarting, Sam made an emergency stop. Not only had we found a chameleon, we hadn’t run him over either (and more impressively still, nor did the motorbike that followed)!

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Before we knew it, and without running over a single chameleon, we were in Mambo, on the edge of an escarpment looking down the back of the mountains.

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The views were astonishing but just getting to the lodge to find out about the northbound pass was quite an ordeal for both the Tinker Beast and us. Once there and with refreshment, we cautiously enquired about the pass, not wanting to sound naïve or crazy. The response was unnervingly blasé – as long as we weren’t scared of heights/drops in all directions, we’d be fine. They looked like they’d driven it once or twice, and we were too curious about the precipitous drops not to check them out for ourselves, so we finished our cokes and were on our way (stuck halfway down at dusk being a twist we knew we could do without).

The pass was precisely as advertised – outside the corners the going really wasn’t that bad but it was precipitous and there were half a dozen very mangled, very steep hairpins. Awesome fun!

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We popped out the bottom into a sandy river valley full of the usual spikey shrubs but with tantalising clearings here and there – perfect for slipping into to camp. Unfortunately it was still only lunchtime and far too hot to enjoy, so we carried on, growing ever more grateful that the riverbeds were all dry. The track would have been cut off in various places if the rivers had been flowing, and that’s before we even got to the “bridge”.

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On the other side of the main river we were confronted with a village and no obvious main drag through or round. We aborted our first route at a particularly dodgy gulley only to then end up stuck the wrong side of a stream. According to the map the track was the other side but we could see no sign of it so continued along the cycle path. It was in a better state than most but about a foot narrower than we needed. The Tinker Beast made it through with only a cable tie or two ripped off the roof rack and possible a few more scratches indiscernible from all the rest.

Without drawing too much of a crowd, we rejoined the track we should almost certainly have been on all along and promptly found ourselves the wrong side of a closed barrier. We’d been half expecting a gate and some discussion about our intentions, driving as we were just alongside a national park. The guy manning the barrier looked puzzled but said nothing. He opened the gate hesitantly, seemingly not sure whether he was supposed to let us through or not, but let us through he did.

We’d been meaning to pitch camp before climbing into the next mountain range but extensions of the village we’d just passed were still sprawling around us and, from a distance, the Pare mountains looked much more enticing and less developed than the Usumbara. We were quite confident of finding a quiet corner somewhere up there, until we noticed we were climbing alongside power lines, a sure sign of habitation.

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When the power lines petered out so did the road maintenance. But the villages came thick and fast still and, this being another mountainside, there were very few places outside the villages to even get off the track. We climbed to nearly 1500 metres before getting to our second footbridge, this time (just) outside a village and with space to park more or less alongside the track. Despite the fairly constant passers-by, we knew we’d found our spot for the night. In the morning we’d discuss the wisdom of carrying on (and the alternatives to the footbridge) but for now all we cared about was getting a fire on and making some epic cheese on toast 🙂

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The next morning, for no known reason, we got off to an uncharacteristically stroppy start. It was silly (we both know better than to say anything before the other has at least been for a wee) and we’d soon made up but it left us wondering whether we were in the right frame of mind to tackle unfamiliar and clearly underused mountain tracks. We soon rallied and having realised how easy it would be to ford the river agreed we couldn’t turn back now. And good job too – within 5km of camp we’d emerged from the undergrowth to find a wide and freshly graded road.

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It was all too easy and we had to try hard not to get complacent, but everyone we asked said it remained fine and they were right – if anything it was better than in the supposedly more developed Usumbara.  Coming back down the mountain we saw our first Trumpeter Hornbills and with that completed our scenic loop through the Eastern Arc.

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2 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Peter Cullen / Jul 5 2013 7:30 am

    Great adventure driving and some fantastic rewards!

  2. leeleetee / Jul 5 2013 8:00 am

    ahoy lovely folk! sorry for the radio silence. boring boring work been keeping me busy. love the minutes of pure escape i get from reading these installments though 🙂 especially the juxtapositions: the mountain pass with precipitous drops is “awesome fun”, but it’s the cheese on toast that’s “epic”!
    love it! hugs all round you fabulous things you xoxoxo

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