In a broad arc running 500 miles down the eastern side of Tanzania are seven ancient mountain ranges. This Eastern Arc, as it is known, is the first barrier in East Africa to the moist trade winds of the Indian Ocean. From the rising air fall torrents of warm rain in thunderous storms and lightning displays, and endless weeks of mist and cloud. This has been a pattern for tens of millions of years, creating the oldest rainforests in Africa and amongst the oldest in the world.
These forested islands are surrounded by seas of drier savannas, and their isolation has led to the evolution of the most unique and varied plant and animal life in all of Africa. The fascinating thing about them is how unexplored they are. A completely new species of monkey, the Sanje mangabey was discovered as recently as 1979, and a new species of francolin (partridge family) was first discovered by scientists in 1992 – the Udzungwa Forest Francolin.
The Tanzanian Government acted quickly to save the last and largest of these forests by creating the 1,990sq. km Udzungwa National Park in 1992. The vegetation is absolutely pristine closed canopy forest, with woodland and moorland in some of the surrounding and higher areas. Udzungwa gets a lot of rain and mist and numerous clear rushing streams flow through this rugged forested landscape down to the Kilombero plains far below to the southwest. The altitude range in the Park is from 250–2,576 meters, and remarkably there are parts where almost this entire altitude range has unbroken forest cover, from miombo through the bamboo to lowland and highland forests.
It is a naturalist’s paradise with dozens of unique species across the animal spectrum from insects to reptiles and frogs to birds and primates. Six monkey species live in the forests and woodlands, two of which are found only here (the Sanje Mangabey and the Iringa Red Colobus). There are more than 400 bird species, and thousands of different plant species. Wildlife also includes buffalo, elephant, leopard, forest antelope, warthog, and bush pig. Lion live in the woodlands and upper moorlands but are rarely seen.
When to go
The Udzungwa Mountains are a year-round destination.
Hiking and swimming. Udzungwa has a well-designed network of hiking trails for hill walkers. These range from an hour’s walk (Sonjo hike) to a strenuous 6 day trek along the Lumemo Trail. A popular half day climb takes you to the 170 meter Sanje Waterfall which cascades over a huge rock buttress protruding from the forest canopy and down into a large pool at its base, making a perfect natural swimming pool.
Accommodation within the park is only possible on a camping basis as there are no lodges within the Park. However, the nearby village of Mang’ula has comfortable guest houses with en-suite accommodations at reasonable prices.
Road. To drive from Dar es Salaam, take the Morogoro road and continue for around 4 hours through Chalinze, Morogoro and Mikumi National Park to Mikumi town. In Mikumi town, take a left turn following the signs for Ifakara and Udzungwa Mountains National Park. You pass through the town of Kilombero and cross the mighty Ruaha River to Kidatu, with its hydroelectric power station and Ilovo headquarters. Here the tarmac road ends, and you continue along on a graded dirt road for 24km. Look out for Sanje waterfall on your right when you pass through Sanje Village. You will see the sign for the National Park on your right once you reach the village of Mang’ula. Or An alternative route can take you through Nyerere National Park. This route is newly completed by TANAPA and allows a circuit to be driven from Dar to Selous, on to Udzungwa, then up to Mikumi and back to Dar (or the other way around).
Train. The TAZARA railway from Dar es Salaam to Zambia departs on Tuesdays and Fridays at approximately 2pm. The journey to Mang’ula where the park headquarters is takes 6 – 7 hours. The train is a great way to reach the park: it is comfortable and affordable, with food, drinks, cold beers available. It passes through some wonderful countryside including Nyerere National Park where you might see some wildlife. The train returns from Zambia to Dar es Salaam, passing through Mang’ula on Thursdays and Sundays.
Air. Coastal operate daily flights to/from Udzungwa/ Kilombero to Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar. This flight runs every afternoon and links Udzungwa to the rest of the safari circuit. It is also possible to fly to Mikumi airport using Safari Airlink and drive down the valley to Udzungwa.
The Udzungwas can add a very interesting extension to other destinations in southern Tanzania such as Ruaha, Mikumi and Nyerere National Parks. A road route has been opened through Nyerere National Park to Udzungwa, then up to Mikumi and back to Dar (or the other way around). This is great for an interesting safari road route for visitors from Dar es Salaam.