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Above: The Usambara peak from Kilimanjaro Highway Motel, Tanzania. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Published Saturday Magazine Nation media 1 Feb 2019
Over a thousand kilometres south of Nairobi, the road less travelled is to southern Tanzania to explore Africa’s first and largest wildlife protected area. It is what used to be Selous Game Reserve, part of which has been renamed as Nyerere National Park in 2019. Nyerere, the respected Mwalimu was Tanzania’s founding father.
The entry to East Africa’s largest nation is through Tarakea the border post past Kenya’s Amboseli National Park that’s so green and lush after the December dipole with a herd of 40 giraffes nibbling on the acacia outside the park. It’s an idyllic picture of the Delonix elata in in full bloom of cream-orange flowers.
At the border the dense white clouds part for a few minutes to reveal a sliver of Kilimanjaro’s snowy peak and with passports stamped at the not-busy border offices, we’re officially into the great country.
The drive on Kilimanjaro’s shoulder through a scenic winding road is even greener with rivers gushing down Africa’s tallest massif. We stop for lunch at Marangu, a town that means ‘a place of many rivers’ by a huge white-washed cathedral that faces the tiny one built during the German regime around the 1800s. Banana and coffee farms of the Chagga line the road. It’s a historical town with remnants of colonial architecture where hikers to Kilimanjaro National Park embark to summit Kibo on a trail that boasts stunning waterfalls and moorlands. It’s supposed to be one of the easiest routes.
The landscape changes abruptly as soon as we’re on flat ground. Sisal plantations line the Usambara Mountains that are part of the Easter Arc Mountains dubbed the magical mist mountains that include the Taita Hills in Kenya. They keep us company for a hundred kilometres with the clouds wafting around the ancient peaks that are as old as 20 million years.
Massive baobabs and towering euphorbias straddle the road on red earth. There’s fruit everywhere on the roadside villages with great heaps of jackfruit and mangoes, pineapples dangling like lanterns at the kiosks and cashew nuts. The nighty Pangani cascades over the rocks as the sun begins to set in the town of Korogwe nestled in the girth of the Usambaras.
We spend the night at a roadside motel, Kilimanjaro Highway at the foot of the Usambaras to watch the dawn mist rise and reveal the peaks of the Usambaras and the rice paddies along the Pangani River.
For five centuries Korogwe was an important trading centre for the islanders on Pangani River. Today there’s new Korogwe and old Korogwe with the mighty river flowing between them. With its origins in the mountains of Meru and Kilimanjaro and many tributaries flowing from the ranges of Pare and Usambara, Pangani flows 500 kilometres to drain into the Indian Ocean at the town of Pangani.
The ancients knew of the Pangani River. Claudius Ptolemy the mathematician and astronomer born in Alexandria, Egypt in the year 100 AD had it on his map as River Rhaptus and the city of Rhapta in his work ‘Geography’.
Rhapta is described as Africa’s first metropolis and a wealthy powerful trading hub. In modern times it is famously known as the ‘Lost City of Rhapta’ because it mysteriously vanished, only to reappear now, 1,600 years later in the pages of history after a scuba diver and archaeologists from the University of Dar es Salaam found ruins they think could be it near the island of Mafia.
Old Korogwe is enchanting with a few beautiful houses from the late 19th century. The railway passes through it from Dar es Salaam. New Korogwe is like any modern town with haphazard buildings and busy roads. The youngsters at Kilimanjaro Highway Motel say there’s nothing much in the Usambara mountain. When l tell them about the ‘only found’ kinds of wildlife like the Amani sunbird in the old forests of Usambara they turn to look at the wizened hills with new respect.
The road trip to Nyerere National Park is long and no point rushing it. You need at least ten days for the 2000 kilometre return trip from Nairobi. Tanzanian roads are beautifully tarmacked with no potholes. On average you drive 50 km/h and Tanzanian cops love to stop Kenyan registered cars for any breach of road rules. The good news is that we did not see a single road accident.
Our route was via Dar es Salaam entering Mtemere gate and driving through the park to exit at Matambwe to continue to Morogoro. Tanzania boasts cheap, clean and comfortable hotels.
En route to Korogwe you can break the journey and drive up the Usambara to Amani forest reserve in Lushoto and/ or to Mkomazi national park that is an extension of Tsavo West National Park in Kenya.
Although Kenyans don’t need a visa to enter Tanzania you must have your passport stamped at the border and your car log book deposited for collection on return. That’s a hassle forcing you to return via the same border. Entry into the national parks is very affordable as the East African rate applies.