Walking and trekking
Kilimanjaro is the first thing most people thing of when the subject of Tanzania as an outdoor destination arises, and rightly so: Africa’s highest mountain is an obscenely glorious lure to anyone who has mountaineering hankerings or wants to get one of the Seven Summits scratched intotheir boots. But glance at a map of Tanzania and it suddenly becomes clear that Kili – secreted in extreme north east – is merely the fairy on this huge country’s Christmas tree, as Tanzania is rammed with other attractions just as illustrious. Indeed, some of Africa’s most famous natural wonders lie within Tanzania’s borders, making it indisputably the number one African country to visit in your lifetime.
Walking wise, you are spoilt. Kili is a stunning and utterly unique mountain, rising out of the grizzled, giraffe-strewn savannah with the subtlety of a mushroom cloud. Kili is unique for a dozen reasons; it’s a volcano, sitting on the African Rift, which is slowly pulling east Africa apart. It’s also one of the highest freestanding mountains on earth, and is magnetic to trekkers as it is, most definitely, a walk – besides a stern constitution, excellent fitness and the psychological ability to push yourself when altitude is making your world hurt, the ability to hill-walk is about the only extra skill you’ll need to get up it. Its setting – amidst an otherwise flat world of desert, in the heart of Africa – makes any ascent to its summit a transcendent physical and spiritual experience which frequently leaves summiteers weeping uncontrollably at the top. But don’t let that put you off: the trek usually takes 6-8 days, and travels through savannah, jungly slopes, creepy volcanic formations and onto the fabled glacier ice cap, and is highly recommended. Packages are run by most UK trekking companies. Inevitably, some (usually delusional) people sniff at Kilimanjaro as an over-commercialised tourist tramp; this be your view, there is another large hill 50 miles across from it which is often used as an acclimatisation trek for those on extended trips to the area. Mount Meru (4,566m) is a blast-scarred, horseshoe-shaped volcano which takes an arguably more scenic and less straightforward route than Kili, and has the advantage of being much less walked and far cheaper. It’s a very primal mountain to climb - exacerbated by its setting - and is a good option if Kili isn’t your thing.
Further west, another fine place to walk is the Crater Highlands, a verdant chain of mountains and volcanoes which include the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and a sprawl of Masai tribal through the most extraordinary scenery in Tanzania. Hiking safaris take visitors from the tempestuously volcanic Ngorongoro Crater to the foot of the unique Ol Donyo Lengai 2878m – the astonishing sacred mountain of the Masai. As much as a mountain can, this looks like an ancient skeleton, and is an active volcano, though it can be climbed. What is remarkable about this mountain is that is spits out a lava which, instead of fiery, molten basaltic lava, is a peculiar blend of potassium and sodium which is black, comparatively low temperature and quick to weather – in essence, this volcano erupts carbon. Elsewhere in Tanzania, further highlights for the walker include the area around Tukuyu, near Livingstone’s fabled Lake Malawi, in the area of the country known as the Southern Highlands. The Mahale Mountains National Park is on another famously beautiful lake, Lake Tanganyika, and has some beautiful walking, as does the Eastern Arc range, which rises above the Masai steppe throughout the east of the country. But the real prize in Tanzania for adventurers is the Udzungwa National Park: a lost world of ancient 2,500m mountains, peculiar mammals such as the Colobus (a type ofprimate), jungle, steppe, hundred-foot trees, waterfalls, plateaux and grassland. This area is Africa at its most verdant and colourful, and despite an excellent network of trails, this area has still not been fully explored for the many species unique to it. The park itself – and this is the kicker – is only accessible on foot, and most approach from Mikumi. Outdoor-wise, if you want a place to witness where humankind came from, watch the earth being made, see wander through landscapes unlike anywhere else and bag a seven summit to boot, Tanzania is tough to beat.
As mentioned, there is a lot to see in Tanzania. If you have an interest in the (occasionally unsavoury) Victorian exploration of Africa, you will be a gibbering wreck after looking at a map of the country. In the north lies Lake Victoria, hewn into legend as the focus – along with Tanzania’s other great lakes, Tanganyika and Malawi - of much of the confusing, mishap-strewn efforts of explorers Livingstone, Stanley, Burton and Speke. Victoria is the second largest freshwater lake in the world, and is a magnet for birdwatchers and fishing enthusiasts. Rubondo Island National Park is a magnificent area to chill out. Down south, the sinuously gigantic Lake Malawi follows the line of the Great African Rift – demonstrated by the Livingstone Mountains running alonsgside and plunging straight into the lake at some points – and is very deep: the lake’s surface lies just under 500m above sea level, but in the north reaches a depth of 700m, demonstrating the enormity of this rift fault. Malawi is stunning as a lakeshore destination, with beautiful golden beaches, rich culture and opportunities for watersports. The world’s most famous wildlife preserve is also in Tanzania, the legendary Serengeti National Park, which is bigger than Wales (by a third) and plays host to one of nature’s greatest spectacles – the migration of two million wildebeest – and their relentless tracking by what seems to be everything that was born with teeth and a predatory instinct. Happily, this migration coincides with the prime trekking season of December – March, and can be observed from campsites in the Ndutu or Kusini safari areas within the park. And if you’re in the mood for something more sedate and quintessentially exotic, go to Zanzibar which – in a scene with which its name has become synonymous – is a palm-dotted, sandy Tropicana of white sand, turquoise water, rickety piers, little boats with triangular sails and very friendly people.
Lake Victoria is the source of the Nile. TRUE. Well, in part: it is the source of the longest branch of the Nile, the White Nile, which also has other lesser sources in Rwanda. The Blue Nile starts at Lake Tana in Ethiopia.
David Livingstone received his famous greeting from Henry Morton Stanley near the Livingstone Mountains, which now bear his name in reference to the event. FALSE: Stanley greeted the ailing Livingstone in the town of Ujiji, on the Tanzanian shores of Lake Tanganyika. Many historians doubt whether Stanley – who was a well-known self-promoter – ever uttered the line “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”
Kilimanjaro is an inactive volcano. TRUE: although gas is still emitted from the volcano and it is estimated that molten magma lies a mere 400m below the surface in some places, there is no history of recent eruption. There is a possibility the mountain could re-activate though – the presence of gas and magma confirm that it is merely inactive, not extinct.
Must see and do
- Visit Zanzibar – you’re in the country, so why the hell not? Even if it’s just to have a drink and say you’ve been there. www.zanzibar.net
- Go safari the Serengeti takes up a huge chunk of the north, lies in the same arc as Kilimanjaro and Meru, so don’t miss out. www.serengeti.org
- Walk into the Udzungawa Mountains primeval park teeming with life and excellent walking opportunities for the adventurer. www.tanzaniaparks.com