Udzungwa Mountains National Park
Southern Circuit, Tanzania
The drive to Udzungwa is green and lush, twisting through a valley between undulating hills bathed in afternoon sunlight. We crisscross over a narrow, brown river several times, with mini-rapids coursing through the rocks. The evidence of flowing water gives me hope that tomorrow's waterfall hike will be a productive one. Fields of sugarcane plantations pop up in between villages, and the streets are flooded with people walking, cycling and motoring between them. Once again we pass over the Great Ruaha River, which is still as powerful as my previous sightings.
As we near Udzungwa the road turns to dirt, and it's not a friendly surface. Felix doesn't appear to notice, powering ahead as if we are not being shaken up like a well-mixed cocktail. I'm convinced we will spin out of control or hit one of the countless speed bumps at high speed, but incredibly we make it through unscathed. I look down as much as possible to calm my nerves.
Twiga Hotel is an oasis in a dusty jungle. It's modern, neat and well-kept - I did not expect this after seeing the state of the villages we passed through. The kind manager shows me to my simple but pleasant room, overlooking a plain garden. The most important thing though, is that they have the trifecta: WiFi, alcohol, and hot water (importance not necessarily in that order). I want to hit all three at once, but I decide my initial priority is to clean off. This is the first hot shower I've had in a week (I'm really over the cold ones), and it actually ends up being too hot. With only one tap I don't have much of a choice in the temperature. Just like with a cold shower, it takes some time before I can force my whole body under the faucet. After a vigorous scrubbing to remove the dirt from every pore, I am ready to embrace the internet and the bar.
Disappointingly, alcohol options are limited. In the end I settle for a local white spirit called K-Vant mixed with 7-Up. It's not great, but it does the job. While downing the K-Vant, I scroll through the usual email and social media and find that I haven't missed anything in the last three days. Apparently the physical world continues to spin, even when I'm separated from the online world. Danny, regrettably, is already asleep so we can't chat, but I am relieved to see there are no changes to my flights or Hong Kong's entry requirements under Covid-19.
Several people occupy the lounge chairs in the bar, but I suspect they either work at the hotel or know the manager. In the dining room I am alone, where I eat the staple of rice, vegetable stew, spinach and fruit. My taste buds are craving for the flavours of a different cuisine. Once I have finished it's more K-Vant, more internet, then bed.
When I peer outside this morning, all I see are dark grey clouds hanging low over the mountains. I've had amazing weather this week, but it seems like my luck might have changed today. Which is not ideal, because this is the one and only day I'll be hiking.
I am picked up in a modern-looking van by Gilbert and a new driver, Abedi. As it's not a four-wheel drive we can't travel fast down the unpaved road, but it is a million times more comfortable than the previous vehicles.
Abedi drops us at the Udzungwa Mountains National Park main gate, where we register and I meet my guide for the hike. He is accompanied by what I guess is a trainee guide. I'm now up five and a half guides, four drivers and three cars for the week. It's a little more than the one guide/driver and one cook I had for the Northern Circuit.
While we wait for the payment officer to turn up, the guide shows me around the Information Centre. He points out various places of interest on a large map, pictures of animals we might see (mostly monkeys, birds and an elephant shrew), and skulls of animals that have been found in the park. Just one elephant molar is the size of my head.
Once payment is sorted we drive 10km down the road to the start of the trail for the Sanje Falls walk. The entrance is not marked in any way, which I guess prevents out-of-towners from trekking without first paying at the gate. The touts know where it is though, and as soon as I step out of the car a local man tries to sell me a walking stick. No thanks.
The hike starts by heading straight up a hill, in between local houses and free-range chickens. There isn't much privacy for the occupants or the birds. A few minutes later we hit the official entrance point (which I never would have found by myself), after which the gradient continues to climb steeply via a series of switchbacks. The rainforest is thick and verdant, a pleasant change from the dry flora of the safari parks. Before we commenced, I mentioned to the guide that I prefer to walk fast. He graciously obliges, setting a solid pace that has my heart pumping for the first time since Kilimanjaro.
During the initial section we stop at signposted trees, where the guide describes how each plant is used in both traditional medicine and to produce everyday goods. This isn’t really a topic I am fascinated by, but I am intrigued by a teak tree that I'm told is used to make lipstick. I look at the guide like he's crazy. He then pulls off one of the green leaves and crushes it in his fingers. To my surprise an intense red pigment appears that could definitely be the shade of a garish lipstick.
The botany lesson finishes after five minutes. I think he can sense that this is not an area of interest for me.
The guide's English is fantastic, possibly the best of all the guides this week. I can clearly understand him and him me, allowing us to have lengthy conversations. It makes a huge difference to the experience when you can communicate with the expert. The only thing I can't work out is his name, despite asking him to repeat it several times.
Partway up the soil changes to a reddish chocolate brown, unlike anything I have seen before. Leaf litter carpets the ground, but the surface is dry and easy to walk on. After fighting the unstable gravel for a week on Kilimanjaro, I'm grateful there are no loose rocks here to slide on.
It doesn’t take long to reach the Sanje Falls viewpoint and I am blown away by its size, even though it is all the way across the valley. It drops down the side of a mountain over several sections, and the amount of water pouring down is purely staggering. The guide tells me that water flows year round - I struggle to comprehend how much water that actually is. I'm eager to continue on to see it up close.
Steps have been cut into the earth on the following hill, which are lined with thin trunks and branches for stability. The sharp incline is relentless, and at times I find I'm climbing up knee-high stairs. The more challenging it becomes, the more I love it.
A Western couple pass me coming down the hill, completing a multi-day hike with a guide, ranger and porter. I wouldn't mind spending a few days exploring these mountains, especially when there's a good chance of close wildlife encounters (mainly primates, elephants and elephant shrews).
An hour after starting out we reach the first stage of the highest section of waterfall. I stand in front of a short drop, from where the water flows around me then over the edge of the rocks, down to an unseen floor below. It feels as though I'm in an infinity pool. Gazing out all I see are hazy views over flat sugarcane fields, which isn't all that exciting.
A few minutes' walk brings me to the second stage, where I come face to face with a booming, 10-15m high cascade. I am surrounded by a deep green forest and the whole scene is picture-perfect. The guide informs me that no swimming is allowed here due to the force of the water and the sharp rocks hidden underneath the surface, but I was never going to be tempted to jump into the cold water on a chilly morning.
One last hike takes me to the third and final stage. This waterfall is twice the height of the previous one, and also stunning, but it's not quite as powerful. I'm told I can swim here, although to me it doesn't seem any safer. I spend half an hour across the three stages, but I would have stayed here all day if time wasn't a factor.
Walking back down to the first stage we pass by a picnic table, and the guide asks if I would like to eat my packed lunch. It's 10.50 a.m. Umm, no thanks.
On the descent we walk past another couple also completing the day hike, accompanied by female guides. I wasn't expecting to see anyone today, but it's been busier than several parks I have visited on this trip. It's also the first time I've seen female tour guides in Tanzania.
Halfway down the guide points out a black and white colobus monkey in the tree above us. It is so high up and obscured by branches that I can barely make it out. We must have frightened it as it moves lightning quick, jumping from one limb to the next. It is impossible to capture in a photo.
Next we detour down to the base of the falls, where I'm greeted with a multi-tiered spectacle that's so ginormous it's difficult to fit the whole scene into one shot. Sanje Falls definitely beats any waterfalls I've seen in Hong Kong (and I’ve seen a lot).
I'm usually cautious on the descents but the surface is so firm that I'm confident I could run down the majority of it. Paradoxically, though, hiking down ends up taking longer than hiking up. In a complete turnaround from our speedy ascent, the guide drops off the pace, forcing me to do the same. He continually glances around, searching for monkeys, slowing down progress even further. It pays off, however, as right before the end he spots another one, the Iringa red colobus monkey. It is endemic to the area and notoriously difficult to find. From the brief half-view through the leaves I doubt whether I could pick it out of a lineup (lucky I have a powerful zoom). There are 11 non-human primates found in the Udzungwa Mountains, and in the end I only manage a fleeting glimpse of two.
Returning to the start point, three hours after we started out, I'm led past souvenir stands, displays of iconic African artwork and fresh coconuts. I politely decline each one, keen to hit the road for the long journey to Dar Es Salaam.
My packed lunch is a veg stew, spinach and fries but, for the second time this week, I'm not given any cutlery. The stew is mostly comprised of green peas in a wet, oily sauce, which really isn't ideal finger food. I munch on a few fries before packing it up again.
It doesn't take too long to return to Mikumi, where we stop here for a couple of odd jobs. One of these is getting me a spoon. We then take the highway through Mikumi National Park yet again, but this time we speed through. Giraffes, impala, baboons, zebras and wildebeest all make an appearance beside the road. One final mini-game drive to finish off the tour.