Leaving the sun drenched white beaches of Zanzibar behind us we continue our journey north west towards the safari lands of the Serengeti. Between us and these iconic National Parks lie some of the continent’s most renowned mountain peaks. The Usambara mountain range is a little known lush corner in the north east of Tanzania. Only minutes after turning off the main road one finds themselves climbing rapidly through a series of thick green forests, with fast running rivers filled with rapids and waterfalls. The temperature drops quickly as you ascend into the misty clouds.
Only 30km’s from the main road, the small hiker’s town of Lushoto is a tiny dot on the map, and the starting point for a maze of trails that run through this stunningly beautiful mountain range. Up here the hiking is made more pleasant with the cooler temperatures and the lack of mosquitos and flies. Rivers full and hearty plunge down sharp drop offs and on a clear day the views are endless. After a full day of trekking the lodges are all welcoming havens with large cozy fireplaces and serving steaming hot drinks.
A few hours more up the road and one enters into the town of Moshi, the entrance to the world-renowned Kilimanjaro National Park. Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa, and the highest freestanding mountain in the world. At nearly 6000m above sea level this snow-capped peak feature in many an iconic African image. Throughout the Moshi area are lodges and trekking offices where one can see the lines of backpacks and porters waiting to escort their clients up this epic track. Whilst it may not be the most technically difficult ascent, this climb is not for the faint of heart, and involves a strenuous climb out of the warm African climate and into the snow. But the views from the top are to die for, and the desire to accomplish a successful summit bring many to this beautiful area.
After tackling the heights of Kilimanjaro, one heads further west to the town of Arusha, the gateway to the world-famous Serengeti and Ngorongoro National Parks. Arusha is a town of great juxtapositions, with high end and expensive venues tucked in amongst the classic African chaos. Expat bars and restaurants serve fantastic meals next door to street markets filled with noise and dust. The color and vibe mixes with the traffic and exhaust fumes to create an intoxicating mish mash of old and new.
Arusha is set on the slopes of Mount Meru, another iconic volcanic peak set inside an animal habitat and National Park. Elephants and other wildlife often mingle with the villagers as they wonder across invisible park boundaries. Monkeys (both the classic Vervet and the more unique Colobus) make their noisy way through the gardens of lodges and homestays. The view of Mount Meru makes a wondrous backdrop to the land of the safari, for those arriving by road and by air, generally staying a night or two before heading into the National Geographic worlds of the parks beyond.
For first comers to Africa, Arusha is a blend of the Africa they have seen on the TV, with its poorer corners, colourful and chaotic markets and crazy driving. For those who are better acquainted with Africa, it provides those small pockets of sophistication and shopping opportunities before venturing out into the wilds of the parks. Either way, it is a fun and adventurous arena amidst the backdrop of the stunning peaks of Meru and Kilimanjaro, and a great way to begin a safari experience.