The scenic Rondo Plateau is among the most extensive and highest massifs in the southeast of Tanzania, rising to an altitude of 900m about 60km inland of Lindi and 15km north of the Masasi road. The upper slopes of the mountain support large areas of semi-deciduous hardwood forest, most of which is protected within the Rondo Forest Reserve. Like nearby Litipo, this forest received scant attention from biologists prior to the late 1980s, but initial surveys have revealed it to be an important biodiversity site. One reason for this is that while Rondo is essentially a typical coastal forest, it contains significant elements more characteristic of montane forest, and hosts more than 100 plant species found nowhere else, one of the densest concentrations of endemic plants in east Africa. A variety of monkeys and small mammals are present in the Rondo Forest Reserve, even perhaps the occasional elephant, and it is the type locality for the Rondo dwarf galago, a primate species first discovered in the 1990s by Dr Simon Bearder.
The first serious ornithological study of Rondo, undertaken in 1988 by Holsten, Bräunlich and Huxham, demonstrated it to be of great interest to birdwatchers. The forest supports a similar but broader range of coastal forest birds to Litipo, of which the more conspicuous species include crested guineafowl, Livingstone’s turaco, green coucal, Narina trogon, little spotted woodpecker, African broadbill, forest batis, crested flycatcher and forest weaver. Unlike any other forest in southeast Tanzania, however, these birds occur alongside forest species more normally associated with higher altitudes, for instance barred cuckoo, green-headed oriole, white-chested alethe, black-fronted bush shrike and Uluguru violet-backed sunbird. Rondo is the only known east African breeding site for the endangered spotted ground thrush, the most important breeding site in east Africa for the localised east coast akalat, and it harbours a significant breeding population of Angola pitta. A form of green barbet that is apparently restricted to Rondo might well prove to be an endemic species once molecular analysis is complete. For a fuller account of Rondo’s avifauna, the report of the 1988 expedition is posted online (http://www.ecology.uni-kiel.de/~bettinah/rondo.htm).
The extent of closed canopy forest on Rondo has been estimated variously at between 18km2 and 50km2, with the lower figure likely to be the more accurate, and it probably constitutes the third-largest remaining stand of primary coastal forest anywhere in Tanzania. Designated as a forest reserve since colonial times, much of the forest has been poorly protected in reality. The greatest damage occurred in the 1950s, when British contractors were permitted to fell an estimated 20km2 of pristine forest to make way for exotic plantations. Commercial logging was suspended in the early 1990s, more as a result of the poor local infrastructure than of any conservation concerns, though some small-scale logging still occurs. Despite this, the damaged forest is regenerating in many areas, and the immediate threat to the established forest is probably negligible. All the same, the closed canopy forest covers a fraction of its extent in pre-colonial times, and it remains vulnerable to illegal burning and a possible resumption of misjudged forestry practices in the long term.
In 1960, Trevor Huddlestone, the renowned anti-apartheid activist and Bishop of Masasi – later to acquire the rather wonderful title of ‘Archbishop of the Indian Ocean’ – purchased the Steele Brothers logging company at Rondo. Huddlestone converted the logging concern into a mission, and was responsible for the construction of the octagonal church with magnificent stained-glass windows that dominates it today. The resthouse lies within the mission grounds, and the older priests are a welcoming bunch. If you do visit Rondo, you might want to ask about a seldom visited rock art site that was discovered and described in the 1940s. Writing in a 1950 edition of Tanganyika Notes & Records, rock art expert H A Fosbrooke noted that the roughly 3m2 panel is ‘on an overhanging rock’ and includes two sets of pictures. The older ones ‘depict hunting scenes, a mass Ngoma (dance), and an elephant with calf’ while ‘later date paintings are superimposed and show animals being killed by hunters’. The older paintings are reputedly badly faded, but the hunting scenes are well preserved.
Getting there and away To get to Rondo from Lindi, first follow the surfaced Mtwara road south to Mnazi Moja (Mingoyo) junction, then turn right onto the surfaced road towards Masasi. The junction for Rondo is at the village of Nyengedi, which lies about 30km past Mnazi Moja, between the larger settlements of Narunyu and Mtama. If you turn right at the junction and follow a rougher unsurfaced road for another 17km you’ll reach the mission after 45–60 minutes, depending on how recently it last rained. Travellers dependent on public transport should have no problem getting as far as Nyengedi – any vehicle travelling between Mnazi Moja and Masasi will drop you there – but there’s no regular public transport from Nyengedi to Rondo, and hitching might entail a seriously long wait at the junction. The Old Boma in Mikindani offers overnight trips to the plateau at US$120 per person for two people or US$90 per person for three or four people, inclusive of 4×4 transport, accommodation, guides, meals and hot beverages.
Where to stay
Although the Rondo Plateau sees very few tourists, a small resthouse can be found 20 mins’ walk from the edge of the forest reserve in the Rondo Anglican Mission and Theological College founded by Bishop Trevor Huddlestone. The resthouse was formerly the plantation manager’s house, and although the décor is slightly faded, it’s an unexpectedly comfortable set-up, with a great view over a steeply eroded canyon. Two bedrooms are available at US$5 pp. You should bring all food and drinks with you.
(c) Philip Briggs 2009