Few travellers ever make it to Udzungwa National Park, and fewer still follow the B127 further south to Ifakara, the springboard for an adventurous foray into the little known Kilombero Valley and remote town of Mahenge on the mountain of the same name. With three recently discovered bird species endemic to the Kilombero Valley, this untrammelled area is of particular interest to birdwatchers, but – bordering the Selous Game Reserve – it also supports a diverse mammal fauna. Although Ifakara, Mahenge and the section of the Kilombero River along the road between them are all perfectly accessible on public transport, the area is best explored in a private vehicle or on one of the organised excursions recently initiated by a company called Wild Things Safaris (more details below).
The substantial but somewhat unfocused town of Ifakara sprawls from the banks of the Umena River, a tributary of the Kilombero, roughly 100km south of Mikumi by road and about 40km south of the entrance to the Udzungwa National Park. The main local point of interest, about 5km south of the town centre, is the ferry crossing of the Kilombero River, discussed in further detail under the heading Kilombero Valley below. The town is also the site of an important station on the Tazara Railway, which stands isolated in an unconvincing patch of semi-suburbia about 5km from the town centre and 1.5km off the road back towards Udzungwa and Mikumi.
Getting there and away
To reach Ifakara in a private vehicle, follow the main road from Mikumi south past the Udzungwa entrance gate and Udzungwa Mountain View Hotel for about 40km. This stretch of road is not in the greatest condition, so you should allow about an hour for the drive. Regular buses run between Ifakara and Mikumi, passing through Mang’ula (the site of the Udzungwa entrance gate) and generally continuing to Morogoro and Dar es Salaam. All trains along the Tazara line stop at Ifakara, but the slow trains are recommended for wildlife viewing, since they are scheduled to pass through the Selous Game Reserve during daylight. The Ifakara railway station, 5km from the town centre, looked pretty desolate when we passed by recently, but I’d assume that plenty of public transport and possibly taxis arrive there to meet any coming train. If not, the closest accommodation is at the New Sumi Guesthouse about 1km from the railway station along the feeder road to the main Ifakara-Mikumi road.
Where to stay
Ifakara Centre Resthouse (Tel: 023 262 5312; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ihi.or.tz) Well-recommend, this small guest house located in the grounds of the Ifakara Health Institute in the Mblabani area close to St. Francis Hospital offers clean, comfortable en-suite rooms with fan and net for US$25 per person B&B. Similarly priced and just as comfy, is the guest house at St. Francis Hospital (email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org) just across the road.
Budget & Shoestring
Mack Guesthouse Tel: 023 202 5244. Probably the pick of a fairly indifferent bunch of local guesthouses, the Mack Guesthouse charges US$5 for a clean en-suite room with a large double bed, fan, and running cold water. The guesthouse lies on Sokoni Road, a block from the main Mikumi road about 1km back from the bus station, so if you’re arriving by bus from Mikumi ask the conductor to drop you off at the junction (signposted for the Muyamba Guesthouse) before you arrive in the town centre.
Muyumba Guesthouse Tel: 023 261 0159. This clean but potentially noisy guesthouse charges US$2/3 for an adequate single/double using common showers, or US$3 for an en-suite room with a three-quarter bed, all with a fan. It is situated around the corner from the Mack, and the same advice applies for travellers arriving by bus.
Vunjo Guesthouse Spotless en-suite rooms with fan and net, good value at US$4 double. Also situated close to the Mack Hotel, and the same advice applies for travellers arriving by bus.
Goa II Guesthouse The only decent guesthouse in the town centre, this charges US$4 for an en-suite room with a double bed and fan. To get there from the main traffic circle and CCM Monument, follow the Mikumi Road for about 200m, turn right into a side road opposite the main market, and then after another 100m turn right into Uhuru Road.
New Sumi Guesthouse This good value guesthouse lies about 4km from the town centre and 500m from the Mikumi road along the side road to the railway station. All rooms have a double bed, a fan and netting, and they cost US$3 using a common shower or US$4 en-suite.
Flanked by the Udzungwa Mountains to the northwest and the Mahenge Massif to the southeast, the 4,000km2 Kilombero Valley is a low-lying floodplain following the course of the Kilombero River (and various tributaries) before it flows into the Great Ruaha at Kidatu on the western boundary of Selous Game Reserve. Despite being accorded the relatively lowly conservation status of a Game Protected Area, the Kilombero Valley is the largest low-altitude wetland in East Africa, a significance that has recently been acknowledged with a proposal to designate it as Tanzania’s second RAMSAR wetland site. Much of the wetland is seasonal, with the river being reduced to a 100m wide flow for most of the year, but spilling over to become an extensive marsh during the wet season. During years of exceptional rain, this flooding might in places extend for up to 15-20km on either side of the main watercourse. There are also two extensive permanent swamps in the valley, one at Kibasira near the village of Mofu and the other in the far southwest on the Kihansi River.
Until recently accorded scant attention by biologists, and still today practically unknown within the safari industry, the Kilombero Valley is proof positive – should any be needed – of the quite extraordinary natural wealth and biodiversity contained within Tanzania. As a western extension of the greater Selous-Niassa ecosystem, it forms an important dry season feeding ground for local migrants such as elephant, of which up to 5,000 are estimated to congregate in the area at times. Large numbers of hippo, crocodile and buffalo are resident, and local researchers claim that the density of lions exceeds that of the Selous itself. Waterbuck and reedbuck are common on the floodplain, while areas of brachystegia woodland harbour herds of sable antelope and small parties of greater kudu. Most remarkable of all is the high density of the kob-like puku antelope, estimated to stand at around 50,000, about 70% of the total global population.
Kilombero made ornithological headlines in 1986 when a previously undescribed species of weaver was observed in the swamp. This was subsequently named the Kilombero weaver, and is illustrated in all recent East African field guides. Two further new species of bird in the genus cisticola have also been identified, though both await formal description and are as yet not illustrated in any field guide. (For identification purposes, the white-tailed or melodious cisticola is reputedly rather similar to the winding cisticola, while the Kilombero cisticola is allied to the black-lored cisticola and performs a similar duet during the breeding season). All three of these birds are thought to be endemic to the valley, and can be seen with relative ease if you know where to look. Aside from these endemics, the wetland supports an impressive variety of water-associated birds, notably open-billed stork, African skimmer, Madagascar squacco heron, Pel’s fishing owl, half-collared kingfisher and coppery-tailed coucal. Nine species of plant, one amphibian and three reptiles are endemic to the area.
For backpackers, it would be difficult to get deep into the Kilombero Valley, but it’s straightforward enough to take public transport or hire a bicycle out of Ifakara to the ferry jetty on the river 5km south of town. Hippos and crocs are likely to be seen here, as is a variety of birds, possibly even an endemic or two. There are also several boatmen around who will gladly lake you out on the river, in the direction of Selous game reserve, where you stand a better chance of seeing big game – notable elephant – and a wider selection of birds. There’s no fixed rate, but US$15 for a four-hour canoe trip seems to be the starting price. With a private 4×4 vehicle, you could take the vehicle ferry across the river, carry on towards Mahenge for about 20km, and then turn right, arriving after 60km at Mtimbira, where there is an old Lutheran Mission with a guesthouse close to the widest part of the floodplain.
Organised visits to Kilombero can be arranged with a Dar es Salaam-based ecotourism venture called Wild Things Safaris (Tel: 022 261 7166; mobile: 0773 503502; email: email@example.com; http://www.wildthingsafaris.com), owned by a former volunteer who worked in the area for several years. The project is run in collaboration with local communities and will help to provide them with clean drinking water, education and medical assistance, thereby creating a local incentive to protect an environment that is starting to be affected adversely by subsistence poaching and the demands of an ever growing population. Safaris will include a night or two at the fishing village of Mikeregembe on the border of the Selous Game Reserve, where elephants are regularly seen from a specially constructed tree platform. They also involve camping at Mofu, on an animal rich part of the floodplain close to the permanent Kibasira Swamp. Activities include game drives, guided walks, canoe trips, and visits to traditional healers and modern dispensaries. A minimum of five days in recommended.
This remote small town lies about 80km south of Ifakara on the edge of an escarpment on Mount Mahenge, one of the smaller and less explored parts of the Eastern Arc formation. Surrounded by flowering green meadows, Mahenge comes as something of a relief climatically after the muggy lowlands, its breezy highland atmosphere underscored by the large gleaming white Swiss style mission church and attached technical training college. The surrounding countryside could offer some interesting walking possibilities, with an estimated 300km2 of natural forest still surviving on the slopes of the mountain, though nothing has been developed for tourism at the time of writing.
In 1905, the German fort at Mahenge was the site of what is regarded to have been the pivotal battle of the Maji-Maji rebellion. Led by a spirit medium, several thousands of followers of the movement marched onto the fort, practically unarmed, since they believed that the magic water would render them immune to bullet fire. The German soldiers waited until the rebels were within firing range, and then launched a twin machine gun attack on the marching masses, cutting down the deluded warriors row by row until eventually the survivors fled in retreat. Hundreds of rebels were killed or wounded in the attack, and as word of the calamitous engagement tragedy spread around the colony, the rebellion gradually subsided.
The road between Ifakara and Mahenge is not in the greatest condition, and it involves a ferry crossing at the Kilombero River 5km south of Ifakara, so the drive in a private 4×4 will take at least two hours in total. Buses leave regularly between the two towns, sometimes taking some time to fill up with passengers, and the actual journey is three to four hours in duration. There is at least one place to stay in Mahenge, the Original Pogoro Guesthouse (tel 023 262 0386). The McDonald Bar has been recommended for snacks, drinks and local travel advice.
(c) Philip Briggs 2009