Katesh to Karatu via Mbulu


A series of back roads leads northward from Katesh to the so-called ‘safari junction’ of Karatu, a small town situated in the crater highlands along the main road connecting Lake Manyara National Park to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. This route could, at a push, be driven in about five hours, or more comfortably over a full day allowing for a few stops. Using public transport, it would probably take two or three days to cover comfortably. Aside from its logistical significance in connecting the Hanang area to the northern safari circuit, this route passes through a varied and often very scenic landscape, ranging from the Rift Valley floor and escarpment, to several pretty lakes, to the wooded highlands around Mbulu. Roads in the Mbulu area are pretty good in the dry season, but they can become quite waterlogged during the rains when even 4×4 vehicles might fail to get through.

Two alternative routes can be used. The shorter route involves heading northeast along the Babati road for about 50km to Ndareda, where a left turn leads directly via Dongobesh and Mbulu to Karatu. The second and more interesting option, which involves heading northwest to Lake Basuto, then continuing on to Dongobesh to connect with the road to Mbulu and Karatu, is recommended. Using the second route, it should be noted that there is little or no direct public transport between Basuto and Mbulu, so you may need to board the daily Katesh-Basotu-Haidom bus service, then overnight at a guesthouse in Haidom before continuing towards Mbulu. At least one bus daily travels between Haidom and Arusha via Dongobesh, Mbulu and Karatu, and there is also some local transport along the Haidom-Dongobesh, Katesh-Dongobesh and Dongobesh-Mbulu stretches.

The two routes converge at Dongobesh, or rather about 2km north of Dongobesh, where the road from Basuto joins the road from Ndareda to Mbulu. A ramshackle but quite traditional settlement set on the bank of a small seasonal river, Dongobesh is scarcely worth a conscious diversion, but it is some interest to backpackers as a local public transport hub. A couple of cheap local lodges are dotted around town, of which the Gerawin Guesthouse looks about the best bet.

Less than 500m west of the road between Dongobesh and Mbulu, next to the village of Kwanzali, lies the moderately sized, kidney-shaped Lake Tlawi. The reedy verges of this pretty lake support large numbers of birds, most visibly squacco heron and red-knobbed coot, while the locally uncommon maccoa duck and great crested grebe are sometimes seen on the open water. The lake also harbours a resident pod of hippo, which can often be seen by walking to stretch of shore closest to the road.

Far more substantial and attractive than Dongobesh, Mbulu is set in a moist wooded valley encircled by the tall mountains of the Mbulu Highlands, essentially a southern extension of the so-called Crater Highlands around Ngorongoro. The tallest of these mountains can be climbed as a day excursion from the town, offering great views across Lake Manyara and the Rift Valley, and passing through patches of montane forest rattling with birds. The town itself, an agricultural sprawl over leafy slopes emanating from a muddy central grid of roads, doesn’t quite match its lovely setting, but it does possess a rustic small-town charm. The old German Boma, built in 1905, is still in use as an administrative office, and several other buildings appear to date to the British colonial era.

Public transport runs from Mbulu to Karatu throughout the day, but if you want to spend the night, there’s no shortage of undistinguished cheap guesthouses in and around the bus station to keep you amused. More appealing than any of these – or quieter, anyway – is the Mbulu Gardens Guesthouse, which charges US$1.50 for acceptable doubles with nets, and lies opposite the football pitch on the Katesh side of the town centre. A notch or three up, the DRDP Resthouse charges US$8/10 single/double for semi-detached en-suite suites with running water, netting and a sofa. Situated in wooded grounds about 1km out of town along the Katesh Road, the resthouse is poorly signposted but easy enough to find, since it lies 100m past the prominently marked police station, though on the opposite side of the road. If you stay at the DRDP Resthouse, there’s an equipped self-catering kitchen, where you can cook up some of this fertile area’s fresh produce. Otherwise, the Riverside 2000 Bar & Restaurant, about 200m downhill from the bus station and market area, serves adequate but greasy chicken and chips washed down with lukewarm beers.

(c) Philip Briggs, 2009


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