Independent Hiking Around Lushoto

by Elizabeth

Having recovered from our Kili descent and washing much (but not all) of the safari dust out of our clothes during our rest day in Arusha, we were faced with the question of where we would go next. The obvious option — what nearly everyone suggested and most tourists were doing — would have been to head to Zanzibar. The problem was that we sort of suck at beaches (we burn and get bored way too easily), we’d heard mixed reviews on the scuba diving options, and at this point in our trip we weren’t interested in many of the attractions (coffee and spice tours). Also, Zanzibar isn’t exactly known for being budget friendly and our climb and safari were both budget busters. What we really wanted to do was go for a hike. Surprising, I know.

Hiking independently in Tanzania presented many of the same problems that we ran into in Bosnia (lack of information and infrastructure), with the added challenge that guides are required in many of the parks, park fees can be exorbitant, and I guess lions that might eat us. We were also limited by our reliance on public transit and had no interest in renting a car (they drive on the other side of the road, we don’t drive stick, four wheel drive is necessary for most places we’d want to go, etc.). Based on our limitations, our guide book and Google both suggested that we head to the town of Lushoto, although it was still unclear to what extent we might need to hire a guide.  Lushoto is located in northeast Tanzania off of the road between Arusha/Moshi and Tanga and is considered one of the gateways to the Usambara mountains.  It is the base for several popular multi-day hikes in the mountains between villages, as well as various day hikes.  

Getting There: There are two main options for getting to Lushoto from Arusha (or Moshi) by bus. First, there are two direct buses per day — through Chaikito or Fasaha, both theoretically taking around 6 hours and departing at about 6am from Arusha.  We heard that this should cost around 17,000 tsh.  Alternatively, one can take an express bus headed towards Dar es Salaam, get off at Mombo (~25,000 tsh, 5 hours) and then transfer to a dalla dalla heading up towards Lushoto (~5000 tsh, 1 hour). Upon advice from our hotel in Arusha, we opted for the direct bus to avoid the need to transfer and took a taxi to the bus station the evening before to book our early morning tickets. Our taxi driver helped us locate the Chaikito bus company at the station, which honestly would have been difficult on our own as it wasn’t clearly signed and we would have been harassed (even more) by touts. In perhaps the most honest response to our protestation that the quoted bus price was too high  (he quoted 25,000 tsh), the ticket salesman responded — “but you’re a foreigner, you pay more.”  We ended up paying 20,000 tsh, which I’m sure still had plenty of the “foreigner tax” included.

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Not the worst bus we’ve been on, but not particularly comfortable for an 8 hour ride.  It got a little crowded as we neared Lushoto.

The bus ride was long. It’s unclear if we made the correct decision to take the direct bus given the number of stops and overall discomfort of the bus. I think the transfer process would have been relatively easy had we tried, without too much additional cost.  As we would later learn, the express bus also would have likely been much more comfortable. We arrive in Lushoto at around 2pm (8 hours later!!) and made our way to our apparently empty hotel (which now felt like a trend after our experience in Moshi).

Irente Viewpoint Hike: Our first full day in Lushoto, we headed out to visit the Irente Viewpoint, which we understood to be one of the more popular walks in the area. We opted not to hire a guide since we were able to locate the viewpoint on our GPS and it seemed easy enough to go ourselves. A guide for the route would have run is about $15 each (including a boxed lunch… never again), and it just didn’t seem worth it for a short ~12km walk, even if a guide would have taken us on smaller paths for part of the way.

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We saw this little guy on the road on our way up to Irente Viewpoint (my hand for size reference).

The walk ended up being straightforward with our GPS. Yes, we were on the road the whole time, but it was sparsely traveled by vehicles and a pleasant overall route.  We passed through a couple small villages and were greeted with the smiles and waves of lots of kids.  Getting to the actual viewpoint required two small payments — one of 1000 tsh each to the Irente Viewpoint Hotel to get them to unlock a gate and another 2000 tsh each at a “checkpoint” to go the last 20 meters or so to the viewpoint. Typical nickle and diming in Tanzania, but somewhat understandable as the sight is one of the primary tourist attractions and there are limited avenues for the town to bring in tourist dollars.

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View as we approached the viewpoint.

When we arrived at the viewpoint it was deserted despite the amazing view. We were starting to wonder how there could be so many guest houses in Lushoto since it seemed void of tourists. Finally, a few German tourists showed up (with their guide) and we had a nice chat with them about other hiking options in the area.

  

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Relaxing at the viewpoint.

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Enjoying some downtime at the viewpoint while researching where we should go next… it’s a constant struggle!

We capped off our walk by stopping at the Irente Farms (also referred to as the Irente Biodiversity Reserve) for lunch. The meal was a treat — homemade cheeses, breads, and preserves — a welcome change from the typical Tanzanian fare that we’d been eating that was heavy in greasy meat and starch.

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Some context about where we were.

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Once back in town, we stopped by a couple local agencies to ask about options for a guided hike the next day.  Both offered pretty much the same assortment of day hike options, including a walk through some nearby rainforest.  These trips ran about $35 per person, which seemed a bit steep for a day hike.  We decided to go it alone for a second day, even if it meant that our hike was less “scenic” and spent more time on the mountain roads.

Hilltop Hike: For our second day in Lushoto, Michael studied our GPS maps of the region and pieced together a hike that would take us up into the hills along a different route from the prior day.  We climbed up out of Lushoto on a fairly steep (and untrafficked) dirt road that went northwest from town.  Our route was loosely based on a hike described in the Lonely Planet guidebook. 

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View of the surrounding hills as we walked along the road on our second day’s walk.

After about 45 minutes of climbing, we passed through Kwembago village, which is considered a royal village and the traditional seat of the local Sambaa chief.  From there we continued climbing up into the hills, stumbling upon a large group of (overly) enthusiastic school children.  While most kids we pass merely want a high five (or pens or money, requests that we ignore to discourage begging… a position that I could go on about at length), a few of the boys apparently also thought that it was funny to slap my upper arm (not cool).  Our original plan was to visit some caves that were identified on our GPS map, but not mentioned by our guidebook or the guide agencies.  However, given our late start, we ended up turning around in order to find lunch. 

I really wanted to return to have lunch at Irente Farm, where we had eaten the day before.  The only problem was that, according to our GPS, we’d need to return to town and then hike back up the hill again.  However, it appeared that there was a road that came close to connecting, and we were well aware that not all roads or paths showed up on our GPS.  We also knew that guided tours somehow were able to link hikes in the area where we were to the Irente Farms area without going back to town.  We figured we would give it a shot — and it worked!  In a serendipitous turn of events, we ran into a guide and hiker just before we had to turn off the little road that we were following onto a dirt path that connected the valleys.  We gave them their space, but noted where they turned 😉  I’m certain that we would have found our way anyway, but it probably saved us a little time (which is why, when the hiker approached us later at lunch and basically demanded that we give his guide $5 for his service, I was fairly put off).

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Heading down the dirt path on our way back to Irente Farms.

Our second lunch at Irente Farms was just as wonderful as the first — and this time we had the pleasure of sharing a table with a couple of other hikers who had made their way up without a guide.  Finally, fellow independent travelers in the land of guided tours!!

Our Thoughts on Lushoto: The town of Lushoto is fairly small and we found limited food options within the town itself.  We enjoyed staying a short walk outside of town at the Lawns Hotel.  Our room was very simple and rustic.  Old school hot water bottles were provided to assist with the cold nights, which I thoroughly enjoyed cuddling up with each night for warmth, although I wouldn’t have minded an additional blanket.  In typical fashion, the scalding hot water was great for a 30 second shower… and then gave out.  In reality, the room itself was not the greatest (there were bigger, nicer rooms available though) — but the common space was awesome.  It was like staying in an old German lodge.  There were comfortable couches, good wifi, multiple rooms so that you didn’t feel like you were invading the bar/restaurant, and even a foosball table.  The common space made our late afternoons and evenings enjoyable, so we tended to settle in instead of going back to town in the evenings for dinner (the food was good too).

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Obviously the main reason that Michael liked our hotel was that we made a friend.

Perhaps the weirdest thing about Lushoto was that there didn’t seem to be very many tourists, but there were lots of guesthouses.  I’m not sure if it was based on when we visited or if it was just a fluke, but we barely saw anyone (and those that we saw we tended to see multiple times around town).  The one time we did see a lot of tourists was when an overland tour stopped at our hotel for a night — they set up ten tents on the lawn outside, but since they arrived late, cooked their own dinner, and left early we didn’t see much of them.

[We’re making yet another attempt to get caught up on our blog posts.  This post describes our visit to Lushoto, Tanzania on August 22-25, 2006.]

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