Monday, August 01, 2011

Community Tourism, Tanzania - 19 Feb 2011

The Irish Times - Saturday, February 19, 2011

Beyond the tourist traps of Tanzania

GO AFRICA: MANCHÁN MAGAN ventures off the beaten track to discover community tourism, an affordable and ethical way to have the holiday of a lifetime
THE SERENGETI, the Ngorongoro Crater, Mount Kilimanjaro. There you go, I’ve mentioned them. Now, can we move on and look at the real Tanzania beyond the tourist traps? I want to bring you to the highlands: the Usambara and Uluguru Mountains, to show you some examples of community tourism projects that offer affordable, ethical ways to have the holiday of a lifetime – ones that not only bring you places few people get to see, but that connect you to locals in a natural, enjoyable way, and benefit the most vulnerable communities.
First, some geography. The tourist traps mentioned above are all in the north of Tanzania, along the Kenyan border. They offer some of the best (or, at least the most accessible) wildlife and hiking opportunities in Africa, and I don’t mean to denigrate them, it’s just that they attract as many touts and hawkers as they do tourists. The same could be said for Zanzibar – a picturesque, but touristy island off the coast. I’ll lead you back to these at the end, but allow me show you some fragile, beautiful, places along the way.
Community tourism is a precious, utopian thing, that brings you on the road less travelled. It can’t survive in cut-throat tourist hot spots where money talks and idealistic community ventures simply get bought out or corrupted. It often involves taking public transport – in this case, comfortable, modern coaches on the well-maintained highway that leads north from Dar es Salaam to Arusha.
Let’s start with Lushoto, about six hours north of Dar, a richly-forested, highland town founded by German colonialists as an idyllic summer refuge from the heat. It’s a comparatively affluent and tranquil town with elegant old lodges set in the hills where you can stay for about €15 in retro splendour. It has become a base for hikers and botanists, with three separate community tourism agencies offering hikes, village tours, flora and fauna hunts and forest picnics for roughly €12 a day – about a third of which goes to community development programmes.
The gentle hill walks along eucalyptus-shaded trails through cornfields, coffee plantations, pine woods, tropical forest, fruit farms and even vineyards are enchanting. The best known trails lead one along the precipice of a high escarpment overlooking the sweeping Maasai plains that run northwards to Kenya and beyond. One can walk for days in the gently-sloped hills staying in local guesthouses. It’s one of the few places in Africa where it’s safe and easy enough to walk without a guide, although having one with you invariably enriches the experience. Lushoto is a place you will want to spend longer in than planned.
Staying in Lushoto town is most practical, but to get the real flavour of the place it’s worth lodging in one of the surrounding farms. Irente Biodiversity Reserve is run by the Swedish Lutheran Church, with a range of fruit farming and dairy projects to aid the local community, and cottage accommodation for guests, including wonderful meals based around their home-made jams, juices, rye bread, vegetables, yoghurt and cheese. Other nearby lodges include MamboViewPoint Ecolodge (, Maweni Farm, Lushoto ( and Mullers Mountain Lodge (mullers One could spend a blissful holiday hiking from one to the other.
FROM LUSHOTO, head to Amani Nature Reserve, which is not far as the crow flies (in fact one can arrange multi-day hikes to it), but one needs to get a bus down to the Maasai plains and right around the Usambara Mountains to access it. It is a vast tract of mountainous wilderness that was set aside by the Germans a century ago and is now protected from hunters and loggers.
Like the Galapagos up a mountain, it’s an exotic realm of pristine old-growth high-montane forest, with a quarter of the species rare and endemic. For walking and mountain biking, it’s pretty close to heaven: vines draping down like streamers from soaring, prehistoric trees, orchids and bromeliads clinging to branches and weird-looking proto-trees with roots sprouting from their trunks like flying buttresses.
A rocky river roars through the forest giving the air an amphetamine rush. Guided walks and night safaris reveal a range of monkeys, sunbirds, eagle owls, chameleons and tree frogs. A day-long walk costs about €16 – with 20 per cent going to the community, 20 per cent to conservation and the rest to the guide. The area has been preserved primarily by the 18 surrounding villages, and your fees help support them. Accommodation is in government lodges, nestled deep in the forest – cosy places with clean sheets and hot showers for €12 a night, including meals of home-grown vegetables, chicken and lentils.
There are regular buses to the nearby town of Muheza from the big cities, but getting from there to the forest lodge requires some resourcefulness – either hiring a jeep or hopping in the back of a pickup. The trip up into the mountains along red earth tracks through tiny lost villages is an adrenalin buzz in itself.
While you’re near the Amani Reserve, consider heading out to the beach at Pangani. If this is you’re first trip to Tanzania, you’ll want to visit Zanzibar, but if you’ve already seen it, try Pangani instead, a dilapidated Swahili dhow port with great snorkelling and few tourists. Stay in the seaside chalets of Peponi Holiday Resort (, and, again, if you want guided tours or dhow trips which benefit local community projects, contact the Pangani Cultural Tourism Programme.
From here, the famous tourist towns of Moshi and Arusha, are just a few hours north on the main highway. By all means, visit the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater and Mount Kilimanjaro while there, but take time too to call into the headquarters of the Tanzanian Community Tourism programme in the Arusha Tourist Office to find out about community projects in the area. Two I’d recommend are Ng’iresi village on the slopes of Mount Meru, and the Maasai market at Oldonyo Sambu.
FINALLY, I WANT to take a short detour south to Morogoro, about four hours from Dar es Salaam, at the gateway to the Uluguru Mountains. It’s another prime hiking, strolling, rock-climbing area with a pleasant temporal climate, and trails through verdant, pastoral landscape and richly-forested mountains.
Chilunga Cultural Tourism can organise visits to local tribes, dance ceremonies, cooking demonstrations and multi-day hikes, again with a percentage of their profits going to the community. I did their 10-hour hike to Lupanga Peak and a visit to a village where locals spend their days making biscuits from clay which are eaten by pregnant women. Morogoro was used by European colonials as a refuge from the summer heat, and there are still some wonderful creaky old hotels and verandahed restaurants in lush gardens run by doughty old Greeks and Italians who have “gone native”.
Regarding transport in Tanzania, it’s hard to overemphasise how simple and efficient the bus system is. The places mentioned above are all about six hours apart. Buses depart on time and you can book your seat in advance. Granted, the bus stations are a bit chaotic, but within minutes you’ll find yourself being steered helpfully towards wherever it is you’re going, and once you’ve mastered the African bus system the entire continent opens up for you.
My advice would be to fly into Dar es Salaam and out of Nairobi. There are luxury coaches going from Arusha, Tanzania to Nairobi, Kenya (downtown and airport) a few times each day. Again, it takes about five hours. While in Dar, stay in either the YMCA downtown or any of the five-star hotels. Likewise, in Nairobi stay in either the Wildebeest Camp or a five star.
While Nairobi can be intimidating, Dar es Salaam is a great introduction to African cities, with all the chaos and vibrancy one expects, but without the hassle, and one can easily hop on a ferry out to Zanzibar. Africa awaits.
This article was supported by Irish Aid’s Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund
Tanzania where to . . .
Irente Farm, Lushoto, 00-255-788-503002 BB €15.
YMCA, Upanga Road, Dar es Salaam, 00-255-22-213-5457. BB €10.
Wildebeest Camp, Nairobi, 00-254-734-770733, wildebeest Rooms €20.

Guides and tours in Lushoto: Friends of Usambara Mountains. 00-255-787-094725,
Guides and tours in Morogoro: Chilunga Community Tourism, 00-255-23-2613323,
Guides, tours and accommodation at Amani Nature Reserve: Amani Conservation Centre 00-255-27-2640313, Visitor centre, guides and Butterfly Research Centre, featuring hundreds of live butterflies.
Guesthouses in Amani and Zigi – try both. Food lodgings: €10. Park entry €22.
Information on community tourism programmes at Pangani and throughout Tanzania,
Get there
Kenya Airways (kenya-airways. com) flies to Dar es Salaam and Nairobi via London Heathrow. Ethiopian Airlines (ethiopian flies to Dar es Salaam via London Heathrow.