Kitulo Plateau then on the road to Lake Rukwa

September 2009

There is no easy way to drive to southern Tanzania so departing Arusha at 5.30am Ombeni (a staff member in training) and I decided to try and drive the 1000kms to Iringa in a day. The only way to do this is to start out with the mind set of pushing hard and eating up as many kilometers as possible before the roads fill up with traffic. Yes we do get traffic jams in Tanzania! The route we took is by no means the most direct – going by the towns of Moshi, Same, Korogwe, Segera, Chalinze and Morogoro- but it is the fastest if road conditions are favorable. It is also easier on the vehicle and driver and as we had just driven from Northern Serengeti my Land Rover and I needed a break in Iringa before starting our 22 days safari with two Brazilian guests. Our safari was to start in Mbeya, my guests flying in from Dar es Salaam, where I would meet them and drive up to our mobile camp sited high on the Kitulo plateau. We then would move our camp over two days to Lake Rukwa, drive on to Katavi for 6 nights mobile camping and then say goodbye to our safari crew before 3 nights at Katavi’s Chada Camp and 4 at Greystoke Mahale. After two nights staying with friends Liz and Neil Baker in Iringa (and enjoying my birthday) we pushed on to the Kitulo Plateau National Park to spend a night checking our camp before I drove to pick up the guests at Mbeya airport. I wrote something for our TZ BIRD ATLAS so I cut and paste it here.

“Dear Neil and Liz

I send many thanks to you both for the loan of maps and books to help me learn more of these southern areas of TZ that you know so well, thanks also go to Tim Davenport and Liz de Leyser for their generosity and guidance. When going to a new area I am always excited by the possibility of ‘lifers’ and new geographical variations of familiar birds. Kitulo in September is, as you said it would be, very dusty and lacking the flower and bird spectacle of other times of year, but we still had a wonderful time enjoying what we did see. The road up from near Chimala was awesome with its 50 odd dramatic twists and turns. Mussa - the driver of the 4WD canter we used to ferry the tents, didn’t enjoy this section as much as I did! Once up and onto the Plateau another world opens up, these high grasslands are indeed beautiful and in particular I loved the frosty dawns when the dry season haze does not spoil the views. From just before dawn until an hour or two after sunrise the light was so very clear. We camped at 2624 meters ASL and were very glad of the spare sleeping bags and our camp fire! Burning gum trees never felt so good. The route from Kitulo to Mbeya as it descends is also stunning in the morning light and I will certainly return to this area in the near future.

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We only saw one larger mammal during our 3 days there – a very scared side striped jackal which must be doing well feeding on the many long haired rodents. Introducing highland adapted zebra, eland and perhaps buffalo would reduce the need for the extensive burning that is currently being carried out by TANAPA, presumably to curb the grasses from dominating over the flowers. I’m sure that the ground nesting bird species would rather have zebra eating the grasses.

My lifers included churring and wing snapping cisticolas, eastern saw-wing, red winged francolin (as above), mountain marsh widow and Fulleborn’s longclaw.

Cheers Paul”

We departed Kitulo allowing the crew time to park up the mobile camp and slowly descended the grassland plateau to Mbeya and then the plan was to continue towards the Tanzanian/Zambian border town of Tunduma that afternoon before heading northwards and camping where ever a good spot could be found by 4-5 pm. The road Police stops in this part of Tanzania seem to be every few kilometers so by 3 pm when we and our camp crew had been stopped countless times and suffered too many delays I decided to play safe and move into the Utengule Coffee Lodge south of Mbeya for a night of comfort and coincidentally a serious football game was on that night! One of my Brazilian guests was so into football that at Kitulo I had to SMS friends to find out how Argentina had done in the World Cup qualifying games. My guest was happy that Argentina hadn’t won their game being an avid Brazil supporter!

So with a relaxed night (Manchester United beat Spurs) for us and the camp crew and an equipment check and clean up, we moved on the next morning and headed northwards towards our goal of camping near Lake Rukwa. After Tunduma we would be on dirt roads and some on our intended route – I had never driven before. The first 120kms were good and then the descent down the escarpment loomed.

I had been warned about this section, not a worry for my land rover perhaps but for a loaded 4Wd canter it was to prove quite a challenge. We turned off the main road at the village of Kalamba-zwite and as the road started to descend the escarpment we enjoyed incredible views towards the lake, way, way down below us. I waited at the bottom and talked by VHF radio with the crew as they attempted what had been a difficult drive for me in my excellent and much smaller vehicle. Mussa the driver was complaining that the road would destroy the canter’s axels and that they would be grounded on one of the numerous deep and dust filled holes whilst negotiating the many hair pin bends. It was a nerve racking time and when the canter came into view we were all relived. Well done Mussa - incredible driving! This wasn’t the last time that Mussa’s driving skills would be put to the test during the next week or so. We decided to set up camp after a short drive down to the lake. This proved to be not as easy as planned as the numbers of local people living between the escarpment and Lake Rukwa was unbelievable. I surmised that the dry season – which was severe – must have forced everyone and his dog and cow to move next to the many streams coming out of the rift Valley wall.

We spent the next two days with the people of this area on our way to Katavi- and it was great fun!

We also enjoyed getting lost a few times when exploring off road towards the Lake and to view the Kavuu River near Rukwa Game Reserve.

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Part two will focus on our 9 nights in Katavi National Park