August 1, 2011

Adventures in Unexpected Places.

When people think Tanzania, they think safaris, East African wild life, and Zanzibar. Tanzania has more designated wildlife areas than any other country on earth, with one third of its surface area given over to national parks, game and forest reserves and other valuable protected spaces. And within that, there is plenty of room for diversity and adventure in unexpected settings. Frankly, one of our most impressive trips was to Udzungwa Mountains National Park back in February of this year. I realized I never devoted any blog space to this park, but found that I kept coming up short with words to describe our experience. Instead, I shall borrow from the Rough Guide to Tanzania.

Even with a thesuarus on hand, it's difficult to do justice to the wonder that is Udzungwa Mountains National Park, an immaculate forest-cloaked wilderness whose 1900 square kilometers are among the most biodiverse on earth. Protected as a national park in 1992, the driving rationale was to conserve the catchments on the Kilombero and Great Ruaha rivers, lifeblood of the Selous and of human populations elsewhere. The authorities of course also knew that the area they were protecting was rich in species, but just how rich continues to amaze. Forget about rare bugs and plants, new discoveries of which are two to a penny, Udzungwa still has the habit of turning up mammals hitherto unknown to science, the latest being the world's largest shrew (60cm from tip to toe), and not just a new species but an entirely new genus of monkey, which turned up at the same time it was also found in Kitulo National Park.

Like the Uluguru and Usambara mountains, the Udzungwas are part of the Eastern Arc, a disjointed chain of ancient mountains whose age and isolation, and a steady rain-soaked climate, has allowed its forests to evolve independently from each other, and quite spectacularly. But whereas most of the Eastern Arc's ranges have suffered major environmental damage over the 150 years, Udzungwa is pristine, thanks both to its unusually steep terrain (limiting human interaction to the lowlands) and taboos. Locals around Udzungwa believe the mountain's forests are the abode of ancestral spirits (a belief that crops up elsewhere in Tanzania in places along well-established primate populations), and as such they restricted access to ceremonial purposes, and for burials. To disturb the spirits or the graves, people say, will bring great calamity, and should anyone dare cut down a mitogo tree, they're sure to become a lion's next meal...The result is the only place in East Africa with an unbroken virgin forest canopy from a low-point of 250m above sea-level to over 2km high, covering miombo woodland, bamboo and lowland forest containing trees 50m tall, to montane rainforest up in the clouds.

Given its exceptionally well-preserved forest cover, Udzungwa's wildlife is rich. The park contains Tanzania's widest selection of primates, its 12 species including the recently discovered kipunji monkey, and four endemics: the Sanje crested mangabey, the Iringa (or Uhehe) red colombus, and two species of dwarf galago or bushbaby. Other primates include the thick tailed galago, blue monkey and black and white colobus. Also frequently seen are buffalo. Of elephants, you are most likely to see their droppings or patches of vegetation flattened by portly backsides. Rarer animals include red-legged sun squirrel, the recently rediscovered Lowe's servaline genet (previously seen seventy years ago), the red duiker, Abbot's duiker, Livingston's suni, bush pig, bushbuck, spiny mice, the comical chequered elephant shrew (named after its trunk-like snout), and also recently discovered Philip's Congo shrew and grey-faced sengi - a truly giant elephant shrew (a wispy 700g). Birders are in for a treat too, with possible sightings of rufous-winged sunbirds or Udzungwa partridges, both of them rare endemics. Other endemics include millipedes, a tree frog, over seventy species of spider, a gecko, a skink, and the pygmy bearded chameleon.

Rough Guides concludes: "You would be insane to give this place a miss".

I heartily agree.

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