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Udzungwa National Park was opened in October 1992 by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and has only recently been superceded by Saadani and Kitulo National Parks as the country’s newest.
The park covers about 1,900 square kilometeres, protecting about 10% of the Udzungwa Range (the largest mountain range – part of the Eastern Arc). The name literally translates as “Land of the Dzungwa”, a subgroup of the Hehe tribe that settled on the western side of the Udzungwa Range.
The Eastern Arc is one of East Africa’s most significant features, and deserves some elaboration. A string of 13 ancient mountain ranges were collectively given the term “Eastern Arc” by Dr Jon Lovett in the 1980s, in order to group their similar geomorphology and ecology despite being physically independent of each other. Formed about 100 million years ago, each mountain range is an uprising of crystalline rock; the product of major tectonic activity along a fault in the earth’s crust that runs east of East Africa’s other major geographic landmarks - Mount Kilimanjaro, Meru and Kenya, as well as the more recent Rift Valley.
The extensive mountain ranges assisted westward winds from the Indian Ocean in producing an intense and local water cycle (by forcing damp air upwards, resulting in condensation and consequently, heavy precipitation), resulting in vast rainforests that date back as far as 30 million years ago. This makes the area unique in that these forests date back to when Africa was still part of the super-continent Gondwanaland, and survived through several ice ages. Approximately 10 million years ago, during a particularly dry and cold period, the forests of western and central Africa retreated, leaving the Eastern Arc rainforests isolated. Subsequent geographic activity further isolated the range into 13 separate entities, and the result was the modern day’s individual and remote “islands” of rainforests dotted over the eastern part of the continent.
The isolation and separation of the individual rainforests is of immense evolutionary significance, and the entire Eastern Arc has often been referred to as the “Gálapagos of Africa” for the unique species that have developed in each respective range. To put some figures to this label, the Eastern Arc houses more types of trees (over 680) than the entirety of North America and Europe, combined! Similar statistics roll over to the animal kingdom, and the Eastern Arc Mountains have recently been classified as one of the world’s 20 most important biodiversity sites.
Udzungwa is unfortunately the only officially protected site along the entire Eastern Arc, and covers the most significant rainforest of the 13 sites, making it the country’s most important biodiversity location. Over 25% of the plant species identified here are endemic, and three full species of primate are also limited to the area – the Uhehe red colous, the Sanje crested mangabey and the Matunda galago. 25 of the 32 bird species limited to the Endemic Bird Area are found in the Udzungwa Mountains, a statistic that should get most avid bird-watchers’ blood racing!
With no vehicle tracks in the national park, exploration is (fortunately, in our opinion!) limited to walking and hiking, and guides/porters can be organised relatively easily. Some trails (such as the Prince Bernhard Waterfall Trail) can be done without professional guides, and this can actually be quite rewarding…with no time constraints and the freedom of your own authority, as much or as little photography, exploration and investigation as you want can be carried out.
Other trails include the Sanje Waterfall Trail (guided, four hours, recommended), the Sonjo Trail (3 hours, easier), or the 3 day hike of the Mwanihana Trail (38km, best chance of seeing the rarer species and only opportunity to see the inner closed canopy forest/higher slopes).