Hiking Kitulo National Park

Hidden away in Tanzania’s southern highland region is a little-known gem of a national park: Kitulo.

kitulo-panoUnlike Tanzania’s more famous locales – Serengeti, Lake Manyara, and Kilimanjaro – Kitulo National isn’t for animal lovers. It’s a botanical park, a botanist’s paradise. Kitulo sits at over 2,500 meters above sea level, often blanketed in fog and clouds, swept by biting winds, and virtually devoid of people. The park is accessible by a bad dirt road switchbacking 57 times up a precipitously steep escarpment halfway between Iringa and Mbeya, southern Tanzania’s largest towns. There are no tourist facilities in Kitulo – no toilets, no water, nothing. You have to be completely self-sufficient to visit the park. During my 3-day visit in July 2014, my traveling companions and I were the only 4 people in the entire park. There was no one else for many tens of kilometers in any direction.

kitulo-blue-skyThose who make the journey are rewarded with a wide-open landscape of rolling grasses and an endless supply of flowers. During the February rains, the park comes alive with over 40 species of endemic orchids found nowhere else on the planet. There are no large mammals or predators anywhere in the park, which means it’s possible to wander wherever you want across the landscape. We spent one day following vague footpaths in a meandering 14-kilometer loop that took us through dry flowers rattling their empty seed cases against our shoulders, a few conifers planted by sheep farmers from a failed agricultural experiment half a century ago, and zigzagging back and forth across narrow streams of crystal clear and ice cold water.

On another day, my son pointed to the highest peak on the horizon and said, “Let’s go there.” So we packed lunches, snacks, and water, and began to wander across the land, following the contours of the hills and guided only by the hills around us. There was no need for a compass or GPS – we could see for what seemed like 25 kilometers in every direction. When we wanted a break, we lay down among the flowers and napped under the warming sun. It was fantastic.

Like the famous African elephant, Kitulo’s orchids are threatened by poaching. Most people don’t think of plants as victims of poaching, but the roots of these endemic orchids are considered a culinary delicacy by some communities in Zambia, a few hours south of the park. Everywhere we walked, we saw evidence of plants dug up and carted off, never to reproduce again. Unfortunately, these orchids don’t bring in enough tourist dollars to warrant much news or protection, so that their numbers will probably continue to dwindle. I’m fortunate to have visited this place and experienced these rare plants in the most wilderness-like environment I’ve encountered anywhere in Tanzania.