Mbeya seems so far away from every other place in Tanzania, and as a result this lovely African town and the surrounding highlands tend to be shunned. Mbeya is about 860km south-west of Dar es Salaam and close to the borders of Malawi and Zambia.
Mbeya is a mountainous region, with the exception of some lowland areas which lie within the Rift Valley. Close to Mbeya town are picturesque valleys surrounded by undulating hills and a range of mountains.
This is Tanzania’s main gateway to the southern countries of Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa. The temperatures vary quite dramatically, from lows of -6°C on the highlands to highs of over 29°C on the lowlands. Driving through the Southern Highlands it is possible to feel the dramatic temperature shifts, with the vegetation changing just as dramatically within very short distances.
Mbeya enjoys an abundant and reliable rainfall and there never seems to be a lack of water. It is cool and often misty and even a woolly sweater is needed from time to time – especially in the evenings.
There is a high plateau, the Kitulo Plateau, sometimes referred to as “the garden of God”, and here high above the madding crowd is a secret sea of orchids. This National Park of wild flowers in all its glorious colour is a delight to anyone who appreciates and loves the orchid in its natural setting. It was in order to protect its plants and in particular the orchids that the Kitulo Plateau was designated Tanzania’s fourteenth National Park.
This huge carpet of ground orchids blooms quite unnoticed, every year, in this forgotten corner of Tanzania. It is unnoticed because it is possibly as far away from the Serengeti and Kilimanjaro as you can get and still be in Tanzania.
To get to Kitulo, travel from Mbeya along the road to the Zambian border – at a place called Chimala turn south – this is about an hour’s drive from Mbeya town. Then travel up the escarpment and pass through Matamba and arrive at the plateau.
There are not many amenities here, so self-sufficiency is the only option. There are a few local places where you can board close to the park. However, it is possible to camp on the plateau itself.
It is a pleasure to drive in and around the region, as it is well served with good roads connecting to different parts of the country – most unusual in Africa. Mbeya also connects with the two main highways linking to Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa.
Mbeya is among the best places in Tanzania for hiking and forest walking, which are all the more enjoyable for the cool weather. For me, Mbeya is a real treat and I always love to visit the area but sadly I tend not to make it to this part of Tanzania as often as I would like.