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Udzungwa Forest Tented Camp: Ecolodge, Community Empowerment and Sustainability in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania
By Hannah Wood
Udzungwa Mountains National Park
"Let's build an eco-lodge."
And with that it began. Three years ago, sitting on the balcony of our house in Dar es Salaam, my husband Woody and our two friends and business partners, Roy and Zoe, thought we’d start up a new business. Woody, Roy and Zoe already manage a safari company here in Tanzania. On their country-wide tours, Roy and Zoey send guests from all over the world into the hidden nooks and crannies of the country. The partnership seemed natural, as we were each passionately committed to Tanzania, believed in eco-principles and protecting the environment, and shared a common desire to bring more people here to Tanzania so that they could see for themselves the wonders of the African bush that had so entranced all of us.
During several years of working as ecological volunteers, collecting field data in and around the Kilombero valley in Southern Tanzania, Roy and Zoe grew to know and love the Udzungwa Mountains National Park. Naturally, Udzungwa later became a regular feature on Roy and Zoey's Wild Things Safaris southern itinerary. During this part of the tour, groups are guided into the park, where they hike to the top of the stunning 180 meter high Sanje waterfall. The hike culminates in a camp-out at the top of these beautiful falls. The next morning guests are treated to a full English-style breakfast as they gaze upon a jaw-dropping vista of the Kilombero Valley, and the Selous Game Reserve in the distance.
This setting, we decided, would be the perfect place to set up our camp. The area is well known to all of us, and has more to offer than many other parks in Africa. It is a unique no-cars and hiking-only park brimming with endemic primates and birds as well as rivers, streams, waterfalls, huge drooping strangler fig trees, and clumps of African violets.
Establishing an Ecolodge: Challenges & Achievements
We started out with minimal funds, and concentrated first on making the site operational so that it could begin building a name for itself. The site is officially named Udzungwa Forest Tented Camp, but the locals call it Hondo Hondo which translates to "hornbill" in Swahili; the camp is a favoured nesting spot for these birds.
Once the tent camp was established, we built a simple barbeque style kitchen and a shower and toilet block. Once all the necessary features were in place, we declared our campsite open and began to receive guests. Due to the high biodiversity and fascinating ecological features of the park, we proved popular with school and university trips. Soon the camp was full of students from Germany, the UK, Uganda and Tanzania, to name a few.
However, we wanted our business to become a full scale eco-lodge rather than simply a campsite, so over time we began to develop the site further. First we consulted the local villagers about appropriate building materials. Based on their recommendations, we came up with a blend of the locally used mixture of mud and "burnt earth". We first built three, and then another two thatched huts on a small rise at the back of the plot. The huts look out over the valley floor and are shaded by the teak trees which have been planted by the Park Authorities as a natural border.
The huts are simple and comfortable, furnished with double beds, mosquito nets and netted windows, colourful curtains made of the local kanga cloth, simple rattan rugs, and wooden furniture. From the windows of these huts the view looks straight out into the rainforest, with its troops of colobus swinging through the trees and baboons roaming the ground. At night the sounds of the bush babies fill the air, and during the dry season the forest elephants crash past the lodge on their way to find water in the valley.
Udzungwa Forest Tented Camp Lozenge Bar
Hondo Hondo Business Sustainability Practices
Being eco is harder than you may think, especially in Africa where things can be hard to get hold of and the existing way of doing things is near impossible to change. We interpret ecotourism as referring to responsible and sustainable tourism both in terms of the natural world and the local community, and as a member of The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) we follow TIES Code of Conduct.
Environmentally conscious and aware, we try to minimise our footprint on our natural surroundings. We have installed low energy LED or CFL bulbs throughout the lodge, and use top-opening fridges and freezers to minimise energy loss and wastage. We use solar powered reading lights in all the rooms, and our water is heated using a solar heating system of simple black pipes. As we are at the base of a large mountain range and on the edge of a rainforest, we have an abundance of water. We have taken advantage of this by installing a micro hydro-power generator.
We are still working out some kinks, but eventually this generator will be used to completely produce the power needed to meet the simple needs of the lodge. This step will ensure our total self-sufficiency and dependency on renewable energy sources. A comprehensive tree planting programme is underway as part of our plan to reforest the land; thus far 400 indigenous saplings, obtained through the National Park Authority, have been planted. More planting is being planned in advance of next rainy season.
Empowering the Local Community: A Critical Element of Ecotourism
We make a point to support the local primary school in terms of both finances and resources, for example in assisting them with the construction of a new toilet block. We are a participating member of the "Pack for a Purpose" scheme, which encourages travellers with a conscience to fill the space in their bags with desperately needed items that have been requested by local schools. With the support of the village chief and the elders, in addition, Hondo Hondo supports two local children, orphaned and left without family, and are paying for their secondary education.
We are currently setting up workshops with the local schoolchildren, focusing on recycling and arts and crafts and helping develop skills they can use to generate income. We are recycling glass bottles to make saleable glasses, and plastic bottles and tin cans as various arts and crafts products. We intend to sell the children's recycled products in our lodge shop.
We support the local Ifakara Women’s Weavers group by using their linens and other products in our lodge, and by selling their products in our shop. We also have plans to work with a village women's group to produce organic soaps and shampoos. In addition, we work with the local drummers (Ngoma) group, arranging for them to play for guests and supporting the recording of some of their songs for distribution.
Ongoing Journey: Daily Encounters and Discoveries
We are still only a couple of years old, which in Africa means that we have a lot more to learn. Every day we encounter new and unexpected challenges, such as deciding what to do when an elephant walks through the camp and smashes the plumbing pipes that lie six feet below the ground, or how to discourage the cheeky baboons from pinching corn on the cobs from the kitchen. We despair when the floodwaters from another tropical downpour wash through our carefully tended market garden, taking all the basil plants with them.
We have had to explain to the Natural History Museum entymologist researchers that no, they cannot kill the camp cat in retaliation for its eating their prize Coleoptera sample. We must calm panicked guests who swear that they’ve heard a leopard until we point out the tiny bush baby in the tree, and there are sometimes long, restless nights of tossing and turning as troops of nocturnal mammals stomp about outside the tents, shrieking and grunting and keeping everyone awake.
Still, we wouldn't have it any other way.
Photos by: Udzungwa Forest Tented Camp
>> See more photos: "Tanza-Mania: Going Eco-Crazy in the Southern Highlands" (Your Travel Choice Blog)