Mount Hanang (Tanzania)

Anyone who reads my blog from time to time will likely have noticed my obsession with topographic prominence. There are just over 1500 ultra prominence mountains (a mountain with at least 1500m topographic prominence) on earth. The number depends on the list you refer to, with most of the higher counts being based on lists derived from satellite data.

Africa has somewhere between 80 and 105 ultras, depending on the list – which is a relatively low number considering it is the second largest continent on earth. By contrast, British Columbia in Canada has the densest population of ultras on earth, with roughly 100 in a region smaller than South Africa! Most of Africa’s ultras fall in the Great Rift Valley, which is also home to the entire list of Africa’s 10 highest mountains – 5 of which are ultras (Kili, Kenya, Stanley, Ras Dashen and Meru). Tanzania has 11 ultras in total.

When I decided to travel back to Tanzania, I immediately started doing research on the ultras of Tanzania, and especially those near Arusha. The ones closest to Arusha seemed rather uninteresting, based on a google search. As I expanded my search radius, the fourth highest of Tanzania’s ultras came up – Mount Hanang.

At 3420m and with 2050m prominence, Mount Hanang is the 4th highest ultra-prominence mountain in Tanzania, after Kili, Meru and Loolmalassin. It is located outside the town of Katesh in the Hanang District of the Manyara Region of Tanzania.

When I started researching the mountain, I quickly learned that it is a requirement to hire a guide. Online reviews suggested it is technically more difficult than Kili and Meru – a claim which I was suspect of, as none of the photos of it looked particularly technical. All writeups I could find said the same thing – they used Thomas Safari, and he is highly recommended. Naturally when numerous independent sources recommend the same person, it makes sense to take the advice.

I contacted Thomas on Facebook. He told me which bus I would need to catch, and he booked my accommodation in Katesh for two nights.

Tizo had arranged a taxi to collect me at 5:30AM to take me to the bus station. I had been told I could just arrive and buy a ticket, but the taxi driver suggested that it would be better if he helped me. In hindsight, I have no clue how I would have managed to find the correct bus without him – English may be an official language in Tanzania, but it isn’t as widely spoken as one may expect. And random tourists wanting to catch a bus from Arusha to Katesh are not common!

Luckily I managed to get the last seat on the bus to Katesh, and was soon sitting in the back corner of the bus – very happy to have a window seat! The ticket cost 10 000 shillings (about R65, or $4.50).

You learn a lot about a country when you take the bus. You see things you would never otherwise see, and meet people you would never have met. While the person sitting next to me didn’t speak much English, he asked me where I was going, and then told me he would make sure I get off the bus at the right place. While I had a fully charged phone with a local sim and offline maps – it is always great to have someone who knows the area offering to help.

The terrain varied as we proceeded. I saw some really impressive cliffs along the way, and we passed through many small towns. Every time the bus would stop, there would be vendors trying to sell things to people on the bus. At one, I tried buying a braai-ed mielie, but my window didn’t open, so someone two seats in front of me sorted it out for me. Something was lost in translation and I ended up with a fanta instead.

At Babati, the main road is left and the road to Katesh is taken. This starts with a steep mountain pass that the bus took very slowly. To be clear – its a tar road, but a full bus can be slow on steep ground! As the bus rounded the corner, I saw what was unmistakably the mountain I had come here to climb. It’s funny, I picked Hanang because it was big – but the first time I saw it, I was surprised how big it actually was.

When I arrived in the small town of Katesh, I jumped off the bus and started walking to my accommodation for the night. I had a chuckle at the local shop called Pick n Pay – presumably named after the South African chain of shops.

I was staying at the Summit Hotel. I was happy that Thomas had booked it for me, as no one there spoke a word of English. They saw a white person walking in, knew exactly why I was there and showed me to my room. At TS30 000 (about R200 or $13), it was a surprisingly large room, and was clean. Actually really good value for money.

The power in the town was probably off more than it was on, and the shower setup looked more like an execution device than a hot water device – but it was entirely acceptable, especially considering the price.

Hanag as seen from Katest – a far less impressive angle than the one seen from the drive into the town.

Thomas came to visit in the afternoon. He had just been up with a large group who were camping at 3000m for the night. His assistant was looking after the group, so he talked me through the route and what I needed. He would send a driver to collect me at 4:30AM the next morning. We then walked into town so I could use an ATM to draw cash to pay him for the hike, and we bought some food from the local market.

He then took me to a shop run by his father-in-law to meet his family. His father-in-law said to me “you are from South Africa? Good, then we are all Africans here”. One aspect I really like about Tanzania is the sense of unity – there are hundreds of different tribes in the country, with their own languages, but they all speak Swahili and they all know they are brothers and sisters. There’s a lot the rest of the world could learn from Tanzania.

At 4:30AM I caught the ride Thomas had arranged for me. It was cold, but I was equipped to climb a mountain, so no issues there. We collected Thomas on the way, and we were dropped at the gate to the Nature Reserve.

Thomas had sorted out park fees and permits the day before, so we were able to start the hike immediately.

We made good progress up the very clear trail. You never know what you are going to get when climbing an obscure mountain outside a small town rarely visited by tourists – so I was happy to find a well maintained trail.

Watching a sunrise on a mountain is always special. I have seen hundreds, and hope to see hundreds more – they never get old.

We had made really good progress on the first section. The summit is usually in the mist by early morning, so the goal was to get up quickly in order to get the full summit views.

I was interested to see a species of protea growing on the mountain. I had seen this on Kilimanjaro as well. It is very common on South African mountains.

The trail did briefly get steep, but it wasn’t particularly difficult by any means.

Hanang isn’t dramatic like Meru, it isn’t glaciated like Kili – but it is definitely pretty. The different shades of colour in the vegetation, the rocky outcrops – I just generally love being on a mountain!

Around 3000m in elevation, we reached the campsite that Thomas had been responsible for. It was a group of porters and assistants doing their qualifying exams to work on Kili and Meru.

Most of the group was on top of the peak as we walked past, but as we neared the top, we passed a lot of people on the way down.

There is also a small cave near this spot, although sadly it has been vandalised.

From the campsite, the route follows the ridge to the summit. There is a lot of change in altitude on this last section, which is why the total elevation gain and loss for the hike is so much more than the difference between where you start and the summit. I recorded just over 1800m elevation gain and loss for the day, compared to a 1980m start and a 3420m summit.

The views of the lake to the north of the peak were great. We were looking towards the Great Rift Valley Escarpment, which is an interesting feature.

As the summit got closer, we passed a lot of other people descending from the top – the other group Thomas was looking after.

The route follows the spine of the mountain – I always enjoy spots like this where one has a view on both sides at the same time.

As you reach the final summit assault there are some rocky patches, requiring some easy scrambling. The rock is very grippy and solid, so this is not difficult to get past.

We soon found ourselves on top of the summit. I got some photos before Thomas pulled out a cup and a flask and poured me some coffee! It was mid-morning, so we had made good time up the mountain. There was a bit of cloud around, but it cleared frequently enough to get a view in every direction. The summit is narrow enough that the mountain doesn’t block its own view.

We stayed on the summit for a while. I had all day – it wasn’t like there was something waiting for me back in Katesh!

Descent of the mountain was fairly straightforward. We used the same route as we had ascended.

Once we reached the campsite, we caught up with the other group. We passed the slower people, and were soon descending as part of a large group moving remarkably fast. The ladies in front of me were an indictment on my claims of being very fit – here I was with a very light daypack while they carried overnight packs and pots on their heads, and I could barely keep up with them!

It was still fairly early by the time we got down to the office.

Thomas arranged my ride back to the hotel, and soon I was off. I really enjoyed the Hanang hike. It isn’t in the same league as Kili and Meru, or the majority of South African mountains I have climbed for that matter, but it was a very interesting experience, and I’m happy I did it. Definitely worth the effort if you have the time and are in the area.

That afternoon Thomas arranged for my certificate of ascent to be handed to me by the person in charge of the park. He also booked my bus ticket back to Arusha so that I only had to go to the bus stop the next morning to get back to Arusha. This was very helpful, seeing as no one in the process seemed to speak English, and I don’t speak Swahili.

If you are looking at climbing Hanang, I highly recommend Thomas Safari (+255 784 503 300), thomas.safari@gmail.com.

The next morning I took the long bus ride back to Arusha. It is a beautiful drive, and I enjoyed it once more. Seeing Meru from a distance was a highlight – it reminded me how huge it is.

I arrived in Arusha to find Tizo waiting for me. We went directly to the hospital for me to get my covid test.

I had formally asked Emma out while I was in Katesh (yes, I know – after spending all those days with her I did it over the phone – but at least I didn’t do it over text), so it was great to see her that evening now that we were formally going out.

We spent the Saturday together, exploring Arusha. She video chatted with my brother and his wife – the first family members I introduced her to.

Saturday afternoon turned into a frustrating drama of an afternoon – I was still waiting for my covid results, without which I couldn’t return home. Tizo was also supposed to collect Emma and myself and take us to supper that evening, but had ended up stuck with another group that was taking longer than expected.

I got my results around 10PM on Saturday night, really cutting it fine!

Early the next morning Tizo took me to the airport. Emma sacrificed her sleep to join us. My flight to Nairobi was almost entirely empty, with only four people on the flight. My wait in Nairobi was long and uninteresting, but soon I was on a very full flight back to Jo’burg. Despite the flight being packed, both seats next to me were empty, so I was able to lie down and get some sleep.

There was a bit of a mix up at the airport as I tried to figure out where my mother and Archie had parked, but soon enough we were on our way back.

Overall it was a great trip – much more memorable than my 2015 Tanzania trip. I need to see the African Great Lakes some time, so I will likely return to Tanzania at some point, but I am not sure when that will be. I doubt I will return to the Moshi/Arusha region though. It is a great region that I’m very happy to have visited – but having been there twice, I don’t need to go there again.

Special thanks to Tizo and Thomas for assistance with logistics, and Emma for making the trip happen!

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