The Orchid Safari
"The Garden of God"
A huge carpet of ground orchid’s bloom quite unnoticed, every year, in a forgotten corner of Tanzania. This area is the beautiful Southern Highlands of Tanzania, where the country borders with Zambia and Malawi. It is forgotten as possibly it is as far away from the Serengeti and Kilimanjaro as you can get and still be in Tanzania. Although it is a pity it goes so unnoticed but maybe the lack of people helps protect this delicate ecosystem.
This high plateau called the Kitulo Plateau and here high above the madding crowd is a secret sea of orchids. This National Park of wild flowers in all its glorious color is a delight to anyone who appreciates and loves the orchid in its natural setting. The Kitulo Plateau became Tanzania’s fourteenth National Park because unlike the Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater, this park was not created for the protection of fauna but for the protection of the flora and in particular the orchid.
To get to Kitulo travel from Mbeya on the road to the Zambian Border – at a place called Chimala turn south; this is about an hours drive from Mbeya town. Then travel up the escarpment and pass through Matamba and arrive at the plateau. There are not many amenities here and to be self sufficient is the beast option. There are a few local places to take up boarding close to the park. However, the best option by far is to camp on the plateau itself.
This area, heralded as a botanist’s paradise, is the larges and probably the most important plateau grassland in East Africa. The best time to visit this area is from January through to May, during the long rains. The area is transformed by the rains with the flowering of over 45 species of Orchids many of which are endemic. Even-though this is Africa be prepared for cold on this highland; May to November the temperatures can become quite cool with occasional frosts.
The Tanzanian Government in 2002 declared 402 square kilometers of the plateau to become a National Park to ensure the protection of this special area. This now helps to protect the wild flowers on from agricultural encroachment. The are also important breeding colonies of birds in this area including the blue swallow, Denham’s bustard, Njombe cisticola and Kipengere seedeater. The striking variable reed frog is common on the plateau, with the very rare butterfly the Neocoenyra petersi seen in January and February.