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There are less than 30 people onboard today – I even manage to nab a seat opposite a couple of hefty nuns, chatting loudly to each other in Swahili. It’s not all plain sailing: the bus’s suspension seems to be on the blink 
and every jolt in the road has us bouncing like we’re on 
a fairground ride. One particularly nasty pothole sends me flying out of my seat towards the mother superior – I only narrowly avoid giving her a lap dance. Fortunately, the sisters find the whole carry-on highly amusing.

My friends and I bid the nuns farewell just outside Uchira, where we find a warren of pitch-black tunnels and four-storey-high columned chambers carved deep into the hillside. We head underground, finding gangs of men cutting blocks of pumice stone – used locally in building – from the rock face, the flicker of gas lamps the only light to guide them. Outside, caravans of women walk up and down the steep-sided entrance to the pit, four volcanic blocks balancing on each of their heads, cheap flip-flops on their feet.

Our next destination, an hour’s drive east, couldn’t be further removed from the hubbub of the mine. A huge caldera lake glistens in the afternoon sun – the result of an enormous volcanic eruption some three-quarters-of-a-million years ago. It’s blissfully quiet; just us, a troupe of olive baboons, and three ant-sized fishermen skimming across Lake Chala’s glassy, turquoise surface 300ft (100m) below.

As we edge closer to the crater’s rim, the baboons slink off into the dense forest clinging to the caldera’s sheer walls, howling at us as they depart. We follow them down to the water’s edge, scrabbling along a barely trodden path – it’s a tough descent but well worth any pain we may feel tomorrow. A peregrine falcon hunts stealthily overhead; tropical birds hum in the trees, a family of colobuses lounge by the lake’s lapping shore – Ernest’s found us the epitome of a hidden gem.

After bribing a fishermen to take us exploring in his canoe, we scale back up the caldera’s lofty ramparts to be greeted by the great snow-capped Kilimanjaro, soaring majestically above the plains, its blanket of clouds finally lifted. We stand in silence, necks craned skywards, staring in awe at the mountain towering over us. The scene proves too alluring to resist and we soon find ourselves bumping through its emerald foothills on yet another packed dala-dala.

Huge waterfalls erupt from the hillsides, careering over jungle-covered cliffs, Evian-pure rock-pools glisten invitingly below rainbow-streaked spray, tiny chameleons blush in hues of yellows and greens – throw in a few dinosaurs and you’ve got the next sequel to Jurassic Park ready to go. 

My friends and I set up base in Marangu, former capital of Kilimanjaro’s Chagga tribe, and explore the area. First on the list is a network of underground caves, hand-dug by the Chagga to protect against invasions by the Masai warriors, who used to regularly invade neighbouring tribes’ territory in pre-colonial times, plundering cattle and massacring entire communities in the process.

A wizened old woman recounts in Swahili how her tribe would lure marauding Masais into the network of tunnels before slipping out of specially designed escape routes and entombing the enemy inside. She’s a master storyteller, raising her hands dramatically to the sky, before bringing them crashing back down in a sudden rush of adrenaline – we hang on Ernest’s every word as he translates between long, dramatic pauses.

Intrigued, we decide to learn more about the wily Chagga – who were the first tribe in the country to embrace Christianity, and have all but abandoned other traditional customs, including their native tongue and dress – with a visit to the ‘Chagga Live Museum’, essentially a traditional hut built by local people to teach the now entirely Westernised tribe about their past. It’s a fascinating place – far superior 
to the tourist-trap Masai villages that line the motorway.

My friends and I are particularly interested to hear about the Chagga’s dalliances with illegal brewing – apparently they’re masters at turning bananas into anything alcoholic – and set out in search of some homebrew.

Our man Ernest comes up trumps once more, sweet-talking a bar owner into fetching us her secret stash of banana beer from the backroom. It’s stand-your-spoon-in-it thick, but incredibly moreish – like a big, beery helping of Angel Delight.

The bar is heaving with half-cut locals swaying to an almost salsa-esque beat. A couple of the girls decide to get up and dance, shimmying their way into the middle of the crowd, beckoning the rest of us over to join them.

“Right,” I say to my friend Suzi. “You order the chicken drumsticks; I’ll meet you on the dancefloor.”

How to do it

GETTING THERE: Return flights from London Gatwick to Dar es Salaam cost from £444 with Turkish Airlines (
WHEN TO GO: Avoid visiting Tanzania in April and May, when the heavy rains arrive. There are also light rains in November.
CURRENCY: £1 = TZS2525 (Tanzanian shilling)
ACCOMMODATION: A twin or double room at Twiga Home, near Moshi, starts from £8pn (, while camping at Lake Chala Safari Camp costs £8pppn. Tent rentals are an additional £12pn (

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