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Tanzania Part 1

Tanzania (Part One) 13th October to 5th November 2009

[An Editorial: We spent a fabulous time in southern Tanzania; sadly, this record of our experiences is diminished by the theft of our camera. A theft for which we were to blame not the thief, an opportunist for whom temptation and riches beyond his wildest dreams were impossible to ignore. Our apologies therefore for the near total lack of photos, the welcome lightening of the otherwise overlong account of our travels.]


Mitomoni

The bridge behind us, we climbed the river bank to where a man opened the barrier and waved us through to the car park in front of the Mitomoni customs and immigration building. Wearing scruffy coveralls and a faded, three sizes too large red beret pulled down over his ears in the best African fashion, he was at odds with the smart, brand new complex we entered. There was a flurry of activity; a chair scraped on the concrete floor as a bleary eyed official raised his head from the table he had been contemplating at close quarters, and emerging from a doorway in need of a door was a short, well dressed man who greeted us in English. Saiidi was the senior of the two and, whilst he and Liz sorted out payment for our visas and completed the immigration documents, Peter showed the other yawning and still not yet fully awake official how to complete the carnet for Boris.

Batteries and Bordellos

What initially were undemanding tasks became increasingly difficult to complete as evening spread its fingers of darkness into the office. With no electricity and only a dim, dwindling yellow glow from torches in desperate need of new batteries, filling in these documents became a game of squint, guess and hope. By the time we were ready to leave it was dark, Saiidi kindly offered to guide us on his motor bike to a hotel in the nearby settlement of Mitomoni where we could spend the night. It was very much a place where we could
not spend the night! It was just awful; the rooms, lit by a single dim unshaded bulb dangling from the ceiling, with no shower or sink and mattresses on the floor, opened out onto a bar and were definitely paid for by the hour ...geddit! Seeing Liz’s distress, Saiidi beckoned us to follow him, he returned to his motor bike, climbed aboard and we drove back in convoy to the border post.

Saiidi

An apologetic Saiidi pointed out an open space amongst a half hearted vegetable and fruit plot to the rear of the post and invited us to camp there. Now that he was our host, Saiidi could not do enough for us; a generator spluttered into life, lights came on; we were offered the use of their shower and loo; and asked if we needed any food. It became plain that both officials lived at the post; alongside the vegetable plot was a small igloo shaped hut protecting chickens from the night time predation of lion, hyena and fox, and beside which a lady from the village was sitting on her haunches cooking their supper in a blackened pot, atop a wagon wheel of four smouldering logs. Saiidi explained that government restrictions and a problematic fuel supply dictated that the generator could only run for an hour, an hour they rightly used for their own and not government purposes. He asked about England, our family and life in London; he, it turned out, had a family in Dar es Salaam that he saw about once every two or three months and then only for ten days or so at a time.. a tough life but at least he was in pensioned employment. Then, having amused Saiidi by asking about man eating lions and, relieved that any night time visits to the loo would not be our last, we retired to bed.

Before we left early the next morning we thanked Saiidi for his hospitality and ‘presented’ him with our wind-up torch for any evening work he might have in the future and as he was recovering from a bad bout of malaria, to help prevent any immediate reoccurrence of the disease, a bottle of DEET. Then, following a sandy piste through the rolling and cultivated landscape of Tanzania’s southeast highlands, we headed north towards the town of Songea, ninety miles away. Straw roofed rondavels constructed from lengths of branches gave way to more substantial square brick and mud huts of farming settlements surrounded by burnt brown fields which, where water flowed, were periodically supplanted by the green checker board squares of rice paddy fields.

Songea

By midday we were within a few miles of Songea; turning onto a tar road, we were soon caught up in hectic traffic and had our first encounter with the colourful, kamikaze intercity buses that were to become a very unwelcome and incredibly dangerous feature of our travel in Tanzania. At each street junction was a collection of motorcycle (Chinese of course!) taxis; their riders helmeted, as required by law, their passengers exempt this safety feature, enjoying that ‘Easy Rider’ feeling and their lives at the mercy of the doubtful skills of their rider.

Songea was a bustling, vibrant and chaotic place; full of people, roadside stalls and glorious African colour and noise. Its obvious prosperity was based upon the local abundance of sapphires and rubies and its banks had ATM’s.. the overlander’s monetary nirvana!! Ummm... well, not always!! Unfortunately after an hour of queuing in the midday sun at the mercy of the African queue etiquette .. a system that allows any number of people in front of you, about whom you are blissfully unaware, to leave the queue for whatever reason and return to their ‘place’ at any time; thus you may see a queue in front of you of three people, only to discover over a very frustrating hour or so that it really was a queue thirty three strong!.. when we reached the ATM and the security man stationed beside it, we found that ‘visah na gud,’. OK, we should have checked first!!

Luckily, having entered the bank and failed to change some dollars ..cue much nervousness and disaster looming scenario imagining!.. we were directed to another bank with a short queue without absentees and an ATM that accepted Visa. All of this had put us behind time, our intention had been to push on to the Lutheran Mission at Njombe, another hundred and fifty miles or so further north. Discussing this as we drove, we agreed to eat lunch on the hoof, ‘give it a go’ and see where we were by 5.30 pm. At the back of our minds was the overlander ‘wisdom’ that Tanzania was almost impossible to bush camp in without attracting unwanted attention and demands for money for camping on a probably fictitious landowner’s land.

Njombe

After a period of easy and fast travel ..Peter was in danger of exceeding 55 mph!.. we began to climb, and climb, and climb. We were getting into the south-eastern highlands proper, the Rift Valley escarpment known as the Livingstone Mountains that at their highest would reach an altitude of over 7,500 feet. It was a spectacular journey of hilltop villages, hairpins, switchbacks, staggeringly beautiful vistas, and false crests; as the air around us cooled, so scrub gave way to plantations of pine and eucalyptus, turning the browns and yellows into massive squares of dark green that clothed the hillsides to the far horizon.

We made Njombe as the last rays of the sun were giving way to the advance of the evening sky; the dusty, vehicle strewn town was being swept by a stiff, chilly breeze and the temperature had sunk below 20 oC. Its inhabitants, covered in several layers of clothing, the last invariably a puffer jacket of indeterminate age and condition, looked like an assortment of Michelin men as they bustled about making the most of the ebbing daylight. We found the Mission in one of the sandy backstreets off the main road; it was an impressive collection of immaculately maintained modern brick buildings, opposite which stood a Lutheran church that was rather similar in shape, if not size, to the Catholic cathedral in Liverpool.. Jeni and Alex please note! In the hostel we were given a room worthy of a hotel and had our first hot shower since Lilongwe.. bliss!!

Maasai Women

We were lucky to get a room, the Mission was holding a workshop over the following three days for a group of Maasai women from the Lutheran diocese of Njombe; a diocese that encompassed a huge area, as far east as the area around Iringa, some hundred miles away, and north into part of the Maasai tribal area that ran over five hundred miles to the Ngorongoro Crater and on into Kenya. On our arrival we had met one of the organisers, Sirkka Peltola, an eternally smiling, elderly Finnish version of Mrs Marples, who was fluent in Maasai as a result of years of work in their tribal lands on behalf of the Lutheran Church. She also spoke English, quietly and in that delightful sing-song lilt all Scandinavians seem to have; she was spending a month in the diocese and was awaiting the arrival of her ‘ladies’, very kindly she invited us to dine with them that evening.

When we entered the dining room we were met by Sirkka who introduced us to a Maasai pastor, Leonard Olipu, an energetic man intensely proud of his Maasai heritage, who then kindly introduced us, in Maasai, to the assembled twenty ladies. They were wearing their traditional colourful blankets as a shawl against the cold and under which they were in their very best and very iconic Maasai clothes and jewellery; to our delight they were all picture post card perfect, straight out of the glossy pages of a coffee table book. Over a buffet supper we learnt from Sirkka about the knife edge existence of these proud pastoral people; a traditional lifestyle increasingly threatened by a dwindling water supply and global warming, added to which were inter tribal tensions that made some in power indifferent to the Maasai’s culture and needs, even in times of hardship.

Of Words and Song

The women were there to learn how to start to market or improve sales of Maasai jewellery and other tourist souvenirs and so provide an alternative income stream for the family. As we all sat around the huge table and supper was drawing to a close, Sirkka asked Peter if he would be prepared to give a brief ..yes, brief, Peter!.. explanation of our African trip, which she would translate as and when Peter paused as he spoke. We were not sure what Sirkka said, but Peter’s explanation was greeted by laughter and murmured wonder in equal measure; citing our admiration for the Maasai women and our good fortune to be with them, drew applause and, never one to stop whilst he was ahead, the concluding ‘God bless you all’ brought about an impromptu series of Maasai songs. A particularly memorable and moving occasion; one lady led, singing solo accompanied by the rhythmic hand clapping of the rest, who, in their turn would every so often and as a chorus, sing a repetition of phrases that she had just sung. Just wonderful!
The Maasai women, through Sirkka, then let us know that they had some jewellery with them that was for sale.. quick learners or what!! We bought some pieces from the collections that were laid out on the table, but frankly we found that most were too bright and beaded for our taste. Sirkka, who would shortly return to Finland, was buying Christmas presents in bulk and ensured that few were left without the jingle ..more like the rustle!.. of money in their pockets.

Church, Chat and Farewell
On the 14th October, after a warm night under plenty of blankets, Peter got up early and accompanied Sirkka and the Maasai women to the Lutheran church for morning service. The pastor in charge of the Mission was there and ensured that Peter sat next to him; as the service was conducted totally in a mix of Swahili and Maasai, the pastor’s sotto voce explanations and guidance prevented any embarrassment! Written Swahili is a relatively recent invention and very phonetic, so Peter found the hymns in the hymn book easy to follow and the deep male bass singing wonderful to be part of. All the hymns were sung unaccompanied but when it came to a Maasai hymn, the ladies were on their own; standing, swaying, and clapping rhythmically and, as with the previous evening, one lady leading with the rest joining in at the chorus.

Towards the end of a cold breakfast, with the Maasai women around us at the table huddled in their blankets, the Lutheran bishop arrived and there was no escape!! Sirkka had warned us that he would be arriving to open the workshop and the impression given was of a few words and a swift exit. Oh dear, the words and prayers were many and the exit much delayed! When we came to leave we took a couple of group photos and some photos of the women in their best tribal dress and adorned with Maasai jewellery, promising to send copies from Dar es Salaam.

Photos over and as we were preparing to get into Boris, we were suddenly surrounded by excited and smiling Maasai women. With Sirkka acting as their interpreter they explained how much they had enjoyed meeting the ‘African Travellers’ from England and wished us a safe return to our family and presented us with jewellery as farewell gifts. We were quite overcome, what an honour and what kindness. Sirkka told us that this generosity towards relative strangers was unusual, we were greatly honoured and that the women were very taken by us and what we had done. How very memorable and very touching; Peter, who had never, ever worn jewellery before in his life, has, to this day never taken off the simple necklace that they placed around his neck.

The Tanzam Highway

We were now heading further north for our first visit to a Tanzanian national park, Ruaha; our delayed departure meant that we would now take two days to complete the journey, not one as we had planned, fortunately there was a campsite en route and about four hours away.. thank you Bradt Guide! Leaving behind the highland tea plantations with their unending lines of neatly clipped dark green, boxed hedgerows of tea bushes, we joined the ‘Tanzam Highway’ at a scruffy town that was nothing more than a pit stop for those travelling to and from Zambia by bus or lorry and had absolutely nothing to recommend it, apart from a working ATM and some badly needed fuel.

As we had seen elsewhere in Africa, this highway had become a magnet for the rural poor who believed they could make a better life selling to passing traffic; stores, stalls and small holdings lined the roadside selling almost anything and everything. In Tanzania it had reached heights we had not seen before and in the towns it had become a chaotic, cramped display of jerry built commercial enterprise that was constantly in danger of being swept to oblivion by the coaches and huge trucks that hurtled past. Seemingly the only time that enterprise was rewarded was at what had become ..and the reason for this was never clear.. a truck and coach stop; at each, vehicles had pulled halfway off the road and were surrounded by a suicidal sea of hopefuls spilling out onto the road; jostling and shouting, they surrounded each vehicle holding up for the appreciation of the potential buyers in cab or coach seat what they had to offer, a resupply piled precariously on their head.

Kisolanza Farm

By early afternoon we reached the turning for Kisolanza Farm. Set back in rolling countryside only a mile from the main road and owned by the same family for more than sixty years, the farm’s main source of income traditionally was from livestock. However the owners had ‘diversified’ into a range of accommodation and there was now an excellent campsite shaded by acacia trees and nearby the original family residence, the Old Farmhouse, had become a restaurant. We were greeted by a lovely, charming and helpful girl, Sarah, who was studying tourism management and working at Kisolanza to pay her way though university. She was well versed in the art of customer care, a welcome change from the, ‘take it or leave it’, and, ’I’ll get round to you when I have time’, approach of so many Africans in the tourist industry.

We made the most of this unexpected stop-over; on the advice of Mark, the English farm manager, we went for a lovely walk on paths through the farmland and watched the red disc of the setting sun sink behind the jagged sharks teeth of distant dark mountains; close by under trees and at the base of a kopje was a small and unkempt cemetery for members of the farming family. The simple graves, in particular that of a young son mauled to death by a lion, were adorned with pots and other funereal items in a touching display of affection by the Tanzanian farm staff. Candle lit dinner in the restaurant followed; delicious farm fillet steaks accompanied by fresh produce straight from the farm’s vegetable garden; vegetables and a freshness we had not encountered since leaving South Africa.. scrumptious!

Brian and Carol

Mark was also dining in the restaurant and when Liz, in a manner so reminiscent of her mother, went to compliment him on the meal and in particular the vegetables, Mark said he would have a basket of fresh vegetables prepared and ready for us to take the following morning ..not a freebie, mind you, it apparently was something that guests could order in advance! Also dining in the restaurant were the only other campers on the site, a charming Australian couple, Brian and Carol Jones, baby boomers living near Brisbane whose working life had been linked to farming and the sheep industry; they too were heading towards Ruaha and north through Africa to Europe. Unknown to us and in true overlanding tradition, over the following six months we would either be missing them by days or bumping into each other again throughout our subsequent travels in Tanzania, through Kenya and north to Tunisia.


To Tungamalenga and Ruaha

The following morning, 15th October, Liz having picked up a HUGE basket of the freshest, picked that morning, selection of vegetables ..the handmade basket was included in the price.. we returned to the Tanzam Highway and set off towards Iringa, a regional administrative centre perched in spectacular fashion on a small plateau above a steep escarpment rising from beside the highway. Despite the improvised chaos of road works and Peter being stopped for not wearing a seatbelt .. by impeccably proper policemen who sought no ‘reward’ and only issued a friendly warning to their ‘papa’.. we reached Iringa in good time and turned off onto the poorly maintained gravel track that led to Ruaha.

The track passed through a rolling landscape clothed in dense scrub savannah and steadily deteriorated, becoming increasingly and numbingly corrugated, every so often cut by the deep and dangerous serrations of the flash floods of last year’s rains and behind us billowed an all enveloping cloud of white powder-dust. We passed Maasai settlements with huge cattle pens constructed from fences of interlaced thorned branches of nearby acacia trees. Cattle are integral to the Maasai culture, a man’s worth and wealth is based in large part on the number of cattle he has, a herd of about fifty being just about respectable. The pens stood empty, almost desolate and forlorn in the unforgiving glare of the midday sun; the cattle were out with the herdsmen seeking what sustenance they could extract from a parched and already overgrazed scrub thick with acacia bushes.

Bizarrely and to our complete astonishment, the larger settlements, those of the Hehe people, had within them large Greek orthodox churches complete with cupolas and lashings of blue and white paint. The paint had been freshly applied in honour of the visit of the Greek orthodox bishop, a portly, bearded man in flowing black robes and wearing short chimney pot hat, whose Mercedes car and entourage we passed as slowly as possible so as not to choke the poor man to death with our dust!

The campsite we had chosen was at Tugamalenga Lodge, in the village of the same name that was about fifteen miles from the park’s entrance. We arrived just after midday and were greeted by the owner, Dexter, a short and very energetic man from Njombe who couldn’t do enough for us and fed Peter’s ego by asking his advice on the fixtures and fittings in the Lodge’s rooms. As a result, without checking out the local alternatives to what was, in all honesty, a cramped and somewhat underwhelming site, we decided to stay put and ..it gets worse!.. Peter paid for two nights in advance; this was probably an error! When Brian and Carol turned up that afternoon, their sense of judgement was not clouded by Dexter’s sales patter and they looked elsewhere ..and stayed elsewhere!

Ruaha National Park

Mid afternoon the following day, 16th October, found us at the park gates paying the not inconsiderable entry fee that covered the next 24 hours but was, however, considerably cheaper than that for other national parks in Tanzania. Our intention was to do an afternoon and evening game drive, followed the next morning by an extended ‘dawn patrol’. We had found that, where possible, splitting the 24 hour period in this fashion was less tiring and better value as we were able to target the next morning areas that had been productive the previous evening. Ruaha, Tanzania’s second largest national park, lived up to its Bradt Guide sobriquet** as being, ‘regarded by the safari cognoscenti to be the country’s best kept game-viewing secret’; its topography alone was stunning, encompassing woodland, classic open savannah, rolling hills and mountains and through which ran a magnet for its rich and diverse wildlife population in the dry season, the Great Ruaha River.

Certainly we had never seen another park to match it. Ruaha was a tourist free gem; at one point we stopped, on a bend in a dusty track at the top of a hill overlooking the river, to marvel at the view ahead. Laid out before us was a sun drenched scene that, as a photograph, would have been in danger of being assumed to be a computerised composition. From beneath us ran the wide, snaking course of the river, reduced to a stream by the dry season and its sandy bed exposed, at intervals were black and grey shoals of rocks amongst which large pools were home to the black shapes of half submerged hippos and the surrounding sandbanks were dashed with the log–like forms of sunbathing crocodiles; grey almost shapeless figures of feeding elephants moved slowly amongst the wide green ribbons of woodland that ran along each bank; beyond the far bank, a yellow savannah dotted with the iconic shapes of majestic umbrella thorn trees and home to scattered herds of feeding antelope, stretched for miles to distant wooded hills and dark, brooding mountains.

Game Drives, Drinks and Death

We spent a marvellous five hours touring tracks through riverine woodland and savannah deserted apart from the occasional view of Brian and Carol’s vehicle. We sat watching elephants, lone bulls and family groups, coming to drink from pools that, encouraged by a bad tempered trumpet and a waggle of trunk and ears, were quickly deserted by skittish antelope. On a riverbank mound, a jumble of bodies and legs that was a pride of ten lions and their young asleep amongst undergrowth in the shade of a fig tree; gradually and singly it began to unravel as they awoke from their slumber, raised themselves onto their haunches and scented the early evening breeze in increasingly focused anticipation. As we made our way back to the park gate, a twenty strong family group of banded mongoose scuttled across the road in front of us, tails erect and heading to the security of their colony’s burrows. Marvellous!
We wanted to get to our evening’s rendezvous with Brian and Carol before sunset; we were having an al fresco candlelit dinner at the Greek run Tandala Camp, with sundowners beforehand at the bar from where we could watch elephants drinking at Tandala’s waterhole. The elephants, their approach invisible in the surrounding darkening bush, were almost exclusively bull elephants and came singly to the waterhole, either waiting their turn or, on the basis of some accepted macho precedence, barged in unchallenged to slake their thirst. A spellbound public drank considerably less and decidedly more quietly!

We returned to the Great Ruaha River just after dawn the following morning; it was an equally productive game drive, the highlight was following a group of hyenas to the pride’s kill in the river bed and watching the ensuing stand-off. The uncertain, almost crawling approach of the boldest of the hyenas was quickly aborted when a prone, feeding lion raised its head, tensed and made to get up. This charade continued whilst one replete lion after another withdrew to the shade of the river bank to lick the blood from its face and then fall asleep; with the last lion out of the way the emboldened and chattering hyenas descended on the remains of the carcass, pulling and tearing at it, desperate to get their fill and were, in their turn, now surrounded by nature’s next in line clean up squad: hunched and expectant vultures.

After lunch at a designated picnic spot beside the river, where any noise in the surrounding scrub took on alarming potential, we left this great national park and reacquainted ourselves with the corrugations and dust of the track to Iringa. Reaching the Tanzam Highway, we travelled east for no more than thirty miles before leaving the highway and descending to the banks of the Little Ruaha River and the Riverside Campsite. The site was immaculately maintained by its new English owners; ablutions clean, the shower with ample hot water and our riverside pitch, with electricity, shaded by trees and surrounded by mown grass ..just perfect.

Road works and Oncoming Coaches

Early the next day we returned to the highway and were almost immediately negotiating the most horrendous series of road works and detours. As seemed to be the norm for road improvement in Africa, a succession of lengthy sections of road, often well in excess of fifteen miles, were being ripped up and then intermittently worked on ...presumably as the funding, depleted by the predation of corrupt officials, allowed.

Each temporary detour thus became near permanent and soon deteriorated into an unmaintained, dust laden, undulating, potholed track that ran beside the now defunct Highway. Overtaking was a near impossibility and, slowed to a snail’s pace following over stressed, over laden trucks towing over laden trailers that disjointedly yawed and bucked over the uneven surface, the frustration of the kamikaze coach driver reached fever pitch.

Reaching a tarred section meant only one thing: pedal to the metal and to hell with any other road user, no matter their size. Their target: overtaking all and sundry, particularly the speeding coach in front! A truly frightening experience should you have the misfortune to face an oncoming coach on your side of the road, its lights flashing and with every intention of forcing you out of its way.

To Morogoro

Two hours later we were beyond the road works and travelling along a dramatic pass carved through the Udzungwa Mountain National Park by the Great Ruaha River as it forged its way east towards to the Selous and the Indian Ocean. An area of scenic beauty according to our map; scenic, certainly, but the beauty of the national park’s gorges and mountain sides was seriously circumscribed by the ravages of uncontrolled wildfires. Ohhh ..why do they do it??

We continued eastward towards the town of Morogoro, about a hundred miles away and where we would leave the Tanzam Highway for good and head to the Selous National Park. Our intention was to spend the night at the well appointed Melela Nzuri campsite. It was thirty miles short of the town and on the eastern side of the Mikumi National Park, across which the Tanzam Highway cut a thirty mile long tar passage and where road kill, despite a speed limit and plenty of speed humps, was an ongoing problem for the animals of the park’s dry grasslands. Being camera-happy tourists and not speeding truck drivers, we pulled over to capture elephant, giraffe and antelope feeding amongst the bushes at the roadside and were brought to a halt in the road by a group of zebras crossing in front of us ...yes, a real zebra crossing!

Despite the Bradt Guide’s best endeavours, the campsite, reached along a two mile track, had become a fiction. As the result of two years without rain, and probably some serial mismanagement, the site was a dust bowl and a scene of complete desolation; it was no more! Too late to move on to anywhere else, we stayed on for free amongst the skeletal remains of partly collapsed rondavels whilst nearby a rather unsavoury group of men fired rifles at an array of oil drums until the fading light forced them to stop.

By nine o’clock the next morning were entering Morogoro, thirty miles and a complete world away. A green and pleasant land; Morogoro was at the heart of a rich agricultural region and had looming over its backdrop the verdant, mist enshrouded Uluguru Mountains. Stopping in the town centre, where vestiges of its German colonial past were still evident, we visited an ATM and completed our shopping before following the shopkeeper’s directions to the dirt track that would take us south towards the foothills of the Uluguru Mountains.

From Morogoro to Matembwe Gate

Our route to the Selous National Park and its northern entrance at Matembwe turned out to be one of our most memorable for some time; not least, for Peter, because it passed beneath the largest pair of boobs in the world! The twin mountain peaks of Matombo ..or ‘breasts’ in the local langauge.. required a vivid imagination to live up to their name; Peter tried desperately hard, but Liz sensed a certain disappointment! The rough track initially wound its way through a rich farmland tapestry of bananas, tropical fruit trees and cereal crops; the huts of these friendly Islamic farming communities jostling for space alongside the track in an almost unbroken line until we began to climb further into the damp, lush foothills.

Here forest replaced fields and we were passing down the nave of one of nature’s green cathedrals, an arching avenue created by the majestic tall trees of glorious creeper clad old growth, branches home to colonies of ferns and orchids. It seemed to be an almost untouched area of rain forest and was too good to miss; we managed to find a picnic spot in the shaded interior beside the crystal clear pool of a spring fed stream. As we ate, butterflies danced in the shafts of sunshine, while above us echoed the calls of passing trumpeter hornbills and distant troops of blue monkeys ..idyllic perfection!!

This all too brief encounter with near pristine nature over, we came to the edge of the plateau upon which the mountains stood and beneath us the escarpment dropped nearly a thousand feet to the yellow-brown carpet of the Nzasa Plains that stretched to the far southern horizon and the Selous Game Reserve. The national park is but a small northern section of what is the biggest game reserve in all of Africa and Africa’s largest area of protected wilderness. Camping in the national park was prohibitively expensive, so it was our intention to bush camp close to the Matembwe Gate and then spend a full day in the park leaving by its southern gate and the track leading towards the distant coast ..our subsequent objective.

Selous National Park

In the dusty, dry heat of the plains and as the afternoon turned into evening we tried several potential bush campsites, at one of which a tired driver managed to ‘redesign’ Boris’s rear end somewhat! Finding one that gave us the security we sought, repairs were effected by the driver and the chef produced a marvellously spicy vegetable stew that was washed down by the last vestiges of our only remaining bottle of red wine. There then followed a game of Spite and Malice, won by the chef!

At 7am the following day, 20th October, we were standing in front of the deserted national park offices at Matembwe Gate; normally park offices are manned from 6am sharp, so this was a frustrating indication of the infrequency with which this entrance was used. A sheepish female member of staff appeared but didn’t seem to be qualified to take our entrance fee; we waited and waited, she called someone on her cell phone, and we waited ..eventually a fully qualified ‘entrance fee receiver’ arrived. Ten minutes and $180 later ..yes,$180 for one day’s entry!!.. the ‘unqualified one’ raised the barrier and we entered the national park.

We have to say that, bearing in mind the cost, we were frustrated and somewhat underwhelmed by the Selous National Park. Game was hard to find and the routes in the north of the park unsigned and confusing; good guess work and use of the GPS compass got us to where we wanted to go ..eventually and late in the morning, by which time the banks of the river fed lakes were deserted. A scorching hot afternoon in the southern section proved a little more rewarding, two bloodied male lions asleep under a tree beside a zebra carcass the highlight, but it was again light on game when compared to Ruaha. There was also considerably more tourist traffic ..well anything over two vehicles would constitute ‘crowded’ after Ruaha. And once again we failed to spot a pack of wild dogs, despite a yelled, ‘two minutes ago, just over there’ from a helpful driver .. oh, grrrrr!!

The campsite just outside the national park restored our good humour. Owned and run by a young Anglo-Tanzanian couple, the Selous River Campsite was so constructed as to be as eco friendly and as unobtrusive as possible; it was set amongst trees inhabited by a troop of red colubus monkeys, on the banks of the wide River Rufiji ..ummm, confusing!.. and we had
the most perfect pitch right on the river bank with a small cleared and flattened promontory jutting out into the river for our exclusive use as a sundowner-cum-supper spot. After a refreshing shower, we sat sipping cold beers watching the gurgling river turn a golden orange as the sun sank towards the shelter of the forest on the far bank, accompanied by hippos laughing at the latest joke and the final eerie calls of a fish eagle ..bliss almost beyond belief!!

To the Coast and the Kilwas

A long day’s drive began at 8 am; we were heading to an area of the Tanzanian seaboard that for three hundred years had been the most opulent and important settlement on the entire eastern coast of Africa. A great medieval mercantile city, the centre of the ‘Golden Age’ of the Swahili coast and, built upon the export of gold mined in what is now Zimbabwe, the centre of a trading empire that stretched across the Indian Ocean, north to Persia and east to India and China; a city once thought to be the site of King Solomon’s mines and immortalised as Quiloa in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The ruins of this city, Kilwa, stand on a small island thus giving it its modern title of Kilwa Kisiwani (Kilwa on the Island) and a mile from the port of Kilwa Masoko (Kilwa of the Market) a product of the British colonial era. We hoped to find a campsite in Kilwa Masoko, visiting the World Heritage Site of Kilwa Kisiwani and the nearby late C18th Omani port of Kilwa Kivinje (Kilwa of the Casuarina Trees), whose shorter period of pre-eminence was based on the trafficking of slaves from the Lake Niassa area.

An Imperfect Crossing

The sandy track from the Selous River Campsite followed the eastward course of the River Rufiji, a picturesque route through badly managed colonial era cashew nut plantations. We came to a bend that was in effect a Y junction and chose to leave the main track in favour of a narrower one leading off to our right. Although it was the more direct route to the main road, it became strangely devoid of traffic and began to look hardly used. The bridge we came across provided the answer; probably dating from the colonial era, it reminded us of the gaunt, wood and iron girder railroad bridges that, along with the train passing over, always collapsed into the river below in a disaster so beloved by the makers of 1950’s westerns!

This one hadn’t collapsed, though it looked about to do so! The one hundred yard long rusty structure had no safety rail and crossed a dry river bed, some thirty feet below, to a village on the far bank. The ‘roadway’ consisted of loose planks of differing widths, thicknesses and lengths; all were old and some were badly decayed with chunks missing. It was possible to discern the tracks of tyres, but were they of carts or cars and were any as heavy as Boris ..food for thought!

For some reason Peter was determined to carry on and with Liz in a state of growing hysteria, her eyes tight shut, he began the crossing. The planks squealed, squeaked, moved, rumbled and creaked under Boris’s weight; the gaps ahead seemed to grow larger and, alarmingly, some planks with only one wheel on, rose feet in the air before falling back; it was a deafening and cautious advance with no real chance of return. By the time we were over half way across, Peter noticed that a large crowd of villagers had gathered on the far bank to watch the outcome ..very disturbing!! Greeted by the grins and thumbs up of the watching crowd, we made terra firma and Liz at last had time to beat the driver over the head!

Of a Detour, Danger and a Dutchman

The main road to the coast was a complete nightmare; initially tar, after only ten miles it became one long African detour of dust, coaches and chaos lasting nearly forty five miles! Once free of the detour we came to the coastal town of Somanga; where we were could see that the main road ahead was blocked by a crowd of agitated people. A road accident we thought, we drew closer and suddenly found ourselves right in the midst of an angry crowd of a hundred or more local men. They surged around us, faces pushed against the windows were distorted in real or manufactured hate and anger; they shouted, waved clenched fists, tried to open Boris’s doors and then in frustration banged on the bodywork.

We were getting very alarmed and felt very vulnerable. Had a tourist car killed a local? Had the west bombed an Islamic target with a major loss of life? Questions without answers and visions of bloody revenge being exacted, Congo style, flashed through our minds. A Tanzanian army vehicle with four armed men standing in the back observing the melee was nearby, but no assistance was forthcoming. Peter decided that to secure our own safety the only thing to do was to drive through, injuring as few people as possible. As he revved the engine and we began to move, elements in the crowd, much to our relief, waved us forward, opening up a clear route out to the safety of an empty road. Phew, what a relief!

Liz was really badly shaken up by it all and it was only later that we realised that our lives had not really been in danger. Unknown to us it was a demonstration by local fishermen against a government agreement to allow the WWF to create and manage a large marine reserve encompassing the atolls and reefs off the nearby coast. A much needed concession to protect this part of the Songo Songo Archipelago that had suffered from dynamite fishing and coral mining. But the fishermen’s livelihoods were threatened and they were not happy; we, as white faces, had become the innocent target of their fury.

Unsurprisingly we arrived in Kilwa Masoko emotionally drained by these two scary incidents, exhausted, dirty and short on goodwill. Our humour was not improved by the campsite at the Kilwa Seaside Resort; expensive, unshaded and above a smelly sea weed covered beach at one end of a spectacular bay, it was not what we were expecting. There were no other campsites in the town as far as we were aware, but there were other resorts and it was worth a try.

At the second attempt we got the answer we sought. Kimbilio Lodge was in a stunning setting, at the centre of the curve of the bay and right on the edge of a white sand beach washed by a sea that was a postcard aquamarine blue in the afternoon sun. Six unoccupied thatched rondavels stood on a slope that ran down to an open sided bar-cum-restaurant and the beach; the young barman assured us that we could camp in the shaded, sandy area that served as a car park, but we would need to discuss this with Stefan, the Dutchman who ran the lodge.

Stefan didn’t appear until early evening, by which time we had swum in seawater that was ludicrously warm, walked along a shell strewn beach where our footsteps squeaked in the coral white sand and were now sitting at the bar having sundowners. Stefan was a charming gentleman, in every sense of the word, in his early thirties he spoke perfect English and instantly agreed to our request to camp in the Lodge’s car park and use the ‘facilities’ of the Lodge’s PADI dive school, temporarily closed by the absence of the Italian instructor ..for as long as we wanted and at a very reasonable charge. Excellent!

A Great Green Project

We spent the early evening with Stefan; Liz, in a manner steeped in a family tradition, charmed her host into revealing the details of his life. He had been staying at the Lodge for nearly two years and, explaining his dishevelled, dusty clothes, was in the process of growing and trying to bring to market a bio-fuel extracted from the nuts of an indigenous, quick growing bush called Jatropha. It was an amazing plant that was drought tolerant, benefited from being kept small by close pruning, and fruited throughout the year thus providing a continuous supply of nuts for mechanical harvesting.

He was at the business end of a European consortium funding the eco-friendly venture. It had leased locally over 54,000 acres to grow the crop and the estate employed over 500 people that would otherwise be unemployed; any trees that had to be cleared were sawn into planks and used by manufacturers in northern Tanzania. The intention was to export the nuts to Europe from the harbour at Kilwa Masoko; in Europe the oil would be extracted, used to create bio- diesel and the remaining bio-mass burnt in electricity generating plants.

Stefan was a natural born enthusiast and entrepreneur and he was well aware of the Lodge’s great potential as a holiday, sport fishing and dive venue, so when the opportunity arose, he took over the management of the Lodge with the long term intention of becoming the owner and remaining in Tanzania.

The impending arrival of the ‘short rains’ season and a general tourist perception that Tanzania consists only of the ‘northern circuit’ of Serengeti and Ngorongoro, meant that over the four days we spent at the Lodge and touring the Kilwas, we were the only tourists around ..perhaps Stefan has his work cut out!.. for us a welcome, hassle free interlude.

Kilwa Kivinje and Kisiwani

Our first trip was to Kilwa Kivinje about half an hour away. For the historian, African and architectural, it was an absolute gem; a old Swahili town and port area that was full of the fascinating, crumbling relics of a trading and colonial past. We walked the sandy streets; past rows of three storey, rag coral constructed mercantile buildings of the Omani C19th slave trading era and in the shadows of the imposing administrative buildings of a thirty year German colonial period that ended with WWI. The British, by changing the area’s centre of gravity to Kilwa Masoko, and nature, by silting up the harbour, hastened Kilwa Kivinje’s decline into an obscurity and a lack of development that has helped bring about this marvellous window into East Africa’s Swahili past.

Recommended by Stefan, we took a guide with us to Kilwa Kisiwani. A lateen fishing dhow took us to and from the island, a memorable voyage that was instructive in understanding the unique sailing techniques used by these iconic East African boats. Stephan was quite right, to be fully understood and put in context the extensive ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani needed a guide and Athuman did an adequate if at times rather hurried job. Enough remained of walls, mosques and buildings to enable us to imagine the imposing grandeur of the palace, the town and its port, as the fabulously wealthy Omani rulers projected their influence over the medieval East African coastline and the Indian Ocean.

To Dar es Salaam

A final meal at Kimbilio’s restaurant, once again the absolutely, stunningly, scrumptious crab salad ..the enormous crabs came from the nearby mangrove swamp and their meat was
so tasty, oooooh! And for a red spotted Peter, a final humid night of a mossie feeding frenzy in the tent ..how did they get in and why only Peter?

The early morning of 25th October saw the first serious rain of the ‘short rains’ season, giving Boris a much needed wash down and breaking the humidity and high temperature. We drove north on damp roads for the first hour, passed through a peaceful Somanga ..phew!!.. and were then back onto the detour from hell. Crossing the River Rufiji for the last time and the road works behind us, we made good time and were approaching Dar es Salaam by early afternoon.

We were not going to enter Dar ..as overlanders call it!.. but make for the campsite recommended by, amongst others, the overlanding couple, David and Eva, who ran the gorgeous lakeside campsite, the Chintheche Inn, in Malawi. We would thus be on the coast a few miles to the south of Dar ..remember!.. and, in order to shop, get our India visas, the ferry to Zanzibar and so on, we would have to catch a ten minute ferry service that crossed the Kurasini Creek from the village of Kigamboni to central Dar.

Sunrise Beach Resort

We found the Sunrise Beach Resort with little difficulty and were impressed with the lack of tourists, the facilities and the small campsite set amongst palms, on the beach and within feet of the sea , and overjoyed with the ‘cheap as chips’ cost!! Walking back up the beach after a lovely swim ..yet more white sand and warm blue ocean!.. to our delight we discovered that the Kiwi couple we had last seen at Hazyview in South Africa, Fred and Leona, were also staying at the half deserted campsite. We spent a happy evening under the stars, exchanging travellers’ tales over a candle lit meal on the beach brought to us from the resort’s restaurant. They kindly offered to take us into Dar the following day to re-introduce us to the delights of well stocked supermarkets and stop off at a good restaurant. After we had gone to bed the night air was reverberating to the mind numbing and very annoying repetitive beat of a nearby disco, just awful and it was impossible to sleep until it stopped at about 3am ..did this happen every night? Oh Lors!

The sea glowed pink as the sun rose over the far curve of the bay, an imperfect glowing bronze circle surrounded and partly hidden by clouds of the ‘short rains’; clouds that at first a monochrome black became suffused with yellows and reds, before taking on a more natural grey-white and floated inland over the early morning joggers on the beach below, where we sat eating our breakfast. We discovered from Vee Jay, the very pleasant Tanzanian Indian resort manager, that the overnight disco was part of a wedding celebration and not a regular event, thank heavens!

A Visit to Dar

The ferry experience was just as manic as Fred had predicted: a long queue; a mad, hooting, weaving rush to board; a ten minute period of relative calm; followed by another manic, hooting dodgem style crush to disembark, complicated by a sea of foot passengers rushing to do the same. Fred, not short on testosterone and an ex-rally driver, took no prisoners as he used the imposing bulk of his land cruiser to carve a way through the traffic and passengers onto dry land.

We didn’t quite shop until we dropped, but the mall and supermarket did well and we came away with things, imported and expensive, that we hadn’t seen for ages; including halvah for Liz, with mars bars and, much to his delight, an up to date copy of his comic ..The Economist.. for Peter.

Preparations for Our Holiday

The next two days we shuttled back and forth from Dar, using a ‘tuk-tuk’ (a great, open to the air, motorised three wheeled taxi of Indian origin) to get us to and from the ferry. We put in our applications for an Indian visa ..our flight to Bangalore was in ten days time.. and bought tickets for the ferry to Zanzibar .. a short four day trip before we left for India. All a bit harum-scarum, but we were looking forward to a break, to a holiday; time out of Boris and a bit of luxury on the ‘Spice Island’ and, above all, time with Becca, Andy and the girls in India ...Granny Amma just couldn’t wait!

Peter was at last able to christen his mask and snorkel and put them to good use snorkelling under instruction from Fred, a veteran sub aqua diver, amongst coral reefs no more than fifteen metres off the beach; a rehearsal for Zanzibar. Liz didn’t have any snorkelling equipment and found Peter’s lengthy absences and her growing, gnawing desire to be in England with the family at Christmas, unsettling and draining.

On the afternoon of 30th October Peter collected our Indian visas from the High commission. Everything was coming together nicely as we made our final excited preparations for the following day’s trip to Zanzibar. With an early ferry departure and only 24 hours between our return and the flight to Bangalore we needed to start to get things sorted out and Liz, ever the organiser, that evening did just that. Then ...disaster!!

Disaster Strikes

Liz paused from packing to go and join Peter ‘next door’ having a sundowner with Fred and Leona. About 45 minutes later she returned to Boris and then came back ashen faced ..the bag containing our passports, ferry tickets, camera, money and bank cards had been stolen from her front seat in Boris. Her door had been closed but not locked ..she had only been going a few feet away, but someone had been watching and waiting.

We were stuffed!! With no passports we couldn’t get to Zanzibar and certainly not to India. Our holiday plans were now in tatters and, to cap it all, it was Friday; the weekend was ahead and any recovery plan could only begin on Monday, just three days before the flight to Bangalore.

It was one of those events, so disastrous in its implications that it was quite literally gut-wrenching and we seriously and desperately hoped that it was all a nightmare; it really hadn’t happened and, once awake, things would be back to normal. But it had happened, our minds were in turmoil, we were in despair. What were we to do? What could we do?
A search of the campsite, bins and surrounding scrub drew a blank. Assuming it was an inside job, Peter wrote out on A4 paper and posted around the resort some, ‘Reward, No Questions Asked’, notices asking anyone who ‘found’ any of the items to return them to us ..$250 was on offer, but there were no takers. All we wanted were the passports ...please,they are no use to you.. only our passports, please!

After a sleepless night, the following morning we cancelled our hotel bookings in Zanzibar and then phoned the duty officer at the British High Commission; as we had photocopies of our passports’ details page and providing we had a police report confirming the theft and were there first thing on Monday morning, we should be able to get new passports issued within 48 hours, in time for the flight to India on Thursday ..a fantastic relief, BUT would the Indian equivalent be as helpful? We would find out on Monday.

Police and Prisoners

The head of security at the resort took us in his car to the police station at Kigamboni; a collection of badly dilapidated brick bungalows set in an area of sandy scrub, partly enclosed by rusty and largely flattened chain link fencing. Parking outside the largest of the buildings, we walked past two battered police vehicles that would have done a demolition derby proud and then through the main door into a large room, where we were immediately faced by a long battered wooden counter barring further progress and behind it, to its left, a grey cell door.

Two police officers, one writing at a desk, the other, a short plump woman mostly hidden by the counter, were on duty. However as neither was able to write English well enough, we had to wait for a third officer to appear before we could dictate our statements. These were then taken down in longhand, part of a maddeningly slow bureaucratic morning; we waited for our statements to be duplicated, in longhand; we waited for the officer of the right rank to countersign them; and we waited for ..well, we just waited.
As a result we were able to observe police detention in Tanzania at close quarters. The small cell contained a minimum of four very cramped detainees, revealed when the door opened illuminating its dark interior as a plastic ‘slops’ bucket was handed in. Feeding them was obviously the responsibility of relatives or friends, one of whom appeared with food and a bottle of water; the former slid underneath the door, the latter squeezed through the bars in its foot square ‘window’. Otherwise the cellmates variously; rested with a nose wedged under the door to breathe in cooler air free from the smells in the cell; peered through the bars at the outside world, the whites of faceless brown eyes flashing in the dark as the owner blinked; or just rattled the door to annoy inmates and police alike.

Towards the end of our ordeal a Kalashnikov toting policeman entered, pushing a miscreant before him; the prisoner was not handcuffed and obviously well known to the police in the room. He was destined for the Black Hole of Calcutta, but before removing the man’s belt and shoe laces, the policeman laid his gun down on a table just to the man’s left and within arm’s reach. Looking up and obviously thinking better of this, the policeman then picked the weapon up and handed it to his prisoner whilst he unlocked the gun cabinet and was in his turn then handed the weapon to stow away!! A marvellous piece of ‘Africana’!


The High Commission to the Rescue

On the 2nd November were at the High Commission’s gates twenty minutes before it opened. Once inside, the visa section’s cool, air conditioned atmosphere was amply reflected by the official who dealt with us; she was incredibly sympathetic and calmly explained how ..for a large fee!.. we could obtain a brand new passport valid for ten years. Marvellous, we felt proud to be British!

Documentation completed and fee paid ..we had a large store of dollars hidden in a safe in Boris for such eventualities.. we left ..whistling the chorus from ‘Rule Britannia’!.. to return the following morning and collect our new passports. Now for the Indian High Commission ...Arghhhh!!! It was closed, some Guru’s birthday; how could they!

The closure of the Indian High Commission really put a dampener on our day. It had taken the High Commission 48 hours to issue our original visa, if that was repeated then our replacement visa would not be ready until Thursday and in the worse case, in a repetition of its collection, not before early afternoon..too late for us to get the flight. Two steps forward and one back! We would plead our case and hope for the best.

For Liz this was sheer mental torture and she slept badly that night. An equally sleep challenged Peter had one of those, ‘what if’, moments that ensure any prospect of sleep goes out of the tent flap ..our new passports would not contain a Tanzanian visa or any record of our entry into the country; there would probably be no time to get a new one and to any immigration officer at the Dar airport, we would appear to be ‘illegals’ and a full, lengthy, flight missing investigation needed ...Arghhhh! Two steps forward and two back!!

The following morning at the British High Commission, Peter’s ‘what if’ fears were allayed; providing we showed the immigration official our police report of the theft there should be no problem, but, ’just in case’, we were given a High Commission name and number for any unconvinced official to phone. Excellent, one down and one to go!

To our relief the Indian High Commission proved equally sympathetic and helpful. Within 20 minutes we were sitting in the office of the Head of the Visa Section, being told that all that needed to be done was to reissue the existing visa. The cost was minimal and she assured us the passports would be ready that afternoon! The High Commission was true to its word. By 5 pm, as we sat on the ferry to Kigamboni, we had new visas in new passports, a name and phone number to overcome any problems at the airport and new bank cards would be awaiting our arrival in India. What a result! Yippee, we would be going to Bangalore!!

But it was at this stage, with time on our hands, that we began to be deeply saddened by the loss of the cotton shoulder bag ..liz’s favourite and bought at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Gabon.. and the photos on the memory card in the camera, some excellent shots and all souvenirs of a fantastic trip through southern Tanzania. These were irreplaceable losses that probably ended up in a ditch near to Sunrise Resort. How sad!

The next 36 hours was a mixture of relaxation ..swimming and sunbathing.. and preparation for Bangalore. At midday on Thursday 5TH November we collapsed the tent, put the cover on and drove around to the manager’s office beside which and completely secure, Boris would be parked for the next ten days. The taxi arrived on time, we waved good bye to Fred and Leona and headed for the airport.

Our Holiday Begins

Airport Immigration was unhappy with our lack of a Tanzanian visa, to the extent that the Head of Immigration was called, questioned us and then, after a rap across the knuckles, waved us through. Phew! Emirates lived up to its reputation and we had a superb flight to Dubai ..well we both loved the food, extra space and service, but Peter was frustrated by the limited selection of current films available and began to mutter about choosing BA next time!

Arriving in Dubai at midnight local time, we were surprised to find it a veritable ants’ nest of activity, crowds of people with over laden trolleys going to one departure gate or another. We spent some time snacking in Starbucks ..yes, sorry coffee house aficionados, we did!!.. then looked at cameras in the unending duty free area, making a mental note of what to buy on our return with plastic once again in our pocket, before proceeding to our gate and the connecting 4 am Emirates flight to Bangalore.

Bangalore

Breaking through the low cloud above the Bangalore countryside, we were surprised both by the rich green of the landscape and its obvious dampness, surely the monsoon season was over! After a perfect landing, Liz waited impatiently to disembark, only to discover that once within the terminal we queued for what seemed for ever to pass through a very comprehensive check for swine flu ..scanned by thermal imaging equipment and questioned by gowned and masked medical staff, all rather apocalyptic! Then, at last reunited with our luggage, we headed for the exit and almost at once Liz’s face broke into a huge smile; there were they were: Becca, Andy and the girls. Just marvellous!

Maya was clearly ecstatic to see Granny Amma, Lilly was somewhat less sure about us but by the time we were putting the luggage into the taxi, was smiling and happy to be cuddled by a thrilled Liz. It was a long and somewhat chaotic journey into Bangalore and all reminiscent of Africa, somehow we had been expecting something less third world and more emerging nation; a sense of municipal affluence and pride appropriate for this hub of India’s IT and Call Centre industries. The stench of the open sewers, the dirt in the streets and pile upon pile of assorted rubbish gave us pause for thought, this was worse than Africa and India still had some way to go before realising its ambitions.

But all this was insignificant; a momentary, transient surprise that was swept aside by the joy of being in Bangalore with a family we adored. Leaving our luggage unpacked, we spread ourselves into two motorised rickshaws and went for lunch at a local restaurant. A complete and utter antidote to our earlier impressions, this was India at its best .. a superb, spicy set menu served on banana leaves; a kaleidoscope of colours, flavours and textures; attended by a smiling and engaging team of waiters who couldn’t do enough for us; and all at a price that in England would buy a loaf of bread in Waitrose! Absolutely fantastic!

For the record of the rest of our, wetter than expected, time in Bangalore and our visit to Mysore and its rich history, please visit the relevant pages of Maya’s blog ***. We enjoyed every minute of it; for Liz a return to a country she had last visited as a wandering gypsy 40 years ago; for Peter a marvellous first experience of the superb cuisine of India and a fascinating encounter with the history, culture, vibrancy, commercialism and chaos of this microcosm of a great nation. Thank you, it was a great, great holiday ..when do you return!!

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