I’ve been delaying writing about Tanzania for a few reasons. One, it’s been an absolutely non stop ride since we left there, and I feel like I’m only getting on top of life again now. And two, I am struggling to paint a happy picture of the place, and I didn’t want to let our brief experience taint anyone else’s travel plans. It wasn’t all bad, but let me explain…
Travelling north, we crossed the border from Zambia into western Tanzania just south of Lake Tanganyika, and essentially landed with a splat in a zero English language area. The change between northern Zambia and Tanzania was astonishing. It felt like we had well and truly left Southern Africa behind us and were now somewhere quite different.
People dressed differently, spoke differently, and looked at us differently.
It took Shaun 1.5 hrs of frustrating communication and pitiful sign language, to buy 2 sim cards and some data. It was well past dark when we got to our campsite, after negotiating some undulating dirt roads as dark as the night sky. This happened to be the day of our 12th wedding anniversary and we had hoped to have a nice dinner to end a long-border-crossing, new-country-negotiating, lack-of-English-speaking day. Sadly for us, the reality was rather the opposite. We arrived in the pitch dark on a no moon night, to find the zips had rattled open inside the van and all the clothes had landed in a heap on the floor along with the toiletries, and a large jar of cream … whose lid had come off! After I had a good sob, Shaun made us all some tea while I tried to scoop handfuls of cream out of the van, wipe it off the chairs and extract it from the rolled up cables, while deciding which clothes could still be worn, despite them being covered in blobs of cream and rusty-brown sand distributed by our shoes. I wouldn’t call it our best anniversary, but it was a fairly accurate depiction of how marriages go: sometimes your best laid plans end in a filthy mess on the floor, and you have to rely on each other for a warm shoulder to cry on, and a soothing cup of tea as the romantic pinnacle.
We did wake the following day to find ourselves at an overwhelmingly beautiful spot on the lake shore of Tanganyika. It felt like Zanzibar. Not the centre of Africa, but the large mountains we could glimpse in the distance reminded us we were just a stones throw away from the Democratic Republic of Congo. We ended up traversing the DRC’s Eastern border as we made our way north, and it was always a sobering, yet exhilarating reminder of just how ‘up in Africa’ we were.
Crocs and hippos, being an essential component to any African adventure, do make an occasional appearance in Lake Tanganyika, but swimming is highly recommended, and we were given snorkels and goggles to explore the clear waters. I must admit, I was always slightly on edge, despite the reassurances that there has never been an issue with people getting eaten (at this spot!), so I spent a good amount of time staring through my goggles into the deeper waters, waiting for a rocket-propelled-croc to shoot out of the depths and devour me whole. That aside, the water was a perfect temperature and the snorkelling was blissful. We had beautiful beach dinners, great company and met some fantastic fellow travellers. It was a real ‘luxury oasis’ in the middle of nowhere.
Nothing highlighted this more than when we left several days later. The first rain of the season arrived at 6.30am on the day we were leaving. Hearing the thunder rumbling towards us, we dived out of bed at 5.30am and managed to get ourselves packed up just as the first drops began to fall. Our leisurely breakfast was put on hold until we could find somewhere to pull over when the rain stopped. The rain never stopped. By 12pm, as we were driving along the most deserted roads we had yet driven on in Africa, we pulled over in the rain to scramble some eggs anyway. There are no shops going up the West of Tanzania. No petrol stations where you can buy food. You’ve got what you’ve got, that’s it.
After a soggy breakfast we found ourselves stuck behind the only other car we had encountered on the road, in mud that came up to mid calf height. There was no way to pass the car as the mud on the sides of the road was so slippery we would never have got through it. Thankfully luck was on our side as a motorbike was going in the opposite direction and we were able to help push him through the mud and he (unbeknownst to us – because of the language barrier) called a massive grader to the rescue. The wait was definitely an African one, several hours in length, but the fact that there was a grader to be found in the middle of seemingly nowhere was an absolute Godsend. We had been imagining many days in that muddy puddle. By this point there was also a local bus and several more cars queued up in the mud. The drive up the Western side was one of the most beautiful and unspoiled drives we have ever done – anywhere. There isn’t much to do, but the forests and shrubbery that surround you are absolute untapped beauty.
After another arrival in the dark, and another early start, we got stuck in another mud induced traffic jam. This one was bigger and better than the day before and had people from all the surrounding towns coming to watch the spectacle. Buses and taxis in every variety trying to push their way through, only succeeding in completely blocking the road and preventing the grader from getting in to clear the mess. It is obviously a yearly occurrence and the grader drivers are so well versed in clearing the commotion it was once again a smooth operation and we could carry on our way.
It was a long-drive-day on some scary roads, but our destination kept us focussed, and we researched Rwanda’s history, reading up on its legacy and current state, whiling away the hours while improving our African history.
We were meeting a friend in Kigali (Rwanda’s capital) so our journey going north through Tanzania was fast and fleeting, with few stops and many long hours in the car.
And then Rwanda – Enlightening. First World. Beautiful.
Although we had every intention of visiting some Tanzanian parks on our journey South, when we worked out what it would cost us we were forced to reconsider. At this point it was the landscape more than the animals we were after and at several hundreds of dollars a day just to enter a park, we had to bow out. If you don’t have the cash to splurge in the parks there isn’t much to do in Tanzania, so it was another long haul trip going South…
The highlights included: not being detained at the border (we had all been given a barrage of inoculations before we left South Africa, so the Tanzanian border had no complaints as far as health went – even though we were within close proximity to an Ebola area!); driving through a baobab forest; and finding one lovely campsite just south of Iringa in central Tanzania.
The lowlights included: several fights with traffic officers where I was banished to the car to avoid our being arrested for insolence; totally unwarranted fines; some hellish roads; general 50km/h speed limits; and lots of night driving (to avoid all of the above). The constant stream of litter along the sides of the roads was also heart breaking, especially after the cleanliness of Rwanda.
I can’t say I enjoyed Tanzania as a whole. Our experience was that the cops were corrupt, the government puts no money into the country unless it is in direct sight of swarms of tourists, so roads are bad and basic services in the centre of the country are non-existent. Park fees are without a doubt the most ridiculous rip-off but because tourists with dollars and euros are happy to fly in and shell out a fortune, it means those of us with weaker currencies are made to suffer the consequences. Although I would still love to see the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti, we are so spoiled in South Africa with very reasonable park fees and an abundance of all the same game, so it’s hard to justify spending all that money. South Africa really does have it all. Most of us don’t appreciate what we have within our borders. Nothing highlighted this more than a visit to Tanzania, and I guess sometimes that’s what travel is about; appreciating what you have back home.