Travel Journal: Pole Pole in Tanzania

Tarangire Wildlife Migration, Tanzania

While eager to continue on with our Africa travel sabbatical and get our overland Tanzania adventure underway, border crossings are never an easy task especially as an overlander driving a private vehicle. One challenge that we face is to not allow the difficulties encountered at a border set the tone for our experience of the country that we are entering. However, crossing into Tanzania from Malawi at Kasumulu border would prove to be particularly challenging. Our four hour-long wait would familiarise us with the Swahili term “pole pole” meaning “slowly slowly”, a favourite amongst locals and one that border officials seem enthusiastic to apply to their work ethic. It was attempting to pay road tax for Jimny that held us up. One of the problems being (as we would discover when heading to the back of the revenue service administration building) that the officials were preoccupied watching Jason Statham in action on a large HD television screen.

Once successfully across the border a number of changes became immediately apparent to us. Firstly, the price of everything skyrocketed which much to our disappointment included the cost of petrol, park fees, accommodation and beer, four unavoidable expenses on an overland Tanzania trip. The reason for this seemed to be attributed to taxes levied by the government against the tourism industry that lodge and business owners need to make allowances for so as to not lose out on profit margins. Another hidden cost that we would soon learn about is “Mzungu tax”, the term used to describe an immediate quadrupling of prices by locals when dealing with a foreigner. To make things a little more interesting, Tanzanians attach no meaning to the words “credit card” and as such, every expense in Tanzania is a cash transaction. Given that the ATMs have a withdrawal limit (equivalent to a tank of petrol) and given that the banks charge you for every withdrawal made, this becomes an expensive exercise. Another change that became obvious to us, but which we found quite amusing, was that the bicycles that we had become so accustomed to seeing in Malawi had been exchanged for elaborately decorated motorbikes. From bright pink seats trimmed with a dash of leopard print to tinsel and tassles, the owners of these hot rods spared no creativity when decorating their wheels.

Feeling a Bit Blue at the Blue Canoe

Our first destination in Tanzania was the Blue Canoe, situated on the northern tip of Lake Nyasa (referring to “Lake Malawi” will lose you points with the Tanzanians). The only down side of this lovely beach lodge is that it is located at the end of a horrendous 50km stretch of road that has undoubtedly claimed its fair share of tyres over the years. The owners of Blue Canoe informed us that road works are currently underway to tar the road as one of the Tanzanian government ministers is busy adding the finishing touches to a lakeside holiday home in the area. As it turns out, South African and Tanzanian politics operate in much the same way. Having made good use of the beach bar, wifi and comfy couches, all the attributes of a great beach lodge, our time here unfortunately came to an end when we needed to find a district hospital. 

As a Mzungu travelling through Africa, shaking hands with everyone that you meet along the way seems to come with the territory. We often managed to work around this by offering an informal “fist pump” instead, however this doesn’t always go down well with border or traffic officials who take themselves very seriously and despite the ample supply of hand disinfectant that we carry in the car, Gary had contracted a bad case of conjunctivitis in one eye. Armed with antibiotic eyedrops and a new found appreciation for the private hospitals in South Africa, our overland Tanzania trip was underway again and we began to make our way north towards Mbeya with a brief stop over at Bongo Camp located in the heart of Tukuyu village to break the journey. Our stop here needed to be kept brief as the abundance of smiling faces and hospitality was unfortunately not going to make up for the rather dismal state of the ablution block which amounted to a hole in the concrete floor. It was clear that we had hit rock bottom in terms of camp facilities, but fortunately three months of camping had sufficiently mellowed us out to the point where we could have a laugh about our rather dire circumstances. Needless to say we packed up and left at day-break eager to reach our next destination, the Utengule Coffee Plantation on the outskirts of Mbeya.

Essential to an Overland Tanzania Trip – Coffee Every Morning Makes for a Happy Camper

One of the pleasures that we have delighted in along the journey has been to purchase local coffee produced along our route. Our love of coffee would take us to the small oasis of the Utengule Coffee Plantation situated on the foothills of Mbeya Mountain (which can be hiked if you’re brave enough). Seated in a beautiful old colonial farmhouse we set about sampling the various blends of arabica and robusta before taking ourselves off for a walk through the plantation. The only draw back of this location is that the campsite also functions as the helicopter pad and having just finished setting up camp and opening up a beer, we were politely asked by the manager to pack up again as a helicopter was due to land shortly.

Mbeya itself is a large town situated on the Tanzam route and gives travellers the chance to restock supplies. Thanks to the advice of an English couple that we had meet who are managing a tea plantation in the Tukuyu area, we were able to locate a decent butcher and supermarket. Our two best finds in Mbeya were a wholesale alcohol outlet where we stocked up on Kilamanjaro beer (quickly becoming a favourite) and a large fruit and vegetable market located at the daladala bus terminal. Our confidence in our ability to negotiate in the marketplace having grown steadily and excited by the sight of fresh produce ranging from apples to chillies, we ended up overcoming the challenge of “lost in translation” by pointing to the items we wanted and allowing the chuckling ladies behind the stalls to point to the necessary amount of money. The women seemed delighted to have met two Mzungus, a topic that would no doubt occupy their conversation for the rest of the day and we were delighted to have restocked supplies without incurring “Mzungu tax”.

Udzungwa Reserve and Hondo Hondo Camp

The route from Mbeya to the Udzungwa Rainforest would familiarise us with the term “MMBA”, miles and miles of bloody Africa. It appears that every main road in Tanzania is currently being upgraded courtesy of the Chinese. As they have favoured the approach of ploughing up the entire stretch of road instead of working on small sections at a time, coupled with having to slow down every few kilometers when passing through a village, driving this route is currently heavy going. The first break in our journey was a stop over at the Kisolanza Farmhouse located west of Iringa where we splashed out on a three course dinner in celebration of our six month wedding anniversary, even treating ourselves to some wine! Then it was onwards towards Iringa, where we took a few hours to stroll through the unique rock formations at Isimila and stretch our legs before spending the night at the River Valley Camp. The final stretch to Hondo Hondo Camp was by far the loveliest as we descended through a mountain pass known as Baobab Valley, no further description required.

With rolling lawns and a lush, green view of the Udzungwa Rainforest, Hondo Hondo is a camp where you feel content to spend a few days and take a breather. The best attribute of this camp is Bella, the resident donkey (and a real character) who is known to inconspicuously ascertain if there are any left overs to be had around the campsite whilst enjoying a cuddle and head scratch. When her behavior became too unruly and one too many food items had disappeared into her belly, the staff would run circles around the grounds attempting to tie her up, at which point her loud brays of disconcertion could be heard across the valley. Then, having had enough time to contemplate the fact that she is in a far more fortunate position than her fellow donkeys who are left to scrounge along the dusty roadside and carry heavy burdens, Bella would sheepishly make her way up to reception and stick her head through the window, offering apologies to the lodge manager.

Keen to do some hiking in the rain forests and hopefully sight the monkeys endemic to the region, we paid for a permit into the park which cost us US$30 per person and US$20 for a guide (not optional). Just when the whining that could be heard from our wallet seemed to die down, we were informed that these prices excluded VAT. Having met our guide, who despite the soaring temperature was dressed in jeans, a winter jacket and beanie, we set off on the Sanje trail, a gentle, well-trodden 6km hike with an elevation of 430m. Breathing in the fresh, cool air of the rainforest, our guide did a great job of explaining the various species of trees and the medicinal benefits to be gained from each. How this young chap managed to keep a straight face while explaining in great detail the use of a specific root for the “enhancement of a man’s power” still remains a mystery to us. Upon reaching the highest point, we were rewarded with a swim beneath the top waterfall and basking in the sun, absorbed our rejuvenating surroundings, saving them into the memory bank for when we next find ourselves in a stressful situation.

We returned to the head office at about noon and our guide, eager to knock off for the day, began saying his goodbyes and hinting at a possible tip. Little did he know that his two clients were Capetonians, used to trail running Table Mountain and Lion’s Head and who, having still not come across any monkeys, were determined to get their monies worth. So it was, with a less than enthusiastic guide, that we set off on our second hike. The Njokamoni trail was approximately the same distance and elevation as the Sanje trail but a much more difficult route which often had us sliding down the mountain on our backsides. A further four hours later we arrived back at the head office feeling tired and disgruntled but as we only had to exit the park at five o’clock we decided to spend our last hour walking along a path that meanders around the base camp. After eight hours of hiking over fifteen kilometers up and down the mountain, we stepped out into an opening at the end of this path to find…the monkeys. From Iringa Red Colobus, Black and White Colobus, Blue monkeys to baboons, the cheeky buggers had been there the whole time. By this stage our guide looked the worse for wear, but cheered up dramatically after we gave him a generous tip. Our only disappointment during our time here was coming to learn that subsistence farming and large commercial sugarcane farms owned by Illovo (that spread as far as the eye can see) have cut the wildlife in the reserve off from other surrounding game parks and conservancy areas. Bee hives are currently being used to keep the elephants within the boundaries of the reserve as it is unsafe for them to venture onto the surrounding farmland where they will be attacked by locals.

More Out Than About in Dar es Salaam

Our time spent in the city was brief given the traffic and number of people, which is truly startling. We aimed for a small, glamorous suburb called Oyster Bay where the expats and foreign ambassadors living in Dar are holding out until the last possible minute before being moved to Dodoma, the less appealing Capital situated in the interior of Tanzania. Thrilled to have found a decent butchery and even better, a gelato shop, we headed an hour south of the city and spent a day lounging on the beach at Kipepeo Beach Camp and swimming in the surprisingly clean ocean waters. With the braai going, the meat sizzling and the beers opened, we looked across at our fellow over landers and were shocked to find them opening a can of bully beef! It appears that most European overlanders are being guided by the same set of “how to survive Africa” rules. Rule number one: one must always be clad head to toe in quick-dry clothing, preferably in the safari appropriate colour of khaki. Rule number two: despite the heat, woolen socks and heavy duty hiking boots are imperative. Rule number three: although one may have access to supermarkets, butcheries and an ample supply of charcoal or firewood, one must always revert to opening a can of bully beef for dinner.

Another area that we can highly recommend on your overland Tanzania route is the small coastal town of Bagamoyo, located a few hours drive north of the city. Simulating the architecture and feel of Stone Town, one can spend a few days here either relaxing on the beach (be careful not to venture too close to the fish market) or admiring the work of local artists. Paintings of Masai are abundant but don’t overlook the rather quirky art form that is referred to as tinga-tinga, bright and vibrant cartoon caricatures of birds and wildlife.

On our way up to Dar we had the fortunate coincidence of meeting a fellow South African working in the city, who had very kindly offered for us to leave Jimny in the secure parking at her office while we spent some time on Zanzibar. Not only that, but arriving in Dar from Firefly Camp in Bagamoyo, we were further treated to a roast chicken dinner and the offer of a bed for the night before our departure to the Island. During our travel sabbatical it has been wonderful to meet expats and fellow overlanders that display such acts of genuine kindness.

Zanzibar

During our travels we have come across a number of people who arrived as a tourist in an area, fell in love and decided to stay put, making it their home. While many of these places have undoubtedly held a certain appeal, for the most part we have been left wondering what the hell they were thinking. It wasn’t until we arrived in Stone Town that we ourselves experienced the feeling of a possible home away from home. We managed to find a reasonably priced apartment on Airbnb run by a laid back Rasta, located opposite the State House and close to the desirable Shangani district. Our days were spent soaking up the slave and spice history of the island, wondering through the labyrinth of alleyways that make up the old city, haggling over the prices of kikoi and artwork to take home, admiring the architecture and photographing the iconic wooden doorways. While there are a number of museums to be visited, be sure to not neglect the Zanzibar Coffee House which you will be able to navigate your way to by following the delicious aromas emanating from within.

During the day the Forodhani gardens are a peaceful oasis where you can escape the heat and pass a few hours reading under the shade of the trees. At night this area turns into a food market where local chefs prepare anything from seafood kebabs to “Zanizibar pizza” and your choice of savory or sweet fillings. The energy here is electric with local stall owners shouting out to passing tourists and luring them in with the delicious aromas of spices cooking over hot coals. One thing to keep in mind though is that this market is geared towards tourists and as such is exceedingly overpriced. If you wander a few streets back from the waterfront you will find local restaurants serving the same food for a fraction of the price. Venturing out in search of lunch or dinner, we would overindulge on kebabs, traditionally prepared vegetable dishes, ugali, chipatis, samosas, a local soup dish called “Zanzibar mix” and even the occasional spicy burger and chips, finishing off with a cup of sugar cane, lime and ginger juice. After hours, the spice market (a tourist trap during the day) turns into a fresh produce haven as farmers arrive with fruit and vegetables. While we didn’t dare go near the meat market, Gary did brave the fish market on occasion where generous portions of fresh tuna can be found in the morning straight off the boat for a mere dollar and with an abundance of spices available, we had a great time cooking for ourselves at home in the apartment. Every evening we would watch the dhows drifting against the backdrop of a beautiful sunset as we took full advantage of “happy hour” which commences at five o’clock in the evening and during which time beers and cocktails go for half price at most of the beach bars and restaurants. 

Having hired a scooter for two days we toured the island stopping off for a swim when the beach and ocean looked irresistible. However, driving the roads of Zanzibar is not for the faint hearted as your survival depends on avoiding potholes, livestock and local drivers intent on running you off the road. After almost three weeks and a fly in visit from my mom, we left for the eastern side of the island equipped with supplies from home which included, much to our delight, a bottle of red wine, zoo biscuits and an early Woolworths Christmas cake. Airbnb came through for us again and we managed to book at Surf Escape located on the grounds of Coral Reef Lodge in the Pwani Mchangani Region. Here we had a fully equipped cottage to ourselves with gorgeous ocean views and the added bonus of being able to use the lodge facilities.

The beach in this area certainly lived up to our expectations as vast white sand was exposed by the receding turquoise tide and hours could be spent splashing around in the tropical waters. After a twenty minute walk or short daladala ride we found ourselves in the village where drinking water, bread, dry goods and fresh fruit and vegetables are available (nothing is quite as spectacular as a Zanzibar mango). After a week spent in what can only be described using the cliché “paradise”, we have three criticisms of the area, the first being that the area is completely devoid of ocean life due to over fishing with nets. Walking past the local fish market, we almost had a meltdown when we came across a juvenile shark lying on the slab. Another irritation are the beach boys who, dressed up as Masai, hound you relentlessly as soon as you step outside of your hotel. The third letdown was that the beaches are overrun with Italians who seem intent on bringing the speedo back into fashion.

After one too many encounters with crusty old men sporting white speedos (yes, white speedos) or wrinkled old woman wearing g-string bikinis, it was time to catch the daladala back to Stone Town and rather reluctantly to board the ferry back to Dar Es Salaam.

Northern Tanzania and the Safari Circuits

Our disappointment at having to leave Zanzibar was soon replaced with an excitement to head up towards the northern game parks. Not being in any hurry, we broke the journey by spending a few days at Peponi Camp on the Pangani Beach and then a night or two in Moshi, launch pad for the climb up Kilimanjaro. While sitting at the bar of Weru Weru Lodge we could overhear a group of English travellers who were departing for base camp the following day. Filled with envy we made a note of adding the Kilimajaro climb to our bucket list and then made our way up to Arusha, the Capital of the northern safari circuit. Having already decided to forgo the Ruaha and Selous Parks in Southern Tanzania to save money for the northern circuit, we faced a number of decisions which mainly came down to costs. We reasoned that we simply could not visit the Ngorongoro Crater without popping across to the Serengeti, but this exercise would cost approximately US$600 and tourists where pouring in over high-season. Given that we were still due to incur the cost of trekking with the gorillas in Uganda, another option was to visit the less popular but equally stunning Tarangire Park which would only set us back US$160. So it was that the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti would be recorded on the same bucket list as our climb up Kilimajaro.

Overland Tanzania – Tarangire National Park

Our first few kilometers in the park were spent singing songs from the sound track of the Disney movie “The Lion King” which having watched countless times as kids has given us a good foundation of Swahili, the most widely spoken language in Tanzania. This must have brought on good luck as it wasn’t long before we spotted three male Simbas (which literally translates to lion) lounging in the shade of a tree, bellies fully extended after gorging on a kill. Game was plentiful and large herds of elephant and buffalo could be found dotted along the river. While we were driving along a grassy plain to the north of the park, we came across a herd of zebra slowly ambling across the road unperturbed by our presence. Waiting for them to pass, we soon realised that they were being closely followed by more zebra, then wildebeest and even more zebra and… even more wildebeest, marching in a long line that stretched further than we could see. We were witnessing the very spectacle that we had desperately hoped to see and our reason for venturing to the area at this time of year, the sight of a lifetime, the great migration!

It was later on in the day, while looking at an old board depicting the migratory routes, that we were left scratching our heads. A park employee then confirmed our suspicion that the main highway that we had driven along from Arusha now dissects the main migratory route from the north. There are signs along the road warning drivers to lookout for game and the speed limit is 50 km/h, but trucks and buses certainly don’t adhere to this. The wildlife would have to be prone to suicidal tendencies if they were to still risk crossing the road. Just another reminder of human encroachment into a conservation area. The options to overnight near Tarangire are limited and we ended up at the locally run and rather rundown Zion Camp where at US$15 per person the manager knows he’s onto a good wicket as every other camp in the area is located inside the park and exceedingly expensive.

Our last two days in Tanzania where spent heading west, avoiding potholes, surviving other drivers, forcing a smile for officials and desperately trying not to lose our sense of humor or the bottom half of Jimny to the awful rumble strips that lie inconspicuously waiting on the outskirts of every village. We were somewhat relieved to arrive at the border and enter the “land of a thousand hills“.