Saturday, November 14, 2009

FIrst thoughts re Tanzania

I've been writing a bunch of emails lately describing my adventures and someone asked if I had a blog. So I thought... why not? Instead of re-writing or copying and pasting for each email, I thought I may as well just blog what I'm up to. At least that's the theory. This is my first blog so who knows.

I'm currently caretaking a geological exploration camp in remote Tanzania while it is mothballed for the wet season and will probably be here till late Feb. The camp itself is really remote. It's one days 4WD (120km) to the nearest general store at a place called Mpanda which is a dusty backwater town bereft of charm but interesting and full of character nonetheless. Despite being so remote, Google knows all so you can see the camp and airstrip at

The rains haven't started in earnest yet so I've been getting to know the area a bit for when it's just me with a few locals to look after the camp. Not that it will really matter as the roads become impassable but still a good excuse to get out and about enjoying some challenging 4WD terrain.

Had a good road trip last Monday Tuesday. Bit of rain around and the roads were slippery as anything. Good fun :-) Pete (the mate who got me this gig) drove while I mapped the road from Mibango (the camp) to Mwese with GPS. We got there just before dark and had a beer with the locals in what passes for a pub. Picture a rendered mud brick box about 10' x 10' with one door and a window without glass (just wooden shutters when closed). The space includes the bar, barmaid, 2 locals on stools and Pete & I. The locals don't speak English and we don't speak (much) Swahili. But everyone is happy and gets on and laughs. There is no electricity so the beer is warm but who cares. The local market is behind the pub. It's a rectangle of mud brick and painted concrete buildings with tiny shopfronts. The local 'Aldi' equivalent is a crammed box of about 10' x 14' with wooden counter, stuff crammed in everywhere and layered under dust. . In the centre of this 15m x 6m rectangle rectangle of mudbrick shops are some ramshackle bamboo and timber stalls that sell clothes and 'stuff' but most are closed by 6pm when we get there. It's cold up in Mwese at 1700m. Ok, folk in many parts of the world would call it a summers day but in our light shirts and pants at around 18 degrees with the mountain breeze blowing, it is cool indeed. We head off back to the camp which is based at the local priests place because Mathias the cook will have prepared dinner for us. Father Martin is nowhere to be seen as he is off in Lacoma to officiate at a wedding. Not being religious I'm quite OK with being spared hearing about the virtues of his faith for a few hours that night. The field assistants sleep in tents out the back or in some rooms in an outlying building. Pete and I have ensuite rooms in the main house. Sheets are old and with dirt stains that will never wash out and a bit dusty but clean by local standards. The ensuite on the other hand... In 1964 with the first refugee crisis from Rwanda, the UN apparently built this house and the buildings out the back as well as the hall that is now the church. It looks pretty schmick and tidy. Built to western standards and the most impressive buildings in the eclectic mix of thatch, tin, mud and bamboo houses that make up Mwese. Or at least it used to be. Looks like no one has known how to change a tap washer, maintain a head of water for the shower nor (more particularly) even scrub out the bathrooms since 1964. More akin to biological warfare petri dishes than bathrooms, Pete and I have had a shower before leaving camp and we elect to avoid the perils of the showers. We've also cached toilet paper in the vehicle. Just as well as it turns out...

On the plus side, the people are so friendly and welcoming, the vistas so magnificent, the air so clean and the culture so different that even the good Father bio-warfare experiments just become part of the fun. The guys are glad to see us - Pete especially of course and they are a really nice bunch of lads. Slightly dodgy and they get up to some mischief using the vehicles for recreational duties for example but frankly no more dodgy than Pete and I probably did when we were working in similar labouring jobs so we get some good laughs about it all and Pete manages to find a good balance between turning a blind eye and giving an arse kicking when needed. Me, I can afford to relax and just enjoy as I'm not really responsible for anything so I can just help out with all care but no responsibility. With the help of Vallerian and others, we organise more gas bottles to keep the camp freezer running during the wet season, beer, meat for the camp and a few other bits and pieces then head back the following morning, slip sliding all the way, stopping only to give lifts to locals, take a pee at one of the toilets (trees) along the way or more typically to take pictures. The rivers are coming up with the rains and when we get back to camp, it turns out we've had 33mm of rain in the past 24hours. Not surprising then that the river is up. And this isn't even the wet season yet...

That was my second longish trip since I got here 2 weeks ago. The week before our trip to Mwese we did a re-supply run for fuel and groceries. A 3 day trip to cover 150km drive (7 hours drive) on Wednesday to Mpanda which was interesting. Takes 3 hours to do the first 50 km to Mwese which is basically 2 wheel tracks through the forest with creek crossings, wash aways, mud holes etc which is more than enough to keep you wide awake even at 20 km/h. From Mwese to Mpanda is about 90 km of one lane dirt track where you can rocket along at anything up to a blistering 60km/h and over which the local busses hammer along (they are the most dangerous part of the journey and luckily there is only one per day although you never know which blind corner you'll meet them on). This bit of road is much quicker and the river crossings even have wooden bridges (made of logs so not exactly super reliable but I figure that if they hold the busses...). We took 2 Landcruisers on the run and the Exploration manager who was here took the opportunity to fly out from Katavi National Park - the other options are $6,000 charter flight or once per week $900 flight when a flight to Mahale National Park can detour to our strip. Katavi is about 80km (2 hrs) south of Mpanda so 'local' to Mpanda. That just left David and Vallerian (2 local guys) and I to sort out supplies and drive back.. Just as an aside, landcruiser tyres were 270,000 Tanzanian shillings each (about USD$200) but to change all 4 tyres cost only 6,000 TZS or 1,500 each. Just shows the cost of labour versus imported goods...

On Wednesday night there must have been some sort of convention because the first 4 places we looked were all booked up. We managed to find a dodgy little guest house in a back street which had 4 rooms. The fact that it had 4 rooms vacant and all the decent places should have given us a clue about what it was like LOL. But in any case it was adequate and clean enough. I was joking big time about the convention btw. Mpanda is a dusty African town of maybe 5,000 people with no sealed roads (although the main street was closed when we were there and looked like it was being sealed - elections next year you know...). Funny place Africa. Can't really do it justice trying to describe the dusty streets, dusty people, plastic chaired 'cafes' with instant coffee and only 3 things on the menu. Lot's of mobile phones and TV's but power cuts regularly. Paint jobs on the concrete and adobe huts are faded or completely optional. Tin roofs are only for the rich and lots of places even in the big smoke (Mpanda) have grass roofs. Even the main streets are almost 4WD territory with gianormous potholes and rubbish burning in pits beside the road. Happy smiling people though and that counts. I prefer Mibango (the camp) to Mpanda but Africa has a lot of charm. It's great how the kids and adults wave, smile and laugh as you drive through the villages (of which there are plenty). The kids all wave and call out "bye, bye, bye, bye, bye..." thinking that 'Bye' means 'hi' or they call out "Mzungu, Mzungu" (which literally means white person, white person lol) as they laugh and wave.

We moved Thursday night to the 'best' place in town (the Baraka Guesthouse) which is pretty comfortable. Still basic by western standards but more than enough to meet our needs. On Thursday we sorted out visas, new tyres for one vehicle which had the baldest tyres, provisions, gas etc and were all done by 1330 so we knocked off for lunch and a couple of beers and ended up talking about lots of stuff including gold prospecting opportunities here (of which apparently there are plenty). I could tell all sorts of tales about the local shopkeepers and Immigration. Just hilarious. Immigration wanted USD$120 for Pete's visa but Vallerian negotiated it to USD$100 just by pointing out that he'd only paid $100 for the previous one (lol). Then they wanted it in USD$ but offered to accept 140,000 Tanzanian Shillings as we didn't have USD$. 130,000 would be closer to the mark but we figured, we may as well keep them happy so they probably went to the bank and changed it then pocketed the 10,000 (USD$7) extra which would be equivalent to about 2 days wages. Buying diesel is another classic experience. No hurry in Africa. Best part though, is when they manage to fit 230 litres into a 200 litre drum (ROFLMAO). No point arguing - there is no Office of Fair Trade running round with weights and measures here... Just pay the bill and call it the cost of doing business.. Lots of UNHCR vehicles running around town but hard to say what they're actually doing. Equally, so far as I can tell, I was the only Mzungu in town which was also interesting experience especially when walking through the back streets in search of the 'pork place' where they do a mean BBQ pork plate accompanied by warm beers.

Loaded up Friday morning with 1,000 litres of diesel on the back of each Landcruiser then 7 hours drive back . Bit of fun coming down 'Zed Hill' (thus named for the steep, rocky, muddy slippery switchbacks) with a tonne+ on the back of the vehicle but 15 minutes of low range can be great fun :-). Anyway, "no hurry in Africa" :-). Bit of a boys own adventureland here really. Taking more pictures but just no bandwidth to share them via the satellite link we have here. Will try and put some small ones on Facebook soon but who knows how that will work. Amazing place Africa though. You'd expect it to be a bit like Asia but frankly it isn't. Australia is more like Asia than Africa is. Crazy place but as they say when something goes wrong or just plain peculiar things happen... 'TIA' (this is Africa)..

So much more to write. This place is amazing! Once Pete leaves the locals will go home and it will just be me here with a couple of local security guards so plenty of time for exercise, reading and most of all to write a couple of books over the 2 months till I'm relieved by one of the local senior techs. The rivers rise, tracks become impassable quagmires and the airstrip too muddy to use during the wet and it is just starting now. We sat down last week and did some planning for the wet season so I now have a bit of a timetable. Looks like I'm here till January or February and my plan (subject to conditions) is a 25km hike to the Ferry at Lacoma which leaves midnight each Saturday then 30hrs ferry to Kigoma, 2hrs bus to a junction town, 1 hr to Rwanda border, 2 hrs bus to Kigali (Rwandan capital), look around Rwanda, 6 hrs bus to Mwanza in Tanzania then hire a 4WD & driver for 7 days to drive from Mwanza through Serengeti, Ngorongoro crater, Lake Manyara and end up in Arusha then 10 days to hike Kilimanjaro, then fly to Dar... After that who knows?

No comments:

Post a Comment