Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Starfish stories and a trip to Mpanda

Friday and it’s time for Pete and Tim to head back to Dar.  They’re taking the VX on a safari drive through some of the nicest parts of Tanzania while I meanwhile get the camp almost to myself for 2 months.  Not quite to myself of course as there are 3 security guys here to keep me company but my Swahili is not as good as their English and their English is good enough for the basics so long as body-language and patience are applied.  My Skype friends will be my main form of social activity for at least 2 months but I’ll get plenty of time to do some writing which will be great.

Tim and Pete are taking Valerian, Mathias and Ali out with them today as well as about 400kg of soil samples for testing.   Two other passengers are also coming along.  A young girl about 5 years of age and her father are going with them to Mpanda.   She is suffering from a dreadful skin condition that has left warts on her face, swollen her eyes almost shut and left tiny leopard skin spots all over her body.   The guys had taken her up to Mpanda before to see a Dr but he’d given her some tests and creams for eczema, none of which had made the slightest difference.  I’m no fundi but it didn’t look like exzcema to me.  If anything, it looks like a really bad fungal infection but there’s no way of knowing without culturing up a skin scraping and the closest facilities for that are in Dar. 

We’ve pondered just how to do it for a few weeks now.  The girls father has never been further than 50km from home and is very nervous about getting himself to Dar.  There’s just not enough room in the car for everyone and the gear to get to Dar in the VX.  Hence we’ve all chipped in some money for a train trip from Mpanda to Dar plus medical tests and Valerian has volunteered to accompany them.  The company and some of the other staff in Australia have also offered to chip in as the cost of drugs could be $1,500 or more if it turns out to be one of those rare fungal conditions.   Valerian has also organized accommodation with his sister and brother in law (a doctor) in Dar so things are organized.  

It’s not really a drop in the ocean when it comes to helping with medical conditions out here but you have to start somewhere.  If this girl doesn’t get treatment her quality of life will be minimal at the very, very least.   It’s a bit like one of my favourite stories.   The ‘Starfish’ story.   The story goes like this:

A man is walking along the beach the day after a big storm.  The storm has littered the beach as far as the eye can see with debris, seaweed and junk.  Looking closer, the man notices that among the debris are starfish.  Many, many starfish.  As he continues to walk down the beach he spies in the distance a small figure walking towards him.  The figure is bending over repeatedly as if picking things up.  As the two walk towards each other, the man can see that it is a small boy, picking up starfish and tossing them back into the ocean.  Eventually they meet up and the man asks the boy why he is bothering to throw the starfish back in.  The boy just shrugs “why not?”.  “But there must be thousands of them on the beach.  Surely you can’t hope to make a difference here?” to which the boy just shrugs again, picks up another starfish, tosses it back in the ocean and says “I made a difference to that one.” 

I guess that’s what we hope will happen with the little girl.  That some medical attention will make a difference to at least one human being.

With all the passengers to drop off in Mpanda and the passengers to take, the VX can’t hope to carry it all so my role is to take the 1 tonne trayback loaded up with gear as far as Mpanda.  On the morning we leave, Pete kindly jumps in the trayback before I get to it which leaves me to drive the VX on the way there.  A nice but unexpected treat as the trayback bounces like a billycart while the VX has much plusher suspension – and Tim’s Ipod collection to listen to.   We get to Mpanda in good time taking about 6 ½ hours including a stop to drop Matthias home in Mwese and have lunch of rice and beans in a local ‘café’.   The roads are dry as we’ve had 5 days with little or no rain so it’s easy going today and we’re in good spirits. 

Mpanda is still the dusty charmless ramshackle town that I remember but for some reason the accommodation is always scarce in this town.  Maybe because it’s a Friday night but Mpanda doesn’t seem like the sort of place you come to for Friday night clubbing.  Eventually we find accommodation but the 7 of us end up staying in 3 different places.   Us three Mzungus end up in one of the flasher places in town, the ‘New Super City Hotel’, a place which is neither new, super nor a city but what the heck, it has a nice outdoor eating area and cold beer so is luxury really.  We even have ensuites albeit with squat toilets and showers that seem to work in some rooms but not in others.

We also find 5 other Mzungus staying there.  Two Italian guys are driving around Africa in a heavily laden Landcruiser VX turbo.  Nice blokes but the language barrier gets a bit challenging so we stand around looking at maps with them and watching while one of the locals changes and repairs a flat tyre for them.  Meanwhile, I’m thinking “Sand tyres – they’ll regret that choice soon”…  Big wide tyres with limited tread like that are great in the sand but are going to have a bugger of a time in the mud.  Even if I thought they would be likely to outlay USD$1,000 on some skinny big treaded mud tyres I don’t have the Italian to express that suggestion so I keep the thought to myself.   Hopefully they’ll be OK.  Either way getting bogged if it happens, will all be part of their adventure. 

Later that evening Tim, Pete and I are sitting chatting over a beer when a rather attractive German girl wanders over to join us.  We’re wondering our luck has changed because of course, we’re such a good looking bunch of roosters. Turns out she’s just enquiring if she (and her boyfriend and another German guy) can hitch a lift north to Kigoma.  They’re bussing and hitching around Tanzania which would be great experience and an interesting way to do it. Personally though, I’d rather have my own 4WD as it would mean you could see more than just dusty bus stops in Mpanda like towns.  I offer them a lift close to a junction which would leave them a 20km walk to Lakoma from where the can catch the ferry to Kigoma.  The MV Liemba is a former WW1 warboat that the Germans cut up and brought to Lake Tanganyika in pieces.  It is, some say, the longest running ferry boat service in the world.  Whether that’s right or not, a trip on Lake Tanganyika would still be one of the great maritime journeys and yes, they’re keen as beans to do it.  That was in fact their original plan.  It seems that they made a phonecall to the ferry office in Kigoma and sadly it isn’t running this week. The UN have (again) chartered it to ferry refugees.  I’m hoping that won’t be the case in February when I want to leave here via the MV Liemba.  Still, ‘TIA’ and just another reminder for me to stay flexible (and to phone before I walk down to the jetty myself in January when the time comes to leave).  The VX is going past the turnoff to Kigoma but Tim & Pete have weight limitations with all the gear.  A few mental calculations later, we decide that it would just be too much weight with three people added.  Later that night though we find out that her boyfriend has malaria so they will be staying another day to allow him to recover.  The third member of their party (Walther) who had just hooked up with them temporarily is still keen to move on so in the end it works out well with Tim and Pete dropping him off at the junction the next day.  Walther is an interesting fellow – as I guess you’d expect of anyone really who makes it to places like Mpanda.  He’d have to be in his 50’s now and is a paramedic by trade.  He’s been taking his holidays in Africa for decades and just loves the place.  This year it’s 3 weeks in Tanzania. He’s married but his wife isn’t into adventure travel so they both do separate holidays each year which seems to work for them (or him at least).

That night at Super City the skies open up and we’re treated to one of the brightest and LOUDEST thunderstorms that I’ve ever seen.  One of the lightning strikes looks like it must be just out side my room.   And the accompanying thunderburst sounds like it’s IN my room. Awesome.  Especially when viewed from the shelter of a dry bed and through a glass window rather than the more usual bars and wooden shutters in this part of the world.

In the morning we dine at the most upmarket café in Mpanda.  

 The Tanganyika Café has the least flies of any of the café’s in town and the cleanest laminate tables.   The waitresses on the other hand seem to have patented a new form of indifference and surliness.  At first I wonder if it’s that they don’t like mzungus who can’t speak Swahili but no, they treat all of us and the other tables with the distain that even a battle hardened air-hostess couldn’t match.  It’s almost entertaining to have to ask 3 times for coffee before they finally bring over a mug, spoon, thermos of hot water and a tin of ‘Africa Café’.  According to the label ‘Africa Café’ is Africa’s finest instant coffee.  I hope they’re wrong – it’s amazingly bad.  But I drink it anyway.  I don’t really feel like the fish-head soup again after last time so I point to the samosa under the glass counter.  There’s only one left and the more communicative of the waitresses says “Samosa bad” and shakes her head.   I get the message and point to some of the ‘donuts’ beside it and say “Tafadhali mbili” (two please).  They’re not donuts as we know them of course – more some sort of fried bread.  Tim asks me if they’re sweet or savoury and I answer “yes”.  It’s the most accurate answer I can give.  They’re both.  Or neither. Or somewhere in between.  But they’re filling.  The rest of the group go for fish soup, chapatti and boiled egg, donuts, coffee and/or chai.  This in fact means that as a group we’ve ordered at least one of everything on the menu. Ah, the joyous cuisine of Tanganyika Café.  Still, what they have is tasty and filling (and available) so I’m not complaining. Unlike Cambodia where everyone eats out regularly and you can buy a feed on just about any street corner Tanzanians don’t have much of a culture of eating out. Which means in our case, that TC is one of only 2 or 3 options for breakfast. 

After breakfast, the time has come to say goodbye to Tim, Pete and Walther.  They’re heading off on the road to Kigoma and eventually Dar in about 4 days time.   Meanwhile, Valerian and I attempt to buy train tickets for their trip to Dar.  After a frustrating 20 minutes at the railway station, it turns out to be 50/50 whether or not they’ll be able to get on the train or not.  The railway ‘station’ is more of a warehouse on a siding and although Valerian seems to know where he’s going and what’s going on, the place just looks like friendly chaos to me.   I’m sure there’s a method in it all somewhere.  Perhaps.  In the end he opts to take the others by bus to Dar.  It’s not as comfortable and means staying in hotels each night instead of a sleeper car but both trips take about 3 days depending on breakdowns and delays etc.

I say goodbye to the others who will be leaving on tomorrow’s bus then stock up on important things like red wine before leaving.  I even swing by the markets on the way through and load up on fresh fruit and veggies.  Mangoes are 500 shillings each (50c) which Valerian tells me is way too expensive.   We’ve passed a roadside stall on the way in where he tells me that it will be 500 for a bucket full of mangoes.  True enough, I later buy the cheapest load of mangoes I’ve ever bought.  And quite tasty also.  Sadly half of them get bruised on the way back but such is life.  Even they make good eating later.

The first half of the road back is easy peasy in the dry conditions and I make great time, with just one stop to wait for roadworks where I have to stop and wait while they nail down the planks again on a log bridge.  

It looks like it will take a while so I get out and spend 20 minutes talking with the workers and getting a few pictures of them and their handiwork.  It’s hard not to take a great picture in Africa.   The guys are a knockabout crew but even with the language barriers we have a few good laughs.  I get a few pictures of them and show them on the cameras LCD which gets them all queuing up to be photographed.  Thank goodness for digital photos, otherwise I’d have a roll full of happy snaps but instead, I’ve kept just a few interesting portraits.

I give a couple of people a liftie (lift) from Mwese to Ikabulu which is down the steep section of Z Hill. People wave us down regularly for a liftie and whenever we have room, we’re happy to oblige.  It’s no extra trouble and can save them hours of walking.   Plus it’s a good chance to have a chat and learn some more Swahili or find out more about the area. The kid in the front with me seems to be having a bad day though and has a permanent grump on so we hardly talk even.  In contrast, the guy standing in the back (who by rights would have something to grumble about after bouncing down Z Hill) seems to be having a great time and thanks me profusely when I drop him off.  The kid meanwhile (atypically of the locals) just wonders off without a thanks.  So it goes…

From Ikabulu the road changes when it starts bucketing down.  I’ve got the wipers on double speed and still can’t see more than 3 metres in front of me.  I seem to spend more time driving sideways than anything else which is lots of fun but I’m driving alone now and the nearest vehicle that could tow me out of a bog is back in Mpanda so I’m keeping it relatively sedate.  I’ve got a winch of course which is great – so long as you want to go forwards or sideways.  Bit of a fiddle to winch yourself backwards out of a spot with a front mounted winch.

The trip back though is uneventful except for getting up ‘the obstacle’.  Yes. The same place where Valerian and I were wedged sideways just a few days earlier.    On this occasion, I was giving an old fellow a liftie and when we got to the ‘obstacle’ I pointed out the grab handle on the passenger side for him and suure enough, he needed it.  He thought it was great fun and was grinning like a kid again by the time we eventually made it up on the second attempt.  Ah yes.  All good fun in Kapalagulu.  Might be the last time for a few months that vehicle gets up there again though.   It’s getting so chewed up and rutted that even the least bit of rain now makes it a challenge.  Much more rain and it will be impassable.   Even the airstrip hasn’t much longer before it’s closed for the wet season.  Being cut off like that might make for some interesting times.  Gives me a whole new appreciation for how the locals get by out here year after year living on pretty much only what they can grow or raise.  Other than helicopter, the only way in or out of here will soon be on Shank’s pony (i.e. by walking)…

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