Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A great town called Glasgow...

I’m sitting in a great little café in Glasgow called ‘Where the Monkey Sleeps’. It’s an appropriate name given the brass monkey weather outside and I’m enjoying a respite from the chill (cold today even by Glasgow standards) wind outside with a great coffee to the tune of classic Led Zeppelin pumping out nice and LOUD. I’m listening at the moment to “When the Levy Breaks” and it’s reminding me how much I love and miss LedZep. This basement café comprises an eclectic but welcoming mix of nooks, crannies, armchairs and vivid album art wall coverings. Grace Jones, Parliament, Talking Heads, Iron Maiden and a hundred other record jackets stare down at me like reminders of a bygone era, asking why we have forsaken the great music of the LP era.

It’s such a contrast from last week in 35 degrees in Dar Es Salaam. Scotland is having an unusually cold winter and although I’ve missed the worst of the snow and sleet, the hills around are still snow capped and it struggles to push much past zero degrees each day. Fortunately it’s mostly sunny which makes the chill surrounds quite beautiful and I’ve enjoyed a bit of hiking in the hills near Perth and the coastline of Carnoustie so far. Scotland is such a mix of urban sprawl, rolling hills, farmlets and ancient villages that it defies summary. The urban sprawl has it’s own problems and is hardly beautiful but you can’t help but fall in love with the countryside and hamlets here. It’s especially seductive on a sunny day but I’m not fooled into thinking (however much I might like to) that it is always like this.

I’ve been meaning to write about my 5 days in Serengeti, Ngorogoro Crater and Lake Manyara but it’s been OBE’d (Overtaken By Events). Suffice to say it was brilliant! I spent 5 days in a modified Landcruiser Troopcarrier standing up through holes in the roof like the turret of a tank. I had been thinking of just driving through the parks myself but you see and understand so much more with a professional guide. African Scenic Safaris (www.africanscenicsafaris.com) were great and I’d give them a big thumbs up if you’re looking for a great way to see the Serengeti. It can be pretty full on experience though. Who would think it could be exhausting each day just sitting in a 4WD but the 5 of us (plus driver/guide and cook) managed to collapse into our tents exhausted each night after our pre-dawn starts and sunset finishes. The entire trip was great but highlights in particular included:
  • dawn balloon ride spotting animals from the air drifting 50 feet above the vast, vast plains of the Serengeti
  • sunset over the Serengeti and sunrise over Ngorogoro
  • seeing the sheer abundance, density and diversity of animal life in the region
  • watching Wildebeest being born
  • being mesmerized for ages just watching lions and cheetah hunting
  • seeing lion cubs suckling beside our vehicle

Biggest highlight for me though was being alone on foot with a 5 tonne bull elephant at the Ngorogoro Crater campsite. After watching him skirt the campsite for a while, eating his way through a swath of vegetation just outside the campground I wandered down about 40m past where the sensible people had propped to photograph him and positioned myself where he’d have to walk by. He ambled along to about 20m away and we held eye contact for 5 minutes or more which was amazing! One of those moments like motorcycling or abseiling. Words fail me but the feeling is something like being suddenly reminded of what it means to be truly alive and present in the moment.

Elephants I’m told will tell you when they don’t want you any closer. Apparently the body language starts with ear flapping, goes on to trunk raising, moves through trumpeting and a 45 km/h gallop, before ending (should you still be stupid enough to be within range) with you being trampled into pink squishy mush. As you can imagine, I was paying particular attention to the body language of my newfound friend but to be honest it was pure conjecture on my part. I’ve learned in life though to trust my instincts and they were saying that I could have gotten much closer, perhaps to 5m even. I was sorely tempted to do so and the internal debate raged. In the end I reflected that if Anton Turner, a professional guide, armed with 15 years experience and a high velocity rifle, could be tragically killed by a bull elephant the week before I was due to meet him then it would be a good risk management decision for this unarmed biped with precisely zero experience to exercise caution. Hence, after 10 minutes I moved back to our campsite with a huge, huge grin, some amazing photos and a determination to learn more about elephants in order to do it again. It was a rush that left me feeling very tranquil but also very alive! A special moment in life and my personal highlight of many highlights.

Since then I’ve spent a few days in Dar, swimming and planning for next season in Tanzania. I managed to get pulled over and ticketed by police for the first time in Tanzania just a few hours before the end of my 6 day drive. Strangely enough, I was pulled over again for the second time in Tanzania about 10 minutes later. The fee for not having a registration certificate with me was 20,000 TSH (~USD$15) for which I demanded a receipt and duly received one. The second time I was stopped, I was offered the choice of paying 40,000 TSH “with receipt” or “20,000 without receipt”. Seems like you can in fact negotiate it down to 10,000 and a bag of cashews if you don’t need a receipt though. So it goes in Tanzania and much of the world I guess. When in Rome...

I’ve been in Scotland for 5 days now and the cold weather is a huge difference but the least of the differences from my past few months in Tanzania. One of the things that I love about travel is that vague confusion that comes from frequent changes of location - waking up in the morning to different lands, environments, accents, languages, weather, cuisine, culture and more. The slight disorientation, vague and subtle though it is, somehow pleasantly frees you to see the world (and yourself) anew again. Eventually it fades as you get used to your surroundings but I’m enjoying it while it lasts.  In a moment I'll savour the experience of soaking in the sights and sounds of Glasgow as I head back to the train station along the darkening streets at sunset.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A night in Moshi...

It’s 1130 am and I’ve just finished breakfast in the rather pleasant Kili-Java coffee house after getting back to the hotel around 0300. I made short work of the rather tasty omelet but am still enjoying the coffee while I write this.

Yesterday was an altogether busy but social and serendipitous day. Serendipity ( the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way) is fast becoming one of my favorite words and definitely a preferred lifestyle choice. Synchronicity is another favorite word (the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection) and my life seems to be increasingly one of serendipitous, synchronous peregrinations. This is after all, what I wanted from life so I’m more than happy to live such a life. Living ‘in the flow’ is perhaps how the Taoists would put it.

I started out yesterday with best intentions of doing some work on my book and getting the front end on the Landcruiser looked at (it still has a nasty vibration in the 50 to 60km/h range) but somehow got sidetracked. Did some meditation and exercise in the morning which is always a good way to start the day then drove the 10 mins into town for a café breakfast in the garden courtyard out behind “The Coffee Shop”. I actually did a bunch of writing and emails (albeit unsent as there is no wireless there) before I got talking with a pommy guy who’d just come back from hiking Kilimanjaro and his local mate. He’s ex-navy and makes his living as a photographer so apart from the connection there, I also picked his brains about Kili. He’s set himself the goal to do the seven summits, something which I have to admit is of more than passing interest to me. Heck I’ve already bagged one summit – Mt Kosciusko in Australia. I’m chuckling at this because in case you didn’t know, Kosi is a day walk and despite being the highest summit in Australia it is a mere hill at 2,200m and not at all in the same league as Mt Kilimanjaro which at 5,900m is a week long trek – and I might add, probably the easiest of the summits after Kosciusko. He was off to do Mt Meru in a few days and it sounds like it’s an even nicer trek than Kili as it has lots of wildlife. It also sounds like the perfect way to get some altitude acclimation before Kili so I might build that into the Kili itinerary as a precursor in October. Stay tuned.

As we were chatting another mate turned up. I say, mate, but we’d never met till yesterday. He’s an Aussie guy working in Moshi and is a friend of a friend so we’d swapped a couple of emails and were going to meet up that evening for a drink at the local waterhole. He’d just walked into the Coffee Shop for a spot of lunch and picked me straightaway. He reckoned that he can pick an Aussie a mile away but I’m somehow thinking it may have had something to do with my picture being on my website. Anyway the three of us (the local guy had headed off by then) had a longish chat about pretty much everything, not least of all motorcycles as we all own bikes and the topic can be extended into hours of entertaining chat for us addicts.

Eventually we all headed off and I downloaded/uploaded emails in the internet shop next door. I had planned to go catch up with a couple of American Jehovah’s Witnesses in another café where they were meeting some people at 3pm. I’d been chatting with them in the Kili-Java the day before. Yep, I’ll chat to anyone - and clearly so will they. Apparently despite large numbers of mzungus in Moshi, there are no decent bookshops here for English language books and I’d asked them what they did for light reading as they’ve been here for seven months. Turns out they had plenty of spares and one of the lasses offered to bring a couple along to meeting they were going to in another café the next day if I wanted to drop by. Sadly, I got there a bit late when an article I was emailing to a mate took forever to complete and they were gone. Moshi is a small place though so perhaps I’ll run into them again but either way it’s just another example of the kindnesses of strangers.

I did some more writing, had a haircut, wandered around the tarmac streets of Moshi (definitely not used to tarmac anymore – 298 out of the last 300 towns I’ve been through recently have been more like sets from Deadwood than anything else) and then headed off to ‘The Waterhole’ at 6 to meet my Aussie friend-of-a-friend. We’ll call him Bruce in order to protect the guilty (everyone knows all Aussies are called Bruce anyway). ‘The Waterhole’ is a great pub and his directions were spot on but you’d never find the place without directions. It’s about 2 km out of town on the highway then down a dirt road and is surrounded by 8 foot high masonry perimeter fence that seems to run for a couple of hundred metres. The only ‘signs’ are blue lights on the gate posts. Following Bruce’s directions I pull up at the gate. No-one comes out so I honk the horn. A bloke soon turns up and not recognizing me, comes out to see what I wanted. About this time, I’m wondering if I’ve got the directions wrong and have pulled up at a bikie-den, prison or drug-dealers hangout but no, turns out that yes it is ‘The Waterhole’ and yes, it does sell beer. Perhaps it’s an illegal speakeasy that sells beer without licensed or they’ve had troubles with armed holdups? Too late to back out now and the watchman opens a pair of gates that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Dracula movie and I ‘park to the left’. I’m the first one here but it’s a great place to chill on the verandah with the river babbling below about 20 feet down the slope. I order a beer and pull out my laptop to do some writing but have hardly started when Bruce, his Canadian wife and infant son arrive. Over the evening a few more of their friends arrive and I learn more and more about Tanzania, Africa and generally have fun chatting to a bunch of expats and locals. It’s the 40th birthday of the guy who runs the place and I end up talking with him for a while also. He’s an interesting chap. Born here from a Tanzanian mum and German father, he grew up in a village and now runs the waterhole, safari tours, dirtbike trips and hunting trips. The Waterhole is incognito because he wants to keep it a bit exclusive at least in terms of being family friendly and not having the vibe shaped by obnoxious drunks or bar-girls as is common at many bars in Africa.

I get talking to him about his other businesses including the big-game hunting. I enjoy shooting targets as a skill but wouldn’t shoot animals unless I needed to eat them. I just don’t get the need that some people have to come to Africa and put a bullet into buffalo, elephants or lions but already know enough about the setup in Tanzania to realise that the hunting benefits the place enormously. Companies with hunting licenses pay huge bounties to the government for annual permits with specific numbers of specific animals which they can cull each year and I’ve been surprised to find out that the more I find out about this business the more I support it. Shoshi tells me a bit more about how it works. He’s well used to hearing complaints from urban dwelling tree-huggers about his killing animals but tells me that over the years he has come to the conclusion that without the hunting, there would be far less animals. Each hunting operation is required to provide anti-poaching patrols and a government ranger goes out with them to make the arrests. It’s dangerous work and most of his vehicles have been machine-gunned or at least shot up at some point or another. The poachers can net about $4,000 from the meat of a single giraffe and in a country where the daily wage is about $3 to $10, that is a big, big incentive. Apparently poaching is every bit as big a business as you’d expect and the benefit from someone who flies out to pay between $5,000 and $50,000 to shoot an animal is far reaching. One of the things that I’m learning to realise is that companies such as his operation not only protect the bulk of the wildlife but invest heavily in community support and wildlife conservation. In many respects being more effective than the government and a lot of NGO’s. On a recent project for example, they spent $42,000 to build a school for a village. Hunting big-game is only an ethical dilemma for about 10 seconds when you consider that if a couple of already aged animals have to die to provide education, jobs and infrastructure to help the community and protect the rest of the wildlife it is overall a good thing.

I also get chatting to an American couple out here for a few months. He is a Landrover fundi and she is a dermatologist so by and by, I tell her about Shela, teh lass we sent to Dar to get treated for a skin condition. The doctors there don’t seem to have any real idea so I loosely organise to send Shela up to Moshi if we can wangle it. Finding a US trained dermatologist in Africa is a rare and serendipitous thing so an opportunity not to be ignored. Her hubby and the bar owner meanwhile give me the heads up on the best tyres and shock absorbers available in Tanzania. The landcruiser needs a full service including tyres and shocks next week so meeting them is another happy accident.

It’s getting on and people are starting to leave. By now I’m chatting with a bunch of people including some locally born Pakistanis and Indians. They are a hoot and some great conversations flow. I get persuaded to relocate with the group to another place called the ‘Glacier Café’. Waterhole is apparently unusually quiet tonight with only about 15 people there so when half of us leave it must have become a very quiet place. Glacier is the opposite. It’s a big outdoor garden pub closer to town and there are about 100 people there. I didn’t meet any in person but at the Glacier Café, Bruce pointed out a group of about 20 people sitting in a circle in plastic chairs like a séance circle who have all paid to come volunteer in Africa. They pay $4,000 each to come out to Moshi to do volunteer stuff for a month(?). Interesting concept and apparently it’s quite common. I don’t think it would work for me. They pay $4,000 and still have an 11pm curfew every night – which means they must be getting ready to leave not long after we arrive. From what I hear there is also a local mafia of people and businesses skimming that $4,000. Not sure if it is extra or included but apparently the volunteers (is it still volunteering if you are paying for the privilege?) are paying 22 Euros per night to share a 4 person dorm room (even in Moshi the going rate should be about 5 Euros for a dorm bed). I only have this on hearsay and will check out my facts but am not surprised at all if it’s true. My thinking, personally is that anyone who really, really wanted to make a difference in Africa should take that $4,000 to a remote village and put in a bore, small solar power system and some educational materials. There are probably 20,000 little villages in Tanzania which have none of those things. Moshi by contrast is a veritable New York in terms of infrastructure and education. Still, to each their own and better that they come than not at all. As in Cambodia, there seem to be 2 stratas of aid workers. Starry-eyed 22 year olds who have all the answer and are going to change the world in 6 months. If they are still around in a few years, they inevitably turn into the other type. This latter group of people still work hard to make a difference but accept that the system is immensely flawed, that they may make only a tiny difference and have no illusions about the issues but overall somehow manage to retain their sense of humor, do their best and manage to keep their sanity while living and working in some of the toughest conditions for years on end.

More arm twisting starts happening and around midnight I’m convinced by the main ringleader (a jovial and pleasantly dodgy Pakistani guy) that we should all go to “The Pub”. There are no road rules regarding drink driving, much less seatbelts or passengers in the back of the tray but by this time, I’m drinking water. More talking, laughing and even some dancing ensues with lots’ of laughs and some interesting insights into Tanzanian culture at the pub. Each place is even more ‘local’ in character and by this time there are perhaps 5 mzungus and 90 locals scattered throughout the 3 or 4 areas of the pub. The music is pretty dreadful 90’s hip-hop club music but everyone’s having fun and it’s just background noise really. Moshi is well cemented by now as my favourite town in Tanzania. It’s a pretty happy sort of place by day and by night.

I’m lugging my backpack around all night and couple of people suggest leaving it at the bar but I explain that it has laptop, camera, passport and credit cards in there. They not unreasonably ask me “why did I bring them out at 2am?” and I can only answer that I’d been to the bank, been doing some writing and taking photos during the day. My Aussie mate, said we’d be out for a drink at the waterhole at 6pm then it would be an early night as he had a young son. His wife, did in fact head off with his son at 7:30 and he headed off around 11:30 but as I’m learning, you need to stay flexible in Africa...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bush days and Mibango nights...

Well, I’m out of Mibango now and upon reflecting on my three months there, can say it was challenging sometimes but overall a great experience. Although it was a bit isolated and even lonely at times, that in itself was character building and good for me in lots of ways, not least of all to get to know myself a bit better. I did lots of writing and although mostly on Skype, I also started a couple of books and am 3/4 of the way through to final draft on the main one. Having complete control over my day (apart from breakdown repairs to gensets, pumps or internet) I got into a regular exercise routine plus did a bit of a detox program with January being free of alcohol, caffeine, sugar and anything remotely junky. I was making great vegie and bean soups and curries, plus enjoying breakfasts of one of the best muesli’s that I’ve come across in a long time. It did get a bit monotonous, inventing different meals based on the same ingredients every day and it’s not the perfect diet I’d have to add as I’m cooking tinned food in aluminum saucepans over a kerosene stove but all in all, not bad. Definitely no pollution from traffic, off-gassing plastics or air-conditioned recycled air, etc that we accept as part of in our lives normally so on balance a good detox. And I brought my belt in two notches which is a good thing plus toned up in general so all in all, a darn good place to go for a fitness camp experience.

I’ve also read some great biographies about Africa from the small library there plus some fiction and technical risk books (research for my books). Between writing, reading, watching occasional movies on my laptop, and troubleshooting the electrical or mechanical stuff here the 95 or so days passed pretty quickly.

I’ve also become a fan of www.ted.com (“ideas worth spreading”) which has great 10 minute presentations which I often watch while preparing or eating dinners. Can’t wait to get to some decent bandwidth internet where I’ll be able to watch them in real time rather than keep pausing them…

Also had lot’s of 'boys own adventure' hiking, 4WD’ing and even playing a little on the mighty XL125 dirtbike. The wet season was pretty limiting in terms of how far you could go really and I can see why the pushbike is the preferred form of transport. Early on in the piece I went on a ‘shopping trip’ to see if we could buy some fresh produce (eggs, mangoes, bananas etc). In the dry season there are 25 of us here and the locals come to the gate twice a week to sell their home grown vegies etc. With only 4 of us here during the wet season their visits become more random events, unpredictable in both timing and selection. And I can understand why. In the wet season, it is a 4 hour round trip walk plus a canoe ferry across the river to sell a bucket full of goods to 4 people. Their produce can be a bit erratic at this time of year and it’s rare to have enough eggs, mangoes, spinach, etc all available at the one time to make it worth the round trip.

At one point, after 9 days without a visitation from the local farmers, I decided to head out with an esky and some Tanzanian Shillings to see what I could find. I took along Kauga the security team leader as translator but in the end having a translator made no difference. I can understand body language and 'humna' (nothing) when they respond to my basic questions for Embe, Ndizi, Mayai, etc. The river is impassable except by dugout canoe ferry so that meant most of the farms weren’t accessible without at least an hours hike on the other side. After we visited all 3 farms on this side of the river we decided not to bother with the hour’s hike as no-one on this side had any produce to sell – not so much as a spare egg. They are truly subsistence farmers here and other than an occasional surplus which they sell to buy things they can’t grow such as cooking oil or dagaa (dried fish from Lake Tanganyika), their farms produce just enough to keep them alive - and that’s about it. It was a good social interlude but that was about it. That is at least, until we tried to get back.

We got back covered in mud, soaked through with sweat and pretty much knackered after getting stuck on a hillside on the way back. Erosion and mud made the track basically impassable and after sliding down the camber into the washaway we spent 2 hours digging with tyre levers and panga (machete) then jacking and winching to get up the hill we call ‘the obstacle’. Yes, that’s the same one that Valerian got stuck on at the start of the wet season. The rain turned a couple of small holes into washaways big enough to swallow a Wildebeest (OK, a small Wildebeest I'll admit…). In the dry the track is easy enough but in the wet… We slid into one of those holes like an eight ball finding the corner pocket till the Landcruiser was resting on its undercarriage with a calm dignity and poise which we couldn’t match. All good fun though and we got it out in the end but at one stage it was looking like a walk home… A few weeks later, six of us spent half an hour with mattocks and spades rebuilding that track to the point where you could get up it - so long as it hasn’t rained in the past 12 hours - but that’s about as good as it gets.

In a typical AWA (Africa Wins Again) experience, we got a short notice call that the aviation inspector needed to inspect Mwese airstrip to recertify it. That meant we had to pay for his charter flight so we decided to fly in another small genset as the only one still running used too much fuel. Valerian had brought in another small one after it was ‘repaired’ but it was the worlds worst repair job with the casing screws stripped or missing, case held together by wire and burning engine oil like a 2-stroke (it’s a 4-stroke motor). Needless to say it failed by day 4 back at Mibango. In any case, after much last minute rush, Tim sourced a genset in Dar and Valerian managed to cajole the locals to slash the strip in Mwese in record time. Mibango strip however was so overgrown that we had no choice but to hire everyone who was available in the area. In the end 20 locals managed to slash the 70cm grass on the 1,500m strip in 5 days and paint the markers just 48 hours before the inspector was due to land. We should have guessed it was going too smoothly. The inspector rang at 9:30pm the day before to postpone his visit till 28FEB – by which time it will need slashing all over again. So it goes… AWA.

Anyway, I’m in a surprisingly nice guest house in Nzega now on the way to Dar via the Serengeti and Valerian is in Mibango with the security guys for the next three months. In a weeks handover we had some good laughs together and I taught him how to ride the motorcycle in case he needs to get to Mwese or the lake a bit faster than pushbike. You forget how tricky motorcycles are to ride in the dirt and mud when you’ve been riding as long as I have but his learning experience reminded me how much I take for granted. He’s a fast learner though and doing fine with it. Plus he has a great sense of humour which will stand him in good stead for the inevitable falls and stalls. I also showed him how to troubleshoot the internet connection, send attachments with emails etc but most challenges will be more mundane than that. In any case, he is a local boy so Mibango is like home for him and barring meteorite strike he’ll do just fine I think.

On the road again...

I’m enjoying being in Moshi (at the base of Kilimanjaro) after three months in camp followed by five bone rattling but wonderful days on the road. Moshi is a great little town and so nice to be enjoying good coffee, smoothies, change of scenery and mzungu company. Not so much that they are mzungu as that it’s been great to converse with native English speakers. The locals are great and super-friendly but away from the towns their English is on average only slightly better than my Swahili which is pretty darn basic. Hence I’ve not had too many in-depth conversations in the past 2 months that didn’t involve electrons lol. As ‘luck’ would have it, the first Mzungu I came across after 2 months was a Frenchman who either didn’t speak English or preferred not to. Judging from the monosyllabic grunt I got in response to my warm hello and barely a glance before returning to photos on his laptop, I suspect it was the latter lol. The next morning though, I met 2 Canucks and a Pom so we had some laughs and long conversation over a leisurely breakfast. The Pom in particular was a serendipitous meeting as he has set up an local NGO to help schools with infrastructure and volunteer teachers, train farmers, teach English to teachers and has set up a training farm. All things that we plan to do next season out at camp albeit on a more modest scale and he was keen to help out with advice and/or trainers. And he’s a great bloke of terrific character. I know this because his name is also Julian lol.

I originally thought a little optimistically as it turned out, that I’d get here in 3 or 4 days. It actually took me 5 days, pausing for a few punctures and repairs on the way but spending about 40 hours behind the wheel to cover around 1,400 km. I’m not sure what the roads would be like in the dry season but in the wet, it’s pretty slow going and the first 600km took me 2.5 days or just over 20 hours behind the wheel, which works out to an average of 30km per hour.

As for Valerian’s first ever trip in a plane and my planned stopover at Mwese strip.... You’re familiar with AWA perhaps? (Africa Wins Again). I was originally going to be stopping at Mwese for a night to put up a windsock with Valerian and meet the aviation inspector for the airstrips annual certification inspection. Valerian would have then flown back to Mibango but the inspector cancelled 3 days before he was due to fly in so I got to leave 2 days early and got Mpanda on Saturday afternoon which was OK with me.
The other good news is that Valerian will still get his flight but now it will be in late February. He’ll ride the motorcycle to Mwese, meet the inspector and then fly back into Mibango. I sometimes think I’m almost as excited for him as he is (and he’s pretty excited!). I still remember my first flight at the age of 7 and all the ones in small planes and helicopters since then. Somehow I think it will be a memorable experience for him to say the least.

It was good to have Mongo Mongo (yes, that’s his real name) and a chap from the Crying Village hitching with me on the first day because we had to stop and repair a couple of creek crossings on the way to Mwese and having 3 of us made for light work. The track is pretty bad in places especially and I needed low range with diff-lock a few times to get through but it’s still passable (just). The elephant grass is higher than the cab of the Landcruiser after 2 months of rain and I was driving by brail in some places trying to feel out the bumps. Luckily the grass between the wheel ruts is slightly lower - only just higher than the bonnet of the Toyota - so you have an idea of where the wheel tracks are or were.

Despite driving theoretically solo, I was rarely alone. In fact, I think of the 40 hours, it was probably less than 4 hours that I didn’t have between 1 and 10 people with me. 10 people was great actually as it meant that the one-tonner with 10ply tyres rode much more smoothly with 800 kg of people in the back. It also helped that with the first puncture I had 5 blokes with me to help. One of the guys looked to be a dead ringer for a young Forest Whittaker. Hard to believe he wasn’t in fact – apart from being probably 20 years younger now. Giving people lifty’s as well as being a good thing to do also helped me practice and learn a bit of Swahili. It reminded of course, just how little Swahili I know but at least left me encouraged that I know a lot more than I did a few months ago. With the second puncture a couple of days later, I had one woman who sat and watched but I guess it was good to have a companion. In any case a Police ‘Special Ops’ patrol stopped by to see if I needed a hand and there were cars or trucks regularly pausing to check if I needed a hand.

After each puncture, we pulled in at the first fundi we could find. I say ‘we’ because usually it was my hitchhikers who could navigate me in the direction of the fundi’s. Few if any businesses have signs in the back blocks. You just need to ask the locals where the fundi or duka (shop) or hoteli or whatever you need is. That being said, I’m getting pretty good at spotting the ‘sign’s now. Tyre repair fundi’s can usually be spotted by the pile of old tyres dumped at the side of their shop or more prominently sometimes, a 1950’s style hand cranked petrol air compressor with a water bottle and rubber hose providing coolant to the compressor motor. Nobody (fundi’s or I) seem to have air pressure gauges to check tyre pressure with. I was asked each time by the tyre fundi’s if I had on (mental note to self to put one in the glove box at first opportunity) so they would simply patch the tube and then use a tyre lever bounced off the tyre as an improvised air pressure gauge. Speaking of improvised tools, it’s amazing to watch how they adapt lumps of metal or old car parts to make bead breakers, tyre levers, and even hammers from scrap. The first puncture was fixed with a side trip off the main track into little village called Uvinza which is worthy of mention. It is a one-horse town by any standards with salt mining seeming to support the community but it rests on the banks of a decent size river and has a certain quiet charm. Worth a stopover for anyone who is cruising slowly through.

All told it took 9 hours driving to Kasulu on that second day and I’m not sure what it was like when Pete and Tim went through there 2 months ago, but I can safely say that Mpanda to Kasulu is only suitable for high clearance 4WD in the wet season. I found a hopelessly noisy hotel at Kasulu where the TV blared in the courtyard below my room till 9 minutes past midnight then came on again at 0555 with a vengeance. At 0630 when I went down to leave, the TV was still screeching with the squeal and static of tortured speakers pounding out a local MTV hit to an audience of… precisely no-one. Not even a staff member in the courtyard. I don’t know what it is about Tanzania but it must be full of former artillery soldiers. Music? TV? “I don’t care what you play SO LONG AS YOU PLAY IT LOUD!!!” Oh how I love the quiet or the birdsong and crickets of Mibango. Almost in some reaction to the quiet of the bush, the rest of Tanzania is noise incarnate. And almost universally the music systems and TV speakers seem to have the squeal and crackle of speakers repeatedly pushed beyond their limits.

I made up for the stay at the clean but noisy Kasulu Highway Hotel the next night though by staying at a surprisingly great guesthouse in Nzega called the Forest Inn Hotel. What a gem. USD$18 for a 2 room suite with hot water showers in a quiet location with a great garden setting. I had a sleep in and leisurely breakfast before seeking out a Fundi (mechanic) for the Landcruiser which had developed a severe wobble above 60km on the way into Nzega. The last 3 hours driving into Nzega at 40km/h wasn’t as bad as it might sound. Despite cruising on a modern tarmac highway of world-class standards, the trip is never so quick. There are villages every few kilometers and the Tanzanian method of controlling speed is to put 2 or 3 or more speed bumps at each village. A few speed bumps are quite benign but most are so severe as to bottom the suspension of any vehicle approaching at more than 30 km/h and even a few so high that I wonder how a regular car could get over them. Coupled with the fact that they seem to have all manner of markings, coloring and signage and sometimes no markings whatsoever, vigilance is required and daydreaming not an option. The worst are the unpainted tarmac ones on tarmac road in a 100km/h speed zone. As a friend is prone to saying, “remain vigilant” is not just a nice idea – it’s a necessity.

After a good nights rest at the Forest Inn, I spent 4 hours the next morning exploring the town and watching the fundi’s work on the Landcruiser. It turned out the front wheels were out of balance and the steering rod damper was shot. I’m not sure if it was it was the final gasp of the steering damper or perhaps high speed running on tarmac threw the lead weights off a front wheel but in any case the fundi’s fixed those problems plus replaced the side mirrors, adjusted the brakes, put the rear number plate back on and a few odd jobs like that before I headed off about 12.

What looked on the map like a short trip to Babati on tarmac took me about 8 hours and I got in about an hour after dark which was challenging as the road from Singida is all dirt (what a surprise lol). All in all, I’ve covered something like 1,000km on dirt roads and 400km on tarmac. The dirt road is tough going as they are rough, rough, rough in a 1 tonner and it’s frustrating watching the 5 door Landcruiser go flying by in comfort about 25 km/h faster than me as I bounce and rattle along. Despite this, it’s still really rewarding and my preference to be travelling on the dirt roads as they wind through the back blocks and dusty villages that make up a fascinating part of Tanzania.

It’s an interesting driving experience in Tanzania. Not for the faint of heart but not that hard either. You just need to get used to some different ways of doing things. Lots of poorly marked and faded boomgate roadblocks, washaways, and near invisible but severe speed bumps. The police seem to have boomgate across the minor roads at regular intervals to inspect the trucks. Regular cars and 4WD’s are just waved through but even so the un-signposted and sometimes unpainted metal poles lowered across the road seem invisible at first but eventually when you know to look for such things under the shadow of trees even in 100km/h speed zones, somehow ones visual acuity becomes critically enhanced.

On day 5 (Wednesday) I hit Moshi at last. A very decent Café Americano (long black in Australia), a biscuit – yes, a biscuit. My first in 2 months. Followed by a mango/banana/yoghurt smoothie then chips and burger for dinner. Yum! The road from Babati was as I’ve come to expect, unpaved and rough as guts. The Landcruiser trayback would have to be perhaps the world’s best production 4WD for the rough off-road stuff. The worlds best in case you’re curious, is IMHO the without peer RFSV (Regional Force Surveillance Vehicle) used the three RSFU’s of the Australian Army. But then again, you’d expect it to be pretty good with 49 distinct modifications from the 110 Landrover you can buy in the shops. In any case, I had been thinking that when the time comes to spend a couple of years driving across Africa, the Landcruiser trayback would be the ideal vehicle but after doing 5 days just covering the distance on mostly dirt roads, in a trayback, I’m leaning towards the Troop Carrier or 5-door for the simple reason that most of Africa is dirt roads rather than hard core 4WD and they are both still pretty darn good in the rough. I’ll keep you posted on how that evolves.

Meanwhile, a few days R&R to chillax here and then 5 days in Serengeti, Ngorogoro Crater and Lake Manyara before I head for Dar next week. Life is tough. Allegedly…