Thursday, February 4, 2010

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…

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