Rivers of mud


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Africa » Tanzania » East » Dar es Salaam
May 30th 2011
Published: July 15th 2011
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After five fantastic days on Zanzibar, I found myself back in Dar es Salaam, just a champions league final, and a 10 hour bus away from Mozambique. But as we all know, United lost, and there things went downhill. A case of Africa kicking me when I was down, and a nadir of the trip so far.

After two many beers watching the football, and not enough sleep I found my way to the bus station (although I'm still not sure how) and, possibly still feeling the Tuskers from the night before, decided the bus with the giant roaring, leaping, tiger - the Buti Express - would be the bets option to get me to Mtwara on Tanzania's south-eastern coast. After arguing over the coast (and unlike United, winning), I found my seat and settled in a hungover haze as we rolled slowly out of the bus station with the shouts of Barca fans ringing in my ears. I fell asleep as we left Dar, a sleep interrupted only by sharp jabs from the girl sat next to me who was determined to prize the inch of space I'd found on the arm rest from my possession.

I awoke again as we pulled into a service station just outside the city for what would be the first of many stops, this time to replace a worn tyre, something they'd failed to notice in the bus station mere miles back down the road. Forty-five minutes later, we again slowly inched towards Mtwara, and I again fell into a deep sleep. The next time I woke - a few hours later, with a dry mouth, and a pounding head - the bus had come to a stop yet again, and the passengers slowly made their way off to find shelter under an overhanging tree. This time, with the mechanics struggling under the engine of the bus, the stop got longer and longer. Occasionally, the engine would be started in optimism, only for it to splutter to a halt and die, along with our hopes of moving forward.

And then, for reasons unbeknown to me, everyone suddenly stood up and boarded the bus once more, and with the engine struggling for power, and at a speed only marginally faster than backwards, we continued along the muddy road, through endless puddles with the tyres leaving a wake of muddy water as we drove past. The road, it seemed, was only marginally more functional than the wreck of a bus I'd boarded. With the engine fighting a losing battle, we limped into a muddy and dusty village, and as everyone filed off the bus once more, I was finally told that the bus was 'through', and we'd have to wait in this proverbial creek until a replacement bus from Dar could pick us up.

And so, hour after hour passed, my hangover went from strength to strength, and the day soon turned to night. I tried to get a cup of tea, but the restaurant only had warm milk. I wanted a beer, but the whole village was dry. And then I was told that there was a fuel problem with the replacement bus, and we'd be in the town conveniently placed somewhere in the middle of 'no' and 'where' until morning. It seemed only one man on the bus could speak English, but he wasn't in a talkative mood, and everyone else just enjoyed talking about me instead.

As I found a bench in a dark corner and feel asleep, a deep rumble of an aged engine, and the excited commotion of the other passengers-come-refugees singled the arrival of the replacement bus. Pandemonium burst out as all 70 (or more) passengers tried to fit through the door at once to get the beat seats. I pushed with the best of them until I'd forced my way onto the bus and secured a seat for me and the man who had a limited, but in the circumstances comparatively extensive, grasp of English. My new found friend left to get his luggage, leaving me in charge of looking after the seats, at which point my previous seat-mate (the girl with the sharp elbow jabs) stepped beside me, sat down on the seat even though I said she couldn't, and then scowled when she realised I hadn't even carried her luggage over to the new bus for her. Just can't get the staff these days, I guess. She then managed to steal my hard-won window seat from me, although I'm still not sure how she managed it, and proceeded to make herself comfortable at the same time as slowly edging me off the seat and into the isle. At about midnight I tired to settle down and catch a bit of rest before dawn, at which point the aged engine suddenly burst into power and sent vibrations running through the whole bus. Contrary to everything I'd been told, we were finally leaving the dead-end village, and I was filled with relief that I might actually make it to Mtwara after all.

My relief however, was short lived, and disappeared as soon as we hit the first pothole on the edge of town. Half asleep, I was thrown from my precarious position on the edge of the seat, across the isle, managing to wake up moment before landing into the cleavage of the woman sat opposite me. She was less than receptive to my advances, and quickly thrust me back across the bus into my seat, at which point the girl to my left, was equally eager to push me the opposite way. For the next three hours we literally bounced along the road, and each time I dropped off to sleep, I'd quickly be thrown off my seat into an unlucky passenger. If i fell onto the shoulder of the girl to me left, she'd waste no time, and no little energy, pushing me back off. With hindsight this seems quite reasonable. At the time, it seemed like the harshest of things to do to a broken man.

This rock-and-roll routine only came to a stop as we ground to a halt in yet anohter patch of mud at5 around 3am. From then until 6am (as I shamefully slept) the driver, conductor, other passengers, and villagers hoping for some extra income, tried desperately to dig the heavy steel bus out of the muddy trap and back onto the road. And each time, after shouting, cussing, digging, and building in the half-light, the engine would scream and fill the air with smoke, only for the wheels to spin, mud to fly in the air, and the bus to come to a halt in exactly the same place, only deeper in the mire than ever before.

As dawn rose, the full scene of mayhem was exposed to us. Where there should have been a road, there were just rivers of mud. Where we should have driven, there were three lorries stuck deep in the mud, wheels hardly visible. What used to be bush, had become a loop around the lorries, and was now where our bus was stuck deep in the brown sea. With our rescuers now despondent and all hope of an early exit gone, all to be done was to sit and watch as yet more cars, buses, and trucks got backed up and stuck in the mud, and the end of the queue of traffic disappeared from sight. Thankfully one of the other passengers on the bus, an enterprising soldier,disappeared to kick the engineers who should have been maintaining the road into action. Without him, who knows how long we may have been stuck there, and he soon returned, standing atop a bright yellow Caterpillar digger, a modern day hero at the head of our relief column. Questions or morality and Palestinian solidarity aside, I've never been happier to see Caterpillar bulldozers, painted in that lovely bright yellow shimmering in the morning light, roll over the horizon.

A mere two hours later, with the sum now past noon, the trucks ahead of us were finally pulled out of the mire, followed eventually by our lowly bus, and the never-ending journey once again got under way. The next five hours passed relatively uneventfully, and we moved closer and closer to Mtwara at speeds approaching the highs of 'moderate'. Just after passing a major junction, with darkness now fallen, the bus crawled to a halt, I was handed 2,500 shillings (about 1GBP), and told the bus wasn't even heading to Mtwara, but that I should catch a passing lift - something they conductor decided I hadn't needed to know until I was heading down the steps onto the pavement. Thankfully a 30-seater bus soon (in the African sense) arrived, and boarding my third bus of the trip, I was now just 60 minutes from my destination. I sat back, enjoyed the relative comfort of the new transport, and dreamed of reaching Mtwara. Until, that is, when we were surrounded by nothing the black of an African night, we ran out of fuel. It seemed I was cursed to never arrive.

To cut this long story short, I finally rolled into Mtwara sometime after 8pm, and on my fifth attempt found a hotel with a spare room, and with it a bed and pillow to rest my head, after over 40 torturous, painful, and seemingly endless hours. And remembering United had lost to Barca, again, just made it all the more soul destroying.

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