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Published: January 23rd 2008
A typical house in Tanzania's Southern Highlands.
The road was long and beautiful. It winded over gently undulating semi-savannah, across the Fipa
-plateau, past small friendly villages and through deep and damp forest. Wouldn’t it have been for a twist of fate we would never have discovered that exceptional stretch of bad gravel and instead we would have been chugging up Lake Tanganyika
on the legendary steamer MV Liemba
The steamboat had been both scuttled and salvaged from the depths of the lake and was soon about to turn 100. Since it was put back in service in the mid twenties it had faithfully taken passengers up and down the world’s second longest lake once a week, for the last eighty years. For many of the villages along the lake shore it was the only source of supply, since they where cut off from the outside world by thick jungle.
Even though it was always delayed, it still managed to miraculously do the journey over and over again. Its legend had reached us long before we’d even entered the country, and it had (for no apparent reason) become the main highlight for us in Tanzania.
The border crossing with Malawi
at Songea Bridge
was surprisingly unpleasant.
Because his older brother had grown fond of a Swedish missionary that he worked for, he renamed his younger brother to Andersson (the surname of the missionary).
We’d met several travellers who’d warned us about the money-changers who prowl the small town on the Tanzanian side of the border. Many of them had been robbed by the cunning thieves that acted as money-changers. As we arrived, the thieves pulled every trick they could to deceive us and steal our money and it was by a miracle that we eventually managed to get out of the ugliness as Aili
went to get the police.
After the abusive welcome-committee had done their best to flaw our impression of Tanzania, a beautiful country lay before us.
We cycled across the lush hills of the Southern Highland
with tea and cassava covering its hillsides and with mint and bananas growing along the roads. The hills were dotted with small but vibrant villages who’s markets where bursting with commotion and produce. The quantity of mosques grew stronger, more women wore imposing turbans and we quickly realized that you had to bargain for everything, since all whites were quoted a so-called “Muzungu-price
A couple of days passed as we relaxed in Mbeya
, the largest town of southern Tanzania. I’d managed to get a cold as we’d slept on the ground
We found three chameleons on the road, they where quite easy to spot as they crossed the road, but as soon as they where back in the greenery, it was impossible to find them again.
in a stone church somewhere up in the chilly highlands. For every day that our departure got postponed because of my cold, we knew that we’d have to cycle even harder to reach the miniscule port of Kasanga
in time to catch the legendary MV Liemba.
In three and a half day we had to cycle 90km of tarred road and 350km of bad gravel roads, so imagine how high in spirit we were as we arrived at the shores of Lake Tanganyika just in time for the arrival of the ferry. It had been three and a half days of hard cycling along adventurous back roads, through villages totally detached from the outside world and all the time we’d been anticipating one of the greatest boat journeys in Africa
. The ride from Kasanga to Kigoma
was supposed to be our reward after all the tough cycling.
I can’t fully explain how dissatisfying it was to find out that “this week only
”, the ferry would be used to ship back refugees to the D. R
. of Congo
. What were the odds for that?
I climbed aboard the boat and pleaded to the captain to take us as stowaway,
Formerly named Graf Von Gotzing, it changed name to the Fipa-name for the lake (Liemba) after it was put back in service by the pomms. Here it's offloading at Kasanga.
but he was adamant to my lame attempts of bribing him.
We had two options; either stay in Kasanga and do absolutely nothing for a week, or try to cycle to Kigoma. For all this time I couldn’t get the two first lines of Kurt Cobain
's suicide letter out of my head.
Two beers and a cramped bush-taxi ride later we were back in Sumbawanga
. We treated ourselves to a nice dinner and arranged bus tickets to Mpanda
, since cycling through Katavi National Park
would have been foolhardy.
As we passed the park the next day, bumping along the ribbed surface for ten hours, we saw elephants and hippos plus a plethora of different bucks, which convinced us that cycling would have been a bad idea.
From Mpanda we continued north towards Kigoma on our bikes. Here our map puzzled us, since many of the villages that our map showed, had been abandoned and overtaken by the jungle.
We struggled towards a dot on the map that we thought would be a good place to spend the night, but we struggled in vain, since the village was no more. It was getting late.
Alone on the south western Tanzanian plain.
We’d cooked dinner at a small cluster of mud huts along the road. The few inhabitants joined us for dinner and ate live wasps and termites while laughing at our stove. We left the village in hope to reach the next before it got dark. The surrounding vegetation was so lush that the canopy created a ceiling over the road where monkeys and chameleons played and we felt very content with not being on the boat.
Then came the rain.
Within a minute we were totally soaked and it didn’t take long before the forceful shower had turned the laterite road into a mud bath. Slowly we waded, pushing our bikes forward with nothing around us but dense jungle that seemed to devour the road.
We’d been pushing for almost an hour when a large truck arrived. It was the second vehicle for the day, and the first one heading in our direction. Although this was the main thoroughfare of western Tanzania, one would lie if one said it was heavily trafficked. Mr. Ali
- the driver - was a friendly Tanzanian of Omani
descent. Him and his brother owned a truck-company and were taking 20 tons
The village Mao.
The village Mao is probably the furthest off the beaten track I've been, since no tourist had ever been there before. The only way to get there is on a two-wheeler (or by foot) since one has to cross several rivers riding on rotten planks (which excludes heavy motorbikes as well). All the villagers use bicycles to cross the overgrown cattletracks that lead to and from Mao some 20km from the mainroad. The turnoff is unmarked so one need to ask the locals for directions. Of course we had to talk to the village chief as we arrived and ask for permission to camp, and the whole village was in turmoil as they saw us. He explained that the last Muzungus that had been in the village was the Germans. Oh, Overlanders, I thought. No, he explained. The Germans had passed through the village while building a telephone-line to Kasanga, during his grandfathers rule, before the first world war. The village had also survived the impact of Western missionaries, Peace Corps or other volunteers, which is a novelty in Africa these days.
of maize from Sumbawanga to Kigoma. He had two workers, both from the Fipa-tribe, who worked for food only, which he gave them less than five times a week. That put my sense of hunger in a new perspective, since I probably eat five times more a week.
He explained that his family was “too
” big, and as he told me about them I could see what he meant.
He was the youngest of 17 siblings and his oldest brother was seven years older than his mother who was the third wife of his father that now was 90 years old and had been very prolific during a span of 40 full years. With the African extended family system where every cousin, aunt, uncle and god knows what is considered close family, his family was undeniably gigantic, and I could but agree as he shook his head and repeated; -Too many, too many.
We tried to sleep in the cabin of the truck but it was too sticky and smelly, so we spread our thin bed sheets on the mud road outside the truck. Shivering, we eventually fell asleep to the call of bushbabies and got
Stuck in the mud.
Somewhere west of Kazuramimba we got properly stuck in the deep mud. The two Fipas worked hard in the belvhing sun to dig out the truck, using small showels and makeshift spades.
an impressive collection of mosquito bites during the night.
Early in the morning we arrived to Uvinza
. The showers continued and Mr. Ali convinced us to join him in the truck for the last 95km to Kigoma instead of cycling in the rain.
That journey took nine and a half hour. We would have cycled the stretch faster, but then we wouldn’t have enjoyed the three hours of hard work, digging the truck out of the mud.
Kerosene lanterns shed light on the small stands selling chai, omelette and vitomboa. In a distance, the lanterns looked like a never-ending, glowing pearl necklace that disappeared down the road towards the lake shore.
This was where I celebrated my birthday, drinking Kinyogi
on a roadside in Kigoma. The next morning the sound of the minarets were exceptionally unpleasant as they awoke me to a well deserved hang-over. I cursed their existence and yet the same day we went to Ujiji
, a village with an even stronger presence of minarets. As my headache ceased I found the minarets likeable again, as long as they didn't give sound.
Ujiji was a small village next to Kigoma
Restus Sanka Ngomeni
One of the elders in the small village of Mao
that had been the centre of commerce for the region before the Germans
built the railway to Kigoma. It was here that the preoccupied fascist and self-proclaimed adventurer Stanley
presumably met a certain lost (?) doctor named Livingstone
Sooner or later one always has to leave.
Though we really liked Kigoma, and the whole of western Tanzania, we felt the time ticking. We’d promised to meet a good friend of mine in Uganda
in three weeks time, and before getting there, we had two more countries to cross.
Even though we’d only seen a fraction of the country, we both strongly felt that this was one of our favourite countries in Africa.
It bordered the three biggest lakes on the continent and encompassed the highest mountain. There was pristine jungle, vast savannah, chilling highlands and perfect beaches. Tanzania even laid claim on Africa’s most famous island, that lay anchored off its coast outside Dar Es Salaam
In Africa it’s only South Africa
that can rival such natural diversity and utter beauty. Then, having 128 different tribes united without the typical African tribal hatred that haunts Tanzania’s neighbours, that’s impressive. Julius Nyerere
- the founding
A typical house in Western Tanzania. Here with the Gombe National Park in the background.
father of Tanzania - was often harshly criticized for his socialist rule.
Truly, he did a lot of mistakes for which the populace suffered, but in hindsight he managed better than any other African leader (except perhaps Nelson Mandela
and Kwame Nkrumah
) to unite his people. He created the largest language in Africa, and laid the solid foundation of peace that Tanzania rests on today. That’s one of the main reasons why Tanzania enjoys such stability in contrast to its closest neighbour Kenya
that choose a whole different path after independence.
Kenya choose the American
model of aggressive capitalism and let archetypal African tribalism shatter any chance of unity, of which the vile results are clearly visible today.
While still in Malawi we"d told ourselves to dislike Tanzania, since we'd heard that it was far too touristy and full of hustlers.
As usual we were in collusion with our foregone conclusions and had to fight hard against having our prejudism shattered by all the wonderful people that we later came across. Eventually we had to give up, give in, and accept that if there was any country in Africa that actually deserved every single tourist
My birthday, I presume
Looking out over the bay where Stanley and Livingstoe mingled some 136 years earlier. A good birthday indeed, wew went trekking, had overpriced food in the most expensive hotel, and gate-crashed their pool (same as last year at a 5-star hotel in Harare). Couldn't have been better.
and was worthy of still more, it was Tanzania.
I really hope that one day I'll get the opportunity to come back, and who knows, I might even settle down in Tanzania.
One of the friendliest and most beautiful countries I've ever seen.
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