Road Trip


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Africa » Tanzania
October 7th 2013
Published: November 4th 2013
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So I left my laptop on a Ugandan bus yesterday. Aside from highlighting an embarrassing inability to keep track of my own possessions, it reminded me that I have nearly two months of travel blog lurking on that hard drive, half written and waiting to be uploaded. The idea of losing my shit writing and shit photos bothered me considerably more than the idea of losing my shit laptop. Luckily the bus was one that had been hired by the course, and the very kind driver returned my lost possessions. The other two things I managed to abandon were a book containing my handwritten notes on every single lecture I’ve had since August, and my only bikini top. All very important and necessary items.

Anyway. This little episode is what has prompted me to sort out my blog. That and my parents nagging me. As a recap, since August I’ve been in Tanzania and Uganda studying for a diploma in Tropical Medicine. The problem is that medicine is difficult to write about, whereas writing about travelling is easy. Because of this I’m abandoning any attempt at chronological order and uploading what I wrote about my half term road trip, between the Moshi (Tanzania) and Kampala (Uganda) sections of the course. Simply because it’s the only bit I’ve actually finished, and I have to start somewhere or I’ll never motivate myself to do it.

So. Leaving Moshi was sad, mainly because the six weeks passed so quickly it terrified me. Our last night we had a party on the hotel roof then went out dancing in the rain. I woke up with a hangover and a wobbly trail of muddy footprints leading to my room. The class was about to split for half term. We had nine days to get to Kampala to start the second half of the course. One of my newfound friends has a car out here, so five of us decided to drive all the way to Kampala ourselves, via some stops along the way. I got a photo of us all with the car just as we left Moshi. The before photo. I secretly wondered if this may turn out to be the ‘back when we were all still speaking to each other’ photo. We set off and almost instantly got stuck in the eternal traffic jam that is Arusha. After half an hour of being completely immobile, some opportunistic thief stuck their hand in through an open window and snatched Sam’s mp3 player off the dashboard. I instinctively grabbed it back without really realising what was happening, so they escaped with just the radio adapter that had been plugged in to the top, a very low value but high annoyance crime.

After finally extricating ourselves from Arusha (hate that place, good riddance), we made better progress. We were heading roughly for the Ugandan border, each taking our turn at the wheel, watching the scenery change. We stopped for tiny Masai kids carrying big sticks, unhurriedly driving herds of skinny cattle across our path. Buses and lorries proclaimed their faithfulness to God in large neon letters on the backs of their vehicles, whilst cheerfully trying to run us off the road.

The highways are constantly under construction. Large teams of workers are seemingly employed to dig holes at random, then fill them in again. Even on the good roads, every few kilometres you run up against a diversion sign and a man with a flag who expels you from the tarmac onto some circuitous dirt path running alongside.

On the first day we stopped at whatever little town we happened to be passing as the sun went down, finding a £2 a night guesthouse that didn’t quite have room for everyone, forcing two of us to share a single bed. One of the many locals who came out to watch our arrival helpfully wrote the name of the town in the dirt on the back windscreen, so we wouldn’t forget where we’d been. A few beers under the stars, then up at sunrise, five cups of chai at 8p each and back on the road. Progress.

Four out of the five of us took turns to drive. Of these four, one had left their licence in England and another had failed to notice their licence had expired (why yes, that would be me). Avoiding the attention of the police was therefore a priority. Amazingly, we managed 9 days and 2500km without being pulled over once. A policeman at the border attempted without much real conviction to find an excuse to get something from us, but lacked the imagination to come up with anything better than “I want money to buy a drink”. Another tried, without any apparent irony, to make us buy an “anti-corruption sticker”. We politely declined both officers’ requests.

The second night we stayed in Bukoba, on the shores of Lake Victoria. It seemed fairy pretty from what little I saw, with houses balanced all the way up the sides of a steep cliff looking down over the water. We did very little here aside from sit on the beach, people watching and beer drinking, debating which parasites swimming in the water would be most likely to give us. After dark an obnoxiously loud, really fun looking beach party kicked off not far from our hotel. Me and Sam emptied everything out of our pockets aside from enough money for a few beers, hopped on the back of motorbikes and went to investigate. We were the only foreigners there, obvious as much from our shit dancing as our pale skin. Drunk, friendly locals kept coming over to introduce themselves and cheerfully assure us they would look after us “if there was any trouble”. There wasn’t any trouble.

The next day we crossed the border. I despise border towns. They are invariably the most depressing, least hospitable place in any country. All the worst aspects of human nature
are on display in a border town. It took us nearly two hours to get across, get our passports stamped on both sides and sort out the all the paperwork for the car, but once we’d fended off the multitude of touts and dodgy characters intent on ‘helping’ and figured out the (not entirely intuitive) process for ourselves, it was relatively painless and completely bribe free. We did piss off a cross-eyed, slightly drunk looking policeman when we refused to believe he was a real officer, refused to let him search the car and demanded to see his ID. He never did show any ID but he did produce a mate with a large gun, so we decided that on balance it would be best to co-operate. Despite being pretty irate, after searching the car he couldn’t really find a reason to stop or fine us, so we escaped into Uganda. Luckily he failed to notice the many litres of Konyage we’d spent the last of our Tanzanian shillings on.

Driving in Uganda is basically just a real life African version of Grand Theft Auto. I didn’t think it was actually possible after Tanzania, but the roads got worse and the drivers got crazier. Visibility was reduced to basically zero while driving through the dust storms kicked up by roadworks. At one point we were hit by a minor landslide (there are dents in the car to prove it). I nearly ran over a monkey. Speedbumps that render your car airborne if you hit them at anything more than 20kph are sprinkled essentially at random, often unmarked, along the highways. There were potholes you could lose a whole motorbike in. Any concept of which side of the road it is permissible to drive on goes out the window, as vehicles in both directions just aim for wherever the road surface looks most intact. At one point we rounded a corner to find a car overtaking a bus overtaking a lorry, all heading straight for us. We quickly determined that whoever is biggest has right of way, so if something else is coming (often directly at you on the wrong side of the road, at great speed) you just have to get out of the way, or off the road.

On a more positive note, Uganda is stunning. It’s too early to call it yet, but my first instinct is that it’s even more beautiful than Tanzania. This is, obviously, a sweeping and relatively uninformed generalisation. Tanzania is often quite starkly beautiful, but Uganda seems lusher, greener and more alive. The soil is that deep rusty red colour that instantly makes you think of Africa.

Next stop on our journey was Lake Bunyonyi, which is getting it's own separate entry...

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5th November 2013

You are a true TBer if the first thing you miss...
from your lost computer is the unsent blogs! Your heart is in the right place. I'm glad you got it back and are now taking your responsibilities to our community seriously. P.S. By entering the date of the events covered by your blog, they will end up in chronological order...but any order will do so long as you keep on blogging. Your writing style is entertaining. I did some construction management in Uganda in October 2008 (I blogged the trip). As an engineer who wants order and efficiency, I found the country frustrating...but beautiful. And it didn't help that I sat in the back row of a minivan; whenever it hit a pot hole, which is every few seconds, my head hit the roof.
5th November 2013

Excellent travel attitude!
I was laughing out loud reading your blog--love your writing and your whatever attitude which certainly makes travel and blog reading more fun. And if you're writing about a trip two months ago, you're doing better than I who am procrastinating writing about the last six months. Hope you're all speaking at the end of your journey!

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