Tanzania Part I: The Long Road to Dar es Salaam

The two-day drive to Dar es Salaam started with a predawn breakfast at our Chitimba campsite on the shores of Lake Malawi.  A bright light illuminated our outdoor breakfast, tricking various large bugs that it was daylight so that us bleary-eyed travelers were periodically startled by dive bombing insects. 

Our destination that day was Iringa in Tanzania, a 500km drive that included a border crossing so something that would ordinarily be an 8-hour journey.  The night before we met another overland group who had completed the same journey in reverse.  They  warned us that over 100km of the road was dug up due to road construction forcing them to take a slow, bumpy and dusty diversion that had them arriving 4-hours later than planned.  Our calculations therefore told us we’d be on the road for at least 12-hours.

We were anxious to get started so loaded our gear in record time then set off just as the first faint light of dawn was appearing.  I think all of us promptly fell back to sleep and therefore missed our last few hours in Malawi, waking shortly before we arrived at the Kasumulu border post.  We exited Malawi quickly and easily before crossing no-mans land and entering the Tanzanian border area that appeared to be a slow-moving machine  overflowing with commercial trucks.  The immigration building was probably the largest we’d visited so far and although there were very few travelers inside it still took a long time to get processed.

First we had to complete two forms, one each for health and immigration, then we had to take our Yellow Fever certificate to one desk to get our health form stamped.  Despite being a requirement for every country on our trip Tanzania was the only one that checked our Yellow Fever Certificates.  We then went to the immigration officer who collected all of our passports along with the US$50 visa fee and told us to wait.  I think it took about an hour for them to be processed with every minute feeling frustrating to us because we knew the worst of the long drive still lay ahead.  In the meantime our tour leader had found someone to change money for us and negotiated a decent rate so we sat on the truck buying Tanzanian Shillings whilst looking with interest over the border wall into the township and wondered what Tanzania would be like.

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It made a change from the usual welcome sign you see at border crossings.

In a way this border crossing marked the point where we left Southern Africa behind and moved into East Africa.  I could somehow sense the change before I saw it with things just feeling vastly different compared to a few hours before when we ate our breakfast back in Malawi.  Shortly after we passed through the border gates we pulled over for a pee break and sure enough things were different.  I first noticed that people were better off here financially with the signs being subtle yet unmistakable.  For example, whilst most people in Malawi were walking or riding bikes to get around here a lot of people had motorbikes and there were more cars.  There were other small indications of a better economy such as shopfronts with relatively new paint jobs and billboards that were more modern and in a better state of repair.

The next hour or so of the drive was beautiful as we traveled through the Southern Highlands with their gentle green rolling hills mostly covered in tea plantations and dotted with small hillside towns.   With cool clear air and high rainfall this region is Tanzania’s bread basket.  The German colonists first planted tea in Tanzania during the early 1900s and the industry slowly grew in importance, peaking when the British took over after World War One when Germany had to handover their colonies to the allies following their defeat.  Unsurprisingly the British planted even more of their favorite beverage and eventually tripled production.  In 1961 Tanzania gained independence from Britain and nationalized most of the tea industry which led to a near collapse before the industry was reformed, allowing many major plantations to be taken over by private companies so that today Tanzania has regained its place as a major tea exporter and is currently the fourth largest tea producing nation in Africa.

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The steep hillsides in the highland towns were covered in houses that made up the suburbs whilst the town centres were vibrant market places.  Although I’d noticed that Tanzania was evidently wealthier than Malawi it is important to keep this in perspective.  The country is still poor with many people struggling to maintain a decent standard of living.  One notable sign of this was the volume of men in these towns who appeared to be unemployed along with women who appeared to walk for miles to markets in order to sell fruit and vegetables they gracefully balanced on their heads.

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Roadside stalls were everywhere as were people who liked to wave and smile at us.  We’d been hearing the call ‘Mzungu!’ more and more frequently since Zambia.  The term basically means ‘white person’ but it isn’t derogatory.    For us it was used simply as a way of getting our attention or alerting others to our presence and was yelled enthusiastically as people smiled and waved, some even jumping up and down on the side of the road to show their excitement at seeing visitors.  In the early parts of our trip this welcome mainly came from kids but by the time we were driving through Tanzania even elderly people were calling and waving to us.  So one of the key memories of our drive through Tanzania is hearing ‘Mzungu!’ constantly then looking to see a happy smiling face frantically waving and us waving back probably hundreds of times collectively over the course of the trip.

At one point our tour leader talked about this in more detail, explaining that in areas like this there are not that many white people so we still generate some curiousity and people like the fact that we are traveling through the places they live.  He then asked, completely seriously, if in Europe people ever yell ‘black person’ when they see one because they aren’t so common in European nations.  We all glanced at each other before breaking out in awkward laughter and explaining that no, white people definitely don’t excitedly yell ‘black person!’ when seeing someone of African origin.  We then had the sad task of explaining why that doesn’t happen, namely because Africans were rarely welcomed in white countries as warmly as white people are welcomed in African countries.  I wish the whole world had been present to hear his question and our attempt to explain things.  It felt like we solved 80% of humanity’s problems in that short exchange and although racism always comes from ignorant and ridiculous notions it somehow seemed even more pathetic and pointless in that moment.

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So far the road was in good shape and we were making good time.  Tanzania seemed promising and I hoped that somehow reports of the road construction had been exaggerated.   We’d been travelling up and down these tea-covered hills since we left the border but at one point we went down another pretty hillside and just didn’t got back up again so that we were suddenly on a vast, flat and dry dusty plain.  It happened so quickly and the landscape change was so drastic that I felt like I’d imagined the idyllic hillside tea plantations.

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We were on the Tanzam Highway, a 2,400 km paved road constructed in the late-1960’s through early-1970s to connect the major port at Dar es Salaam to other parts of Tanzania along with the landlocked nations of Malawi, Zambia and Angola.  Since the completion of the Tanzanian section in 1973 there had been virtually no maintenance carried out so that by the early 2000’s many parts of it were in bad shape.  At that point the government began investigating a major upgrade in order to help with economic growth that would only be possible if goods and materials could get between the port in Dar and outlying regions.  Requests for tenders were put out to fix and improve various stretches of the road and several of these ended up going to Chinese construction companies who charged the government relatively low prices, offered financial assistance and promised quick results in return for other deals relating to trade and natural resources.

It was for this reason that we found ourselves about to experience the worst road works of our lives.  Generally when a long stretch of road needs to be upgraded it is tackled in sections in order to minimize overall disruption.  So if a 300km stretch needs work you won’t normally see more than about 20km dug up at any one time and even that is unusual.  These guys didn’t seem to care about that so in one go over a few weeks they had graded out around 100km of road rendering it unusable.  They then roughly graded a parallel road out of the dirt, chopping down trees and knocking down houses and shops as they went in order to widen the existing highway and create a rudimentary temporary road for diverted traffic.

The result was catastrophic for people living in the area, no doubt being compensated and/or rehoused but nonetheless rendering the going about their daily lives almost impossible as the construction went on.  The temporary road was more of a rough track through the sandy plain.  It was incredibly bumpy and so dusty that at times it felt like we were driving through a dust storm.  Here and there were cars that had actually broken on the road.  I don’t mean broken down but that they had physically broken an axle or completely lost wheels so had to be abandoned completely.  Some kids couldn’t get to their schools and entire settlements were completely covered in a thick layer of dust, as were any travelers who ventured down the highway as everyone dodged Chinese construction vehicles that were being directed by Chinese foreman with Africans doing the heavy labor. Entire camps had sprung up outside towns to accommodate the workers and one fairly lightweight environmental impact study I later found mentioned a possible spike in new HIV infections as one possible negative side effect of the construction due to the huge influx of solo men into the region.

We were on just one stretch of the road yet all the way up to the Kenyan border we saw houses, shops and trees with an ‘X’ spray painted on them, a sign to workers that these were to be knocked or chopped down to make way for construction.  This was an absolutely massive project and whilst I have no doubt that it was needed and will be a good thing economically, I have to question the rationale of working on such long stretches at a time and with apparently little thought to the environment.  I have since spent many hours online trying to find out about the awarding of the construction contracts, what kind of financial deals were made and why they are in such a hurry that they are willing to inflict such massive disruption on their residents and are taking few steps to minimise the environmental impact.  I’m afraid I couldn’t find much but I think it is safe to assume that they are treating the road improvements a bit like ripping off a Band Aid; quick and painful.  I just hope for the sake of people living alongside the road that it is indeed quick.

For us it meant a fairly hellish afternoon.  It was hot but we couldn’t open the windows due to the dust which still managed to coat everything inside the truck.  At one point I fell asleep with the window open on an unaffected stretch of road and didn’t realise we had reentered a construction zone.  My German tripmates rushed to close it when they noticed me fast asleep and covered in a layer of red dust that I was still trying to wash out of my hair days later.  I find it hard to describe how bumpy and jarring it was but perhaps try to imagine you are on a 5-hour flight and there is severe turbulence the entire time, so bumpy that if you try to take a drink from a plastic water bottle you risk knocking your teeth out or giving yourself a black eye.  Just writing about it all these months later is raising my blood pressure so I’ll move on.

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Our campsite that night was The Old Farmhouse a fabulous place not far from Iringa and we arrived there just before dark.  Most of us upgraded to a room because we were far too exhausted to be dealing with putting up tents in the dark never mind taking them down before dawn the next morning when we had another early start thanks to another long drive.  We were also at an altitude of about 5,000ft so it was very chilly compared to what we were used to.  I guess because of that the one thing I really remember about that camp was a cute cosy little bar and restaurant were they served delicious Amarula hot chocolate made with plenty of this tasty African liqueur.  The other thing I remember is the wonderful hot showers where I began the multi-day task of washing the dust out of my hair.

After another predawn breakfast we hit the road for a 10-hour 582km drive.  Our driver wasn’t expecting road works although we did hit several patches that had appeared since he drove south from Kenya several weeks before.  However he was worried about the infamous traffic in Dar es Salaam.  It wasn’t going to take all that long to get to the city but it would take us at least a few more hours to drive through it to our campsite on the Indian Ocean so he wanted to make sure we were there well before rush hour.

The drive was interesting and took us through some fascinating areas.  Perhaps the most memorable was when we reached a region full of baobab trees.  These incredible and iconic African trees are huge with trunks so thick that people used to make houses in them and sometimes still do.  Baobabs can easily be over 1,000 years old and here in Tanzania we were seeing the larger of the species.  They are bare of leaves for about 9-months of the year yet their huge trunks store a lot of water thus providing a lifeline in desert areas during the dry season.  I adore these amazing trees so I was very happy that we spent such a long time driving among them.

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Another notable change in Tanzania was the growing presence of Islam with us now passing more and more mosques, seeing Arabian influenced design as well as both men and women dressed in traditional Islamic clothing.  Reliable statistics are hard to find but it is estimated that at least a third of Tanzanians are Muslim and it felt as though that concentration was getting higher the further north we traveled.

Another interesting part of the drive was when the highway went through Mikumi National Park so that suddenly instead of seeing villages, shops and the occasional mosque out the window we were seeing zebra and giraffe along with a handful of elephants.

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When we stopped for a short pee break on the other side of the National Park we found ourselves opposite a small group of houses where kids shouted ‘Mzungu!’ and laughed at us trying to be modest whilst peeing in the bushes.  One especially memorable moment was when a toddler came stumbling out of his house wearing an adult’s motorbike helmet that almost covered the top half of his little body.  His mother was in hot pursuit but she was laughing so much she couldn’t catch him.  Sadly none of us were quick enough to get a photo but the memory is vivid.

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Taken shortly after the child was extracted from the helmet.

Before long we had reached the outskirts of the huge sprawling city of Dar es Salaam, so big and so starkly different from our experiences so far that I will dedicate my next post to it and leave you with a slideshow of the many photos I took of all the colourful life I saw on the road to Dar.

Slideshow

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