Tanzania, take 2

Me and my friend Lucy decided over a champagne breakfast back in September in the Icelandic countryside to meet up and travel thru Africa for a month. From November 4 until December 10th, the tentative plan was Dar Es Salaam to Luanda, Lilongwe, or Lusaka. Luanda was quickly dismissed because no traveler in their right mind feels like over-landing thru all of Angola, with the prices of things, remoteness of places and language as pretty big barriers. Lilongwe would have required us to overland thru northern Mozambique, which is somewhat unstable and has terrible infrastructure, so the obvious choice became Lusaka. Lusaka itself isn´t much of a destination city, but it´s a green and tidy, spacious city (especially for African standards), full of malls, worth a stop on the way to Livingstone, and so Livingstone became our final destination.

Lucy and I

Our decision meant we´d have about 2 weeks in Tanzania before heading to Malawi and Zambia for 10 days each. Two weeks in Tanzania barely lets you scratch the surface, and the actual overland part from Dar to Malawi was only a couple of days, since we made a lot of friends in Dar, zigzagged north and south along the coast and spent over a week island hopping in the Indian ocean. We were prepared for a lot of long, bumpy, bus rides and super-slow ferries, but some boat trips literally felt like overcrowded refugee boats with a 50% chance of making it with everyone alive. The bus trips always turned out okay, especially if you were lucky with your seat choice, but the number of car accidents, with cars, motorcycles and buses, that we saw on nearly a daily basis always made us count our lucky stars. A few breakdowns or flat tires on the way were then never anything to complain about, especially after we witnessed first-hand the fatalities some of those accidents caused.

Dhow boats, a daily sight

I arrived a weekend earlier than Lucy and had no idea what I´d do for the first few days. I found a last minute couchsurf host that lived in a half-finished house, so there was electricity but no water, and a toilet but no shower. One night later I was relieved to find out I actually had a friend from London who had recently moved to Dar, and staying in his guest room with air con, a private bathroom, and cleaning lady to make my bed felt like 5 star luxury. I was also lucky enough to coincide with the Bagamoyo Karibou Music Festival, and me and London guy roadtripped up there to boogie in the rain and buy lots
of mishkaki (meat on a stick), bbq´d plantains and chips maiai (French fries panfried into an omelette). I was also happy to coincide with avocado season, and buying perfectly ripened avocados the size of grapefruits for cents on the side of the road hasn´t been done since my 2010 trip to Colombia.

Kaole ruins

Bagamoyo was much more memorable for the Kaole Ruins, fish market, and the dozen or so ex-pats I met. I listened to their stories of where they were from and why they were in Tanzania, the benefits of having ‘blue’ and ‘green’ plates (UN and diplomatic) and also managed to meet up with two local friends I had met thru couchsurfer guy at a film
screening at Goether-Institute, a German initiative, in Dar.

Lucy and Olli at the entrance to the cave

Later, one of those local guys Olli invited us to visit his parents’ village in Kilwa, and we traveled there by public bus with a 25kg sack
full of shoes and clothes to give away. His cousin was randomly our bus driver and his toothless uncle hosted us in his home. We hiked to an incredible cave whose name I may never know, and literally crawled thru bat shit to get to some deep, dark, depths, only to find eels, frogs, prawns, and crickets living, totally devoid of light, in the underground streams and puddles.

Crawling out from the bat poop

We carried on to Kilwa Masoko and Kilwa Kisiwani, an island full of ruins similar to Kaole, and an historically important link between Great Zimbabwe, the slave trade, gold coins, the spice route, and the Middle East.

Olli at the Kilwa ruins

We returned to Dar, which seemed to be the very inconveniently located center of things, and spend a couple of days at Kipepeo Beach. We ate the best breakfast I´ve had in Africa at Salt in Dar Es Salaam, attended a birthday party at some Brazilian/Swiss ambassador´s house, had sundowners at Slipway, partied at Q Bar and East 24, drank some legitimate coffees at a few cafes, and swung in hammocks with locals at Cocoa beach. From Dar, it was time to go to Zanzibar, and it would become a very different, far-away experience from Dar. My first, or second rather, impressions of Tanzania were not what I expected, random and disconnected, but still fell together perfectly for another novel, African adventure.

Serengeti – home of the world's densest mammal population

flashes of zebra stripes

It’s supposed to be the dry season, but it rained last night in Serengeti. The weather, like the world all over, has been strange here, confusing the animals and vegetation. However, it’s the perfect time of year to watch the great migration, as hundreds of thousands of wildebeest make their way from Tanzania to Kenya for greener pastures. I was lucky enough to see a herd a few thousand strong, headed slowly from Serengeti to Masai Mara.

wildebeests as far as the eye can see

Getting to the Serengeti was quite a mission, since it tailors poorly to backpackers who rock up and think there’s a cheap alternative to visiting the park. The better prepared tourists have planned their safari tour before they even arrived in Tanzania, and hiring a car for a day from outside the park gates will cost you a cool $450, payable only in US cash.

I was in Mwanza, a sort of gateway town to the Serengeti since its only 2 hours away, and also touristy since it sits on the shores of Lake Victoria. I took a local bus to the west gate, and stopped at a campsite there called Serengeti Stopover. The receptionist there quickly shone light on my ill-preparedness, but tried everything he could to help me. After two hours of discussing, making some important phone calls, and talking to another safari car already at Stopover, we had succeeded in the luckiest plan.


elephant crossing

I would go with the 7 passenger range rover, claiming the last seat, for free because the other passengers had already paid for the car and the driver couldn’t ask me to pay more. Im not sure why they agreed; maybe they felt sorry for me, maybe they were curious to see what I’d do once inside the park, or perhaps they’d never met anyone from Iceland and wanted to seize the opportunity.

hippos out of the water, a special sight

We took a leisurely 4 hour game-drive into the park, spotting huge herds of zebra, wildebeest, elephants and hippopotamuses. It was 145km to central rest camp, where I would meet Paolo, the park ranger Stopover arranged my park permit and accommodation with. All the camps and guesthouses were full, so I would stay at Seronera, the staff village. I did not even have to camp there, since they had running water and electricity to all the houses, and I stayed in one of the nicest rooms I had seen in East Africa, complete with a hot shower. The next morning I went out into the village to wait for my bus back out of the park, the staff bus which costs $12 per person, payable only in Tanzanian shillings.

frisky little vervet monkeys

A bird managed to poop on my computer screen as I typed under a shady tree waiting. People lazed around the unfenced camp, and others waiting for the bus sat on their suitcases. Chickens waiting to be slaughtered gobbled in the heat, tied up an unable to move. I was sitting watching a bunch of vervet monkeys play a few metres from me, migrating between the ground, the trees and the roof of the restaurant. I saw an adult steal two tomatoes thru the tiniest crack in the door of the kitchen, and he managed to run back up the tree with one hand full back to the roof without anyone but me noticing. Unfortunately, he got a little clumsy as he greedily started eating the first, so the second tomato slowly rolled down the slanted roof to drop on the floor infront of the shopkeeper. This caused the three women of the house to start waving sticks, brooms and chucking rocks at the monkey on the roof as they taunted him with the lost tomato in a fist shaking hand.

It was hard to believe I was still in Serengeti park, as routine life carried on in Seronera exactly as it does in all the other villages I had seen.



Tanzania: Swahili, mafias and 12-passenger sedans

When I first arrived in Uganda, I kept thinking I was in Rwanda and asking silly questions like “What is the local language called in Rwanda?” or “What are the most famous tourist destinations in Rwanda?” People just stopped and stared, wondering whether they should try to answer or ask if I really meant to ask that. Now in Tanzania I keep thinking I was in Kenya, and reflecting on all the stereotypes I thought I had of Kenya in light of what I was seeing and experiencing in Tanzania. It doesn’t help that I’m not sure how to inflect Tanzania; Tanz-EY-nia, Tanz-AH-nia or Tanzanee-AH?

They have a response to Uganda’s Waragi called Konyagi, but what someone says it it sounds like “cognac” and I got pretty confused when served a shot of gin. Its unclear to me why some people say or said English is an official language here, since Swahili or Arabic seem to be the only languages spoken country-wide. Even then, some areas only speak their local languages, and when I arrived at the border town of Ngara, I started to realize the potential problems I would run into.

I spent about an hour at the actual Tanzanian border, having just left Burundi and still 38km from Ngara. There were maybe 5 buildings there – the immigration building, a hotel, a house or two, and a bunch of shacks lined up in what seemed to be an empty parking lot or deserted marketplace. Three of the shacks were painted with bus company names like “Taqwa bus,” and each one had 5 or 6 men waiting in and around them. I approached to ask for a bus to Ngara, and each and every person there informed me that no such bus was coming until tomorrow, even though it was only 11 am and 38km away on a safe, paved road. Many also admitted, sheepily, they didn’t work for the bus companies, and that the offices weren’t really open since no tickets were to be sold that day.

Then I asked for a moto-taxi or a taxi, and it took half an hour to communicate that this was also impossible. As I stood there, puzzled and contemplating the time it would take to jog there, an old, beat-up Subaru hatchback pulled up and announced “NGARA NGARA NGARA!” I immediately took the front seat, thrilled that I would avoid spending a night at the border, and got comfortable. Then another woman got in the front seat. We would share. The driver would also share his seat. The backseat would take 4 people and 2 chickens. And the trunk? 4 more.

After an hour, we finally got to Ngara, bottoming out on all the speedbumps along the way and playing an intricate game of Tetris every time we stopped to let someone in or out. Ngara is a town on 2 intersecting roads, no bigger than those 4 blocks around it.


the Supermarket store front

There was only one bank and one ‘supermarket,’ and I could buy water and change money at the supermarket. The woman at the cashier was Arabic, from Oman, and spoke excellent English. Our initial interactions were testy – she tried to give me half of the going exchange rate, which I bluntly refused and quoted her the correct rate with confidence, saying she’d have to get closer to it. She smiled as she realised I was no fool, and probably appreciated the sight of another strong, independent woman infront of her. She gave me a great rate and then suggested the one hotel and one restaurant I should stay and eat at, 200m away. With the nod of her head and the snap of her fingers, the shop lights were turned off, doors shut and locked, and two men escorted me out the back door into a van. First, I thought she was kidnapping me. Then, I thought maybe she’s offering to drive me there, since it was hot and time for her siesta. We got into her air-conditioned, Japanese-speaking car and after driving the length of the town in a matter of minutes, I was invited for lunch at her home, in a similarly testy way.

Without saying more than “thats the hotel” and “thats the restaurant” and driving past them, we then turned into a sketchy side road where we honked to be let thru a gate. She lived behind 2 sets of steel doors, manned by 4 guards and a junkyard between, in a beautiful mansion teeming with children. I stepped out of the van, amazed I had found such hospitality from such an intimidating woman. Her daughters, cousins, and their daughters all unveiled at the comfort of me being a woman, and we ate with our hands around a regal, long table.

Sabrah, the Pacino of Ngara

After lunch she dropped me to the hotel, where I met a Canadian miner in town for the night. He was familiar with the town, since he worked 2 hours away in a nickel mine, and explained “Oh, I see you’ve met the legalized mafia!” Turns out, she owns the supermarket, the hotel, the restaurant, and virtually runs the town. Everyone works for her, buys from her, or deals through her since she’s a big piggy bank and speaks the local dialect, Arabic, Swahili and English fluently. Now that I had become her friend, her newly-extended circle of trust would mean I was safer than ever – everyone in town soon learned I had been with her, and Ive never been left in such peace! I could give money to no one, not even for the hotel room, and everyone wanted to help me… but only if it didn’t bother me.