Border Crossing - North to Mbeya
The formalities to exit Malawi were straight forward and included a good deal more vicious stamping. On the Tazanian side it took us around 30 minutes or more to get through their border. Immigration provided visas (at US$50 each, including receipts) on the spot. Then followed a haphazard visit around various sheds for a foreign vehicle registration (US$20); road tax (US$5); police registration and a chat with the gate guards. The ever-present hawkers were not so bad, as by this time we were taking a no non-sense refusal towards their demands and attempts to catch one's eye.
The road north was reasonable, and we headed towards Mbeya, the local provincial town for the district that has a reputation for being somewhat lawless. Passing through the tea plantations of the beautiful Livingstone and Kipengere Mountains, the people did not stand and stare as we passed, they just got on with their business - such a relief. No one was demanding sweets or money and people appeared well fed and dressed. Tanzania is a relatively poor country, but the mountain soil appeared well irrigated and rich and the plantations appeared well maintained.
By-passing Mbeya, we took the Iringa road on our way to Kisolanza Campsite. En-route we passed pine forests and a paper mill. The site was excellent, with clean loos, hot water and a Farm Shop that sold us a kilo of beef fillet and various large bags of vegetables for less than US$12 (this amount included camping costs). Tanzania appeared to us to be more wealthy in resource management than Malawi.
Iringa is situated on the edge of a steep escarpment and plateau - a strategic factor identified by the German administration when establishing Iringa as the southern Capital. The guidebooks describe Iringa as possessing an 'air of a dilapidated Bavarian market town', which we thought a fair assessment. It also displays the vestiges of a distinctly African town. There was a wide variety of good looking products displayed in the market, through which we were able to walk without being hassled or irritated by hawkers.
Just south of the town is one of the most significant archaeological sites within Africa - Isimila. It is here they have found stone tools (hand axes, cleavers and hammers) among bones dating back to 60,000 years ago.
We travelled onto Dar es Salaam (interestingly no longer the capital, as this is now Dodoma in the centre of the country) stopping at Mikumi, at Baobab campsite, a region literally covered with stunning baobab trees. The Rufiji River is the major feature running through the area, collecting the water from the surrounding area and transporting it to the Indian Ocean, passing through the oldest and largest of Africa's Game Reserve - Selous GR, that sadly we did not have time to visit.
The road on to Dar has deteriorated quite badly - there are numerous potholes due to weathering and the worst vestiges of African driving (the large lorries and matatus) and this made for a fraught transition to Dar. The main highway runs through Mikumi National Park, where they insist upon a speed limit of 70 KPH, yet due to the numerous speed humps, 40-50 kph was about all we could manage. Once again we noted evidence of foreign aid assisting infrastructure development - this time the Japanese were funding a new road.
Dar es Salaam
Traffic and police presence both increases dramatically near the city - a manic place, with predictably dreadful/non-existent signposts. We were heading for the Silver Sands Hotel and Campsite to the north of the city. The site is reported to provide cheap, safe camping on the beach, with the option to secure a vehicle whilst visiting Zanzibar. New arrivals receive a free bowl of chips from the campsite - something not advertised for we had ordered a fish and chips lunch at the beachfront restaurant when our chips arrived! Whilst eating, a baboon decided he also wanted lunch and hopped onto the table and helped himself. Although Adrian batted the baboon away, he then wanted to play and rather risk a cut and resultant infection or injury, retreat was the safe solution, leaving the waiters the problem - one they showed little sign of rectifying.
Dar es Salaam (meaning 'haven for peace') only became the capital once the Germans recognised the value of the deep water harbour at the end of the 19th Century. The city, an eclectic mix of new and old, was hot, dirty, crowded and exasperating, but interesting and exciting too. We only had a small exploration of the town on our way to the ferry point for the island of Unguja (or Zanzibar as it is better known).
Zanzibar has long occupied a higher significance out of proportion to its size. The powers of the Omani Sultans reached far inland to the great lakes. Slavery was nothing new in Africa, but the Arabs took the slave trade to new heights, either trading or employing slaves for their spice trade, handling around 30,000 a year and depopulating huge inland areas.
We tried to pre-arrange accommodation in Zanzibar, but this became too difficult - unreliable phones and a lack of information. We parked Daph for US$2/day at Silver Sands and took a taxi to the ferry port. We were targeting the fast hydrofoil to Stone Town (1.5hrs) but true to form ended up on the 3 hrs boat!
The slow ferry delayed our arrival on the island. Once immigration had stamped our passports, we decided to take a taxi to our proposed hotel, the Emerson House, quoted in the guide books as being listed as 'One of the top hundred best small hotels in the world' by the Daily Telegraph, yet appeared to be reasonably priced. Naturally the taxi lad knew it and agreed a price to take us there. After 15 minutes of twists and turns around Stone Town (we were grateful that we had not tried to walk!), we arrived outside a closed hotel. Apparently it had been closed for almost a year, which explained why we could not book it the previous night.
Despite being aware that some guides make their money by taking tourists around the island on a fool’s errand, racking up a bill and then leaving people in dodgy accommodation, we stayed with our taxi driver. We trailed around a few full hotels with waning patience - Stone Town was packed with tourists, although credit to our chap he was trying hard.
Meanwhile, we came across a wedding party, to which it appeared everyone wasinvited. We jumped out of our taxi for a quick snap and whilst I was taking my photo, a small boy tugged at my arm. Although annoying and spoiling the shot, it was obvious the small boy was concerned for my safety, as I was standing in the road and a car was approaching - how touching! Finally, we had enough and told our taxi driver to take us to Emerson and Green Hotel, a more up-market hotel than our original intended location, where we found a room ( though at an inflated price). The lad was somewhat crest-fallen at not being able to provide us with our original requirement and did not demand any more that the agreed amount - at which we were surprised (although that was how he earned his tip!).
Emerson and Green
The hotel had been restored in the manner of one of the richest houses in the Swahili Empire. Each of the 10 rooms was different, but had a similar theme of space, ornate surroundings, huge carved wooden doors and stone baths. Some had verandas, depending on their aspect and most had 4 poster beds with the mozi net stylishly draped around.
The best feature of the hotel was the restaurant located on the roof, with stunning views across Stone Town and the nearby Palace of Wonders. Had we wanted (or if we could have afforded) another night the hotel was fully booked, so we arranged a bed at the cheaper Baghani Hotel, again a similar old hotel, with a cool central courtyard and rooms off the main stairway. (Why this second hotel was not an option the previous night remains a mystery).
Once we were ensconced in the Emerson, we ventured out into the street, now confident we had our bearings. At first sight the twists and turns of the narrow lanes appeared confusing, but getting around was easy. It seemed to us quite safe and tourist friendly (a point reinforced by the guidebooks) although the laidback, non-pushy manner of the locals, also quoted, was not in evidence. The hawkers were after the tourist dollar here as elsewhere, haggling to show us around or buy their trinkets. Ironically it was on our final day that we came across the by now fabled genuine tourist guides, that casually show people around without undue pressure.
This occured whilst trying to photograph St Joseph's Cathedral, with a view that incorporated the tower of the the Bohora Mosque, when a voice suggested a better location. Mohammed was a quite mature gentlemen, very keen to talk cricket and to show us around (sadly the places we had been for the last two days!). But in his short time with us, he indicated the major sights and suggested to us the blue door of the parents house of Freddie Mercury (of the rock group 'Queen' fame).
On our first evening we enjoyed sundowners on the veranda of the Africa House, on the edge of Stone Town. The Africa House is a stylish renovation of the old British Club, and will soon reopen as a hotel. Walking through the streets at night is both exciting and safe. Near the harbour, at the Jamituri Gardens we found numerous food stalls selling the best local delicacies, adding a whole new dimension to the concept of 'fast food'.
The following day we toured the town, starting at the Palace of Wonders, built by Sultan Barghash in 1883. Within was an eclectic mix of exhibits, including an excellent small museum explaining the history of the island, the power and breadth of the Omani empire and early life on Zanzibar.
Next door to the Palace is the Arab Fort, dating back to the 1700's, originally built by the Omani to defend themselves from the Portuguese, although ironically the Fort sat upon the site of an early Portuguese church!
After more twists and turns through the back streets, dodging hand carts and overloaded bicycles, we found the Anglican Church of Christ (on the site of the old Slave Market). The church was built to commemorate the end of slave trading, and the altar is sited on the location of the original whipping post, with a memorial outside to the slave trade. Under the next door building are slave cells - small cellars with chain that have been opened up to the public. One really surprising factor about Zanzibar is the religious tollerance that still pervades today, with all denominations practising in harmony with one another.
Within the church is a small wooden crucifix, said be have been carved from the tree under which David Livingstone died (and where his heart is buried) in Chitambo, Zambia.
On returning to Dar, we managed to get the faster hydrofoil and were met by our taxi driver as arranged. We tried to get provisions for our onward journey, but even in Dar, little was available above the standard fruit and vegetables available in most Tanzanian outlets. Finally we did find a small supermarket. That evening we spent hours fiddling with the laptop to make the connection work, sadly to no avail - so much for our Global Roaming Software!
The Northern Safari Circuit
The next day, we pushed north towards Kilimanjaro and Arusha. We were targeting the Pare Mountains and Lushoto, an old German mountain retreat, which the Germans once considered the town as a contender for their capital. Set among beautiful, fertile mountains, the slopes are terraced and heavily cultivated. The area still bears testament to the early European settlers. Although the road up from the main highway is good tar, it twists and turns, which means Lushoto was 3 hours or so driving, which was beyond the hours of daylight remaining. Following David Else's advice in the Lonely Planet 'Trekking in East Africa', we stopped at the intermediate Soni Falls. Time marches on, but not for the said Soni Falls Hotel, which had apparently closed. We ended up staying in a 'guesthouse' - Kimbute, where the owner was very helpful to us, although quite unprepared for white guests.
As we drove north, we expected to see Kilimanjaro around every bend or hill crest. In fact the mountain is usually covered by cloud around the southern slopes and can often be difficult to see. It came into view just short of Moshi. The outline was unmistakable and despite the poor visibility still impressive. Kili is thought to be a dormant rather than an extinct volcano and is young in geological terms, created around 750,000 years ago. At 19,340 ft, it is the highest free-standing mountain in the world and it is said the area around its base in larger than that of Greater London.
We have heard many tales of people from all walks of life walking to the top (both fit and not so; young and old) and for anyone who reaches the summit it is a fine achievement. So many tourists are attempting the ascent now there is serious environmental damage. For every tourist there are porters, guides and assistant porters (the ratio is more than 1:5 locals to each tourist), forcing the authorities to increase the Park fees to discourage people. It now costs between $600-1,000, depending on the reputation of the company and the amount of tips one wishes to pay on decent. It had been Adrian's long held desire to walk the mountain (indeed we initially intended to conduct the 'Roof of Africa tour' - climbing Thabana Ntlenyana in Lesotho, Kili and Mount Kenya, the Ruwenzori Mts, the Simien Mts and the High Atlas in Morocco) but our timeline has taken such a bashing due to the accident we have decided to delay our Kili ascent until after our initial Kenya trip (Adrian has to return to UK for a week at the end of July and we believe it will be best to fly from Nairobi).
The road to and through Arusha was good tar, which surprised yet delighted us for on a previous trip in 1998, the road resembled one just hit by a military artillery barrage it was so badly potholed. Whether this was due to general improvements, a generous donation, assistance to the burgeoning tourist trade or due to the fact that the UN had taken over the Arusha International Conference Centre to conduct the war crime trails (examining the genocide in Rwanda in 1994) would be pure speculation.
The area around Kili is a very fertile, benefiting from two rainy seasons. The local Chagga people are great agriculturalists and farm varying crops depending on the height of their plot. There is a bewildering variety of bananas grown here, red sweet ones, a savoury one, some used to brew local beer and feed the cattle. However, arabica coffee is the main cash crop, suited to growth on the upper slopes.
Most of Africa's terrestrial telephone landlines are so unreliable that internet cafes here use a wireless connection, which is faster and more reliable. We had not been able to connect the laptop to the website since Botswana and after we had tried a number of internet cafes in Arusha we finally found one prepared to loan us a network card to connect - such a relief!
It was late when we left Arusha on an excellent tar road, heading towards the Serengeti. The camp site at the Meserani Snake Farm, some 25 km from Arusha, had been recommended by a number of people and it was easily found. Sadly, whether the place had fallen into disrepair or had a change of ownership, we only found a dust bowl of a car park and some extremely rude owners. After having waited 30 minutes or so and walked about the place to find someone to book in with. We had sufficient time to drive down to the public campsite at Tarangire before last light, which was a better location for the next day.
Tarangire NP is a good place to visit in the dry season, for whilst the Serengeti rivers are dry, the Tarangire River benefits from run off from Kili, attracting large numbers of animals. We were lucky to see large herds, especially elephant, in the river valleys and were very privileged to see an exhibitionist couple of leopards mating frequently in a baobab tree!
The Rift Valley
The Great Rift Valley runs 6500km, from Turkey in the north to Mozambique. In fact the rift splits around Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya. The eastern rift follows the classic line through Kenya and Tanzania, whilst the western branch runs down the Uganda-Congo side of Lake Victoria and Tanganyika to the Zambeizi. Both are impressive. Travelling from Tarangire towards the Serengeti, one must cross the eastern escarpment at Mto-Wa-Mbu (translated to mean 'Mosquito Creek') and climb the ridge, near the entrance to Lake Manyara NP. The excellent tar road deteriorates drastically 30 km from Mto-Wa-Mbu, although they are currently regrading and updating the road. Mto-Wa-Mbu has an excellent market, selling locally grown fruit and vegetables. The valley floor is very fertile and villages spread out across the plain in the dry season to capture the irrigated valley floor, despite the constant risk of flooding and high incidence of malaria.
We did not visit Lake Manyara NP on this trip, but instead pressed onto Karatu, the last village before entering the Ngorongoro-Serengeti Game Conservancy. The village is a small ribbon development, and we camped at Safari Junction, a pleasant campsite in the foothills of the crater that had clearly seen better days. Stil, it was considerably cheaper than the inflated prices one has to pay in the Game Reserves.
The Serengeti Ecosystem
It makes sense to consider the Ngorongoro Conservation area, the Serengeti National Park and the Masia Mara (in Kenya) as one ecosystem, which spreads over 25,000 sq km, making this one of the largest natural game areas in Africa. After all, the artificial boundaries that separate the individual areas are man-made and irrelevant to the flora and fauna that inhabit the area. Besides the wonderful natural feature of this area, the annual migration of the wildebeest occurs here, making linkage logical.
We drove up the outer slopes of the crater rim in heavy cloud. These slopes are cultivated up to a point, after which the dense rainforest clads the rim of the crater. The rim is at around 8,000ft and there is a 2,000ft drop to the crater floor, down to a 14 sq mile circular area, with its own fresh and salt lake and forest. The more accurate description of the Ngorongoro crater is a caldera, an extinct volcano that was thought to be larger than Kili, which erupted 2.5 million years ago and spread its volcanic ash over the Serengeti. This left the imploded volcano (a caldera) one finds today.
At Park HQ we had to pick up a guide, which is compulsory for all vehicles descending into the crater. We squeezed our large chap (Daniel) into the back on our spare seat and set off. Daniel's English was poor in comparison to most guides and his knowledge was little better than ours, which rather spoilt the experience. Vehicles are strictly controlled on the valley floor and all visitors must leave by 1830hrs.
The crater rim creates little barrier to animal movement (in or out), but the abundance of food within offers little reason to leave. The vast majority of wildlife are easily viewed here, although only solitary bull elephants can be seen (the matriarchal herds remain on the crater rim) and grazers such as giraffe, topi and impala are absent. Predators have a relatively easy time, although the lack of integration with other prides promotes incest, which has caused an abnormally high incidence of sperm abnormalities and disease within the feline population.
The area of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and surrounds is Maasai land and it is a common sight to observe the herd boys tending their 'god given' cattle, dressed in the traditional red blankets and carrying spears. The conflict between traditional village ways and modern activities (especially tourism, in all its guises) is obvious. The conflict is not just with the tourists, but with the authorities too, who wish to exclude the Maasai from their traditional grazing lands due to the competition over natural resources. The authorities argue that 'tourists do not want to see local tribes people herding cattle in areas of pristine wild beauty'. In part, it is this latter reason why the Maasai are not allowed to graze their cattle on the crater floor. To us, this is absolute rubbish, surely it is better to see the true ecosystem in balance (within which the Maasai feature) rather than a zoo. Besides we witnessed Maasai herds on this trip and in 1998 on the crater floor and the steeply eroded paths on the crater rim bear testament to this regular activity. That the Maasai do not share in the profits from tourism is another matter. As a proud Nilo-Hamatic tribe, they steadfastly refuse to adopt modern ways, yet they are not slow to run to each and every safari vehicle to demand a handout for a picture or freebie!
The larger soda lake in the middle of the crater bottom is ringed with thousands of pink flamingos, feeding off the algae within the water. Other animals seek the salt from the soda lakes too, notably the hyaenas. There are two fresh water pools, both with hippo, the second was quite a shock to us, for we had not see the Ngoitoktok pool on our previous visit. Lying hidden within a natural fold in the ground, the pool appeared almost artificial and was crammed full with safari vehicles and tourists on the bank enjoying lunch - an African Hyde Park! Tour operators had the blankets and deck chairs out, the champagne on ice and where the crusts from the cucumber sandwiches went remains a mystery. A few hippos languished in the water and black kites occasionally swooped down to steal food from the tourists' hands (beckoned or not!).
Lerai Forest (Lerai is maasai for Fever Tree, the alternative name for the yellow-barked acacia tree) is an eerie, damp place and generally home to elephant, leopard and rhino. There are very few rhino left (only 7 or 8 individuals), both black and white rhino. Sadly we were unlucky on this occasion.
The natural beauty is being eroded by the number of tourists, yet it is this revenue that sustains the conservation area. There are far too many safari vehicles crowding around kills and resting predators, fostering a zoo like mentality. Indeed safari operators jostle to get their clients the best view, with disregard for the flora they are revving over. This rather belies the value of having the guide. Finding one's way is simple and spotting animals is not too hard - indeed we spotted a family of cheetah in the near distance that was unobserved by others and we had a difficult job to get Daniel to see them!
Accommodation on the crater rim is at a premium. The Simba Campsite is cheap, but a very basic affair so we spoilt ourselves by booking into a lodge. Both the Serena and the Ngorongoro Crater lodges are seriously luxurious (and expensive), especially the latter, so we opted for the Wildlife lodge - which was cheaper. The view down to the crater floor was good, but the lodge had neither power (to use our laptop) or hot water to wash us or our cloths until 1700hrs!
The Cradle of Mankind
On the edge of the western crater rim lies Olduvai Gorge, a location of significant archaeological discovery. Olduvai had been examined for many years, but following up on previous explorations, Dr Leakey and his wife (Mary) discovered early humanoid remains in 1959, after almost 3 decades of searching. The finds - 'Nutcracker Man' (Australopithecus) and 'Handy Man' (Homo habilis) dated man to have walked the earth 1.8 million years ago. This find, significant though it was, has been surpassed by Mary Leakey’s find nearby at Laetoli, 20 km to the north. The discovery of footprints, preserved in the volcanic ash of 3 humanoids (possibly a man, woman and child) walking upright has been dated to 3.5 million years ago. The Leakey's son, Richard (who has carved his own name is Kenyan environmental cicles) continued the work of his parents and has made similar significant discoveries in northern Kenya, in the Turkana region, that places early man in the region around 4 million years ago.
The Serengeti National Park
Naabi Hill marks the eastern entrance to Serengeti National Park - strange when one considers the whole region is unfenced and the animals are free to roam. Only the humans are enclosed by their artificial boundaries. We booked some public campsites near Seronera and headed into the park.
There is a dichotomy - the savannah grassland plains make it hard to spot game, yet due to the size of the park, the humans are dispersed so the animals do not become accustomed to their presence. Thus when an animal is seen, it is viewed in its raw habitat.
We called into Park HQ to enquire about entry into Kenya and crossing via the closed Sand River Gate, direct into the Masai Mara. Such privilege is usually reserved for residents of East Africa, but as we could prove we were staying with a Kenyan resident, the custom official granted us authority. This was especially pleasing, for it allowed us to follow the path of the migrating white bearded wildebeest (or gnu) northwards through the Lobo area into the Masai Mara.
The migration is a magnificant sight as thousands of ungulates move across the vast plains seeking fresh grass after the rains. It is not just the wildebeest, for the animals operate a close symbiotic relationship. To avoid excessive competition over the grasses and vegetation, each species has developed their feeding strategy. The zebra associates with the wildebeest and waterbuck, for the latter can smell water many miles away, and they tolerate the zebra due to their excellent eyesight and predator warning calls. Zebras eat the coarse long grasses that in turn exposes the grass leaves for the wide mouthed wildebeest to feed, which then clears the way for the Thompson’s gazelle to feed on the new growth and lower herbaceous plants. The topi and hartebeest have narrow, long mouths and only feed on the tender new shoots once access has been provided by their association with the other ungulates.
2 million or so grazers chew their way across the plains in search of fresh food. In the wet season (December through to March) the ungulates are in the SE corner of the park, on the bountiful plains usually giving birth to the young fouls, which appears to be a communal activity. From March onwards the animals move NW towards the Western Corridor and the Grumeti River by May-July, when they migrate towards the ever-green Mara, staying there until the new rains fall in the SE again.
Exploring the Western Corridor and the Grumeti River, where the majority of migrating animals are thought to congregate at this time of the year was a long drive. The predators, usually territorial animals will follow the migration, making the classic crossings of the gnu over the Grumeti, Sand and Mara rivers the spectacular event, but not as frequent as the wildlife photographers would have us believe. The major rivers have massive crocodiles, that lie and wait for the annual feeding frenzy. Smaller animals can also be seen, such as the elusive Colobus monkeys.
Lions rarely climb trees (except the adapted Kalahari lions) although we found an exception. Our lioness appeared quite content in her tree, until it was time for getting down. As she descended, she over-balanced and collapsed into the fork of the tree before falling out.
In the northern Lobo area we found the massive migrating herds. On our previous visit a few years ago, we were lucky to be camping in a 'special site' - in a kopje. All very nice and secluded, but we found that although the public sites are shared with others, one can feel the same spirit of adventure and share the vastness of the park in the same manner. On this occasion we sat back and watched a hot air balloon drift nearby.
Maps and Directions
We used our 'Illustrated Road Atlas of Africa', the Collins Tourist Map for Kenya and Tanzania, the Brandt Guide to Tanzania and the Footprint Handbook 2000 for East Africa. Generally the roads were good and well marked, less those areas we indicated in the text. Campsites and National Parks were well signposted. In addition we had 2 Hoopoe sketch maps, one of Tarangire and the other of the Serengeti, which were excellent.
We thoroughly enjoyed Tanzania. It is a country of many contrasts, the south differing from the north, and Zanzibar and Dar different again, not only the people, but the whole infrastructure. Although allegations of corruption are levelled against Tanzania, we were not affected at all by this. However, the tourist areas, especially the northern safari circuit are expensive, park fees particularly are exorbitant. Despite increasing fees, more tourists are visiting, especially to climb Kilimanjaro, presenting the government with an interesting conundrum between eco-tourism and revenue.
Foodstuffs were available, though difficult to find, as the concept of a supermarket did not exist. Also fresh milk was not evident, although other fresh products could be obtained from farm shops. The highlight for us was crossing the Sand River and following the migrating herds into the Mara.Top of the Page