The journey really started the night before as we checked in at a small hotel ten minutes walk away from the bus departure point - I almost said bus station but that is too grand a term for the bumpy, rutted piece of ground where the long distance buses leave Nyabagogo, a suburb of Kigali, for destinations in neighbouring countries. We woke up the security guard as we left the hotel at 05.00 in the darkness, carrying our rucksacks and bags of provisions for the 31 hour journey. We reckoned about five meals worth of food as there was no guarantee we would want any food that was on sale at the roadside stops. We also had toilet paper and a length of cloth with us for hiding when going in the bushes at the roadside, as we knew we would have to!
The bus looked quite reasonable in the dark under the limited lighting and we mounted the four huge steps up to the passenger deck to settle into our seats. Luggage space was limited inside but we had heard that bags in the luggage part below us ended up covered in a thick layer of dust, so squeezed our stuff in as best we could. Our seat near the front just behind the driver would give us quite a good view of the road ahead.
The bus roared off on schedule and we discovered that we had about four extra crew members cluttering up the space around us and the driver and that the door was wedged shut with a plank of wood in the stairwell. It was just beginning to get light as we left Kigali and a cold draught rushed in through all the badly fitting windows making us glad we had sleeping bags to wrap up in! We actually soon got used to the fact that this and every other driver on the journeys we made fully believed he was immortal and could drive his bus like a F1 racer! The hooting of the horn made everything jump out of our way, pedestrians, bikes, cars, smaller buses - everything swerved to one side as we passed. The drive to the border was uninterrupted by any breaks and we had to queue to get through the border formalities on the Rwandan side before we could get to the two single toilets just up the hill a little way. We left the bus behind and walked across the bridge over the Rusumo Falls into Tanzania. More queues for formalities as we paid our $50 and got a single entry visa. By now the coach had rejoined us and we piled in to continue the journey.
The scenery swept past us endlessly and the thousand hills of Rwanda flattened out into the Savannah-like scrub land of western Tanzania. The journey was never really boring during daylight hours as we had an ever-changing landscape punctuated by villages and small towns sprawled along the roadway.
Views from the bus.
The journey was less interesting as night fell but eventually we stopped for a three hour break around midnight in a small town with several bars and restaurants. We headed for the most salubrious looking one and had a drink, or some food while the driver took his rest. I believe that buses are not allowed to travel for parts of the night for safety reasons - highway men or road safety, who knows, we could believe anything! I forgot to mention that the gangway of the bus was full of extra passengers sitting or lying on the floor all the way to Dar es Salaam and I needed to keep my legs and arms jutting out to keep my personal space reasonably free.
The next day was much the same, punctuated by regular police controls of the buse's' papers and visits to the weighbridge almost every two hours.
Finally we reached Dar es Salaam and disembarked into the chaos that characterises all bus stations - a scrum of taxi drivers, hawkers, hotel touts all vying for our attention. We managed to elbow our way through and located an official taxi with a driver who agreed a reasonable price to take us the 8 km or so from the suburbs to the town centre hostel. Some of our group rushed straight off to the ferry terminal to Zanzibar, but we wanted a rest first, so we could enjoy the ferry crossing better. The Jambo Inn Hotel is a kind of back-packers hostel with a combination of dorms and private single or double rooms with air conditioning - much less bad than I had expected and they had a restaurant, internet cafe and a small shop. After lunch we set off to buy our tickets for the fast catamaran to Zanzibar. Another scrum around the terminal but eventually we got what we wanted. There are dire warnings in the Lonely Planet guide about personal safety in Dar es Salaam, so we were really careful, especially around the bank ATM and as darkness fell. In fact we never felt unsafe all the time we were in Dar and the people were friendly and helpful. We were amazed by the shops and supermarkets we visited, which could almost have been in a European or American city, on a smaller scale. We suddenly realised how far behind Rwanda is in the availability of goods, compared to back home. We even found an out of town shopping mall, very similar to back home, though we had to take a dodgy bus to get there and taxi back to town.
Dar from the sea, contrast of modern and old.
Arriving in Zanzibar
Although we had a good idea of where our hotel was we could not avoid being pestered by one or two local "fleas" or touts. By the time we shook them off we really were lost in the labyrinth of tiny lanes in old Stonetown and had to get help. We later learned that those guys get commission from the hotels they take you to and we should have just tagged along and let the hotel pay the tip! Loaded with baggage you're a bit vulnerable in a strange town. Later, wandering around without luggage we felt perfectly safe and were hardly bothered.
That's our hotel with the yellow sign!
Although the hotel looks nothing from the outside the rooms, upstairs from an interior courtyard were lovely. The roof was an open terrace where breakfast was served, with great rooftop views. I can recommend the Hotel Kiponda - it's mid-range, not too expensive, very central, clean and friendly.
The next day the hotel manager helped us hire bikes to explore the town. That was fun and we covered a lot more ground than on foot, though we parked them up to explore the old market.
This is the old fishing boat port and market.
|Old market in Stonetown|
The guest house we stayed in, Ndame Village, is now owned by some Germans, having been established by a Dutch couple. The same seemed to be the case for almost all the tourist accommodation along the shore and clearly not much is going back into the local economy. We saw a few fishermen with their small sailing boats and also women collecting seaweed from enclosures they had formed on the beach at low tide.
|Plenty of space for this!|
There was little to do other than relax, stroll, swim when the sea was near and, when it wasn't, I was able to fly my kite!
Christmas day was very quiet and strange - listening to American Christmas favourites coming from the bar - the same CD all day! There were so few tourists that neither Christmas eve nor Christmas day had much atmosphere. There was a small show of traditional singing and dancing from some Masai tribes people who worked around the area, mainly as security guards ( I guess their long traditions of watching over cattle herds stands them in good stead for keeping watch). Of course Zanzibar is a predominantly Muslim island, so Christmas has no special significance for the most of the local people. Where we did see decorations it was evidently for the tourists.
So on the day after Boxing day we set off by taxi to head back to Stonetown to take the ferry back to Dar es Salaam. The return journey was smooth and uneventful and we quickly found ourselves in the bustle of Dar ferry terminal avoiding the taxi and hotel touts to pick a taxi to take us back to the Jambo Inn. The staff there were very helpful in showing us where to get our bus tickets for the next leg of our journey. The Dar Express office was close by the hotel and we managed to get virtually the last two seats for the following day.
|Comfort stop. Miles from everywhere!|
|Road side stalls in Tanzania|
The next day Sunny Safaris did not let us down and we were driven to their office to complete the formalities and meet our driver/guide and the cook. The safari vehicle was loaded with our bags along with the tents and supplies for three days. We headed for the Tarangire National Park for our first day of wild life spotting. It was a good day with a fair number of animals to be seen, but the park was very busy when we arrived there near lunch time. Our cook had prepared a lunch box, which wasn't bad and we started our visit at the picnic area overlooking the river valley.
|Outdoor stained glass panel at Tarangire National Park|
|One of many magnificent baobab trees in Tarangire|
The park is well known for its baobab trees and there are many fine specimens. At the entrance some lovely stained glass pieces depict the animals and landscape, including the baobabs. The main sightings of this day were herds of elephants and giraffes. The one lion sighting was too far away to photograph. The scenery was very beautiful, but there were too many other vehicles queueing to see the wild life.
In the late afternoon we drove to Twiga Lodge camp site, where we sat watching on chairs as the helpers erected our tent.
The camp site was just like a European one, tidy lawns with trees and shrubs, a large toilet block and a cooking area, where the various cooks prepared an evening meal for their clients. The food was quite good, but the cook clearly did not understand the concept of being vegetarian and kept on producing meat dishes. His basic English didn't help him understand our explanations. To add to his problems with us he slept in the following morning and delayed our departure - in fact we insisted on leaving without breakfast since we wanted to get to the Ngorogoro Crater before the crowds. The cook sulked for most of the rest of our safari, but he did try to make up for his mistake. Our driver was upset too, as he seemed to think we blamed him as well. In fact our driver had turned out to be a very knowledgeable guide, who spoke good English and was able to give us a lot of information about the places we visited and the animals we saw.
|Hyena checking out the flamingos in Ngorogoro Crater lake|
|This is his pride!|
|Baboons, Lake Manyara.|
|Yes, he's got my bag of crisps!|
We got back to the campsite for lunch, packed our bags and set off back to Arusha, where we had booked a better hotel for New Year's Eve. On the way we stopped at about four craft shops because our driver ha explained that there was a raffle being held that day with a first prize of a course at the school for guides. The more often he had his card stamped at a craft shop the better chance he had of winning the prize. He had been a good guide for us so we played along by popping into the shops for a quick look. I don't know what they do with the mountains of carvings, masks, statues, baskets, jewellery these shops have on display. There were very few tourists at this time so some sellers were a bit pushy or maybe desperate? There is little original work, even the paintings look as if they were produced in a factory of painters, working on a production line. in the same way the wood carvings are all similar and there is very little pottery to be seen in these kinds of shops. I guess they have to make what they think tourists will buy as their own people are too poor to be able to afford arts and crafts, except for utilitarian needs.
The first hotel we stayed in at Arusha was so badly located and offered no evening activities at all so we decided to splash out and go for one of the best hotels in town - the Hotel Impala. It was very comfortable and, even better, offered four different restaurants, from local to Chinese and Italian!
In fact for New Year's Eve they had combined all restaurants into one, based around the swimming pool out of doors. For a moderate price they were offering a range of dishes in a buffet, covering all four restaurant specialities. Sadly it was a little cool out of doors and the DJ did not really manage to get much atmosphere going. There seemed to be a good number of local wealthy families who were celebrating there but most people left a good hour before midnight. There was a show - local dancers and then trio of acrobatic, juggling, fire eating, dancing and singing young men, who did their best to get people into a cheery mood. However, it was all rather like seeing street performers in York! I had hoped for something more traditional - I guess the locals would prefer the more western-style show. It was so cold we gave up at about 11.30 and heard the brief firework show from bed, trying to get warm!
On New Year's Day we were picked up from the hotel at 08.30 prompt by the driver/guide from Peace Matunda. This is a local NGO set up by a young man called Kyaa Matunda, using his parents' land and house to create an orphanage and a school for mainly Masai children. They also specialise in local culture tours and take young volunteers from a charity in England to work with the teachers in the school.
|Kyaa standing beside a traditional hut in front of his new house|
After coffee round the communal table in the large living area we began our tour proper with a demonstration of how raw coffee beans are turned into a pot of coffee, using traditional tools and a charcoal stove. We were amazed that we finished up with a very good cup of coffee!
|Pounding the raw coffee beans to remove the husks.|
|Roasting the beans.|
|Enjoying the fresh Tanzanian coffee.|
Next we were taken on a walking tour for about two hours looking at banana plantations, local houses and villages and a great view of the hills and valleys just outside the Mount Meru National Park. Our guide spoke excellent English and told us a lot about the local way of life. We found, to our astonishment that any older people who met us were so pleased and excited - apparently it is really lucky to meet a white person on New Year's Day - so we brought some small pleasure into one or two lives! We passed several churches, which were full of beautifully dressed people celebrating the new year with lively gospel music, enthusiastic sermons and prayers. We later found that there is virtually no other Tanzanian music available in CD shops and stalls other than gospel. Any other style was from other African countries.
|Our walkabout guide.|
After our tour we went back to the orphanage and enjoyed delicious local food with two of the guides, in a palm leaf-thatched hut. The menu was typical of almost everywhere I have been to eat - rice, kidney beans, greens, plantain and sweet potatoes and meat stew with lots of sauce for the mountain of carbohydrates! It was all very fresh and tasty of course and was followed by fresh fruits.
Kyaa, the founder of Peace Matunda then came to join us and took us on a tour round the establishment. We met his mother who still lives in the family house, within the compound with her small farm yard (cows, goats, hens) and looked around the almost finished new orphanage building of which he was very proud. Justly so - it was bright, colourful and built to really good standards. There were separate boys' and girls' dormitories with showers and toilets and new furniture everywhere. All this was done on the proceeds of the tours, including safaris, which they offer, some profit from what the volunteers pay for their keep and of course aid from the British charity they work with. It was impressive to see what one determined young man could achieve with a vision and a lot of hard work. He had created an orphanage, a growing school, a tour business, a volunteer service and provided employment for local people as well, all in a matter of five or six years. Google "Peace Matunda, Arusha" for more information!
Our afternoon continued with a ride down the hill on very ramshackle mountain bikes to the local village market. The bikes were left in the care of a local while we explored the market with our guide. He showed us inside a corn mill, a local restaurant kitchen and a variety of shops and stalls.
|Typical pots and charcoal stoves in the market.|
Needless to say the long distance Mwanza bus departed at 06.00, in theory, but was of course late arriving and leaving! This bus was really old! It had no air conditioning, but the windows couldn't close, so we got plenty of breeze. Unfortunately well over half the route was on dusty earth roads zig-zagging between the roadworks and excavations, frustratingly alongside the almost finished new road! We found a new use for the lengths of cloth intended for roadside toilet visits - namely to cover ourselves up to keep some of then dust billowing in the windows off us.
|The bus to Mwanza from Arusha|
|No, they are not getting off - they stood there for hours in front of me!|
On arrival at our hotel in Mwanza - very much behind schedule as usual, we were caked in sweaty dust from head to foot! What an experience!! Dusty, bumpy roads, crazy speeding drivers and the mechanical staff and extra passengers in every free space between the seats and around the driver. Not an experience I wanted to repeat….. but we were still a long way from Rwanda and there was more to come!!
The hotel in Mwanza was very comfortable, we negotiated a good price when we said we planned to be there for four nights and indeed got an upgrade to a small suite! We could see Lake Victoria from the side of one of our balconies, but had a beautiful view, especially at sunset, from the fifth floor terrace bar.
Mwanza is definitely not a tourist town - the hotels are for business people, conferences and meetings, so there was not much of a holiday atmosphere anywhere in town. On the other hand there were hardly any white people to be seen at all, yet we were hardly bothered. There was no hassling from market traders, shop keepers, ticket touts, taxis, beggars at all. The town felt safe even in the evening when we went out to eat for a change from the hotel. Although lying on the bank of the Lake Victoria with two commercial harbours, there is little access to the waterside and no pleasure craft other than one small excursion to an island bird sanctuary. To find a beach you need to travel some 10 km out of town and even then the water is risky for bathing because of bilharzia. In fact we found the town itself so interesting, as a "normal" African town, that we were not tempted to seek out the beach. One high range hotel near the town, the Hotel Tilapia, has a swimming pool, which can be used for a fee, by non-residents but after eating lunch there we were put off by the wealthy whites who frequent it!
|Part of the extensive second hand shoe market in Mwanza.|
|Young man washing second hand shoes.|
Of course the same applies to all types of clothing across Africa. Here in Rwanda at least 90% of clothes on sale, especially in the markets, is second hand. There are new clothes and shoes to be found in Kigali in a few westernised shops. Of course the traditional clothes most women wear, especially outside the capital, involve colourful lengths of cloth called "panga", which they can have made up into dresses or skirts if they don't want to simply tie them round the waist.
We knew that getting back to Rwanda would be somewhat problematic from this area, as no buses cross the border. The nearest we would be able to get was to Benaco, about 20 km before the border and we would have to get a taxi to the border. We found the bus office in the depths of the town and found that we had been given false information two days before by a tout. He had said that we could get a bus right to the border and told us the wrong bus company. Fortunately some more helpful guys got us to the right place. However, when we insisted that we wanted to pay for three seats in order to keep our bags with us the ticket seller took a lot of convincing. He must have thought we were mad to pay £8 for a seat for our bags. In the end he agreed and we found out where the bus would leave. As ever the long distance bus station was actually on the edge of the town and we needed a long taxi ride in the early morning to get there.
Shortly after setting off from Mwanza, we were alarmed to find the bus in a queue to go on a ferry over the lake. We knew that some buses took a three-four hour lake journey to a town further north and were worried that we were on the wrong bus. Frantic questioning of other passenger to find English or French speakers brought us re-assurance as the ferry was just crossing a small inlet in the lake and we arrived on the other side in about 20 minutes. It's amazing how panicky you can get when you are setting off into the unknown and things don't turn out as expected!!
|Waterside scene near ferry over part of Lake Victoria|
|View over Lake Victoria from Tanzania.|
Our seats were just behind the driver so we had a hair-raising view of the road ahead. It was not long before the tarmac ran out and we found ourselves racing along like Louis Hamilton in the middle of a mud track, with dust flying in all the windows and the wide open broken door!
More disconcerting was when armed guards without uniforms escorting a group of young men, whose shirts were all tied to each other, got onto the bus and settled them on the floor in the aisle. Two more machine guns followed! We have no idea whether they were prisoners, refugees, terrorists or whatever else, but we were glad when they got off an hour or so later without incident. A little later four more civilians with machine guns got on and travelled a few miles with us (no money changed hands for fares!). We felt more and more that western Tanzania is like the wild west once was.
|Wild western Tanzania.|
There were frequent weighbridge and police controls, where standing passengers were counted. In some cases the excess passengers had been taken off onto a mini-taxi a few kilometres before the control and then rejoined the bus further down the road. What with the guns, the extra passengers, the dusty tracks and the speed it seemed like a miracle that we were able to get off in one piece at Benaco.
Benaco hardly qualifies as a village, but we were soon surrounded by taxi touts persuading us to get into a shared taxi to the border. We agreed, but on finding they planned to squeeze seven plus luggage into a five seater saloon of dubious mechanical condition we leapt out grabbing our bags and beat a hasty retreat towards the border. We found a less pushy taxi driver who agreed to take us to the border for a rather higher fare of course, but at least we had the car to ourselves. It was an old automatic and he set off like a bat out of hell with us shouting "pole, pole!" from the back. The little Swahili we had picked up fortunately included "slowly, slowly". The driver laughed and slowed down for a little while. The car was running very badly and I'm sure he didn't understand the gear box - at times he seemed to be using reverse to slow the car down!! Once again we were so glad to arrive unharmed! In spite of the heavy rain, which had begun to fall, we jumped out quickly and rushed towards the border post. Amazingly we had arrived long before dark, when the frontier is closed and we crossed quickly into the rain and thunder of Rwanda - what a welcome! Of course the Rwandan guard wanted to search our luggage for plastic bags. My friend had hidden them all in a secret pocket and I thought I had none. We explained that we worked in Rwanda and knew that we could not bring in plastic bags and he relented (or couldn't be bothered) when we were so nice and friendly. I later discovered that I had forgotten about one plastic pocket I had some documents in. They only confiscate the bags, nothing serious happens!
A few minutes later, we sat in the relative luxury of a good old Rwandan Coaster bus in the rain while we waited for it to fill up with a few more people. By the time we arrived near Nyakarambi it was choc-a-bloc and we were glad to struggle off with our rucksacks and walk up the street to my house.
All in all an unforgettable journey, which more than made up for the lack of gap-year experience in my student days. I'm really glad to have done it as Tanzania has a lot to offer in the way of sights and activities. It is more developed than Rwanda and so consumer goods are more available in the big towns. Yet the last stage of the journey revealed a really poor western part of the country, where we felt the dangers of armed robbers mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide were a real possibility. Unlike Rwanda there is no concern for the environment in Tanzania and there is litter and waste to be seen everywhere, especially plastic packaging. The people we had dealings with were friendly and welcoming and we got generally quite good service wherever we went. Of course the buses have to be in the last section - I thought Rwandan buses could be mechanically rather unreliable, but in the main they are controlled and regulated for safety. Tanzanian long distance buses are clearly much less regulated and the controls are simply flauted. As I said, I'm glad to have done the journey overland but even more happy that we survived it! Future journeys in this huge continent will definitely be by air, in spite of the really high fares!