Tanzania: A deadline to reach Dar es Salaam

1st March - 5th April 2002


I crossed into Tanzania at the Namanga border crossing from Kenya on board the Akamba bus from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam. The bus had left Nairobi at 07.00 and arrived at the border at just after 09.00. The journey from Nairobi passed through the small town of Kajiado and across the endless plains to the south of Nairobi. As we travelled the dry, brown, grassy plains to the south of Nairobi gradually became greener and covered in acacia trees. Maasai tribesmen herded cattle along the side of the road, looking very distinctive wearing their red and blue blankets. As we passed through the many Maasai villages along the way, the villagers would just stand and stare at the side of the road as the bus went past. The Maasai looked like an ancient people and their way of life looked like it hadn't changed for hundreds of years, I felt as though I was travelling through another country in another time. The Maasai have managed to escape the mainstream development in Kenya and preserve their traditional way of life. This hasn't been easy with many upheavals over the years, including famine, disease and the creation of reserves, which are off limits to the Maasai. This has caused intense pressure on the land resources and the forgoing of some traditions and the reluctant acceptance of government settlement programs.

The bus driver dropped all the passengers off at the Kenyan immigration post. Once completing immigration formalities we had to walk the short distance across no-mans land and into Tanzania where the bus was waiting for us outside the Tanzanian immigration and customs office. The whole procedure took nearly an hour to complete before continuing the journey south to Arusha, now passing mountains in the distance rising up from the plains. It was a hot day, the heat and the drone of the engine sent me to sleep for many parts of the journey to Dar es Salaam. On route we stopped at Arusha, which would be my first destination to travel to after Gerald arrived in Dar es Salaam from London. We planned to trek up Mt Meru but as I passed by, it was shrouded by low cloud and I could only guess at where exactly the mountain was. It was the same when I passed through Moshi, Mt Kilimanjaro was out there somewhere, but hidden in the low cloud.

The bus continued relentlessly towards Dar es Salaam, passing the Pare and Usambara mountains to the north. Alongside the road were huge plantations of sisal, a plant I had never seen before that looked very alien especially when in flower. The locals told me that they harvest the leaves and use the fibre to make rope as well as for weaving into baskets. The sun had set before reaching my destination; it was 19.30 when I eventually arrived in Dar es Salaam at the new Ubungo bus station, miles out from the city centre along the Morogoro Road. I had heard rumours that the bus station had moved; the old bus station was only a couple of blocks from the hotel I intended to stay at. Now I had to negotiate a taxi ride for a trip, which I did not know the distance of. I worked on the principle of trying to half the opening price in my negotiations with a taxi driver; we started at TSH10,000 and finally settled on TSH4,500. I checked into the Safari Inn, just off Libya Street, which was recommended as a good budget hotel in my guidebook. It was probably one of the more expensive places I had stayed in so far on this trip through East Africa at TSH7,200 for a rather poky en-suite single room. The staff at the reception always seemed to be on another planet, everything was too much bother for them. Standing at the reception desk was not enough to attract their attention; I found jumping up and down and waving my arms about a bit more useful.

Gerald was due to fly in the next day, Saturday, on an Emirates flight via Dubai arriving at 14.40. I ate out at a local restaurant, Chefs Pride on Chagga Street that evening and went for a beer at the New Protein Bar just around the corner on Jamhuri Street where I met George, the kind of contact you find in most cities who can fix anything for you. I went to sleep that night excited with the prospect of a friend from home arriving bearing some news and gossip.

On Saturday morning I busied myself locally around town, killing time while I waited until 13.30 to take a taxi out to the airport. The area around the Safari Inn was definitely the motor spares part of town; every other shop was selling motor spares and alongside the roads cars were being welded and engines repaired, leaving a slick of oil along the gutter. It was a lot hotter and far more humid down here by the ocean than the previous places I had visited on this trip. I didn't explore much of the city and after lunch I met up with George who sorted out a taxi for me to and from the airport for TSH7,000. George's friend Samuel drove the taxi and George jumped into the death seat (the front passenger seat); George was at a loose end and didn't have anything else to do so decided to come out to the airport to meet Gerald as well. We hung around the airport for a while and watched the Emirates flight land exactly on time.

I waited anxiously at the arrivals gate and when I caught sight of Gerald collecting his backpack from the luggage carousel I jumped up and down waving. Gerald emerged into the heat of Africa looking a little dazed and confused. I introduced him to George and said it was a long story and we walked off to find Samuel, who had parked up his taxi in the nearby car park. We drove the 15km back into town and back to the Safari Inn where I had upgraded that morning to a twin room. This was Gerald's first trip to Africa and his first time leaving Europe. I knew he would be tired after such a long journey; I remember how I felt when I arrived in Kampala six weeks ago after doing an almost identical trip. I left him to rest while I went out to find a reliable bus company to take us to Arusha the next day. We decided that rather than spending a day recovering and relaxing in Dar es Salaam it would probably be better to get to Arusha, which was 1,500m above sea level, so that Gerald could start acclimatising for our trek up Mt Meru.

Someone at the reception desk at the hotel recommended the Royal Coach Company to me as a reliable operator. Most of the bus companies still have their offices around the old bus station, which is now just an empty, dusty lot used for parking trucks. Later that evening we booked our tickets to Arusha for TSH12,500 and then went to Chefs Pride restaurant for dinner, followed by beer at the New Protein Bar where we sat out on the street watching life go by and catching up on news from home.

We saved a taxi fare by catching the bus when it stopped at the office by the old bus station at 07.00 in the morning on it's way to Ubungo. The only downside was that we had to wait for an hour and a half at Ubungo until the scheduled departure time. The Royal Coach was a bad introduction to African travelling for Gerald; I don't think I have travelled on a smarter bus back home and Gerald even agreed that it was a better bus than the National Express he took to Heathrow airport on Friday afternoon. It was fully air-conditioned with seats that were almost as comfortable as my armchair at home, there was an onboard toilet, hostess service with free drinks and biscuits and even a digital display at the front of the bus telling us what the current temperature was and when the toilet was occupied. I told Gerald that transport would only get worse after this journey.

It took nine hours to reach Arusha, retracing the route I had taken on Friday. Arusha is the safari capital of Tanzania and is the hub of the countries tourist industry. It is the gateway to both the Arusha and Serengeti national parks and also makes an ideal base for exploring the Crater Highlands and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. There are over one hundred tour companies registered in the town, each with a team of touts cruising the streets trying to drum up some business. The sun was almost setting when we arrived at the bus station in the centre of town on Makongoro Road. Many people had warned me about the touts at the bus station and their various ploys, including the 'free taxi service'; we were prepared for a bit of a rugby scrum in trying to escape from the bus. We got past the worst of the touts and were only followed by two, intent on selling us a safari, all the way to the Mashele Guesthouse, just off Colonel Middleton Road in the north of the town where we took a twin room for TSH4,000 a night.

The main aim of Gerald's three-week visit to Tanzania was to trek up to the summit of Mt Meru, at an altitude of 4,566m. This would also be the most difficult part of the trip to organise, as we wanted to arrange the trip independently, rather than paying to go on a tour. I relish a challenge but I could see many hurdles ahead to overcome; I would be surprised if everything went smoothly, this was Africa after all and nothing tends to go quite as you plan it. I had two plans for climbing the mountain, conveniently called, plan A and plan B. Plan A, was the preferred plan and involved Joseph, the manager of the Mt Kenya hostel who I had stayed with a couple of weeks ago, coming down to Arusha to help with the arrangements and to do the cooking on the mountain. Plan B, was if Joseph didn't turn up we would have to do everything ourselves; I prayed that plan A would work.

When I had last seen Joseph at the Mt Kenya hostel we had provisionally agreed to meet tomorrow, Monday, at the Mashele Guesthouse; he had given me his mobile phone number anyway just in case. I decided to phone Joseph first thing on Monday morning to see where he was and if he still wanted to come down to Arusha. That wasn't quiet as straightforward as I thought as no one in Arusha seemed to have a telephone that worked. Finally, I ended up at the Tanzania Telecom Building were an operator managed to put me through to Joseph's mobile. He was still at home in Naro Moru but said that he would pack his bag and leave as soon as possible and see us at the guesthouse later tonight; I broke the good news to Gerald. Just in case plan A didn't work out we spent the afternoon looking around the shops in town at suitable food supplies and also looked for gas cartridges for the stove Gerald had brought with him. We couldn't find any gas cartridges anywhere so instead looked around the market for kerosene and paraffin stoves. What ever happened later that day, Tuesday would be our day organising the trek ready to start the climb on Wednesday morning.

Apart from the safari touts who followed us endlessly around town wherever we went, Arusha was a very nice place. The town is divided in two halves by the Naura and Goliondoi Rivers, to the east is the commercial centre, the market and bus station, to the west the up market hotels, most of the safari company offices, airline offices and tourist souvenir shops. The corridor formed by the rivers was like a small patch of jungle running through the centre of the town. Trees grew everywhere and from a distance the town looked more like a forest rather than the countries fastest growing and most developed town. The huge cone of Mt Meru dominated the view to the northeast of town, the mountain towered over the town. From the back of the Mashele Guesthouse we had a great view of the mountain; as we stood staring up at it we agreed that one way or another we would reach that summit.

We spent the evening drinking beer with Mama at the guesthouse. There was a small veranda at the front of the guesthouse where we could sit and watch the street life. It was a back street and most of the traffic was pedestrian or bicycle but whenever a car approached we looked on expectantly hoping that it would be Joseph arriving. Finally at 22.30 I finished my last beer and went for a shower before going to bed, thinking about how we would get plan B into operation as Joseph hadn't turned up. I was lying in bed listening to the news on the radio when Gerald came into the room at 23.15 and said there was someone at reception asking for me. It was Joseph, he had made it and stood at the reception desk dressed smartly in a suit with his backpack; it was great to see him again. I went to sleep that night happy, we had cleared our first hurdle on the way to the mountain.

Over breakfast the next morning we discussed our plans and what we needed to do to organise the trek. There were three things we had to sort out and just one day to do it all in, it was going to be a busy day. Joseph enlisted the help of a local boy who was hanging around the guesthouse, he would be our runner and source of local information for the day. We needed to buy food, for four people over four days, buy a stove as Joseph had left his at home and we couldn't get gas for Gerald's, and arrange transport to take us to the park gates and to pick us up again. It was obligatory to hire a guide on the mountain and from the information we gathered locally we also found out that we had to supply food for the guide too. Our first stop was at the local, colourful market, where we bought most of the food supplies we would need. That took most of the morning and after we carried it all back to the guesthouse we stopped for lunch. That afternoon we searched for a paraffin, pressure stove; we searched for a couple of hours and finally, just when we were giving up hope, found one in a hardware store on Sokoine Road for TSH13,500; we bought it. The last job of the day was arranging transport to the park gate, a distance of about 35km from Arusha. Hiring a vehicle always seems to get very expensive in East Africa, this was no exception; we settled on a fare of US$100 for the return trip, about what I feared we would have to pay. The driver would pick us up on Wednesday morning outside our guesthouse.

We went back to the guesthouse to make our preparations for tomorrow. Joseph fiddled around with the stove until he finally got it working while we emptied out what we didn't need in our packs and loaded them up with the food supplies for four days. We went out for nyama choma and beer at a local bar just down the road to celebrate our successful days work. Personally I wouldn't be happy until we had taken that first step up the mountain on the other side of the park gates. Joseph commented on his observations on Arusha and the Tanzanians. Arusha was a lot cleaner than Nairobi, this shocked Gerald, who thought Arusha was the messiest place he had ever seen; he could not imagine how a city could be worse than Arusha. Joseph didn't like the Tanzanians that much, he thought they were unfriendly and quiet often rude; and no one dressed smartly or wore a suit. Joseph sat in this local bar, the only one smartly dressed, wearing his jacket and suit. It was interesting to listen to his observations, as he noticed a lot of little things that we would never have picked up on.

Continue reading this journey: Trekking on Mt Meru