A Travellerspoint blog

The Love Boat

Day 28 - Mwanza, TZ to Port Bell, Uganda

Joseph came and met me out front of the hotel around 9am this morning. We were headed to the outskirts of town to meet his family but first, I needed to pick up some washing that I had dropped off at the local laundromat a couple of days earlier. Unfortunately, it turned out that the laundry was closed– I hadn't realised that it was a Sunday! I was seriously worried because I was supposed to be leaving on a cargo boat to Kampala that afternoon and half my clothes were potentially going to be staying behind! Thankfully, Joseph was with me and he was able to ask around at the neighbouring shops until he found someone with the laundry owner’s phone number which he was able to call. Joseph somehow talked the owner into coming in on his day off, opening up his store and giving me my clothes.

A little over an hour later, with the laundry situation finally resolved, we squeezed ourselves into a minibus and took off in the direction of Joseph’s home. The minibus pulled up next to a giant coca-cola bottling factory with high walls and a barbed-wire fence around it and Joseph told me to jump out. He then lead me down a dirt track that took us past the factory and through some fields behind it. After what seemed like a long walk (at least 1-2km) past some small, miserable looking shacks we arrived at a significantly larger, more modern home than we had seen since we turned off the main road. Joseph’s house was easily the nicest in the area. It was still a work in progress to a certain extent – missing a few finishing touches but otherwise structurally complete. What is more impressive is that Joseph apparently built the house himself.

Joseph introduced me to his wife-to-be and their two gorgeous twin girls. The girls were absolutely adorable and I spent some time mucking around with them in the back yard while Joseph’s fiancée finished preparing lunch. Lunch was a simple but hearty serving of beans and rice. We sat around the table talking while the kids made a mess of the food. I would have loved to stay longer but I was anxious to get to the port as soon as possible. So around 1:30pm I waved goodbye to Joseph’s family while he and I made our way back to the main road. I was hoping to hop a minibus back into town straight away but Joseph wouldn’t let me leave without first meeting his mother and cousins who lived across the street. I knew I was pushing it but it was also pretty clear that this was very important to Joseph and I didn’t want to say no. After the round of introductions and a mandatory cup of tea, I finally said goodbye to Joseph and made a bee-line for the port.

A couple of chicken chasers!

A couple of chicken chasers!





Kennedy was waiting for me when I arrived and he immediately introduced me to the port’s immigration officer who was responsible for stamping crewmen in and out of the country. The immigration officer looked me up and down before gesturing for me to follow him into his office (a modified cargo container). He sat me down and proceeded to explain to me that cargo ships were only supposed to carry cargo and that it was in fact illegal for them to take passengers. I pleaded ignorance and told him some story about how someone at the immigration office back in town had told me that all I had to do was pay some sort of “fee” and I would be allowed to ride on the ship – having hung around in Mwanza for so long waiting for this ship I wasn’t in the mood to get too cute with this guy. In fact, I was more than happy to throw a few buck his way if it meant that I was able to board the ship hassle free. At the word ‘fee’ the immigration officer’s ears pricked up and his eyes began to sparkle. I swear, he was trying desperately to fight the urge to smile but I could tell by the way the corners of his mouth began to curl upwards that inside he thought Christmas had come early! In the end, it cost me a nice crisp US$10 bill just to get my passport stamped.

As I was about to leave, the immigration officer motioned for me to lean in close and whispered in my ear that it was “very very important that I don’t tell anyone about being able to ride as a passenger on the cargo ship”... Oops! I wonder what he would think if he knew I was blogging about him to the world right now?? The irony of the immigration officer’s statement did not fully sink in until I actually climbed aboard the M.V. Umoja and discovered that one level of the ship was fully decked out for passengers. One of the crew met me at the top of the stairs and immediately escorted me to a bunk (I had assumed I would be sleeping on the deck!). I was also told that the kitchen would be serving dinner later that night (for a small fee, of course) and breakfast in the morning before we reached Port Bell. Quietly pleased with the whole set up, I made myself comfortable and waited for our departure. Like with most forms of transport in Africa, my fellow travelers and I were forced to sit around for a good couple of hours before we finally got moving. In fact, it was so late by the time we got going that the sun was actually setting as we pulled out of Mwanza harbour.

M.V. Umoja

M.V. Umoja

All aboard!

All aboard!

However, I couldn’t have cared less about the wait. As I watched the city disappear behind me, I was transfixed by the gorgeous expanse of water stretching out ahead of me. The fresh air, the sunset and the deep blue lake, it was all so beautiful. So beautiful in fact that I desperately wanted to share it with someone and for the first time since I landed in Africa I felt genuinely alone. This was a once in a lifetime moment and there was no-one else here to experience it with me. For a long time now, whenever I found myself with time to think and reflect (which obviously happens a lot when you are traveling by public transport across Africa) my mind kept turning to one person in particular. It wasn’t my family (although they were often in my thoughts) and it wasn’t my friends back in Oz… it was Alisa.

Spectacular sunset

Spectacular sunset

All alone at sea... just like me.

All alone at sea... just like me.

Just by way of background for those of you who don’t know, Alisa and I met while I was doing an internship at the UN in New York during July/August of 2007. We had an amazing summer and continued to correspond almost daily from the moment I returned to Australia. Alisa even came out to visit me in Sydney for a couple of weeks. However, the distance was putting a strain on our budding relationship and both of us were struggling with the uncertainty that comes from falling in love with someone who lives on the other side of the world. I knew I would be finishing law school in Feb ’08 and at one point there was the chance that I would be able to get some more work in New York, at least until I started at a law firm in Sydney later that year. However, the New York job fell through and I made an impulsive decision to go traveling through Africa instead. I had clearly put my desire to see the world ahead of our relationship and Alisa wasn’t going to hang around to see if I would eventually change my mind. In all honesty, I wasn’t ready for a long-term relationship (I was only one year removed from an intense 5yr relationship) let alone a long-distance/long-term relationship! Long story short, about a month before I left for Africa ‘Alisa and I’ (read: she) decided it was best if we didn’t contact each other anymore.

We hadn’t spoken in almost two months but leaning over the railing watching the stars reflected in the perfectly still lake, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I cracked and sent Alisa a text. I didn’t know what to say after such a long period of radio silence so I simply asked her what I most wanted to know… “What are you doing right now?”. Of all the questions, this was the one that had been stuck in my brain these past few months. I just desperately wanted to know where she was, who she was with, what she was doing. This question wasn’t born of some crazy jealousy or possessiveness, it had more to do with just wanting to know that she was ok, that she was happy, that she was safe. We had had an amazing connection and although it was relatively brief, I felt closer to her than anyone I had ever met before. Just because I wasn’t ready to take a chance on a long-term/long-distance relationship didn’t mean that I didn’t still care about her or have feelings for her. Regardless of whether I was going to be a part of her life going forward, I still wanted nothing but joy and happiness for her and not knowing where she was or how she was feeling was eating me up inside.

Unfortunately, the ship was steaming out into the middle of the lake by the time I actually sent the text and all too soon (ie. before I got a response) we had left civilization behind and I had lost signal. Knowing I would have to wait until morning before receiving a response, if any, I took one last long look out over the lake before turning around and rejoining my fellow travelers. Thankfully, my travel companions were in good spirits and I was able to suppress my emotions with various distractions. We ate, we drank and we talked through the night. A couple of the crew taught me how to play draughts (using coke bottle tops in lieu of real checkers) and I even won a couple of times. In hindsight, despite the anxious pit in my stomach most of the night, this was easily the most enjoyable trip of all my travels. There was a proper bed and a sit down meal, interesting people, cool fresh air and the ability to take a walk and stretch your legs if you wanted… it doesn’t get much better than that.

Posted by VincitVeritas 08:33 Archived in Tanzania Tagged africa tanzania kampala mwanza umoja uganda cargo_boat port_bell Comments (0)

Saanane Island

Day 27 - Mwanza, Tanzania

This morning I took a boat across to Sannane Island, which is a rocky little blip in the middle of Mwanza Harbour. The local government is clearly desperate to turn the island into a tourist attraction but to be honest, it wasn’t anything to write home about – please excuse the irony of me now writing about it! There is a zoo of sorts on the island with a lion and a couple of hyenas in cages (hard to compete with the magnificent beasts I had met on the Lion Walk in Zimbabwe), a couple of antelope running around the place and the odd exotic bird hopping from tree to tree. Like I said, nothing to write home about but at least it was cheaper than a safari and certainly better than sitting in an internet café all day.

Rocky Blip

Rocky Blip

Beating the heat

Beating the heat

Psychedelic Lizard

Psychedelic Lizard

However, I wasn’t the only one taking the trip out to the Island. I was joined by a bunch of school children on an excursion and a young couple who were studying to be anesthesiologists at the local university. The school kids seemed to be more interested in me than the animals and I cracked a few jokes with them and talked with them while we rode the boat across from the mainland. Geoffrey, one of the soon-to-be anesthesiologists, was very kind and offered to serve as interpreter for me on our guided tour. He also taught me how to count to 10 in Swahili: moja, mbili, tatu, nne, tano, sita, saba, nane, tisa, kumi – something I promptly forgot until I just re-read this diary entry!

School is out

School is out



That evening Joseph (who I first met on the train from Mpanda to Tabora) met me in town for a couple of beers. He had been so helpful and friendly and he was keen to get together so I felt obliged to meet up with him. We hung out for awhile but I was feeling pretty beat from being out in the sun all day so we wound things up pretty early. However, we organized for me to take a trip out to his village (on the outskirts of Mwanza) tomorrow morning so I could meet his wife and kids. I knew the boat would be leaving in the afternoon and I would have to be at the docks by 3pm but I couldn’t say no to someone who had been so kind and generous and besides, I was interested to meet his family and see how he lives.

Posted by VincitVeritas 13:18 Archived in Tanzania Tagged africa tanzania mwanza saanane_island Comments (0)

Déjà vu!

DAY 26 - Mwanza, Tanzania

I was able to sleep in and relax this morning because I knew the boat would definitely not be leaving till this afternoon. I called Kennedy around lunchtime to confirm what time I should arrive at the port and wasn't particularly surprised to hear him say that “due to some unforeseen circumstances” the boat would now definitely not be leaving before Sunday!

The first thing that came to mind was ‘here we go again’. Just like in Mpulungu and just like the day I touched down in Jo’burg airport, when was I going to learn to take what people here said with a grain of salt. I genuinely doubt that there is any maliciousness involved (although, the captain of the cargo ship in Mpulungu looked pretty sketchy) and that the reason why this keeps happening to me has more to do with the general unreliability of things in Africa and the locals' desire to tell you what they think you want to hear rather than some plot to inconvenience the white man. Maybe I am just naïve but I don’t think Kennedy knew all along that the ship would not be leaving before Sunday… I’m inclined to believe him when he says that they are waiting on cargo from Dodoma that hasn’t arrived. Either way though, the result is the same and maybe if I knew that I would be stuck in Mwanza for so long I would have arranged alternative transport. But I didn’t, and now it is just easier to wait till the end of the weekend. Besides, these things tend to happened for a reason and maybe a few days rest is what I needed right now after over a week of long, hard traveling. Moreover, things could certainly be worse than having to spend a few days holed up in a city on the banks of Lake Victoria.

However, one issue that this delay had caused and which couldn’t be ignored was the fact that my 7-day transit visa was due to expire on Saturday and I needed to get some kind of extension. I went to the downtown immigration office and managed to track down Mary who had been so helpful the day before. I explained my predicament to her and with a quick flick of her wrist she had re-stamped my passport and effortlessly organized a 7-day extension for me, free of charge. Why are some things in Africa so painful one day and so uncomplicated the next... I don't think I will ever truly understand.

By the time I was done with the immigration office it was almost 2pm and I needed some lunch. There just so happened to be a nice local place next door where I was able to sample one of Tanzania's delicacies: Chips Mayai! Perhaps better known in English as a chip omelet, this simple yet tasty meal (often served with hot sauce) is incredibly popular across the width and breadth of Tanzania and after trying it for the first time I could understand why. I knew straight away that this wouldn’t be the last time that I would find myself feasting on this greasy roadside delicacy!

In the afternoon I went to the local tourism office and inquired about things to do in the Mwanza area. I contemplated doing some kind of safari but a trip to the Serengeti was out of the question as it would have cost me ~$575! As an alternative, the tourism office manager suggested I check out Saanane Island which sits in the middle of Mwanza harbour. I was a little skeptical but it didn’t seem like I had many alternatives – Mwanza clearly isn’t a Tanzanian tourism hub! At least it would give me something to do during the day tomorrow while I tried to kill time until the cargo boat was ready to leave.

It was only mid-afternoon and I figured that considering it was ANZAC Day back home, the appropriate way to spend the afternoon was to find some place to have a beer. I stumbled upon a pub that looked pretty busy (it was a Friday evening after all) and wandered in. I ordered a drink and headed upstairs to see if I could get a seat somewhere on the pub’s balcony. There were no free tables but I was kindly offered a chair by some older gentlemen who had one to spare. We quickly struck up a conversation and the gentlemen turned out to be interesting, kind and generous guys. They were all well educated and quite successful in their own right. We talked all through the evening and into the night about everything from African politics, to life in Tanzania versus life in Australia and a myriad of things in between. In particular, we had an interesting discussion about a recent political scandal that revolved around one of the governments most senior ministers (and the ex Attorney-General) being found to have an offshore account in the Jersey Islands with over $1 million from kickbacks in it – a discussion that would prove to be extremely useful in getting myself out of a particularly hairy situation later in my trip.

We had quite a few beers up there on the balcony and by the end I was feeling a little tipsy. It was quite late and the gentlemen insisted that I share a taxi home with them. I told them about how I had walked home the night before and they chided me (the way only a senior citizen can) for my foolishness. Apparently my fears the night before were quite justified because according to them, Mwanza is a very unsafe place for a mzungu to be walking about after dark. As I exited the cab in front of my hotel I promised the gentlemen that I was going to be more careful going forward... and when I said it, I did genuinely mean it. I swear!

Posted by VincitVeritas 14:36 Archived in Tanzania Tagged africa tanzania mwanza cargo_boat Comments (0)

One wrong turn deserves another...

DAY 25 - Mwanza, Tanzania

Mwanza is a reasonably sized port-city that lies on the southern shores of Lake Victoria. It is a hub for ships crossing the lake to Uganda and Kenya. I was determined to travel by ferry or ship at some stage during my trip and having been thwarted by the MV Liemba in Mpulungu this was most likely my last chance.

First thing this morning, I made my way downtown to the immigration office to inquire about gaining passage to Kampala. A very helpful customs officer named Mary informed me that there was no longer a regular passenger ferry running between Mwanza and Kampala but that a cargo boat was scheduled to leave for Entebbe either today or tomorrow and that I might be able to get a lift with them. Slightly suspicious after my experience in Mpulungu, I figured the best thing to do was go to the port and make inquiries with the crew directly. As I asked around for directions to the port, I met a nice American lady named Tara who was at the immigration office to renew her visa. Tara, who had been living in Mwanza for 2.5yrs, kindly offered to give me a lift to the port.

At the port I was introduced to a nice man named Kennedy who told me that the ship was awaiting the arrival of some last minute cargo and that it would likely be leaving tomorrow but to come back in the afternoon and check, just to be sure. So I caught a minibus back to the city centre and spent the rest of the day checking out downtown Mwanza and killing time. In the afternoon, I attempted to return to the port but that turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated. I made my way to the central minibus stop which was a sea of white vans with conductors hanging out the window hawking seats and trying to persuade anybody in earshot to jump in their vehicle.

I approached the fullest looking matutu (not because I particularly like being squished but because it was the most likely to leave first) and asked the conductor if he was heading in the direction of the port. Of course, the conductor assured me that he was going to the ‘port’ as he grabbed me by the arm and practically pulled me into the van. After squeezing a couple more locals in, the door was slammed shut and we took off… unfortunately, we took off in the completely opposite direction to that which Tara had taken me. Confused and unsure what to do, I hesitated and didn’t speak up straight away. Instead, I hoped that my instincts were wrong and that the driver was taking a round-about route and would soon loop back the way I was expecting.

However, after 5-10min we hit the main road out of town and I knew I was in trouble. I decided to cut my losses and got the driver to drop me off near a small market on the side of the highway. I’d like to think that the driver and conductor didn’t dupe me on purpose but that by port they thought I meant the airport (which was in that general direction), but the fact that they were all cracking jokes in Swahili and laughing at me as I climbed down from the van makes me think that I won’t be the last mzungu they will trick into taking a ride outside of town for no particular reason. I crossed the road and was able to catch another minibus back into town. From there I decided not to risk being taken for a ride again (pun intended) and made my way to the port on foot, retracing the route I had taken earlier that morning. At the port, Kennedy confirmed that the ship would not be leaving tonight but would definitely be leaving tomorrow afternoon.

Pleased to know that I would be on my way again soon, I walked back to town from the port and treated myself to a ‘fancy’ seafood dinner. However, it was later than I realised by the time I stepped out of the restaurant it had already gotten quite dark. Feeling a little budget conscious after splashing out on my meal, I decided to walk home anyway.

This was not a particularly smart idea. Everything looked different in the dark so of course, I got lost straight away. I normally pride myself on my internal compass but it had definitely let me down today! I managed to backtrack until I knew where I was again and from there make my way back to the hotel but at one point I was sure that a group young local kids were following me – I was convinced they were just waiting for me to make a false turn into some dead-end alleyway where they could mug me.

I arrived at the hotel safe and sound, although I’ll be the first to admit that by the end I was genuinely afraid. It certainly wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done and maybe there was no real danger and the kids stalking me was all in my head. Still, was it really worth running the risk of getting robbed or attacked just to save a few bucks? I think that after all the obstacles I had overcome in the past few weeks that I was getting a little too comfortable over here. I was starting to think I was invincible and this little freak out was a nice reality check that really brought me back to earth… for now, anyway.

Posted by VincitVeritas 09:41 Archived in Tanzania Tagged africa tanzania mwanza cargo_boat Comments (0)

Striking out on my own again.

Day 24 - Tabora, TZ to Mwanza, TZ

I had a pretty good idea before I left of where I wanted to go. I had even mapped out a route with probable arrival dates at key cities and towns. I wouldn’t say it was an inflexible route but I knew that I had been very ambitious with my planning and if I actually wanted to make it to all the places that I had set out to visit, I would have to move pretty fast. Missing the ferry (or the ferry not being there, to be more accurate) had really thrown a spanner in the works of my intended route. I thought I would be in Kigoma by Sunday and it was now Wednesday and I had only just reached the same latitude as Kigoma (albeit, 400km further inland). Tabora hadn’t even registered a mention during my pre-departure due diligence and from what little I had seen, I quickly surmised that the town was little more than a railhead/transport hub and that there was no reason to hang around this dusty, no-name place.

My intended route had me heading north from Kigoma (either through or skirting around Burundi) into Rwanda and then back across northern Tanzania to Dar. However, a bunch of people I met during my travels had told me how beautiful and interesting Uganda was and with my initial route now in tatters, I came up with the idea of making a detour via Kampala. I would catch the bus to Mwanza and then, all things going to plan, catch a ferry across Lake Victoria to Kampala. I would then make my way through southern Uganda and approach Rwanda from the north instead of the south-east like I had first intended.

I shared my new plan with Tobi in the hope that he might want to join me but his goal was to make it all the way back to Germany and it didn’t make sense for him to go to Uganda before Rwanda and then have to double back. In addition, he was keen to quit the buses/matolas/etc and get back on the bike, which obviously wasn’t going to happen for me. As for Brandon, all I wanted to do at this point was get as far away from him as possible. Just about every sentence that came out of his mouth was giving me the shits - from whinging and complaining about how dirty everything was (Seriously? You didn’t think that middle of nowhere Africa was going to be a little dirty?) to describing the call to prayer as “retarded”. He was talking about going to Burundi but also was making it very clear that he didn’t want to go alone. Secretly, I was also keen to go to Burundi but at that point I was willing to take a detour via Ethiopia to get there if it meant I didn’t have to spend another day with him, so instead I just played dumb and told him I wasn’t interested.

I left Brandon and Tobi behind while I went off to buy my bus ticket to Mwanza and as it turned out there was a bus leaving in about half an hour. I rushed back to our accommodation to get my pack but Brandon wasn’t there (I guess he had gone to get breakfast or something). I said goodbye to Tobi and wished him well for the rest of his journey. I never got a chance to say goodbye to Brandon (or ever heard from him again, in fact) and I am not sure where he ended up after Tabora. If I had to guess, I'd say he just wandered around until he found another unsuspecting backpacker to harass and annoy!

The bus ride to Mwanza was relatively comfortable, with only a brief period (1 hour or so) of unpaved road. I was the only mzungu on the bus which ordinarily means I am a massive target for complete strangers, who want to come up and talk to me. Thankfully though, I was left in peace and was able to pass the time by reading and admiring the beautiful landscapes that were whizzing by. I couldn’t help but notice a significant change in vegetation from the places I had passed through in the previous 5 days. The humid sub-tropical climes of northern Zambia that had morphed into dry dusty plains as I passed through south-west Tanzania had now been replaced by lush, green hills and fields. What is more, these hills and fields were full of beautiful rock formations, some delicately poised like they had been painstakingly stacked by some giant race. The whole scene reminded me of childhood car trips through the snowy mountains when we used to drive from Sydney to Charlotte’s Pass in southern NSW. Add to this the sight of the sun setting just as the bus pulled alongside the lake and this was easily one of the best travel days I had endured since reaching Africa.



Rock formations

Rock formations

The only thing that took away from this wonderful scene was the fact that for the last couple of hours of the trip I was absolutely dying to go to the bathroom. Those of you who have done any sort of traveling with me will know that I don’t have the biggest bladder going around and that whenever I am traveling a long distance that I will try to use the facilities whenever I have the chance. However, every time the bus stopped to drop someone off or pick someone up it didn’t wait longer than a couple of minutes before leaving again. On a couple of occasions I jumped off and went in search for a toilet only to hear the driver beeping his horn and having passengers yell at me that the bus was about to leave. No two bus rides in Africa are exactly the same. Sometimes a bus will stop for 15mins every couple of hours and other times it will drive for 5 hours straight without a break. This wasn’t to be the last time on my trip that I found myself desperate for the loo… nor was it the last time that a bus almost left without me!

I eventually arrived in Mwanza at dusk. As it turned out, Joseph from the train had been on the same bus as me. He is from a small village outside of Mwanza and knows the city quite well. Again, like in Tabora, he kindly offered to show me the way to a few guesthouses/hotels. Unfortunately, the only place with availability that we could find was a little boutique hotel behind the market. It was relatively ritzy (and expensive) compared with the other places I had been staying but not too bad considering the luxuries it offered: my own private room with ensuite bathroom, fresh linen and (yes, believe it or not) even a TV!!

Posted by VincitVeritas 12:37 Archived in Tanzania Tagged africa tanzania rock_formations mwanza tabora Comments (0)

Trains, Plains and a short little ride on a scooter.

DAY 23 - Mpanda, TZ to Tabora, TZ

Despite our late arrival the night before, we had to be up early this morning because (according to my guidebook) there was a train leaving for Tabora around lunchtime and if we missed it, we would be stuck hanging around sleepy Mpanda for another 3-4 days. I volunteered to go to the train station and get the tickets while the others went looking for supplies for the trip.

The tickets actually turned out to be more expensive than we had anticipated and I only had enough cash on me for two and even then, that completely cleaned me out. The others were meeting me at the station but there was no sight of them yet so I went looking for a bank but that proved to be more of a mission than I expected. I got myself lost on the way back to the station when I stupidly tried to take a short cut. Luckily however, a kind gentleman with a scooter (who I had stopped to ask for directions) gave me a lift back to the station. There I met up with Tobi, who was looking a bit anxious until he saw me coming down the hill on the back of the bike, and we went back to the guesthouse to collect our things and tell Brandon about the problem with the tickets. Brandon was understandably upset that I hadn’t got him a ticket but there was nothing he could do about it, by this stage my allegiance to Tobi was far greater than it was to him.

Loaded up with our packs, we headed back to the train. Brandon somehow managed to get himself a ticket, although it was to the wrong destination (a stop or two before Tabora). Moreover, he some how got placed in the same carriage as Tobi and I – I assume the ticket salesman figured he would just lump all the Mzungus together. So the three of us boarded the train and we were soon (only 1.5 hours behind schedule!) on our way to Tabora. Travelling by train was certainly a step up in comfort from the buses and matolas we had been riding in for the last few weeks, even though there was 6 of us squeezed into the tiny cabin. We each had a bunk and although it was a little stuffy, you could always take a walk to stretch your legs or get a puff of fresh air by sticking your head out the window. Also, the views as we passed through the countryside – endless plains dotted by savannah grasslands, woods, lakes and rivers – certainly didn’t hurt.



Traveling by train in Tanzania

Traveling by train in Tanzania

Twilight train traveling

Twilight train traveling

The train stopped a few times en route to Tabora, including once at a place called Katumba which was essentially a tent city full of Burundian refugees set up right alongside the tracks. From this makeshift town, we were able to purchase all kinds of food and drinks - including a peculiar smoked fish that (despite resembling a cowpat) actually tasted delicious. There were also some guys wandering through the train selling beer and snacks. I wanted to get away from Brandon so I joined a few locals who were hanging out in the passageway drinking. That was how I met Joseph from Mwanza, a cool and very friendly guy with whom I had a good chat. However, as soon as the sun went down I headed for my bunk. I felt exhausted and just lay down while the gentle, soothing click-clack of the train lulled me into a pleasant and much needed sleep. I was eventually shaken awake by the conductor at around 4am because we were pulling into Tabora station. The conductor was pissed when he discovered that Brandon had not gotten off at his ticketed stop but I guess he figured it wasn’t worth making a big stink about it so he just let us go.

Smoked somethingorother aka. The delicious cowpat

Smoked somethingorother aka. The delicious cowpat

Tabora station is actually a few kilometers outside of the town itself and the only transport available at 4am was from thieving taxi drivers that wanted to charge us more than it cost to take the train just to get to the centre of town! Luckily, my new best mate Joseph was kind enough to escort us to a guest house he knew of that he said was cheap and clean. Amazingly, the owner opened up even though it was so late. We were shown to a dorm inside the compound and it was just as Joseph had described, clean and cheap. We each picked a bed and dived in, keen to get as many Zs as possible before the sun came up. I don’t know about the others but I certainly didn’t have any problem getting to sleep. In fact, I think I was out before my head even touched the pillow.

Posted by VincitVeritas 13:41 Archived in Tanzania Tagged train africa tanzania mpanda tabora Comments (0)

Free Safari

DAY 22 - Sumbawanga, TZ - Mpanda, TZ

There is only one decent hotel in Sumbawanga and Tobi had the great idea of going there early this morning to enquire about a lift to the next major town to the north, Mpanda. We knew there was a bus leaving for Mpanda at 10:30am but we figured it would be cheaper, more comfortable and faster if we were able to hitch a ride instead. Amazingly, we were told by a gentleman who worked for the Tanzanian Ministry of Energy and Minerals that he would be leaving for Mpanda sometime that afternoon and that he could give us a lift. In the meantime, we went back into town and just potted around trying to kill some hours before we had to leave.

We returned to the hotel around mid-afternoon but there was no sign of the government guys. We knew they hadn’t left yet though because their truck was still in the parking lot so we just installed ourselves in the hotel bar and waited. After awhile we were joined by a young lady named Daniella, an American doctor who was working in Sumbawanga for a month or so. She was an interesting and friendly lady who I think, above all else, was just pleased to have some anglophile company. We sat around chatting for a few hours and I took the opportunity to quiz her about the standard of African hospitals and what to do should I get myself into trouble. Daniella’s answers weren’t particularly comforting, in fact she told me that the best thing to do if I ever got sick or needed surgery, etc. while I was over here was to get my insurance agency to fly me to Europe. Little did I know at the time that in the not too distant future I would find myself in an African hospital and that it would 1) be just as unpleasant as she described and 2) I would discover that organizing to be evacuated from a hospital in the middle of nowhere is a lot easier in theory than practice….

The government guys finally turned up around 6pm and we had to say goodbye to Daniella. She was kind enough to trade one of her books with me and I’d say that I got the best side of the deal. She got a moth-eaten copy of Rimbaud of Ethiopia which I had picked up at Lukwe Eco Lodge and I left with a copy of Barack Obama’s autobiography, Dreams of My Father – one of the better trades I would make over the coming months, unfortunately.

We strapped our bags and Tobi’s bike securely to the roof of the Landcruiser with strips of rubber (the African equivalent of an ‘Ocky’ strap) – a task Tobi and I saw to while Brandon installed himself in the most comfortable seat! By 6:30pm we were on our way and travelling at an absolute gallop. Once we got moving, the driver didn’t let up for a second (not even when we left the tarmac and hit the rough dirt roads). Tobi and I didn’t know what had hit us. We were sitting in the back being bounced all over the shop before we were finally able to find some seatbelts that had been tucked behind the seats. Even then, the seatbelts didn’t hold us down securely but merely stopped us from smacking our heads on the roof each time we hit a particularly large bump. Nonetheless, it wasn’t all bad. Like the bike ride, it felt great to be traveling at a decent speed again and the driver was actually very good, managing to find the perfect balance between speed and safety. However, there was one slight hiccup during our journey when about halfway to Mpanda some strange noises started emanating from the right, front tyre. This necessitated a pit-stop of approximately 45 mins. It was alright though because it gave us a chance to stretch our legs and get a drink, even though by this time it was after midnight and we were keen to get to our destination.

The road from Sumbawanga to Mpanda cuts right through Katavi National Park. We assumed that it would be too dark to see any animals but as chance would have it somewhere around 2am we came flying round a bend only to see a herd of buffalo blocking our route. The huge herd was crossing the road right in front of us and we were forced to sit tight until they had passed. The driver took this opportunity to step outside and relieve himself but he hadn’t taken two steps before he came back excitedly pointing to the bushes off to the side. Some lionesses were stalking the buffalo herd and the driver had spotted the reflection of our headlights in their eyes as he had stepped outside. The herd moved on and we crept slowly forward until we were in line with the lions and could see them more clearly. We couldn’t have been more than 10m away but they just stayed perfectly still and stared at us with their glistening eyes as we slowly coasted by.

The only other noticeable attraction that night was the sight of the local bus stuck in the mud about 15km outside Mpanda. This was in fact the bus that had left 8 hours earlier and which we would have been on if it weren’t for our friends at the Ministry of Energy and Minerals! It wasn't alone though, a large flatbed truck had gotten stuck right next it in what was a particularly boggy part of the road – apparently the result of unseasonably heavy rains recently. Fearing we might go the same way of the truck and the bus, we all clambered out of the Landcruiser while the driver did some serious off-roading (driving up a steep embankment and through a neighbouring field) just to get around the traffic jam.

We finally reached Mpanda around 4am and after driving around a little to find somewhere open and with a vacancy, we were dropped off at a guesthouse. I jumped out to unload our kit from the roof and Tobi was about to join me when the head government guy turned to him and asked for 10,000 shilling from each of us. There had been no talk about payment for the lift before we left – although it is standard practice across Africa to pay for a ride – so Tobi played dumb, feigned ignorance and gave him the puppy dog eyes. Whatever Tobi did, it must have worked because the government guy relented and we got away with not having to pay him anything.

Posted by VincitVeritas 09:30 Archived in Tanzania Tagged africa tanzania sumbawanga katavi_national_park mpanda Comments (0)

How much for your motorbike?

Day 21 - Matai, Tanzania to Sumbawanga, Tanzania

The plan was to reach Matai before all the trucks coming from Kasanga (the most southern port town on the Tanzanian side of Lake Tanganyika) had passed through for the day. So at 7am, without the benefit of coffee or breakfast (and in much need of a shower), Brandon and I gathered outside the guesthouse. The only transport we had been able to arrange was a couple of motorcycles, which of course were of no help to Tobi with his bike. Tobi had decided to cycle the 60km to Matai and had left at first light in order to get as much of a head start on us as possible. Everything going to plan we would all rendez-vous in Matai, where we would hopefully find someone to take us on to Sumbawanga, the nearest town of any significance in the region.

The bikes were there waiting for us as we came out of the guesthouse. There were a few minor delays as we tried to figure out how best to lash our packs to the back of the bikes. Then after a quick stop for fuel, we were on our way down the bumpy, dusty, dirt road that led to Matai. The feeling of being on the back of that bike was fantastic. The fresh air, the wind in my hair and the beautiful scenery whistling by was just amazing. The bike was nothing special but it was comfortable and had a decent suspension. It handled the bumps with ease and it felt like we were absolutely flying along. I can’t tell you how liberating it felt to be moving so fast after the slow, stifling roads of Zambia where my average speed had been about 15km/h.

I felt instantly comfortable with my driver, he had probably ridden this road a thousand times and knew every little bump and turn. I was able to relax and just soak up the mountains and fields that abutted the road. We passed through a few small, isolated villages where the children stood waving and shouting “Mzungu!” at me with giddy excitement as we flew by. I was enjoying the ride so much all I could do was wave back beaming at them with my own goofy smile.

It wasn’t long before I found myself fantasizing about buying a bike when I got to Dar es Salaam and riding it all the way down the coast to Maputo, Mozambique – my intended final destination on the first half of my trip. I could see it all so clearly, cruising the coastal roads with their stunning views over the Indian Ocean. Perhaps I would stop every now and again to pick up a fellow traveler (one not as fortunate as me to have such a luxurious mode of transport) and we would swap stories of the road as we made our way south, forever heading south… - with the benefit of hindsight, my vision of the quality of the roads in northern Mozambique was slightly romanticized and in reality, taking some second-hand, Chinese made motorcycle through one of the most remote regions in Africa with absolutely no mechanical or motorcycle experience would have been a little ambitious.

About halfway to Matai we shot past Tobi on his bike like he was standing still and with little more than a casual wave, left him choking on our dust as we thundered on down the road. I finally reached Matai about 9am – we had managed to cover the 60km in a little under an hour and a half. Brandon was waiting for me when my motorbike buddy dropped me off (he had arrived all of 5min earlier). Our first mission in Matai was to find somewhere to exchange some cash as we had spent our last kwacha on the motorbikes and we needed to our USD for Shillings. We weren’t having much luck though and the best offer we got was from some bloke who wanted US$20 for 10,000 shillings! (the actual exchange rate was 1:1200). Fortunately, a nice local lady named Happy was able to help us out. She was headed in the same direction as us and generously agreed to pay for our onward transport and for us to get some food, on the condition that we pay her back when we reached Sumbawanga, which has an ATM.

We were stuck in Matai for several hours before a truck finally arrived. Unfortunately though, there had still been no sign of Tobi. He had told us that in the event that a truck going to Sumbawanga arrived before he did, we should push on without him but I wasn’t keen to leave him. Miraculously, just as the truck driver was getting ready to pull out of town, I spotted a flushed red-head on a bike coming over the horizon. He had literally made it just in the knick of time! Without a moment to lose, Tobi threw his bike in the back of the truck with our packs and joined Brandon and I in the cabin with Happy and the driver.

The going was slow (especially after the rush of the motorbike) but about 3 hours after we left, we finally reached Sumbawanga. Happy kindly escorted us to a guesthouse where we dropped our bags before finding the nearest ATM so we could finally repay her. We were incredibly grateful for her assistance, not just with regards to the money but also with just generally showing us around – we were quickly discovering that not many people spoke English in this part of Tanzania and we would have been completely lost without her!

Posted by VincitVeritas 06:56 Archived in Tanzania Tagged africa tanzania motorbikes matai mtai sumbawanga Comments (0)

Is Tanzanian hospitality a victimless crime?

DAY 20 - Mpulungu, Zambia to Mbala, Zambia (and then on to the Tanzanian border)

Having given up on the idea of taking a ferry or cargo boat, the plan was to hitch a ride to Mbala and from there cross into Tanzania and make our way overland through Western Tanzania to Kigoma. Tobi and I were up early and organised but while we were ready to go, Brandon hadn’t even packed his bag let alone his tent! We’d only been together a couple of days but they had been long, long days and by this stage I was ready to be rid of Brandon. His attitude and general selfishness/superiority was getting on my nerves more and more by the minute. Tobi wasn't particularly enamoured with him either and he’d known him for less than 24 hours! So the two of us decided to strike out alone in the hope that Brandon would get left behind – I’ll admit, not a very nice thing to do but he was a big kid and 2 days ago I didn't know him from Adam, so I figured I didn’t owe him anything. However, our plans were thwarted when we had to wait around in Mpulungu for almost an hour for a minibus and by that stage Brandon had got his act together and caught up to us.

The ride to Mbala was easy enough but once we arrived it became clear that it would be difficult to arrange transport on to the border. Fortunately, we finally convinced a guy with a pickup truck to take us there for about 20,000kw. The road from Mbala was as rough and slow as the one from Nakonde but we finally reached the border by early afternoon. For some reason though, there were no immigration officers on the Zambian side. In fact the road access across the border was blocked by a large locked gate. Some villagers saw us knocking on the door to the immigration office and came over to tell us that the officers had all gone to Mbala for the day. Unperturbed, we paid for our transport - the driver tried to tell us that he actually wanted 200,000Kw (!!), but we weren’t having any of it - and set off for Tanzania on foot.

There was no-one waiting on the Tanzanian side of the border either – which should give you an indication about how infrequently this border is used! Some local boys ran to fetch the immigration officer who was somewhere in the local village that sat next to the border. We presented our unstamped passports and things appeared to be going smoothly, although the immigration officer charged us US$30 instead of the US$20 it should have cost us for a 7-day transit visa – I would soon discover that skimming a little extra off the top for yourself is pretty standard practice at these remote borders. We weren't going to make a fuss about the $10 because we didn't want any trouble about our lack of Zambian stamps.

However, when the officer wanted Brandon to pay an additional $50 for some bogus reason, Brandon started protesting and it was at that point that the he noticed that none of us had exit stamps. He herded the three of us into his office and sat down opposite us with a very serious look on his face. I began my discretion speech again (the one I had used to get from Malawi back into Zambia) and even tried pulling on his heartstrings by telling him about how much we had gone through to get here but he just sat opposite us in silence. It was clear that he was waiting for one of us to offer him some money but when what seemed like hours of silence had passed and none of us had spoken up he finally relented. Brandon had to pay the extra $50 but he would overlook the lack of exit stamp issue.

Unfortunately though, the fun was far from over. Relieved to be legally in Tanzania but keen to push on as soon as possible, we asked our new friend the immigration officer about onward transport but he just laughed at us. When we explained our predicament with the ferry to him and that we were now hoping to make it overland to Kigoma, he just looked at us in disbelief. Apparently he had never seen any tourists come through here without there own transport before, but he told us he would see what he could do.

Realising that we were not going anywhere today, we set about finding some food and accommodation. Luckily, there was a simple guest house in the town and the owner agreed to cook us some beans and rice. As we sat in the shade eating our meal, the immigration officer returned and told us that he had arranged for a couple of locals with motorbikes to take us to Matai (the nearest town with onward transport) tomorrow morning… for a small fee of course.

The immigration officer ordered a beer from the guesthouse owner and sat down with us while we ate. He asked us if he should order one for us and when we declined he asked us why we weren’t drinking. We explained to him that we had very little money because there had been no ATM in Mpulungu and the visas had been more expensive than we anticipated – just as a nice little jab to make him feel bad! I guess it worked because he called the owner back and bought us all a round of beers.

The immigration officer’s friend with the motorbikes soon joined us and we negotiated a price for the trip to Matai. He initially wanted $100 but we told him we didn’t have anything like that kind of money (I sure wasn’t going to tell him about the US$100 I had stuffed in my pack for emergencies!) so in the end he settled for all the Zambian Kwacha we had between us (which amounted to around $25) and Brandon’s pair of sandals.

The catch in all this was that we now had no money to pay for our accommodation but the immigration officer said he would take care of this for us and even bought us another round of beers. However, as the saying goes “there is no such thing as a free lunch” and we quickly realised that we had another price to pay for the immigration officers hospitality. It was clear that the officer didn’t see get many tourists passing through his border post and even fewer that stayed the night – he told us he was lucky to see two or three a month. Moreover, it was obvious that he was an educated man that had grown up in the city but been sent to this isolated outpost in the middle of nowhere and was starved for interesting conversation. So he was determined to take advantage of having a couple of mzungus around to talk to and we found ourselves compelled (because of his generosity) to sit around chatting and entertaining him for most of the evening. Brandon and I were still exhausted from our marathon trip the day before but we forced ourselves to stay awake and talk to the officer and he actually turned out to be a good guy. Sure he had tried to rip us off at the border but to be fair, you can’t really blame him for being opportunistic!

Apologies for the generalization but this is something I learned during my travels. Most Africans see white people as rich, which most of us are by way of comparison. They don’t understand or appreciate that we may be trying to keep to a budget or cannot afford to give money away unnecessarily. They figure we have the money to spare so why not try and get a little of it. The closest analogy I can draw is that of the way we look at getting over on a large faceless corporation. To us it is a victimless crime so we tend not to feel too bad about buying a bootleg dvd or the like. These people in Africa that try and overcharge us for something aren’t necessarily bad or conniving people they are just mostly poor and desperate and not concerned with issues of pride like most of us in the western world are. The reality is that they see very few circumstances where they have power over a white person and when they find themselves in such a position (such as an immigration officer, policeman, a woman in the market or even a local farmer with a motorbike) they try and make the most of it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like to be taken for a ride but then again, who am I to judge? Who knows? Maybe I would be doing the exact same thing if I was in there shoes.

Posted by VincitVeritas 14:30 Archived in Tanzania Tagged tanzania zambia border_crossing mpulungu mbala Comments (0)

What do you mean there is no ferry this week??

DAY 19 - Mpulungu, Zambia

Apparently at some stage during the night the suspension on the truck had cracked. No one had noticed because to be honest it wasn’t doing a very good job in the first place. I guess with all the to-ing and fro-ing through the night, we had all just put it down to the poor quality of the road but when we finally hit some tarmac (on the outskirts of Mpulungu), the damage to the truck became more apparent. We managed to limp to a ‘mechanic’ about 2kms from the port, where the seriousness of the broken suspension was discovered.

It was now after 9am and it became clear that the truck would not be going much further any time soon. So Brandon and I collected our packs and jumped down from the back of the trucks. There was a crowd of people around us (apparently marveling at the crazy mzungus) which made it all the more embarrassing when I ended up on my arse because my legs gave way underneath me as I jumped down. I put the fall down to having sealegs from all the swaying back and forth and spending 7 hrs doing the equivalent of lunges/squats to keep my balance. We didn't have much time to loose though, so I dusted myself off, picked up my pack and tried to put the locals laughter out of my mind as Brandon and I made our way down the hill towards the port. The ferry was scheduled to leave at 12pm and we weren’t sure how long it would take to get through immigration so we pushed the pace despite the heat and wait of our packs.

However, in true African style there was no ferry waiting for us. As it turns out, our epic, dangerous, through the night trip had all been unnecessary. The MV Liemba was currently being used to transport refugees from Congo across to Kigoma and Burundi and wouldn’t be here until next Friday… maybe. Needless to say, Brandon and I were both completely crestfallen! After enduring so much, this is just what we didn’t want to hear.

As we discussed our options a German bloke on a bicycle by the name of Tobi arrived. He told us that he had also initially wanted to take the ferry but since finding out it wasn’t coming had been asking around about cargo boats that might be heading north. Apparently there was a cargo boat headed to Burundi that was leaving shortly. We asked the customs officer who confirmed that it was definitely leaving tomorrow. Tobi seemed skeptical and also the price ($70 each to sleep on the deck) was pretty steep. We looked into it a little further, asking a few other people and got nothing but conflicting information – some said it would sail tomorrow, some said the day after and a couple even suggested that it wouldn’t be leaving before Tuesday! The whole thing was quickly turning into a farce so in the end we gave up on trying to find transport that day.

Tobi showed us the way to a nice hostel and we just spent the rest of the afternoon recovering from our journey the day before. I had a much needed shower, did some even more needed laundry and ate an early dinner before crashing out on my bunk and falling into a blissful sleep.

As a side note: Brandon was really starting to get on my nerves. He was constantly asking stupid questions, giving everyone attitude and just generally being obnoxious. At the time I thought that maybe I was just over-tired (I had barely slept in 60 hours) but the more time we spent together as our travels wore on, the more he got on got under my skin and the more offensive I found him.

Posted by VincitVeritas 11:08 Archived in Zambia Tagged zambia mpulungu mv_liemba Comments (0)

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