Tanzania: Alpine retreat

After the dry dust bowl of the plains, our arrival in the Western Usambara Mountains feels like crossing the Looking Glass. Lush forests, terrace fields and cool mountain air . 

We spend three days in a chalet on a Swiss farm, complete with sensible wooden furniture, fireplace, pretty flower beds and black and white Swiss cows grazing in the hills above the chalet. Home baked bread and cheese from the farm complete our Swiss fantasy.

The scenery could be anywhere in the Alps (or in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands), with a few surviving German homesteads and churches dotted around the hills.

Swiss idyll in Africa
lunch at the Swiss Chalet
stranger in a strange land
refilling our water bottles on a hike

Tanzania: over the hills and far away

It is a seven hour drive from Bagamoyo to the Usambara Mountains, where we plan to spend a few days in Alpine isolation from the dust and heat of the plains.

African roads are the asphalt rivers of the continent. The lifeblood of towns and villages. People virtually live on the roadside and there is a continuous stream of activity alongside the road.

on the road
endless activity alongside the Road
Buying snacks on the way
all the necessities

Tanzania: lost empire

We drive two hours from Dar to the small town of Bagamoyo, where we spend a night.

Originally an Omani Arab settlement, it was the coastal terminus of the slave and ivory caravans from the interior in the 19th century. It also briefly was, from 1888 to 1890, the headquarters of the German East Africa Company (and as such, the colony’s de facto capital). Its brief period of fame gave birth to some spectacular buildings, including East Africa’s largest Catholic church.

the Holy Ghost mission, East Africa’s oldest cathedral
ill-fated windows at the Boma (Government House)

Emin Pasha, a German adventurer who was besieged during the Mahdist rebellion in the Sudan came to Bagamoyo after being rescued by Henry Stanley in 1890. During the celebrations in his honour, he stepped through a window which he mistook for an opening to a balcony and almost fell to his death.

fish market, and site of the old slave market

Sleepy and laid back today, it still has a faint echo of the old German imperial presence. A few run-down colonial buildings and a cemetery with 20 tombstones bearing Germanic names. Long-forgotten soldiers fallen more than a century ago fighting wars that did not matter to them.

only the ghosts of long-gone Germans are left in Bagamoyo
German war cemetery

Tanzania: lost in Dar

Dar Es Salam is not part of the tourist circuit, and we stand out as we wander the streets and markets of the city (rather aimlessly) ! But after our time in the bush, it is good to be back in a crowded city.

The Kariakoo market, East Africa’s largest, is a warren of crowded alleys and underground passages is teeming with purposeful life.

negotiating hard for DVDs
Kariakoo market – its cathedral-like basement feels like the Paris catacombs
Kariakoo spilling onto the streets

Tanzania: onto Dar Es Salam

Tanzania’s commercial capital (and capital of the ex-German East Africa – until 1918), Dar Es Salam, the Abode of Peace in Arabic, is a pleasant city, best described as “sleepy ex-colonial backwater meets vibrant African city”. 

The old colonial public buildings, “five foot way” shophouses lining the streets and stately bungalows in the suburbs would be right at home in Penang or Singapore.

Old German Lutheran church
Colonial era merchants’ offices
Legacies of old Dar
Dar Es Salam harbour

Tanzania: Mid-Autumn festival in the bush

On the 19th of September, our last night in the Selous, under a voluptuous full moon, we celebrate the traditional Chinese Mid-Autumn festival in style. 

Moon fairy rising over the Selous

On a small verandah overlooking the Rufiji river, we set up three lantern-like candles and carefully carve up into four equal parts a mooncake brought all the way from Hong Kong for that purpose. Sipping our last supply of lychee tea (that one, brought all the way from Singapore!), we gaze contentedly at the moon and wonder whether the proverbial rabbit is still up there keeping the Moon fairy company – or whether, over Africa, perhaps her friend is a bush hyrax instead of a rabbit…

mooncakes and lychee tea deep in the bush

Tanzania: on the Rufiji

The Rufiji River, is the beating heart of the Selous. A large, 600km long meandering river populated by battalions of Nile crocodiles and hippos.

on the Rufiji
stranded on a sandbank

We get off the boat onto a sandbank in the middle of the river to fish, surrounded by crocodiles – confident in the knowledge that “crocodiles won’t attack humans when they have enough fish to feed on” (according to the guide).

Lone albino hippo following our boat

Tanzania: when the planet was young

The Earth, before the spread of Man, must have looked much as the Selous does today. Beautiful, savage, unsullied, with the waltz of life and death in Nature unperturbed by Man.

The animals here are not used to Man, and are elusive. Our encounters with them are all the more special because of their rarity. But it is that primeval landscape which grows on us and progressively casts its spell on us until we feel that we are in a state of timelessness, no longer observers but part of the Land.

lone baobab standing guard over the bush
forest of ghost trees
the shadows getting longer in the Selous

Tanzania: arrival in the Selous

We fly from Zanzibar to the Selous game reserve on the mainland of Tanzania where we will spend three days in a small riverside lodge.

The Selous, Africa’s largest game reserve, at 55,000 sqkm, is almost 50 times the size of Hong Kong. Its varied landscape includes semi-arid savannah, hills, swamps, rivers and lakes, lush forests. Remote and hard to get to, the Selous does not get many visitors and the few days we spend there will give us the greatest feeling of isolation since the beginning of our trip.

Tanzania: into the wilderness

For the next seven days we will be travelling on a mobile safari with our young guide, Josh, third generation of an American missionary family settled in Tanzania. Josh is in equal parts passionate conservationist, wise Bushman and summer camp counsellor.

We will spend a few days exploring the Tarangire National Park, which hosts Africa’s biggest concentration of elephants, and will then visit with the Hadzabe, East Africa’s last tribe of hunter-gatherers located in the remote Yaeda Valley.

early dinner after a bush walk

This is a safari in the classic tradition of the Golden Age, minus the G&T, gun bearers and luxury. We carry everything we need with us for a week in two vehicles – water, fuel, food. We camp in simple tents, pitched right in the middle of the bush, take “bucket showers” and dine around the campfire, using headlamps to navigate around the camp at night. The camps we set up along the way are completely “porous” and every morning we find the trace of the animals who have wandered through during the night.

deciphering the tracks