Tanzania: the long march (part 1)

On Sept 29th, we leave for Arusha National Park to begin the ascent of Mount Meru. At 4,566m (14,978ft), it isn’t the tallest mountain in Africa (that title goes to Mt. Kilimanjaro at 5,895m) but it is one of the most challenging, and reportedly steeper than Kili.  By the time we get our briefing, we realize that we are woefully unprepared and have approached the whole affair in an amateurish manner.

woefully unprepared…choosing our equipment for the climb

The conditions on the summit of Mount Meru are extreme, with temperatures  close to zero, the last few hundred meters require one to climb on all fours and the return trip to the summit covers almost 80km. We will spend four nights in mountain huts with minimal facilities, no showers and no heating.  We have an expedition of 14 support staff, including a Head Guide, an armed Ranger, a Cook and 11 porters to bring up everything we need for the four day hike.

not sure I’m going up there…

We spend our first couple of days hiking through beautiful montane forests…Gnarly old trees, Old Man’s Beard, the odd Alpine flower… Where Kenya’s Chyulu Hills felt like Fangorn Forest, Mount Meru’s forest is Lothlorien. Magical, bright, one almost expects to see Elves darting between the trees.


Tanzania: bush birthday

Finally, it is time to leave our Alpine paradise and return to the hot and dusty Maasai plain.  The seven hour drive to Ndarakwai, a camp on a Maasai ranch in the West Kilimanjaro region, gets us there just in time for a surprise birthday celebration for Enoch.

birthday in the bush
with the staff at Ndarakwai

Bush babies pop out of the bush to join the party and a surprise cake and celebration leave Enoch beaming and looking as impish as a leprechaun.

bush baby joins in

Taking advantage of their good WiFi, our time at Ndarakwai is otherwise entirely focused on filling out the boys’s school applications in anticipation of our return to Singapore, a year from now. It feels quite unreal to write school application essays when that part of our life now seems so remote.

Tanzania: lost world

Still in the Usambaras, we drive three hours to the remote town of Mtae, a small settlement on a mountain bluff which juts out over the Maasai plain, 1000 metres below.

The road seems to go on forever, our journey only interrupted by the small school children who dart on and off the road like will-o-wisps, materializing seemingly out of thin air, just long enough to yell, “jambo, wazungu !”.

a school on the way to Mtae
Mtae, the village on the edge of the world

At the end of a long, winding road, Mtae has an almost otherworldly feel to it. With a few houses scattered around dusty roads, shrouded in clouds, preternaturally quiet, it seems to exist in another dimension.

the children at the end of the world

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