Brave Sir Robin in Tanzania

Our cardinal rule for this trip has been no night time driving. Unfortunately there had been quite a bit of congestion at the border into Tanzania which took a big chunk out of our morning and the one place we had found to stay turned out to be to put it bluntly a shit-hole. Because of this we resigned ourselves to breaking our rule and pushed on to Mwanza, a lovely town on the shores of Lake Victoria, crossing over the lake on a ferry as night fell. I felt a bit like Brave Sir Robin as I bravely tucked the car behind a truck without any back lights that was heading in the same direction, using it as a buffer for the cows, bicycles, motorbikes, extremely dark pedestrians and the odd broken-down truck. I’m not proud of the fact that we skulked behind somebody else, letting him take all the risks, then jumping in front of the posts at the last minute to score a goal, but discretion being the better part of valour etc, we made it and thoroughly enjoyed a much deserved Kilimanjaro beer, justified by the fact that we had selflessly lent him our back lights, or so we thought.

After the long drive the day before we didn’t enjoy being woken up at dawn by a bunch of people setting up a marquee next to us for a wedding later on, and then staring as we climbed down the ladder of our tent to get on with our unexpected early start to the day. My sarcastic “Can I help you?” to the Chief Starer was lost when he said “No thank you, I’m just resting” and then thought we were best friends because I had offered to help carry whatever it was he was carrying even though I had just climbed out of bed and was wearing only my old boxer shorts that have lost their elastic and were threatening what is known in the fashion business as a wardrobe malfunction.

On the way to the Serengeti we earned some game-viewing karma when we stopped to help some guys with a flat tyre, lending them our spare to get to the next town. With guaranteed sightings of lions, cheetahs, leopards etc, we had high hopes for the park, arriving before the gates opened the next morning at 6 to wring out every possible expensive minute of game viewing.

Along with all the usual game, we saw two lions without having to share them with the hordes of other tourists, and as we headed to the place we were going to camp that night we saw three cheetahs, which just about pays off the karma debt we were owed. We stayed in one of the public campsites, parking a bit away from the one other group of people there, lit our fire, ate our supper, and drank our beer, listening to the hyenas and the odd roar of some lions in the distance. Jules, being a city girl, started to get a bit nervous, worried about the hyenas and lions – “Nonsense – they’re scared of fire, and the lions are miles away”. To placate her I put out the fire, casually listened to the satisfying sizzle as I spat my toothpaste onto the dying embers and then slowly climbed up into the tent with the spotlight, hoping to maybe see a hyena or zebra in the night, from the safety of the tent.

About 2 minutes after Jules and I had set our alarm for an early game drive the next day and said our goodnights we were rudely disturbed by a car driving up to ours. They told us we had some visitors, and walking through their headlights, right next to the fireplace where we had been sitting moments before was a pride of about twenty lions. They then sat down near the car for about ten minutes, completely ignoring us before moving on into the night.

The next morning we woke up as it was getting light and Jules started climbing out of the tent to go and do her business, except she couldn’t – the lions were back, about ten metres from the car. Game drive aborted, we spent the next two hours lying with our heads poking out of the tent watching them. A lioness decided we were quite interesting and came to have a closer look, staring straight into our eyes as we lay there. Had I been on the ground I think Brave Sir Robin would have bravely run away, but in the tent all Jules and I could do was bravely slide to the back of the tent and peek through the mosquito netting of our window at her, willing her to go away, and wishing we were brave / stupid enough to take some proper photos. I bravely took out my Leatherman in case I wanted to tickle her in self-defence, and Jules bravely readied her own weapon in case the lioness wanted to have a pillow fight. Eventually she lost interest in us, or was concerned that we might have soiled ourselves and it would taint the taste of her breakfast, and moved on. The lions gradually moved a bit away, leaving the cubs behind a tree near the car. I took the opportunity to get into the car and drove up to the ablution block with Jules on the roof to pack up a bit further away from them. The other couple who were staying in the campsite had missed the whole thing as they had left in the dark to go on a hot air balloon ride, probably climbing out of their tent and walking around brushing teeth right next to the pride. The best part was that once the lions had all moved on, word got out that they had been at the camp and all the cars in the park came to watch us pack away our tent as we smugly told them all what they had missed.

The rest of the day was pretty bland in comparison. We had two cheetahs walk right past the car, saw a leopard in a tree, casually drove past a bunch of people all trying to catch a glimpse of a lion near the road and then ended it off with another two cheetahs. Karma with interest – except now we are in karma’s debt.

A lot of roads in East Africa have been built by the Chinese in their on-going conquest of Africa and her resources. These are generally tarmac with few potholes. For some reason they aren’t interested in the Serengeti, leaving the road maintenance to another group of people from their part of the world – the Corrug Asians. These guys haven’t the foggiest idea when it comes to building and maintaining roads. The only explanation I can think of is that the guy in charge of the Serengeti has wisely invested his money in tyre and shock absorber companies around Tanzania. As payback for our spectacular cats, karma enlisted the help of the Serengeti’s roads, breaking an egg, a long-life milk, and rupturing a beer can, leaving us with a fridge resembling a kitchen after a young child has helpfully decided to make pancakes for father’s day. We were also treated to a broken milk carton in our food box, which has made us decide to move over to a thing of unspeakable horror – powdered milk. Speaking of things of unspeakable horror, we are no longer the butter snobs we were in London and are now using a product called “Blue Band Medium Fat Spread”. Although not mentioned in the ingredients, it appears to have been made from yellow Lego brick rejects and wax crayons that have been made into a paste that does not melt when left in direct sunlight. Ingredients that are mentioned include “Artificial Creamy Flavours”. For our second purchase of Blue Band we have healthily gone for “Blue Band Light” – less fat, same “Artificial Creamy Flavours”.

After the lions, Karma decided that we still owed a bit, and when we left the Serengeti we discovered that we now had to pay to go through the Ngorogoro Conservation area, even though we weren’t going into the crater. I don’t know how we missed this vital piece of information – I guess the same way when I leave my house to go to the shops I don’t expect to go through my neighbour’s house – but we got hit with a $200 transit fee to drive 1.5 hours through a pretty landscape that is used by the Masai as grazing land for their cattle. Maybe I don’t have a good enough grasp of the English language, but the only word I can think of to describe this is extortion and a story about a big gruff goat that knocked a troll off a bridge springs to mind. If I know karma – and I do now – these guys have some tough times ahead of them.

After the high of the Serengeti and budget annihilating low of Ngorogoro we headed on to Arusha, which lies at the foot of Mount Meru to stock up on supplies and try and find a butcher we had been told about who makes biltong. We got the car serviced and then continued on our way to have a look at Kilimanjaro, staying at a great campsite called Coffee Tree Camp in Marangu. From there we drove to the Usambara mountains to stay at the campsite Ellin’s parents (from Ellin and Chris who we drove with down Turkana) run, Irente Biodiversity Lodge. Along the way we were stopped by our first Tanzanian policeman. “Hello, I want money, give me money.” At the campsite we met two other couples, two South Africans on their way up to Kenya, and a Dutch couple with a three year old daughter, also on their way up north. We went for a 17km walk around the mountain and through a forest. We had been told there were chameleons, but we only saw three. The Dutch couple took turns to carry their daughter on their backs in a special backpack. Our guide told us that as a child his mother had always told him to stay away from Mazungus because they would put him in a bag on their back and take them away. This was conclusive proof of the story, so as we walked we were watched by nervous children hiding in the bushes around us.

Having climbed Kilimanjaro, people often head to the Tanzanian coast to recuperate. After our 17km hike through the mountains us climbers felt we should do the same. We stayed at a brilliant campsite called Peponi, near a place called Pangani, soaking up the sun’s rays, swimming in a sea the temperature of bath water, eating pizzas, cooking prawns and freshly caught fish, and generally recovering from all the stresses life wants to throw at us.
On our way from the coast we were stopped by another policeman who asked us where we were coming from. We told him and he asked if we had any gifts from Pangani. Unfortunately nobody gave us a gift in Pangani – I feel quite disappointed.

We headed back inland, driving on a main road through a game reserve. A sign said that free game viewing and photography was strictly prohibited and another one gave us a list of the fines for running over and killing animals – $4,900 for a lion and an elephant is a whopping $15,000. For that price I would expect to at least get a new umbrella stand and two oversized toothpicks.

The speed limit in the towns in Tanzania is 50km/h. The speed outside the towns is still an unknown because when we asked a policeman what the limit was he said “This is Tanzania, you can go any speedie”. Excuse me while a cough up a “Bullshit”. In one of the towns we were stopped by a police lady who just wanted to show us that her radar gun had us at 49km/h and “Today you are the winners”. There are more cops here than I think in any country, and they’ve all been given little printing presses in the form of a radar gun that literally prints out money for them.

Like somebody who has won the lottery and then goes out the next weekend to buy another ticket, we went to the Ruaha game reserve, playing the charade of stopping for the first zebra and impala we saw. It is far cheaper than the other Tanzanian game reserves and incredible Serengeti lion experience aside, I would say the best park we have been to on this trip. It also didn’t disappoint us in the “Big Cats” department, as we were lucky to see two prides, one with three large Males which had caught a buffalo the night before and were in the process of devouring it. At one point one of the lions got a bit tired of eating in the sun and dragged the carcass into the shade as if it were a rag doll. Without trying to gloat (much) we have seen over 40 lions so far this trip.

We are now in Malawi having managed to drive through the whole of Tanzania without paying one fine – possibly a first in overlanding circles, especially as it turned out that the back lights we were helping the truck out with when we were driving at night weren’t working and we kept popping fuses for our indicators and brake lights because of a broken wire, so although we didn’t go over the speed limit once, it should have just been a matter of time before we helped a Tanzanian policeman buy some Christmas presents for his kids.