Having the opportunity to spend two nights in a fully legit hotel in Tanzania was a unique experience for me as prior to this the only nights spent away from FAME were either in the tented camps (which, by way of reference, are quite luxurious and beyond “glamping”) or a single night while on the road. Lounging the day before here at the Keys Hotel forced me to remember what it was like to simply enjoy myself with no schedule to keep and only my thoughts. I can’t recall having done anything similar in some time, or perhaps ever.
I awakened early and headed downstairs to enjoy some of the wonderful Kilimanjaro coffee and order some breakfast while waiting for Leonard, Pendo and Lenox to join me at some point as it wasn’t entirely clear to me when the others would be arriving from Arusha to begin our journey to the coast. Jones, who is Leonard’s brother, and Simon, a longtime friend, would be driving into town at some point with Simon’s Land Rover that we were taking on sort of a test drive as it had been newly rebuilt. Why we would be taking a six hour “test drive” was a bit beyond me, but I had learned long ago to put my trust in these friends and it had served me well so far. Jones would be driving Pendo’s car so that she could drive back to Arusha with Lenox and we would leave Turtle at the Keys Hotel, where they would keep a close eye on it for us until we returned.
Lenox looked surprisingly well in the morning having just had his tonsillectomy a little over 24 hours earlier and managed to drink some fruit juice for breakfast while the rest of us enjoyed fresh fruit, French Toast and eggs cooked to order. I’ll have to admit that I felt a bit guilty enjoying such good food in front of Lenox, but by no means guilty enough to skip the meal. The day was once again spectacularly clear and bright and the air quite crisp and almost cool until near noon time. We hadn’t heard from Simon and Jones, but knew they would be arriving sometime mid-morning. When they finally did show up it was almost noon and with the time it took to get everything checked out and loaded, it was well after lunch before we were finally on the road. The traffic heading east out of Moshi was heavy given the single lane on either side of the only highway heading in the direction of Dar es Salaam, but we managed to make it to the outskirts of town in a decent time and begin our trek to the shore.
The road out of Moshi heads near due east towards the Kenya border until you reach the junction of the B1 highway that then travels south along several incredible mountain ranges prior to once again heading east towards the shore. The road is reasonably paved, heading through numerous small towns along the way where the speed limit drops to 50 kph (31 mph) and it’s important to closely as there are traffic police who would like nothing more than to ticket you as I have proven numerous times in the past. Our speed out of the towns is typically in the 80-100 kph range (50-62 mph!) which means that driving these very long distances feels like your traveling at a snail’s pace at times.
The highway we’re traveling skirts along immediately to the west of the North and South Pare mountain ranges with the Kenyan border just on the other side of them. The geography here is very flat other than the mountains and reminds me of the drive from LA to Las Vegas with it’s beautiful vistas and incredibly long stretches of long flat terrain. That highway in the southwest, though, had always been known for its insane speed limit which was essentially “safe and prudent,” which more simply meant there was none. It was the stuff of legend and where car enthusiasts first went with their newly purchased Corvettes and Porsches to “see what they could do.” We had no such luck in our classic Land Rover defender and were relegated to a meager 60 mph, unless, of course, we were traveling through a town when it was only half as fast, for the incredibly long stretches of highway. Thankfully, it was all new to me and I was now getting my change to take in this part of the country that I had long hoped to do. For those who know me and my passion for wanderlust and the open road, it was heaven for me just to be cruising across east Africa in a Land Rover and the many hours in the car was a small price to pay for another incredible journey that has become such a part of my life here.
We were heading into a region of Tanzania that is known for growing sisal and its massive plantations that stretch for as far as the eye can see. It is used primarily for making rope and baskets and it was hard for me to imagine how anyone could use all the sisal growing here for it stretched for miles and miles and many hours of our drive. The plants are a member of the agave family, best known to us for tequila, though these plants are only used for their fibrous leaves and the strands of sisal that go into making the ropes and baskets seen throughout the country in the markets, industry and in people’s homes. From the moment we made the turn onto Highway B1, the sisal plants became our closest friends and remained with us for the rest of the day until we reached the shore. Rows and rows of sisal plants fanning out to the horizon dominated the countryside and were broken up only by the small towns that housed the families who supplied the work force needed for such an industry.
The North and South Pare mountains to our left were absolutely spectacular ranges as their peaks sought the sky and small pockets of level ground within them contained tiny enclaves of houses that formed hamlets high on the mountain tops where only foot trails or an occasional small road dared to reach. But these mountains were only an introduction to the mighty Usumbara ranges that were still to the south and would soon be upon us. Before the Usumbara, though, we needed sustenance and as my stomach began to growl, for breakfast had been hours before, we somewhat miraculously came upon two rest stops that could have been right out of the Northeast corridor and I-95. I had never seen one here in Tanzania, but admittedly, this was first experience on one of the country’s long stretches of highway that sits between major centers of the population. These rest stops were here to service the routine travel by bus of the majority of individuals who make this trek and are run by the larger of these bus companies. There were several counters for various types of food, but I followed Simon and Jones to a buffet where woman doled out helpings of rice, Chagga stew (bananas and meat), roasted chicken and various vegetables. You pay by the plate and Leonard had gone to buy our tickets for the food while we headed to some outside tables where large speakers blared out music broken only by the occasional announcement of one of the buses leaving for its destination.
Happy to have had lunch for I had no idea when or where our next meal was to come from, nor for that matter how far we had to travel to reach our final destination for the day, we loaded back into the Land Rover and were on our way again, now heading a bit more southeast in direction as the shore lay directly to the east. As we passed close along the edge of the Usumbaras it was easy to see why they were such a popular attraction for outdoor activities such as camping and climbing. They appeared quite unique with large undulating cliff faces and numerous flat areas on top that once again housed small villages that were easily visible to the naked eye and had to be truly miraculous places to live with their expansive views of the land below. There are roads that lead into the mountains and, quite likely, to the villages on top and I thought how amazing it would be to one day return here to further explore the area.
We passed through the larger town of Korogwe and, several kilometers further, reached an intersection where, had we planned to head to Dar es Salaam, would have continued further south, but instead turned to the northeast toward the city of Tanga and the coast. Tanga is one of the larger cities in the country and is primarily an industrial town that was headquarters for much of the shipping during the German colonial period for the country. Up to this point, I will have to admit, I had absolutely no idea of where we were heading or what our actual plans were for the next several days. All that I had known was that we were heading for the coast and “Tanga,” but that is both the name of the town and the region here, and I wasn’t even sure where we would be spending the night. I Tanzania, I have never asked too many questions regarding plans when traveling with Leonard as I have never needed too. As the person who has typically made all the travel plans in our family (which, by the way, I had always chosen to do and no one else), it seemed to be a welcome rest from those duties and, besides, he knew tremendously more than I did about the country and seemed to know exactly what I’d enjoy in the process.
After entering the town of Muheza and stopping to refuel, we left the tarmac and headed east along what was about a 40 km “shortcut” to the shore. At this point, since we were diverting from what I had thought was our destination, the city of Tanga, I chose to ask exactly where we were heading for I was still studying the maps in the remaining daylight that existed. It was easy to see on the map that this road led to the town of Pangani that was at the mouth of the river by the same name as it entered the Indian Ocean. The shortcut was entertaining enough as Simon drove like a banshee, hoping to get to Pangani before sunset, and was little deterred by the Land Cruiser that seemed to manage staying just ahead of us on the road and kicking up loads of dust. It was clear that the passenger in the Land Cruiser was a nun and each time we pulled up close to the vehicle with the intention of passing it (mind you, this was a narrow dirt road with nary the space for the two vehicles side by side), they would spurt ahead clearly not wishing us to pass. There was something less literal about this process and at times seemed like there was divine intervention, but thankfully, their destination was only about half way and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief as they pulled into one of the larger parochial schools that sit here quite isolated and remote.
We eventually came to the crest of our route and far in the distance was the Indian Ocean. It was bluer than blue and gorgeous to behold after having spent years in the country without seeing it except for in air while traveling through Zanzibar or Dar es Salaam as merely a short layover on my way to and from Doha. We began our descent to the shore and reached it soon after, intersecting the coast road (also dirt) just north of Pangani. As we drove into town around sunset, there plenty of souls on the street who were either coming or going and, as we turned a corner, I could see a ferry stop sitting in the distance. I love ferries and had no idea that we’d be on one to get to our destination, so it was certainly a pleasant surprise for me and, as we pulled up the gate the ferry was there and being loaded so it was perfect timing. Though it was a short distance across the river, it was still exciting for me and, as the sun was slowly setting up river to the west, it made it quite a scene. As Simon drove the Rover onto the ferry, the rest of us walked on, for only the driver can remain in the vehicle for safety reasons, and we sat along with all the other passengers as the ambient light very quickly drifted to dark as it does here close to the equator.
Arriving on the far side of the river, we all climbed back into the Rover to continue our journey to exactly where, I wasn’t quite certain, but it was becoming more and more evident that we would not be staying with family for I knew of none that lived in this region. It became quickly very dark as we left the ferry landing and all that was visible to me was what I could see directly in front of us, illuminated by our headlights, as we traveled at a rather high rate of speed initially along a somewhat wide dirt road, but it quickly turned into a path wide enough only for a single vehicle with dense vegetation and trees occupying either side. We traveled in this fashion for perhaps half an hour, making various turns that I would have hard pressed to recreate if had ever needed to return on my own.
Eventually, we happened upon some signs at a fork in the road that seemed to be important for we exited the vehicle to be certain of which direction we needed to head. Thankfully, the others knew exactly where we needed to go as I had absolutely no idea where we were, and soon we were pulling into a small village crowded with townspeople along a short and very narrow road with structures lining both sides of it tightly. I could see in our headlights that the roofs were thatched and the low eaves seemed to leave little clearance for us to drive under given the narrowness of the roadway. As we passed through and seemingly reached the end of the road, both literally and figuratively, we pulled up to a shack that was marked “reception” We were greeted by our host who helped us with our bags and showed us to our rooms, though in the complete darkness, it was very difficult to tell anything about where I was. It was clear that we were on the beach for the small waves crashing a short distance away were telltale sign as was the sand we walking on. My room was a small banda, or little hut, that had its own bathroom and shower in the back, though I was told no hot water in my hut which was just fine with me.
We were then let to a small structure with a thatched roof that was otherwise open to the night air and served as the bar and restaurant with several tables for us to sit at and eat. In short order, we were served an incredibly delicious grilled fish dinner with rice and vegies and, as we ate, I watched the thousands of crabs who came out each night and were scurrying along the wet sand by the water’s edge. I had no idea where we were nor what it looked like, but somehow, I knew that we were in paradise and, the following morning, I was to discover just how right I was.