Southern Tanzania

'The inaccessible south coast receives very few visitors because (it) is so isolated and... very difficult to get to. The main coastal road to the south of Dar es Salaam... detiorates to a very simple track that requires a 4x4 and is totally impassable in the rains.' -
Footprint Guide

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Entering Tanzania
Crossing a border never fails to excite me, and I recognised that familiar sensation on entering this new country. How different is it here? The border post near the Rovuma River is a quiet one, accustomed mainly to local traffic, (such as the owner of the pick-up on which I had travelled that morning. He was visiting Mtwara, Tanzania’s main town in the south of the country, to buy a spare part for his vehicle - closer, and cheaper, for him than the rest of Mozambique). How comforting to hear English spoken as an official language after stumbling through Portuguese for the past month.

The Customs officer requested a $20 “foreign vehicle registration tax”, which I politely declined to consider, and a $5 road tax which I managed to pay, and for which he carefully wrote out a lengthy A4 sized official Customs receipt. After diligently inspecting the bike, checking the engine number from the registration papers, he then pointed to my bags. He didn't really want me to unload it all, so it was sufficient for me to list what was inside each one.

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And off I trundled into southern Tanzania, the forty odd kms towards Mtwara. The vegetation was now very tropical, a continuous stretch of coconut palms bordered the the sandy road. I needed to eat something and stopped at a pretty village set in the palms and bought a fresh young coconut which was expertly topped for me. After drinking down the milk - more a slightly flavoured water - the coconut was split and I scraped away at the soft flesh inside. A satisfying snack for 10c! Of course my arrival, stopping and eating was the centre of attention. Through the crowd I was approached by a young man in his twenties, the only person in the village who spoke some English, who welcomed me and translated any transactions. I gave him a few coins for his help.

The Dublin - Mtwara Connection
The afternoon was spent in the large town of Mtwara looking after a few messages - getting some Tanzanian cash, buying credit for my phone (the SIM card is actually free!), and looking for insurance for the bike. At the insurance broker's office, the Indian proprietor, a lady in her forties, came out to greet me. “You’re from Ireland? Congratulations”, she beamed delightedly, shaking my hand, the first time I’d been congratulated on my nationality! She was the chairwoman of the Legion of Mary in the Mtwara diocese, and received emails every week from an address in Francis St in Dublin. This indeed was an odd encounter, in the the tropical heat of the remote south of Tanzania! I was the first Irish person she’d met. Regretfully she couldn’t help me with the insurance, at $95 the same as for a car. I decided to postpone buying it, hoping to convince any prospective police checkpoint that Dar es Salaam would be the first opportunity.

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10 Degrees South
Mikindani is a small village fifteen minutes up the coast from Mtwara, and ‘10 Degs South’ a guesthouse on the shore of the palm fringed lagoon. Owned by Martin, an Englishman here for twelve years, its run as part of his diving school ( He boasted of the reefs offshore being some of the most attractive - and untouched - in East Africa. His renovated old Swahili mansion was spotless, spacious and cool and I ended up spending three nights, even though the $15 room was above my budget. I may have been influenced by the appealing bar which drew a variety of visitors every night, and the delicious food.

Martin’s other job was as a marine biologist. “I used to be on the other side of the fence, raising conservation issues with companies like this,” he smiled. “Now I’m the Environmental Officer with Artumas, an oil exploration company.” When I asked him if he had been accused of taking the money and selling out, he responded confidently. “Let’s just say I find I can be more effective from within, than on the outside. Working with the company, I can understand their difficulties more, listening to what the technicians have to say. We work together then, which avoids conflict.”

He described an issue that was currently occupying him on the job. “I noticed there was a significant number of ghost crabs dying near our mud-pits. When we drill - its inland - we create what are known as ‘mud-pits’, basically what comes up from the earth. Although the lubricants necessary for the drilling are water based and breakdown over about three months, possibly the ghost crabs accumulate toxic levels of it.” I pictured him studying the movement of the crabs at night, scurrying about. “They’re drawn to the mud-pits as to the sea shore, you see. So I’m putting barriers around the pits.”

Martin was quite excited about the small company he worked for, which recently signed an agreement with a large exploration company to develop offshore gas finds. “They have 42,000 drillings behind them, we have three!” Why would they sign on as partners? “Well, we have a good environmental record. Governments like that. And,” he grinned, “we have been awarded a 52,000 sq km concession in northern Mozambique. Already enough gas has been discovered to power this area for the next 600 years.” He then explained how certain factors indicated there was a likelihood of oil too.

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Two characters I met at the bar the first night also worked for an exploration company, “We’re the baddies that Martin used to spend his time chasing after,” drawled the Canadian with an Irish father, Mike Leamy. He and his pal, Eric from England, were a driller and a mapper respectively. As I understood them, seismic exploration involves monitoring and measuring the vibrations, or sonic waves, from underground explosions. Different minerals, ores and of course oil have different densities, and so after a series of these explosions, an idea of underground composition can be estimated. “It’s a bit messy environmentally though”, admitted Eric.

Mike had been in Venezuela twelve years, then Santa Rosa in Bolivia. Eric, originally a sapper in the British Army, had worked eight years in the Libyan desert and was delighted to be away from there. In their forties, both were accustomed to the lifestyle, and enjoyed Tanzania (“Not Dar es Salaam though," said Eric with a grimace. "The expat life there is too isolated. I like getting out, having a beer in local bars.” “Yeah, you like the women in the local bars you mean,” Mike snorted.) As the beers went down, the laughter increased. They were like two schoolboys with the slagging and mickey taking. A phone call on Eric’s mobile from his boss, and he turned into a grown up, smoothly lying about his location. “He thinks I’m still on that project north of Dar. He wouldn't like to hear I was down here drinking with you!”

Makonde Sculpture
A Makonde sculptor, Morris, visited with a few of his pieces, grotesque grinning faces, which Martin bought for display on the wall. This man’s father was from the Makonde plateau in northern Mozambique, and like many with the craft, had moved across the border to Tanzania during the war years to make a living. Morris, now a master sculptor, was carrying on the tradition, and had a number of students in his workshop. Martin told me he had been featured in a BBC documentary on the making of clarinets for Acker Bilk. Ebony is the timber used,
pao ferro in Mozambique. The Makonde sculptors use it carefully as, though extremely hard, its also very brittle, and so wasteful to work with. Morris told me proudly of an academic from the University of East Anglia studying for a PhD who spent six months with him on the plateau learning the customs and language of the Makonde.

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I had been impressed with Martin’s command of Swahili, observing him laughing and joking with the staff very comfortably. The language of coastal East Africa though having Bantu roots, is heavily influenced by the trading Arabs, with English, Portuguese, and Hindi words also thrown in to the mix. “It’s not a difficult language to learn,” he modestly claimed. “The English were the first to write the language down, so all the spelling is phonetic, which makes it easier.” He said he speaks ‘bush Swahili’, discovering his limitations for example if visiting the university in Dar, where they have a wider vocabulary and use of the language. “But if I go to Kenya, I’m always surprised at how poor their Swahili is. English has been there too long, they’re losing it. For example the last time I was there I used the Swahili word for ‘butterfly’ and all I got was blank looks. They only knew the English word.”

He attributed this difference to the influence of the ‘father of the nation’, Julius Nyerere, who decreed Swahili as the unifying national language of Tanganyika, as the country was then known. Though English is used in Tanzania’s secondary schools, Nyerere had the English primary schoolbooks translated into Swahili and primary education is through Swahili. I read that Nyerere even translated the works of Shakespeare into Swahili himself! However much Martin admired the Tanzanians pride in their language, he reckoned the schoolchildren were being disadvantaged in not being taught through English from young (unless as in other countries the parents can afford to send them to private schools.). Some believed Kenya's superior economy is attributed in some part to English being the medium of education and the country’s administration.

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Mikindani has a history as a busy port with a distinct Arabic and Muslim influence. Now a quiet backwater, the village still displayed its heritage through the run down buildings, through the austere dress of the people, and often their facial features. It was so atmospheric to stroll around the streets, with carved doors, sculpted masonry, and wrought iron balconies. One decrepid mansion had a plaque (pictured right) stating David Livingstone had stayed here before his final excursion into the interior.

The road north along the coast varied from new tarmac to shockingly scarred and corrugated dirt road, passing through largely uninhabited bush, and offered occasional glimpses of palm fringed stretches of white sand. This part of Tanzania was infamously inaccessible, my Footprint guidebook estimating the journey time from Dar to Mtwara as “12 - 20 hours depending on the weather”. Efforts are being made to improve the road in the last year or two. Halfway up the coast towards Dar es Salaam, Kilwa island was to be my next stop.

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Kilwa Island
‘Once the pincipal settlement on the East Africam coast, Kilwa first rose to power in the 11th century, part of the Swahili civilisation which flourished with the Indian Ocean trade. Instrumental in supplying gold to Renaissance Europe, by the 14th century its fame had spread across the ancient world. Merchants, clerics and scholars travelled from the Middle East, India and Europe to see this great city for themselves.’ Antiquities Division, Govt of Tanzania

At one time rivalling Ilha de Mozambique and Zanzibar in importance on the East African coast, Kilwa’s impressive wealth came from trade - an outlet for products from the mainland such as gold, ivory and slaves. For two centuries this small island controlled the gold trade from Zimbabwe.

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Throwing my lot in with an Austrian couple to share the cost, we hired a dhow and guide for about $20. It was a memorable experience, the day’s highlight actually, sailing the half hour across from the newer village of Kilwa Masoko on the mainland, to the island. Stepping off a dhow onto a pebbled beach by a 16th century Portuguese fort (pictured above) - protected by the sea and mangrove swamps on one side and massive stone walls the other - gives some flavour of what this island might have been like. We were guided around the various ruins - a huge fortified palace with ornamental bathing pool, large audience court and commanding view out to sea; a number of mosques (the main one, pictured right with its 11th century prayer hall still intact, was at one time the largest in the southern hemisphere); water wells (below, still in use), and, my favourite, the Husuni Ndogo. A large enclosed ruin near the sea, its reckoned to have been a caravanserai - used by the many foreign merchants arriving with the trade winds. I could imagine this space crowded with colourful groups from Persia, India, Indonesia and even China, their tents pitched, food cooking, wares laid out on display.

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Kilwa Masoko
Back at Kilwa Masoko, I decided to stay another night at the cheap ($5) and clean New Mjaka Guest House. On arriving the previous day I had made my way through fifteen minutes of sand to Kilwa Dreams, a resort on a deserted, exposed beach, but turned around when I discovered it was $10 to camp, $10 for chicken and chips, and there was little protection for my tent from the wind whipping onto the shore. Other than that it looked nice. Here in town, I had a tasty meal with a fellow traveller at the ‘New Hilton Guest House’ of fresh fish, spinach, rice, beans, and a lovely rich tomato based sauce, followed by a little cocktail banana - for less than $2.

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Chris (not his real name), an Italian-American in his late twenties was just out of law school and about to start work as the legal assistant to a Supreme Court judge, which he explained entailed writing recommendations for appeals (a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’). His goal was to slip in a curse at his brother, or a humorous phrase used in college by his law buddies, thus having it written into the law of the land. Entertaining and intelligent company, it was interesting to hear the views and opinions - and refreshing to hear the irreverence - of someone about to take his place in influencing American society (though he'd probably reject that presumption).

Entering Dar es Salaam
The ride the rest of the coast to Dar es Salaam, my diary records, was a mixture of “cruisy and hard work. 1st gear for long stretches, sand, poor surface”. Another coconut stop and I found the price had gone up to 20c. (In Dar, off the back of a bicycle, it became 30c!) A new bridge over the Rufiji River meant there was no waiting for a ferry. Two police road blocks put the usual important questions to me, “How fast does the motorbike go. How much does it cost. Will you sell it to me ...”

I was a bit unprepared for entering the disorder and choking traffic of this port city, the largest in East Africa. Twenty kms before the city it started and got increasingly heavier. With only a vague acknowledgement of keeping to the left, whenever there was a gap in the opposing traffic, it would be immediately filled - by cars and minivans coming from my direction! Predictably the traffic got jammed - stuck jammed - to where it was impossible to imagine how it was going to shift. Streams of cars were stationery in every direction as far as I could see.

For the first time in ten years I was transported back to the madness of driving a truck in India - all senses on high alert, energy levels geared up, and concentration finely tuned. Too much thinking could get in the way ( 'Little Feat' on high volume in the cab through rush hour Bombay traffic was a favoured accompaniment). The attitude became more instinctive, you followed a different pattern - I suppose a more basic system. And you don’t fight it. Annoyance or frustration meant you were losing the game.

Of course being on the bike meant I wasn’t in such dire straits. I mounted mud banks, edged between trucks, was beckoned along narrow dirt paths by helpful pedestrians, crossed ditches and roadworks, and squeezed through gaps before eventually arriving in the city centre. It is always an option in a big city to pay a taxi to lead you to your destination. I hadn’t needed to do that through Africa yet, though was close to it this time. Then more through luck than anything, I found myself outside the hotel that was recommended - the Al-Urubi in the narrow streets of the hardcore Muslim quarter. Hot, sweaty and buzzing on adrenalin, I'd have murdered a cold beer...

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