After my fabulous experiences, often alone, backpacking through northern and eastern Africa during the 1970s I was ecstatic, in 2003, to travel for the first time with my son, Alexander to Tanzania. He and two friends, plus a friend of mine headed out to Tanzania, not just for a safari but a true African adventure!
I had planned the route myself and found a Tanzanian tour operator via the internet who was prepared to tailor the trip to my exact requirements. Not so many were interested in this trip as it, in those days, lay off the beaten track. Today there is a new tarmacadam road serving the entire coastline down to Lindi in the south but in 2003 it was a dry dust track that had been formed by trucks and buses that had crawled through at a snail’s pace in past rainy seasons, making the whole length of the road one roller coaster!
My aim was twofold: as a great admirer of Makonde wooden sculptures, that I had collected since the seventies, I wanted to meet these people in their homelands: the Makonde Plateau, which runs flat about 800 meters above sea level along the southeastern borders of Tanzania, dipping down into the Ruvuma valley, which serves as the border to Mozambique and rising up again onto the plateau lands in the north of that country. Yes, the Makonde tribe is one of those folks that were separated by arbitrary, colonial border lines.
What was Tanganyika later joined Zanzibar, in 1964, to become the Republic of Tanzania and the home of the most northern dwellings of the Makonde people. This would be a tour to the deepest of southern Tanzania, just to experience the life and culture of these people – and then onwards, to safari in Selous Game Reserve which, the size of Switzerland, lies just to the north of the Makonde Plateau.
We began our tour in Dar Es Salaam. On our first evening, Kanuth met us in our hotel and we took out the maps to discuss the trip face to face, although we both knew exactly where we were heading – and how strenuous it was then, in the days without a road! The next morning we were picked up early and headed south driving, after some time, over the new bridge across the Great Rufiji River before starting the long haul on what started out to be a good, wide dirt track. Baboons and monkeys frequently ran alongside us as we got to the rougher stretches of road, driving through flat savanna decorated with very high palm trees and deciduous woods. Towards evening as it was just getting dark, a serval cat ran across the road in our path – only the alert get to see this!
It was a long haul and we were pleased to rest in a bar close to our hotel in the small coastal resort of Kilwa. The next morning took us further south, through Baobab forests and hilly regions some thirty kilometres from the sea. The road slowed us down to a crawl at times as we negotiated huge waves of red sandy earth that the trucks had shaped for us over time. Refreshments were taken in some friendly villages and we pressed on to Lindi hoping to get to the large village of Mtama just below the Makonde Plateau that evening. Not even a Landrover could withstand the road as it was when – we spent an unscheduled four hours in Lindi whilst the suspension was fixed. We would not have swapped these four hours for anything. Lindi is definitely worth an afternoon and overnight stay – the new road will give you more time in any case! Lindi is a colourful market town directly on the coast. We walked along the palm strewn beach, into town and through the fruit, vegetable and spice market. Around town, we talked to countless friendly people. My son and I had split up from the others for an hour or so and as we wandered through a residential area we came across a school fete for locals, into which we were immediately invited. A group of teenage girls wearing white tee shirts and traditional long skirts were singing beautifully in Swahili to a traditional drum band backing – and dancing too, enacting their songs. Later we discovered that they had written their own lyrics to traditional songs and were singing the virtues of safer sex to avoid HIV. It was a wonderful, musical experience, one of those magic moments in life when you think that good will always reign over evil.
It was late at night when we arrived in Mtama at the foot of the plateau. We checked into a local hostel and went straight out for a late supper. The large village spreads along the main road – this part was a made road even then – so we walked along that road for a kilometre or so in the light of a glorious full moon and could see silhouettes of beautiful, tall palm trees and deciduous trees scattered around the flat, cultivated fields below the plateau.
The next day the landrover pulled hard up the steep slopes of dusty red earth and finally climbed onto the plateau where we drove through tiny villages, like hamlets, scattered once every four or five kilometres. In one larger village, we saw a school so we pulled into the square of the earth in front of it. Before we came to a halt we were surrounded by kids in school uniform, they had all run out of their classrooms to greet us. It is rare that they get foreign visitors. The school director was not amused as we took his pupils unwillingly out of class but his demeanour soon changed as we handed him a stack of exercise books and biros – a rare commodity in these remote parts. Newala, the closest town is a good fifty kilometres away.
A few villages later we stopped again. This time there was no school and it was adults that rushed out to greet us. The one English speaking man there welcomed us to his village Nahukahuka and invited us to meet the village chairman in his hut. They showed us all around the village and explained how they lived with their three major problems. Water shortage meant that the women carried urns on their heads the five hundred meters down the escarpment into a valley where a small river supplied them. Sometimes several times a day they would do this, back and forth. There was no medicine: the nearest chemist was in Newala. Their last problem was that the English speaking man was the teacher, but he had no school. They explained these problems so that we understood how they lived not because they wanted something from us. They took us on a tour of their village and their fields, showed us their huts and how the women ground cereals and asked us to sign a book that the chairman had in his hut- because we were the first white people ever to stop in their village! This was not just an adventure it was an honour!
By the end of our day on the Makonde Plateau (and I wish it had been more) we had only met one man who sculptured artefacts – all of the artists have moved out to towns and cities over the whole of East Africa from where they can sell to tourists and send money home to their families. Yet the artistic side of their culture was not so important for our visit – it started out that way, but we lived their culture for a day and we left them with something far greater than a souvenir, we left with a great deal of respect and fondness of these people who live a hard life with dignity and love.
Another night at Mtama and we took the long road back towards Dar but with the intention of turning due west as we got to the Rufiji River. We spent three fabulous days and nights in the northern part of the Selous Game Reserve based in a campsite in one of the luxury lodges that was nestled in the miombo woodland on the banks of the river. Our first evening there was spectacular. I drove to a local village with Kanuth from which we brought back our dinner: two chickens and vegetables that Kanuth cooked for us in a spicy red sauce – delicious! But the spectacle was to come. We sat in a clearing of the wood with our backs to a campsite kitchen wall. The trees were just three meters away and we peered into the darkness of the wood after our meal. We were alone on the campsite – but for one other visitor – a leopard! Kanuthi’s feel for the game is like radar – he looked up and shone his torch into the bushes just four meters away and two yellow eyes looked at us. We were enough people in one place to make the leopard respect the distance between us. He must have thought that the cooking smelt good, but he would not venture closer to such a large group of people. He stood staring for a minute and then walked off. By that time we had all focused our torches on him and could see even through the pitch black, his spotted skin, like a panther, black spots on a shadowy dark body. Another dream had come true!
The next two days gives us varied safaris with marsh, swamp and Lakeland where we saw lion, elephant, warthog, hippo, crocodile, kudu and a herd of stampeding zebra and gnus – amongst many other animals and birds, too numerous to mention. The third day was more relaxing – a riverboat safari. The highlights here were great herds of hippo in the water, huge crocodiles that we came very close to and elephants feeding. Fish eagles and many more birds such as bee-eaters and storks and a Nile Monitor which rested on the bank as we disembarked.
Now we had to choose: either safari further south to see rhino, which would have been the fifth of the big five, but then we would have had to leave via the usual route, to the east and back up the same road to Dar. Or we could keep to our original route and leave by the lesser-used exit, over the old Dar to Iringa railway line, fording a small river and heading north towards Morogoro.
We kept to the original plan and soon we were out of the reserve driving along flat, partly cultivated land with a glorious view of the Udzungwa Mountain National Park to the south-west. As we got further north we climbed the next range of mountains, the Uluguru mountains. Like the Udzungwa they are also world-renowned for their magnificent flora, forest fauna and birdlife, some of which is indigenous. The Uluguru Mountains are cultivated wherever the land lies flatter, it is a fertile region which in fact is the source of the water used in Dar Es Salaam some 200 kilometres to the east. This meant we drove through a number of villages where the children raced along behind us waving and greeting us. The farmers looked up from their gardens and waved. Shiny, happy people, as the song goes! Up and down the marble rocked mountains we drove and into valleys where we crossed great rivers on old metal suspension bridges built by the colonial past. Then into the bustling town of Morogoro where tourism to Mikumi National Park and Ruaha National Parks has led to a great choice in restaurants. We had a late meal and slept well in a hostel.
Sadly our final full day broke and we headed back on the main road to Dar stopping off at the Mwenge Makonde artefacts market, where we were glad to purchase and help support those humble and gracious people. An evening in Dar rounded off the trip and on the next morning, Kanuth drove us to the airport.
It was not just the splendour of this trip and the remarkable experiences we had. It was also the feeling of safety that Kanuth gave us whilst he drove some difficult stretches, his confidence in handling situations on our behalf. His love of the various cultures in his country, his pride and caring whilst informing you about the wildlife, flora and various geographic regions. Tanzania has some gold mines, and Kanuth is one of them. I now travel frequently to safari in Tanzania and I have never used another tour operator. Let Kanuth manage your trip and you will go home with a treasure you never expected.