Lupa Tinga Tinga to Utengule, just south of Mbeya
282 Klms; Hours in the car: 6
If Husband hadn’t said that Abdallah had said, I wouldn’t have believed a word of it: Abdallah is from around here and is, as Husband reminded me, font of all useful (and occasionally useless) knowledge: Makongolosi is, I was assured, a mispronunciation of Making A Loss. You’d understand why if you saw it: a wind whipped, sun scorched, fly blown, dustbowl of a place: white farmers who settled here seventy years ago would definitely have made a loss. And even those who charged down the hill from Mbeya at the height of the Lupa Goldrush never made the killing they anticipated.
They’re still prospecting. Local Africans pan enthusiastically. They wouldn’t show us their gold; they said they were still washing it. We didn’t dare ask the mining giants around here to show us theirs: the signs they had erected, all skull and cross bones and red Keep Outs, and cars that dashed importantly back and forth with orange lights on their cabs. Round here we don’t have to thank the watu wa Chee–na for mirror smooth dirt roads, we need to thank the miners.
The thing about better-than-you-expected roads means they don’t often match the map (the C roads have morphed as B and the B – because the miners don’t need them – have collapsed as C or D) and so one tends to get lost. Not a few miles lost – a whole one hundred kilometres lost.
Naturally it was my fault. I was navigator (but, as I say, I was distracted with the Cs as Bs and the Bs as Ds). That we suffered a blowout and had to change a wheel in chafing hot temperatures trying to loosen scalding wheel nuts didn’t do much to improve a cross, lost Husband’s humour.
But then we did find what we were looking for. Lake Rukwa isn’t impressive on the map (which I established – belatedly – is clearly too old to be much use): a puddle at best, and an extensive and exhausting swamp when Burton and Speke tried to traverse it in their bid to find the source of the Nile. So we didn’t hold out for much.
To fall upon it, to spy it smokygrey hunkering in a dustandscrub blurred valley was like falling upon a present you’d forgotten to open. A delicious surprise. We wound down a tangled escarpment to the water’s edge and were astonished at the expanse of a lake whose surface ran with white horses. The mzee we engaged in conversation told us that had we got there earlier (had we not got lost) we’d have witnessed it gin clear: it’s so shallow, just 3m at its deepest, that it takes little to churn it from spirit clarity to opaque and, at this time of the year, when white hot skies disintegrate with dust to powder blue and a shimmering heat haze shrouds horizons, it’d be easy to dismiss as just more miles of miombo.
The lake is described as highly alkaline but the water was sweet, like the fish the gathering villagers told us, tamu sana they said.
It was worth getting lost to find it.
We piled back into the car ate the legs of a rooster whose death-knell yells I’d listened to that morning. I tried not to enjoy them but by 3pm and after a significant detour it was hard not to.
From there, from the lake, which sunk from view beneath its obliterating mantle so quickly that had you not known it was there, you’d have missed it entirely, we raced south, kicking up the talc behind us. It’s only two months since the end of the rains and already the country here has desiccated to brittle crack. All our vistas were ghostly beneath a pall of dust and smoke and heat.
Twice there were black ribbons of unexpected tar which wound up and around hills, ‘from the olden days’, said Husband, ‘to help minimise the erosion of traffic’. The land here, treeless in large tracts hasn’t escaped that fate: a veritable canyon gouged when bare land was dug deep with racing water.
We crossed the mighty Sira, precious arterial flow across this dying, jaundiced place: a lady, naked to the waist and bathing beneath the bridge laughed and waved cheerfully as I took in the hugeness of the river and Saturday morning laundry spread on rocks to dry. I waved back.
And then the day began to sap and the land stole back her colour as the worst of the leaching heat retreated. And the Mbeya Ridge swung up like the crest of a wave arrested in time to our left and we were nearly there.
Utengule Coffee Lodge is a haven of green and peace and stillness after two dusty days on the road. I can see Zambia from where I sit to write. Egg shell blue hills swell soft to the south.
Tomorrow we head 500 klms East. But until then I can read and lounge and listen to the birds.