Archive for June, 2011

Road Trip; Day 6 and Home

June 19, 2011

Road Trip Day 6
Dodoma to the Outpost
398 Klms, hours on the road – 9


The moon hung high and defiant for a long time after sun-up. I imagined she had borrowed the confidence from the spectacular show she’d delivered two nights previously: a lunar eclipse when a bruised and red shadow dragged across her surface and the stars hung extra bright all around, winking encouragement.

The sun came up in a sky stained turmeric and the rocks blushed at being caught so bare and the baobabs waggled their roots in silent greeting of a beautiful dawn. It wasn’t until almost nine that the last traces of the moon’s gauzy orb disappeared entirely, melting with the heat, vanishing into the blue.

Off the tar and the road disintegrates to dust as fine as talc.

The tobacco trucks are on the move. This year more than 5000 of them will haul the produce of 93 000 peasant farmers down this narrow alley to HQ. 103 million kilos. That’s a lot of smokes observes Husband.  I’m not a smoker but I’m still glad about that.

We sneak a last mug of tea and I sip and drink in the view of Lake Chaya, its waters receding quickly so that lilies jostle greedily for space and the swamp grasses are recklessly green, a final fling before they wither and die.  There are elephant prints here.  And a shy bat-eared fox sunning himself atop his burrow; he is too quick for my lens though.

The last few hours are quiet. And we then we are home. To a car that needs unloading of the detritus of more than a week on the road  – my sunshine bright everlasting flowers picked from our lonely church hillside are still sunshine bright – and two dogs delirious with delight at our return.

The thing about road trips – I reflect later – is the perspective they lend, in myriad ways: time to consider how lucky you are to see all this; time to enjoy evovling views, every corner offers a new one; time to think; time to enjoy being away and then the chance to feel pleased at getting home.


Road Trip: Day 5

June 17, 2011

Road Trip Day 5

Iringa to Dodoma along the short cut

354 Klm; hours in car (including P stops; T stop; punctures …) 8


This was new territory for me; a road I hadn’t done. Husband said, ‘you’ll enjoy it; it’s a beautiful drive’.

We sank quickly from the cool heights of green-swathed Iringa, down an escarpment and into the Mtera valley, an amphitheatre framed by the Rubeho Mountains to the east, the Fufu escarpment to the north, a vast valley gouged to accommodate the passage of the Great Ruaha river which begins its journey in the Poroto Mountains and which has been halted on its way here by the Mtera Dam.

The land here is crack dry, toasted oat-sandy and cinnamon-pink soil. But the views are long and unimpeded and blue, blue. Masai and their stoic herds inhabit this arid bowl; the plains are threaded with their tread and criss-crossed by dry river beds.

The water, when we come upon it, is startling for its breadth and welcome. Nothing would thrive – or even survive – down here without it; not even the goats on their diet of thorns and plastic Marlboro bags which are ubiquitous and tossed by the wind so that they hang as unlikely blue bush blooms miles from any discernible civilisation.

Tolkien-esque Baobab stand erect and everywhere. Their roots as branches now if fables are to be believed: the Baobab was a dissatisfied tree and complained bitterly to Mungu that it wanted this colour flower or that; that it disliked the scent of its blossom, that it wished its fruit were sweeter. Mungu got sickandtired of listening to Baobab moan and up-ended him to muffle his complaints. Baobab is mute now, his silent roots waving a protest. A moaner or not, I love the Baobab for its quintessential Africaness, for its resilience, for the hundred-year history it has witnessed but cannot divulge.

We drink tea at the edge of the dam which is busy with fishermen, their graceful little dugouts adorn the shores.

We drink it again to refresh ourselves after another puncture, our fourth in a week. Fifteen years ago we drove to the Cape and back, a 10 000 mile round trip ‘and not a single flat tyre’ I remind Husband.

We cross the dam wall. The Taking of Photographs in this Area is Strictly Forbidden says the sign. I register the rules with the recklessness of a teenager at school. Why, I wonder, are pictures disallowed? But I hide my camera anyway.

The water level is much lower than last time observes Husband, which explains the far-from-the-bank canoes that we spot later. ‘And the power cuts’ observes Husband sagely: the Mtera hosts one of the country’s biggest hydro-electric schemes.

This valley was a gift. A hiatus of happy loneliness and healthy dislocation that straddles two bustling towns: high, cool Iringa in the south and pretending-to-be-the-capital-city Dodoma in the centre of the country: it’s pivotal geography the only reason for it’s lofty title.  The Italian missionaries who moved there thought the climate so like the one back home that they planted grapes and made wine. When I moved to Tanzania more than two decades ago my grandfather – who had lived here in the fifties – urged me to try a bottle of Dodoma Red when I arrived. I did. It was dreadful. Undrinkable. Paint-stripper. I told my Grandad who benignly noted, ‘oh, so it’s hasn’t changed then’.

I learn well and have given the wine a wide berth since. It was a cold beer on our dusk arrival, to slake our thirst and wash the dust from our throats.

Home tomorrow.

Road Trip: Day 4

June 15, 2011

Day 4

Songea to Iringa

Hours in car – 8; Klms travelled – 530

We’re not at the furthest point of our road trip – of our safari as my maternal grandmother would have described a similar journey even in the absence of campfires and wildlife, but we are at its highest reaches; the skies here are huge and vast and spillingly blue and the air is cold, cold. Socks at night, thick duvets, two jerseys at sunup, roaring fires , cold.

Songea was our furthest point. It isn’t a pretty place – despite the seductive drive to get there – perhaps because it takes its name from an African chief decapitated by the Germans; such horrors are not conducive to pretty names or places. I was pleased to leave. Buoyed by a beautiful morning and the prospect of new views.


A poor little pig on its way to market; an entrepreneurial sweet potato seller whose eye catching bait worked for me; we must buy our potatoes from her I insisted. And so we did: a hefty dozen kilos for barely a pound. There is a dearth of fresh produce in the Outpost, such is the climate and the isolation, and so I have garnered veritable sackloads en route: regular potatoes joined the sweet variety to be followed by sugary green peas, brittle to touch and taste and then inky skinned passion fruit with tart orange interiors. I shall make jam I tell Husband earnestly when he enquires what I plan to do with an entire basketful.


Roiling hills – one lonely brow punctuated by the singular elegance of a Italian-mission built church, it’s interior cool-box cold and quiet – give way to undulations swathed in the limegreen of impossibly closely cropped tea, like a small boy’s head crewcut to a Number 1.


We eat lunch in the gloom of a forest; I gather wild flowers. We drink afternoon tea by a lake kissed by the pink puckers of a fading day. This is the big end of Tanzania: the big, broad, high-heel of the country before it succumbs to borders with Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi. There is something unspoiled here, something that smacks of a gentler history, a quieter, sturdier, more substantial pace. I could live here.

But I don’t. So tomorrow we begin the shortcut home: a dusty 260 klm north to shave the edges off a longer, but doubtless smoother, 600 klms. And then the final furlong: another shortcut along the railway line and home to our Outpost.

But before then there will be more views to drink in. With tea too.


Road Trip: Day 3

June 13, 2011

Utengule near Mbeya to Songea near the border with Mozambique

Hours in car: 8 hrs 45 mins; 508 klms

There is a problem with mirror-smooth tar roads. One is inclined to nip along too quickly.

So quickly, in fact, that one quite misses the 50 Kph speed limit signs. And flashes by the policeman with the upheld palm indicating, as one reflects on hindsight, that one should stop.

There is also a problem with reliable mobile phone signals.

Husband couldn’t flash by the second policeman, in the next village, he didn’t just outstretch an arm; he stood stock still in the middle of the road.

‘I am going to fine you 60 000 shillings’. he told Husband sternly.

60 000?! Repeated Husband in outrage.

Yes, said the policeman: ‘for three offences: for speeding, for failing to read the road signs and FOR IGNORING THE LAST POLICEMAN WHO ASKED YOU TO STOP’ (and he shook his cell phone in Husband’s face just so Husband knew how he knew).

The relative cheapness of the penalty – barely twenty five quid – wasn’t the surprise. What was, was the fact it was enforced in full. With a receipt.

We went a bit more slowly after that. Which meant we saw the Go Slow signs and waved cheerfully, from a sedate less than 30 mph, at policemen who – because they were visible as opposed to speed-blurred – looked less delighted at our law abiding driving and more peeved that we hadn’t registered a fine inducing speed on their detectors.


The road here winds through Rift Valley lowlands and Africa spills all around: the Kipengere Mountains sour to the right, the Porotos in the East, the Chunya escarpment to the West, so that the Usanga Flats are an arena cupped by magnificent heights. This area was notorious in the 1930s for the man-eating lions that feasted on villagers; in 15 years they picked off more than 1,500 until hunter George Rushby finally dispensed with the menace in 1947.

We’ve done this road before; two years ago. Mission today was to establish that the unspoiled Kimani Falls remained as unspoiled. We trailed off-road for ten miles and came upon them precisely as we remembered them. Pristine. Undiscovered. Almost. And yes, quite, quite unspoiled. We tripped down the hot path. The water here is vodka-clear-and-cold. There was little for it but to peel off our clothes and dive in.

Invigorating, observed Husband. He was right. The clamber back up to the top was less so.

And onwards and upwards, towards bleak, treeless,windwhipped Makambako where the dust dances and a mean wind bites fiercely.

But the desolation of Makambako is quickly replaced by the carpeted green that falls as you rise to Njombe – there is tea here and thousands and thousands of hectares of Australian Wattle; planted in the late forties the bark of the tree is used in the production of tannin. Here the greens are plenty – the lime green of the flattopped tea, the forest green of the wattle plantations – and the air is brittle.

From this high, high point as you spin south and downwards it’s tantalizing to imagine you can see south into Mozambique or east across to the waters of Lake Malawi, such is your geography and your elevation. The hills rock and swell and ebb and flow and rise and fall so that your land views morph as oceanblue vistas, far, far and wide and blue. And lonely.

Corners are tight. Drops leave your tummy in your chest and you listen to Meatloaf and eat an apple and wonder if you’ve ever been able to see as far before.



And then the sun twiddles its dimmer switch and the road is tiger-striped with long, saffron shadows.

And the moon hangs high like a let-go balloon and you know you’re nearly there.

Road Trip: Day 2

June 11, 2011

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 Cheena 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.

Road Trip: Day 1

June 10, 2011

Day 1

Outpost to Lupa Goldfields: 416 Klms; 6 hours 15 mins

Husband tells me there is a hill near here called Mweni which was so loved by a chief long ago that he instructed his minions to move it from the Lupa Goldfields west to Lake Rukwa. Dig it from beneath, he ordered, so that we might lift it on poles to transport it. Digging only prompted a rock fall and many of his minions were killed as a consequence. Moving mountains is the domain of the demanding. Next time husband suggests I ask too much I shall remind him of the tale of the chief and Mt Mweni.

The hill looks untouched. Barely a nibble out of its side. And I am glad it was left where it is; it’s nice to see hills again after Outpost flatness. The relief thrown by the swell of southern topography is oddly gratifying: different views, an altered skyline.

We left bang on time. We always do. At 7am. My father in law used to leave my mother in law behind if she wasn’t in the car, ready and waiting. That’s never happened to me but I suspect the story was related as a cautionary tale. I have a friend whose husband is much more tolerant: when waiting for her, as he frequently must, he sits in the car and listens to music, loudly, whilst sipping on a cup of coffee or a stiff whiskey depending on the time of day.

So we left at 7 and drove directly south. Our trip, which will last more than a week, will leave a shape on the map like a deflating balloon, collapsed a little at the edges but complete with a string which trails all the way down the edge of Malawi’s Lake Nyasa so that we will teeter on the border with Mozambique.

Mileage never comes into it in my little bit of Africa: state of the roads is the key here.  We describe the length of a journey in hours taken not kilometers covered. Pitted and post-rains and you could crawl along at a snail’s pace, newly graded and the whole experience is a swifter and much more comfortable one. Yesterday’s fell – happily – into the latter category. The dirt was mostly mirror smooth, courtesy of the Chinese or, as the Tanzanian’s call them, watu wa Chee-na. Whilst my derriere might appreciate the Orient’s efforts, my ethics resist: the Chinese might be doing up our roads but one wonders what our African governments have traded in return? Land? Timber? Minerals? Our elephants? (Ivory poaching has soared since the roads got better – is it too cynical to imagine there’s a connection?).

So we zipped along at an M1 (on a good day) prescribed 70 miles an hour and watched the country whizz by. It’s lonely here and the road snakes game reserves – Ugalla and Rungwa – but the wildlife is diminished and it is rare to see animals. So it is always enchanting to spot anything: a troop of banded mongoose racing across our path and then, as we draw to a level halt to watch them, observing them standing on tippie-toe, meerkat style, to get a better look at us before scurrying off, chuckling as they go.

To see wild dogs then – only found in four southern African countries – was a treat indeed. Beneath the puddled shade which pooled on the dust as we drove through a forest we saw a whole pack – a dozen strong at least – of these animals – nicknamed painted dogs for their daubed colours. Their numbers have collapsed so drastically that they are listed as an endangered species now. Most of them had trotted off to invisibility by the time I managed to drag my camera forth; I only captured the last two, standing centurion as their pack members disappeared to safety. By the time we drew level with the bush into which they’d vanished, there wasn’t a trace to be seen. I was glad about that.

Later, over a breakfast of tea and sunshineyellow eggs and cottonwool soft bread rolls eaten beneath a canopy of trees and impossibly, impossibly blue sky, we witnessed a huge male kudu – majestically and nearly silently and too swifly for my lens – slip through arboreal shadow to – I hope – safe obscurity as well.

Those glimpses of rare game, unexpected even this far out now for the creep of humankind and the erosion of forests and morphing highways, are gifts. We were lucky.

And so into Lupa, not shaken – for our passage was too smooth for that – but stirred by our precious sightings.

You wouldn’t credit it now, in this sleepy little hollow where until recently there wasn’t even a Vodacom signal (and there’s a Vodacom signal in almost every corner of the country) but Lupa was once notorious; in the Twenties – following the discovery of alluvial gold by prospector William Cummins – it invited a goldrush which has endured in the corporate shape of today’s mining companies. The locals here tell me that there is a danger in the mining: it discourages children from attending school, they say, for they would rather be out panning gold which earns them T.Shs. 45 000 a gram – about $30. In a part of the world though where a dollar a day is more than the norm, you can understand the attraction.

So onwards today, to Mbeya, a sprawling suppurating near-city now which started life as an outpost attendant to Lupa’s shiny notoriety.

I’ve packed the picnic and brewed the tea …

Road Trip

June 8, 2011

Off on a road trip tomorrow.

Husband busy and important and trailing around to visit the regions. I shall tag along. In manner of good wife. Not usually five steps behind. (I have too much to say for that and don’t like my faraway observations being met with a ‘what … I can’t hear you’).  Alongside. At a jog. Because I am much shorter than him and my stride less generous. I shall tag with my book, a dozen back copies of unread Spectators, a lingering commission, my camera and my laptop. I shall take pictures and make notes and if you can bear it I shall drag you virtually along – south west to the border with Zambia,  just a hop, skip and a jump from Malawi, then south east so that we almost touch fingers with Mozambique, then all the way up and around through Central Tanzania and back to my little Outpost.  Thousands and thousands of miles; I shall keep count this time.

I love road trips. I love the escape. The detachment. The Time Stopped Still feeling. The no commitments (not for me: other than make the odd sandwich and brew a flask of tea). I love the convserations. I love the way the country whizzes by and morphs from dessicating grey miombo (where I live) to high green tea (the furthest reach of our journey). I love the dust in my hair, the feel of it talcy beneath my bare feet, the eating out of a tupperware and drinking tea with the smell of woodsmoke in my nose, I love peeling a hardboiled egg and tossing the shell to the ants. And I love eating my breakfast with and the sight of spilling Africa all around me.

So. See ya.

Change and Shadows and Shifting Spaces

June 1, 2011

So there’s an interesting thing. You escape from your Outpost, you clamber enthusiastically out and you blink in the bright light and you almost have to cup your hands to your ears such is the clamour and cacophony after weeks of screaming silence and you think you’re going home. Home to this big slice of life which you’re going to gobble down after a hungry hiatus of too much space and time and piece and quiet.

But it doesn’t work like that.

Because, in the hiatus, whilst you’ve stood still, waiting, counting the days until you rejoin the land of the living, everybody else has moved on. You haven’t a clue who that person at the bar in your local – your local – is;  you don’t know the in-jokes anymore and you drop off the edge of conversations for you can only sustain the small talk for so long.   The community that you were once a part, an old and integral part, of has changed shape and there isn’t a gap you can wriggle comfortably back into.

And you wonder that Change has left you behind?  And briefly you are disorientated. Until a friend says , perhaps what was has stayed the same; perhaps – in the big window of opporutnity presented by more than four years –  it is you that has changed?

Which is a less discomfiting thought.

But whether it’s me or there that’s changed, the season is certainly slowly, waxily changing .

In the East, where I once lived, a blanket of grey will soon descend and damply cling for three months. Here in the West of the country the skies are high, high without the faintest puff of a cloud and the days are long and hot (so that when I go to pluck some lunchtime lettuce I find it wilting like so many Victorian ladies who have gone out without their parasols). I wake to saffron dawns and drink a cold beer in melting honey evenings which gild my quickly dessicating lawn and pop a crown of gold on the Flamboyants and the Frangipanis which is as well for they are balding with falling African autumnal leaves.

So it’s a good time of year.

And in whatever change has happened, wherever it has happened, whilst I haven’t been watching, I shall find my place.