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 …