I can hardly believe that 5 months after our wonderful Sri Lankan adventure, Paul and I are returning to the African continent, looking for adventure in our favorite country of Tanzania. The hay is harvested and stacked away for the winter. The heifer calves are weaned and most of the steer calves were loaded on a semi-trailer last week headed for their new home in Iowa. Our luggage is packed although it is over the 25 pound limit per person we were supposed to aim for. We will eat our way through some of that extra poundage via the snacks we packed, before we have to meet that limit and will worry about the rest when the 13th arrives that involves an in country flight.
Paul and I drive to the Topeka airport after lunch to catch our flight to Chicago. We meet three members of our group of sixteen here, who also took advantage of the closeness of the Topeka airport versus Kansas City. How nice it is to be able to fly from the capital city with only the people on one flight to contend with! Sadly, we will be one of the last few to use the airport as United is folding up the Topeka operation after opening the service less than a year ago. Darn it.
We have no issues on this first leg of travel and have plenty of time to kill in the Chicago airport before boarding our flight to Istanbul. We begin to get nervous when 20 minutes before boarding, Brian, of Cowabunga safari fame, and 4 more members of our group flying in from Kansas City, have not appeared. A text message is sent to our safari leader and soon a reply is received that the group are making their way to the boarding area. Pheww. Our jet lifts off on time and we settle in for the 10 hour flight.
When we land in Turkey we have a couple of hours before we board the jet for the final leg of our journey to Dar Es Salaam, another 7 hours sitting on a plane. There are 2 more members in our group that join us at the Istanbul airport. The last 4 people in the group will meet us in Dar.
We land in Dar Es Salaam at 2:30 in the morning, disembark and fill out a custom form. We then hand over our custom papers along with our passports and 100 bucks for the cost of a visa, to an uniformed official. The woman sticks the hundred dollars in the individual passports, stacks up as many passports as she can carry and passes them off to two men sitting in an office. The two men evidently are the ones who will approve everybody’s visa. Eventually, passports are handed back to the people who collected them from the tourists. These folks proceed to read off the names one at a time without aid of a microphone. We strain to hear the names the official is calling out and eventually the owner of said passport walks forward to claim their document. The airport official scrutinizes the claimants face to make sure it matches the photo on the passport they have claimed. When one passes muster the frazzled passport owner is directed to a booth where the person behind the glass, takes their photo and fingerprints, stamps the passport, and finally the person is free to go and claim their luggage.
To say this visa ordeal is a test of one’s patience is being kind, particularly in the wee hours of the morning. Once we gather all the luggage, yes everyone’s arrived, there is another airport employee waiting to x-ray your luggage as you exit the airport. I don’t remember this requirement before, but Brian charms the woman into allowing our group to skip this final act of bureaucracy and we are free to go. Our driver is waiting outside with countless other drivers, Cowabunga sign held high, and he leads us through the humid night air to a big white van. The twelve of us pile into the vehicle and in thirty minutes we have arrived at the Tanzanite hotel.
Oops, it seems the hotel has given our rooms back to the occupants that were in the rooms last night as they missed their flight, at least that is the hotel manager’s story and he is sticking to it. The only thing the Tanzanite has available is a suite which has three bedrooms, a large living/dining room and a kitchen. Two of the bedrooms have private bathrooms and there is another stand-alone bathroom which those of us without a bedroom take advantage of to shower off the past 20 plus hours of travel.
Sooo…three bedrooms only takes care of half of us but this group seems to take it all in stride. We come up with a solution which has three couples in the bedrooms; the young couple in our group gathers cushion backs from the couches and chairs and builds a makeshift bed in the kitchen. Paul, Brian, Daktari ya Moyo and I camp out in the living room, so technically on our first night in Tanzania, I sleep with three men:). Did that statement wake you up!
I get a couple of hours of shut-eye on my short couch but I don’t think Paul slept at all in his chair. The four of us that camped out in the living room and another couple wander down to eat breakfast around eight. The buffet offers a nice variety of cereal, breads, eggs, and sausage. After eating, Brian leads us a few blocks from the hotel to change some money into shillings. Brian then takes the five of us on a short walking tour through the city and down to the Indian Ocean. Brian, who is fluent in Swahili, makes an impression on a couple of curious young men who approach our group with the typical “where are you from” question. Although the young men speak English, the two are obviously impressed with the American who can converse with them in Swahili too. Before we continue on our way the young men insist that I take their photo and I am happy to comply.
It was a memorable walk as we enjoyed the interesting street scenes and ocean vistas. Unfortunately we will mostly remember this morning because Bwana Cheka had his small camera pickpocketed! If you don’t know how to pronounce that name it is because it is Swahili. Brian gives all members of his safari group Swahili names and I will use them in my writing to protect the innocent or guilty! Needless to say this cast a pall on our first morning in Dar es Salaam but Cheka handled it with much more grace than I would have.
We all have individual rooms by noon so Paul and I settle in for an afternoon nap as the very short night has caught up with us! All of us meet this evening in the reception area and Brian leads us a few blocks to a Lebanese restaurant that he has frequented on prior visits. The food is plentiful and tasty so the day ends on an up note. We also enjoy entertainment during dinner thanks to Bwana Vidole Juu. It seems the ketchup bottle he attempts to use has pressure built up in it. When he pops the top, Viole Juu manages to spray his wife, Mama Uwiano with a liberal dose of the red stuff, starting with the side of her face and continuing down the front of her shirt. Another safari member showing grace over mishap, as Mama Uwiano laughs about the incident which allows the rest of us to join in.
The final four members of our safari group arrived in Dar late last night so we are all present and accounted for. This morning we are leaving Dar (thank goodness) and driving to Morogoro. For those of you who know me well, my tolerance for big cities is two days tops, get me out of the city after that as I need to breathe!
We were to stay at a working farm on the outskirts of Morogoro but they canceled our reservations so we are staying at the Hotel Oasis. We all settle into our rooms (everyone comments that their rooms smell of bug spray) then we return to the lobby to meet a local man who will guide us through the city and market.
The market is a sensory overload with yelling vendors, crowds of people, vibrant colors and an unpleasant odor in many areas of the maze of shops. The passage ways through the market are narrow making it necessary to bump and jostle your way through the shoppers. There are pleasing pyramids of vegetables, colorful sacks of grains and heaps of dried fish that your nose can identify before you see the fishy offerings. Clothes, kitchen ware, jewelry and about anything else you might want or need can be seen in the ramshackle market.
Our guide, Charles, sets a fast pace and with such a large group, those of us who are taking photos or have short legs, sometimes lose sight of our friendly escort. Bwana Ngruwe has a neon yellow “glow in the dark” Cowabunga shirt on which comes in handy for those of us who tend to fall behind the main group. Searching the mass of humanity for our group, the bright yellow shirt is always the first thing to catch our eye and allows us to reunite with our fellow sightseers. Ngruwe will take a lot of grief about the brilliance of that shirt before the trip is over but it is a welcome beacon more than once today.
Those of us snapping pictures missed the instructions before we left that we weren’t to take photos unless Charles told us it was o.k. Oops. I wondered why some guy walked by me and was basically yelling at me! Later, Paul was told by a vendor “no photo” and it wasn’t until then that a member of the group informed us that taking pictures was prohibited except at a few stalls. Well, up to that point we got some pretty good photos even if they were taboo.
The craftsmen that are permanently located in the town were much more accommodating with us and seemed tickled that we were interested in their craft. We visited with a tinsmith and a cabinet-maker, admiring their handy work. The craftsmen were more than happy to have us take photos and seemed to revel in being part of the photos.
Our market/town tour lasted three hours and all of us are ready to return to the hotel. As we wearily trudge back in the direction of the Oasis, we pass a church where the youth are having a dance and some members try their best to get us to join the festivities. The catch is that we must pay to attend their dance; I would guess this gala is a money-maker for them. When we decline the invitation due to exhaustion, the recruiters keep reducing the entrance price hoping that this will entice the foreigners to join in the fun. It would have been an interesting experience but we really were finished for the day.
The following morning, Charles, our guide from yesterday is taking our group on a hike to a waterfall in the Uluguru Mountains. Two members of our group walk with us for a ways but opt out once it becomes obvious the hike will be steep and over rough terrain. I hate that they can’t go with us but admire them for knowing their limits.
As we hike through small villages and a school we have the opportunity to interact with the uniformed school children. We ask and are granted permission to take their photos. When one little boy is shown his photo taken by Bibi Nyama, he bursts out in the most incredible belly laugh I have ever heard from a child! His laughter is so infectious that it sends Nyama and me into peals of laughter too.
After a couple of hours of walking we stop at a small restaurant to use the facilities. Three members of the group decide they will return to the van as we are only at the halfway point of our hike. We are leaving the drivable road; where we have been meeting lots of motorcycles, and will be hiking higher into the mountains which mean steeper grades and more narrow passages. Fortunately, the temperature is warm but not hot or I might have turned back with this trio.
I have discovered that Bwana Mkatagiza Usiku is a fellow bird lover, so we are stopping frequently to enjoy the bird life along the way. We are often lagging behind the rest of the hikers but boy are we enjoying ourselves. Paul stays with us most of the time too. We see the Urugulu violet-backed sunbird which if I understood correctly, is only found in these mountains! Exceptional find but too far away for a photo. One of our driver/guides is there to confirm the spotting of the small, colorful bird. We also see an African hawk harrier, Collared sunbird; Tawny flanked Prinia, among numerous other birds.
Usiku suggests we take a shortcut via a trail that cuts through the farm fields, because he has spotted the rest of the group on the road above us rounding a curve. Paul and I figure why not and follow his lead. An old farmer passes by and offers his hand to each of us while uttering what we presume is a phrase of welcome. We all shake his hand and say hello before tramping up to the main road. Imagine our surprise when a short time later our group appears behind us! Imagine their surprise when we laggards magically appear in front of them. It draws laughter from all when we admit that we cheated by walking off the beaten path. By now we are walking through beautiful mountain scenes and as usual photos just don’t do the vistas justice.
It is obvious as we near the end of the hike who the fit and seasoned hikers are in this group as they continue to easily walk up the mountain trail. I am not one of them! Another woman and I are struggling up the final steep, slippery slopes, as Charles encourages us by telling us we are almost to the top. I walk twenty steps and stop to catch my breath, finding that this technique we were taught in climbing mountains in Russia, allows me to keep inching upward. Once we are at the top, Charles gives us a few minutes to catch our breath before leading us down a very narrow trail to the base of the pretty waterfall.
Three young boys have shadowed us partway down the trail and stare unabashedly at the tourists who have come to picnic by their local waterfall. The more surefooted among us, help the rest of us cross the slippery rocks to a large slab of stone where we will eat the box lunches that those with daypacks carried with them. The lunches contain grilled chicken, cucumber/tomato sandwich, banana and a piece of cake. A local man brings blackberries and raspberries that are grown nearby and offers them to us picnickers. Paul and I pass the lovely berries up as we are suspicious of the water the fruit would have been washed in. Everyone else ate some of the plump berries and as far as I know they had no ill effect from them.
Charles amuses us all as he takes photo after photo of his clients, while we dine to the music of falling water and occasionally are refreshed by a light mist coming from the falls, driven by a gust of wind. Most of our group takes the proverbial photo, standing on a rock in front of the waterfall. Brian insists on a group photo with the Cowabunga banner held proudly among us smiling trekkers. Yes, the strenuous hike was well worth it for the bird life, mountain views, people encounters, and lovely waterfall.
It is time to start back and as always going downhill is so much easier for me than walking uphill. As we pass by a house there is a woman hanging out laundry in the yard. A rooster has his way with one of the hens as we walk by and some of us yell out the phrase that alerts the other safarists that we have witnessed the mating act of the chickens. This is an inside joke and I cannot give you that phrase that all Cowabunga alumni are privy too, for that you must go on safari with Brian! Anyway, the rooster then unfurled one wing and does a little jig around the hen that completely ignores him. I snort at the cocky display and say with disdain in my voice, look at that rooster strutting his stuff. The woman looks at me and bursts into laughter and continues to laugh as we walk on down the trail. I have no idea if she understood what I said or if she just put the tone of my voice with the rooster’s actions but whatever the reason, it certainly tickled her funny bone.
We come upon a woman who has filled a huge wooden vessel full of red dirt and is pounding the dirt into fine dust using a thick, long wooden pole. A few people in the group give it a try, and then Kevin and Charles each take a wooden pole and work together at pulverizing the dirt. Brian takes over for one of the guides and for some reason his technique causes the fine earth to spill out onto the ground. This causes the woman and her young daughter to laugh at the messy effort by Mzungu Mrefu (Brian). Hopefully, all this help gave her a break in the tedious work and certainly it will give the woman a story to tell to her friends tonight. By the way, they form this dirt into small sticks about the size of a fat crayon and sell it to pregnant women to consume (do they dissolve it in water?) which they say helps alleviate morning sickness.
When we reach the restaurant where we stopped to use the choo (choh/bathroom) on our way up, the front-runners have discovered the North Rock bar; a little room built on top of a big boulder, and are enjoying Tusker beer or soda. We join them and soon laughter is filling the air. I think this group is going to get along just fine! Charles asks for our attention as we are finishing our drinks and commends us “old people” for making it to the waterfall. This brings more hearty laughter at the “compliment” from our light-hearted guide. None of us complain when our drivers roll up in two of the Range rovers which means we don’t have to walk the rest of the way! The ride from the bar to where we started walking this morning is extremely rough but it will be good practice for what is to come on our safari drives, I’m sure!
Tonight we enjoy dinner at the restaurant at the Oasis and are sitting at a small table with Ngruwe and Nyama. The restaurant specialty is called the sizzler, which is well named as when one of these dishes appears from the kitchen the sizzling sound reverberates through the room. Ngruwe has ordered this dish and for some reason he is still waiting for his order as the rest of us consume our food. He jokes that if it takes much longer they may as well include a fried egg and he can eat breakfast too. When his sizzling dish finally appears, yep you guessed it; on top of the platter of food is a fried egg. We laugh so hard that Brian walks over from his table to see what the brouhaha is all about. After we relate the story to Brian, he chuckles but I’m not sure he thought it deserved the nearly uncontrollable laughter it brought forth from the four of us. I guess maybe you had to be there because even now I am giggling as I type the fried egg story. Later, Nancy (Mama Ndege)
Next installment Mikumi National Park