Driving to Iringa and visiting Isimila, Part 6
Brian announced last night during dinner that we would leave Udzungwa Mountain lodge mid-morning to drive to Iringa. He also informed us that Sykes monkeys were roosting (my word, do monkeys roost?) in the trees behind our duplex, and the monkeys would begin to stir around dawn, for those that were interested.
This morning Paul and I are up by daybreak and scoping out the trees for the russet-backed primates. Nyama, tousled haired and sleepy-eyed, is sitting on their balcony, but when no monkeys appear after waiting for some time, she decides to go back to bed. Nyama and Ngruwa saw them yesterday morning anyway, so it’s not like they will be missing out.
Paul and I rotate between the balcony and the room as we check for monkeys and pack our suitcases. Finally we see a Sykes monkey sitting on a tree limb near Nyama and Ngruwa’s balcony. The sun has yet to fully illuminate our back yard so the dim light makes for fuzzy photos of the monkey. Upon closer scrutiny through binoculars, we see that the monkey is holding a half-grown baby. Eventually, the youngster leaves its mothers arm and scampers around in the tree. Another Sykes joins the pair and begins feeding on the fruit or leaves of the tree. The breakfasting monkey, often stands precariously on shaky tree limbs as it reaches up or over to another branch, for a particularly tempting morsel.
When the steadily rising sun sends tendrils of light into the copse of trees, the rapidly warming air brings the troop of monkeys to life. Most of the Sykes monkeys leap from the big tree down into smaller bushes and disappear from sight. Some monkeys stay and feed in the roost tree, but one monkey ventures into a verdant bush not far from our balcony. Paul and I watch as the female monkey sorts through the leaves of the bush in search of the perfect leaf, pluck it and pops the tidbit into her mouth. The monkey is aware that she is being watched and occasionally makes eye contact with us, or in most cases makes contact with a camera lens or binoculars. Mostly she ignores us as she dines on an endless buffet of leaves. The scheduled time for breakfast arrives so we leave the foraging monkeys to their feast.
While at breakfast, Paul and I learn that Vidole Juu, Uwiano, and their guest Brian, were watching for the monkeys from their balcony too. They told us that they would just look over at our balcony from time to time, because they knew if I was taking photos, this was confirmation that the monkeys had arrived! One of them even took a photo of me, taking a photo of the monkeys. What can I say; I am a photo taking fanatic.
After a leisurely breakfast, we return to our room to brush our teeth and gather our luggage. We make our way to the reception area and settle our bill for laundry and drinks. Paul and I carry our luggage to the parking lot where our drivers are busy packing luggage in the Rovers. Paul strikes up a conversation with a young man while we are waiting for the all aboard call. I don’t know what they were talking about but they were quite animated.
The manager appears and I go to thank him for a wonderful stay in his establishment. I inform him that Paul writes reviews on Trip advisor and that I’m sure Paul will speak highly of the Lodge. Kenny’s (the manager) face lights up and says he will be looking forward to reading the review, after which he hands me his business card. Paul goes over to Kenny a few minutes later to thank him and assures him that his review of the Lodge will be a complimentary one. I think Paul just made the man’s day because he shakes Paul’s hand and thanks him profusely for the endorsement of the Lodge. Trip Advisor is a powerful site that travelers the world over use to research trips including Paul. I notice several other members of our group having words and shaking hands with Kenny. I think everyone enjoyed our stay here.
It is time to load up and head on down the road for Isimila and Iringa. For some distance we drive through villages with the typical market stands, or pastoral scenes where we occasionally see herds of goats and cattle. We leave this peacefulness behind when we must travel a busy mountain highway to reach our destination. This highway is congested with overloaded trucks, public buses crammed so full of people you wonder how they can breathe, along with cars and motorcycles.
We haven’t driven far when I feel tenseness in the air of our Rover and a lot of it is coming from me. The people driving on this road seem to have no fear or sense! The public bus drivers in particular seem to enjoy playing chicken on this narrow, winding road. The drivers of the colorful buses have no qualms in passing slower vehicles on blind curves, and since the bus drivers are driving at excessive speeds just about every car are slower than they are. We see the aftermath of three accidents, none of the crash sites looked like the occupants would have escaped injury to me.
I don’t know how long we drove that highway from hell, but I think there was a collective sigh of relief from all of us when we left the mountain road for the calmer and more level roads we had become used to. When Brian was questioned about the driving of the public bus drivers, he explained that part of their behavior is competitive. The drivers are trying to be the first to arrive at the next bus stop so they will have first dibs at the waiting customers. The more customers they can cram in their bus, the more money for their bus line I suppose. The other reason the bus drivers speed like they are competing in the Indy 500, is so they can finish their route and go home. They obviously have little regard for the wellbeing of their customers. Brian tells us he rode one of the buses over this highway on a prior visit and he doesn’t seem too fond of the memory. You couldn’t get me on one of those buses for the world!
It is nice to be traveling a more benign road where we can again enjoy the life that goes on along the roads of Tanzania. I notice two women visiting, while balancing baskets of vegetables on their heads. There is a man by the side of the road, crushing large rocks into gravel by pounding on them with a big ball peen hammer. Can you imagine doing that job all day! We drive through miles of countryside where red onions are being offered for sale along the edge of the road. The onions are piled up into pyramids which seem to be the popular way to display most vegetables in the places we have visited so far. I don’t understand how anyone gets any onions sold as the red bulbs are everywhere you look. We meet traveling salesmen riding a bicycle on the highway, who has fixed up an ingenious rack on the back of his bike. The rack is full of children’s clothing, mostly frilly dresses for little girls. I am feeling much more relaxed now and obviously others in the vehicle are too. Ngruwa and Paul (Mapumbo) are napping though one of them swears he wasn’t really sleeping.
We drive through part of Iringa and continue to the road that is marked,” to Isimila”, some 15 miles from the city of Iringa. Our guides turn onto the dirt road that leads to the Isimila Stone Age Site, and our drivers must slow the trucks to a crawl, as we bump and bounce our way down the narrow tree-lined road. The bruising ride ends at the headquarters of the Isimila Stone Age Site.
The staff welcomes us to Isimila and a man leads us on a tour of the small museum that occupies half of the building. There is a display of some of the stone tools and artifacts that were used by the hunter-gathers that frequented Isimila when the now dry lake bed, was a thriving lake with plenty of creatures to hunt. The artifacts on display date back tens of thousands of years. After perusing other displays that pertain to the area, our guide leads us to the trail that descends down into the dry lake bed.
Whoops, Paul and I didn’t think that we would need our hiking poles, and I don’t have my good hiking boots on. What were we thinking? Right off the bat, we must walk down a steep, sandy slope and the traction is not good. Once we manage to navigate this short stretch, thankfully there are steps that lead to the bottom of the old lake bed. Walking across the gravely bottom to the other side is no problem but now we must climb out of here. The path up is just as steep and slippery as our walk down was. All of us manage to stay upright as we climb to the top, but I did have one major slip which gave me a good scare. When we arrive on the plains above the old lake, Paul finds a dead branch and breaks it off so it is the perfect length for a walking stick. I intend to put it to good use for the rest of our hike. Vidole also finds an old branch for Uwiano to use. As we catch our breath before walking on to the canyon, there is a Grey-headed Kingfisher perched in a tree and his call rings out like choppy laughter. If the bird is looking for water, he is a few thousand years too late, so the joke is on him.
Our group traipse across the dry grassy field until we come to the edge of the small canyon that contains the famous stone pillars of Isimila. All I can say is “Wow” as the sandstone towers that were formed due to weather erosion are just jaw-dropping beautiful. We stand at the rims edge admiring the various shades of reds and yellows in the sculptures formed by Mother Nature. The sun is playing peek-a-boo, in the partly cloudy sky, so we wait patiently for the sunlight before snapping pictures because the stone shafts truly glow under the sun rays. The one problem with these geological phenomena is that someone in their infinite wisdom decides the high power electric line should pass over the top of this small section of the canyon. Never mind that just a few yards to the left the lines could have been built on level ground, and they wouldn’t have had to pass over a huge hole in the ground. Honestly!
Another problem arises because in order to get up close and personal with the stone pillars we must walk down into the abyss, so to speak. I stand back and watch as people carefully short step their way into the canyon. Those with walking sticks still slip and slide at times but at least their staffs help them maintain balance. I can’t remember who, but one of the women after observing the problems of getting down the path, decides to sit and scoot her way down the path. When Nyama starts walking down she is nearly at the bottom when one foot slips, sending her sliding on the sandy soil. Nyama keeps her balance, and by using Brian as a backstop manages to bring herself to a halt. Holy smokes, I wonder how Brian’s nerves are holding up as he watches his group, stumble and slide, but fortunately never fall, out here literally in the middle of nowhere. It is my turn to start down the treacherous trail and I decide to walk sideways using my staff to steady myself and my nerves. Made it! Paul and Scott bring up the rear and seem to have no problem on their trek into the canyon. The columns are just as stunning up close as they were from the top of the gorge. Of course, most of us have our photo taken in front of some of the pillars, and Brian patiently becomes the photographer for the group.
We wander down the sandy channel enjoying the various size and shapes of the rock skyscrapers that are in every direction we look. The sun has managed to escape the thinning clouds, and is lighting up the canyon as the deep azure sky helps accentuate the glory of the multicolored sculptures. The day is marching towards its end so our guide tries to hurry us along towards the headquarters. However Usiku, Mochie, and I discover a bird singing heartily as it perches on a bedraggled bush on the canyon rim. We search Usiku’s bird guide for the scarlet bellied bird but are having no luck in finding a match for it. Brian comes along and we point out the singing bird to see if he knows its identification. Nope, but he watches over Mochies’ shoulder as he rifles through the book again. Brian catches a glimpse of a similar bird, thumbs through the book himself, and we soon know that we are looking at a Cliff Chat. We can mark another bird off our list!
The rest of the group has disappeared from sight so we hurry along in hopes of catching up. As we round a bend in the canyon, they are standing around discussing the snake that Ngruwe saw disappear into a hole in the ground near the trail. The guide insists that there are no snakes in Isimila which causes some raised eyebrows among us. We have no doubt Ngruwe saw a snake and besides this country appears to be prime snake habitat. I wonder why the young man was so adamant that they have no snakes. We have good laugh about the whole thing, and the no snake statement becomes a running joke throughout the rest of our safari.
Our guide takes us to a small shed with open sides and we peer at ancient stone tools that have been unearthed around and in the lake bed. There is another shack across the way and we are able to go inside and handle some of the tools that are just lying in heaps inside the building. There is an axe that still has a sharp edge among the various artifacts. Some of these tools are huge and I don’t see how the ancient people handled the unwieldy objects.
It is time to return to our Rovers and drive back to Iringa where we will spend the night at the Savilla hotel. Our room is a bit worn and the lighting dim but it is clean. We settle into the room and have time to shower before going to the hotel restaurant for dinner.
Tembo and Mbuzi are occupying a table for four and we ask if we can join them. We were on safari with them a few years ago so we often sit together during meals so we can visit with our old friends. Tembo enjoys teasing me so I’m not sure why I subject myself to this! Just kidding, we enjoy bantering back and forth and it’s all in good fun (I think?).
The food here turns out to be excellent. I have pea and potato soup, with nan (bread) on the side. Scrumptious. Mbuzi orders a pizza which she shares with us and it is delicious. Paul had some kind of chicken which was excellent but there was so much he gave the excess to Brian. Brian and Ngruwe are always the recipients of extra food that the rest of us can’t finish, the group’s garbage disposal I guess you could say :). Tembo had a bowl of French onion soup that we all agreed (Tembo let us sample it) was the best we have ever tasted. You know this food was top-notch because I seldom remember what we have to eat at meals.
When we finish eating the four of us get up to leave when Brian approaches us to ask to wait a bit. It seems he has ordered a cake for Ngruwe and Nyama’s eleventh anniversary. How cool is that to celebrate your anniversary in Tanzania! We go back to our table and await the appearance of the celebratory dessert. Scott and Jennifer are completely surprised when the staff approaches their table with the lovely decorated cake. Everyone in our group, plus another couple that is dining here, get to enjoy a piece of the delicious cake as we congratulate the couple on eleven years of marriage. I hope they will be able to celebrate another anniversary on the African continent in the near future!
Tomorrow we go to Ruaha National Park and stay in the mobile camp. Nancy