Tanzania 1997

Visiting Game Parks

The journey was not nearly as bad as I expected. It is about 400 miles - easily the longest trip I had ever taken on a coach - but it was surprisingly comfortable, with enough leg room even for me. All the seats were taken, but it never got too stuffy as the ventilation was just about right. In fact for less than £10 it was a bargain. We even had an on-board video. It started with the general purpose wild life film - "then few thousand years ago there appeared a predator far more dangerous than any that had previously existed". Then there was a film that, apart from a scene at the beginning where a bunch of sinister men were being shown a map of South America, consisted entirely of people shooting each other. The other film they showed was Raid on Entebbe, which did at least have a bit of dialogue, though the climax was quite violent. It must have been a bit disconcerting for the people who were boarding the coach to the sound of heavy automatic gunfire.

I half watched the video and gazed out of the window, when suddenly there it was. I had read about Kilimanjaro and seen pictures, but I was just taken completely aback by the sight of this snow-capped mountain rising up from the African bush. In fact, because there were clouds half way up it, it seemed to be hovering in the sky.

We arrived at Arusha in the late afternoon. I was the only white person left on the coach when we arrived, so I was not surprised to be surrounded by people trying to sell me tours. One man stepped forward as if I had arranged to meet him, and offerred to find me a hotel. He introduced himself as Charles and said he could organise safaris and Kilimanjaro trips. He found me an adequate hotel and we negotiated a suitable schedule. Next morning he picked me up and I set off with my own personal crew, Jimmy the driver, Freddy the porter, and a cook whose name I never picked up. The transport was a battered Nissan 4WD with no seat belts, offside mirror or working instruments. However it lasted the distance without any serious problems, and Jimmy was an excellent driver.

The deal I had agreed was a 2 day trip to Ngorogoro for $300. However when we were about half an hour out of Arusha, Jimmy started to explain that it was too much to attempt in the time because the roads were so poor, and he recommended that we take in an extra day and visit an extra game park - Lake Manyara - on the way. I knew what was coming before asking the price, which he explained would be an extra $300 as I was going to two national parks instead of one. I ended up paying $220 which was still well above the odds, but I was not sure I had much choice, and in any case he was right about the time it was going to take.

About an hour out of Arusha we turned off the main road, and the tracks became dreadful. I knew from my time in Liberia what to expect from dirt roads, but these were most of the time even worse. All the drivers were expert at finding the optimum path through the potholes, and there were even stretches where a new track had been made across the edges of fields in preference to the real roads.

About lunchtime we came to a village whose name means Mosquito River. There was a game lodge there where we spent the next two nights. It was quite basic, but very clean and cheap - £6 for all 4 of us. We had lunch there, and spent the afternoon in the Manyara game reserve. This was quite small by Tanzanian standards, but had plenty of elephants, giraffe, zebra and baboons. However the most spectacular thing was the lake. As you approached it you were aware of a pink haze in the distance, which they explained was in fact literally millions of flamingos.

That evening they cooked me an excellent meal of chicken and vegetables. They knew I was planning to climb Kilimanjaro, so they felt obliged to fatten me up. And I had a most interesting conversation with Jimmy and Freddy, comparing life in Tanzania and Britain.

Next morning we got up early and headed for Ngorongoro. This is an absolutely spectacular place. It is the crater of an extinct volcano, originally about the same height as Kilimanjaro, that collapsed in on itself about 2 million years ago. It is about 1500 feet deep and 15 miles in diameter, and is full of all sorts of wildlife. The only off-putting thing was the volume of tourists around. At one point I could see at the same time 2 rhinos, 2 lions, an elephant and 20 4WDs. All the vehicles like mine had an open roof so that you could stand up and view everything around while it was moving. There was a network of tracks, and the drivers knew where to go to look for the different animals, and exchanged information with each other. At one point we could see a large elephant walking along with a few vehicles slowly keeping pace with it. We headed for it only to discover that the elephant was walking towards us on our road, while the other vehicles were on a parallel track. My driver quickly turned off the track, because you could not be sure whether it was going to carry on and stomp all over us. Then it was back to Mosquito River.

The next day we headed back for Arusha, where the plan was for Jimmy to sort out my Kilimanjaro tour, ie book porters and a guide, buy food and take me to Moshi, 50 miles away at the foot of the mountain. This is where it began to get complicated, as I had not brought enough cash, foolishly thinking I could use credit cards easily. However this was not the case. We had arranged that I would buy cash with my card, but this proved not to be possible as the lines were down, so my creditworthiness could not be verified. The only option was for Jimmy to find an agent who accepted credit cards, and I would refund his expenses. There then followed several hours of Jimmy and Rebecca, his "business partner", driving me around, making phone calls and holding long conversations with people in Swahili with me not having a clue what was going on. Eventually he said he had contacted an agent in Moshi who could organise it for me, but it would be $750, whereas he had been going to do it for $650. I had no choice but to accept. However he would drive me to Moshi if I paid him for the petrol.

Eventually after further unexplained delays, we set off. On the way, Jimmy and Rebecea had a big argument, which I eventually discovered was because Rebecca had forgotten to bring the telephone number of the person we had to contact. So when we got to Moshi there was more driving around asking obscure people where this woman lived or how to get in touch with her, before we eventually made contact. Furthermore, Jimmy suddenly told me that he had made a deal with this woman that would be better for me if I just paid her $600 and the rest I would pay him in local currency for him to pass on to her. I realised that once again I had been done, but there was nothing I could do about it. And it was being done in the nicest possible way. They really put themselves out for me that day, and while we were waiting outside the agent's office for her to turn up, Jimmy said he hoped my credit card was valid, because he had persuaded her to accept the card without verification because I was a friend of his! Looking back on that day, I got ripped off and I spent most of the day doing a lot without getting anywhere, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I saw more of Tanzanian life than I might otherwise have done.

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