25 Nov 2013

Danger, Danger, High Voltage!

Tanzania: Katavi, Kigoma, Kibondo, Bukoba

Roughly following the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, we drove northeast to Katavi National Park.  This little known park receives fewer visitors in one year than the Serengeti does in one day.  Nonetheless its enormous population of densely packed hippos is the most impressive we have seen anywhere.  

Yes, these are ALL hippos!!
From here we continued to Kigoma, spending one night camping next to a stunning stretch of palm fringed sand called Jakobsen’s Beach.

Kigoma has a fairly affluent feel to it, with a number of large detached houses squatting obesely behind high walls and security gates.  But this oasis of tranquillity soon gives way to the gritty sprawl of Uijiji which lies just 7km to the south.  Here, the dilapidated Colonial facades – which now house a jumble of bicycle repair shops and street food hawkers – are the only legacy of an altogether more illustrious past. 150 years ago this bustling Swahili town was the main gateway into Tanzania for the huge slave convoys arriving from the Congo.  It was also of vital importance to Livingstone, as it was here that he periodically resupplied between his long forays into the interior.  Nowadays there is no sign of the immense wealth that grew up here, although the Swahili influence still prevails.  White gowned muslims walk the streets and “salat” (muslim prayers) came from the prominent mosque.

As the road turns inland from Kigoma the asphalt ends after about 30km and deteriorates into the classic stereotype – a red dirt road, pot-holed and hemmed in by lush vegetation on both sides.  


It was on this road, about 80km from Kibondo that we broke the second of the two front leaf springs.  Hitting a pothole with a loud crack, Tonka deposited shattered pieces of spring onto the road.  Feeling annoyed with himself for not having replaced both springs when the first one broke, John picked up the debris from the road and we then plodded on slowly to Kibondo.


It was here that we witnessed the remarkable resourcefulness of African mechanics.  Pulling onto the muddy forecourt of what looked like a scrap metal yard, we had barely even pointed out the problem before three men crawled under the car and began removing the spring, using a tree stump to jack it off the ground.  In 15 minutes it was off, spread out on the ground and the subject of much debate by a growing group of onlookers (including our hotel manager who was translating for us.)  All eager to help the “mzungu” they looked only briefly unsure of their next move.  Then one of them spotted the remnants of spring John had saved in the foot well, and they sprang into action again.  It’s worth noting at this point that the salvaged pieces accounted for only about half those which had fallen onto the road.  But the scrapyard surgeons were unperturbed.  Wheeling out a truly lethal looking electric welder, they hooked up this contraption to an overhead power line, its threadbare cables snaking from one muddy puddle to the next.  Looking more like they were about to raise Frankenstein than fix a car, they immediately got to work.  Sunglasses were donned, electricity flashed, sparks flew and in the midst of all this a hammer was wielded as if by Thor himself.  From this crackling inferno an object was finally borne forth, not Excalibur, but rather a very acceptable looking spring.  Subject to one finally frenzied beating of the hammer, the “new” spring was fitted back under the car in no time.  This was truly an amazing result – it worked perfectly.  It had taken 3 hours and cost £30 but best of all it was a complete rejection of the throw away attitude we have in the West.  This was fixing a car, African style.

After spending the night in a cheap local hotel, we were ushered into a downstairs room for breakfast.  A feast of carbohydrates was laid out before us, from which any semblance of flavour had long since been removed by inexorable boiling.  Boiled plantain, boiled cassava, boiled chicken and boiled beans each vied with one another for new levels of blandness.  To liven things up, a plain chapatti decorated the otherwise anaemic plate.  After picking at this generous but thoroughly unsatisfying meal, we bid farewell to Kibondo.

The road north from here becomes increasingly remote, until it is squeezed into the bottleneck of north-western Tanzania, hemmed in by Rwanda to the West, Lake Victoria to the East and Uganda to the North.  This region has unfortunately seen more than its fair share of bandit attacks in recent years, although currently the situation seems to be improving in the wake of the rapid road expansion projects which are underway.  Our Sat Nav ominously marked this road as “Armed Escort.”  

This is no longer the norm however, the escorts having been replaced by regular military and police check points.  The sight of a road block flanked by large men with machine guns was initially intimidating, until their faces inevitably broke into wide smiles as they asked about our favourite football teams.  We soon got used to them. 

It had been our intention to enter Rwanda from this road via the Rusumo Falls border crossing. It was this border post which gained tragic infamy during the 1994 genocide – as thousands of Tutsis queued on the bridge trying to cross into Tanzania, a steady stream of corpses were carried over the falls below them.  But we were still waiting for Josi’s online Danish visa for Rwanda to be issued, and so we had no choice but to press on to Uganda and try to enter Rwanda from there.

Our final night in Tanzania was spent close to the shore of Lake Victoria in Bukoba, literally a pivotal point in our journey.  From here, the circumference of this grandest of African lakes would lead us through Uganda and Kenya before pointing us south into Tanzania once more.  

But first we had to head west, towards the DRC border, in search of those elusive Gorillas in the mist…

Days in Africa: 78
Km driven: 1,155km
Km total:  10,902km

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