Journey to Tanzania

Stymied By Boris

We planned to leave Istanbul but not back to Britain, to Tanzania!

During the covid pandemic, Francisca and I had kept in touch with our travel friends around the globe, and none more so than our multitude of old friends in Tanzania such as Nell.

How has corona affected you?” we would ask. “It hasn’t yet, we are waiting for it to happen,” would come the reply.

We’ve been in Turkey, promoting its scuba diving and history to the world, when suddenly Boris Johnson and his cronies decided that super-responsible and safe Turkey was now not so safe. If we returned to Britain, we would have to sit at home for two weeks. To say that we were furious is an understatement. Turkey is a global example of how to fight covid while keeping the economy open. 

When I voiced our frustration, Nell wrote back: “You might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb!” That message was the tipping point – we were going to Tanzania.

Let’s Go On Safari!

Addis Ababa Airport at dawn

We could decide how to deal with the British prime minister’s stupidity later, and thought that rather than sit in pointless quarantine In Britain, we should put our monies where our mouths are and go somewhere that was supposedly problematic for the British Chief medical officer. Our journey was to continue – by going south.

The idea was to get to Tanzania, find our old Land Rover, make sure it still worked, and then embark on a familiarisation trip taking in the whole country. We’d start in Dar es Salaam, head to Arusha, Lake Natron and the Kenyan frontier, carry on to the northern Serengeti and then west to Lake Tanganyika, Gombe Stream and the chimps of Dr Jane Goodall, before heading further south to dive in Lake Tanganyika before returning to the coast via the southern parks of Ruaha.

A map of Tanzania showing our route to Mwanza and then south

This itinerary meant we absolutely needed a working 4×4. I made a few frantic phone calls to a very chilled Arif Sheik, our garage owner friend and guardian of our aged Land Rover 90. Our desire to move ‘right now’ turned him from super-chilled to slightly frantic as he tried to do a year’s-worth of vehicle refurbishment in 20 days!

Elephant Tooth Coast

With the Land Rover being fettled way, we packed up our Istanbul flat and set off for the airport. Many may feel that there are few flights in this covid world, but when it came to getting to Tanzania, I was quite surprised.  Skyscanner showed a plethora of connections between Istanbul and Tanzania: Turkish Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines and Qatar Airways were front and centre with competitive pricing and regular departures.  As we wanted to do the standard tourist thing – going into Kilimanjaro and out via Zanzibar – Ethiopian Airlines seemed the best choice, if also the most expensive.

The motorway to Istanbul airport was empty, the terminal was clean, safe and efficiently-run, and the check-in team for Ethiopian Airlines were having a whale of a time, sending people all over Africa. They seemed to be loving their job.

Another bag for elephant tooth coast!” shouted an agent. “Where?” queried another, somewhat incredulously. “Elephant tooth coast,” repeated the first. The second agent tapped away on his terminal. “Oh, you mean Abidjan. Why didn’t you say?” he muttered, looking down at a paper printout. In Turkish, Côte d’Ivoire is translated as Elephant Tooth Coast.

“The Elephant tooth” file phot by Scott Bennett

The Ethiopian Airlines B737-800 was almost full to capacity with African traders, Turks, South African engineers and the odd European professional. We were to fly through the night from Istanbul to Addis Ababa and then change. A smooth take-off into the dark Turkish night, and we were on our way. Ethiopian Airlines put all Western carriers to shame with their service standard. We received a good hot inflight meal and a small bottle of wine, and I soon zoned out, waking over Sudan and glancing back at the lights of Jeddah before nodding off again.

Then, as dark began turning to dawn, we slammed down (and I do mean slammed) onto the runway at Addis Ababa. The Boeing bounced a bit, then the reversers came on and brakes were applied firmly, something of a necessity for stopping smartly at an altitude of 2400 metres. We disembarked into soft morning light and were bussed to the arrivals terminal.

Addis was certainly busy. Several hundred passengers had arrived from around the globe and were transiting through security. Some 50 Chinese in white hazmat suits were stopped from taking large hand-held radios through security. The Ethiopians were communicating in English, the Chinese were acting dumb and using hand signals, and supervisors of both races were summonsed to sort it out. We had no idea who won the argument, but it was rather bizarre and entertaining.

The airport lounge had stunning coffee and tibs fir fir (a flavourful Ethiopian beef dish). I enjoyed both while reading The Times on my tablet, and then, after a short call over the superb wifi to an old friend in Australia, it was time to board our flight to Tanzania.

Dreamlining And Dreaming

The B787 Dreamliner to Zanzibar and Kilimanjaro was packed with tourists, many of them French. A pair of ageing Brits and a young Austrian sat in front of us, talking animatedly. The Austrian lad was a serious traveller. He had been around the world, but had more to experience, such as the Trans-Siberian.

The rather miserable Brits were downbeat. “It’s so boring,” she said. “Three days of the same,” he said. “But I still want to travel on the Trans-Siberian express,” the Austrian restated. “It’s not worth it,” came the downbeat reply, before lecturing him on how the world was once wonderful but now terrible.

As we took off from Addis, I respected the fact that the gloomy Brits were travelling during covid, but disliked them for dismissing the poor Austrian’s travel aspirations. The world has naturally changed, it always has, but we have to see and experience what it is now, I feel.

The Dreamliner droned on over the harsh deserts of northern Kenya, and then, suddenly, we were across coast and into the Indian ocean near Shimoni. We turned due south and passed by Pemba island, our once-upon-a-time home for 20 years. It was under cloud cover, but I caught a glimpse of a beach, and was rather relieved that we didn’t need to return there.

the reefs of Zanzibar never grow old

Despite having done it a number of times, the view as we descended over the islands and reefs of the tropical paradise that is Zanzibar island was as gorgeous as ever. Once parked up, and with the seat belts sign off, Cisca stood up and handed the card of our friend Chris Stanley to the Austrian.

Our friend Chris runs the Trans-Siberian travel company. Speak to him. You’ll love it, it’s amazing – and it’s certainly not boring,” she told him. The pair of miserable Brits looked even more miserable.

Thank you so much,” he beamed. “Where are you diving?” I asked him. http://www.divepointzanzibar.comDive Point Zanzibar.”

Ethiopian Airlines fly to Tanzania every day

“An excellent organisation,” I told him, and he looked even happier. “Are you not scared of Covid?” I asked. “Fuck Covid,” he replied firmly.  I liked him even more – clearly my kind of traveller!

And then we sat, sweating for an hour on the ground at Zanzibar. The new terminal that was being built four years ago was still unfinished. Nothing had changed. As transit passengers we had to sit on board waiting for the new passengers to board. It was a bit warm, but soon enough we were pushing back to taxi out.

The Dreamliner took off in half the runway and climbed steeply up into the clouds of Zanzibar.The captain set course for Kilimanjaro and we cruised across Tanzania, the landscape alternating brown and then green. We saw Mt Kilimanjaro towering over the plains, before banking round for an uneventful landing. Immigration was fast, efficient, polite and very reasonable, with tourist visas issued in the blink of an eye.

Katambuga House Lodge

We were amongst the first through immigration, and yet our bags were there awaiting us – the ground handling team was certainly fast. What surprised me were the 100-plus tourists who disembarked and got into a series of safari-styled Land Cruisers.

the French hordes disembark

“How long have the planes been arriving full?” I asked our driver Hussein. “For the last month,“ he replied, adding “Over the summer, it was bad, but now the tourists are coming on every flight. We’re nowhere near full, and it’s great to have these arrivals.”

A full Dreamliner every two days does not mean a capacity tourist season, but it does mean that tourism in Tanzania has restarted.

Mt Meru as seen from our room

Driving us out of the airport, Hussein turned left to Arusha township. Almost immediately, we passed goats and donkeys being led by children across the brown earth with its short brown grass cover. We passed through villages and farmland before entering the long unattractive sprawl that was Arusha.

Moving on, we passed better-kept farm fields as we headed towards a line of hills and then pulled into an old colonial-styled farmhouse. This was Katambuga House hotel , the best location in Arusha. After unloading and paying Hussein, we stared up at Mt Meru in the soft evening light. The air temperature began dropping as the sun went down, while we sat on the grass and took in the smells and sounds. We were back in East Africa. We were back in real Africa, with its strong sun, red earth, cool breezes and life all around.

We both felt we were in a far different world. Covid politicking, lockdowns and quarantines seemed a long way away. Perhaps we were now getting a glimpse of how the world of travel might be, post-pandemic. Let’s hope so.