Herding Cows and Back to Zanzibar

Herding Cows in Arusha

 As part of our continuing journey back to Tanzania, we head to Dar es Salaam to inspect our Landrover. And then we fly to Zanzibar after a gap of four years.

Life at the base of Mount Meru was calm and pleasant. We unpacked our numerous bags and sorted camping equipment from scuba kit, the former staying in Arusha and the latter going to Zanzibar. Dear friends Hagai and Hila, whose Matembezi company owns the Katambuga House hotel, were also resident, having just spent three months in Tanzania. It was their recent journey around Katavi and the lake that inspired our latest trip.

 The food in Katambuga House is a prime attraction as the chef is really rather good. I could feel my belly swelling with the intake of his cuisine – and I couldn’t blame the high mountain air for much longer! In an effort to reduce said swelling, we went for a brisk stroll down the nearby dust road to find the nearest supermarket, petrol station and chemist, supplies from which would all be needed when we returned this way with our Land Rover.

 As we ambled, a herd of cows suddenly appeared out of the bush to our left, prodded along by a youngish bearded man called Nyerere . 

“How are you?” I enquired. 

“I’m fine, I’m very happy,” he replied. 

“I’m guessing there is no coronavirus here?” I added cautiously. 

“We have been protected,” he said earnestly. “Our president told us to pray, and so we prayed and we have no virus. Unlike Europe. When I look at Europe, I feel they have been punished for some sins. And even Kenya – look at Kenya,” he said very seriously.

 The Tanzanians don’t have a enormous amount of love for their Swahili-Speaking brothers north of the imaginary border created by the imperial powers of Britain and Germany.  

 “And here we are. Tanzania is safe and clean because we are clean people,” came his closing remark.

 Nyerere was walking barefoot in a rather ragged pair of blue tracksuit bottoms and a football shirt that may have come from Europe. He didn’t own these cows, they belonged to his boss, a mythical man somewhere far away. Nyerere simply took the cows out in the morning, looked after them all day, and then at 4 pm, brought them back to where they were supposed to be. Our conversation lasted until the petrol station, where he turned his cows west towards the mountains and we turned east towards a coffee shop.

Coming back to Tanzania has been remarkably like going back in time to a past life. In that past life, I experienced fears, frustrations and concerns that sometimes can be hard to explain to someone who has not lived on a small African island, or in Africa. I was glad to leave Tanzania four years ago, and at that time, I never thought I’d ever come back on holiday.

And never did I imagine that if I did come back, I would end up helping herd cows along a dusty road. What surprised me the most about my meeting with Nyerere was how well my Swahili came back. Without thinking, I was conversing freely. It isn’t my first, second or even third language, so I made no effort to be grammatically correct. All I wanted to do was converse and get my point across. So when Nyerere said ‘You speak really good Swahili’, he was paying me a very high compliment.

 No matter how pleasant the cool mountain air at Katambuga House, we simply couldn’t stay for much longer. Arif Sheikh, our gifted garage owner and Land Rover guru, was calling us to Dar Es Salaam to come inspect Tigger, our beloved Landy. And soon taxi driver Hussein reappeared with his air-conditioned Toyota, took us on a deep swing south of Arusha town on the new ring road between the hills and a new clean township, and delivered us to the airport.

Meeting Tigger Again

 Within an hour, we were loading our scuba gear onto the check-in scales at Kilimanjaro International airport. Most tourists get around Tanzania in tiny Cessna Caravans buzzing in and out of Arusha’s tiny airport to and from bush air strips.

 I don’t mind flying in light aircraft when I’m going into the bush. However, if I am to fly 300 odd miles from a 12,000ft concrete runway to another, I’d rather be in something with a little more comfort and, more importantly, two engines – which the Precision Air ATR 72 has. It is also fully air-conditioned with comfortable leather seats and enough legroom to fit in my bulky frame. Some 60 uneventful minutes later, we gently touched down at Dar Es Salaam International airport.
A taxi driver took us to the FQ Hotel where we dumped bags in our room, and then jumped back into the taxi to go straight to Arif’s garage. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but as we walked inside, we saw a recently-painted Land Rover load bed. “Hmmm, that’ll take a few days to put back together again,” I said to myself, assuming that it was our vehicle.

I looked around the dusty yard. There were many different Land Rovers in various states of repair and disrepair. A long wheelbase, a short wheelbase pick-up, and a couple of ex-army 110s that Arif was probably going to convert to some kind of neo ‘long-range desert group’ machine gun carrier for the Tanzanian army.

 Then I noticed a rather clean-looking beige 90 with a roof rack, surrounded by a gaggle of mechanics working flat out. Was this our Land Rover? I looked more closely and saw the wheels were those of a 90SV. It was indeed Tigger (so named as Francisca was a fan of Winnie the Pooh) with its three seats, a roof hatch for game viewing – and an engine that was running smoothly.

 As I silently contemplated Tigger, Arif looked at me nervously and said: 

“Say something. Say something nice ……..” He was clearly worried that I wouldn’t be happy. In fact, I was worried that we might have to stay in Dar es Salaam for much longer than planned if the vehicle wasn’t right.

 I walked slowly around the Land Rover, staring at all the finer details. Tigger had been a present for Francisca almost 15 years ago, and a vital tool so that we could build our hotel in the north of Pemba island. The small 4×4 had carried workers every day, a ton of sand on many an occasion, and once the hotel had been built, it transported all of our food back and forth, and pulled our dive boats from the sea.

But faithful Tigger had also been abused. Ignoring specific instructions, our European staff had mis-used Francsica’s car. They had beaten and battered it, used it for jollies, and never maintained it. The final straw was when one errant manager, either drunk or on drugs, had rolled Tigger, leading local Pembans to nickname that spot as ‘cocaine corner’. And then Tigger had been left to sit in this garage yard for five lonely years.

 For some reason, Tanzania brings out a streak of stubbornness in me. In the first place,I was stubborn to come to Tanzania. Then when things went badly wrong, I was stubborn enough to stay. When things became untenable, I stubbornly refused to leave. When the company ran out of money in the global financial crisis (our own staff stole $62,000), I still stubbornly stayed put, pumping in my own finances until I had no more. While it nearly killed me, the stubbornness did pay off. Francisca and I turned the business around so that it was a successful and profitable entity, and then sold it.

 My last morsels of stubbornness were devoted to Tigger, and Francisca’s desire to keep her beloved vehicle. So Tigger was shipped to Arif in Dar es Salaam, where he changed the chassis before it fell in two. And there Tigger sat: it would’ve been cheaper to abandon him totally, or break him for spare parts.

 But this was Francisca‘s first and only car, and deserved better. When the pandemic was in full swing, I rang Arif and said “Go ahead and fix it, I’ll see you in a year.” When BoJo and Dr Death Whitty interfered in our lives, I cut that year to one month – much to Arif’s consternation. But he and his lads pulled it off, as there in front of me was what looked and felt like a brand new Land Rover.

 “Raf, I need to do some testing on her,” Arif declared, breaking into my thoughts. “Sure, sure,” I replied “but can I pick her up on Monday 26th?” Grinning, he said “No ways, man …. you can pick it up on Friday, but just bear in mind that we might still have to fix a few things.”

 And that’s how we left it.

Back To Zanzibar

Dar es Salaam has long white sandy beaches, great marine life, and first-class hotels – but it’s not cheap. So we headed back out to the aerodrome and onto Precision Air, and a short flip of 15 minutes brought us to Zanzibar’s Amani Abeid Karume international airport.

 If our arrival in Tanzania had been slightly odd, our arrival into Zanzibar was bizarre. We landed on what looked like a desolate plain of concrete, with only one Cessna unloading tourists. They were all young men and women wearing identical dark brown safari gear. A slim blond girl in a sleeveless dress and colour-matched suede high heel ankle boots posed against the white cowling of the Cessna. The whole thing looked like a fashion shoot on the tarmac of Zanzibar airport. Then I noticed a photographer and I wondered if it actually was a fashion shoot.

 An Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 broke the afternoon silence as it landed and the pilot applied full reverse thrust. 

“Quick, let’s go,” I said to Cisca, “the terminal will be slammed with bloody tourists in minutes,” and we rushed inside.  An immigration officer stood in the arrivals hall, ready to exercise his authority over those entering his semi-autonomous state. 

“Are you a tourist?” he asked, thumbing through our passports. “Yes,” I replied wryly, giving an answer I had not given in 25 years, “I am indeed a tourist.”

 “Then you are most welcome,” he smiled, returning my documents.

 We pushed our bags outside and stood underneath a large mango tree and then…. just stood there. As we waited patiently for our taxi, we watched sweating tourists arrive off the Ethiopian plane and clamber into transfer buses and taxis. Then a car pulled up nearbyand a man with an enormous Afro jumped out. I recognized him as Massoud, the co-owner of Stone Cafe & Bed & Breakfast.

 “Massoudeeeeee,” I shouted in a Swahili-style greeting. He turned around and glanced vaguely in our direction and waved curtly. As a business owner in Zanzibar, he was used to being greeted by strangers. As he came closer, I shouted again in my best Swahili accent: “Massoudi, wehhhh wehhhhhhhh, have you forgotten your old friends?!”

 Clearly irritated, he wandered towards the tree, wondering which local was going to ask him for money for some wild project. Then as he entered the shade, his eyes widened as he saw us, then ran forward with arms outstretched and embraced us both in a massive hug.

 “You’ve come back!” he said excitedly. “Are you going to Pemba? I am going to Pemba.”

“No, no, Massoud, we’re just here for two days,” I replied. “And then what are you going to do?” 

 “We’re going to the mainland to drive our Land Rover all around Tanzania, visiting all the best sites so we can photograph and video and blog. We want to show people how safe Tanzania really is.”

 “And after that?” he enquired. “We will come back to Zanzibar to some scuba-diving, and see some hotels.”

 “I’ll see you then!” was his cheery farewell as he ran for his plane to Pemba. And with that, our taxi driver Haji, (Tel: 0777 494753) arrived.

 Our first priority was to catch up with Julia Bishop, an old friend from Pemba, but before that, I needed to renew my Pemba driving licence. I’ve held a passenger and heavy goods vehicle licence since 1999, and remembered well how I got it. The local road traffic authority decided that the best way for me to prove that I was worthy of my licence was for me to drive my 20-ton Tata truck-bus for a year.  If during that time, I had neither crashed nor killed anyone, I’d get my HGV licence. So I drove very carefully for the year, got my licence, and continued to drive carefully for the next 19 years. It’s a document I didn’t want to lose, so off I went to the Zanzibar Revenue Board and asked to renew it.

 “Of course,” said a kind lady. “Sit down, please” and she took my photograph. She gave me a chit and told me to pay 60,000 Tanzanian shillings (about £20) at the bank. On my way out of the building, a man with a mobile phone and green waistcoat stopped me. “I’ll send the money for you, but it’ll cost you 4,000 shillings,” he said.

 I gave him the money, he tapped away on his mobile phone, then took my chit and squiggled his signature on the back. “Go to cashier number one,” he instructed. I did so, the cashier looked at the squiggle, nodded her head, typed some details into her computer, and issued me with a large printed receipt. I went back to where I had had my photo taken, another lady shouted out ‘Mir’, I walked in and she handed me my pre-printed and updated driving licence endorsed to operate just about every kind of civil vehicle in Tanzania.

 The whole transaction had taken 15 minutes, and I was soon back in Haji’s air-conditioned taxi and on my way to Stone Town café to meet Julia. We caught up on all the news, but as owner of Hodi Hodi House in Zanzibar and Ruaha, she was keen to pick our brains. 

“What are your impressions?” she asked somewhat delicately. 

“Overwhelmingly positive,” I stated firmly. “Tanzania is clearly open, the infrastructure has improved so much, and the people are still as friendly as ever.”

And as I said that, it struck me that Tanzania hadn’t just been a large part of my life for 20 years. It had been my whole life for 20 years. It felt good to be back. Would that feeling persist? Time will tell as we travel on.