Dar es Salaam to the Serengeti

Land Rover Rebuild

We arrived back in Dar es Salaam and Arif declared that the Landy was suddenly running hot. He opened the radiator reservoir to find that the head gasket had blown. Mournfully, he kept saying:

The fishing trade in Bagamoyo, The fisherment were men, but the ladies did the purchasing, to sell their fish inland.

“This is what I was frightened of.” 

“Let’s find what the problem is,” I replied, and cajoled him and his mechanics to prepare the vehicle for surgery. It turned out not to be the head gasket, but the head itself. Subsequently, Arif seemed to go off the boil, and I found I was having to call him constantly for progress reports. Alas, there were no 200 Tdi cylinder heads in Tanzania, forcing us to look for an undamaged second-hand head.

Arif eventually found one, insisting on showing it to me first before starting work. Six hours later, he urged me to take the Land Rover for a test drive out to the airport, a nervous journey that I didn’t enjoy. And so it was near midnight. I was starving, but Dar es Salaam had changed. No longer the tourist and fossil fuel boomtown, it was generally shut at 1030. The 24 hour café in the seacliff was now shut at 1030. Only the British pub, the George and Dragon[BD1]  was still open. Catering to upmarket Tanzanian sports fans, they welcomed us and we were able to order beer and a light pub dinner.

Next day, Arif kept on tinkering and we only left Dar es Salaam at about 4pm. A trundle through heavy traffic brought us to Bagamoyo whose north-easterly long sandy beach protected us from the wind. We arrived in complete darkness to the Millennium Beach hotel where we were the only two guests. A quick meal of fried changu (snapper) and rice, then, exhausted, we turned in.

Just after dawn, we strolled down to the main harbour (essentially a large patch of sand) and watched fishermen bringing in their catch. The old German fort had been replaced by a couple of containers, staffed by fierce-looking officials who taxed everything coming into Zanzibar and every kilo of fish that was sold.

Later, as we drove out of Bagamoyo, we looked to stock up on oil, brake fluid and other motoring essentials. The dusty tracks masquerading as roads reminded me of northern Pemba: there was little to recommend Bagamoyo, apart from its beach market and friendly people.

Zanzobari Dhows come from Stone Town to Bagamoyo bringing vegetable oil. They sailed back with wood and construction materials in a trade that is centuries old.

We refueled, only to find the fuel tank leaked – another of Arif’s half-baked jobs. We drove 70km inland on a good road and arrived at Msata, where we joined the Trans-African Highway that runs from Cairo to Cape Town (interrupted only by a small ferry at Lake Nasser). Tigger’s steering had never been quite right, but now it started to pull left, then right – something was clearly wrong. We descended the steep gorge to the Wami river and then ascended the other side, rested a rise and travelled along a beautiful ridge edged with green leaves and deep red earth.

Suddenly the vehicle stopped, and try as I might, I just couldn’t get Tigger to fire up.

Stranded In Makole

Our Landrover 90 SV may have been one of 250 ever built, but we were stranded in a small village which I had never been to.

A passer-by asked if I was OK as I put on the hazard lights and an intercity bus hurtled past. I waved frantically and shouted:

“Help me, please, push me off the road!” He flagged down some other men who pushed us back off the highway where, after some investigation, it was clear that the right-hand front wheel bearing had disintegrated.

“I need a mechanic,” I told the assembling crowd, and as is the way in Tanzania, one Hassan was found and brought to us on a motorbike. Hassan had been on holiday nearby because his workshop in Dar es Salaam was closed for the elections.

Hassan the mechanic and his childhood friend Kenneth worked away on our landrover all day and the next. They never asked for payment until the last day, and were very happy with TSh 45,000 each.

Borrowing some tools from a local, he managed to get most of the damaged wheel apart. It was extremely slow going as we didn’t have a hub spanner, something I’d foolishly given away a long time ago. He beat our hub lock nuts with a blunt chisel, ably assisted by a young man called Kenneth, who was clearly Hassan’s best friend.

Eventually Hassan had to drive 20km back to Msata to find spares – there weren’t any. Someone asked: “Shall we go to Chalinze to get some?” But I knew that all the spare parts in Chalinze were Chinese rubbish. Puzzling over the situation, it struck me that we were sitting just off the Cairo to Cape Town highway, a route I’ve driven end to end on quite a few occasions. I’d driven past this very village for the last 22 years of my life, never stopping or considering the people there. It was only now that we were the beneficiaries of their friendship and helpfulness.

Arif called me and said that he’d send his mechanics on a bus the next day. One of the village ladies suggested we leave Tigger overnight and get a bus back to the village. I called Hassan, who was still in Msata, to find a clean guest house, which he did, paying for our stay and then flagging down an intercity coach from Tanga to Dar Es Salaam. The bus was rammed so we had to sit on the floor, away from the prying eyes of any weighbridge officials.  An hour later, we were installed in the KK Plaza and Lounge, a bold name for an open-air road-side restaurant, enjoying cold beer and chicken and chips.

Msata had been transformed by the new road[BD2]  that linked the pan African highway to Bagamoyo. Gone were the wattle and daub huts, and it was now the all important junction between Dar es Salaam and Cairo. Concrete air-conditioned guest houses and shops abounded. The road had brought prosperity and business. The ladies who worked in the restaurant weren’t local and came to Msata for work. We killed time, walking around and looking to buy some glue and tools.

I hated that I wasn’t in control of the situation – and was very mindful that photographer friend Sarah was joining us in three days in a town 500 kms away. We needed a vehicle that worked, or our trans-Tanzania safari was dead before it really got going.

The next morning, we strolled into the nearby bush, following an earth and gravel track. Motorbikes buzzed back and forth, carrying charcoal, wood and passengers from one village to another. After a mile and a half, we returned as a light rain started.

Taking temporary shelter under a tree, we chatted to some schoolchildren keen to practice their English before returning to our accommodation. Arif arrived at 3pm, drove us up to Makole and set his men to work. He sheepishly admitted that he had fitted fake Chinese bearings, and so embarrassed was he that he replaced the bearings on all four wheels.

Onwards …. To Another Engine Rebuild

Arif’s team finished at 9pm, and we drove through the night to Korogwe, stopping at numerous police checkpoints. The police were polite and conscientious, assuring us that there were bandits on the road ahead. I recalled an earlier decade when only a first-rate fool would chance this stretch of road at night.

This was all part of the new Tanzania engineered by its pioneering if somewhat authoritarian president Dr John Pombe Magufuli: his achievements in modernising Tanzania and stamping on corruption surrounded us. At midnight, we pulled into a spotless Korogwe executive lodge and were soon asleep.

After a mediocre breakfast, we headed northwest to Arusha. At this time, Tanzania was holding elections, with citizens making their way to tiny polling stations to cast their vote. The Usambara mountains were a stunning backdrop to our right, but as we entered the ring road around Arusha, Tigger’s oil warning light flashed twice, then disappeared.

The offending bearing

I had no idea what it was, but having stopped, Hagai Zvulun of Matembezi Safaris came to our rescue. He assigned his workshop foreman Geoff and his team to us, and it wasn’t long before aluminium fragments were found in the sump. I agreed further investigations, which meant taking Tigger apart. The crank shaft was removed, tested and replaced with new bearings all round. A cracked oil pump was also replaced, and on noting the wheels were in poor shape, Geoff changed the tyres and realigned the wheels. The work was done by 10pm, which meant that we could now drive to pick up Sarah whom we had delayed for a further 48 hours.

THe Tanzanians are industrious and ingenious. Here you can see Abdul resaligning our wheels (which were so badly out) at 7pm at night in his Arusha wheel alignment centre. We were blown away with his efficiency and honesty, and how late he worked!

On Safari 

We left Arusha early the following morning and drove 100km due north towards Kenya. An immigration officer stopped us near the border, inspected our passports, and cheerfully wished us a good safari.

At Longido, we turned west and drove another 100km into the bush on an earth track that became progressively worse and more akin to a desert trail. At a turn-off, we came across a four wheel-drive Toyota truck laden with gin and firmly stuck in the soft sand. We helped pull the gin wagon out of its quandary (a basic African rule – help others) and continued on north to our target of Lake Natron. 

Never leave a man behind. Here we pulled out the gin truck. Common decency to help another who is stuck by the side of the road.

The volcanic peak of Oldonyo Lengai appeared and then passed to our south, while in front, the Rift Valley escarpment came into view and we could see the hills of Kenya. Dusty, filthy and tired, we pulled into Lake Natron camp where, surrounded by dust and next to a large soda lake populated with squawking flamingos and pelicans, we felt as though we had arrived on the edge of the earth.

Tigger in front of Oldonyo Lengai, the mountain sacred to the Masaii people. Its not a hard climb, but we chose not to.

After two days of photographing thousands of lesser and greater flamingos, we left Lake Natron early in the morning, driving over the punishing rocky moonscape that is northern Tanzania. Bouncing and grinding through the gears, we ascended the Rift Valley escarpment on a narrow bumpy path. After refuelling in Loliondo, we continued on an appalling rutted dry mud track through indigenous trees and green bush to the Kleins Gate of the Serengeti National Park.

We still had three hours of driving on medium-to-bad tracks until, 10 hours after departing Lake Natron, we arrived at the Kogatende airstrip office of Tanzania National Parks.  The warden was a kind and intelligent man who allocated us a piece of earth near crossing number 5 (or was it 6?) of the Mara river. It was simply a spot in the bush, with absolutely no facilities. Francisca and Sara set up tents while I foraged for firewood. There were no fences or barriers around our camp, and we needed the fire to be able to sit around. Animals do not like fire, and will generally keep well clear of it. Humans therefore make the fire and sit around it, knowing that they can relax. It is however a foolish human who allows his fire to go down to embers in the African night, for then he may loose a leg to a Hyena. I therefore found as much wood as I could. Cisca made dinner on our gas cylinder, and we consumed dinner by firelight, listening to the hippos and hyenas until we ran out of wood. A curious hyena came to say hello, at which stage we retired to our tents.

We rose at 0430, prepared Tigger, and set off at 0600 sharp,

We came across a pride of lions in the very far north of the serengeti. Literally 200 metres from Kenya. We were guided here by our ground handler and operator in Tanzania, Matembezi safaris. It is so important to know where to go, and to have a good company operate your safari. (not everyone has their own landrover). We unashamedly promote The African and Oriental Travel Company

heading north to where the escarpment runs into Kenya. I was reminded of all my other trips into the Masai Mara and how close I had been to the border without ever crossing it. By 0620, we had been surrounded by 23 hyenas, and soon after, we saw a leopard next to the track, followed later by lions and elephant. The safari was on!

We were lucky to see the great migration of wildebeest in an almoste empty serengeti national park.
If you are going to fly around Tanzania, there are a number of great general avaiation airlines, that use Cessna caravan aircraft. These are ideal for operating out of bush strips. We use coastal aviation for our safaris or Auric Air. If you are on the coast and going in and out of Zanzibar, then Zanair operate excellent services to Zanzibar and Pemba.

PS – Why We’re Here

I wrote this from the Kogatende picnic tables near the airstrip. Before I post this story, I thought I should add my last Facebook post of last night which I hope better explains why we are camping in torrential rain or burning sun, rather than staying inside a small house in Wales.

Since my last post, the heavens opened and we got soaked trying to set up a temporary basha. We collected dry firewood, and managed to get the fire going with a snifter of kerosene (2 litres, in fact!), though Francisca had to cook the last 5 minutes of dinner in pouring rain. We were tired and grubby, but took the opportunity when the rain eased to have a teeny triple and relax – but only standing up while the fire dried our chairs

It’s been a very long series of days, with some tribulations thrown in to spice things up, and tomorrow starts at 0430 again. We’re here to show the world that Tanzania is safe, well-ordered, and welcomes visitors. But unable to afford lodges, we are bush-camping ie $50 per person for an open space in the middle of the Serengeti. That means we’re out here with the animals. Which is great …… as long as you don’t get caught in the first instalment of the short rainy season! 

Eventually my seat dried enough for me to sit by the fire. The hyenas shut up, and then lions started huffing and puffing: there is something majestic about the grumble of a lion. The photo (taken on my crummy Samsung phone) shows my seat, our dwindling fire, and the full moon rising. 

It’s now time for sleep, and how I do need it. But my thoughts do go to my friends who are entering another lockdown, and those whose businesses are at a standstill. I look forward to the day that we and they can return to Tanzania, stay in deluxe lodges, and enjoy a dark and stormy night while not getting wet.

Until the morning, this is Raf ‘out on this channel.’