Arusha to Mbeya, and then into Malawi, was never going to be an easy or quick journey, but if could be made any less easy or excruciatingly slower, leave it to the Tanzanians to make it so.
A 6am departure from Arusha and before we depart a man boards, announcing his chai for sale, he switches to English when he sees me,
‘How is your condition?’ he asks.
‘Fine, thank you and you?’
‘I am well too and I wish you a pleasant journey,’ and for most of the day, it was just that. Shortly after reaching the main highway, the buses TV screen flickered to life, a luxury on any Tanzanian bus. A buxom, joyous woman burst on to the screen, singing religious songs in Swahili. The DVD repeated three times before it was changed to a hip hop mix and that repeated three times as well. After lunch we were ‘entertained’ with a classic D-list martial arts film, Unstoppable III: The Redemption, the subtitle suggesting that in Unstoppable II, perhaps somebody was not so unstoppable after all.
As if taking a cue from the on board entertainment, the road soon deteriorated, as all good Tanzanian roads eventually do. The tarmac turned to dirt, the dirt to mud and the mud to slush. Eleven hours in we came to a complete stop in a slow motion face off with a truck coming in the other direction, the road not wide enough for the both of us. After much deliberation and then with all the manoeuvring of Austin Powers in a forklift, we passed each other and resumed our journey along an ever improving road. At 9pm, after 15hrs we slowly rolled into Iringa. I looked at my ticket, the destination read ‘Mbeya,’ which was at least another 4hrs away, so I asked the conductor,
‘Oh, my friend, it seems all the buses for Mbeya have finished today, but you can go tomorrow,’ somehow I thought there was never any intention of reaching Mbeya that day and in any case was quite happy to sleep after an early rise and long journey.
As far as 15hr bus journeys go, Arusha to Iringa was one of the best, there was on board entertainment, regular food stops, comfortable seats, spectacular scenery and free sodas in the afternoon.
So, the next stage should be even easier, but if anyone could possibly drag out the comparatively short trip to Mbeya it could only be the Tanzanians. The instruction seemed to be that the bus should stop at every town between Iringa and Mbeya, of which there are many – Tanzania is a country of around 46 million people, with most living rurally. There was also an apparent directive to double as a taxi, courier and greeting service, where on the outskirts of each town and selected stops on the highway, we would stop to pick up, drop off or simply say hello, to as many people as possible.
After a completely unnecessary 7 ½ hour crawl we arrived at Mbeya bus station and I was descended upon, like seagulls to chips, by touts offering me rides to Kyela, the border town, a touch over 100kms away. In no hurry, I ate one last chipsi mayai and then climbed aboard a mostly empty minibus. It filled quickly and then in typical Tanzanian style, doubled back through the streets we had entered Mbeya by.
About halfway to Kyela, we pulled into yet another bus station and the conductor called to me,
‘My friend, change your bus here,’
There was a flurry of discussion between the conductors as eight of us were hoarded onto the other bus, my third for the day. A Rasta man amongst us took exception, when half an hour later we had still not left the bus station, reassuring me that my own feelings of frustration were not misplaced. The conductor reasoned that not enough people were aboard, despite rows designed for four seating five. A classic Tanzanian scene of finger pointing and shouting ensued and the bus soon departed.
Only in Tanzania can a relatively easy 100km trip be stretched into an achingly long 4hr expedition in two different buses. Only in Tanzania can a 12hr trip be made to feel longer and considerably so, than the previous day’s 15hr journey. Finally, at Kyela, I took a piki piki (motorbike) to the border and quite happily exited Tanzania.
By no means is Malawi fast paced when held alongside its northern neighbour, but the relief of being out of Tanzania coupled with the thrill of a new country was enough to reinvigorate me as I headed for the border town of Karonga, to finally rest.
In Karonga I stumbled across Masuka Lodge, with its simple concrete box rooms containing a bed and mosquito net, it seemed a sufficient place to rest for the night. I patted the pillow and was happy with its softness, another win for Malawi over Tanzania, which has some of the world’s hardest and most uncomfortable pillows. Though when I lifted it and found the two condoms underneath I guessed overnight stays were not Masuka Lodge’s speciality. Nevertheless, the sheets were clean, the bed comfortable and the accommodation cheap, so it would do.
Chitimba to Livingstonia
After two days of sitting on buses I had real reason to wonder whether my legs still worked as they should. The beachside village of Chitimba was the perfect place to find out. The town of Livingstonia sat a mere 15kms uphill from Chitimba, described in my guidebook as a steep, four hour walk. Perfect.
I set off at 1.30pm, with a 250ml sachet of water, probably not the smartest time to begin a steep ascent nor anywhere near enough water, but I was so eager just to walk, to be active, to do be doing something after two days of bum numbing bumping on buses.
Half an hour in, I confirmed that my legs were working just as they should, save for a little rust. It was also when I met a group of Malawians, Julius, Joyce, Thomas, Grace and Rose, who were also making the climb, though out of necessity and not simply for leisure. After a brief rest we teamed up and set off together. They also introduced me to many ‘shortcuts,’ which while they may have technically made the walk shorter, they made it much steeper.
As my sachet of water grew ever smaller I only had to look ahead of me for inspiration, as Joyce, Grace and Rose not only made the climb with no water, but did it in thongs (flip flops) and with buckets on their heads. Like seeing an old man overtake you in a long distance running race, it drove me.
After one hour of walking together we ticked off Bend 6 (of 20) and soon after came across a sound that was sweeter than the most soulful siren song – water, trickling. Like Homer Simpson at the ‘All You Can Eat,’ we gorged, satiating our rabid thirst with the beautiful, glistening, pure rainwater that was coming down the mountain. After taking our fill we sat in the shade to rest, still with a mighty climb ahead of us. And so we continued on, with our water bottles and sachets refilled, the elusive Livingstonia was still hours away.
On we climbed and the views improved, Lake Malawi filled most of the horizon and the village of Chitimba had become a series of dots, looking down, it was hard to believe we had come so far. Finally, on the outskirts of Livingstonia, the air cooled, gum trees were a surprising comfort and my comrades gradually faded away, Thomas and Julius to a local bar and the ladies to their homes, no doubt with housework and dinner preparations still to do. By the time I reached the town centre I was done, spent. Channelling Sisyphus I had a quick look around, a drink of water and started my descent – as it stood I would be walking down the mountain as well, as no more than a handful of cars had passed us on the way up. Fortunately, my old friends the Travel Gods were looking upon me and with 10kms remaining and dusk threatening there came a rumble from beyond. Two men in TNM truck, a local telephone company, had finished work for the day and had just enough room to squeeze me in. We bumped and rocked down the stony road, never leaving 2nd gear. Back in Chitimba I sat a tired, yet satisfied man. My legs still worked, though in one day I might have ruined them more than the buses of Tanzania did in two.
As if the trek to Livingstonia was not enough, days later I set off in search of the Chongoni Rock Art. With my guide Mr Kondi, we climbed Chongoni Mountain, a 3 ½ hr return trip, up and down slippery, rocky and mossy tracks, through shoulder high grass and over rivers, all of which I was blissfully unaware of at our commencement. And once again, the Malawian was outdoing me – Mr. Kondi did it barefoot and at a cracking pace for a man of his years, all I could do was try to keep up.
Next episode… Zambia