On the road in Tanzania

The road to Arusha—a crossroads town on the route to Nairobi and the jumping-off point for most safaris—runs northwest from the coastal plain through sandy brush country to the mountain range that forms the northern border of Tanzania, leading to the Great Rift Valley and Mount Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet), the highest peak on the African continent and the highest free-standing mountain (not part of a range) in the world.

The 17th in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2019) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/

It’s a heavily traveled route, used by trucks heading from Kenya and Uganda to the coast. For long distances, people travel in a minibus (shared taxi), a matutu. The word is derived from a Swahili colloquialism meaning three, but we were told that in practice it means “there’s always room for three more.” Although the road surface is well maintained, it’s a two-lane most of the way; despite frequent speed bumps, crashes are common, and on the return trip we saw several vehicles off the road. The danger of accidents is increased by the number of people on the road, most on foot, some on bicycles, carrying produce, firewood, building materials, farm tools. For women, the go-anywhere-hold-anything five-gallon plastic bucket (in blue, red, yellow or black) seems to have replaced the traditional basket or pitcher as the vessel of choice to carry on the head. 

Most rural people live on what they grow and raise—maize (corn), beans, sweet potatoes, bananas—with a few goats, cattle and chickens. Because of the tropical climate, farmers plant two crops a year; as we traveled northwest, fields were being burned in preparation for planting and the rains, due to start at the end of March and last until May. Most cash crops—tea, coffee, cashew nuts and sisal (which looks like a giant yucca plant or an upside-down pineapple)—are grown at higher altitudes on commercial farms and have a single growing season. 

We arrived in Arusha after nine hot hours on the road. At the hotel, some of the 70 students were welcomed by their parents, who had flown into Nairobi three days earlier to join us for the safari. We left the next morning—a total of 102 people, in 13 eight-passenger Toyota safari vans, each with a driver. Our driver was Franky.

An hour out of Arusha, we turned off the main road. It was the last blacktop we would see for three days. Safari guides delight in telling you that there are three types of roads in Tanzania—the good, the bad and the ugly. For those three days, our travel was on the bad-ugly continuum. There’s a positive side to the problem: rutted, rocky roads (impassable during the rainy season) deter tourists from driving cars into wildlife preserves. Who wants a flat tire or an overheated radiator when you’ve stopped to photograph the lions? The parks restrict vehicles to those with safari guides, so most are four-wheel drives. Still, the going was tough. Franky reckoned that most vans did not last more than four years on the safari circuit. Some end up in Dar, where they have a few extra years of useful life as matutus.

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By early evening, we reached our first safari destination. The 100 square mile Ngorongoro Crater, created by volcanic and rock movements in the Rift Valley, is one of the great natural wonders of the world. Because it’s relatively isolated, it’s a haven for wildlife. From the observation deck of the Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge before dinner, we scanned the crater floor, 2,000 feet below, with binoculars. Herds of wildebeest and Cape buffalo were on the move. We saw two elephants and a white rhino. It was exciting to think that next morning we would be in the crater itself. After a mildly exotic dinner, featuring barbecued gazelle kebabs (on the chewy side) and roast warthog with barbecue sauce, we turned in early. You can’t lounge around in bed when animals are waiting to be seen. The wake-up call was at 5:30 a.m.

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In the early-morning light, we descended a winding, rocky road to the floor of the crater.  Everywhere we looked, there were animals—herds of zebras, wildebeest, Cape buffalo, Thompson’s gazelles, flocks of flamingoes. We watched a group of hippos, keeping cool in a pool. As they shifted to find more comfortable positions, often resting their heads on others, our cameras clicked away at huge yawns and what looked like contented grins.

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Then Franky got a call from another safari driver—a rare black rhinoceros had been sighted. We sped off to the location. Poaching has vastly reduced the population of black rhinos in the crater. Their horns fetch a high price on Asian markets where they’re ground into powder, mixed with other substances, and sold to males who believe the potion will increase their virility.

Next week: Safari blues