EPIC ROAD TRIP
Road-rattled in Tanzania – driving the dirty devil to gin, good coffee and views to soothe the weariest soul
On their return journey from Rwanda, Bridget Hilton-Barber and Hugh Fraser encounter homophobia and a colourful cacophony in Kahama, Tanzania, and a welcoming host and breathtaking views in Mbeya.
Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and the town of Kahama in northwestern Tanzania are only 455km apart but remarkably different in setting and psyche.
Whereas Kigali is mountainous, clean, neat and orderly, Kahama is flat, wild and chaotic. It felt like an Afro Wild West stage set as we pulled in wearily at sunset, inching towards the town centre through a loud, congested bedlam of trucks, chapas (minibuses) SUVs, honking tuk-tuks and swarms of motorbikes with up to four passengers, no helmets required.
There’s an inordinate number of truck- and car-fixing places – brake and clutch, exhausts, tyres, welding, chassis, windscreens. There are busy markets, spaza shops, alleyways filled with restaurants and bars, smoke, loud music, sex workers, chickens and life.
Kahama, it seems, is always full. We tried about five different places before we found a clean, cheap flophouse for the night.
“It is absolutely prohibited, not allowed, for two people of the same sex to share a double bedroom,” said a notice at the reception. It was the first blatantly homophobic message we’d encountered on our trip and it felt so at odds with this colourful riot of trade and people they call Kahama. Next door, the restaurant thrummed with music and laughter.
Homosexuality is a criminal offence in Tanzania. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people here face severe discrimination and harassment.
Much of the homophobia is stirred by American missionary churches. Before colonisation, many Tanzanian ethnic groups, like the Swahili, accepted homosexuality or viewed it with indifference.
We fled Kahama at dawn and turned onto the highway, south towards Mbeya. Highway was an overstatement, we soon realised.
We had no option but to stay at the homophobic flophouse. We also had no option but to share a bed for the night, since it seemed every other bed in the whole of Kahama was filled and apparently not with same-sex people. Our bed was a kitsch purple affair with a flouncy mosquito net, more fit for a shotgun-wedding honeymoon night than a nest for two tired old friends. We slept like the dead.
Tanzania is huge and the distances are long. We’d left Rwanda and crossed at Rusumo border post into Tanzania. We’d returned to driving on the left-hand side, the roads were reasonable to potholed, and the traffic mainly enormous trucks and very small cars. We had passed the occasional village with roadside markets and soccer fields, and then gone back to great open spaces with golden boulders, ancient trees, blue skies and herds of noble Ankole cattle.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Blissed out on Tanzania’s dirt roads, gorilla-lite and and yummy chipsi mayai
We fled Kahama at dawn and turned onto the highway, south towards Mbeya. Highway was an overstatement, we soon realised. We drove the equivalent distance from Jozi to Durban on a really difficult dirt road, a single lane with treacherous dongas and potholes, boulders and sandy patches. For people travelling, like us, from the north to the south of Tanzania, this dirty devil road really is the only way.
Many of the game areas in this part of Tanzania are hunting concessions, although we saw no safari vehicles at all. A long stretch of the dirty devil road goes through old gold-mining areas, where illegal mining is said to continue. There are villages, poor, remote and wild, where young men man roadblocks and everything feels weirdly uneasy.
Mercifully, we were back on the tar road when we got a flat tyre. The dirty devil road had completely eaten the back right one on Hugh’s Subaru. He did the manly thing and put on the spare wheel while I wore a DayGlo vest and tried not to cry. We’d run out of data so we couldn’t call anywhere, and it was dark now. Tanzanians are lovely people, however, and we were offered help, eventually driving safely on.
It was well after 9pm when we wound our way down the mountain to the city of Mbeya and hooted outside the place where we were to be staying. We had been driving for 13 hours by then.
These Tanzania peaberry coffee beans are lightly roasted, with a hint of dark fruits, which made a pleasant change from heavily shredded tyres with rich flavours of desperation.
“What the hell are you doing here so late?” yelled the owner, Paul Metcalfe, several dogs barking and snarling around him. Hugh and I tearfully explained about our epic trip, long day, shredded tyres, loss of data, loss of hope in just about everything. Paul made us food, plied us with wine and sent us to bed.
He turned out to be a real darling and helped us with getting two new tyres (one was shredded, another alarmingly bald) without getting ripped off. Hugh entertained the guys at the tyre-fitting place with a talk about our Epic Road Trip and a map drawn on his hand in pen.
Paul also introduced us to Tanzanian peaberry coffee, a rare African coffee varietal grown in the Mbeya region. These wonderfully smooth and full-bodied Tanzania peaberry coffee beans are lightly roasted, with a hint of dark fruits, which made a pleasant change from heavily shredded tyres with rich flavours of desperation.
Gentle and fun
We drove up to have a G&T at World’s View, which overlooks the Great Rift Valley. What a glorious place, the highest point in southern Tanzania at 2,961m, with views to soothe the weariest soul. Mbeya itself sits at 1,700m and is surrounded by high mountains, most notably the Loleza Peak, which is 2,656m high.
Mbeya is known as the green city because of its high rainfall and surrounding agriculture. And, because of its location in a highland valley, Mbeya is also sometimes called the Scotland of Africa. Which is about as plausible as Lesotho being called the Switzerland of Africa, but we let it go.
We had gin, we had new tyres, we had coffee, we had data; we were homeward bound, even if we still had to drive more than 5,000km.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Slowly, slowly getting hassled by cops before relaxing at a beautiful lake lodge in Tanzania
There’s a deliciously spicy Indian influence in Tanzania, and we ate that night at Aslaam Tandoori, a local street café right next to the tyre shop, funnily enough.
The chef cooked marinaded chicken on an open coal fire. The bright, fiery colour, he said, was from good-quality Kashmiri red chilli powder, which gives an intense red hue to the food but is mild on spice.
We talked politics. Tanzania has a Muslim woman president, you know; we talked of Zimbabwe and the diaspora, many living in Zambia and Tanzania now, like Paul, who used to farm near Harare.
Mbeya was gentle and fun. We ate well and slept well; we washed our clothes. We cleaned the car for the first time since we left, unearthing interesting green things and a pair of spectacles I thought I’d lost in Botswana.
We left a few mornings later in the direction of Malawi on the B345, one of the most beautiful drives of our Epic Road Trip: green mountains with old stone villages, pockets of tea plantations, fields of coffee and bananas, meadows of sweet potatoes, potatoes and cassava. Life was sweet and the warm heart of Africa was in easy reach. DM
Our Epic Road Trip was sponsored by ClemenGold Gin.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.