This is a collection from a Safari operator:

Dear Friends and Family,

I hope that this instalment of Dar Samachar finds you fresh and expectant, what with Spring about to arrive in Canada and the monsoons in India. It’s raining here as I write. We’ve had some, but not enough rain, it seems. People and the media do not wax endlessly eloquent about the weather here, so it’s hard to know if the rains have made a significant dent in the three year drought or not.

I am in fine fettle, while dear Marc-Antoine survived a recent hard disk crash on his computer with remarkable resilience. (Since his thesis was fully backed up, that was not an issue). The fact that he was able to put in an older hard disk also helped. He is racing towards a mid-to-late May deadline, to submit his magnum opus. His Masters thesis stands at 266 pages of single-lined text in what I suspect is fairly heavy duty French. I know that the theory chapter takes on Habermas, Weber, Foucault, et al.

My mother-in-law lately expressed regret that I have not been able to read this brilliant piece of work and I assured her that with another decade of French study under my belt, I will be equal to the task! Frankly, my main interest in the thesis for a while now has been its completion! Though I expect other computer programming related obsessions to take over rather promptly. Still, at least those are related to the cash economy!

Soon after setting up house here in Dar, I discovered Tanga Fresh. This is a line of good quality milk products, produced in Tanga, Tanzania’s second busiest port city, located 200 km North of Dar. I am particularly partial to their yogurt. So I had a positive impression of Tanga well before I decided to go there on Easter weekend.

I set out with two colleagues, Elisabeth and A, to this formerly important slave and ivory trade centre, which had developed under Omani Arab domination. Then came German control, a failed nationalist uprising, a World War I skirmish between German and Allied troops (consisting mostly of Indian soldiers) and British conquest.

Tanga’s fortune in the early decades of the 20th century was built on sisal plantations.
() Once a major source of fibre for making ropes and sacks, the invention of synthetic textiles such as nylon, after WW II, caused the collapse of the sisal market, from which Tanga, in a sense, never fully recovered.

I was also going Tanga to visit a cousin, S, who had come there from India, to work on building a furnace for an iron and steel factory. I had not seen him for a decade.

The industrious Elisa got to the Dar bus station early and bought our tickets. But alas, when she got in, she found our seats already occupied by a fat lady and her smallish son. No amount of argument from her or other bus passengers, who tried to intervene on our behalf, budged her. Had the company double-booked? We never found out. Elisa managed to sit next to her, and the conductor found front seats for A and me.

The bus was choc-a-bloc with standing passengers. Poor A, sitting in the very front seat, got the worst of it. The conductor, leaning against the door, managed to suspend himself about an inch above her thigh and remained in this position for most of the journey. I teased A on disembarking that I considered her practically engaged to the man! “Oh we are married,” she replied gamely.

The bus made numerous stops, with the passengers hopping off for washroom breaks. At one point, bags of charcoal were loaded onto the back of the bus. The driver drove fast, if skilfully, between these halts. I felt sympathetic towards him. After all, his job was to drive, not to hang around at stops.

The chador-clad, young woman next to me, who was replenishing her make-up stock through the vendors who boarded the bus at the various stops, craned her neck most of the way to watch the road. It seemed that most of the passengers in the front were watching the road rather anxiously. These long distance buses have a reputation for reckless driving. Luckily, I am pretty shock proof re road behaviour, post-India.

Lake or sea?

My cousin dropped E and A off at a modest hotel, at their request, and we adjourned to his quarters on the factory premises. Later, we went into the town centre. It was remarkably clean, and had a pleasant feel, comprising of a mixture of older and newer buildings. When we remarked on the seemingly fresh swept streets, a passer by assured us that the ‘Swahili’ part of town was not like this at all.

We took a cab to Ras Kazone, the more affluent part of town, on a peninsula to the East of the centre, where we saw Indo-Tanzanians and black Tanzanians swimming at separate water-front “clubs.” A note on so-called black Tanzanians – the skin colour ranges from light coffee to pitch black and the features reflect a racial mixture as well.

The bay was tranquil and looked like a lake with placid little waves, rather than a piece of the Indian Ocean. Elisa, who’s Swiss, remarked on how familiar the landscape appeared, and I concurred. We sat at a waterfront restaurant, admiring a lightening display etched on the horizon. The line of land we could see across the water also fostered the lake impression.

Next morning, we backtracked for half an hour, to a small town called Muheza. From here, we intended to find our way to the Amani Nature Reserve. Muheza is at the foot of the Eastern Usambara Mountains, which are covered with an astonishingly rich and complex tropical rainforest.

We found a daladala headed for Amani, which means peace; a few minutes walk from the bus station. The daladala had dark windows and was stuffed to the gills with people and luggage, mostly foodstuff that people wanted to cart up the hills. We got seats at the back, but I felt a sudden peaking of my claustrophobia, which made me scramble out and claim a seat in the front, with the driver and another passenger.

The Garden of Eden

Onward rushed our daladala through villages with the usual baked brown huts and cute little kids to wave at. The tree cover was lush and diverse and we spotted birds and baboons. The road curved and we climbed gradually. Suddenly, there was a shout; a thump and the daladala came to a halt. The back door, which had been slammed shut with great difficult, over the excess luggage, had flown open, scattering stuff on the road! Elisa had suggested this as a distinct possibility.

I ran to rescue my backpack, making a mental note keep any breakables in the carry-on backpack next time. A cardboard box had opened incongruously scattering fish on that mountain road!

We repacked and went on. The air turned cool and fragrant and we entered the gates of the official Reserve. The East Usambara rainforests are said to contain 2000 species of plants and 230 species of trees, many of them found nowhere else but here. There are also 200 types of butterflies and 350 types of birds! Since we were using local transport, we could stay only overnight, but we still got a feel of this vast treasure house of nature.

We passed boards that told us there were research centres on malaria, tea, etc as we headed for the Amani Conservation Centre Rest House. With its log cabin rooms, it reminded me of Canada. The place was efficiently run, with simple but healthy meals provided at the dinning room next door. And had running water and electricity.

Soon after lunch, we set out for a walk with a guide whose pet name was Africa! (Oh the simplicity complacency and of wazungus.) It was beautiful to walk on a forest trail, rich with brown leaves on red earth. Many trees had creepers growing on them. The fecundity was indeed what one associates with a rainforest.

We saw wild cardamom plants, a tree whose seeds gives a rich butter which Unilever uses to make Blueband margarine, plants that served as aphrodisiacs (inevitably!), trees that yield quinine, medicinal plants that the locals use for curing stomach upsets, twigs they chew on to clean their teeth, wild mushrooms and berries and so on. There were a variety of fan-like palms to be seen on the mountainsides leading into the valleys.

Africa told us that at first people with malaria had died from drinking the boiled bark of quinine, as they had not known the right dosage to take. He pointed to a poisonous plant, which the larvae of certain butterfly species feed on. They are immune to the poison, but the birds that try to feed on these butterflies, die. Africa pointed out to a tree – an invasive species introduced by the Germans that was attempting to take over the forest – leading to some uncharitable remarks about this nationality.

There was a plant there, which the Chaggas, a business-oriented ethnic group whose original home is at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro, use for peace making. The wrongdoer cuts off the top of the plant and carries it to a meeting of the community or elders. He or she is then forgiven.

Soon we got to the look out point. The top of the hill had coniferous trees, cypress species and lichen on the ground. From this point we could see the surrounding hills and valleys, a village in a distance and a tea plantation on the opposite hillside. We heard bird song and saw a flutter of wings, and some wild flowers and butterflies. We sat down here for quite a while and came down to the rest house with some reluctance.

That night the moon shone like a beacon of hope, the light so dazzling white and pure, that we gazed hypnotised. It had drizzled and then rained towards sunset, but the sky had cleared up at nightfall.

We had a rude awakening the next morning, as our daladala arrived at 6 am instead of the expected 6.30. Sitting sleep-eyed in the lurching daladala (the road is only a dust track, rocky in parts), I saw a golden-pink sunrise. The dew-drenched leaves shone with a special radiance, as the first rays of the sun kissed the high treetops. It seemed that the world had just been born, even if such a profusion of flora must have taken some time to emerge.

It took one way back to a time when forests clothed our blue and lonely planet, and reigned supreme. What a change had been wrought through the millennia! Instead of living in and with the forests, humans now create “protected” areas like this Reserve. How pathetic and sad is our alienation from nature and the continuing degradation of our environment!

The daladala rolled down to Muheza, from where we were headed for Pangani beach. At this point, I was beginning to question the conducted tour approach of our trip and longing for my bed in Dar! But a breakfast of mandazi (the local and nicer version of donuts), meat samosas and spiced, milky tea restored me to the call of the road again. After all, we were headed for a freebie – my cousin’s Indo-Tanzanian boss owned a posh hotel where we were going to be hosted overnight.

River, ocean, sky

We took a rattletrap of a taxi, which rode roughshod over a mostly red earth road, this time through a landscape of small villages, and lush palm trees. Instead of a gas tank, this cab had a plastic container with a tube running out of it!

We passed through drier parts with bushes and thorny trees and a whole section where the poor trees seemed to have browned due to the prolonged drought. Pangani is another former slave trade town, but we saw little of the place. We crossed the Pangani River, which joins the sea here, by a small ferry, to the other shore called Mashado. Then we drove up to the elegant, Spanish-villa style Mashado Beach Resort.

Perched on a cliff, with manicured lawns, it has fantastic views of the Pangani creek and town on one side and the curve of the bay, lined with mangroves, on the other. It was view that one could watch for hours. This is exactly what we did, sitting at a gazebo perched at the edge of the cliff. At night we sat under a starry sky, a cool breeze wafting over us.

The Resort must have been owned at one time by a book lover, as the rooms, as well as a cosy library in the main building, were stocked with somewhat dated British novels from the mid-20th century, as well as classics like Vanity Fair. All the books were either hardcover or nicely bound. In my room there were books on useful topics like how to grow roses and race a boat!

We set out on our return journey the next morning. We crossed the ferry hoping to get a cab on the other side. But there was none to be had. So we walked the 15-20 minutes to the small market. Elisa and A chose to stay put here. We were to catch a bus to Muheza, from here. My cousin and I took the lone cab to the beach for a quick dip.

The real beach, which is highly regarded, is probably further on. What we got to dip into was the overflow of the Pangani River, plus the sea, over clayey sand. It was wonderfully refreshing all the same and I was happy to have dragged my cousin into the Indian Ocean. I am very Hindu that way and strongly believe in immersing myself, or at the very least, wading knee deep through a body of water to forge a real connection to it.

A shady deal

Back at the market, my cousin found a bus going directly to Tanga and decided to go back on it. Our bus was supposed to come at 12 am and leave at 12.30, but even by 12.50, there was no sign of it. We needed to make our Muheza-Dar connection at 3.30 and the trip back would take about 2 hours.

There was only that one rattletrap of a cab in evidence, the same one that had taken us to the beach. A was assigned the unenviable task of bargaining for a fair price, since she had the best Swahili. Finally a price was agreed upon, but A indicated that she did not feel that the taxi owner was very reliable. We had already decided that we would go with the driver alone and not have a second guy in the cab.

We loaded our luggage and were about to set off when the cab owner jumped in. We protested strongly till the guy got off. Our driver drove first to a gas station and after filling up, swung the cab onto a narrow road. There were a lot of trees but not much else around and as he kept driving on a sand track we asked him why he was not taking the main road.

This was a shortcut, he explained, which would soon join the main road. We drove on, with distinct misgivings. The road was lonely; what was to stop this guy from driving us to a pre-arranged destination?

None of us spoke and I rationalised that since he was one of the two cabbies in town and we had many witnesses, he would not really dare to do any mischief. Still, I was not fully convinced and offered up a prayer to Lord Ganesh!

We all heaved a sigh of relief when the cab finally swung on to the main road. It was not so clear whether we would make it to Muheza as this vehicle seemed in a worse state than the earlier one and was going more slowly. The door on the driver’s side would swing open every now and then and he would grab it shut! If the car had to breakdown, I hoped it would do so further down the road where there were some villages at least. Dinky little Muheza suddenly seemed very attractive. It had cabs, buses, electricity to charge our cell phones with, and places to eat and sleep!

Slow but steady was our progress, the red dust starting to swirl till it had blown into the cab and settled down on our clothes and belongings. We made it to Muheza and got our onward connection only at 4 pm. We even saw a rainbow on our way back. And that is how Lord Ganesh received an offering of Indian sweets the next day!