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Miles to go before I sleep

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Words by Neil Harrison. Pictures by Rob Till.

Miles to go before I sleep

Driving from Lilongwe, Malawi, to Arusha, Tanzania
I’m a sucker for road trips. No matter what I’m driving, or where I’m driving to. The obvious attraction is that it allows me to duck my responsibilities: I can slip the sticky bonds of commerce, and sidestep the dual tyrannies of SMS and email conversations. In motion, I can be as free as it’s possible for a modern man to be.

It has to be said that most of the time I prefer to drive alone. This is so that I can sing. Perhaps ‘sing’ isn’t quite the right word for it. I’m lyrically challenged – for many years I thought the Creedence song went I see a baboon running – and I couldn’t hold a tune if my life depended on it. But I do like to make a noise that vaguely sounds like a song being sung, while beating out supporting rhythms on the steering wheel and dash. A musician friend once described me as the Ringo Starr of vehicle drummers. I was very proud of this observation until I happened to read what Lennon said of Ringo: “…he wasn’t even the best drummer in The Beatles.”

But there are road trips and there are road trips. While I’m quite happy to drive from Cape Town to Joburg, offer me a drive that I haven’t driven before and you’ll see me salivate like a boerboel in a biltong factory. Which is why there was absolutely no way you could have stopped me from accepting an invitation from Land Rover SA to drive from Lilongwe, Malawi, to Arusha, Tanzania.

The reason for the trip was rather prosaic; Land Rover Experience SA had been tasked with transporting 14 Discoverys to Arusha, Tanzania. These vehicles were to be used for the 2012 Land Rover Expedition taking place in September and October this year. This annual event on the Land Rover international calendar takes the form of an ‘adventure holiday,’ with Land Rover vehicles playing starring roles. As you might expect, it’s aimed at wealthy folk: the eight-day, seven-night excursion to Tanzania would set you back over R100k per person, excluding flights. To complement the team of Land Rover Experience personnel taking the vehicles to Arusha for the expedition, two groups of journalists had been invited to come along. The first group had set off from South Africa for the first stage, and we were later flown to Lilongwe to relieve them, and drive the second half.

It’s risky to judge a country by its airports, but I think that Lilongwe International Airport gives you a fair indication of what you can expect from Malawi. Firstly, it works; sure, the immigrations side is slightly undermanned, but if you’re near the front of the queue you’ll breeze through in no time. Customs is similarly informal and friendly, so it doesn’t take very long before you find yourself standing outside in the sun, blinking owlishly at terminal buildings which look as if they were teleported straight out of South Africa in the 1970s. Nicelytrimmed lawns, and all.

Our route to Arusha would see us head east towards Lake Malawi, to the road that skirts its shores going north to the Tanzanian border. By now I was ensconced in one of the 14 Discovery TDV6 HSEs which made up our convoy; sharing the vehicle with me was the ever-cheerful Ewald van Zyl, publisher of Car and Leisure magazine, a man who believes that there is no socio-economic conundrum so great that it cannot be solved with the judicious application of a warm klap to the right kop.

Ewald, clearly anticipating my singing talents, quickly connected up his iPod to the Disco’s sound system, proudly boasting that he had literally days’ worth of music lined up for us. By artists of unrivalled talent, men and women whose voices could literally charm the birds right out of the sky. At least, that’s what he claimed.

Our first night’s stop was at Ngala Beach, where we ran into an old friend who was at the tail end of his Rift Valley Expedition. It was the first time that I’d spent any time of consequence with Kingsley Holgate, and he didn’t fail to impress. The man tells a good yarn and is charming to a fault; it’s obvious why invitations to his trips are so eagerly anticipated.

Our arrival at the lodge had been a little late, an hour or so after sunset. We’d found it slow going, threading our way through heavy pedestrian traffic. On hearing this, Kingsley advised, ‘You must understand that, for the locals, the main road becomes part of their house when the sun goes down. It’s where they meet friends, entertain and have a party. Don’t expect to be able to whizz along like you normally do.’ These were words we’d remember very well in the days that followed.

Our next day’s journey was a long push, which saw us drive almost the lake’s entire length before curving away gently towards the border post at Songwe.

On the whole an easy drive, as the tar road was in good condition and we didn’t encounter much traffic. This was my first visit to Malawi and it was clear to me that the northern parts of the lake offer a quieter, calmer experience of the country, very similar to the differences between southern and northern Mozambique.

When I return to Malawi I plan to spend a few days driving the same road, but stopping off at the little resorts we sped past on the day. The Songwe border post, though slow on the Tanzanian side, (perhaps because of the size of our convoy) didn’t present any major challenges – other than a request for a dollar to use their loo. (El cheapo here peed on a tree instead). But by now it was late afternoon, and we still had a fair drive to Utengule Coffee Lodge, west of Mbeya.

As night fell, this drive became memorable for all the wrong reasons. The pace was too fast for me, the traffic too chaotic and the villages and their attendant nightlife too frenetic. Our saving grace was the Discos’ great lights and our comms. – all the vehicles were equipped with VHF radios which made it possible to inform the convoy of what lay around every bend. Not that this would offer total protection against pedestrianis dashiritus or suicidulus goatus, but it helped.

We eventually limped into Utengule Coffee Lodge utterly spent. No late night chatter at the bar on this evening; we ate and then crashed, barely taking notice of our surrounds.

Revived and refreshed the next morning, we focused our attention on the next destination, which for many would be the highlight of our drive: a whistle-stop visit to Ruaha National Park. With the annexure of the Usangu Game Reserve and other wetlands, this park is said to be the largest in Tanzania (and in east Africa, for that matter), measuring out at 20 226 km². To give you a sense of its size, Kruger comes in at 19 458 km². We drove through to the park after refilling at Iringa, which lies some 130 kilometres away, mainly on good gravel roads – the only ‘off-road’ we were to drive on our journey.

The park’s name is derived from the HeHe word Ruvaha, meaning river, and it’s very apt; you’ll find the Great Ruaha, the Mwagusi, Jongomero and Mzombe rivers here. These rivers are very important to Tanzania, as they support downstream agricultural activity and hydro-electric power generators at the Mtera and Kidatu dams.

Because we arrived late in the afternoon, we didn’t have much time to explore the park; but it’s clearly worth a visit if you’re travelling in this region. While there’s the normal clutch of privately-managed, luxury lodges in the park – we stayed at Ruaha River Lodge – I have it on good authority that there are also camping and self-catering facilities suitable for those of us who earn rands. Our next day’s drive took us from Ruaha through to Dar es Salaam, and proved to be one of the highlights of the whole trip. It became clear that we were moving towards a more densely-populated part of the country, and with that came some interesting changes in traffic patterns.

I like to call it the hierarchy of road users. At the very bottom of the pile in Tanzania are pedestrians. Simply put, they don’t matter. Next up are the cyclists; they don’t matter either. Staying with two wheels, we get to the motorcyclists. They kinda don’t matter but demand marginally more respect, because hitting one might damage your vehicle. Two-wheeled vehicles are followed by four-wheeled vehicles, and the rule might is right applies throughout. A hatchback is less important than a sedan which is less important than an SUV. But don’t think that you rule the roost just because you’re driving a Discovery or a Land Cruiser. Oh, no, no. You see, as far as truck and bus drivers are concerned, you might as well be a pedestrian.

Ultimately, everyone makes way for the bigger guy. Which means the bigger guys pretty much get to do what they want to on the roads. This goes some way towards explaining why you’ll pass so many crashed trucks and buses. We were wondering about this phenomenon until we came around a blind corner to find two trucks coming our way, the faster one overtaking the slower one. Happily, the head-on collision was relatively easily avoided, but if we had been driving a lorry ourselves, we would have been another burned-out wreck.

The remarkable thing about this system is that it takes place with very little rancour. The only people upset by this vehicular anarchy are the tourists and overlanders who haven’t yet figured out the angles. Special mention must be made of the buses that drive the road between Dar and inland towns like Iringa and Dodoma: there’s nothing outwardly special about these newish buses, but for the fact that they travel at warp speed. I have to say that there’s something fundamentally disconcerting about seeing a bus growing ever larger in your rear-view mirror when you’re travelling at a fair lick yourself.

But any notion that we’d mastered local conditions quickly disappeared as we approached Dar es Salaam. After sunset. On a Friday night. On a road that was under construction. The best way I can describe it is to say that the traffic flow in Dar is organic in nature. Road rules – such as there are in Tanzania – become vague concepts in Dar after dark. The pavement turns into an extra lane. And if there’s no oncoming traffic, well, hell; we might as well claim that side of the road, too. The only trend I could discern is that the guy ahead has right of way. So, if you’re coming in from a side street, you simply go; you definitely do not stop and wait for a gap. And if there is a gap, there will be a motorcycle or bicycle in it, carrying more passengers than you’d think possible. Of course, the truly beautiful thing is that all of this happens, again, largely without rage, anger, or irritation.

For all its chaos, decay and population density, Dar es Salaam is a surprisingly clean city; when we drove out the following morning, we found the roads peppered with street-sweepers, mostly elderly women bent over double with hand whisks and scoops. This was something that struck me a number of times throughout our journey in Tanzania: the relative absence of litter. In fact, some of the small towns we passed through were pretty much spotless.

The other thing that impressed me was the absence of absolute poverty. Sure, much of the population has very little, but there’s nevertheless a great deal of micro-industry. Take bicycles and motorbikes as an example; there are millions of them in Tanzania. And they aren’t just used for transport – they’re turned into mini businesses ferrying people, goods and livestock. And in every village there’s a tiny little shop that fixes bicycles and motorcycles, and an even smaller business that keeps them clean. They can’t be earning much, but it’s a living. And in my book, that beats sitting on the side of the road begging for handouts.

The other thing that lifted my spirits was that this country is vrot with SFA Hiluxes; the rounded import versions like I drive. It’s probably more accurate to say that the country is vrot with vrot SFA Hiluxes, as most are very well used indeed. But there’s surely a business opportunity here for anyone looking for spares or donor vehicles – not that I’m suggesting that someone steals these vehicles and brings them into SA, though one has to admit that this would make for a welcome change in direction!

Our journey towards Arusha in the north-eastern part of the country saw us traversing vast plains that put me in mind of parts of the Karoo; a dry scrubland that was in stark contrast to the previous lush green of the coastal belt. Just before Moshi, the road tracks to the east, direction Arusha.

And it’s around these parts that you start straining for a glimpse of Mount Kilimanjaro. It was with a sense of disbelief that we spotted its peak above the clouds – for many in our party this was a profoundly moving and joyous moment. Not so for one person, who told me about a prior attempt to summit this mountain. It seems that this mountain has the potential to bring out both the very best and the very worst in people and in doing so, has the potential to change relationships irrevocably.

Soon after we saw Kili, night fell. But by now we were old hands at travelling in the dark; we had learnt some of the rules, we knew when to push and when to back off – after five long days on the road we’d earned our local stripes. So we cruised through Arusha’s early evening traffic before finally turning off into the stately, tree-lined, gravel driveway of Arusha Coffee Lodge; effectively our journey’s end.

Switching off the big Landy’s engine, Ewald and I sat in silence for a few seconds; then we unfastened our seatbelts, opened the doors and walked out into the cool, dark night.