You Can't Get There From Here

Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Tanzania  ,
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

We arrived in Kigoma just as it was turning dark. Bea had talked to two Burundian guys on my bus, asking them to watch out for me. During the blown tire incident we had introduced ourselves. Jean-Claude and Eddie were brothers, who had moved to South Africa ten years before, during some of the worse fighting of the civil war. They still lived there, but had returned to Burundi for their mother's funeral. They were now on their way back. Eddie was a big guy, and had a vague "Winnie the Poo"-ish air about him. Jean Claude, while smaller, was the older of the two brothers, and was fluent in about six or seven languages. Both would become great friends over the next week. 

We checked into our hotel, an abandoned looking building with no electricity or water, but clean beds. We met to plan our strategy to get out of Kigoma. We had hoped to catch the Liemba, an old World War One battleship that Germany had lugged all the way inland in an attempt to control the largest lake in Africa. It had been sunk, re-surfaced, refitted, and now plied its way up and down Lake Tanganyika as a ferry. It left Kigoma on Wednesdays. We had arrived Friday evening, and didn't want to wait that long. We had heard there was a train heading out the next morning (there are no roads that head east from Kigoma to the rest of Tanzania) so we decided to try and grab some seats.

We were up at five am and headed to the station. Hundreds of people were milling about in the dark. The ticket agent's office was closed. We waited for about two hours until the agent arrived, and the train was about to pull out. We figured if we bought first class tickets, there was a greater chance of availability. There wasn't. In fact, the entire train was sold out. What about Monday's train? No seats. In fact, there were no seats for the next two weeks. Seeing as the train was one of the only ways to reach the east, it was always booked out for weeks.


So we went down to the ferry terminal. We figured a five day wait was better than two weeks. At the terminal there was a sign saying the Liemba would not be here until the following Friday instead of the usual Wednesday because it was taking refugees from Zambia back to the Congo.


We walked to the other dock along the lake. The brothers had recognized Burundian markings on a cargo ship in port and though we might be able to negotiate a ride down the lake. Unfortunately, it was going to Bujumbura; north, not south.


So, we decided to take a mini-bus to the next town on the train line, a small village named Uvinza. From there we hoped to catch a truck down a road that head south. When we asked about the road, many Africans didn't think it existed. They were almost right.

Our bus to Uvinza was called "Adventure". Whether this was ironic, prophetic, or simply a sick joke I still have not decided. I sat down in my seat. My window was a piece of plexiglass that was shoved into the gap where glass used to be. Behind me, Eddie had no window at all. In keeping with the string of clichés this trip was turning into, an old woman sat down behind me and shoved a chicken under the seat.

Despite a horrible road, the big bus bulled it way along. Whenever we stopped, men, women and child would rush the bus selling jugs of palm oil, cookies, meat on a stick, roasted bananas, anything and everything. Despite my general policy of politely refusing rancid meat on a stick, Eddie was buying so I accepted. This was washed down by a coconut freshly picked from a tree, with the top lopped off by a machete to allow drinking the coconut water inside.

Finally we reached Uvinza. If you are ever in the area, here is a list of the attractions Uvinza has to offer: a salt mine.

We checked into a guest house, and proceeded to search for a truck that was leaving the next day. We heard there were trucks; we heard there were no trucks. We heard the trip took three to four days. We heard the trip took three to four hours. We heard a truck was leaving in the morning. No, two days from now. No, three days from now. Finally we went to bed, no further along in our quest to find a truck.

The next morning, we saw a big truck sitting outside of another guesthouse. It was massive, a ten wheeler with a bed approximately 30 feet long, with iron roll bars partially closing in the sides and top. It was going to Mpanda, the next town of any size to the south. We started negotiations.

It was about 180 miles to Mpanda. We were told it would be about five, maybe six hours.

Foreshadowing is a literary device that writers use to give readers some idea of events that may follow. Here is an example: when we approached the driver, the truck cab was tilted nose towards the ground with about five bush mechanics crawling over, and underneath it. The radiator was on the ground, and was being hammered on enthusiastically by another mechanic. Five minutes into the journey, the gears went, and we stopped for another 20 minutes to fix them. This was all before leaving the town border.

I was invited into the cab of the truck. Sometimes being a muzungu pays off. While great for me, it was horrible for the people in the back (about twelve or so). The road was virtually impassable, by our driver lurched, smashed, and pitched his way down it nonetheless. Dust billowed everywhere, and even in the cab, it was difficult to not be thrown from side to side.

The landscape was mostly flat, with scrub brush and small trees receding into the distance on both sides. About half way to Mpanda, two men stepped out of the bush and waved the truck down. They came over, spoke with our driver in Swahili, and then the driver pulled the truck off the main road onto a trail barely discernable through the trees and bush. I had no idea what was happening. Visions of Eli Roth movies where young stupid people get rides with strangers or break down and go into abandoned houses only to be violated and tortured by inbred hillbillies were flashing through my mind. Were we being held up? I didn't see any guns. Was the driver in on it? Was I going to lose my underwear and socks to a bunch of Africans in the bush?

No. I was, however, a reluctant participant in an illegal timber operation. The truck was empty returning to Mpanda. The owner didn't know exactly where or when it would return, given the state of the roads. This gave the driver and his crew a chance to make a little bit of extra money off the return trip. Never mind he already had paying passengers. The truck banged, bumped, and smashed its way deep into the bush. The loading of the truck took hours. We were bombarded by black flies, while some of the boys who had been hiding in the woods, preparing the timber, had a baboon barbeque.

We were not going to reach Mpanda in five or six hours.

Finally we made our way back out to the main road. The truck now full with timber and people sitting on top. About fifteen minutes later, we once again, turned off the main road, just as the sun was beginning to set. We were going to drop the timber off a refugee camp in the area called Mishimo. The people of this area were refugees from Burundi, Rwanda, Congo and more. Some had first come to this area in the 1970's. The road began to descend, and then to descend far too sharply. It was a nightmare of jutting rocks, huge potholes, and loose gravel, with a sheer drop to the valley below just feet to the right of the truck. It was the first time on the trip I began to feel real fear. Finally we reached the bottom. Afterwards I found out the locals called this road the "Open Grave" because of the number of deaths on it.

We dropped a sick old man off in his village and continued driving through the night. AS couple of hours latter we stopped and began to offload the timber. The truck lights were the only illumination other than the stars. The refugee community had no electricity. Children played in the beams of light piercing the night, racing their shadows up and down the dirt road. The night had turned freezing cold, a surprise to me. The unloading took a couple of hours, and I managed to catch a bit of fitful, uncomfortable sleep, drawing my arms inside of my t-shirt in an attempt to stay warm.

Unloading done, we drove on. Our next stop was a section of the refugee camp, quite far away, called Bulamata. We pulled up in front of a mud house, and then the truck boys jumped off and started loading the truck once again; this time with even more timber. Once again, those of us who were passengers tried to sleep in the piercing cold, shivering and miserable.

Finally, at around 7:30-8:00 am, the truck started back up, and we were on the road. The road actually seemed a bit better the further we went, and we were excited that we might make Mpanda by midday. The truck was seriously overloaded, and on our way up a particularly steep and long stretch of road, it stalled. The driver thought it was a problem with the weight, so the truck boys began the arduous task of unloading everything they had loaded only hours before, carrying it about 300 metres up the hill to a relatively flat spot. After about three hours of unloading, the driver announced that, actually, he had run out of fuel. Nobody was particularly amused at this. The reserve tank was empty because the driver was only supposed to drive straight back to Mpanda, not gallivant around the countryside picking up illegal timber and getting stuck on horrible roads. The owner hadn't paid for more, and the driver hadn't wanted to buy from his own pocket.

Finally, after hours of waiting in the blazing Africa sun with no real shade, a land cruiser came by. It refused to take anyone but an Arab man I had been sitting next to in the cab, and who was the cousin of the owner. He promised to send help and petrol.

Hours passed.

Suddenly, we heard a grinding of gears that could only signify anther large truck heading our way. We were saved. We could get another ride. We didn't have to spend another night sleeping in the freezing cold out in the bush. It came up behind our stranded truck and promptly stalled.

Hours more passed.

Finally the second truck managed to get started. They weren't going to Mpanda, but they could drop us closer where there was cell phone coverage, and we might be able to call someone in town to come and pick us up. Every bit helped, and we climbed in the back.

The back of the truck was filled with refugees, palm oil, tires, shelving, and all the other detritus of life in the remote bush in Africa. We stood holding onto the iron roll bars above as best as we could. The road, and our driver, made the truck sway back and forth, and lurch up and down. People fell into each other, children cried, and the truck kept going. Our driver was terrible, and was constantly stalling the truck. When this would happen, everyone would hold their breath, as the engine cranked over and over until finally catching. This was repeated constantly.

The truck kept stopping to pick up more and more people, and the road continued to deteriorate. As more people squeezed in the back, others began to yell and complain as they were stepped on and pressed into each other with increasing force. Finally the truck stopped. In front of us was a wide stream, and the road went through it. Taking the opportunity, myself, Jean Claude, Eddie and a few others escaped out the back and walked across the stream on a small foot bridge.

The truck gunned its engine, splashes across the stream, and promptly stalls on the bank of the opposite side. The sun goes down. Now in the dark, the driver and his helper, aided by the pushes of men from the truck spend another hour getting the truck unstuck. It is now pitch black, and the 40-50 year old truck is sounding poorly. We climb back in, bang around the back for another ten minutes, and it stops again.
Frustrated, Jean Claude swung out of the back to see what the problem was. Apparently, one of the wheels was loose, and they spent another ten minutes tightening lug nuts before starting up again. Five minutes pass driving through the overhanging trees, truck lurching, and women yelling for Jesus every time we go over a particularly bad bump.

Then the truck, once again, halted. We got out and looked. The rear, outside left tire was canted inwards at a 65 degree angle, firmly wedged against its partner. It had broken on its axle. It was finished. We were not going anywhere again in this truck.

We were far off the main road, in Africa bush, in the pitch black. There was no grid here, no sewers, only refugees living in houses made from mud and sticks. We were stuck in the middle of nowhere, in an area that was already considered nowhere.

Then I heard Jean-Claude call my name in the dark.

"DJ, walk with us. We're trying to get out of here."

I walked over to where, Jean-Claude, Eddie, and another guy from our first truck who had joined us in the second, stood in the dark. They were talking to an old man who lived in a mud house a little ways back from where the truck had broken down.

"We think we can get this man to arrange to take us on bicycles out to the main road. Maybe we can reach an area where we can call for help."

This was all said very covertly, and down the road from the truck. At least 45 other people were also stuck out here in the dark, and it was beginning to sound ugly back at the truck as people were getting justifiably angry at the driver. We quickly walked back to the truck, grabbed our bags, and followed the old man back to his house.

We walked into the man's home, about 20 metres back from the road. We sat in the courtyard between two houses about ten feet by twenty feet, made from mud and thatch. A small fire was burning in the middle of the space, where we invited to sit and warm ourselves against the bitter cold of the night. The old man called his much younger wife, and told her to prepare food for us. We sat with his sons around the fire, and the negotiations began.

It was finally decided that the old man would take one of us on his bicycle to a place three hours away where there was cell phone reception. The other three of us would begin walking in the same direction with one bike to take our bags. Hopefully the one who went ahead would be able to get a taxi to come and meet us and take the remainder of the way to Mpanda. We were to leave at 4 am and start walking.

Sitting in the courtyard of this family, I began to realize how incredibly difficult this trip was, how tired, cold and miserable we all were, but also what an incredible experience this was. These people, refugees, without any money to speak of, were showing total strangers amazing hospitality. In the darkness, a battery operated shortwave radio quietly hissed static and the occasional snatches of African music. There were no lights, but the stars had come out, and shone down. A chicken, our dinner, cried out loudly for a moment, and there was quiet again. Children peered shyly out of the doorway of one of the houses, darting back inside every time the "muzungu" looked up at them and smiled. We sat around the fire, quietly taking in the warmth and the atmosphere around us.

It was decided we would sleep in one of the mud houses until it was time to go. First we needed to eat dinner. A straw mat was unrolled onto the floor of one of the huts. This would also be the mat we would sleep on for the night. In one corner of the room, closest to us, the mama was finishing the cooking of the chicken and ugali. Across the room, two goats laid our roommates for the night.

The food was, well, edible. Kind of. The chicken was cooked in oil, and served in the same oil as a soup. I ate parts of a chicken I didn't even know existed, but I was hungry. I know not everything was meat, but frankly, didn't care. We had only bought a few chapattis and bottles of water, assured this would only be a six hour trip. We had hardly eaten or drank anything coming into the third day of the trip. We were desperate. The ugali was... Well, how do you describe ugali? It is a big grey ball with the consistency of gritty play dough, although not as favourful or salty (I was a connoisseur in my kindergarten days). You tear off chunks, roll it into a little ball, and dip it in anything handy that can give it some flavour. You do this with your right hand, always. This us because, in general, Africans do not use toilet paper. They use their hand, their left hand.

We had just finished our meal, and were about to lie down on our mats and sleep with the goats (Yes, I'm fully aware of how that sounds), when we heard another truck roaring along through the darkness. Everyone jumped up, grabbed our bags, quickly blurted our thanks to our hosts, and ran for it, yelling and waving at the truck as it went past. It had to stop as the other truck was sitting in the middle of the road, and the others had made fires in the middle of the road in an attempt to keep warm.

This truck was larger than our second truck, but smaller than our first. It was nearly full to the top with planks, with a number of people already huddled under the canvas tarp that covered the entire back. About half of the people who were stranded climbed into the back. There was only about three or four feet of clearance between the boards and the iron bars overhead. We laid in the complete darkness as the truck drove around the stranded one, and headed off once again, into the night. We were once again uncomfortable, hurting, rolling and smashing into each other, but we were moving. We were going forward. Things were looking up.

Then we drove into the river.

We were actually supposed to drive through the river, just not where we did it. The road led down to the river and exited the other side, about 50 feet away. We, however, did not exit. Instead, the truck pitched about 35 degrees to the right, and slammed to a halt. The driver and his assistants scrambled out, and began to try and figure a way to get us back on dry ground. Many of the people in the back scrambled out, crossed the river, and tried to make fires to stay warm. I had enough. I simply lay back on the boards, and shivered and shuddered my through about four hours of terrible, miserable sleep and cold.

Finally, after four or five hours, the truck was able to extricate itself from the river and we continued. As it was not going to Mpanda either, it dropped us at a crossroads where we might be able to get reception to call a taxi. Both of the numbers we had didn't work. We stood in the breaking dawn, trying to warm ourselves, and trying to think of what to do next.

Jean Claude noticed a young refugee woman coming out of her mud hut next to the road. He approached her and spoke to her in Swahili. She invited us into her home where she built a small fire to warm us. She was a beautiful woman of 30 years old, a mother of six, and a Burundian refugee. Her parents had come here in the 1970's, so she had been born here in the bush. Her husband was away, a fisherman on Lake Victoria, many hundreds of kilometers to the north. She had not heard from him in a very long time, and there was talk he may have been killed in an accident on the lake. Her kindness to strangers, when her own situation was so uncertain, was touching. Her children kept peeking out the door at the dirty, hairy muzungu who had invaded their world.

The mother walked to her neighbour who knew someone in Mpanda with a car who would come and pick us up. Finally an old beat up car approached, we said our goodbyes, and headed to Mpanda.

Finally, 71 hours after we left Uvinza, we pulled into Mpanda. It had taken us almost three days to travel approximately 200 kilometres.

Rather than rest on our accomplishment, we immediately headed to town to try and catch a bus or land cruiser to Sumbawanga, the next town. It was about a six to eight drive away on roads similar to those we had already passed. The taxi roared through town, and pulled up next an old land cruiser that was already stuffed with people. We crammed ourselves into the back, our packs were tied to the top, and within minutes we were off.

On our way out of town, we stopped for gas. As soon as we stopped, smoke began pouring out of the engine.


Off to the garage we went. After three hours, the land cruiser was finally ready. Everyone was getting a bit frustrated by this point. It was now after midday and the trip was long, over hard roads. We headed back to the gas station to fill up before heading out. Once filled, the driver, and the "boss", a fat man who owned the land cruiser and who treated the paying passengers as if he was doing them a huge favour by letting them ride in his piece of crap, got out and started chatting with the men who worked in the filling station. This caused an uproar in the vehicle as people demanded to get on the road. Why were stopped? Why were we waiting?

Why? We had to bribe the traffic cops to allow us to leave town. As all the other land cruisers and buses were also bribing the officers, we had to wait our turn. Our driver sent an offer of 5000 shillings that was refused. The police wanted 10,000 shillings. Finally, bribe paid, gas tank filled, engine not smoking, we pulled out onto the plans south of Mpanda and headed towards Sumbawanga.

This drive was not much more comfortable than the last couple, but it was warm, and we were moving. Part of the road cut through a national park, and I saw elephants, giraffes, antelope, and two monkeys doing their thing in the great African wilderness. The people in the back of the land cruiser with me were more amused at the muzungu watching the animals like a little child than the animals themselves.

We finally left the park, and turned onto another road, making time for the first time in days.

Then the tire blew.

Everyone piled out. The boss, the fat cheapskate, didn't have a spare tire, but he did have a spare tube... and a bicycle pump. Our large, off road tire was being blown up with something more suited to a four year old first bike. That's the kind of trip this was.

Finally, after a lot, A LOT, of pumping, we were on the road again. Instead of taking the blown tire as a sign to take it easier, our driver decided that if we drove faster, there would less chance for another tire to blow.

He was right.

There was, however, a lot more chances our drive shaft would snap.

Which it did.

Once again, like some horrible, never ending act involving clowns in a circus piling out of a little car, we all fell out onto the road into the dark. We were broken down on a hill, facing downhill. The hand brake was broken (of course), so we had to spend fifteen minutes walking up and down the road in the dark, looking for a rock large enough to wedge in front of the tire so the driver could get out to work on the truck.

The drive shaft was broken, snapped off where it met the bracket that turned it, and hence, our tires. The solution? Our driver and his assistant walked into the bush at the side of the road and started to machete small trees. They carved some splints out of the wood, stuck the drive shaft back into the bracket, and proceeded to hammer the branches and sticks into the bracket to wedge the drive shaft in place. They were either idiots or geniuses (guess which way I'm leaning), but it was bush mechanic work at its best. We drove on.

We came up behind another land cruiser without lights, driving by a flashlight held by the passenger leaning out his window. Our driver kindly offered to drive behind the other vehicle, using our lights to show the way. While I appreciate the spirit of his act of charity, it meant that for the next two and a half hours, the much abused and much exhausted passengers in our land cruiser choked on dust from the truck in the front. Finally, we pulled into Sumbawanga, dirty, tired, sore, and desperately hungry and dehydrated.

We achingly made our way to a little hotel where we collapsed into bed. Our nightmare journey was finally over. The world would be good again. Everything was going to be ok.

The next morning I woke up with fever and explosive diarrhea.

I love what I do.
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Gustaf Montelius on

Love it. Been through similar travelling experiences in Tz, and I think this IS the main attraction of East Africa. Forget Zanzibar, Serengeti and kilimanjaro, you can cope without them. Travelling this way offers the single most fantastic adventure you can imagine!

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