Cruising up the river

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
Trip End Mar 21, 2008

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Flag of Tanzania  ,
Tuesday, May 22, 2007

One afternoon we take a 'cruise' up the Pangani River, one of the services arranged by the Pangani Tourist Office.  The term office accurately describes their physical location but gives the impression of a busy organisation of people bustling around trying to serve a waiting line of tourists.  In reality it is a room off to the side of the market that is open occasionally, has a dusty pile of brochures (none of which relate to Pangani) and some even dustier handicrafts sitting on a shelf.  The main guy is Mr. Hot Hot, who rides around town on his bicycle, often aimlessly but sometimes to try and find tourists willing to do one of his tours.  We had told him that whenever he finds another tourist who would like to share the cost of a river cruise, we would be ready.

The other tourist in this case is a stern and sour English woman named Janet.  She is tall and angular, with purple hair cut into one of those elfin-side burned, close-cut lesbian styles.

"So, Janet, how long have you been in Tanzania?" I ask to make conversation, as she shows no inclination to do so.

"I grew up here," she says dismissively in a don't-ask-me-any-more-questions tone.  And that is pretty much the end of our discussion with Janet for the two and a half hour duration of the tour.

The small motor boat starts off up the Pangani River.  Mr. Hot Hot clears his throat nervously and begins to tell us all about the river and the mangrove trees that line its banks.  

"There are seven species of mangrove trees found here," he recites from his notes.  "I will now list each species with its English name, Latin name and Swahili name."

This goes on for a while but there isn't much else to do except listen.  When he finishes his mangrove lecture, I ask him how he got the name 'Hot Hot'.

"Well, Mr. Jim.  Before I was tour guide I worked at a hotel in Pangani.  One mzungu man stayed at the hotel for one month, a Mr. Pollard.  Every time Mr. Pollard ordered tea or food, he always said 'make it hot, hot'.  So I go to the kitchen and say 'make it hot, hot'.  Then they call me Mr. Hot Hot.  Ha ha!"

The Pangani River winds its way inland from Pangani for 238 kilometres to its source - Mount Kilimanjaro.  We are not going that far today, just maybe twenty kilometres or so.  There is no sign of civilization up this way except for one substantial house perched on the area's highest hill.

"That was where Abushiri lived.  Do you know about him?  He was a very rich Sultan and slave trader.  In the year 975 he built his house here so he could control the slave trade down to Pangani.  Now the house you see is owned by a farmer from Holland."

The seven species of mangroves and elegant palm trees cover the land as far as we can see as the boat chugs through the murky water.  After about an hour we veer off down a narrow branch of the river.  The tall palm trees are dense and reflect in the water.  Often they lean on sharp angles, sometimes even drooping so low that the fronds brush the boat as we go past.  

The driver slows the engine right down and we all peer out to the edges of the river for the crocodiles that are sometimes spotted here.  The river narrows to a point where there is barely enough room to turn around, the driver cuts the engine completely and we float along in silence.  Every now and then we hear a noise and Mr. Hot Hot points towards the source but it is always just a large leaf falling off a tree or one of the colourful little birds of the area scurrying from one landing place to another.

Then one of the local guys makes the kissing noise that people use here to get attention and points at a small log floating less than five metres away at the river's edge, partially covered by some reeds.  Only it's not a long but the head of a crocodile peering up at us.  The boat stops - we stare at the croc and he stares back.  Just as we fumble for the camera and focus for a snap he submerges into the dirty water, leaving only a few bubbles as a trace.  

We stop at a small village where the chief scales a palm tree and hacks off some coconuts for us.  Someone also produces a bottle of palm wine, produced from the branches of the tree.  This part of the tour feels a little staged, like visiting a zoo or something.  As we are leaving we are hit up for a 'donation' to the village.

The ride back to Pangani coincides with the sunset, providing a beautiful view, the row of palm trees silhouetted against the orange sky.  We have had certain moments in the month or so we've been here that feel uniquely African, and this is one.
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