Day 2: Arusha Express
Trip Start Aug 25, 2007
14Trip End Sep 13, 2007
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Following standard traveller code, our exit point is secured the previous day during walkabout, only just managing tickets for three in our advance party: Martin is waiting for Radar to fly in and will make the same trip tomorrow. Adam, Dave and I board at 6am and like the bad boys in class occupy the back rows. This latent cool quickly wilts when it becomes obvious we will be on toilet door duty for the duration; our luxury bus has facilities (great) but a gamy door (not so great) and one young girl is destined to make the swaying trip down the aisle about twenty times in the next nine hours or so, pummelling her way in and out with the assistance of a helping yank from one of us.
Leaving Dar, my eyes are peeled for a glimpse of the 'real' city; the shabby slums, the satellite shanty towns, the flotsam of shambling humanity dispossessed of a future; the gathering electron cloud circling the nucleus of all African cities. Whether by luck or tourist-minded design, there is no sign of this shadow world. Instead, we pass through a lushly vegetated suburb; smart villas roll languidly past the window, undulating with the landscape.
The road to Arusha is smooth running blacktop interspersed at every town, village, hamlet and shack, by a picket line of sleeping policemen. Besides these bone-jarring humps the only rough side to the journey is the onboard complementary juice: be warned, the choice of orange, lemon or lime is immaterial; this liquid is just one E-number removed from drain cleaner. And this isn't a snooty coke-generation view; to a man, woman and child this charity acid is left untouched; only the first-timers make the mistake of even sampling it. Besides the Scandinavian poison, we are treated to typical roadside fare at the midpoint stop-off; barbequed goat doled out in greasy brown paper bags and the usual distressed toilet block. I opt for bananas, oranges and a small unidentified fruit sphere from the hawkers, and taking advantage of momentary terra firma, a tip-toes pee in the dank urinal: this a slight improvement over the game of piss-surfing in which one must engage on the swaying coach, praying midstream to avoid the juddering ignominy of a sleeping policeman wipe-out.
Closing on Arusha, past vast fields of sisal laid row after row, we gaze across the flat plain towards the hazy blue horizon. Slowly, and with puzzlement gradually turning to surprise and amazement, the high wispy clouds in the distance reveal themselves not as vapours but as the snow-capped crown of Mount Kilimanjaro. It's not natural; it's just too damn high, rising as it does from nowhere. It's a wonderful sight even from 20 kilometres but it's an adventure for another day; this is as close as we'll get on this trip.
Arriving in Arusha raises shades of Sevare, Na Trang, Vang Vieng, Trinidad; small, tourist-hungry towns around the globe: we are surrounded by touts. Rather than beds, these chaps are selling safari package deals. The sweetener is a free lift into the centre of town: Scandinavia Buses don't use the main bus station terminus anymore so we're pretty much off the page. But with plenty of daylight left and knowing full well the pressure sales routine that will accompany any Good Samaritan taxi, we opt to walk and rebuff the rapid-fire offers and counter-offers. It's only a 10-minute trek before we're back on the piste, but every step is dogged by a cortege of idling safari tour people-carriers and their desperate footmen, by degrees tenacious, obstinate, indignant and resigned; we are a funeral march to the death of their pitch.
The main backpacker drag is a bleak, uninviting collection of concrete and breeze block shells either side of a wide, dusty road, devoid of any greenery or soft edges. We've got two 'possibles' on the list but there's no room at the Inn. Frankly it's a relief. Still surrounded by our hangers-on, we take a seat and consider Plan B; an out of town spot called L'Oasis. With this change in logistics our harpies see an opening and redouble their efforts for a captive audience. Enter Gideon; in the movie he'd be Danny Glover. "You get nothing for nothing in this town", is his opening line. He offers to take us for TS2000, no strings (or safaris) attached. We don't just bite his hand off, we chip our teeth on his wrist watch.
Deck chair, swimming pool, tropical garden, security guard, cold beer; it's not hand-sign-quotation-marks-Africa but right now we don't give a shit. Hot and cold running waitress service and the screaming-gay cabaret of the resident Grey Crested Crane ease the path to a post-drive chill.
Nestled in the foothills of Mount Meru along a winding dirt track where Arusha town becomes country village, the perfectly named L'Oasis exceeds all expectations except in price: it's predictably expensive. However, the adjoining Annex and Conference Centre (I kid you not) are a steal! Part of the same complex, clean, protestant twin rooms are a quarter of the price asked of the luxury faux-traditional cottages round the pool, and with a spacious, pine-clad shared bathroom block like some refit from a Swiss camp site, the set-up is ideal.
In the bar, a few Kilis to the good, we eschew the a la carte international menu and strike out for some cheap local fare. We take the dirt track road down through the banana plantation and village; wooden shacks, scratching chickens, tin-can corner shops, people loitering. As we approach the surfaced road that leads to town the buildings become more substantial; concrete and paint, draped in brewery logos and advertising. We pass the Top Model Bar, a knocking shop without the slightest pretence, and round the corner to the Royal Sumah Bar. It's a no frills pub - a basic table and chairs and line 'em up sort of place. We enquire about food. Rather than an immediate response from the attractive hostess, we get 'the look', an appraisal of our constitution, our standards and our worth. "We have only pork with ugali" - it is half apology, half challenge. It sounds good enough to us though and the chef is roused and put to task. And with our leap of faith made, we are quickly embraced by the patron of the establishment and formally introduced to the hostess, his daughter. We have inadvertently attained VIP status and the drinks flow deep and fast. Possibly deepest and fastest is Konyagi, a Tanzanian gin-substitute sold in plastic sachets which goes down surprisingly well with a dash of Sprite. Some indeterminate time later, for Konyagi has that temporal effect, we are presented with a large plastic basin: dinner is served. A veritable mound of roughly hacked pork cubes served in its juices, seasoned and garnished with a torn leafy green, steams before us. A dollop each of ugali - a white doughy finger-food carb - rides shotgun. It's good, and washed down with 15 sachets of Konyagi, it's damn good.
We leave the bar like we've just rocked in Rio - arms aloft, backs slapped, communal hugs. We're clearly two lions short of a pride and our patron insists a midget guide us home through the black night. We stagger, shout, laugh, wave our torches and flash our cameras; strange faces loom in and out of the night. Home appears. We crash out.