Mbeya and the Southern Highlands

Full set of Mbeya photos can be found here

The journey from Arusha in the north of Tanzania to Mbeya in the south was a long one, spanning a few days, but without incident, which on African roads is a blessing.  As the stork flies it would be simple, just head straight south.  This being Africa there were complications. The road south from Arusha is passable to Dodoma (the capital of Tanzania) but from there on south the road gets worse and takes an extraordinary amount of time on what would be, without doubt, a terrible bus.  Instead we took a nine hour bus to Morogoro, just southwest of Dar es Salaam and stayed overnight.  There is beautiful mountain scenery in the area but not much to recommend the town.  I ended up sleeping on the tile floor of the hotel with a pillow under my head and hips.  It was quite comfortable and cool, certainly better than sharing the night with bed bugs.  Even with my cotton sleeping sheet pulled up to my neck the little buggers started crawling on my face.  This was after intense itching on my back woke me up.  For some reason bed bugs love me while mosquitoes think that Sarah is the bees knees.

After a surprisingly decent night’s sleep on the floor, and a nap in the big vinyl armchair which was hogging space in the small room, we hopped on another bus for six hours to get to Iringa.  The journey from Morogoro to Iringa is lovely.  First you drive on the highway through Mikumi National Park where we once again saw herds of elephants, zebra and giraffe from the bus, always a nice way to start the day.  The road then winds up through the Udzungwa mountains along the Lesser Ruaha river.  As mountain scenery goes it’s the equal of anything we saw in Tanzania.  You then get to a high plateau and drive through a large valley full of farms with dairy cattle or maize and humongous sunflowers.  Iringa itself is found on an escarpment above this high plateau.  After we disembarked the bus, we climbed even further to a lookout, a large rock in this rocky valley.  Luckily we met a couple of American researchers who showed us the way; signs were in short supply.  We almost got busted by security as we looked at the map on my phone in front of what turned out to be a government building.  I make it a rule to comply with young men holding automatic weapons but when he asked for the phone to be passed through the high wire fence I baulked and just showed him the few photos on the phone from a distance.  This satisfied him that we had not taken any photos of the quite pretty gardens and nondescript building so on we went to join the local stoners on top of lookout rock in taking in the fading light.  Then we hightailed it out of there lest they were not so stoned that they couldn’t mount a mugging.

Sarah had heard from the Americans that they had seen vegemite for sale in one of the local stores.  Driven by an overwhelming desire to have a breakfast that didn’t involve eggs she persuaded me to jump in a taxi, as the rain started falling, to head to this shop.  It turned out to be marmite which, if you have ever tasted it, you will know is a poor substitute.  Still, it’s being carried around in our bags and does add some variety to what was an egg overdose.

We had a day off from travelling the highways and spent part of it crammed into the fullest dalla dalla yet.  It was as though they were trying to break the world record for most number of people in a minivan.  Sarah was sitting on my lap with her head in a standing man’s armpit, another man was falling asleep on her other arm which held onto the window frame for balance, while I was pinioned by about six local women in the three seats allocated to us. Needless to say, neither of us had any room to move.  It was agony and the longest 20km of the trip so far, but only cost us $1. We were putting ourselves through this ordeal to get to the Iringa stone age site.  This part of the world has the oldest known traces of humans so its no surprise that walking off the highway through the sunflowers led us to a small valley chock-full of stone age tools.  In fact there are so many that the national park people have built a little open-air shed and just piled all the rock tools in here.

Nearby is an impressive natural structure a little like the Twelve Apostles in Australia, rock pillars formed by erosion over the centuries.  They were quite impressive to wander through.

The next bus, a six hour journey from Iringa to Mbeya, won the competition for the hardest seats so far. They felt harder than a wooden bench and by the time our numbed bums had arrived in town we were over the whole bus experience.  The touts didn’t find us in the best humour but a young man called ‘James Bond’ still insisted on joining us for the short taxi ride to the hotel of our choice.  We demurred when pressed for firm plans and escaped to lunch, a very ordinary meal at a hotel which must have done a fact-finding trip to Cuba for hospitality pointers.

We put all this behind us the next day when we met Felix, the 30-year-old running Sisi Kwa Sisi (Us For Us), the cultural community tourism organisation recommendation for the area.  As the farmers were busy farming at that time of year, a farm stay wasn’t an option but we booked in three days doing various different walks, the first starting straight away by walking up Loleza Mountain, the pretty peak behind town.  We soon got great views of Mbeya below, a sprawling town of nearly half a million people at a pleasant altitude of 1700 metres.  After being baked on the bus it was nice to stretch the legs in a temperate climate, even if it was another insanely steep climb.

Felix is an interesting character: an atheist (very rare in Tanzania), BBC World Service addict, small business owner and very reflective.  It was an interesting exchange of ideas that we shared while walking.  He would give a sing-song “o-kay” when he found a point interesting.  We learned that it is a compliment to be called fat in Tanzania, something Sarah assured him that she would not take the same way.  We talked about politics in Australia and Tanzania, and how young people see the future of our nations. We also learned that Felix hates sushi.  His one and only trip overseas was for tourism training in Japan which was a real eye opener, all the way from the Emirates flight to the highly technological nature of Japanese society.  Felix’s breakfast most days is ugali.  In fact, that is his favourite food, especially with fresh yoghurt.

When Sarah asked Felix whether he was married he replied that he had two wives already and that a third woman was in love with him. When Sarah asked him was it not expensive to have multiple wives Felix said, no, he just puts them to work in the field.  He was joking of course but it took a while to figure out while we were busy being culturally sensitive.  Felix did say that getting married involved the whole family.  If you were thinking about marrying someone they had to be introduced to the family. If anyone had a problem with the potential partner then often it’s all off. This is not a cast-iron rule, but it makes sense in a place where the social safety net is your extended family rather than the government.  This makes the whole process complicated and time-consuming.  On women in Tanzania he said that women have only recently started driving cars and wearing pants, literally. He saw this as a good thing, but that gender role change requires both men and women to be involved – he had never heard of a husband doing the cooking but noted that if a man heads into the kitchen in Tanzania, the wife usually herds him out saying this is her space.

The views from the top of the mountain were fantastic.  We had a view of all the farms dotted through the valleys.  Part of the money going to Sisi Kwa Sisi for the tour support a community farm that he co-owns. It’s certainly a fertile part of the world.

The next day we jumped in a 4WD before the sun had woken and drove for a good few hours over hilly and rough dirt roads.  The reason for doing this was to get to Kitulo National Park, the newest in Tanzania.  The attraction is not animals for once, but orchids.  The park is a high alpine meadow, higher than the highest point in Australia but looking a little like Thredbo with grassy alpine hills, not the kind of place you expect to find in Africa when you are raised on images of lions in the savannah.  Sadly the National Parks people evicted farmers to create this new park and went so far as burning down their houses in night-time raids.  You can still see where the vegetation is regrowing from former agricultural land.  The Parks people are not too popular here.  They swan around in big cars, are on big salaries and sound a bit arrogant.

In typical African style we had an excess of driving to get everything organised.  As this is a new park they are still building the headquarters.  We drove past the very nice half-finished buildings and on to the town 45 minutes down the hill to fill in our paperwork for the visit, pay the entrance fee (US dollars only) and pick up the mandatory guide, meaning that we had our guide, the park’s guide and the driver in the car.  At the end of the day we had to drive back to the village to drop the driver off then retrace our steps over the same terrible road once again for the four hour trip home.  Not the smoothest experience but there was some stunning scenery on the way.

I discovered the macro setting on our camera which happily worked a lot better than trying to zoom in on animals in the distance.  There were orchids flourishing everywhere and our guide was always ready with the Latin name, in between incessent off-key whistling.  He started quizzing us after a while about what we thought the scientific name of a flower might be.  I think we disappointed him.  He showed us a flower that he said looked like Sarah’s hair.  “You mean red?” Sarah said.  He looked confused and showed us a photo from his orchid book.  Here is the flower in the wild.  Sarah did not take it as a compliment.

We went for a short walk down to a waterfall and the viewing platform in a cave behind the cascade.  It really is a lovely area and would be a great place to camp for a few days in the dry season.  As it was we just escaped the afternoon thunderstorm and crawled our way along the grassy track in a car constantly misting up.  I wiped the inside of the windscreen clean for the driver as we bounced along.  The rains cleared as we descended through the small villages perched in this incredible landscape.  The sun came out and everything looked fresh and new (apart from the road which just looked muddy).  As we drove back on the highway towards Mbeya I spotted a woman hoeing a field with a baby strapped to her back.  I’m not sure the tourism money is trickling down very far.

The following day we did our final walk with Felix, this time to a crater lake.  On the highway to the walk, which heads towards Malawi, Felix told us that an oil tanker had crashed here a few years ago.  People came from everywhere to take some free oil but one guy was smoking and the whole thing exploded.  There is a memorial there now for the dozens of people who were killed.  The walk to the crater lake goes up through jungle with huge wild banana palms and vines.  The variety of landscapes in this small area is amazing.  Thankfully this was a shorter walk and not as steep so we cruised up to view the lake where a serpent spirit is rumoured to reside.

The Southern Highlands of Tanzania were lush, verdant and picturesque, and our loquacious and thoughtful guide Felix really added to our experience. It’s not on many itineraries and doesn’t spring to mind when one thinks of Africa, but we found it to be a gem we were happy to have discovered.

Full set of Mbeya photos can be found here

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