Soaking wet with river water, caked with sand from the waist down, my bike gritty from the adventure, I took my first breaths on Tanzanian soil. The two people who’d fortuitously dragged me the final inches over the bluff pointed me towards the “border,” and I briefly took stock of my situation. I was on a grassy bluff with a dirt path heading vaguely west through what seemed like people’s yards. I started down them slowly.
I’d left Mozambique at the last possible minute on my visa, and had entered Tanzania with a little over a week to kill before my mom, who was coming to visit me for three weeks, arrived in Dar es Salaam. This left me with a decent amount of time to work things out on my own.
Eventually, I arrived at a proper dirt road leading to two small brick buildings that were apparently the customs/immigration complex. Approaching the first building that seemed official, a surly gentleman in an official outfit motioned me to the other for immigration. Meanwhile I was approached by a standard-issue border tout who offered to help me through the process. Though I declined, he followed me to the other building and waited outside. No one was in the building, and the tout told me to wait and the guy would be back in a few minutes.
About 10 minutes later, another man, much friendlier (not saying much), came and we went through the standard tourist visa rigmarole, lightening my pocket by $100 (exactly double what any non-American visitor pays for a visa to Tanzania). I left and took the motorcycle (and tout in tow) back to the first building. The surly man brought me in and asked me for my bike papers. I obliged. He scowled at the documents and asked me for my carnet. I told him I didn’t have one. He responded in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t bring the bike in at all. He said I’d have to leave it here, but that I could go in without it. I pled my case, but he was having none of it. Without explaining more, he got up and walked out of the office and away.
Confused and worried, I waited outside the office and the tout came back to talk to me. He assured me everything would be okay and asked where I was heading after. 30km north of the border was the city of Mtwara I told him I was planning to head to. He told me there was a Lutheran church that offered cheap safe accommodations and drew me a map. While I was sitting with the tout, the border agent returned and proceeded to lose his mind. He began shouting at me for talking with the tout, yelling that I should be talking to him not to this guy. I tried to diffuse the situation, but once again, he was having none of it, storming back and forth and shouting at me for a couple minutes before once again leaving.
The tout seemed nonplussed, again insisting it would all be fine. 30 painful minutes passed with me camped in front of the border post. Eventually, the agent once again returned, saying nothing to me as he passed inside and took a seat at the table. I came in a minute later and he continued to chide me nonsensically for talking with the tout instead of him. I asked him if it weren’t possible for me to get a Temporary Import Permit (TIP), and he produced the TIP document, showing me the language on it that stated it was only for vehicles registered in Southern African Development Community (SADC) member countries. We went back and forth for awhile and he asked for money, stating that he needed $40: $25 for the permit, and $15 for him. Not seeing a lot of options, I handed over the money. Then he took out his phone, made a call, and walked away again.
When he came back, ending the call, we filled out the SADC TIP with my information and he gave me my money back, scowling the entire time. He then let me leave.
Confused, exhausted, wet, and sandy, and with the day quickly fading, I hopped on the bike and proceeded down the dirt track north. I wound through some villages and forests for about 40 minutes, eventually hitting a tar road with lots of traffic, mostly trucks, minibuses, and motorcycle rickshaws. The Lutheran church was at the beginning of town. It was a large gated complex with a large roofless concrete church structure, lots of shrubby vegetation, and a few squat buildings connected to each other. I pulled up to the entrance to the largest one. There was no signage about rooms, but when a man appeared and I asked him, he assured me they had rooms, and they were cheap.
He led me through some small weird hallways and into the visiting Bishop’s quarters. There were a few rooms, and he led me into a large and shoddy one with threadbare furniture, windowless windows, and holy (perhaps in both senses of the word) mosquito netting over the bed. A desk that looked like it had been through a war was nestled in the corner. You bet your ass the Bishop’s room came with a bible. The heat, oppressive and humid all day, continued to tear into me, with buckets of sweat pouring off of me as I lugged my baggage into the hot room. Midway through a load, a young man came out of one of the other rooms and asked me about my plans. I told him I was hungry and he offered to accompany me next door for food. We were about halfway there before I deeply regretted his presence.
A large outdoor restaurant/bar with plastic tables and chairs strewn willy-nilly through an unkempt field neighbored the church compound. I ordered a beer, and the African standard meal: chicken and chips. The guy from the hostel talked to me about religion and generally just made me a little uncomfortable. He wasn’t eating, just watching. It felt like I had a religious minder. Positively, the beer was cold and pretty decent for a large national beer, and my oppressive heat-exhaustion slowly faded into a hum. After dinner, we retreated back to the Bishop’s housing and I took a much-deserved shower and slept on the shitty bed with the joyous restfulness of true exhaustion.
In the morning, I headed to the same next door restaurant for breakfast, but was intercepted en route by my “minder,” who once again followed me for what would have otherwise been a peaceful meal. But newly equipped with a full tank of cash and a pocket full of thousands of Tanzanian Shillings, I was excited to get the hell out and hit the road for my first real day in Tanzania.
The roads from Mtwara north were pocked and windy. Heavy truck traffic was pervasive, and they drove with an aggression that was truly terrifying. I was ran completely off the road on more than one occasion as one heavy truck barreled head-on towards me attempting to pass another, seemingly completely uninterested in my presence in the lane. I passed through dense vegetation covered mountains, a brief stretch of ocean vistas, and endless small villages made of sticks, bricks, and thatch roofs.
Traffic and poor road quality made the going slow. The sun beat down through clear skies, and the pure-humidity salty breeze from the ocean made me need frequent stops to hydrate. Dar es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania, was going to take far too long, so I decided to swing off the main road onto a peninsula that terminated with the town of Kilwa Masoko, with the UNESCO World Heritage Site on the island Kilwa Kisiwani a short boat ride away. Off the main road, the traffic died down, and the thoroughfare, still pocked with intense potholes, was then covered in sand and lined with palm trees. The 300km to get there took a stunning 5 and a half hours.
The small town of Kilwa had a number of hotels, and as I stopped by one after another, I found no vacancies or exorbitant prices. I could see on Google Maps a spot 5km from town on the coast, but Google Maps showed it nearly that far from any listed road as well. My kinda place. With frequent stops to look at the map, I found a crazy complicated series of sandy tracks winding through people’s yards, around palm trees and dense vegetation, construction sites, and confusing dead ends, but eventually I pulled up at a gated beach “resort.” It seemed old and desolate. I drove inside.
A group of folks were sitting around having dinner under the shade of thatch umbrella. They greeted me as I arrived and invited me to join them. Super friendly and engaging, the patriarch was a 20-year veteran of the UN and the owner of the hotel. He continued to force his food on me and regaled me with stories of living in Cambodia for 7 years, as well as Sudan, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, all during their troubled times. He presented me with a super cheap seaside cabin complete with air-conditioning. I was home. After eating with his crew, I parked in the sand next to my cabin and unloaded in the blinding heat of the day.
I relaxed, showered, read my book on the oceanside, and booked a tour guide to the UNESCO site the next morning. The patriarch of the place had more diplomats in town visiting that I chatted with, some of whom were 20+ year veterans of the US foreign service. Unsurprisingly, the diplomats were incredibly interesting, engaging, and charismatic. I was fed another meal for free and got to sleep in the 1st world comforts of both machine-cooled air and privacy, plus the addition of the sound of waves through the window. Full, content, and comfortable, I slept.
In the morning, I rode my unloaded motorbike down the endless sandy paths back to town. I met my tour guide at the small port. He was a friendly if moderately distracted gentleman who’d grown up on the island of Kilwa Kisiwani, a former Sultinate and once one of the richest and most powerful settlements on the Swahili coast. We boarded a small motor-powered longboat and bobbed 15 minutes across the channel.
Large stone ruins peaked through mangroves, baobabs, and lush vegetation as we approached the island. A small fort named Husuni Ndogo greets you near the port, a glorious ruin of lumpy chunks of coral cemented together with limestone, complete with fading crenelations and rocky arrow slits. My guide and I headed towards it in the hot morning sun.
Thought to have been built in the 7th or 8th centuries, and possibly also used as a mosque, much of the structure remains, with only the wall facing the ocean and some of the ceilings crumbling into the sea. We walked around the building to where one of the huge meter+ thick walls was missing allowing us entrance.
After the fort, we wandered along the coast, past various old and new structures, some inhabited some gone to ruins. The island had gone through quite a few big changes over the years: subjugated by the Portuguese in the early 16th century then later taken by Arabs, again conquered by the Omanis in 1784, the main city was abandoned in the 1840’s, and the island finally fell into German occupation until 1918. Hints of this storied past was littered throughout, some hidden under lush vegetation.
Eventually we made it to a large complex of tall and crumbling coral walls, the remains of the old city. In places, plaster still clung to the structures, showing hints at the impressive decorative elements that once adorned the structures. The familiar Arabic window shapes peaked out in places.
Wandering further inland across the island, we reach the Great Mosque of Kilwa, one of the oldest surviving mosques in East Africa. Began in the 10th century, and with several distinct stages of construction, it’s still quite impressive to wander through the columns and gaze at the few remaining domes.
After the mosque, we set out across the island toward the former palace. We tromped through villages and jungle. On a narrow path in the forest, we came upon an old Muslim man pushing an old steel bicycle. Attached to the back was a bag of freshly roasted cashews. He greeted us, then reached into the bag and dumped a generous double-handful into the hands of me and my guide. They were charred and delicious, tasting sweet in a way that seemed altogether foreign to me. In the villages, I noticed chalk writing on the doors of all the houses. My guide told me this is how the villagers leave messages for one another. I found this to be pretty freakin’ cute.
We passed more stone ruins with ancient trees bursting through their mortar and slithering around their stones, hardworking women drawing endless water from a well, others carrying large bundles of sticks atop their strong heads, hungry and ornery goats, and many colorful tableaus of drying clothes laid out upon the grass. Eventually, we came upon the grand palace itself.
Perched upon a tall bluff, the massive grounds offered an unparalleled view of the sound. Walls, halls, and doorways, with only occasional ceilings, peeked out every which way. An very deep but dry well yawned under the shade of a large tree. More phenomenal baobabs ringed the excavated landscape. Numerous courtyards, great halls, playing fields, and rooms poked out from every which way. Several broad staircases have survived. Even an odd 10-sided room remains perched on one side. I wandered around gazing in awe at the sheer scale of the place for awhile, but the full heat of the day had arrived, and this was our final stop.
A massive original staircase sits at the end of the property leading down the bluff and into a mangrove-choked beach. A few minutes after we arrived, our boat slid between the mangroves and picked us up from the shallow water.
Upon returning to the mainland, I once again got lost a dozen times trying to get back to my hotel. I was now the only guest there. The staff invited me to join them for lunch, which I did. I relaxed in the beachside paradise awhile before heading back to town to have a couple beers at a small local bar where the lady running it joined me and chatted me up for awhile. Dinner was once again free and in the company of the friendly staff at the resort.
In the morning, they’d set up a small table for breakfast for me facing the beach. It was adorable. I ate a feast with a view and packed my things in the tropical sun.
It was bittersweet leaving the tranquil quiet of Kilwa and rejoining the main coastal highway, which was choked with aggressive heavy truck traffic belching endless black sooty diesel into my face. Swarms of tuk tuks, motorcycles, and “dolla dollas” (ubiquitous Toyota vans jammed with people that cost $1 to take in town, hence the name) and private vehicles joined the din as I closed in on Dar es Salaam. The road was abysmal, with deep ruts, rocks, holes, and diversions. Things slowed to a crawl as the massive vehicles attempted to pick their way through the wreckage. Where possible, I wove through the carnage, but things were tight. The last 50km was a dirty war in the street.
Eventually, the coastal highway battleground, marked by jungle, villages, and hills, gave way to an urban apocalypse. The streets buzzed with activity: colorful kufias (fez-like hats common in the Muslim community in East Africa) atop white robes bustled pushing large wooden hand carts atop truck wheel and axles, chickens darted, goats lazed. The traffic had caused me to arrive at the worst possible time. I was baptized from day one in the horror that is Dar’s traffic. “House of Peace” it is not (during rush hour). Particularly brutal were the dolla dolla stops, where they would double and triple park, choking traffic to a crawl and spilling people, animals, and luggage out into the streets. As I made my way past one of these which was a particularly brutal jumble of man and machine, a police officer in an argument with a man on the street, grabbed his billy club and swung it at the man’s head, the tip of it came no more than 6 inches from my face as I puttered by, assuredly with a look of stupid shock slapped across it. It all seemed almost allegorical.
I crossed over the harbor on a big gleaming new bridge that rises high into the air, granting an impressive view of the hodgepodge Dar skyline. Immediately upon arriving on the other side, I was dumped onto a lumpy dirt road. It boggled the mind. Traffic remained heavy as I continued through town on one of the major thoroughfares (and infamous Selander Bridge choke point). Eventually, I turned off into the neighborhood of Kinondoni, not far from the French Embassy (always a good sign), to reach a spot called Hunch Backpackers. As I pulled up, I came upon a kitted up KLR with South African plates. Immediately afterwards, I met a bearded white male American software engineer in the pool who was riding it. I guess there’s a type.
Hunch was a nice place, open just a few months, with air conditioning, a new building, and a tasty breakfast included that actually changed every day. The owner was also a super friendly chap — full of stories — and after getting checked into a room with a dozen beds in it and unloaded, I got a drink and began chatting up the biker. I ended up out to dinner with him and his friend, learning how small a world we live in, as it turned out he was applying for a job at Google and the hiring manager he was talking to was a friend of mine. He now works in my old building on my old floor in my old office. Small world, and maybe even more specific type…
Hunch was willing to store my bike, taking care of my primary concern before my mother’s arrival (we weren’t about to go traipsing across Tanzania two-up on my motorbike), which left me with a handful of days to kill in Dar preparing and checking out the city. I ate discount sushi at Cape Town Fish Market, had a true western-style breakfast, had a night out at the Alliance Française watching a huge traditional Tanzanian band show featuring over a dozen old men in matching outfits playing instruments and dancing, stumbled upon the filming of a Congolese music video, checked out the main government museums, and even found a burger place that made a half-decent cheeseburger out of a shipping container. I also made a logistical plan for my mom’s time in Tanzania, taking advantage of Hunch’s decent WiFi.
When the time finally came, everything was ready. I’d moved into a quiet 2 bedroom apartment downtown that my mom could sleep off her jetlag in, and via the diplomats I’d met in Kilwa, I even had a driver meeting her at the airport with a sign. Everything was set for her middle-of-the-night arrival. I just sat back, relaxed, and steeled myself for three solid weeks of mom time.