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Trains, plains and game drives
My first trip to Africa: I really wanted to avoid the crowds and see some real life before chilling out and doing nothing for a few days.
16 Jan: The Slipway in Dar Es Salaam feels like a strange deserted village as we explore the complex during the day - the heat is too much to go very far and the weariness brought on by an overnight flight means a position at the water’s edge with a cold drink is the inevitable conclusion.
From here it is a short taxi ride into town and before long I’m walking through the fish market - the only tourist and the only European around. Fish auctions are surrounded by those with vested interest and those with a more passing curiosity - the locals seem keen to find out who’s bidding on what but the process is too hard to understand for me. I can just about get a feel for which fish cause the biggest stir and it is definitely not the squid - the platforms where they lie unattended are only of interest to the flies. Curiously I order squid for dinner (maybe out of pity?) and it is great. By night the hotel complex is alive with visitors, not just from the hotel, and the place has a fun and relaxed feel to it - a nice introduction to the trip before we head out into the bush.
17 Jan: The short trip to Bongoyo Island takes us to a beach of much higher quality than on the mainland. The water is perfect and the sandy beach is empty save for a few tourists dotted around. I notice you can camp here - that would be on my list if ever came back.
18 Jan: The next day we have a leisurely morning before catching the train from Tazara Station. The station itself is hall-like and packed with people heading (mostly) to places as far as Zambia, some 48 hours journey from Dar Es Salaam. A disused train sits alongside ours at the platform, a rusty shell of a train whose best days are far behind it. The Chinese-built wonder that will be our home for the next few hours (four and a quarter to be exact) looks modern by comparison. The carriages offer a mix of individual cabins in first and second class, hard and soft seats in 3rd class and ‘super-seater’ (the latter also has a TV) and busy communal carriages for eating and drinking. The train departs bang on time. Many passengers prefer the communal areas, hanging their heads out of the window to catch the cool late afternoon breeze as we pull slowly out of Tazara and amble past the city’s outskirts or chatting in the restaurant or bar.
A cold Kili in the bar carriage brings conversation with the barman and a chance to learn some phrases. Popular drinks here include super-malt, a favourite with the west indian population back in South London where I grew up. It makes me appreciate the local culture a little to be on this train, the atmosphere is buzzing and friendly.
Other non-african passengers seem to be mostly back-packers. Do many people on a two week holiday see this side of Tanzania? I wonder what type of experience it would be to jump in and out of Africa just staying in air-conditioned hotels and isolated, luxury lodges. A lesser one I conclude.
As we enter Selous Reserve, we spot impala and eland, buffalo and baboon. As darkness falls and the near-full moon lights the landscape an enormous roar of a bull elephant is heard. The silhouette of a small group can be seen not fifty feet from the tracks.
Arriving at Kisaka we’re prepared for the fact there is no platform and are ready to hand the bags through the window to Hassani, our guide. All along the train the villagers have come to meet the train and trade between them and the passengers passes from lamp-lit trolleys to the windows above. It is a magical scene with the faint light illuminating the train seemingly stopped in the middle of the african bush.
We get to the lodge in the dark and the sounds of the surrounding forest remind me of the jungle. The hot, humid atmosphere is also remarkably similar. We meet the owner of the lodge over drinks and discuss our forthcoming game-drives. Soon after we’re all asleep - cocooned in our individual ‘Bandas’ (fixed, tented accommodation) being serenaded by the sounds of the night.
19 Jan: Walking safari gives us a feel for the plants and birds around, the tracking of game and a giraffe’s skeleton provides an interesting anatomy lesson but the game is elusive, warthog and impala can be seen running away but the ellies seem to be just around the corner. The afternoon’s game drive however, is a different story. Elephants are everywhere. Girraffe, zebra, many more are seen and the landscape reveals itself to us as varied and quite green, a surprising benefit of travelling in January. The highlight of the day is spotting a leopard on a sandy mound. Across the road, her kill (an impala) is halfway to being dragged up into a tree (the job, we would see, would be finished by tomorrow) and behind her an impala standing stock still as if powerless even to run away. The leopard slowly retreats after a couple of minutes and sprints off through the bush. We head back to the lodge with cooling off in mind.
20 Jan: The full day game drive includes a chance to go out by boat on one of the many lakes of the reserve. Here the birdlife is incredible with african fish eagles swooping and plucking fish right in front of us. The custodians of the water, however are the large number of Hippopotamus lurking mostly beneath the surface. Like islands they attract herons and egrets.
The day is hot, we see ten lions including a cub and a huge male, the dust permeates everything, we feel like the only people in the reserve. We remark that, for the second day running we have not seen a single vehicle in the entire time we have been searching for wildlife.
22 Jan: When the time comes to leave Sable Mountain, we fly by twin prop over the bush and out toward Zanzibar. The water looks unbelievably turquoise and inviting for rugged safari folk like us - a tropical paradise is waiting.
First we explore Stone Town (Zanzibar Town), the largest city on Zanzibar and possibly the most picturesque town centre in this part of Africa. We walk around with our guide, Abraham but no-one feels harassed or unsafe. The narrow streets hide a multitude of craft shops - mostly catering to tourists - and a couple of interesting markets which mark the end of the old town centre and a massively crowded section full of small shops and industry (including impressive carpenters and wood smiths). We wonder through the covered markets and to the former slave market, now a monument to the horrible treatment of slaves in this part of the world.
Walking out at night and we see a different side to the city, the fort on the sea front is lit up and very beautiful, the food-market on the promenade is busy and full of life. Kids throw themselves acrobatically from the sea wall into the waves below to the rapture of a gathering audience.
The restaurants have good variety and some have live music, the one we chose did and we spent, it was named after the island’s most famous son - Freddie Mercury. The live music was not in anyway related to the name of the place which was probably for the best as we whiled away a pleasant evening to reggae versions of well known songs.
24 Jan: Fantastic place Stone Town, full of life and interesting streets, we wave goodbye as we head north to Nungwi and our home for the next three days. Time to chill out and enjoy some down time.
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