February 23 - February 27, 2013
23.02.2013 - 27.02.2013 33 °C
The trip from India to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania was quite long and tiring. Given the fact that we travelled from Kerala in South India to Delhi first and then to Dar es Salaam via Dubai it took us the better part of 28 hours to finally arrive here. It was already late afternoon on February 23 when we landed in Dar es Salaam and we got to the small immigration section where we had to fill out immigration forms and applications for our visa on arrival. Everything was a bit chaotic as one guy collected the completed forms and handed them to the immigration officers behind a number of windows. But after a relatively short wait of not more than 15 minutes we got our passports back, including fresh visas for Tanzania. Interestingly, the visa can only be paid in US dollars, so we were lucky that we had a small amount with us, just enough to pay for the 150 US$ fee for both of us – typically it’s 100 US$ pax though but for some reason they gave us a break.
After we got our passports back we just had to get through the official immigration counters and we were officially in the country, picked up our luggage and made our way outside to find transportation into the city. There were some taxi touts but we needed some money first and just picked one of the ATMs, fairly convenient if you just need some quick money but no one would change any Amex travelers checks – travelers checks seem to be less common here in Tanzania and no bank or business will accept them. They seem to become a thing of the past anyway, so make sure to stock up on cash and credit cards before travelling around the world. In Tanzania, preferably you pay in hard cash, dollars or Euros/GBP or in the local currency, the Tanzanian Shilling but dollars often give you better value for money. Once we got some money from an ATM we tried to figure out how the taxi scheme works here. Based on our experiences in India we suspected a scam behind every taxi, so we were very careful to not just follow one of the guys who said he’s an official taxi driver. Hence we talked to a couple of ladies from the local Tourist Information and they told us that taxi rates are pretty much fixed and the rates are even published on a board close to the taxi stand. So we just walked over there, saw the board, clarified the price with the guys sitting there and got a taxi driver who was assigned to us. The price for the taxi to our hotel downtown was pretty much what the two ladies told us, approximately 26 US$, which is quite high for the short ride but fuel is surprisingly expensive in a country that owns oil reserves. A liter of fuel is well over I US$, almost 5 US$ per gallon.
We arrived at our hotel downtown Dar es Salaam within 30 minutes, checked in, relaxed a bit after our long journey and reflected on our first impressions of the country.
(View over Dar es Salaam from our hotel 'Sapphire')
First impressions: Dar es Salaam seems to have a fairly good infrastructure, good roads (if not under construction) and, quite surprisingly, the city looks pretty clean as hardly any garbage is lying around. This is in stark contrast to pretty much any Indian city we’ve visited in the last 5 weeks. Also, people seem to be very laid back, traffic can get heavy during rush hour but not as nearly as chaotic, frantic and aggressive as in India. We were a little surprised about the high prices of pretty much everything, from hotels to taxis and even half-decent food, which is very hard to find. Despite being a developing country, Tanzania certainly is not a “cheap” country and if you’d like to get any creature comforts when it comes to hotels etc., you have to shell out amounts that rival the US if not Europe in some cases. So we were a little concerned that it would be hard to manage our budget in this country. Other than that, Tanzanians seem to be polite yet reserved and even some of the touts at bus stands or the ferry pier are much less aggressive and persistent than in India. If you say “No, thanks” once or twice they actually stop pestering you.
(One of the many Christian churches in Dar) (Enjoying the breeze on the beach road in Dar)
Over the course of the next few weeks we obviously formed a slightly broader perspective and while we continued to enjoy the laid back and ‘non-aggressive’ attitude in Tanzania, being too laid back can get annoying as well, for example in hotels, restaurants or any business that delivers a service. Finding good service, at least what you would describe as good service in the West, is literally like finding the needle in the haystack. You could sit in an empty restaurant for hours and nobody would take your order until you start frantically waiving your hands and desperately trying to establish eye contact. Getting your order right is almost impossible and it often takes several attempts to get all the items that you ordered correctly. And for some reason, Tanzanian service personnel seems to be obsessed with cleaning your table rather than taking an order for additional food or drinks. In many restaurants it also seems to be uncommon to have a menu, which can create interesting scenarios, especially if the waiting staff are not very capable of speaking English. One time in Arusha in an outside pub/restaurant we just wanted to order a small serving of chips (French fries) as a snack and 15 minutes later the waiter came back with two large portions of fries and a whole grilled chicken – naturally accompanied with the relatively expensive bill of 20 US$. Lesson learned: if you can’t see (and touch) what you will get, don’t order it since you are in for a surprise.
A final point I want to make here before moving on is about the food in Tanzania but before I get to that let me very briefly describe a few facts about Tanzania. Tanzania, officially the United Republic of Tanzania, is a result of a union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar, which was formed in 1964, hence the name “Tan-Zan-ia”. Until 1961 Tanganyika was a British colony (Zanzibar was ruled by Arabs) and you still can see the influence in architecture, education and the second official language being English. Due to long established trading routes between India, the Middle East and East Africa there’s a strong Arab and Middle Eastern influence in Tanzania, which is apparent in the many Indian and Arab residents in Tanzania, especially in the big cities like Dar es Salaam. Interestingly, the official national language “Swahili” is a mix between Bantu (an African dialect), Hindi and Arabic. So it’s quite a melting pot of ethnic groups, religions and influences. Unfortunately this has not translated in a succulent and sophisticated cuisine, au contraire. Once you leave the big hotels or some Indian restaurants, which serve the typical decent Indian fare, food seems to mainly consist of grilled chicken and chips – boy do Tanzanians love their chicken! You literally get it everywhere and often it is the only dish that is being served. There are a few rather bland local dishes, like Ugali (made out of maize) and some rice and bean dishes, sometimes complemented by equally bland fish. So, I would not describe Tanzania as a “Foodie” destination but who cares if you have some of the most amazing wildlife right in front of your nose. And that is THE main reason to visit Tanzania, not necessarily the great history, culture, ruins or cuisine – it is the wildlife and the stunning and diverse nature that provides the backdrop for it.
So, for the next three days we just explored Dar es Salaam, taking walks across the city and along the windy beach road, which was refreshing given temperatures of 33+ degrees Celcius (> 90 degrees Fahrenheit) and high humidity. While the city is pleasant it is nothing to write home about. When we took our first walk through the city on the Sunday after our arrival it almost felt like a “ghost city” since most streets were almost empty and pretty much every store and business was closed. After India this felt eerie but we also somehow enjoyed the quietness after having been bombarded with noise for weeks.
As said above, during the first couple of days in Dar es Salaam we figured out our schedule, planned out the next few weeks and decided to travel to Zanzibar for a few days first and then to Arusha in the North of Tanzania from where we were supposed to start our safari. At this point let me say a few words about planning a safari since this can be an overwhelming experience.
Planning a safari in Tanzania:
Most tourists travel to Tanzania for the ultimate wildlife experience and understandably so. The number and size of game reserves in Tanzania is astounding and they are typically divided into the “Northern, Southern and Western Circuit”, the three main areas in Tanzania with high concentrations of national parks. In addition, there is the Kilimanjaro region and thousands of people climb Mount Kilimanjaro each year. We decided not to join the fun, firstly because we are in no shape physically to get to over 6000 meters without problems und secondly, we didn’t carry any equipment with us that would be needed, like warm clothes, hiking boots, warm sleeping bags etc. So instead of torturing our bodies I decided to stick with the local brew named after Kilimanjaro and have a “Kill time” as often displayed on some of the big advertising boards.
We were pretty open as to what parks we were going to visit and after talking with two tour operators and getting itineraries and quotes from a couple of others via email, we landed on some of the parks of the Northern Circuit, namely Serengeti, the Ngrorongoro Crater area and Lake Manyara. We hadn’t even heard of Lake Manayara before but Serengeti and Ngorongoro were names that we always associated with abundant wildlife and stunning landscapes. There are certainly numerous safari tour operators in Dar but the number of operators in Arusha is clearly dwarfing this number. But since we wanted to have a tour finalized before travelling to Zanzibar in order to not loose more time in Arusha we chose a small company with an office in Dar. Their name is Daigle Tours and is owned by a Tanzanian with a (French) Canadian passport. Since we never organized a safari before and were hesitant to fork over hundreds or thousands of dollars online without even knowing the company we made it a point to visit their small office in the Kigamboni area of Dar, which is where you find some of the beaches and beach resorts. So we took the ferry to the other side a small bay and after a small taxi ride we reached the office of Daigle Tours, right next to a fuel station. Inside the tiny office we met Samwel and his assistant and we had a chat with them about our expectations, requirements, time and money budget etc. We both felt very comfortable with Samwel, who listened well and made good suggestions as to what the best options were, so we asked him to send us an updated itinerary before making a decision. By the time we got back to our hotel in the evening and after having a lovely dinner at one of the hotels on Dar es Salaam’s South Beach Samwel had already sent us the itinerary including costs.
(On the ferry to Kigamboni. Cost is 20 cents)
Now, for everybody who hasn’t been on a safari in East Africa…it ain’t cheap. Even the budget safari tours, which mean sleeping in very simple tents and having shared bathrooms, no frills food and a bunch of people cramped into one 4WD, it’s still difficult to get much below 150-200 US$ per day per person. But safaris are also relatively cost intensive endeavors since you need an expensive 4WD, a driver/tour guide who speaks good English or other languages, three meals a day, accommodation and park fees, which are quite expensive as well; so it really adds up. We eventually ended up with a tour in the mid-range but that meant we had our own car and driver/guide, modest but comfortable accommodation and decent food. But this was only possible since it was low season and tour operators provide good deals in order to have at least some business. Many people plan their safaris from home months in advance, and during high season from June to September and then again in December/January this is also advisable, but during low season you can walk into any tour operator office and organize a safari within two to three days. We actually were here during the “perfect” time since the weather was still very good and it didn’t rain during our safari; there are a few weeks between the high season in January and March where the weather is typically relatively stable but prices are lower. Low season also means that you are not competing with hundreds of other Land Cruisers and Range Rovers for the best spots when watching wildlife at close range. So we were quite happy about that and we could often enjoy relatively “empty landscapes” and even some of the lodges we stayed at were very quiet and only half occupied.
After we had taken care of our safari planning we had a couple of days to kill before the start of our trip from Arusha in the north of Tanzania, which is located at the footsteps of Mount Meru, the second highest mountain in Tanzania after Mount Kilimanjaro. It just worked out perfectly so we could visit Zanzibar for a couple of days and head to Arusha from there. Everybody has probably heard the name Zanzibar, which many associate with the ultimate exotic destination and spice trade. But many, including us, wouldn’t know exactly where it is located. We had now the chance to find out first hand and we bought our ferry tickets for the next day from Dar to Zanzibar; the ferry sets you back approx.35 US$ per person for the two hour ferry ride. We took the 9 AM ferry the next morning and in perfect sunny weather we headed over to Zanzibar in one of the fast ferries. (Arrival in Stone Town in Zanzibar)
Interestingly, upon arrival at Zanzibar port you need to go through a “mini immigration” procedure again. There’s no need to fork over an insane amount for the visa if you have a Tanzania visa but other than that you need to fill out the same immigration form again and show proof of your yellow fever vaccination – so all travellers to Zanzibar or many other East African countries for that matter: make sure you got your yellow fever shots and carry your immunization pass with you.
We got a taxi and drove to a small guesthouse that we had booked online before. It’s a very simple place called Mnazi House but has nice owners, free wifi and a small breakfast was included. (Our small room at our B&B 'Mnzai House')
A small mosque is right behind the building so we definitely got our dose of Muslim prayers early in the morning and late evening. On the opposite side of the guest house is the building of the Zanzibar Weightlifting Association, presumably to ensure physical fitness after the spiritual one although we never saw a soul actually lifting any weights inside; everybody was just sitting around chatting all day. Well, I don’t blame them since the temperatures in Zanzibar were super hot when we were there. The only way to feel comfortable during the way was to sit in one of the small cafes at the harbor or in the old Stone Town. Besides the many beautiful beaches the Old Town of Zanzibar city is really the main reason why many people visit the island and we really fell in love with it. (A beautiful beach in Zanzibar)
The architecture is hard to describe since it is very eclectic but it has a Mediterranean feel to it and is a mix of Indian, Middle Eastern and other ‘Oriental’ influences. (The Stone Town in Zanzibar)
Wandering around the Old City, the fish market at the harbor and the small parks along the way is a visual adventure and luckily there are many small bars and cafes where you can rest, have a drink and take in the atmosphere. We also found out that Zanzibar is the birthplace and former home of Freddie Mercury, the legendary lead singer of one of the greatest bands ever, Queen. Freddie had spent his first years right here in Zanzibar before going to boarding school in Bombay in India and from there to the UK. (Market in Zanzibar) (Freddie Mercury's birth place in Stone Town)
We had dinner at a small local place, which a taxi driver recommended to us. It is called “Lukman” (pronounced ‘Look Maan’), which served rice with veggies, greens, beans etc. but also small fish and chicken. It was very cheap and Zanzibar is not necessarily a cheap place, even a little more expensive than the rest of Tanziania, which is pricey in the first place. But even here, while it tasted ok we would have expected better seasoned food being on the “spice island” and all. So don’t get your hopes up and expect great food anywhere in Tanzania or even Zanzibar; it is mediocre at best.
Two other things were on our list of Must Do’s while being here: visiting a spice farm and the former slave market. So we visited a spice farm in the mountains and did a very informative tour of the different spices and fruits that grow here. It was quite fascinating to taste the spices right from the tree or plant and we started to understand why Zanzibar got the reputation it still has today. Some of the spices just taste phenomenal, for instance the Zanzibarian cinnamon doesn’t just taste like your monther’s regular cinnamon that you buy at Walmart; it is also very sweet and very spicy – I am sure you’ve never tasted anything like it…we hadn’t. (Spice farm tour)
Finally, we spent some time at the former slave market. It is located in Stone Town and it is a fascinating and at the same time utterly depressing and sad experience. This site was the last slave trading post in Africa and it used to be a slave trading hub for slaves from South and East Africa and as far as the modern DRC (Congo). Slaves that were captured in their villages, in fact often by their own countrymen, had to walk in shackles sometimes for weeks or months to reach the east coast of Tanganyika from where they were shipped to Zanzibar. Once there, they were kept for days in hot, filthy and dark small chambers in the basement of St. Monica's Hostel, which was built in 1890 above the slave chambers. As you can imagine, many of the slaves died either on their long march or in the inhuman conditions in the chambers. As cruel as it sounds, and we all know what monstrosities humans are capable of, this was a way to select the strongest slaves out of the crowd who were eventually shipped, again under appalling conditions, to countries like Oman, other Arab countries, Jamaica/Caribbean etc. It was hard to listen to the explanations of the guide but eventually slavery was abolished in 1873. Following the closure of the Slave Market by Sultan Barghash, missionaries bought the site and built the Anglican Cathedral (Cathedral Church of Christ) on this location and freed slaves helped with its construction under the guidance of Bishop Edward Steere. The altar of the cathedral stands on the spot of the whipping tree, which is a chilling sight. A window is dedicated to Dr. David Livingstone, the initiator of the abolition of slavery. The church's crucifix is made from the wood of a tree in Zambia, under which the heart of Livingstone is buried. Behind the cathedral there is a stone sculpture of five slaves in a pit, tied with original iron shackles and chains. (Zanzibar's former slave market) (The slave chambers) (The Cathedral Church of Christ at the site of the former slave market) (Stone memorial at the former slave market) (Whipping post inside the Anglican Cathedral)
The following day, after a short walk in blistering heat and a refreshing lunch in one of the many cozy cafes of Stone Town we headed out to the airport to take our flight to Arusha. It’s always an experience to fly from these small remote airports. When our flight was called - called in the literal sense by a person shouting our destination Arusha into the waiting room - we walked to our plane along the runway, which was a small 6 seater and our pilot was a young French guy, who didn’t look older than 20 years old. With us was just one more passenger, a young German guy travelling alone through East Africa. Our pilot was a pretty funny guy and since it was so hot, he just opened his door and held it open until we had taken off, so the colder air cooled down the temperature inside the boiling hot plane. Once at cruising altitude, he took out his Kindle and started reading, only occasionally looking out the window to orient himself and until it was time to start the approach into Arusha. A Pretty relaxed attitude for a pilot, especially given the fact that in these small planes there’s no autopilot or the like but it was still fun having the small plane almost to ourselves and being able to have some interesting little chats with the pilot, sitting just behind his seat. (Our pilot enjoying a good book)