Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tanzania – the heart of East Africa (Part 1)

Home to some of the oldest human fossils on earth, the vast Serengeti where the great wildebeest migration occurs, Mt. Kilimanjaro – Africa’s tallest mountain, Zanzibar and it’s incredible beaches, and some of the most fascinating cultures, Tanzania should be on the top of everyone lists of places to visit.

Mt. Kilimanjaro
This geographically diverse country has everything from montane forests, tropical coast, deserts, savannah grasslands, scrub and the largest freshwater lake in the world – it’s no wonder the bird list surpasses 1,000 species! Not only that, the endemic-rich Eastern Arc Mountains and the coastal forests are part of two major Biodiversity Hotspots in eastern Africa.

The idea of going to Tanzania was on the spur of the moment. My three month travel visa for Namibia was about to expire and I was planning my route back to Cape Town via Botswana. I really did not want my trip to come to an end so after getting word of a train that takes you from central Zambia all the way to the coast of East Africa; I was on that train within a couple days! You must understand, I had no knowledge on Tanzania, the birds, the culture, nothing - I was headed to foreign lands. I did some quick research on the internet creating a basic itinerary and picked up the Birds of Africa south of the Sahara (which includes East Africa) in Lusaka before boarding the train.

Waiting for the train at Kapiri Mposhi
There’s no doubt, the train ride was one of the top highlights of my four month trip. If you want to experience Africa off the tourist route and into the heart of the countryside – take the Tazara. Connecting Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the railway was originally built by the Chinese in the 1970’s to encourage trade. Little maintenance has occurred in the past four decades leaving the train far from Western standards but it was still an enjoyable trip. November 4th at 6pm I set off on the train with two fellow travelers I just met – a South Korean and a Zambian. We passed time by chatting, playing guitar, looking out the window and birding. The train stops every couple hours at rural train stations, which allowed us to interact with the locals, buy goods and practice our limited Swahili with the children.

Bananas for sale
Village kids having fun
Meals were surprisingly good, believe it or not, which is probably due to that fact that everything we were eating was just bought a few minutes before from the villagers and cooked by the chefs on board. It was interesting watching the live chickens be carried onboard and shortly later, a plate of chicken, nshima (ground maize flour), soup and vegetables served for only $3. About a day later we arrived at the Tanzania border where the customs agents boarded as well as money changers. 

The second full day we traveled through Tanzania passing the Eastern Arc Mountains including the Udzungwa Mountain Range (home to over 600 endemic plants, 5 endemic primates and several endemic birds including the unique Udzungwa Forest Partridge) and the Uluguru Mountain Range (also home to numerous endemics including the Uluguru Bush-shrike which was only just rediscovered in 2007). Unfortunately for me, I only had a total of two weeks to spend in Tanzania before I had to start heading back south so I had to skip these incredible mountains for now. I’m already planning a return trip to be able to explore these areas along with the nearby Kilombero Swamp, which holds a few endemics itself. 

Udzungwa Mountains
Fifty-five hours later after we left, the train arrived at the Dar es Salaam train station at 1am. Due to the high crime in the area, the security guards locked all ‘hundreds’ of people in the station where we all shared the hard floor for the night. (End of part 1)

1 comment:

Kenn Kaufman said...

Superb, evocative description of a fabulous trip! Travel by train in a foreign country is a great way to get close to the culture. Thanks for sharing this adventure with your readers!