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Tanzania’s Unexplored Coastline

25 March 2015

Tanzania is well known for Kilimanjaro, Serengeti and Zanzibar, but not many travellers have discovered the country’s 1400km coastline with its pristine, palm-fringed beaches, picturesque fishing villages and mysterious ruins

 Text: Andrea Dijkstra

Photography: Jeroen van Loon

 The sound of wildly moving bushes wakes us up. When we unzip our rooftop tent we stare straight into the naughty faces a group of squirrel monkeys. A guard probably ate some fruit that night and left the scraps for the monkeys, which gather them up with their tiny hands before quickly jumping back to safer heights.

We are staying at the Peponi Beach Camp in northern Tanzania – a true paradise located in a tropical forest of palms and huge cashew nut trees, right on the sandy white beaches.

That morning, we join a snorkelling excursion by dhow – a typical Arabian-style boat with triangular sail. We enjoy the views over the azure sea and after snorkelling between two beautifully coloured coral reefs, it’s time for lunch. The boatmen put up a small hut made of wooden poles and Masai blankets on a sandbank completely surrounded by the sea. The surreal scene delights us.

We hear women cheering when we arrive back at the campsite. Curious, we walk onto the beach, where tiny crabs swiftly patter sideways into their burrows, and find a group of women in colourful dresses and head scarves pulling nets through the shallows, forming a circle. The cheering starts again when the water transforms into a swirling mass of silvery fish. The women scoop up the catch in straw baskets, to be carried gracefully on their heads to their village. Unfortunately they don’t want us to take their picture – something we will experience often on this coastline.

Zealous traffic cops

Another challenge is the traffic police, hunting us down with their speed guns from behind almost every tree.

Only five minutes after we enter the country, two officers in snow-white uniforms pull us over. We greet them with a friendly “Habari” (“Hello” in Kiswahili).

“Over speeding” is their blunt answer, pointing at their speed gun that indicates 64 km/h but doesn’t show any date or time (possibly recorded for another vehicle?). Besides, we are totally sure that we weren’t speeding, because we had just been talking about the striking contrast between the Kenyan roads full of potholes and without any road signs while the Tanzanian tarmac is extremely smooth, with road signs even warning of speed bumps.

The officers go through our car papers and want to see our fire extinguisher and two warning triangles. Overlanders in Ethiopia had previously advised us to buy an extra triangle, but where in our Land Rover had we put it? While Jeroen starts emptying the car, I show the other policeman our fire extinguisher. I’m told to remove it from its cover for him to check the expiry date.

When the officers have run out of demands, they warn us not to “over speed” again. This is quite difficult as we pass through villages almost every five minutes where the speed limit can be as low as 30km/h.

After passing through the apparently dormant fishing village of  Pangani, where some dilapidated colonial buildings show a glimpse of the important port town it was during the 19th century, we pay a visit to the Sadaani National Park. We soon bump into a large elephant herd, with adults throwing sand over their backs and calves running happily through the high grass. We also see impalas, baboons and big red birds with black heads.

Because we don’t want to camp on a miserable piece of grass without any facilities for the ridiculous cost of $30 a person, we decide to go bush camping. We find a spot behind some trees, not visible from the road.

Peeing behind a bush is more exciting than usual when you expect to encounter wild animals, but fortunately we don’t.

Next morning we wake up at half past six, in time to watch the sunrise, but clouds block the sun so there’s nothing to see. The rest of the day is the same. We don’t spot much wildlife and the dirt roads are poorly maintained. We see some flamingos at the salt pans, where men are mining salt on an industrial scale. To us, the park isn’t worth the entrance fee of $30 per person and $40 for the car.

We continue south to Bagamoyo, which was a major trading post for ivory and slaves during the 19th century. It was capital of the German colony in East Africa between 1886 and 1891 and today is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Much more so than in Pangani, we admire several impressive colonial buildings with their beautifully carved doors. It’s ironic that people knew how to build two-storey stone houses in the 19th century while today the locals live in huts made of mud and palm leaves.

Bringing history to life

The Catholic Museum on the outskirts of Bagamoyo is a “must see”. It truly brings the city’s history to life with its paintings, old photographs and, for example, the metal rings and chains that were used when slaves were transported by foot through the forests.

We read that some of the slaves had to walk more than 1200km from central Africa to the coast. Those that became exhausted were immediately executed, so that others would not dare to pretend they were tired or sick.

The museum is a historical place in itself, being the first mission station in east Africa. It was founded in 1868 to accommodate children who had been rescued from slavery. Later on on a school and church were built – the first Roman Catholic church in the region.

The body of explorer David Livingstone was kept here for one night on its way from Zambia, where he died in 1873, to the coast before being transported by boat to London.

Finding accommodation in Bagamoyo is tricky. The first beach resort we check out charges $9 per person to camp there. At the second, the charge is $15. The Masai guards at the third place tell us they are closed, but when we plead for the use of an empty lawn, they call their boss, who is quite happy for us to stay there. The Funky Squid’s Beach Bar, which is the name of the place, is currently under construction and the Canadian owner, Sylvain, who takes us with his two Burundian employees for a beer to a local pub, assures us he will keep his camping prices at an affordable level.

The next day we take a walk on the beach, where fishermen sell their freshly caught swordfish, octopus and shrimp directly from their boats. Men and women are frying small fish in giant oil-filled wok pans, balancing on smoky wood fires.

A dhow arrives from Zanzibar, just a few hours away by sail from Bagamoyo. However, I wouldn’t dare to make the trip in a boat like this one!

When we visit a nearby crocodile farm in the afternoon, animal carer Ali leads us along the cages and tells us that crocodiles keep growing their whole life. The oldest, and biggest, on this farm is 50 years old, but we have our picture taken with one of the baby crocs.

Ali feeds the crocodiles only once in a few days. They share a cow from the neighbouring slaughterhouse.

I ask who cleans the cages. Ali laughs and replies: “That’s me, but only after they have had their dinner.”

 An overcrowded ferry

From Bagamoyo we drive to the capital, Dar es Salaam, where the traffic is maddening. It takes three hours to drive from the west side to South Beach on the other side of the bay. Taking the ferry to the city centre next day, we notice a white Land Rover standing in the middle of the overcrowded ferry surrounded by people, leaning and hanging on every inch of the vehicle. We feel extremely happy that we didn’t take this ferry the previous night and instead drove all the way around the bay to reach South Beach.

On the ferry, we enjoy the impressive skyline of modern skyscrapers, a classical cathedral and colonial buildings.

In Dar es Salaam, we stay at the Mikadi Beach Lodge, which really means camping on the beaches of South Beach. Thousands of people gather at the big outdoor bar next to Mikadi every Sunday afternoon, to see and be seen. Men in sleeveless shirts show off their muscles, girls shake their bottoms to the music and children run through the waves. The beer they sell from their cool boxes is way cheaper than at Mikadi.

South of Dar es Salaam, we see more and more palm trees, and huts made of palm leaves. Shy schoolgirls in head scarves wave at us, and we pass a woman in a black burqa riding a bicycle.

When we stop for a moment, I hear “whoosh” every few seconds. Surprised, I look behind the car, thinking it might be an animal, and there is that same sound again. Suddenly I see what’s causing it. We are standing right next to a mango tree full of the ripe fruit that falls every few seconds. They turn out to be delicious!

When we have a quick look in the sandy village of Nyamisati, dhows full of coconuts arrive. They come from Mafia Island, at a few hours away. We drink an extremely strong coffee in a miniature cup, with a sweet biscuit made of coconut, sugar and cashew nuts.

Two men are replacing a few rotten pieces in one of the wooden cargo boats, using only a hand drill, an axe and small pieces of wood.

That evening, we decide to go camping on the beach. Driving around in search of a good spot turns out to be far from wise. The sand is softer than we thought and the more our tyres spin the deeper our Land Rover gets stuck. We desperately look around for help and suddenly see our saviour – a tall, slightly worn palm tree.

For the first time on the trip, we unroll our winch. Thankfully, the recovery rope can just reach the tree. We start the car, gently accelerate, and slowly pull in the rope while praying the tree does not break. The palm stays strong and assists us perfectly in getting out of the loose sand.

The rains come

Our trip becomes more adventurous when part of the main road turns out to be under construction, and the wet season arrives a few weeks too early.

While we slowly plough through the deep mud puddles, along with trucks, buses and ordinary passenger cars, the rain pours down. Several times our hood gets covered by waves of muddy water, and overloaded, dangerously slanting passenger buses still manage to catch up to us.

Right where the tarmac starts again, we bump into a “mobile carwash”.Four barefooted but business-minded boys are washing cars passing by for 5000 shillings (2,50 euros) per vehicle. While we hesitate, not wanting to support child labour, the laughing boys run to the nearby swamp, fill their leaking buckets and already start washing the Land Rover with some pieces of cloth. Throwing the water not only at our car but over each other’s heads, the boys have the greatest fun while earning some money here in the middle of nowhere.

We continue our journey to Kilwa Kisiwana, an island just off the coast and another World Heritage Site. Much of the East African trade in slaves, gold, silver, pearls, perfumes, Arabian crockery, Persian earthenware and Chinese porcelain passed through this small island from the 13th to the 16th centuries. From the 15th century till the 19th century it was the seat of the Sultans of Oman, who built a palace and several mosques.

We visit the ruins and especially the Great Mosque with its many columns and the impressive fortress overlooking the sea. Both provide an interesting, mysterious atmosphere.

On our way to the picturesque fishing town of Lindi, we cross an immense forest of giant baobab trees, turning purple in the light of the setting sun. With their thick trunks and grey branches, they almost look like ghosts, and the dark clouds in the background make the whole scene extra spooky.

Camping with the nuns

It’s dark when we get to Lindi. Because there are no campsites, we check out some hotels, but they are all full. Then we spot a Catholic guest house on the Tracks4Africa map. When we arrive at its compound it looks busy, and a nun tells us that there’s a priests’ meeting going on. However, it’s no problem for us to stay there if we don’t mind camping in the parking lot among some trucks, a tiny fuel station and some sort of workshop. And it’s even for free!

During a morning walk we enjoy the tranquillity of the little town. Old colonial buildings have been completely overgrown with weeds and trees, Boys with typical Muslim hats cycle from house to house with big baskets filled with hairy coconuts. At the market, women are scraping out coconuts using blunt machetes.

However, Lindi may not stay this way for much longer. Thousands of Tanzanians seem to have bought pieces of land in and around the sleepy town, hoping for a huge increase in land prices because of recent gas discoveries a few hundred kilometres down the coast.

The fishing town, Mtwara, is much closer to these gas discoveries and will probably grow quickly in the near future. Currently it’s still a quiet town where you can shop at the central market. They still sell old fashioned round diving masks. Men cut up big fish with machetes and the spicy oriental fragrances remind us of the Middle East.

Diving with whales

We hear that humpback whales are close by. They visit this region for a few months a year to calve. When we ask about the whales at Ten Degrees South, a guest house in the neighbouring village of Mikindani, we meet Willie Athill. This 50-year-old Englishman has spent half his life in East Africa and speaks Swahili fluently. He offers to call a Tanzanian fisherman with a dhow, who had taken him on a boat trip the previous week.

“I dived with the whales,” Willie says, and tells us how he jumped into the water with snorkel gear and a whale swam up to him.

“He looked me in the eye and my heart stood still,” says Willie. He laughs, and takes another sip of his beer.

Next morning, sitting on a slightly crappy dhow with several holes in the sail, we stare across the sea for an hour, and start getting slightly desperate when suddenly we spot a whale spout in the distance.

“Yes, there’s one,” Willie shouts in excitement. Our hearts skip a beat when the whale jumps right out of the sea and elegantly drops sideways back in the water.

We change course, but this is not a motorboat and it takes at least half-an-hour to get closer to the whale. We look at the bubbles and weird waves around the boat that indicate that something is under the water. Suddenly the whale, at least twice as big as our wooden boat, comes to the surface, together with its small calf.

Willie puts on his mask and snorkel and jumps into the water. After hesitating for a split second, we follow his example. We hold onto a rope tied to the boat to prevent us from drifting away.

We search underwater for the big dark shadow that may come at us any moment, the adrenaline pumping through our veins. But unfortunately, the mother and calf disappear as quickly as they arrived, but this was still by far the most exciting thing we did on the trip.

The following day we drive to Mnazi Bay, a remote beach at the other side of the bay, and swim to the beautiful coral reefs just off shore. It is like an aquarium full of fish in all the colours of the rainbow.

There is a site with beautiful camping spots under enormous palm trees. Willie joins us, and after lunch he demonstrates a less pleasant side of Tanzanian life. In nearby dunes, he shows us at least 30 empty shells of giant turtles that have been slaughtered in recent weeks for turtle soup.

Willie is planning to start the Big Blue Ocean Trust, buying a piece of beach where the turtles lay their eggs to protect it and promote tourism, so that Tanzanians realise it is more profitable to protect the turtles than to eat them.

We are entering the final stages of our trip, and cross the Ruvuma River into Mozambique. You can take the Unity Bridge, 100km inland, but we prefer the ferry about 30km from Mnazi Bay. It is not only closer but more adventurous.

The ferry has room for only a few cars, so we decide to spend the night next to the immigration office to be one of the first to board next day. But when we wake up at 5am we find to our dismay that several cars, a tractor and two trucks are already waiting. There will clearly be no room for the Land Rover. But suddenly the two trucks start their engines and leave. They appear to have arrived from the Mozambique side the previous evening!

We get the Land Rover onto the ferry and enjoy the view of the estuary glowing in the light of the rising sun. Minutes later we zigzag between the small riverbanks, heading towards our next destination…