“You were going 83 kilometres,” announced a triumphant police officer as he peered into the Land Rover.
A day after we had conquered Mt Meru, the Aussies I had trekked with offered me a ride to Dar es Salaam, camping somewhere along the way. Although the majority of African traffic laws are only for show, the boys were driving safely.
We had just exited a village and had sped up when the officer pulled us over by waving us down on the open and relatively empty single-lane highway. We could have just kept going, really. Police units on the road don’t have police cars. They don’t have radios or even weapons. They have an outdated speed-gun from 1987 that probably displays the same speed every time it’s used.
For the officers, this was a golden opportunity to try and get some bakshish from a car full of foreigners.
“What is the speed limit here?” I asked from the backseat.
“30,” said the cop.
“30?!?” I retorted. “There’s no sign saying ‘30’.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“I don’t know why,” I grinned. “You tell me. You live here.”
On the horizon ahead of us we all spotted the SUV that appeared to be using the highway as a runway to take to the air.
“Look that this guy coming!” We all pointed at the car as it flashed past, almost taking the officer’s cap with it, practically uprooting the roadside scrub from the sheer force.
“That’s not 30,” I said. “See? No signs.”
The officer’s face fell. He realised he had lost. “OK,” he looked down to the road. “I warn you this time. Drive carefully.”
“No worries,” Ben said from behind the wheel as he shifted to first.
We had left Arusha a few hours before, stopping for lunch in a small village. The owner of the first restaurant we walked into wanting to charge us 3,500 Tanzanian shillings per person for lunch.
“Chips my-i is just 2,000 everywhere we’ve been,” I argued together with Ben.
“It’s not about quantity,” the owner said. “It’s about quality.”
“I’ll give you 2,000 for chips my-i,” Ben haggled, “but not 3,500.”
It was obvious the owner was making up prices because he figured that we foreigners were a walking ATM.
“You can make 10,000 shillings right now,” I calculated the five of us, “or you won’t make anything.”
The owner, taking a second too long to think could only watch speechless as we walked out to find a cheaper place to eat. Two stalls down, 2,000 shillings bought us rice with steamed spinach (some got beans, Ben got tomato salad), gravy and stewed goat.
After lunch the boys needed to fix the transmission that appeared to be leaking oil. Some bush mechanics were working on cars so we asked them to help us out. The pit-stop took up about two hours and then the police attempted hold-up another half-hour.
“You excited, mate?” Brenton asked as he bounced us over the 42 K’s of dirt road towards the small beach-side town of Pangani where we were to camp on the coast of the Indian Ocean almost 300 K’s later.
I hadn’t seen the ocean for about 9 months. “Frothing mate,” I grinned.
A cold I caught from the almost zero degrees atop Mt Meru was taking over my body. A late night swim wouldn’t do me any favours and I knew I’d have to pass on the opportunity.
As we continued towards the coast we reached a small ridge and there, in all her wet glory, the Indian Ocean lapped against the shores of Tanzania.
A resurrection of energy flooded me. Sea water. The sound of pounding waves. Waves of fresh water bodies sounded different. The fish tasted different. Everything was different.
But the sea? The sea made everything alright. It brought things back to reality. I had spent five months on the Indian Ocean crossing from Thailand to South Africa. It’ll be good to be back in her wet arms again.
As it grew darker, we pulled into Pangani and, after a dinner of chips and chicken, we drove around looking for a beach lodge that could offer us camping facilities.
“Is this Tinga Tinga Lodge?” Ben asked the armed guard at the gate of what appeared to be a well-kept place.
The guard eyed us suspiciously. “Where are you from?”
“Arusha,” Ben answered.
“You are wrong,” the guard replied. “You are not from Arusha.” We cracked up laughing. “This is the Sea District Commissioner’s house.”
“Is he taking guests?” I asked from the backseat.
“No. No guests. You are wrong to be here,” the guard hinted for us to leave, not seeing the humour of the moment.
We drove on down another dark road that led us to a YMCA.
“Can we camp here?” I asked Big Mama (it’s what her workers called her. And for good reason).
“Try down the road at the next lodge,” she said, explaining that she wasn’t ready to accept guests. “If they can’t, you can come back and camp here.”
The next lodge provided us information regarding a boat heading to Zanzibar.
“It’s $150 USD for the whole boat,” Lisa, the American owner of Mkhoma Bay Lodge informed us. She called the owner of the boat. “Oh, no boats are going to Zanzibar tomorrow?” we overheard.
“Guess we’ll be camping next door,” I remarked as we thanked Lisa and headed back to the YMCA. After setting up our tents and sipping on beers while I strummed a few songs with Ben jammin’ on the harmonica, the boys went for a night swim while I battled the cold that was slowly settling in on me.
We rose early in the morning. Porridge and cereal were offered for breakfast. After we packed and thanked Big Mama we drove back down the 42 K’s of dirt road to the main road, making our way to Dar es Salaam.
As we went over the speed humps that every village has at its entrance and exit, we began to climb up the hill, barely doing 40 K’s.
“Ol’ mate’s up there waving you down,” Tim noted the officer waving his arms.
“Mambo,” he announced, almost standing at attention.
“Vzuri,” we answered.
“You are over speeding,” claimed the officer with a victorious grin. “You were doing 77 kilometers.”
Ben, sitting behind the wheel, casually shook his head. “No. Couldn’t be us.”
“No?” the cop looked confused. He raised his speed gun that was flashing 77. “It says it here.”
“You didn’t even point that at us,” I argued from the backseat.
“Now you will get a fine.” You could almost see the dollar signs in his eyes. “Give me your driver’s license.”
“No,” Ben continued in the cool and calm manner of the Australian way.
“What?” the cop became exasperated. He called his partner over and left us to sit in the shade, talking in Ki-Swahili aloud.
“You were speeding so you must pay a fine of 30,000 shillings,” the new cop demanded. “Give me your license.”
“No,” Ben said.
“No?” the cop was surprised. “Do you have a driver’s license?”
“Then give it to me.”
The officer blinked. “You must turn back and go to the police station and pay the fine.”
“Give me your license.”
“We couldn’t have been speeding,” I said. “We came over three humps and uphill. And as you can see, the car is heavily loaded. That 77 is not us.”
A bus overtook us.
“Look at him,” I pointed, attempting the tactics of the day before. “That’s over 50.”
“That is 42,” the officer said. “I have confidence.”
“42?” We laughed.
“Give me money,” demanded the cop.
“No,” Ben said flatly.
“You are wasting your time,” the cop tried to play the other boys against Ben and I. “You two are trouble makers. Look your friends are peaceful. Why are you wasting their time?”
“We can wait,” Ben replied. “We’ve got time.” He looked over to the other Ben. “It’s OK, see? He’s reading a book. It’s a big book.”
“But you are wasting time,” the cop was beginning to lose the battle. “Give me 20,000.”
“No,” Ben continued to hold our ground. “If I break the law and I’m caught, I’ll pay. But I didn’t break the law. I wasn’t speeding. You just saw a car of muzhungos and thought you can make some money. We’re not paying.”
“No speeding, no money,” I called out.
“You must give me something,” the officer was almost begging.
He blinked and looked us over.
“We can wait,” Ben repeated. “But we are not paying.”
“OK,” the officer sighed. “Just go. I give you sorry.”
“See ya, mate,” and Ben threw the car into first and we sped away, cracking up.
“Imagine doing that to a cop back home,” I said. We played out a scene, laughing for the next half hour.
About a hundred K’s outside of Dar es Salaam I tried to make contact with Hassani, a couch surfing host whose profile read that he lives in Dar. He didn’t answer so we continued on a further 50 K’s before trying again.
Turns out he lives in the next town, Kwa Mathias, 40 K’s before Dar es Salaam.
“Dar is too expensive,” Hassani explained when he arrived on his motorbike.
The boys had their sights on the city to catch the ferry to Zanzibar. They dropped me off at Hassani’s house and we parted ways with well wishes for future travels.
Hassani was building a house. The shell of it was up. It still needed paint, a floor, a ceiling and taps. He took me to lunch for a beer and chips my-i, my latest addiction. From the restaurant he took me to his friend’s place where I was left to rest. I woke up a few hours later with new people in the house. Alexander, the owner, is a teacher. We chatted a bit and I showed him on the globe he had my journey from Australia that had begun some 20 months before.
“You are going to Mafia Island?” Alexander enquired.
“Do you have someone to host you?”
“Let me ask my relatives on the island. Maybe they can host you.”
“Sweet,” I thanked him and an hour later he went to his bedroom leaving me alone with one of his students, a 17-year-old boy who interrogated me for three hours asking questions like,
“How do you deal with puberty? What about girls? What about peer pressure? How do I succeed in life? How do I escape challenges?”
“Whoa, kid,” I slowed him down. “Here’s the thing, life is a journey that you have to discover for yourself. I can’t tell you how to live it and what to do to be successful. You wanna be successful? Work hard. Don’t give up. Most importantly, be happy with your life.
With girls? When I was your age I was very shy. Don’t stress. The right one will come along but don’t feel pressured to be in a relationship. Have your fun but finish school first and get a career before having kids.
Peer pressure isn’t easy. If your friends try to get you to smoke and you don’t want to, then don’t smoke. If they are really your friends, they’ll understand. If not, fuck ‘em.
As to escaping challenges?” I sat up. “Never escape a challenge. Life is all about challenges. If you try to escape them you will never grow as a person. You’ll never know your potential. Embrace challenges. If you go walking and come across a river and you can’t find a way to cross it, you can escape the challenge and go back or, you can face the challenge, find a way to cross it and see what new things lay ahead.”
He nodded. Meanwhile, all the neighbourhood kids had congregated outside the open door, playing ‘Courage’ with me, seeing who had the balls to come into the house and touch my hair or beard.
I’d pretend-lunge at them and they’d run off screaming and laughing, coming back for more. I’d grab the more ballsy ones by the arm and hold on as they squealed, their friends violently pushing them into the house.
“No pushing,” I warned deaf ears.
Unable to release my locked grip they tried to pull me up. In the end I let them go and walked outside – straight into an ambush of arms and kids jumping up at me, trying to tug on my beard and hair. Some cheeky buggers jumping on my back.
I roared my lion roar, they screamed and ran off as I sauntered over to sit back on my perch. I wasn’t feeling the best. The cold Mt Meru had given me getting worse. The kids tried to pull me back as I tried to explain to them that playtime was over. It took Hassani’s sudden appearance to get them off me.
By 20:00, Hassani had taken me to a roadside eatery (two benches, a table and cooking done on charcoal) while trucks and buses barreled by. Dinner was rice with steamed spinach and fish.
“This is sea fish,” I exclaimed in the dark. “I haven’t eaten sea fish since South Africa. I love sea fish.” I preferred it over fresh water fish. It has more flavour. I sipped on my chai and then hit the sack by 22:00.
Tomorrow was going to be a day of rest and writing.