x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Braving Tanzania's 'buses of death'

Ismat Abidi explores inland Tanzania on her journey around the world.

Buying bus tickets to Singida in Moshi.
Buying bus tickets to Singida in Moshi.

Moshi, in the shadow of Kilimanjaro, is a pretty, community spirited town. There are the local Chagga, the Masai people, the first- and second-generation Indian expatriates running successful trades, the ready-to-go or worn-out mountain climbers, the foreign volunteers and the gap-year students. This mix is a big part of what gives Moshi its instantly likeable and friendly feeling.

The easiest way to get around Moshi is on foot. The town seems to revolve around one main clock tower roundabout and whichever exit you take will not leave you disappointed: you may come across a Hindu temple, a mosque, a Manchester United merchandise vendor or a banana seller. When you need a break, stop off at one of the many quaint little coffee houses roasting fresh Arabica beans picked from the foothills. My friend Razan and I sat out in the sun, shielded by giant banana leaves, sipping a coffee, sharing jokes and memories with Charles and Salim, our former mountain guides, now our friends and local guides.

Bristol Cottages was a great location from which to explore Moshi Town in the two days I had. With the physical exhaustion of the climb lingering, it was delightful waking up in this bed and breakfast, being served a continental-style morning meal by friendly staff. The place is run by a lovely Indian family who, used to climbers passing through the town, offer a 24-hour laundry service (from sleeping bags to boots) and recommend local safari and tour operators. For the quality of service and rooms, the price was more than reasonable - US$25 (Dh92) per night per double cottage room with air conditioning, including breakfast and free Wi-Fi. While Moshi doesn't need a lot of time to explore, it would be a shame to miss this town if you're in Tanzania.

Inter-city buses in Tanzania are unreliable, uncomfortable, incredibly slow and, most of all, dangerous. Having just looked up the statistics on Tanzania road traffic deaths, I'm relieved to have survived. Half-way through my first journey, I had re-named them the "buses of death". The ticketing system is bizarrely the one strand of order in what is otherwise a day of chaos - you may not be able to rely on reaching your destination in one piece but you can rely on your seat number.

It took Razan and I almost 10 hours to reach our next city, with no time to get off the bus for a toilet break in case we were left stranded (bus drivers are notorious for zooming off). We were on a paved road for an hour before the driver veered off onto a dirt track through a barren, dry desert, which was home to the odd wild baboon. Despite booking on the most expensive bus company ($2-$3, Dh7-Dh11) for a single intercity journey), I have never felt more frightened in a vehicle. Dust, sand and dirt continued to layer our bodies and many of the locals began to cover their faces with scarves, as did I. The swerving and loud horns continued all day and there were times where I genuinely thought the bus would flip over. Razan and I were so scared that all we could do was laugh.

Singida, described by one local as the "forgotten part of Tanzania", was an experience with a very different flavour than Moshi. Razan and I had come to see the work of The Kanga Project, a charity for which we were fundraising, and visit the local women it would be directly benefiting. We jumped into the back of 4x4 the next morning and drove to the nearby village of Ilongero. We spoke to local schoolchildren about their inspirations, stumbled upon local village political elections and were able to see where the bulk of our fundraising had been used - a solar-powered chicken incubator. Sustainable development and education were the key criteria for our fundraising and we left Ilongero that evening content in the knowledge that our efforts would benefit people and wondering how we could do more.

It was time for another ride on the "bus of death". Again, the only thing right about the journey was our assigned seat numbers. Although this bus had windows, it felt more unsafe this time around. Once again, we were the only non-locals on the packed bus and as soon as the dirt road track began, we passed an overturned bus and an overturned truck in the space of an hour. We still had 10 hours left. I contemplated texting our bus details back home in case something happened but was suddenly distracted. Razan was sitting in the aisle with her head back and eyes closed. I knew she was awake but I couldn't bear to tell her what was sitting about four centimetres in front of her face.

"Razan, please don't look in front of you." A local woman standing in the aisle was holding a chicken whose claws were swaying gradually towards Razan's face. Razan went into what can only be described as white-knuckle panic that lasted for the next two hours. During that time we heard the crow of roosters from the front of the bus and the luggage above, providing a welcome distraction to the dangerous driving. Another unlikely but welcome distraction came about nine hours into the journey, when the bus broke down. At this point, we were more concerned about a toilet break and surviving the last hour of the highway than reaching our destination.

We finally pulled into the bus station in our next transit city, Arusha. We hadn't even dismounted the bus when we were flooded with offers from touts reaching into the bus windows offering to carry our bags or take us on a safari. We ran to the storage compartments and grabbed our backpacks just in time to make a quick getaway. Although the buses in Tanzania left me slightly frazzled and in need of three consecutive showers, at $3 (Dh11) they are an unavoidable risk for intercity transport, unless you want to fork out at least $200 (Dh735) for a private car.

It's a shame we only had one night in Arusha, but we made the most of it and fortunately stumbled upon what appeared to be an eating institution in the town. Khan's BBQ on a Bonnet, a car spare parts dealership by night and BBQ by day, was one of the most memorable meals on my travels. The concept may conjure up thoughts of your kebabs splashed with petrol or door handles in your salad, but for $3 (Dh11) per head, you can choose from a wide-ranging buffet of grilled meats, lentils and salads, washing it down with fresh passion fruit juice. Located on Mosque Street (walking distance from the bus station) in the Muslim district, it's essential to pay this place a visit. Being hugely popular, it's also a good place to meet fellow backpackers or climbers.

Eager for some rest, reflection and relaxation, I was ready for our next destination. I had been on the go for so long that five days on a beach as a final stop on my round-the-world tour sounded like a good way to wind down. Razan and I boarded our Precision Air flight ($125, Dh460) from Arusha airport (tip: if you want a view of Kilimanjaro from the sky, request a seat when checking in). Flying out of mainland Tanzania, over the striking turquoise waters, we saw a lush green island in the distance. Zanzibar, here we come.

Next week: Ismat Abidi's travels around the world come to an end in Zanzibar