10th October – leaving Ngala Beach Lodge
We were up at first light to take the long road north. The roads started out OK but became progressively worse. We covered this road on our 2016 trip but I have no recollection of the dire state of roads. I guess they must have deteriorated massively over the last 6 years. There was some amazing scenery as we entered the mountain roads and passes of northern Malawi but it was somewhat marred by the diabolical state of the roads. At one stage the road completely disappeared, there was no tarmac left whatsoever. On a particularly mountainous and perilous stretch, where there were several abandoned trucks lying on the hillside; presumably impossible to recover.
This all made for a long and tedious drive but we eventually made our “lodge” by late afternoon. I won’t name the lodge but it looked more like Soviet boot camp. After being shown 3 less than desirable rooms, we were then asked if we needed one for tonight? Well, yes, that’s why we’re here! “Sorry it’s full!” Was the reply! This place is the only show in town on this stretch of the lake; it’s not like we had any choice in the matter. Just as we were about to leave, they found a cancellation, I guess beggars can’t be choosers. It was a sweltering day and evening, so just for good cheer, the air conditioning, fan and TV all did not work!
11th October – Leaving Malawi for Tanzania
Up in the dark once again to make tracks to the border to be there when it opens. Getting up early to these border crossings make a big difference in waiting times. There are so many processes that it doesn’t take long for the queues to build up. And every Border control has its own unique processes, regulations and red tape! Fortunately, we had done our homework and had a good idea of what to expect. Everything was going fine until it came to paying the Tanzania road tax. This can only be done in local currency (and that means using money changers), and the transaction has to be underwritten by a bank (to avoid corruption). Not easy! We ended up using the services of Geoffrey (he’s a “runner” or clearing agent) who popped up and just seemed to know exactly when we needed help. He didn’t ask for any money but had probably worked out we’d pay him in any case; which we did. He cut through the red tape, accompanied us to a bank agent (in a tiny kiosk) about 500m up the road and assisted us get the Carnet de Passage stamped. All done and dusted inside of two hours.
So, off we trot, just 3 hours from the Tanzania border now to get to our next stop – Mbeya. We made good time and arrived at Mbeya at 1pm. I know of an excellent repair garage called Mbelizi, close to Mbeya. We had 2 issues on the vehicle to resolve, neither of which were major (or so we thought) – the ABS warning light was lit constantly and the fuel leak needed to be checked. The examination of the fuel leak indicated that the mechanic that fitted the hose had not clipped it in tightly enough, causing the hose to loosen under pressure. The ABS problem was a biggie! The bearings were stuffed, as was the oil seal – the result of a mechanic taking a short cut and over tightening the hub. It took 6 hours to fix. We watched the whole process unfold and there were several times when it looked like we’d have to throw the towel in; the nut on the wheel hub was not budging.
I went out with the mechanic to pick up wheel bearings; it was then that I saw a poor man lurch across the road and onto a gravel path – on knee pads, his broken legs flailing behind him. It was such a desperate and sad sight. It’s times like this that you need to have a word with yourself and get some perspective. It put my frustration and dejection over the car into focus; it was merely an inconvenience.
Eventually the car is fixed and we are on our way. It’s 7pm, pitch black and we have to wind our way through the chaotic streets of Mbeya. There are tuk tuks weaving their way in and out of the traffic, swarms of people, demonic neon buses on the rampage, ubiquitous deafening muzak blasting out, horns assaulting the eardrum, a street party on every corner and the smell of food everywhere. Oh and the dust, don’t forget the dust!
I had arranged to meet a friend of mine, Paul Metcalfe (who lives in Mbeya) when we arrived. We were horribly late and I had no means of contacting Paul to let him know of our hold up. I met Paul in Mbeya in 2016 when I was on another trip; he’s a real character and overwhelmingly generous. Paul had arranged a “braai” at his house, which is very close to Mbeya Hotel where we are staying. He had cooked up a storm; it was a welcome sight after another very challenging day.
12th October – Iringa
Next morning we leave at 7am – wow, a lie in! Paul meets us for breakfast and then takes me to some local stores to pick up a few bits and pieces before heading off to our next destination – Iringa. The roads are good, save for the kamikaze buses and trucks and we make Iringa by 3pm. After stopping at numerous fuel stations, we managed to find the only one that would accept a card. What a very different world; as western society becomes more cashless by the day; here in some parts Africa it’s cash only; the concept of paying with a card is totally alien.
We’re staying at Mama Iringa’s. It’s a real oasis, lovely spacious and stylish rooms and the best pizzas in the whole of Africa (it’s renown for it’s pizzas).
Tomorrow, the adventure begins as we make our way to Ruaha National Park. I’m praying that the Tsetse flies are in hiding. Last time we approached Ruaha in 2016, there were literally swarms of them following the car for miles and miles, patiently waiting for the opportunity to devour the inhabitants. They particularly like me (type O blood), they have teeth and have drawn blood on several occasions. Carlo was unfazed; he didn’t even notice the odd one that got in the car! I had to show him the blood from my bites to prove the case!
13th October – Ruaha National Park
We leave Mama Iringa’s after breakfast and head to our next destination – Ruaha National Park. It’s one of my fave Parks in the whole of Africa. It’s unique in many ways, the landscapes are dramatic, adorned with the ubiquitous baobab tress that are its hallmark. It’s exceptionally diverse, dominated by the Ruaha River (now a trickle at this late stage in the dry season), with forest areas, undulating hills and open savannahs. There are several river systems which attract larger herds of grazers and predators. It is very wild; there are few tourists, it’s more the intrepid traveller that finds his / her way to this off the beaten track wilderness.
We had been advised by somebody we met in Malawi that had recent experience of Ruaha. He was quite emphatic on advising us “where the road forks, take the [never ending] road to the right; it’s way better”. Famous last words! Everything was going fine; the dirt road from Iringa had been very well graded and we were humming along………..until we got to the fork in the road (there is a photo of Carlo under the elephant statue at the fork). We duly took the “never ending road”. After about 20kms or so the road deteriorated dramatically. I’ve never seen such deep corrugations, more like the big dipper, they must have been 3 inches deep. The car was being tortured, as were our innards! Carlo reckons it’s the worst road he’s ever travelled on in Africa. I beg to differ, I think Mana Pools wins that prize; but were splitting hairs, it really is shocking.
With at least another 50 kms to go, the ABS light comes on, my heart sinks. Oh shit, that could spell big trouble, especially on a sadistic road like this, yes roads can be sadists, trust me! I turn around to Carlo and say “I’ve got some bad news mate, the ABS light is on.” Silence, pure silence. It wasn’t even an “Oh Fuck” moment. We both knew the possible serious ramifications of this fault. I assumed the “fix” in Mbeya was the cause, and the likelihood of a wheel seizure very high. We had no option but to continue. I know this park well, myself and Emma have been there on several occasions. And I know that they have a large workshop with some very good mechanics. So we head for the gate with that in mind.
Our next dilemma faces us when we reach the gate! There is a new system in place for self drive. They enter your vehicle VIN number into the system and up pops the weight of the vehicle. Anything over 2 tonnes costs $150.00 per day (in the past we had paid $40.00). The guy at the gate was batting for us but helpless to override the system. It’s then we have the good fortune of bumping into Chris Fox (owner of Fox Safaris). I tell him of our ordeal. He is so helpful. He advises us that if we enter the park and have a breakdown and need to wait for parts, we will be charged $150.00 per day for every day in the park. He calls his brother Peter. I talk to Peter on the phone. He is also exceptionally helpful and offers his mechanic to assist us at Ruaha River Lodge, and should we need any parts, he can fly them in from Dar es Salaam. Chris walks us through the options and informs us of a lodge, Tandala which is 4kms from the gate. He says a guy named Jannie owns the lodge and may be able to help us with the vehicle. We talk through the options, Carlo is in favour of heading back to Iringa to get help there; my take is to pop in to Tandala and see if they can help, as it’s on the way back. We do just that. We arrive at this beautiful location with a very authentic and rustic African lodge / camp to be greeted by Jannie and his wife, Maddie.
We receive a very warm welcome and Jannie summons his “team” to suss out the car problem. In minutes they have each wheel in turn off the ground. The last wheel, front passenger side has vertical play in it. Jannie know immediately what the problem is – loose swivel bearings. His guys tighten them up and Hey Presto, miraculously off goes the ABS light. I then spoke with Maddie about staying with them for 3 nights. She took pity on us and offered us a very generous deal, full board with all day game drives in their open safari vehicle. Job Done!
Tandala is a lovely camp with a great location and all the facilities you need, including excellent wi-fi. The hosts are characterful, entertaining and and very attentive. The food was superb and the staff faultless. There is a fabulous waterhole where game visits throughout the day and late afternoon it is crowded by herds and herds of elephants. We have a spacious tented camp room, raised high above the river bed with wonderful views.
We spent two full days in the park, with a takeaway breakfast and lunch. Although we had some very good sightings of mating lions, 3 leopards, a Rock Python in a tree, wall to wall elephant and a huge herd of buffalo; it’s the solitary feeling of being in wild Africa, amongst the most incredible scenery that makes this place special for me. The only minor criticism I have is the length of time it takes to get from the lodge to the prime viewing areas in Ruaha. It was 07:30 before we reached those areas and if, like me, you are a golden hour photography freak, that’s a little disappointing. Nevertheless, we throughly enjoyed every minute of our 3 night stay.
16th October – Arusha.
We leave Tandala at first light and take the other road (as opposed to the never ending road) which is just fine. We are heading for Dodoma, our next stop. The roads are much improved since I was last here in 2016, and we make Dodoma by approx 1pm. We take the decision to push on to Arusha. The road from Dodoma to Arusha is fabulous, with some scenic mountain passes along the way. It ends up being a 13 hour drive. The last few hours are the most testing; it’s not the most relaxing way of experiencing Africa; but Dodoma has little of interest to offer and it affords us more time for the more interesting stops.
We stay at the very basic but characterful “Last Outpost”. There is a lot of jollity from the bar / restaurant, it’s a group of Irish people who’ve just accomplished Kilimanjaro. They’re watching the Maasai perform their tribal dances; I wonder if maybe they’re gonna reciprocate with an Irish jig or two?! Our room is a dormitory (the only one available) under a fig tree that is constantly dropping its fruit on the metal roof. Fortunately, I have my ear pugs with me!
17th October – The Border and Mathaiga Country Club in Nairobi
It’s a late start – well if you call 07:30 hours late that is! The road is excellent getting to our very last Border stop (HOOFUCKINRAY!) at Namanga. It’s One Stop border and seems very well organised. We have all the papers we need and sail through Passport Control.
Next up is Customs and Immigration. This is where I (as vehicle owner) need to get the Carnet signed and clear customs. I’m served up numerous questions by immigration officials; they want to know where I’m going, why I’m staying so long etc etc. After paying $101 road tax (for 90 days) I go back to customs for the final approval of the Carnet. The official then asks me where the vehicle is as they want to accompany me to examine it. No problem, I say, it’s just out here in the compound. Oh no it’s not! It’s gone. Carlo has driven it out of the compound before I had it cleared by customs. So………I’m on the first floor of the building with two customs officials, looking out of the windows, searching for the car. We find it – Carlo is out there on the road, surrounded by about 10 Maasai women trading their wares and having a party by the look of it! I tell the officials he’s on a mission to get me locked up; they laugh, ask me what’s on the roof (it’s the camping gear) and let me go with a smile.
In the meantime, Carlo has lost 2 tee shirts, a towel and 10 Botswana Pula. In return he’s proudly sporting a red Maasai necklace!
So that’s it – we’ve conquered the very last Africa Border post. As we drive through the security gate, we both laugh and give it the loudest of high 5 smacks.
Next up is Muthaiga Country Club in Nairobi, where I have been sponsored for membership. The drive through Nairobi was quite an ordeal. The traffic was Bedlam. At one point, we entered a chaotic roundabout where the traffic was converging on us from every direction. Carlo is driving when up steps a police officer to pull us over! For what? We’re just innocent victims in this mayhem. The policeman is on my side of the car, shouting “what are you doing, where are you from?”. Carlo says “bollocks to him, he can F.R.O.” and just ignores the police and drives on. I expected we’d get hauled over at the next intersection but we didn’t. The madness in Nairobi reminded me of a piece of advice I was given by an old gent when I was first emigrating to South Africa in 1981. When he learned I was starting a new life in Africa, he said………. “Charles, if you want t be happy in Africa, don’t ask why!” Never a a truer word spoken.
We make it to Muthaiga C.C. It’s pure nostalgia, steeped in history, it’s like being transported back to the Colonial days. Everything is impeccable, maintained to the very highest standards. Parqueted floors, high ceilings, wood panelled walls, uniformed staff and stunning gardens. I expected Karen Blixen to walk right through the door. The grounds are beautiful, there is everything here, sports facilities, swimming pool, 3 restaurants, 4 bars and it has the most authentic period atmosphere. Somewhat formal but also chilled and quite a contrast to the hectic scenes beyond its walls.
18th October – #30 Naretoi, Maasai Mara – HOME!
So this is it. Eureka – The final furlong to my new African home where my Landy will be put out to pasture. Thank you, my warrior, you will continue to guide us and together we will share all the wonders of the Maasai Mara.
My lawyer just submitted the final papers for my Kenyan Residency. It has been approved and I am now in possession of my Kenyan Residency certificate. All the pieces are finally fitting together; A new life and a new era begins.
I’m taking Carlo to Naretoi for 3 nights for some R&R and to introduce him to my new life in East Africa. It’s chill time, I’ve hired a nice house on the estate while ours is being completed and have organised a Maasai Guide that knows the area very well; he will show us around and take us to the best sightings.
We did have some good sightings; lions every day, endless plains game, and the most incredible cheetah chase sighting. I will let the photos do the talking!
I simply love this part of Africa, I have to pinch myself that this is really happening. I feel like I’m in a fantasy world (and maybe I am) the views, the sunrise over Keleloni Hill, the Mara river, the open plains and Savannah, the wall to wall game, the sunsets, the Maasai people and the animals. I just can’t wait for the day when we move into the home that Emma has created from a blank canvas, it really will be a dream come true.
I’ll end this Blog with one of my favourite quotes from Out Of Africa……..
“If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a colour that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?”