Wednesday, 18 November 2009

In which we start a thirty five hour bus journey

Wednesday November 11th

I’m woken up by the night watchman at half past four and I’m showered and ready before five o’clock – before even the morning call to prayer has sounded over the sleeping city. The morning is cool, a few puffy clouds dot the sky but even in the middle of Dar you can see a skyful of stars. When the girls are ready we get a taxi out to Ubungo bus terminal. In the city centre the roads are almost deserted, but even in the ten minutes or so that we take to get to Ubunbo the place comes alive. By the time we arrive dawn has well and truly broken, the matatas are jostling each other up and down the road, and Ubungo is a heaving mass of peop[le, cars, taxis and muses.

For some reason known only to Tanzanians they have arranged that just about every long distance bus leaves at the same time – six o’clock in the morning. So whether you’re going to Mtwara in the far south, to Mbeya near Lake Nyasa, to Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika or in our case to Kiugali, everyone is trying to find their bus. Even sores, just before six all the buses try to pull away to get ahead of the queue, then wait, blocking the exit, for their final passengers to arrive. The result is mayhem – even the local bus terminal in Kampala is orderly compared to this shambles. Instead of a six o’clock departure it is well after half past six before we’ve travelled the few hundred yards out of the terminal and onto the main road. The dual carriageway is blocked by traffic trying to get in and out of the bus terminal. Everyone seems convinced that if they just edge that bit close to each other they’ll be able to spot a gap and get through. Everything is assertiveness and testosterone fuelled. The result is gridlock. Of course there’s not a policeman in sight, and where are traffic lights when you need them? Not here, that’s for sure.

We have ordinary seats on the bus. The legroom is adequate (just); it’s a lot more generous than you get on a charter flight but will be a tough call for a very long journey. Let’s hope there are the same numbers of leg stretching stops as on the outward run. We can’t see very much out of the windows, and the scenery on this first leg of the journey isn’t anything to write home about, so we doze all the way to Morogoro. Here there isn’t time to get out of the bus. We fill up with extra passengers so that every seat is taken. We buy rolex omelettes in foil boxes through the bus window and eat out first meal of the day at about ten in the morning.

Four hours later we arrive at Dodoma; this time we have a half hour stop and get some exercise. We buy more food; by the time we leave we realise that two greasy omelettes in one morning isn’t such a great idea and my stomach keeps reminding me of the fact for the rest of the journey home.

This time we are able to see something of Dodoma. The new government buildings are suitably impressive, but the town feels very spaced out and the kind of place you’d need a car to be able to live in. I wonder how many of the people who are forced to live and work here can afford to run a car?

As we leave Dodoma the sky clouds over. It is cool – excellent for us on our journey. All the passengers are either dozing or glued to the Nigerian soaps on TV. We pass the same blocky mountains again as on our outward trip (well, they wouldn’t have run away, would they), and pass from them to the dry savannah. Soon we blow a tyre in the middle of the bush and lose another half hour while the crew change it. With the slow departure from Ubungo we’re now a good hour behind schedule.

Eventually we reach the long stretch of earth road between Dodoma and Singida. By now it is raining intermittently, and there are large pools of water over the countryside, evidence of heavy rain in the past few days. (We later learn that the drought has broken here with a vengeance; while we are on the bus there is a major landslide up in the far north of the country with an entire hillside giving way under the weight of rain soaked earth, and lots of casualties). The earth road becomes slippery and treacherous to drive on; the bus slows to jogging pace, sliding and slaloming from one side of the carriageway to the other. It is difficult to hold a line and steer accurately, and we have some close brushes with articulated lorries coming the other way. At one point a huge wagon lies completely on its side. Goodness knows how anyone’s going to get it back up again. The ground is like porridge. In places there are shallow lakes and we begin to understand why on the outward journey we crossed bridges and culverts where there seemed to be no evidence of running water anywhere around.

Late in the afternoon we reach Singida. By now we’re all jaded with the journey; Tanzania is losing its appeal and we all just want to get home. People leave the bus, others join. After Singida we have more heavy rain, but at least we are on a proper road.

During this journey I have been sitting next to a middle aged Tanzanian who speaks good English (he’s reading an English novel). He’s on his first visit to Rwanda but is buying all sorts of things through the bus window at every opportunity. Sandals, a walking stick, a big flagon of cooking oil, a woven basket to put everything in. His main concern is whether the puddles of rainwater we’re ploughing through will have seeped into the coach’s luggage compartment and ruined the clothes in his suitcase. Other people are coming on board wish massive sacks of rice. These get laid out along the gangway like a carpet. Tanzanian rice is much cheaper than in Rwanda (a lot of our rice comes from Tanz) and people are stocking up on cheaper items like oil, rice and similar before we cross the border. So many people have disembarked by this time that the bus is only half full, and to my joy I see that the entire back seat is empty. I can lie down along it, raise my feet and try to sleep.

Unfortunately the driver uses the next stretch of road, and the night-time lack of policemen, to try to catch up on his schedule. We race along the road at full speed. We have to slow down for the big speed bumps, but the driver just ignores the smaller ones. That’s OK for the folk in front of the bus, but the bounce effect is magnified the further back you are sitting. I’m at the extreme rear. Every time we go over one of these bumps I get catapulted into the air and land with a jolt back onto the uneven seat. It’s exciting for a while but means I don’t get properly off to sleep.

Somewhere, perhaps at Nzega, we stop for a longer break. It’s still raining heavily outside, so there’s no point in getting off. I make myself as comfortable as I can on my back seat and try to snatch a few hours dozing. In Dar es Salaam I’ve torn out a small map of the country from a tourist magazine. We have been travelling for eighteen hours already, and we’re still a long way from the border at Rusumo.

Best thing about today – I always enjoy travelling because I like to watch the changing scenery. But this particular journey is something of an ordeal. It’s not that it has been uncomfortable, far from it – I’ve had worse experiences on far shorter plane journeys – but we’re tired and rather deflated after our precipitous exit from Zanzibar, and all we want to do is be back in Rwanda.

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