The Child In Charge

At the Ratco bus station in Tanga I am waiting for the bus. Not waiting for it to arrive – the bus is already here, but waiting for it to start. A bunch of fundi keep doing the same things: clean the battery terminals, flick the switches, try to start it – nothing. As our departure time passes the size of the crowd of fundi milling around arguing amongst themselves gets larger. They don’t even have a light bulb and a piece of wire to test connections so it is all guesswork.

Finally it starts, so maybe we're going after all. There's more shouting and discussion, disagreement, laughter and we finally board an hour after the scheduled departure time.

Ratco bus

The seat is roomy and comfortable but the bus is noisy and old. The driver deals with the half turn of slack in the wheel by swinging it easily from side to side and we travel in a more or less straight line, brushing past cyclists and motor cycles as we ease into the Tanga traffic. At a huge bus interchange outside town we pick up more passengers and change drivers. The new driver looks a child-like 17. He has no trouble driving while answering his phone, picking his teeth and blasting his horn at a 4wd trying to cut us off, and he is on a mission to make up for lost time, overtaking everything, ignoring double lines and oncoming traffic. Maybe I should have booked a back seat instead of a VIP seat at the front.

This is going to be a hot, stressful trip. No aircon and a manic child behind the wheel of a 40 ton bus on a 350 km journey from Tanga to Dar es Salaam.

The horn is used copiously as advanced warning that the child is in a hurry. The problem with this is that the horn seems to be mounted inside the bus instead of outside, scaring the crap out of the passengers but having little visible effect on the cyclist about to be mowed down.

Lunch is served. VIP lunch is three dry pastries and a small bottle of water. I buy some cashews thru the window from a trader at a bus stop. Cashews are grown here and while most of the crop is shipped to India some is sold locally. A packet of about 300g costs 5,000TSH or about AUD 3.00. I was undoubtedly charged the tourist rate, which is many times the local rate.

We've come across an accident. The road is blocked and it seems a truck has overturned. Looks like we're not going anywhere for a while. The child driver has gone for a walk, not to find out anything just to stretch. Passengers follow. The problem is the tow truck is blocking the road. The tow truck is finally moved and we sneak past the overturned semi.

Overturned truck

Less than a kilometre further we come upon tragedy. A small car and a truck have collided head on. There is nothing left but a smear of rubble less than 500mm high extending 50m along the centre of the road with the truck seemingly unharmed 100m further on. Someone has placed a few branches over the bodies. We drive past. I am too shocked to take a photo.

The child is unaffected and continues its manic obsession with making up for all the lost time, doubling down on passing everything in sight, mangling gears as it tries to accelerate. Clearly we're not dead yet. The bus is heavy and under-powered and so if he has to slow down it takes a while to get back up to speed again and this is an incentive for him to maintain the momentum. The child is a bully. Oncoming cyclists, pedestrians and motorcycles are simply forced off the road; small cars too: trucks get more respect and the child pulls in behind one truck to avoid another coming the other way. He slams on the brakes and crawls up the next hill. I relax for a few minutes until he pulls out over double lines to cut the corner of the next bend and overtake the crawling monster in front. I really should have got a back seat.

The Child

We are now well inland on the main road to Dar. Sisal plantations on red soil line the road and disappear into the distance across gently rolling hills. Then the sisal gives way to trees. Cashew nuts? Fruit? I don't know. Then open grassland with trees and palms. But everywhere there are people, villages and houses, and it’s all right on the highway, which is also used as a pathway by school children and a bicycle path by everyone. The road connects everything and its sheer success makes it crowded and a long tedious journey for us. Speed limits are frequently 50kph but the bus travels slower because locals have installed speed humps that slow the bus to 5 or 10 kph . In contrast to Indonesia where buildings are right on the edge of the road, at least here there is a bit of space with houses and stalls mostly set back a few metres.

The hours pass slowly in the heat of the day. There is a bit of breeze from the open window but it is hot and sticky. I snooze for a while and awaken with a cramp. A baby is crying up the back. A few people are chatting but most are now silent.

The child in charge slows the bus. He's caught up with the schedule maybe? Anyway, the pace is now more moderate. We are travelling along a low ridge. The road undulates over low hills and on the rises, even though we are not very high, the view opens up for a long way, to what I imagine is the coast away in the distance.

The entertainment is a set of terrible pop music videos that is now on its third or fourth rotation so I have put on the noise cancelling headphones and resorted to some Beethoven piano concertos.

We slow down even further and are crawling along at 20 to 30 kph. The child picks his teeth, honks the horn, chats on the phone and seems impatient and distracted.

Finally, we make the outer suburbs of Dar and meet chaos because of the massive roadworks. Miles of highway are under construction and traffic is restricted to the old roads which, of course, are being cannibalised for the new ones.

A third accident. A truck has gone over the edge of the road and down a 10m vertical cliff to the river. A huge tow truck and crane are fishing it out as we inch past.

After 10 hours we reach the final bus stop in the suburbs of Dar. It’s a muddy field of fifty or so busses and hundreds of taxi drivers, food vendors, touts and who knows what. I find a taxi driver who seems to speak some English and quiz him about hotels. No problem, he can find me a hotel for USD50. He patiently navigates the traffic in second gear. Maybe auto is broken. I don’t ask. We finally pull up in front of a huge tower overlooking the bay and he accompanies me inside. The best rate I can do is USD110. No. Find another hotel.

Dar es Salaam is the commercial centre of Tanzania. It is a big and dirty city, crowded with people. New roads are being built everywhere and getting around is impossible for anyone but a local. There is no sign of a grid pattern. The roads mostly fan out from a roundabout with various roads branching off at every angle, until you get to the next overcrowded roundabout. Fighting his way onto the roundabout and then getting off at the right exit is difficult. He misses one exit and we’re forced onto the wrong road but it’s OK he says, we just need to take a different road from the next roundabout.

He takes me into the city to a ‘Tiffany Diamond’ hotel. I don’t like the sound of it but agree to try. After much haggling and nearly walking out I get the price down to USD70 per night. I’m standing there thinking I must look a lot richer than I feel, as I finally nod my acceptance.

The room is about four times the total floor space of Anjea, the bed is luxurious and the aircon works faultlessly. My only complaint, apart from the room rate, is excessive earth leakage – the PC feels distinctly ‘live’ when I plug it in!

I’ve made it to Dar es Salaam.


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    I was sitting with you in the front of the bus. What a trip. I need a good stiff drink after reading this.

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    Fun times xxxx

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    Sounds a lot like rural travel in India. Have faith in the gods and drive like the devil!

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    Rather you than me. I don't want to think about the road trip back. Hope that you enjoy the destination and find something a bit less challenging to engage your roaming spirit for a while at least!



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    If I wasn't exhausted from golf today I would have been sitting on the edge of my seat. Sounds nothing like our last big bus trip in NZ from Queenstown to Milford Sound. But it is reminiscent of bus trips in South America.
    See you soonish.

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    What a fun read, thanks for sharing Dave!

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