Entering East Africa

The Great Mosque, Kilwa Kisiwani

Heading north from Ilha de Mocambique we follow the bitumen north toward Tanzania. Although we would like to see more of the coast the highway curves inland and there are significant detours involved if we want to visit the coast. We narrow our options down and decide to make a side trip to Pemba. The trip is easy and the roads are much better here than in central Mozambique. The land around us is green and as we travel further into the tropics there are more and more people around. Certainly more than in the drier parts of the country.

We take the turn east toward Pemba and shortly before we reach the main part of the town we follow our map and turn toward the camp site we have chosen. After following a dirt road for a while we take a left turn onto a smaller track which gets progressively narrower as we go. Soon we are following tyre tracks which don’t exactly follow the tracks we have on either of the maps we are using. We see some locals and they happily point us in the right direction and we arrive safe and sound at Ilala Lodge. None of our mapping apps seems to handle some of these small, remote towns. George, the French owner, tells us that there isn’t officially any camping allowed here as only Mozambique nationals are allowed to set up camp grounds but we are welcome to stay for free and just pay for wifi if we need it. What a nice guy and what a lovely spot to stay! He shows us an area just at the back of the beach and a little away from the chalets used for other guests and we settle in for a few days. George says we can stay as long as we like. Very tempting!

The tides here are large and the sea is quite shallow as far out as the edge of the reef about 1 km away and there are gentle sand banks before that. Swimming is good at high tide and the water is very warm. Otherwise the main activity is watching the activity of the locals. When the men return to shore after fishing in their dhows they sit on the shore and clean their catch and later the women arrive and wade through the shallows with nets to capture the small fish.

Early morning light at low tide at Pemba in Northern Mozambique

We follow George’s directions that takes us along a much simpler track to return to the highway and we follow the bitumen as far north as it goes. It runs out at Palma and we then have just a short distance on a good dirt road to reach our final stop in Mozambique in the village of Quionga. Here we camp in the yard of a South African missionary, Andreas. There is no fee but a donation is welcomed and we have a peaceful night camping under a huge tree. Andreas is able to give us valuable information about the track north to the Ruvuma River and what time we should leave to catch the ferry as it only operates once per day near the high tide. We don’t need to make an early start and Paul is out taking photos of the village in the morning. He soon attracts a following of young children keen to get into the photos.

We set out in plenty of time to go through the Mozambique border post and then travel a few more kilometres to reach to the ferry. We know the road will be rough and we figure we can have lunch while we wait on the bank of the Ruvuma River.

Rough road on the way to the Ruvuma River, border of Mozambique and Tanzania

Well that plan didn’t work out to well. The road as far as the border post was rough and not muddy but after the border post we descend toward the river and the track becomes more treacherous. We successfully get through a couple of muddy patches then are confronted by a huge mud hole. There appears to be a track on the left side but it looks a little narrow and if we don’t fit along there we could tip over. Next to it is a smallish mud hole and we try it and get stuck but manage to reverse back out. The mud hole on the right is way too soft so we don’t even consider it. By now a couple of locals have stopped to watch the action and one appears to suggest the middle large hole is the way to go and we decide to give it a go.

North Mozambique 08

Hmm, which way?

Not the right choice as it turns out. While we are still unsuccessfully trying to extract our vehicle a small crowd of local guys has gathered and they offer to push us out for $50USD. We try to negotiate but they don’t budge and when we agree they try to raise the price to $100 but we manage to avoid agreeing to that. They decide the water is too deep and bail it out laboriously then dig soft mud out from under the diff.

North Mozambique 09

#*#^! Not This Way #*#^!

A couple of attempts have been made to push us out and they don’t even look like succeeding and I’m starting to envisage a night trying to camp in the middle of the mud hole when oncoming traffic heralds the arrival of the ferry from Tanzania. The first vehicle is a 4WD with some American guys who are working in the area, possibly also missionaries. They were stuck here a while back and are happy to help us out so we attach our winch to the front of their land cruiser and we pull ourselves out. Thank goodness!

While we are doing this we see the rest of the traffic, including some 2WD vehicles, take the high side of the track and pass the mud without any problems. We sure got that decision wrong. Even though the local guys didn’t manage to get us out of the hole they have worked extremely hard in trying to help us so we hand over the cash we had agreed on. We’re now not sure we’ll make the ferry but apparently one of the them has rung ahead and the ferry is waiting for us. It is a great relief to get on to it. This wasn’t the type of exit from southern Africa than we had planned on but it is all part of the adventure.

The river is wide and the crossing takes about twenty minutes after which we head for the nearest town of Mtwara. Its a rough road but much better than the road on the southern side of the river. We go through the Tanzanian border post with no problems but it still takes about two hours. It is late afternoon before we reach town. There’s no camping in town and we’re too weary to go further to find a camp so we find a place to stay out of the centre of town opposite the beach. The Cliff and Garden Resort is quite run down but still charming. The owner is an elderly Dutch lady who appears unable to get around much and it appears that things have been let go a little but it suits us. We have a big chalet with a dining room/kitchen as well as bedroom and bathroom and we can park directly outside. Most of the kitchen equipment, ie fridge and stove, doesn’t work but we can bring our own inside and at least we have power, water, a sink and somewhere to prepare and eat food. We order a meal from the restaurant on our first night and are offered a choice of fish and chips or chicken and chips except they don’t have any fish. The serve of chicken is a half a chicken so we decide to share just one meal and it proves to be ample. We want to get a service on the car and have a few ongoing electrical issues looked at so we end up staying three nights.

As well as getting the work done on the car we get a Tanzanian SIM card and data, eat at a great Indian restaurant and visit the local market. Because we don’t have our car for much of the time our travel is a mixture of walking in the hot and humid weather and catching a bijaji. These cost between two and five thousand shillings per trip ($1-3) and are similar to the south east asian tuk tuks.

Our next stop is to be the village of Kilwa Masoko as we want to visit the Arab ruins on the island of Kilwa Kisiwani which is just a couple of kilometres off shore. There are lots of villages along the way and we need to slow to 50kph going through them. The maximum between the villages is 80kph and sometimes the gap between the villages is only a matter of a few kilometres or less so its a slow trip. As well as trucks there are lots of large and small buses on the road and it is a relief to leave the highway and head for the coast.

After a quick look around the village we find a spot to camp at a lodge on the beachfront. We have a nice shady tree to camp beside and although we are just in front of the restaurant there is noone else around so it is very quiet. The owner is very hospitable and makes sure we are comfortable and the restaurant has great reviews so we decide we will dine in it at least once.

The reef here is a kilometre or two off the coast and the tides are huge. We have great views of the activities of the locals as they follow their daily fishing routines.

Kilwa Kisiwani translates as “Kilwa on the Island” to distinguish it from Kilwa Masoku, which is a small town on the mainland, and the largely abandoned Kilwa Kivengi which is about twenty kilometres north and is where the Germans built their “boma” during their brief tenure of the colony of German East Africa in the late 19th and early 20th century.

To visit Kilwa Kisiwani we pay for a permit at the antiquities office and also for a guide and a boat to take us the three kilometres across the bay from Kilwa Masoku. We leave camp in the cool of the early morning because we know that we will be walking for several hours on the island. We clamber over rocks beside the wharf and step onto our boat which takes about twenty minutes to convey us to the island. Our guide, a young Swahili woman named Jamili, describes our rough itinerary during the trip.

A small village of Swahili people still live on the island and they make a living by fishing and growing what they need to eat. Apart from a primary school, a couple of very small shops and the villagers huts  there remains the extensive ruins which have been partially excavated and are all that is left of the chequered history of the sometimes prosperous town of Kilwa over the last eleven hundred years.

Dhows are used for travel and to bring supplies to and from the mainland as well as for fishing. At low tide they are marooned on the mud flats.

The earliest ruins, some of which were simple walled encampments, date back to the 10th and 11th centuries. They, like all the other buildings, were built from coral rock, which was almost certainly taken from quarries on the island. The walls are one to two feet thick and the later buildings were rendered with lime. Where the rock is exposed it is easy to find places where the patterns of the coral organisms are discernable. The same method of building was used in Zanzibar which was also settled by the Omani Arabs and came to prominence after Kilwa’s decline.

While the earliest ruins in Kilwa were quite simple later buildings were very elaborate and with the latter ones being quite luxurious. Gereza, Kilwa’s Fort is the most complete structure. It was originally built by the Portuguese but most of the existing structure was rebuilt by the Omani Arabs.

We visit the remains of three mosques, the Great Mosque, as its name implies, is the most impressive but the small mosque which was mainly used by the Sultan and his family has a wonderful atmosphere as well.

At one end of the island is Makutani, “the palace of the big walls”, where a very large palace and the remains of other buildings are enclosed within a defensive wall.

The final structures we visit is Husuni Kubwa, a magnificent 14th century palace. It is huge and very complex, a splendid royal residence which was only occupied by one Sultan. After exploring it and marvelling at the lavish life style which would have been enjoyed by the regal family we descend the stairs to the mangrove flats and pick our way out to the boat for our return to the mainland.

We are enjoying the relaxed atmosphere at our camp at Kilwa Masoko so we decide to stay an extra day. After we make our decision our host informs us there is a group coming in later and they are likely to be noisy. She sure was right. An extended Indian family occupy most of the chalets and after a communal dinner they sing and dance. It is nice to listen to and it would be great to be a part of their festivities. They aren’t too late with their songs though so we still get a good nights sleep.

We are now just a days drive from Dar Es Salaam. We are planning a week long visit to the island of Zanzibar so we need to find a place to stay for one night then a place to safely leave the car for the week. The electrical work we had done in Mtwara doesn’t seem to have fixed everything so we look for an auto electrician and find one who says they can do the work and will be happy to store the car for the week. The city is big and busy and has a reputation for being a tough place to stay so we are happy to find a place on the internet which is on the outskirts of the city and looks very laid back.

So much for plans. We are using two apps to help us navigate but neither help and we end up at a loss as to how to get there. We ring and follow the hosts suggestion of asking a bijaji driver to lead us to the right road and eventually, after crossing a river and climbing up and down some very basic tracks, we find the place. It doesn’t live up to expectations though because we can’t get our car off the road and the facilities are way more basic than we expected. We decide to go for plan B and head back to the main road and before long we reach the Safari Lodge in a suburb north of the city. Here we find secure parking with an overnight guard, a comfortable room and very pleasant staff. They offer to let us leave our car here for our week on Zanzibar and, after checking out the auto electrician and deciding they look less than reliable, we take them up on their offer. It sure shows that when things don’t work out the way you expect they can work out even better.

Looking forward to our time on Zanzibar.

6 thoughts on “Entering East Africa

  1. We’ve really enjoyed reading your post as we haven’t explored this part of Tanzania on our many trips to this wonderful country. We know you’ll enjoy Zanzibar, especially Stonetown. Also be sure to visit Bagamoyo north of Dar and you must stay at Peponi near Tanga. T4A maps have great coverage as well as countless Poi’s with campsites all over Africa

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    • Thanks Ian and Solveig, we’re running behind with our posts, we agree, Stonetown was fabulous and we should get a post up with plenty of photos from there soon. We called into Bagamoyo on our way north and spent nearly a week at Peponi.

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