The Road to Zanzibar

Day 40: Leaving Dar es Salaam

The road to Zanzibar from Zimbabwe runs through Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, and lots and lots and lots of driving.

After leaving Harare, we drove two hours to the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique, expecting a brief visa stop, which is usually a simple formality. Apparently though, I wrote the wrong date format on my Mozambican visa application, and when I crossed it out and put the correct one on, the Mozambican border guard decided that I had nullified my form by crossing it out, and had to pay for a new form. So I said, “How much? Five cents?” I figured that would be a reasonable amount to pay for a blank piece of paper, but the border guard had a different take on it and wasn’t amused. “No, you must pay the visa twice.” That’s $30 for the visa, times two. No way was I going to pay that, simply because I put the wrong date on my application form. So I complained that it wasn’t my fault the instructions weren’t on the Mozambican visa form. That didn’t go over too well either with the border guard, and he said with a scowl, “If you want your visa, you wait outside. Now. GO.”

And I waited outside. For five hours. In 40 degree Celsius heat.

I stopped keeping track of time after the second hour. Finally, after His Highness’ finished his two-hour afternoon siesta, we got the visas and were about to cross the border into Mozambique, when a different border guard insisted on seeing all of our yellow fever vaccination certificates. For God’s sake, if we had known that earlier, we would’ve spent the previous five hours digging through our luggage – buried deep in our truck’s trunk – for the paperwork. We threw up our hands and started to search through our bags for our vaccination cards, when one of our guides had a brilliant idea: let’s just bribe the border guard. What do you think about bribing a border guard – good idea or bad? Usually I think it’s a bad idea, but this is Africa…

Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya insist travelers get a yellow fever vaccine before entering, and the vaccine costs several hundred dollars per person. So how much do you think it costs to bribe a Mozambican border guard to let us skip showing him our yellow fever vaccination cards? $20? $50? $100? Nope. A can of Pepsi. One bloody can of Pepsi. And that’s why Mozambique is the way it is. Corruption for a bloody can of Pepsi. What do you get when you combine Portuguese efficiency and African bureaucracy? Mozambique. Gotta love it.

Mozambique Tete Corridor

Delayed by five hours at the border, we finally entered Mozambique. After another 12 hours of driving through bumpy and dark roads, we finally pulled over to sleep for the night in the Tete Corridor (pronounced just how you think). We woke up to see a country very different than the ones we had just seen in the rest of English-speaking southern Africa. Mozambique is a very poor country. Unlike Namibia, Botswana and much of Zimbabwe, Mozambicans walk on the side of the roads because there is no public transport or infrastructure at all. And most are usually carrying very heavy loads precariously balanced on their heads. As bankrupt as Zimbabwe appeared to be, it was first world in comparison to Mozambique!

Payless Shoe Source

We left Mozambique after one day and headed straight for Malawi, reputed to be the “Switzerland of Africa”: hilly, peaceful, green and friendly. We drove into Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, to spend the night before heading off to the beaches at Lake Malawi for 3 days. Unfortunately, our trusty truck – Claudia – finally died on us. We had to spend then next two days importing and replacing her clutch. In the meantime, we wandered around Lilongwe, which is a nice, sleepy, leafy, little town. It was obvious we were getting further north in Africa as we started to see Muslim mosque minarets and more non-Africans like Arabs and Indians around town.

To make matters worse, there was no fuel anywhere to be had in Malawi. The country’s reserve bank was bankrupt and couldn’t pay to import fuel, so hundreds of oil tankers were stuck outside Malawi’s borders, refusing to enter the country until the country paid up its foreign debt to importing oil companies. Switzerland? Malawi was more like Africa’s Greece!

Two days later, we finally sourced some fuel on the black market. The only other option was to drive to the Zambian border, and fill up canisters of diesel from a border gas station and bring them back to our truck in Lilongwe. That would’ve taken another day, so instead we decided to pay double the normal price and get the diesel on the black market. Sometimes you have to get creative in Africa.

Fueled up, we finally left Lilongwe and drove 12 hours straight to beautiful Lake Malawi. As we were driving on the national highway, we got pulled over at a police road-stop. The policeman approached our window and said, “What do you have for me?” As in, “What kind of bribe will you give me so I will let you go on your way?” I never realized corruption would be so blatant in Africa. We had heard that Malawi policemen like girlie magazines like Cosmopolitan and Vogue because of the scantily clothed fashion models (whereas genuine porn magazines would be too taboo for them to carry in this conservative country). One of the girls on our truck had a girl’s fashion magazine and we gave it to the policeman at the roadblock. He grinned from ear to ear, said “Thank you!” and let us go on our way – another successful African bribery!

We drove through the night on our way to Lake Malawi, and stopped at around 10:30pm for some soup on the side of the road, knowing that we would get to our destination too late for some real dinner. As we were making soup, I pulled out my wind-up radio trying to get a local Malawian radio station to keep us entertained in the pitch dark. And guess what I heard? Britney Spears singing, “Oops, I did it again!” We all cracked up laughing.

Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi is one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world, created in East Africa’s Rift Valley, and surrounded by lush mountains on either side. As we had spent the last several days either driving 12-15 hours a day, fixing trucks, looking for fuel, or negotiating with border guards, all we wanted to do was relax for a day at the lake, and that’s exactly what we did.

Hammer Time!


Lake Malawi Sunrise

The next morning, we crossed the border from Malawi into Tanzania without incident (my friends forced me to be extra nice to the border guards). As we drove further north into central Africa, the scenery became increasingly lush. In southern Tanzania, the 2000-meter high mountains surrounding the Rift Valley are amazingly beautiful. The rolling hills are full of pine forests – yes, pine forests in central Africa! I would never have guessed southern Tanzania to look like Colorado and be as cool as Switzerland.

Tanzanian Highlands

Tea Farms in Tanzania

This temperate weather would not last though, as two days and 24 hours driving later, we arrived exhausted, in dusty, dirty Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial capital. Dar is a bustling city, teeming with people and poverty. It’s hot, it’s humid, and it’s heaping with rubbish. Situated on a natural harbor, the putrid smell of drying fish overwhelmed our senses instantly as we entered Dar es Salaam. Even Harare – which is the poorest capital city in English-speaking southern Africa –  was luxurious in comparison to Dar es Salaam.

Dar es Salaam Harbor

Dar Ferryboat

East Africa is MUCH poorer than southern Africa. East Africa doesn’t have the mineral wealth that southern Africa does, like gold and diamonds. Most Tanzanians live in simple cinderblock brick structures – whose outside walls are plastered with politicians’’ posters or painted with international brands like “Pepsi” or “Airtel” (which pay for the paint) – or they live in mud huts with thatch roofs. In the countryside, there are thousands upon thousands of unfinished brick homes, because people can’t afford to finish building them once they start, so they lie dormant for years until they save enough funds to put up a roof, or another wall.

Tanzania is the first country we’ve been to where English is not the predominant language. The official language is Swahili, which has developed over hundreds of years through an amalgamation of Arabic and local African tribal languages. “Safari” comes from “safar” in Arabic, which means “to travel.” Remember Rafiki from “The Lion King?” “Rafiki” comes from “Rafik” in Arabic, which means “friend.” And “Hakuna Matata” really means “no worries” in Swahili! And my favorite by far is “Jambo,” which means, “Hello!” To which one responds, “Mambo!” I wonder if that’s where “Mambo Jambo” comes from?

We spent the night on the beach in Dar es Salaam and left promptly the next morning for Zanzibar – the mystical Spice Islands off the coast of eastern Africa, reputed to have some of the best beaches in the world. I was excited to see Zanzibar. After a two-hour ferry, we arrived in what we imagined to be an Arabian Nights land of minarets and mystique. Unfortunately, that’s where the fantasy ended.

Stone Town in Zanzibar

Zanzibar’s main town – called Stone Town – is quaint; full of old mosques and Arabesque architecture. But it’s no Shangri-La. Granted, I was a bit under the weather in Zanzibar, but Stone Town is not what I expected for a major tourist destination. It’s run down with neglect, decline and apathy. It’s not at all gentrified or cleaned up for tourism, and doesn’t have the feel that such a glorious name conjures or could attract with such lure.

There are two speeds at which service is delivered in Zanzibar: Slow or Stop. And while this can be charming for a while, it gets frustrating when you’re waiting for dinner after having ordered three hours earlier. This was mitigated by the fact that we were dining on the highest rooftop in Zanzibar, feeling the sea breeze, lounging on cushions, and listening to sultry Arabesque lounge music. Now if only I had my magic carpet, it would be perfect…

Zanzibar Harbor

Zanzibari Sunset

Long part of the Arab sphere of influence, Zanzibar used to be the epicenter of the East African slave trade throughout the 19th century, with mainland black Africans being enslaved by Arab Zanzibaris and then sold into slavery across the Middle East. Slavery is a very unfortunate part of Zanzibar’s history, but is what the island’s spice wealth was built upon. Freed Africans returned the favor to the Zanzibari Arabs after independence from Britain in 1963 by slaughtering thousands of them and kicking the sultan and most Arabs off the island.

Zanzibar Former Slave Market

Visiting a Spice Plantation

Coconut Climbing Butterfly

Spice King and Queen

After a day of wandering around Stone Town and visiting a spice plantation where they grow cloves, cinnamon, and other spices, we spent the next three days on the beach in northern Zanzibar, getting a bit of rest and relaxation. Unbeknownst to me, Zanzibar happens to be a Mecca for Italians to vacation, and all the locals kept speaking to me in Italian thinking I was from Italy. Not the first time that’s happened. Zanzibar is a conservative Muslim island, and most women are covered head to toe. Not that this stops foreigners from taking most of their clothes off on the beach. It’s an interesting blend of extremes and civilizations living side by side each other.


or heresy?

While Zanzibar’s beaches were beautiful and the water crystal clear and warm, Zanzibar as a whole was a bit disappointing. For sure it has tremendous potential for the future, but I wanted it to be so much more alluring, charming and mystical than it is. Instead, I got Italian Club Med crossed with run down infrastructure and slow African service. Oh well, this is Africa. Can’t have it all!

I’m off to the Serengeti for the next week in search of cheetahs!


This entry was posted in Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Road to Zanzibar

  1. Kathy Gohar says:

    Love the pictures. You grab people like i have never seen before. xoxo

  2. Gail says:

    What a wonderful adventure . . . and yet so scary. Too much mumbo jumbo! Keep the postcards coming.


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