Up until now I had only sampled what was probably one of the most urban areas in middle Africa. I was quite looking forward to what it was like 'outside'. In the sense of 'outside the city', of course. What was it really like out there in the African countryside? From the mundane questions about what shape the roads were in, to the admittedly more interesting questions about how common people lived their lives out in the country, what the weather was like, and what the landscape was like.
The Davanu Shuttle
A short taxi ride from the 680 hotel led to the 'bus depot'. This seemed more simply like a spot in the city where buses congregated - I couldn't see any prominent bus station, and we didn't go into any buildings. A large Nissan bus with a large 'Davanu' on the side turned out to be our bus. It actually looked to be in pretty good shape from the outside. The inside was in less good shape, but not too bad, really. From the driver's seat it seemed a little more dumpy, actually - many of the instruments and controls were non-functional (for one thing, the speedometer and fuel gauges were not working!). All bags and gear went quickly up onto the roof, where it was covered with tarps and secured down with lots of cord. I had been a bit worried about being separated from my luggage while traveling like this, but after seeing how the bags were bundled up, covered, and tied, I realized that it really was pretty safe up there.
The first segment of the journey was from Nairobi to Arusha. Arusha, and indeed, most of the places I visited, are in Tanzania. It is on this first segment of the journey that the Kenyan-Tanzanian border is crossed. The journey south was quite interesting. I could tell that the vegetation was different. The signature outline of Acacia trees (the typical African savannah type tree) especially caught my eyes.
Down the highway to Arusha
There were many people about - near the road, on the road. Many of the people seemed to be just sitting around, not doing too much. Maybe sitting in the shade of a tree, or on the concrete step of a cinder-block house. There was not so much settlements along the road (although there were those) as there was areas of more dense populations along the road. Buildings tended to be on the ramshackle side; everything off the paved highway was dirt, and it was common to see partially built (or partially abandoned) structures. There often would be refuse strewn about as well. Clearly the conditions would, for the most part, be considered by first-world standards,as poverty-level.
That, however, does not describe things adequately. There was also a certain... I don't know, I guess vibrance would be the right word, to the land and to the peoples. Apart from the large component of folks sitting around lounging, there were many bustling to and fro, carrying produce of some sort on their heads or in a cart, or traveling this way or that. I noticed a large focus on hairstyling salons, for some strange reason. They were everywhere, with hand-drawn hairstyles drawn on the signs.
An elder Maasai
Driving south along the highway to Arusha also gave me my first look at the Maasai peoples. The Maasai are a semi-nomadic people, and their culture is very focused around raising cattle. The Maasai belief is that all cattle in the world is by right owned by the Maasai - a fact that caused some conflict with neighbouring peoples in olden times. Maasai usually dress in amazingly colorful robes. These clothes almost look like blankets, and have many interesting and bold patterns on them. I saw many Maasai herding cattle all over the plains south of Nairobi.
The highway itself was not exactly of the quality of a first-world country's road. Considering it was the primary highway in the whole region, it was fairly narrow, and the surface was fairly old. One particularly annoying feature were the huge speed bumps they would have at frequent intervals when the highway passed through any sort of town. I mean, I'm all for slowing down in busy areas, but these speed bumps required the bus to crawl along at maybe a walking pace.
Tanzanian border office
The bus reached the Namanga gate around mid-day. The guidebooks all warn about how the border is a chaotic and potentially dangerous place, where you can get assaulted by opportunistic people looking to swindle you out of money or goods, vendors peddling all sorts of tourist fare, and paranoid and corrupt border officials looking for any way to catch you and extort money from you. My personal experience was, fortunately, much more benign. The border was indeed chaotic, with people milling about everywhere trying to sell you African momentos at every turn. Polite but persistant refusal worked well. And, there were no boogeyman border police trying to take advantage.
South to Arusha
I proceeded into the Kenyan customs and obtained my exit stamp, then got back into the bus where they took us over the border into Tanzania, where I got out again, this time to go into the Tanzanian customs building to obtain my entrance stamp. In both cases, we were processed quickly and efficiently, and there was no hint of trouble whatsoever. Perhaps things have gotten better since the reports of these border crossings were last written?
Soon I could see Mount Meru, and I knew that somewhere to the left was Kilimanjaro. So I looked, and there it was! Well, rather, there the base of it was. All I could see in the direction of Kili were two very gently sloping lines leading up into a massive agglomeration of puffy clouds. The mountain was completely hidden from view. At the time I thought damn... unlucky, the mountain is in the clouds today. But, as I was to learn on the climb, Kili is almost invariably cloaked in clouds in the afternoon and early evening.
As the highway neared Arusha, it gained elevation and crossed a pass near mount Meru before heading back down again. The landscape here was especially delightful, and the temperature was noticeably cooler. I could see rich greens, lush looking farms, and simple but well-maintained looking farm dwellings. This area seemed especially serene, and it didn't seem rich... it just seemed somehow clean.
Highlands around Mount Meru
Africa, or Windows XP background
The bus arrived in Arusha around 2pm. Arusha is a reasonably-sized city, and is crowded, busy, and dirty. It was not crowded in a "new-york-downtown-skyscraper" kind of sense, as there were very few high buildings, but more in a crowded-market kind of way. The bus stopped at the Mount Meru hotel, which felt a bit like an oasis within this maelstrom, and dropped off a good chunk of the people who were on the bus.
From Arusha, the bus then traveled east, following a better road, towards Moshi. It was exciting to ponder that I was getting close to the base of this famous mountain and to the start of most of the trails. I'd been poring over trail descriptions for months and months, and, now that I was getting close, seeing a sign to the start of a trailhead was like getting a glimpse of a well-known star.
Video : The Drive From Nairobi to Moshi
A video montage of the very interesting shuttle trip from Nairobi to Zara's Springlands Hotel in Moshi, Tanzania. (1 minute, 11 seconds)
First sight of Kilimanjaro
Moshi was a smaller town than Arusha, but was still busy and crowded in its center. As in Arusha, there were a few modern glass-covered low office buildings, but, for the most part, the city had old-ish looking, slightly run-down buildings. And, as I've seen in every other part of Africa so far, a lively hustle-and-bustle of activity everywhere, with lots and lots of people in the streets. I knew Kilimanjaro was right above us, but still all I saw was a cloak of clouds. Over Moshi, though, the sky was clear and it was a very warm 30+ C.
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