I try (and fail) to get to Tanzania

This is the third time I’ve started this blog. So far, the pattern is: start, get distracted, lose a few days, life completely changes again. Note current as of 1900hrs, 04/05, but much like the FCO advice, will only be updated periodically or in case of natural disaster. Better to talk to your local representative for current information. Right now, I’m in a bar in Cape Town, with a large gin and tonic. “Cape Town?”, I hear you say. “That’s very much not … how, why?”. And honestly, I agree. Let me catch you up…

Research had been going well. I've just finished up a body of work in Zimbabwe, and the plan is to head back up to East Africa, to carry out some slightly different research techniques. To do this, I need to get my car back, and opt for the Mozambique route. As of the beginning of April:

1. The car had many issues, some of which were fix-able in a time frame, many of which were not.

2. A friend, S, was imminently arriving from the UK — desperately exciting, but also mildly terrifying. For once, I’m not just going to be responsible for my own safety.

3. The biggest cyclone to hit Mozambique in a long time had just devastated our entire southern route.

On leaving Harare, the first day or two on the road were fine. We glided through the Eastern Highlands, spiralling up mountainsides and down through canopies of oddly fluffy Acacias. Crossing into Mozambique was fine — eyelash-batting lite was more than enough to get us through. Even the road to Beira was OK, if strangely deformed by the passage of Idai. Good roads, with huge bites taken out of them by the 200kph winds that had ripped through the area two weeks before. And I mean BITES— not crumbling chunks falling away from the edges of the road, but whole sections just spirited away. But the road was open (just), with a one way system stretching for 50km in either direction; a single lane of traffic was able to gingerly edge around the missing road, and we made good progress. Eventually, we hit the turn-off and left the Beira traffic behind, turning into the park.

Gorongosa concerned me. Despite firing off emails to everyone I could think of, the only reports I was getting were that this section was About To Be Tough. I had previously visited the park, in 2013, so knew vaguely what to expect. Gorongosa is swampy at the best of times; with the added extras of cyclone and rainy season, it looked likely to be a nightmare drive. So imagine our relief after the first night of wild camping to find that the roads were, essentially, fine! Slow going, but fine. S is a baby driver, but the roads were only slightly lumpy, so we took the opportunity to split some driving. Unfortunately, the universe heard us think “ah, this is going to be OK”, so it promptly wasn’t. Like a leaking roof that isn’t so bad, the damp we were trying to ignore grew and grew and grew. Fortunately, I’m a good bush driver, and enjoy the opportunity to flex, so the first 4-5 hours were a great ego trip. I’d helpfully packed a glamorous assistant, who was able to both film my impressiveness, and get out to check water depth.

Towards the end of the afternoon, I made my first bad call. I misjudged a muddy section, and got us stuck. That’s OK, it happens. I guess I’ll dig us out. S was of a slightly different opinion. Not having the complex that insists I can do anything a Power-Rhodie/Kenya Cowboy can do, she potters off to get help, while I get under the car. We can’t rely on other people out here. Yes, from the top of my head to the space between my toes, I am now of a slightly different complexion — and smell — than I was, but fundamentally I am unsticking us. I’m under the car when I hear people. Not one, not two, but a small army. I slither out. Sixty eyes, now as wide as saucers. It was strange enough when the small, blonde, English girl turned up in their village, asking for help in shrapnel Portuguese, but now here was another presumed-white girl, who was apparently attempting to dig the car out. The army suppressed their bemusement, and helped. We are hoping to be the subject of local oral history for years to come.

We drive on all afternoon, and as dark begins to gather, the first act of God catches us full-force. Yet another very deep water crossing. I decide we can’t go through in the car, so we have to go around the side. We pace it out and pace it out and check everything we humanly can. And go. And stop. The most unhelpful hidden pothole, about the size and shape of a vertical human body, catches the front right wheel. Try as we might, we just can’t get out, so are forced to camp where we stand. The following morning we are saved by a man we only know as Brazilian Jesus, and his two UN vehicles. We high-tail it out of the park, and experience our first moment of utter, heartfelt relief when we hit the first village on the other side.

From Gorongosa, we flew through Quelimane, Nampula and on to Pemba. “Making excellent time”, we congratulated ourselves. Do we never learn? But in the space of two long, tiring days with huge amounts of driving, and the most surreal night in a run-down, neglected city, where we stayed in the 5* hotel with pool and 360˚ restaurant, we were on the home straight to Pemba. Finally.

If the first section of the journey was worrisome because of floods and the possibility of dying in a ditch somewhere, the second section has slightly different perils. Namely, Al Shabaab. Fellas not renowned for their good manners and chivalry at the best of times, recently they have been ambushing vehicles, decapitating villagers, burning and pillaging and looting in millennia-old pirate tradition. As you go North from Pemba, particularly along the coast, the likelihood of making such unsavoury friends increases. Previously, we had been planning to take the inland route. But the only thing you can do when travelling is take local advice, and our local advice said that this would be much more dangerous than going up the coastal road. White faces get much whiter. But everything would be OK — we were going with a convoy of big South African mercenaries. The kind who sweat ammunition and are born holding semi-automatics. We take a deep breath, and head for the border. It is a very stressful day, but we get there.

Up at 4am the following morning (can you call 4am morning?) to do the final bit to the border, having left our army behind. It takes a few hours, passing through sleepy towns under curfew. By 7am we hit the exit. Stamp out. Now for the boat. We drive on. And when we hit the river, we wait. The boat will come. The boat will come. No, the boat won’t come. Maybe next week. You can wait? We have nothing to do but turn around. Squash the emotional reaction, we’ll deal with that later (in therapy). Returning to our bemused friends at immigration, we make sad Bambi eyes, and the officials helpfully scribble out our exit visas with biro. Official biro though, very different from if we were returning illegally. At this point, the background threat of the coming cyclone is starting to loom larger. But what on earth do we do here?

Option A: Drive back through Al Shabaab territory, on our own, back to Pemba.

Option B: Try and wait out the hurricane in Palma, and hope it swings South.

We decide that a no-horse town probably doesn’t have the medical and/or anything else supplies to weather the wind, and that if shit really does hit the fan, that one horse in Pemba will make all the difference. We have to head back.

This is not a fun drive. There are many police check points, and police that really do check. There are many men with very big guns, not all of them paid by the Mozambican government. This is possibly the least fun I have ever had, and in the days afterwards, I realise I have bruises on my palms from gripping the steering wheel so tightly. You think I’m a fast driver? You should see me when I’m trying to out-run terrorists and a natural disaster. (Actually, you shouldn’t. I promise I drive very safely, guys).

We get back to Pemba. We laugh hysterically. I am not sure whether laughing is better than crying, but we sample each, just for the sake of unbiased reporting. It turns out, neither is particularly helpful. Having checked into a hotel, we quickly realise the cyclone is much bigger than we thought, and where we are is not the best place in the world. It is now a Cat 4 (on a scale of 1-5), and possibly the biggest in recorded history in southern Africa. We cop out and go and stay with a friend, on higher ground. That night, we play music and drink whisky while the cyclone buffets around us. It is scary, but bizarrely safe-feeling, the house a metaphorical concrete womb. Maybe it’s hard to be scared when you have the guitars out; maybe transcending fear is actually how brains react to prolonged terror. But whatever it was, as long as we didn’t look it in the eyes, The Fear was happy to prowl around the edges, somewhere in the dark and the wind and the rain outside.

The following morning, we were all still standing. The clouds were too, and rain continued to hammer down. With the lack of power, we also had a lack of water. I had a shower — conditioned my hair, even — in the rain. This rain, though not actively scary to us rich white folks who live on a hill, was catastrophic for the town, for the people, and very much for the flights. For five days we tried to leave. But the Hotel California effect was strong. Eventually we all — and by all, I mean half of our friends from Pemba — managed to get on the flight to Jo’burg. After much confusion about whether the plane was actually flying, we finally end up in the air; later, we realise that the president was scheduled to be on our flight, and was likely the only reason it actually turned up.


1. My car is trapped in Pemba

2. I have no immediate way to get it out

3. I also have no Tanzania permit, due to massive admin errors on the Tz side

Conclusion: continuing with my fieldwork right now is not the most sound decision ever.

Action: I’m going to sit down for a while, and do some writing.

…result: panic. I live in the field. I power on through.  Realising that carrying on isn’t the best call was — is — big for me. Yes, acts of God. But still. Normally I can steamroller God at least a little bit. But now, I shouldn’t. I’ve been thinking for a long time that life out of a suitcase is upsetting me, and the idyllic week I spent in Pemba only reinforced that. So—  maybe I should go back to England? Respond to adversity in a sane and rational way?

I’ve moved to Cape Town, a city I’ve never actually visited before. I’m going to live here until October 2019, tutor, work, get my ducks in a vaguely organised row. Hopefully. Everything is still crazy, but I’m in one piece. We didn’t get abducted by Al Shabaab, or swept up into a cyclone. But I’m also not in Kansas anymore — living in a city, trying to sort things out, making semi-sensible decisions is all new to me. One step at a time. For now, I’m in a nice bar, in a nice city, with a very nice cocktail. What more could I possibly want?


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