From Stone Town to the Serengeti: Two Weeks in Tanzania

The wheels of the plane touched down at Zanzibar’s international airport, a tiny, rustic airport seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and I got off the plane. It was 5:30 a.m. and despite my bone-deep exhaustion after three straight days of travel and shaking off a cold, I was nervous.

I had travelled as a solo female before, but only in places where I spoke the local language and had some idea what to expect. With only a vague plan of exploring eastern and southern Africa over the next few months and a 40L bag on my back, I was now embarking on a completely new adventure, one I hoped wasn’t going to be more than I bargained for.

I chose Zanzibar as the starting point, figuring it would be a good place to ease back into the backpacker life—quite a few tourists, some English spoken, and a small choice of hostels. Stone Town in Zanzibar is incredible. It’s a maze of narrow, winding streets and an eclectic mix of people from all over, with a unique heritage and culture.

I spent about a week on the island, first in Stone Town, then in the hippie surf town of Paje and the eastern coast before hopping onto a ferry to cross to mainland Africa for the first time.

Low tide and kite surfers dotting the horizon at Paje beach, Zanzibar

It was hectic, to say the least. I headed straight to a hotel near the major bus station, the Ubungo bus terminal, since I wasn’t planning on spending any time in Dar es Salaam. The hotel I’d chosen was in an out-of-the-way location and seemed more geared towards Tanzanian travellers, because the front desk clerk spoke no English, and the amenities were rudimentary at best.

Dar es Salaam is an extremely massive and busy city, with the hustle and bustle of any big American city combined with the chaotic driving and street vendors of a major Asian or Latin American country. The traffic can be anything from smooth sailing to stuck for hours without moving. The best recommendation I got from another backpacker is to take a ‘bajaj’ Uber, which is like a three-wheeled tuk tuk and can weave in and out of traffic and get you to your destination quicker. Unfortunately, these aren’t recommended after dark because they’re a great target for smash-and-grab incidents.

My next goal was to walk to the bus station to get a ticket for the following day. This experience was unlike anything else I’d been through, and I’ve done my fair share of travelling. A few hundred metres out from the bus station, I started getting accosted by men—first a handful, then up to a dozen began following me, offering tickets to any kind of destination. They were all in my personal space, and a couple even tried to grab my bag off my shoulder—presumably to carry it for me, though there was no way I was letting go of it at that point. I kept repeating, “no, no, I’m not interested,” but it didn’t help much as the crowd just got bigger, sensing an opportunity.

I finally got into the bus terminal but it wasn’t to be a shelter from the crowds outside. It was just as crazy, if not more, and multiple stands were selling tickets to the same location. My ears were assaulted by buses honking at each other, and narrowly avoiding collisions with other vehicles and people, who were yelling about anything and everything. I could smell a mix of garbage, mud, and rotting food, mixed with fresh food and meat being grilled and sold to passengers. The ground was dusty and unpaved, and the sun was beating down into the open-air terminal.

There was no way to find out which stands were legitimate ticket vendors and which were scammers, and if I showed any sign of lingering or uncertainty, every person I was keeping at bay by walking quickly would surround me to try to get their sales pitch in.

I finally picked one booth just to be able to duck into the shade and relative shelter of a little concrete office. I asked for a ticket to Lushoto, a small town about 8 hours north of Dar es Salaam on the road to Arusha. I’d heard so many stories of backpackers getting sold fake tickets that I wanted to be sure when I returned to the terminal early in the morning, I wouldn’t be stranded there with no bus, and no one to ask about it. I waited until they added my name to the manifest and pointed out exactly which bus I’d be taking in the morning.

Thankfully, in the morning, not only was the bus there to take me to Lushoto, but the terminal at 6:00 a.m. was much less busy than the previous evening. I found a seat and got comfortable for the long, bumpy ride ahead. The journey proved to be interesting as well as beautiful, as the bus sped through the countryside.

There weren’t really any bathroom breaks, except for the bus pulling over to allow people to relieve themselves by the side of the road, women and men alike. Modesty is certainly a luxury here, where even a stop to use a dirty squat toilet isn’t guaranteed.

Lushoto was a gorgeous stop, fairly off-the-beaten tourist path from Dar es Salaam to Moshi and Arusha. I was happy to spend a couple of days there exploring the Usambara Mountains and farmland. The bus dropped off the passengers to Lushoto on the side of the road near a little village called Mombo, so I got off with the handful of other passengers going my way and we packed into a van heading to Lushoto. There were about two or three times more people in the van than there were seats, so it was a cramped half hour journey to our destination. The stunning, winding mountain roads more than made up for it once I gave in to the dangerous hairpin turns and erratic driving.

In town, I walked up the road to a little guesthouse which was recommended to me by other backpackers. I quickly realized that I was the only tourist in the town. No one spoke English, but everyone I crossed was friendly and smiled and said ‘jambo!’ (the Swahili word for hello) excitedly. I felt for the first time since arriving in Tanzania that there were genuinely friendly people here that didn’t have an ulterior motive of selling me something or getting me to check out their business.

The Usambara Mountains as seen from the outskirts of Lushoto

I got to the guesthouse and was warmly greeted by the owner, a friendly woman who also spoke no English, though I was getting pretty used to it by now. My room in the guesthouse was unlike any I’d seen before, showing me a glimpse of true Tanzanian life.

There was a small cot in the corner and a tiny bathroom partitioned with a shower curtain. The toilet was a squat toilet, and there was a bucket in the corner with water for a ‘shower’ of sorts. It certainly wasn’t the place to go for creature comforts, but luckily that wasn’t what I was looking for.

The next morning, I set off with a local guide on a hike through the Usambara Mountains. They were truly spectacular, and he pointed out loads of species of trees, birds, and explained a bit about the history of Lushoto and the lifestyles there.

We walked through farmers’ fields and I noticed that most of the people working the land were women, carrying heavy loads and stooped over their plants. I asked my guide where all the men were if the women were working the fields. He said this was normal, because the men usually spent their time transporting the produce from village to village.

We also passed some school children on their way to and from school, often walking miles to get from home to school. None of them seemed to mind though, as they were all laughing together and chatting away. I got waves and wide smiles from them as I passed by, and they giggled, pointing at me and shouting “Mzungu! Mzungu!”

This is a word I’d become really familiar with, and means someone of European descent or more generally ‘white person’ or ‘tourist.’ Sadly, in a lot of towns I visited in Africa, the call of ‘Mzungu’ would usually be followed by a request for money or candy, but in Lushoto it was still only used as an excited hello.

After exploring the mountains and spending a couple of days in Lushoto, it was time to continue my journey north to Arusha. I was on a schedule because my brother was flying in to meet me in a week’s time for our trek up Mt. Meru, Mt. Kilimanjaro’s not-so-little brother.

Arusha is a small town but quite busy and centered on tourism as the gateway to Mt. Meru hikes, Serengeti expeditions, and some Mt. Kilimanjaro hikers flying in on their way to the famous mountain. The streets are wide and lined with purple-flowered jacaranda trees, a lovely and quite peaceful sight, and most of the activity revolves around the town clock in the centre of town.

I stayed a couple of days in town, exploring and taking care of some booking and administrative tasks, before jumping in a safari truck with three Danish girls headed to a four-day camping adventure in the Serengeti.

Giraffes—gentle and majestic creatures strolling through the Serengeti plains

Words can’t do this adventure justice, from the endless plains of the Serengeti, to giraffes strolling right outside our truck, to hearing lions call to each other outside our tents at night. It’s something I’ll never forget, and I hope that the generations which come after mine are also able to appreciate these natural wonders.

I did a lot of research to find a company that paid their guides a full salary and which had sustainable practices with their daytime safari trips; this is unfortunately not a guarantee in Tanzania.

As I headed back into town after my tour of the Serengeti, ready to meet my brother and hike up Mt. Meru, I reflected back on my first two weeks in Tanzania. It’s a study in contrasts; friendly, welcoming locals happy to open their doors to visitors, but also aggressive, chaotic moments, with people keen to make a dollar off the tourists that come visit in any way they can.

It’s a huge country that I barely scratched the surface of, a place where I felt completely at home but also always on my guard. One thing is certain, it’s a country whose people, landscapes, and vibrant way of life will stay with me wherever I go.

Sunset beyond the Acacia trees in the Serengeti

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