A 1,300 kilometre road trip in northern Tanzania sounded like a good idea. But what with zealous cops, the Serengeti’s atrocious roads and hefty entrance fees, Catrina Stewart starts to wonder if it was all worth it.
“Ask them what they’re looking at,” I said to my husband. We’ve pulled up alongside several game vehicles, the occupants all peering at something in the long grass a few metres away. “No, you ask them,” he said. “Oh come on,” I wheedled, “you ask.”
We were at an impasse, both too embarrassed to ask, and so we reluctantly pulled away. My husband thought he saw a pair of ears, I just saw long grass.
It was day seven of our ten-day road trip, and tempers were frayed, the car a crumb- strewn disaster zone, and we still had a long way to go. If we’d thought this through, we might have reconsidered the wisdom of carting two small children and a bootful of camping gear that we’d never use on a 1,300-kilometre road trip around Tanzania.
When we first mooted the idea of a road trip, we imagined we’d drive through western Kenya, and cross the border at Migori. But as protests swept through parts of Kenya after the election, the road through Migori was out, and we opted for the well-trodden Namanga route instead.
Still, my husband suggested, we could come back through the West, could we not. Except that we couldn’t. All my research on logbooks was for nought as I had foolishly failed to obtain the correct paperwork to exit by a different border.
The only plan set in stone was to head for Lake Victoria – and Rubondo Island – and, frankly, the rest was up to the gods.
A SPEEDING FINE
With two small children, though, it helps to know where you are going to stay, and by the second day of our trip, we were already making slow time.
Less than a hundred kilometres out of Arusha, a policeman waved us over. I sighed, “Here we go again. That’s five now.”
The policeman smiled benignly as he swaggered over to our car. He took my driving licence, turning it this way and that, and thoughtfully eyed the watchful children in the back. Just as I thought he was about to wave us on, he said mildly, “You were driving very, very fast.”
“I wasn’t,” I protested, my outrage genuine. “Really, I wasn’t.”
His smile didn’t falter, and he simply said, “Go and talk to my colleague then, and he’ll show you.” I reluctantly got out of the car, and went to talk to the policeman sitting under a tree. To my surprise, he handed me his iPad, and I looked in dismay at the photograph of my car sailing past a 50 kph sign at 55 kph a couple of towns back. As I handed over 30,000 shillings, I realised my wad of Tanzanian notes was evaporating as quickly as my hopes of making it to our next stop in good time for the night.
It was the fifth time we had been stopped by the police, and before the week was out, we would count 15 stops in all. Most of the time, they would ask us to turn on our lights, show us the fire extinguisher, and rifle through the first-aid kit.
A LAKESIDE REVELATION
As we pulled up at our hotel in Mwanza, the toll was beginning to tell. Our kids, cooped up for long hours in the car, were getting harder and harder to put down for the night, we were all sharing a bed to cut down on the costs, and we hadn’t had a good meal since Arusha.
But Lake Victoria was a revelation, Mwanza more so. The town tumbles down the hillside into the horseshoe bay, and docked at Tilapia hotel, where we were staying, was a version of the African Queen. It was actually MV Buganda, a steamship that had languished at the bottom of the bay for decades after playing its part as the German steam boat sunk at the end of the film of the same name.
Over a couple of cocktails, my husband and I wondered at the lack of passenger ferry plying the lake between Kisumu in Kenya and Mwanza. What passenger transport there is confined to lake crossings to Bukoba on Tanzania’s western shore. We sat there, overlooking Africa’s biggest lake, the city’s lights twinkling in the dusk, and wondered why more people don’t come here.
The next day, we continued north up to the lakeshore towards Speke Bay, named after the explorer John Hanning Speke who identified the lake as the source of the Nile. We idled at Speke Bay Lodge, an attractive hotel on the shore, to kill time before entering the Serengeti.
A trip into the Serengeti – if you’re watching your cash, at least – requires some military-style planning. Enter too early, and you’ll be hard pressed to reach the eastern gate the following morning. Enter too late, and you’ll have too little time to spend at your lodgings. With the daily cost for a family in the Serengeti now upwards of $200, not including the new concession fee, I was determined not to overstay our 24 hours.
Within a few moments, we met a car hurtling towards us. “Why are they going so fast?” I asked my husband. “Isn’t the speed limit 50 kph?” But as I wrestled with my car over the most extreme corrugations I’ve ever encountered, I realised through trial and error that the faster I went, the smoother the ride, and the better I could control the car. And so our first day in the Serengeti was a blur of terrain and animals, before pulling into Mbalageti Serengeti, our lodgings for the night.
There are many advantages to a spontaneous road trip – a sense of adventure, freedom and promise, to name but a few – but seeing wildlife up close probably isn’t one of them. When we set off the next morning – early enough to build in a game drive – we were again forced to drive at speed. At Seronera, where the road forks south towards the exit, we followed several game vehicles off road. But with no guide to show us where to go, and too ashamed to ask when we did see a cluster of vehicles, we kicked ourselves for not planning this better.
We had better luck in Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which adjoins the Serengeti, and through which you have to go (and pay for a 24-hour pass) if heading for Arusha. We were staying at Ndutu Safari Lodge, a low-key lodge far from the crater and in an area few people visit. As we drove out on a game drive, we came across a solitary cheetah, ambling along the road in front of us. But as our kids tore apart the living area, scattering games, dominoes and playing cards, we reckoned we might soon outstay our welcome.
The best scenery of the trip was still to come. We had no plans to enter the crater at $200 a pop, but the three-hour drive to the main gate took us through the most spectacular lunar-like landscape. If we had had a few more days, we might have considered adding on a trip to Lake Natron, but time was running out, and the kids wanted to get back to CBeebies.
The car gave up as we pulled up at the exit. My husband turned the ignition, and nothing happened. All the jolting had unravelled the connections to the battery, but for all that, it had got us this far. With the help of a local mechanic, we got it restarted, and hit the tarmac to Arusha. This time, there were no police to stop us, and for once, I felt brave enough to put my foot down on the open road.
Plan it well, and a circular route through Kenya and Tanzania makes for an incredible road trip. We suggest driving through Western Kenya – with the route through Narok the most direct – to the border at Isebania. Build in some extra time to spend a few days on the shores of Lake Victoria, with Mwanza well worth the detour. It’s about three hours from Isebania to the Serengeti’s western gate, and give it about seven hours to reach the eastern exit into Ngorongoro. From the entrance into Ngorongoro, where you will be required to pay a 24-hour fee even if only transiting, it takes about 2.5 hours to the exit. The crater entrance is about 90 minutes into the journey. From the exit, it’s roughly 2.5 hours back to Arusha, and another 90 minutes to Namanga border crossing into Kenya.
SELF DRIVING? HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
• If you’re taking your own car, and plan to use different border crossings, you
will need to lodge your logbook with the Kenya Revenue Authority in Nairobi, which will then give you a letter to present at the border. Obtain notarised copies of your logbook, which at the lesser-used Isebania crossing have sometimes been suf cient instead of the letter from the KRA. If you plan to enter and exit by the same crossing, you leave your original logbook with Kenyan customs.
• Allow 90 minutes to cross the border. On the Kenyan side, head to departures to be stamped out, and then to customs in the same building to clear your vehicle. On the Tanzanian side, obtain a stamp or visa, and show the logbook receipt obtained on the Kenyan side.
• You will be required to show COMESA insurance for your vehicle, which you can obtain through your local insurer. You will also have to pay a $20 fee on the Tanzanian side if you are planning to drive for more than one week.
• Foreigners will require a visa – costing $50 per person, including children – while East African citizens will need their passport stamped. You will also be required to show a valid Yellow Fever certificate.
• Be sure to carry the correct gear in your car, such as a working fire extinguisher, accident plates and a first-aid kit, in case you are stopped (very likely) by the Tanzanian police. Failure to carry any
of these can result in a fine on the spot. Speed limits of 50 kph in towns, and 80 kph on the main road, are strictly enforced with speed traps sometimes located at the entrance or exit to towns.