Day 1 (Arusha — Moshi)
My first mistake was using East African gospel songs as a measurement of time. It was 8:35am on a Saturday morning. The 48-seater bus had ample leg-room and a half dozen televisions above each aisle. The televisions were tucked into and flush with the carpeted overhead compartment, satisfying in that obsessive rectilinear way that mass transportation often is. I heaved my hiking pack into the seat adjacent to mine, and as I did I recognised my taxi driver, Abdallah, seated in front of me. We exchanged a few words in Kiswahili as we waited for the bus to depart.
The bus rumbled to life, loosing the televisions which folded down with a princely whirr. The screens displayed low resolution Swahili gospel music clips with English subtitles. The sound came from hidden speakers, creating a choral ambience. The thrust of one song was that all love dies, except God’s. Another was about how all your dreams will fail, unless you have God. The songs were the familiar Intro-Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus pattern, and I reasoned each was a standard pop song length of about 3.5 minutes. This was an error, for the fourth or fifth song was a real epos, and featured a post-intro interlude, post-chorus reprise, and pre-pre-chorus interlude. It was essentially a high fidelity translation of the King James Bible, with biblical references included in the English subtitles. A real page turner.
The issue was that my Travelling Companion (TC) needed ten minutes notice to pack her things and get to her interchange, and I figured “I’ll call after this song.” Around Corinthians I noticed that “this song,” was already ten minutes deep and we were very close to TC’s interchange. I sent a panicked text but knew it was too late. When the bus arrived a few minutes later I moved to the lowest step, gripped the handrail and swung out, hoping to see TC tracing down the hill from her compound. The driver’s assistant ran in to a small shop near the interchange to buy something, and when she returned a few minutes later I knew my time was up. I conceded the driver’s right to leave me alone at the interchange. I stepped off the bus and stared back inside longingly. I saw Abdallah look at me with that quizzical look reserved for white people as the pneumatic door closed with a pleasing, sanitary hiss.
I stood stupefied as the bus continued without me, presumably now up to Peter. TC arrived a sensible and expected amount of time later on a motorcycle taxi. She had a green backpack with various unremoved airline-provided baggage tags on them, which I’m still not sure if it’s an identity thing or if she’s just not bothered to cut them off. The neck of a ukulele poked out of the top of the backpack. She dismounted the motorcycle and presumably noticed there was no bus, so I quickly wrapped an explanation within an apology within some defensive “shit happens,” dialogue. My mouth was an aslant line as I considered our options. Taxi drivers looked at us longingly whilst pointing to their cars. Locals cast passing glances at the two confused foreigners. After a few minutes of impatient velleity I saw a bus incoming, and with an extended left arm I displayed the familiar, universal, godless prayer of nomads, waifs, and vagabonds. The bus indicator came alight like the Star of Bethlehem and I was in thankful spiritual repose. TC & I resumed our pilgrimage.
Our destination was Moshi, a small city and gateway to Mount Kilimanjaro. From there, we planned to visit Marangu Falls on the slopes of Kili, and then Lake Chala, which straddles the Kenya-Tanzania border. After that, TC & I would part ways. She would return home, and I would continue towards the Usambara mountains near the Tanzanian coast, where I would hike from Lushoto to Mtae over three days. The jaunt was a tight week but with room for improvisation, and nothing had been booked in advance, owing to my general aversion to planning.
I had somehow hoped that Moshi would be cosmopolitan and kind of European, with tree-lined streets and beautiful cafes. It wasn’t. In the round, it was similar to Arusha with a low snaggletooth skyline of small shops, solicitous transport operators, and countless Coca Cola signs. One building was emblazoned with the words “Rainbow Centre” and a tawdry rainbow backdrop. It offered no further explanation.
TC & I were dropped off at the bus interchange and sought a place to find our bearings and plot our next move. We each had leftover apple cores from the bus ride in, and we were walking around with these cores awkwardly pinched in our respective hands (mine like a dead daddy long legs; hers, clearly too small, probably causing muscular strain).
We each experienced an ambient encroaching anxiety that there was either nowhere or everywhere to dispose of these apple cores. Moshi was bin-less but we were full of western custodial baggage. The apple cores quickly became fetishes or totems for a familiar feeling in any improvised trip, the feeling of being clueless and inwardly swearing for yet another entirely avoidable misadventure. Disposing of the apple cores became high priority. We reasoned that cafes have bins, and so we found a cafe and disposed of our custodial crises, and got coffee and got chemically anchored. We put our heads together and realised the one thing our freedom didn’t permit us to avoid doing was to find accommodation for the night. We took a taxi to the local Backpackers.
Rafiki Backpackers was clean, furnished, and could be considered middle-market accommodation in Tanzania. The hotel manager was a Tanzanian guy in his late-20s who exuded that gentle bohemian concern that makes all backpacker hostels spiritually indistinguishable. Whilst the Arusha hostel felt eerily placeless when I visited a few months ago, the fruit-induced terror made me crave familiarity in Moshi. I wanted doors that receded wholly in to their frames, travel magazines tastefully spread on coffee tables, and tourism opportunities displayed in plastic sleeves in A4 binders. The only reminder that we were in Tanzania was that the hotel manager turned out to be totally sexist, essentially completely ignoring TC as soon as shit got financial. I’m one of those guys who regards himself as a feminist, but am usually too dim-witted and high-latency to wholly notice privilege in real-time so I didn’t call it out and I still have a little residual embarrassment about this.
We finished the check-in process at around 1pm, but decided there was still enough daylight to make a trip out to Marangu Falls on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. Our way to do this affordably was to use a random taxi driver as our tour guide rather than pay a professional. This was my second mistake, after the Swahili gospel song incident, and TC’s first. Our guide’s name was Emanuel. From his rear-view mirror hung an air freshener depicting a watermelon and a banana. Time had reduced them both to yellow. Also hanging there was a semi-transparent cross, and set inside it was a single thread of wire approximating Jesus. A hook at the top constituted Jesus’ head. TC shotgunned the front seat, which was her second mistake.
Marangu Falls was a long drive, owing especially to Emanuel’s complete lack of assertive overtaking. During this drive I learned everything there is to learn about Emanuel, who is basically a human blowhole of enthusiasm. It took significant convincing to get Emanuel to avoid taking us to visit his mother. We learned about his ten-year old son’s love of Unilever’s Blue Band!, one of two popular margarine brands in Tanzania. We were each subjected to a photo of his son sitting at a coffee table eating Blue Band! on bread. In my case this involved Emanuel turning his attention away from the road and excitedly thrusting his phone backwards towards the rear seats, and my face receded into itself like a French Bulldog’s. His son’s face quizzed the lens as to the need for a photograph of something so mundane, as though he were silently pleading with me through space and time. By the end of the day TC & I would have similar features in dozens of photographs on Manuel’s phone. One of these would end up being Emanuel’s Facebook profile picture for a short while.
We arrived at Marangu Falls in the early afternoon. There was a fee to enter and a registry book. Emanuel insisted on photos with us, without us, and without him at the entry sign. TC & I went to the bathrooms. Inside my bathroom, an adolescent gecko balanced on top of the toilet scrubber. When we returned to the check-in desk, Emanuel had surreptitiously arranged for us to have our photo taken with three middle-aged Tanzanian men. We were led like confused billy goats to some open grass and were made to stand in a line. The man next to me took my right hand in his left and gripped slowly and softly, as though I were some terminal relative in palliative care. I was staring straight ahead at a grinning Emanuel but was reasonably sure my new Tanzanian friend was seeking eye contact with me at that moment. Emanuel’s explanation for this series of events: “They are teachers.”
Emanuel took us to the base of the waterfall. The hour was late and everything was cast in shadow. Dense trees and shallow water created an expressionist field of green and brown. The white foam at the base of the falls was ringed by white flowers shaped like gramophones. The falls were uproarious for their size, which gave the impression that the gramophone flowers were playing the sound for our touristic benefit.
An artificial levee made a place to stand and admire a statue, perched on top of a rock at the height of the falls. Far and high as she was, she seemed to be looking at me wherever I stood. She split the falls in two with a wide stance. She leaned slightly forward with her arms outstretched, emanating both suicide and domination. As I contemplated her, Emanuel took my picture. We made our way back up the path back to Emanuel’s car.
We drove back to Moshi, Emanuel speaking throughout. The descending sun was a beautiful, vibrant pink, suspended above the horizon. I thought of being alive now, to have been able to travel to and live in Tanzania. The freedom of radical uprooting. Consular and financial safety. The chance fortune to have the company of a curious stranger. To have been born into a working class family on a slab of rock floating in the Indian, and to now be descending from the world’s highest freestanding mountain. All of this furnished me with the opportunity to be psychically tortured by a man I deemed too earnest, too open, too friendly. Too simple and too single-entendre, too ignorant to my multi-layered dissatisfaction, too loving of his son who was too loving of Blue Band!
Emanuel made a right-turn, signalling the end of our slow descent off Mount Kilimanjaro. We started heading west, and I could see through the front window that the vibrant pink of the sun was due to my side window tint. If the sun set that evening, I did not notice it.
Day 2 (Moshi — Lake Chala)
After breakfast at the backpackers, TC & I approached the hotel manager and asked to book a taxi to Lake Chala. The price was exorbitant but after the previous day’s misadventure we opted for simplicity. The hotel manager called the taxi driver and greeted him with “Shikamoo,” a Kiswahili greeting generally reserved for older people with some measure of respect. I was immediately at ease at the prospect of a silent, older taxi driver, staring forward with quiet discipline for the full two hour drive to Lake Chala.
The car arrived and I called shotgun. Letting me call shotgun first was TC’s third mistake. Our driver, Uhuru, needs only one adjective: Jolly. His laughter is curative on a limbic level. We’re now Facebook friends and I follow him on Instagram. Uhuru drinks coffee, but only if you “cut it” with sugar. You have to “dilute the poison.” He used about four or five comparisons between coffee and other drugs, and so I made the obvious joke — “You don’t want to get drunk on coffee!” Uhuru slapped the steering wheel and laughed with uproarious, generous enthusiasm. The glory was all mine and I took it graciously. I looked away and grinned, at peace with the two hour drive ahead.
The trip to Chala involved a good amount of time with my chin cupped in my left hand, my elbow on the minivan’s arm rest. My eyes were either moving rapidly like a faulty gauge or were fixed dead on some point beyond the window. The green of Moshi peeled away to a familiar orangered and brown, Australia’s palette, “the outback.” A single dust devil emerged at some undeveloped point, wreaked havoc on some land nobody cared about, and then dissipated. Human life receded as though it were a signal emanating from the city retreating behind us. The final fifteen kilometres to Chala were barren, the roads lined only occasionally with dust-covered children making duck-bill hand shapes and pressing them to their lips as we passed by. It had Australian colour and WorldVision’s images of poverty. With a few kilometres remaining, we made a right and descended slowly towards Chala.
We arrived at the Lake Chala Safari Camp, designated by an open-air restaurant with a pitched conical roof. It sat perched on struts above a precipice fifty metres above the lake’s surface. The lake itself was vast and we tried to see if there was a rival Kenyan business on the other side (there wasn’t). We stared out at Chala for about as long as patience will allow. TC signalled her boredom by grabbing her backpack shoulder straps and pivoting about her spinal axis before launching in to a skip (a signature move). We departed for the lake shore, a twenty-minute descent. There were handrails and chain ropes, but not many.
At the lake’s rim, we spent some time sitting on a rock which was covered in initialled loving forevers, or if not forever at least the geologic timescale of Chala. We stared out for about as long as patience will allow, which is longer when you’re closer to the water. We made punctuated conversation about our lives up to and including that point. Afterwards, we went kayaking. I agreed to take the rear of the kayak, which was my third mistake. TC was facing forward and I am the stolid type, so this meant that I wordlessly and invisibly endured the increasingly large body of water in the kayak’s rear/my pants. I begun to imagine how, if we did sink, I might manage to save both TC and my digital camera, neither of which can swim. Around the time I realised I was scrotum-deep in tepid water, and we were probably at moderate risk of sinking, I quietly suggested we row back ashore.
Sunset approached as we returned to our tent. I was hip-down wet, wearing a light blue OCBD and dark blue shorts. TC correctly pointed out that I looked like a paper boy. I had a cold shower at the camp and trudged back to the tent, heavy but not miserable. The sun was orange and viscid above the African outback. Baboons had come to drink from the camp water and play in the open spaces. TC sat on a bench near the tent, trying to learn some four chord song, staring at her ukulele with that distinct musical bearing that is both receptive and focused. I tugged on the stubborn zips to our tent and pushed myself gracelessly inside through the emerging opening, pivoting to fall on my back so as to keep my dirty feet outside. I reached for my Cussons Baby Wipes, with eco-green branding. TC also brought Cussons Baby Wipes with her, and this is all I’ve been permitted to say about the extent to which a soul-level connection exists between us. I peeled back the transparent plastic adhesive cover and withdrew a wipe, then washed each foot in turn. Clean footed, I pulled myself in to the tent by using my elbows as fulcra. I lay supine for a moment, legs an inverted V. Through the mesh screen on one side of the tent I could see TC. I now recognise through her mellisonant hums that she’s practicing Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours.”
When I was fourteen years old, I was lying supine in a slight depression.
I was staring up at black sky and white stars with my arms outstretched biblically. Sand curved up around me and beyond my fingertips lay the nondescript salty brush that lines wide tracts of the West Australian coast. I could hear the violent waves crashing ashore about fifty metres or so down from the large dune I was lying on. I still have no idea where I was, geographically. During long childhood bus rides, I would cup my chin in my hand and rest my elbow on the one centimetre of exterior moulding the window slots in to. Then, I would free associate for hours. Long daydreams meant that almost every place I visited as a child had no geographic relationship to home.
I was a Royal Australian Air Force Cadet. I had one chevron, though I was wearing civilian clothes or “civvies” at the time. We were playing Spotlight, an old outdoor survival game where a number of “guards” with torches have to find hiding “prisoners” within a certain time limit. Prisoners have to either survive the duration of the game, or they can also escape by navigating their way to a designated area without being spotted. My strategy was to pick an arbitrary place and remain completely motionless until I was caught. It was a pacifist, contrarian, and low-effort approach I employed in all sport, inspired the netball vignette in the title sequence of Daria.
I was one of the first boys caught, obviously. I remember the night as being very late, like 11pm, well past lights’ out. Those of us who were caught out would meander in turn down the undulating dunes, unsupervised, to the dark shoreline. The waves pounded the shore and the full moon sharpened their edges. I walked slowly so as to not slip on the dunes, leaning backwards slightly and letting my calves carry my weight.
Several other boys who’d already been caught out had invented a game before I arrived. First, you wade out in to the violent swell, and bob on the waves like a buoy. Then, when the group semi-democratically decides that a big wave is approaching — one too big to buoy over — we would all dive down deeply and quickly enough to be carried beneath the wave’s underside and back up to the ocean’s surface. I suspect whoever invented this game was someone who got caught out in Spotlight by running around too much.
The ocean heaved with ancient force, but what terrified me was the medical flatline beyond, where black sky met black water. I could only see this flatline from the safety of the beach. My toes curled in to the sand as though to form a ballast. I can only imagine that it was this fear of the timeless ocean that drove me in to the water, where the eternity of the ocean gives way to the steady, ordered beat of its waves. I stripped out of my sandy clothes, my pale, flabby adolescent body luminous under moonlight, and ran in to the waves to join my friends.
Cold passed up and through and from all directions as I plunged in to the shallows, paddling out to my friends. I wasn’t fit, but I was a natural swimmer, and quickly adjusted to the cold. I probably said something pithy or ironic on meeting them, then rode over the first few waves. Perhaps I yelled it as I remember the waves as being quite loud. When a big wave approached and the signal was given, I panicked and didn’t dive. Panic quickly gave way to relief: It was a false positive, and the wave was small enough that with a strong dolphin kick I could produce enough upward momentum to go over the top. These Type I errors were pretty common, and my pacifist, contrarian, low-effort strategy to just ride all the waves was working fine. I was berated for this by the other cadets but didn’t mind.
Then, a truly big wave loomed. Like all big waves, it reveals its size with a beckoning tug. The shore, perhaps, receded a little behind us. There was no time for a signal, just a collective “Oh, shit,” or “Fuck,” and for an Air Cadet in a punitive camp those words had real currency. I was reminded of the cinematic terror of the tidal wave in Deep Impact. I didn’t panic; I don’t recall any particular cognitive or emotional response. I was unable to judge the appropriate time to go underwater — if you go too soon, you’ll come up in to the wave — too late, you’ll be hit by it even harder than if you did nothing. My friends had been practicing, I hadn’t.
The next memory I have is rising my shoulders slightly in preparation to go under. The memory after that is being folded in to the shape of a Möbius strip, rotating heliocentrically about some point outside myself. Sound alternated in each ear arrhythmically, like the intro to an experimental prog metal epic, and all was black, total black, for what could’ve been a minute or a few seconds. I didn’t know if I was heading towards the shore or the black abyss, metaphorical and literal death. I didn’t know anything.
I felt my shoulders hit sand, hold firm, and anchor my head in to the sand. My legs flayed about, up, and around, their momentum dislodging my head and dragging the right side of my face through the sand. My left hand found ground. The sounds of a late bloomer’s high-pitched shrieks faded in but was immediately dubbed over by the sound of my gasping, desubmerged head. I found my knees next, and dragged them forward in turn. From all fours, residual waves still striking from behind, I crawled ashore and stood. I was a crooked and defeated figure in the night, blue-on-black. My right arm was behaving as though I’d slept on it. I coughed what probably wasn’t blood. I ran both hands along my scalp, pushing brine out, and fell to the shore near my clothes. I rolled over, and lay supine, drawing my legs up in to an inverted V. The lone boy’s shrieks now also included some post-pubescent guffaws. I could hear the roaring waves and the diffuse sound of wind passing through coastal grasses. The stars above silently hummed with celestial indifference.
I lay supine in the tent, legs an inverted V. I discovered I was staring at the little canvas loop at the top of the tent. C-G-Am-F played in my right ear. All was bathed in orange by the setting sun. I permitted myself a sigh.
Day 3 (Lake Chala — Irente)
Morning came slowly. The cloud overhead was a thin, buttery spread, and reflected pre-dawn light over the landscape. I could hear the sound of acapella harmonies in Swahili, fading in from my right. I found the tent floor and rolled myself upright. I untucked the blanket from beneath myself, pulled it taut with my arms outstretched biblically, and then folded it all forward around myself, pinching it together with one hand. With my free hand, I dislodged one zip and birthed myself from the tent. Constantly adjusting my blanket-cum-cloak, I lighthouse-scanned the sun-singed landscape for the tribal harmony, and identified amongst the shrubbery a group of Tanzanian men jogging.
The men were wearing colourful exercise gear, mostly Adidas, with its distinctive thick triple white or black stripes on the outside of each leg/arm. I was surprised by the sight, and I was then surprised to be surprised, and the latter meta-surprise made me realise I had some barely conscious indigenous pre-conception that had to quickly be replaced with the more banal sight of a morning jog.
TC emerged a short while later, also wrapped a blanket cloak. As the pre-dawn light begun to fade in, we decided to tramp through the arid shrub towards a vantage point from which to watch the sunrise. Walking out of a camp wrapped in a blanket is an earthen yet otherwise placeless feeling, the feeling of having a body that wakes with the sun and hides from the cold. The sunrise was a only short peek between the landscape and the buttery clouds. We sat for a while and talked, both facing where the sun used to be. After a while, we tramped back down towards the open-air restaurant for breakfast. I had three cups of acerbic instant coffee without milk.
Jolly Uhuru arrived to pick us up after breakfast. I called shotgun.
TC sat in the rear, and would sometimes lean forward and sling her right arm around the passenger’s headrest as a means to start/re-start conversation. At one point, she asked me what I would do if I encountered a random body of water during my regular commute. Tanzania doesn’t feel regular yet, so I imagined my old consulting gig back home, and my half-hour bicycle ride along the Perth-Fremantle bike path. I imagined the body of water at a long gradual incline about three minutes from home, which I now realise was usually my peak happiness on any given weekday. It was the point where I could backpedal and freewheel for a minute or so, reflecting on the past day at 150bpm with endorphinic detachment.
What I think I would do in this situation is say “huh,” aloud, and then go around the body of water. According to TC, your response to this question says something about how you deal with problems in relationships. During this conversation, the Tanzanian landscape played out in reverse.
TC & I parted ways at a small town huddled around a T-junction. Uhuru flagged down a 48-seater and I said farewell to him with a long handshake and a genuine sunburst smile. I knew I’d miss Uhuru. I said farewell to TC by pressing my dirty forehead, nose, and palms to her rear-left passenger window, which I realise now was probably a slight disservice to Uhuru.
This 48 seater also had ample leg-room and a half dozen fold-down televisions equidistant above each aisle. The in-bus entertainment was Robin-B-Hood, essentially a Jackie Chanized 3 Men and a Baby. The Tanzanian audience on the bus gasped endearingly at all the appropriate moments where the baby‘s life was in cinematic risk. I’m still not sure if this was a lack of familiarity with film convention or a sort of hypnotic compliance. It was the first movie I’d seen since arriving in Tanzania, and I enjoyed it in an uncomplicated way, without even thinking about the Bechdel test (big fail, even the baby was a boy).
I arrived in Mombo at the foot of the Usambara mountains during the end credits. I found a half-full public bus and, fumbling with my Kiswahili, offered to buy all the remaining seats on the bus so that we could leave immediately. This might seem neocolonialist or at least gaudy, but I did it excitedly with my arms flapping about like an inflatable tube man. When you can’t punch up, punch yourself. Besides, I think the woman on the seat behind me appreciated not having 40kg of maize sitting on her lap for the next ninety minutes.
Tracing up the mountains on tight single-lane roads in a gutted minivan is exactly the adventure it sounds like. I rested my left elbow on the front passenger window’s exterior moulding, occasionally using my elbow as a fulcrum to lever myself at bumpier moments. I had my hiking pack in my lap and my right-arm protectively wrung around it.
The mountains unfolding before me had a certain huddled quality to them, like shuffling goombas all vying for a peek of the bus. Small farms spilled down the mountains on impossible angles, various sizes but generally rectangular. The driver had a paranormal intuition for oncoming traffic, the way birds of prey can spot foliage-camouflaged marmots. The weather worsened as we approached the middle of the Usambaras, and I cranked the window up to shield myself from the incoming rain. Hugging my hiking pack to my chest, I was excited for the second leg of the journey. Going to the mountains, for me, has always felt like I was visiting an ancestral home.
I arrived at Irente Farm, my lodgings, slightly before dark. I hadn’t booked a room in advance but there was one available. My key was an eighth-inch thick wood squircle with a 3 on it. I was also given a short speech about a 2,000Tsh (~$1.25AUD) fee to visit the sunset lookout point, which I entertained with full humour, even though we both knew there was too much misery outside for the sunset to be visible.
The receptionist took me to my room which was a short walk through an idyllic series of open plains, lush strips of forest, and animal paddocks. The room was simple. The shower was communal and unisex, lacked locking doors, and didn’t have anywhere to hang clothes and towels. I spent several minutes standing in the doorway, heaped clothes and a towel in my arms, debating how to avoid accidental exhibitionism. When I tried the water and it flowed hot and fast, I abandoned all fears of scrotum-display and permitted myself to get thoroughly pruney.
The rain had cleared and yet the dark, foreboding clouds remained. I walked back the way I came, all now in dun lowlight. I found the Irente Restaurant near reception. The restaurant was beautiful and looked as though it could’ve been the home of some retired Professor Emeritus or perhaps a wildlife photographer, someone with fond memories of Africa but not somebody living in Africa. I was assigned, by virtue of my sole-traveller status, to a table otherwise full of German medical students. They politely switched to English for a spell, long enough to trade essential details, but this one girl — brown hair in a ponytail and an unremarkable kind of pretty — seemed to prompt the conversation to return to German with schoolgirl ease.
The dinner also felt out of place, not a part of Tanzania, which is to say it was criminally good. It occurred to me Irente Farm is actually a farm, so it was a real farm-to-table localvore affair. All of the food was vegetarian, so I suppose Irente is a good place to be an animal in the Usambaras. I had a creamy zucchini soup, mushroom and feta quiche, beet salad, and a fig cake. There was no beer or other alcohol and the hotel manager/head chef seemed offended by the question.
The Germans essentially completely resigned to their mother tongue over the course of the evening, so after the fig cake I picked up my Kindle and moved to the fireplace. I felt strangely European, here, in remote East Africa, eating with Germans and reading neo-Marxist stuff by a British journalist. I myself, of course, was a part of the picture too, the effete and estranged Aussie liberal, seeking new experiences but embarrassingly craving a certain parity of comfort. Wherever there is adventure, there is also total non-adventure to help you recuperate from adventure.
Full and happy, I stumbled back the way I came, and all was now totally black aside from a single spotlight emanating from my torch. I entered my room with my squircle key and turned on the solar light to my two bed room. One bed was for me and the other was for the strewn contents of my hiking pack. I took my Cussons Baby Wipes from the spare bed and wiped each of my feet in turn before climbing in to bed. I set my alarm for 6am and threw a blanket over myself, sleeping on my side, facing the wall.
Day 4 (Irente — Malinde)
I awoke facing the other wall. I switched off my alarm and found my feet on the floor. Faint outlines of dreams came apart at their nodes: White walls, bodies of water, spirit animals. I looked down at my feet and said “Jesus Christ,” as if to shake off the emotional content of faded dreams. I permitted myself a sigh. I felt old, I felt far away. I had another hot shower, packed my strewn contents in to my hiking pack, mounted it gracelessly, and stepped outside.
Bovine calls filled the air and the morning sun had dried the winding trail from my room to the reception area. My walk through the forest was a dreamy Victorian stroll. A single orange leaf struck my forehead as I took note of this. I remembered getting lost in the narrow forest paths of the Wanneroo Botanic Golf course as a child, which at the time was located at the end of suburbia and the beginning of rural Western Australia. I inhaled the mountain air deeply, as though to inhale it was to exhale something unwanted.
When I reached reception, I met my guide, Chande. Chande is Tanzanian, twenty-six years old, and speaks good but heavily accented English. He’s about 5'6" and was wearing dark jeans, not denim but some more pliant synthetic blend. His shoes were bright purple jogging shoes, with bright yellow laces, felt accents and an pink brandless “N” on the side. He’s one of the few Tanzanian guys I’ve met who seemed deliberate about his hair, which is about a half-inch thick on the top and back with a number two above the ears.
The Germans were also there, with a guide named Chriss, and we realised we were taking exactly the same route over the next three days. I haven’t hiked much with strangers, so I was benignly anxious that phatic little conversations about my job or life in Australia could sabotage the more meditative benefits of the long hike. I also explained the parameters of my fun to Chande: I wanted a physical challenge, I didn’t need to know picayune details about every plant we passed, and I don’t need much conversation. I tried to explain the Japanese concept of “shinrin-yo,” or “forest bathing,” but the language barrier was too big and I’m glad nobody was around to see what a total wanker I sounded like.
Early in the hike, Chande and I passed the Germans who were getting a lecture from Chriss about coffee production. We tramped through farms on hillsides, eventually turning on to a dirt road descending down through a forest of lean trees. Something about the forest felt familiar. I stared at my feet thinking as we continued down the dirt road, across a small creek, and up a hill on the other side. When we reached the other hill, I looked back at the path we had travelled down, and with wide-eyes immediately recognised we’d passed through a plantation of Australian Eucalyptus trees. Flaky, lean, and in the dull Australian palette, they seemed so precarious and out of place in the Usambaras. It turns out they were imported by British colonialists and grow well in the mountains during the long dry season.
My mood floated lazily on thermal air throughout the rest of the morning as Chande and I wandered through farms and small villages. Chande and I found a good balance of historical lessons, language practice, getting to know each other, and just being quiet in the landscape. After a few hours of this, we emerged in to a wide valley with looming, steep mountains on either side. A multi-generational family, men and women, tore potatoes out of soil and hurled them in to loose piles. We stopped for lunch at the soccer field near a school, where a single boy of about ten was tending to some goats and cows. I offered him a Tiffany!, a pulverulent brand of chocolate biscuit I’d been carrying in my pack.
I sat silently and watched the boy during lunch. He held a goat kid in his right arm, some stiff reeds in his left, and would lightly flog the cows and goats as his boredom levels fluctuated. After a while, he went and lay in the grass, motionless, resting his chin in two cupped hands. The ability to do almost absolutely nothing is an African skill, and the boy happily sat and watched the cows for ten minutes whilst Chande and I prepared lunch.
After a while, he stood and grabbed the reeds again. This time, he would run at a cow which was eating and flog it behind the ears. After I watched him for a few minutes, I realised he was actually waiting until a cow had just begun to eat before flogging it, which I took as especially cruel in a Skinnerian way. The boy seemed totally disinterested in me and made no attempt to get an extra Tiffany!, and it was clear to me that nothing about his behaviour was for show. The cows, remarkably, were pretty non-responsive to all this. They would stop eating briefly, but rarely protested or made any attempts to distance themselves from the boy.
When he grew bored with the reeds, he found some rocks and threw them at the cows. His accuracy revealed a history of practice: The boy was a bona fide sharp-shooter, consistently aiming for and striking the cows’ behinds from 15+ metres away. Most of the time, the cows didn’t register the blow and would continue eating grass. On a few occasions, however, the stoned cows did dribble fecal matter in an unconditioned response to the strike — but again, the cows showed no other signs of fear or displeasure.
The boy chose one cow and lay beneath her. He clearly trusted her, which is to say he understood her behaviour. She remained cryogenically motionless as the boy tugged violently on her teats. He did this with one hand, sometimes changing the teat he tugged, sometimes pulling fast and sometimes pulling slow. This went on for a good ten minutes. After a while the boy stood, tucked his hand beneath her tail, and appeared to be rubbing either her anus or vulva in violent sandpaper motions. The cow continued to remain motionless and even held her tail perfectly still. The unaccosted cows munching on grass seemed to have their tails flapping about like loose garden hoses.
For the final act, the boy chased down a female goat and mounted her, pinning her head to the ground and gripping her neck with both knees. No sooner had he done this than a male goat mounted the other end, already erect. The male goat didn’t even seem to pump but just entered then held steady, staring without visible pleasure or pain or feeling in to the distance. The female goat, presumably, was staring at either second-hand track pants or brown dirt or the back of her eyelids. The moment hung distended and viscid for a moment before the male goat pushed himself off her. The boy looked at me and smiled and allowed me to take a picture. I gave him two Tiffanies! and told him to go share one with a friend, and he dismounted the female goat’s head and ran away from the animals. Chande had finished his lunch and we were ready to go.
The afternoon was languid. We left the low valley and re-entered the mountains, ascending in to a national forest. The walk through the national forest was along a wide traffic road and the only wildlife I saw was pasted messily on to the unsealed gravel. A 48-seater bus flew past, decorated in primary colours. A giant Fidel Castro decal covered the entire back window. Australian Eucalyptus and pine lined the distant hills beyond the reach of the forest. A man herding goats walked past, threateningly spinning a strip of rubber in his left hand, holding a smart phone and scrolling through Facebook in his right.
During the final four kilometres, Chande and I talked about soccer. He had a brief moment in the sun playing for the Tanzanian national team, and had the familiar story of being forced to choose between “I love” and “I should.” On some hikes, he still brings his soccer boots and will squeeze in an early evening game in some small town. He’s the David Beckham of his own little geography. Chande also tripped and stumbled a lot for a professional hiker, which until that conversation I regarded as confusing. After I heard his soccer history, I realised his stumbles revealed an even more natural affinity with the low, energy-conserving run of a soccer player.
We arrived at Papa Moze, our motel for the night. It sat on one side of a non-descript Y-junction on the edge of a small town named Malindi. My room had a cold eco-green concrete floor and matching curtains. I had a double bed, a small writing desk with a Swahili bible, and a tiny en-suite bathroom with lukewarm shower, squat toilet, and basin. Normally I would welcome myself to the complimentary soap, but there I felt as though I’d be depriving them of a significant portion of their profit margin. I lay for a while and recovered from a full twenty-six kilometres of walking.
Dinner was zucchini soup and a typical Tanzanian buffet featuring rice, beans, pasta, banana, and cabbage. As Chande ate his zucchini soup, he would regularly spit to his right and I’m still not sure if it was a nervous tic or if he’s got some aversion to the little flakes of zucchini skin in the soup. The Germans just conversed in German, and their guide sat with them like a guilty intruder, and eventually he came to sit and talk with Chande and I.
I slept well that night, my tired body a gentle distraction from my inchoate thoughts.
Day 5 (Malinde — Rangwi)
I stood outside in the cold morning and looked at the sky, a bold equatorial blue. I was wrapped in my blanket, wearing it as a now-familiar cloak. Chande and Chriss were already awake, standing around in that Tanzanian state of rich boredom, a state of doing a kind of something that is very close to doing nothing, not talking to one another or even seeming to be looking around. The only other place I’ve seen this is hungover women in kitchens, who sort of stand around inanimate and swaying lightly, hoping to be compelled towards brewing coffee or not. I say women because I think men tend to rest their palms on something when hungover, either the counter or the fridge, and will say “Jesus Christ,” whilst looking at their feet.
Chande and Chriss had decided to combine our two hiking groups, which I had no particular feelings about. We all exited through the north side of the compound and began a long, gradual ascent. The group organically subdivided itself in to the Tanzanians ahead speaking Kiswahili, the Germans behind speaking German, and me in the middle thinking in English.
Chande would drop back periodically to share some local wisdom in deference to the hike actually being billed as a cultural tour. One thing to note with Chande is that he gasps to show he’s listening. With the frequency and variability I might use “uh-huh,” or “hmm,” or “right,” Chande draws in a panicked breath. It’s as though everything I’m saying is so interesting as to be shocking. It was another endearing quality and as far as listening sounds go, I think gasping is a real winner.
Chande’s knowledge about the landscape revealed a hidden world of innovation. The wattle trees are used to make shoe polish, for example. Guatemalan grasses are planted in tiers along the hillside to prevent flooding in the valley during the wet season. Pine leaves are harvested and stuffed in to recycled duvet covers to make affordable mattresses. The farms themselves had their own stories of local innovation to tell: Old containers are recycled as backpack insecticide sprayers, crops are rotated for year-round harvesting, and simple ploughs have welded-on seed dispensers.
The farms themselves are beautiful. The stalks of carrot are a gaudy green, the potato leaves are swamp green, the cabbage is cosmic blue, and the eucalyptus is medicinal blue. The rectangular farms hug the valley river, which itself winds without any regard for right angles. The Guatemala grasses track the surrounding hills at fixed elevations. It’s subsistence farming, but with the aesthetic vibe of a hippy-burb hobby farm, endlessly repeated with only slight variations in colour and size, each of them boxy against an environment that is resolutely curved. The whole thing is an ocular feast, and strangely out-of-time — ancient topography, pre-industrial farming, and sprinkles of modern innovation.
After a while we ascended out of the farms, tracing a wide ridge on a mountain slope to a high point. I’m happy in an uncomplicated way, pretty much the only way I can really be happy, and I begin to regard seriously that the only thing I really know that correlates with my own happiness is time spent outside. The proportion of my view that is green, brown, and blue. The amount of time natural sun is on my skin. The amount of work my eyes do, contracting and contorting to look at dark, far mountains and bright, close flowers. The share of my musculature that is activated by the work of going from one place to another. Whenever I hike, I re-confront my basic incompatibility with modern work — particularly so-called “knowledge” work — which seems to demand I become a brain suspended in a jar of pickled brine. As I stood there, all of me activated, taut and tired and thinly-covered in sweat, I vowed to find a way to make this my new normal.
After the ascent was a sharp descent down in to another patchwork valley of farms. All of us — German, Tanzanian, Australian — stopped beneath a tree for lunch. A number of Tanzanian kids accrued slowly over the course of our long lunch, from one to four to ten to twenty, and as their numbers increased they separated out in to familiar schoolyard clusters. Older boys stood at the end of the long path the children were using to come to us, and one boy in particular with star-spangled American socks seemed to be the leader of this bunch. I asked him his name, and when he didn’t reply or respond, I realised I had no recourse. It got cool and windy in the valley, and I became eager to get moving again.
We continued our descent in to another small town, low against another river running through another wide valley. Children appeared from the houses above and yelled “Mzungu kupiga picha,” which is to say “White person, take a photo!” It wasn’t so much an imperative as a declaration of their expectations. It felt presidential to pass slowly through this town, waving up at children who were equal parts curious and terrified. I rationalised, however, that the children must see white people here regularly. I figured that their yells must be less of a response to a cross-cultural moment and more about that distinct phenotypic culture of children everywhere — the game of “spot the interesting thing.” Put differently: We’re not rare in the way that Bigfoot is, but in the way that Volkswagens are. Mzungu are interesting only to the extent that Tanzanian children have a social contract that makes us interesting. Or at least I suspect this is true for Tanzanian children who live on highly-trafficked tourist routes.
The song stuck in my head for pretty much the entirety of this week was “That’s O.K.,” by Jonwayne.
Chande and I were walking about fifty metres behind the Germans when he offhandedly said: “…and this is the Nazi Cemetery,” to which I responded “huh” and decided to investigate. The cemetery was eight plots wide and four plots deep, squared by a five-foot high hedge. The graves were raised garden plots, eight feet long, three feet wide, and about eight inches high. Three kinds of grass plants occupied each grave plot, running lengthwise and also arranged in the shape of a grid. In lieu of gravestones were skinny, concrete crosses with all of the deceased’s details scrawled in to the little space available.
All of the names were unusual and from no culture I know of: Names like “Sr Skolastika” and “Sr Victima.” All of them ended in the letter A, except “Sir Veritas,” D.O.B. 8/1/43, D.O.D. 15/3/94. I have no frame for understanding what happened there.
Shortly after leaving the Nazi Cemetery, we arrived at the Rangwi Convent — our lodgings for the night. Chande kept pronouncing it as “Rangwi Coven,” which delighted me. The convent was a sprawling complex with a church, administration building, school, industrial kitchen, dining hall, guest house, and a large three-storey building where all the nuns slept.
We arrived in the early afternoon and so I wondered how I would use the long seven or so hours until bed. I was allowing myself to be bored in preparation for being bored, and was kind of existentially afraid of this lacuna of time. I decided to wander around and literally smell the flowers, which looked non-indigenous but I cannot say where they came from. One plant had these lurid pink leaves that were almost unbearable to look at. Another plant had these big, Jurassic leaves shaped like funnels that probably have industrial applications. A third had fuzzy leaves, and palming it was reminiscent of stroking a caterpillar. I would later find out that all three plants were actually in my own garden at home and I’d just failed to notice them.
Chande introduced me to a nun, who directed me to my room for the night. I wasn’t in the quaint guest house, I was in the big building full of nuns. The room was even more basic than the last. Two military-style trundle beds were pushed against either side of the room. The showers were communal, and there was no hot water. The issue of a single communal shower in a nunnery was a problem so big I dared not articulate it. The room had a single desk with a fraying table cloth and a vase full of dead flowers. There was no power in the room and, oddly enough, no bible either.
I pushed the two beds together to make a double bed and realised they were of uneven height. I lay supine on the higher one, legs an inverted V, and listened to some music on my phone. A nun opened the door and I heard her ask if I needed toilet paper. I wasn’t sure, so I said “yes,” and a minute later a single roll was thrust through the narrow opening in the door.
I moseyed back down to the courtyard area, where Chande and Chriss were doing that Tanzanian nothing. I asked Chande if he’d like to go for a walk in to town, and he respectfully obliged. It was only a short walk, and free of my hiking pack, I was a little more talkative. I talked about home — about missing my motorcycle, how fun it would be to ride those twisted dirt roads. Chande gasped when I told him my old motorcycle was 800cc, and there was just enough reception for me to show him a photo of the old beast. His enjoyment of this was completely without jealousy, totally invisible to class and privilege. I was rapt to simply share a love of motorcycling with another person. I decided I like Chande. In town, I bought another pack of Tiffany! biscuits for 600Tsh (~40c AUD) before returning to the convent for dinner.
At dinner, I asked the Germans: “Did you know you passed a Nazi Cemetery?” to which they responded “huh,” and I gave them directions to visit. The Germans seemed totally disinterested in this, or at least the unremarkably pretty one didn’t and the others all followed suit, and that right there is exactly the kind of behaviour that inspired Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil. At one point, one of the Germans asked me if we have bread in Australia. I said “yes,” and he asked “like, real bread?” whilst cupping a single roll provided by the convent in the hand that wasn’t gesticulating, tacitly signifying that roll as “unreal bread.” I decided I don’t like the Germans.
There were three new people at dinner, a European couple maybe in their mid-30s and their guide, a lithe Rasta. There were Germans between us so we didn’t get the opportunity to speak to each other.
I stepped outside with my blanket. I walked around to the kitchen, and with pathetic hope asked if there was any beer available. To my surprise there was, and 5,000Tsh later (~$3.00 AUD) I was drinking lukewarm lager on my way back to the nunnery. It tasted rapturous. I thought of the German Irente Farm manager’s offence at my beer question and sententiously wondered who the real puritans are. Throughout the evening I drank two big Tanzanian beers and read Neo-Marxist literature by candlelight until I found myself at the perfect confluence of drunk and tired. My stuff was strewn on the lower of the two beds, so I slept on the higher one, but not before cleaning each foot with Cussons Baby Wipes.
Day 6 (Rangwi — Mtae)
I woke up early. I lay supine, legs an inverted V, and listened to the entirety of Fiona Apple’s “When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He’ll Win the Whole Thing ‘fore He Enters the Ring There’s No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might so When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won’t Matter, Cuz You’ll Know That You’re Right.”
The secret to wearing a blanket-cum-cloak is to hold it taut behind your shoulders as though you’re drying your back, as though you’re at the apex of a single stroke, with one arm fully extended and the other folded in on itself. Then, take the longer end held by the extended arm and throw it over the opposite shoulder. There should be blanket-gripping-blanket on your back, like low-grade Velcro. This frees your hands, in my case to clutch my Kindle to my chest, and I felt priestly as I walked towards breakfast.
Breakfast was tea, banana, fried egg, instant coffee, and bread with BlueBand! The Germans added salt to their BlueBand!, even though a single serve of BlueBand! is eight percent of your daily sodium intake. I decided that I like bad Tanzanian coffee, which I’m still not sure if it’s an identity thing or if it’s more of a Stockholm syndrome thing. The unremarkably pretty German girl peeled a half-banana by pressing her thumb to the flat end and peeling the skin off with a knife, the way that you might whittle a shiv in prison.
I was late to get ready, so Chande and I departed after the Germans and the mid-30s European couple. The start of this final day of hiking was a challenging climb through some degraded farming landscapes, though I am sure with some mental effort it could be seen as beautiful. I chose to focus on keeping a good pace and being in my body. After about half an hour and a slight dip, we ascended sharply up a mountain — vertiginously hostile to farming and covered in indigenous plants and trees. I stayed in my body, focused on finding footholds, maintaining balance, and trying to catch up to the Germans.
After the long scramble, we reached the peak of the mountain. An outcrop jutted out cinematically over the landscape, the topography rolling out like discarded film reel as far as I could see. Crowded trees capped each of the hills, standing like sailors on the islands of a drowning archipelago. Farms crawled up the hillsides, their greens and blues homogenising to something undead or at least fecal. Dusty one-street towns scar the landscape, and from that height they might as well be straight out of an old John Wayne film. Wide dirt roads joined all of these little cowboy stories together. One of the Germans took a photo, and if he understands the relationship between ISO, shutter speed, and aperture, his photo will appear idyllic, beautiful, and timeless. Even the best photographer, though, could not photograph the sound. At that elevation we could still hear animals. There were no farms at that elevation, so only the loudest animals were heard up there, and many were heard, it was a cacophony from all directions, and any scream that could reach that height must’ve be an atavistic cry of fighting, slaughter, rape, maternal despair, ritual cruelty, or sudden death. The Germans grew bored and left after a while, and Chande and I followed after a few minutes.
When I walk, I mostly just stare at my feet. I occasionally come up for air, and appreciating the environment for me is still a very deliberate act. I don’t breathe the environment so much as inhale it. Most of the morning went like this, disappearing beyond the edges of vision, mostly locked in thought.
I came up when we entered a pine forest, familiar in the way that the Eucalyptus was on the morning of the first day of hiking. The pine were arranged equidistant for precise reasons of agricultural productivity, as unreal as the arrayed pine forests in south-west Western Australia. We ascended through the pine, and it grew cold, and as we rounded a corner I could see we were approaching cloud. It occurred to me that “fog” is just the word we use for cloud in contact with the ground. If it weren’t for a single Tanzanian woman up ahead, carrying a bucket on her head, I would not have known where or when I was. Chande and I plunged in to the fog and tiny droplets of water formed on my skin. I looked down at my outstretched palm and saw that it was whiter than usual in the ghastly cold.
These massive wood plantations became the central character of the third day, in contrast to the smaller farms of the first two days. After a long walk along an old logging route, we encountered its terminus: An old German logging mill still in commission. A single busted Isuzu truck, with no seats, headlights, or side-windows appeared to be the sole workhorse for the whole operation. The scene was absent of any industrial sounds or the grunts and groans of labour. There were standing trees and cut trees, unprocessed logs and saleable wood, but no evidence of standing trees becoming cut, nor logs becoming saleable wood. Tanzanians moved about from building-to-building seemingly without purpose, like Non-Player Characters in a video game. The backdrop was a cleared hillside, absent of life, exposed soil in all directions. It was a distinctly Anglo-Saxon industrial moonscape. A felled tree at my feet had an initialled loving forever etched in to it, or if not forever at least on a dendric timescale. It read: “Limbe ❤ U.”
Chande and I had caught up to the Germans, and together we wound around the edge of the plantation to a small town we could see in the distance. “Mzungu kupiga picha!” could still be heard occasionally from some far-off child and they always spotted us before we spotted them.
In town, we stopped for lunch. Chande and I were invited inside to what I think was just some middle-class Tanzanian family’s home. We were served hot tea in brown ceramic mugs, like what my and everybody else’s Nan used to have. The home had a small CRT TV, and What Life Took From Me was playing, a European soap opera dubbed in English. One of the characters was holding a rotary phone, and she said in to the phone: “It’s me, Nina,” and then the TV cut to another, older character, and this character had her own rotary phone, and this second character replied: “Is that you, Nina?” The cries of a child being removed from their parent were clearly voiced by a full-grown adult.
After What Life Took From Me, it was Tafakari Time, which announced itself with Comic Sans MS “Tafakari Time” jumping backwards and forward on the screen. The backdrop was a grid of identical silhouetted chairs with identical Aristotelian figures sitting on them, their chins resting on their fists. The seated figures fly from bottom-left to top-right as Tafakari Time dances against them. During Tafakari Time, I received a Facebook message from my sister with the lyric: “Who-oa we’re half way there, Who-oa,” and an image of a lemon resting on a pear. I snorted out my tea. Chande ate wordlessly during lunch, impaled by TV and food.
Chande and I left after Tafakari time. I was told in advance that part of the tour would involve visiting a local women’s co-op that was supported by the organisation I was hiking with. At the back of a house, over a dozen women and children emerged and over the course of twenty minutes wordlessly assembled an impressive array of clay mugs, bowls, candle holders, and small animals. There were maybe 500 items on display, all essentially identical without any real artistic flourish or creative spirit. The Germans were surreptitiously absent, and so the burden of buying something was all mine. I chose three mugs and a bowl arbitrarily, and then the array miraculously folded away and the dozen women and children vanished.
The final few kilometres of the hike was through dense, thick fog along a narrow road between Mambo and Mtae. Chande and I were, at this point, on the far North-West corner of the Usambaras, 1,900m above sea level and — though it wasn’t visible — 1,400m above the plains below which divided the Usambara Mountains and the neighbouring Pare mountains. As we walked, the fog began to loosen it’s grip on the landscape, and details of the view appeared in slow motion. First, I could see the sharp drop to the plains below, shrubs and slanting trees clinging for life in the soil-rich gaps between slabs of granite. Second, the plains themselves appeared, extending west. Finally, in the far distance, I could see the Pare mountains and what I’m still not sure was either a grassy field or a swamp, alight under two heavenly spotlights. The view was both foreboding and hopeful. I sensed it would rain again soon, for the first time since I arrived at Irente.
Satiated on the view, I resumed staring at my feet. I feel as though I am both explorer and topography, walker and walked, tramping through the potentialities of my own life and mind, though I still feel pretty mapless as far as the Topography of Me is concerned. I look back on the signifiers of meaning in my life — such as work, relationships, and art — and can discern no trails, no guides, and no signs. The flickering stars beyond my horizon sit at different distances and have different brightnessess, but constellations are empty signifiers.
I’m turning thirty in two weeks. Well-meaning people offer the consolation that “It’s just a line in the sand!” That it’s only symbolic. What it’s a symbol for seems to have been missed, which is to say that birthdays symbolise not only life but also death — they remind us that the patient tide will consume any line in the sand you may trace with your toes. It will silently lap away these divisions until they join the midnight black of the ocean. It will do so without discrimination or concern. We draw symbolic lines to remind ourselves of the patient, only-forward nature of time, that will one day do to all of me what it has already done to the first nearly-thirty years of me.
Trying to understand myself amounts to trying to get the keys out of a locked car. I’m pressing my forehead, nose, and palms to the driver’s window, elbows resting on the window’s one centimetre of exterior moulding, staring at the key dangling in the ignition. I fantasise about all the places I could go if I was both Driver and Passenger. There’s not enough time. They’ll look back: Boy born, took him eighteen months to walk and they thought he might be slow, then that’s pretty much all he did and all they thought ’til he died.
I looked up. Chande and I had arrived in Mtae and it was about 4:00pm in the afternoon. The Germans were waiting around at the entrance to town for a taxi — they had decided to head back early and spend their last night in the cocoon comforts of Irente Farm. I stopped by a small coffee house perched on a steep hill. Two men were listening to music on a mobile phone. It consisted of piano arpeggios with some wrenching violin over the top. It wouldn’t sound out of place as an underlay to a video of a monk with no limbs making a sand mandala by blowing through a straw. I had a straight black coffee and two mandazi, an East African donut, for 700Tsh (~45c AUD).
Chande found me in the cafe and together we walked towards a lookout point to watch the sunset. The fog had dissipated but the clouds still hung dark and low overhead. The two spotlights over the swamp/field were more oblique and diffuse than they were a few hours ago. Everything was very still. Chande was on the phone with what sounded like either a girlfriend or a sister, and he was mostly just gasping. I sat perched on the rock looking out towards the Pare mountains and enjoyed the gasp-punctuated silence, periodically jotting down a note in my little eco-green notebook. After a while, the two mid-30s Europeans appeared behind us with their guide. I offered them my spot as there was only really one front-row seat to the sunset. They humoured my kindness, although I think we both knew there was too much misery for the sunset to be visible.
The Europeans’ names are Karen and Bryan. They’re both Belgian. Karen is a management consultant for KPMG and Bryan does something equally professionally impressive at a bank. The conversation quickly turned to: “What the hell was up with those Germans?” I decided I liked the Belgians. The sunset failed to materialise, dipping behind the Pare mountains which were flush with the clouds. Rain started and we all decided to head to dinner.
Karen, Bryan, their guide Emmanuel, Chande, and I all knocked back a few beers and exchanged dim phatic stories in the afterglow of an accomplished hike. We talked about language, culture, technology, economics, and other liberal things. It was nice and benign and uncomplicated in the way that lollies were when I was a child, video games were when I was an adolescent, and Robin-B-Hood was on the bus to Mombo.
Lodgings for the final night were the simplest of all. I was greeted by a blind maitre’d at the door, who handed me an eighth-inch thick bevelled rectangle with a 5 on it. The hotel had ten rooms, five on each side of a narrow hallway, with a single flickering light illuminating the entire building. The door to my room was about five-feet high and I was suddenly reminded of the first terrifying act of Full Metal Jacket. My room was a double bed and a table. There was hot water that night, but it came in a 40L bucket. No bibles or power were provided. I fumbled in the dark for my Cussons Baby Wipes. I cleaned each of my feet in turn before climbing on to the bed, then lay supine, my legs an inverted V. I listened to music for a while, then fell asleep.
Day 7 (Mtae — Arusha)
I woke up at 4:30am to the sound of vuvuzela bus horns. I packed my things and made for the 48-seater bus. I sat on the fifth row from the front, on the right, in the aisle seat. I tried to rest my head on the seat in front of me but it was damp. All I had to watch was the small section of road illuminated by the bus’ left headlight, a 4:3 view through the left front window. This was every bit as exciting as it sounds. The bus wound through every single town in the northern Usambaras at a maximum speed of about 30km/h. I ate the few spare Tiffany! biscuits I had left.
As daylight came, the landscape became familiar again. The dark clouds parted, and the air warmed as we descended out of the Usambaras. I bid farewell to the Belgians near Irente Farm, and then Chande just outside of Lushoto. I bought some Mandazi for breakfast by yelling at a street vendor out of my window when we were stopped in traffic. I bought some more Tiffanies! to snack on during the trip and some Blue Band! so I could make toast when I got home. At some indeterminable point, I woke up, my hiking pack covered in drool, my right arm numb from having being slept on. The driver was calm behind the wheel. The landscape was Australian.
Delirious with post-nap endorphins, I cupped my chin in my hand and rested my elbow on the one centimetre of exterior moulding the window slots in to. My eyes meandered dreamily around some point beyond the window. The landscape played out in reverse. When I passed TC’s interchange, I knew I was only a few Swahili pop songs from home.