We stared at the menu with skepticism. A pile of limp, pale, thick-cut fries was piled in the corner of a glass-doored display cabinet. On another wooden shelf was some kind of withered, skeletal fish. Both options looked like they’d been waiting for quite a while for a brave customer.
Fries it was, and thankfully they re-fried them. As they cooked, our stomachs rumbled (gastronomic standards are always lower on an African road trip). Complete with three cold beers and hot chilli sauce, this revolting meal was starting to look pretty damn edible. Jomba restaurant was inviting with it’s bright colours. But inside, there was no electricity, and a thick, cloying smell weighed heavy in the air. We chose to sit outside, under the awning, and watched Africa pass by.
Nakonde was the first Tanzanian town across the border from Zambia, a kind of chaotic truckstop-turned-town. The road was worn asphalt, flanked by deep concrete gutters. Little concrete bridges arched across to meet sidewalks and squat, blockish shops, painted in bright colours and peeling in the sun.
The town was buzzing with the energy of a beehive. School children, women in colourful headdresses, men in pinstripe suits (talking loudly and laughing into mobile phones), tuk-tuks, shambolic old cars, taxis, massive trucks spewing dust clouds and scampering chickens all competed for space on the road and sidewalks. Peddlers sold fresh sugar cane from simple carts. Wessel and I bought one each, watching aghast as the salesman chopped chunks of sugar cane violently with a machete, just inches from his own fingers. We chewed and sucked on the sweet snack, spitting woody pulp to the ground as we went.
We didn’t linger in Nakonde for long. We needed to reach Mbeya before sunset, and as we drove we were amazed by the difference between Tanzania and it’s neighbour Zambia. Gone was the red earth and brittle spiked bushland of Zambia’s sun-baked highways. We were cruising down a dream of tarmac, rolling up and down gentle hills. The landscape was green and endless, climbing to the summits of enormous misty mountains, standing majestically on the horizon.
The road was packed with trucks, from little runabouts to great big monsters. Each one was glittering with huge stickers of Swahili phrases, biblical themed messages, and red and white striped bumper bars to denote registration in Tanzania. Our car Hammond had matching stickers too. We applied them back in Cape Town, along with Mozambique’s version, a yellow triangle within a blue square.
Overtaking was a suicide mission, but necessary if we wanted to make decent time. It started with a truck flashing his indicator right, a signal that the coast was clear. Then i’d peek the car halfway into the oncoming lane, judging for myself, and accelerating like a race car before the next truck arrived head-on with a terrifying honking of horns and flashing of lights. Each time I lurched into the lane of oncoming traffic, a cold terror sweat took me and the hair stood up on my neck. As I played this white-knuckle, adrenaline-pumping game, the others slept soundly in the passenger seats.
We reached Mbeya at dusk, escorted by miles of crawling traffic. As we approached the centre of the town, we saw the cause; a semi-trailer had slid off the road at the top of a snaking hill, crushing a building below. We watched the crane try to raise the truck, open-mouthed in disbelief at the spectacular scene. Shanty town shops lined the road on the way in, with Tanzanian love for bright decoration extended even to the smallest of businesses; hairdressers had painted pictures of fashionable hairstyles, and many shops were named after biblical references, despite not making any sense in the shop name (like ‘Jesus is great’ haircuts, or Paradise salon).
We loved African hospitality. The campsite at Mbeya was a great example. The heat of the day crept away as the sun fell, and a chill was in the air. We raised the tents on the grass, but had no way to make our dinner. The camp owners led us to an unused kitchen area, with huge cast-iron braziers and piles of old firewood. We set up a blazing barbeque, and grilled salt and pepper steaks for dinner, wrapped up tightly in jackets and scarves. Another day on the African highways.