The baobab road

The more we drove long distances through Africa, the more we realised that the journey is not about the destination, but the road you take. As we approached Dar Es Salaam from the west, somewhere in the Tanzanian heartland between Mbeya and Mikumi, we found the most spectacular mountain pass.

We turned a corner and it appeared. An endless vista of rolling mountains, lined with dry scrubland, a snake-shaped ribbon of tarmac picking its way down the mountains. Around us, lazy green trees fanned their branches out over the crisp yellow grass beneath, whilst glinting red-and-white barriers had been installed to prevent vehicles plummeting down the mountain.

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It was very steep. Trucks groaned as they crawled uphill at walking pace, whilst others going down kept their speed in check in a piercing squeal of tortured brakes. In the middle of it all was our four wheel drive; as fast as we were, this was Africa, and the unofficial law of the road meant that we were at the trucks’ mercy. Passing them was extremely dangerous, and we relied on indicator signals from the truckers to tell us when it was safe to pass.

At the bottom of the pass, roadworkers were conducting traffic and pouring concrete. We needed to wait. Judging by how comfortable the other motorists were, smoking and chatting and walking around, we knew we had a wait ahead of us. We took our place in the queue and got out of the car under the staring eyes of many of the other drivers. Inbetween snickering laughter, we heard the word Mzungu from muttered conversations. We knew enough Swahili to know that it meant ‘white man’. We ignored them. As we waited, locals tried to sell us bananas. Then, we got the signal to pass.

It was like the beginning of a motor race. People scrambled back to their vehicles, flicking cigarette butts into the roadside. The trucks started their big, roaring engines, whilst the cars squeezed past, scrambling, jostling for position. We followed the convoy through more roadblocks, stopping occasionally to let oncoming traffic past. We had the radio turned way up, capturing the attention of local kids who would come up to our window to listen and dance.

By the time we reached the valley floor, the roadworks were finished, and we found ourselves in a vast baobab landscape. The look of their tiny, wispy branches made it look as if they’d been picked up and replanted upside-down. Their ancient, bloated trunks surrounded us in their thousands, but each tree stood alone in their scattered, sparse forest.

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We spotted Maasai tribespeople on the side of the road, a large tribal group identified by their distinctive red traditional outfits. They wore red robes and sandals, and carried spears with broad spearheads. With a head full of wonder, I thought about a Maasai tradition I had once read about; a rite of passage was for a young male to kill a lion to be welcomed into manhood. These days, with diminishing lion populations, hunts tend to include large groups of Maasai instead of individuals. In other countries, the practice is illegal altogether.

As the drive through the valley of the baobabs came to and end, we were stopped just outside Mikumi National Park by an unexpected welcoming party. A small herd of maasai giraffes were grazing just beside the road. We stopped to photograph them, ponder their massive height, and admire their dark brown, irregular jagged spots. Mesmerised by giraffes sampling canopy-high snacks with curling pink tongues, we realised we had parked in the centre of the highway. Behind us, a truck blared its horn. We continued on, thrilled by the promise of seeing wildlife.

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