On the way south through Tanzania, we found a small snake park in Mikumi. A friendly Tanzanian man with a smart buttoned shirt and the smallest neck tie I had ever seen greeted us and took us for a personal tour. The snake park was small and shabby, and had about a dozen enclosures, each with a deadly African snake inside, and we were the only visitors. Disconcertingly, the enclosures didn’t look entirely snake-proof, and pieces of the wooden doors were falling apart.
One enclosure contained a black mamba, the number one most venomous snake in the world. Our guide told us that when the black mamba attacks, it lurches upright, standing as tall as a man, and strike repeatedly at the head. Death could take less than twenty minutes. That was impressive, but we were anxious to get far away from it’s home made enclosure (seriously, guys, if you’re reading this, reenforce those enclosures). There were a variety of tree snakes and constrictors, and the guide was happy to bring out the non-venomous varieties so we could hold them. A few resident crocodiles were lying motionless in their enclosure, sun baking. Another crocodile was sick, in a separate enclosure, with purple medicine oozing out of its mouth. The guide, proving that it was still alive, prodded it with a strick and it hissed angrily.
Not far from the snake park was a shop. We were running low on beers, so we decided to buy some. They had cans and big glass bottles, and we ordered 3 of the big glass bottles. We sat on the chairs out the front and drank them, before deciding that we needed more to take back to the camp site. The subsequent attempt at communication was a comedy of errors. The woman behind the counter only spoke Swahili, and we knew very little, just some numbers.
We ordered nine more beers to go, holding up nine fingers, (and paying for the 3 we already drank), made a total of twelve. She came back with cans and wrote down the cost, but we wanted bottles, which were bigger. They didn’t sell take-away bottles because they like to keep the glass. So we offered to pay an extra price to cover the glass recycling refund. Trying to tell her was a nightmare; she thought we were paying for cans and giving her a huge tip. Agreeing on a price took a long time. After about fifteen minutes and probably a higher than usual price, we managed to take away nine bottled beers.
We continued our drive to Mbeya, the crossroads where we would begin heading south to Malawi. In central Tanzania, Jeff was awarded his first speeding fine, the first police radar we had seen thus far (and all at the low cost of about twenty US dollars). We passed the big, concrete truck stop at Iringa, through the pine forest and swathes of industrial logging sectors, past local townships and uniformed school kids and the ethereal mountain ranges, we pulled into Mbeya for the second time that week.
We ate lunch at a hotel on the city’s outskirts. A big white multi-storey building, it looked somewhat colonial, and quite fancy. But fanciness rarely indicated quality, a trap we fell into time and again in Africa. We sat down and ordered hamburgers from the menu. “Three hamburgers thanks!”, we ordered. The waitress shook her head once and bluntly said no. We laughed. She probably meant to tell us that they were out of mince or something. We ordered something else, ate and drank cold cokes, then got back into the car, heading South towards Malawi.
The slithering road from Mbeya to the Malawian border was flanked by vineyards and wineries, banana plantations, and stunning forested valleys. Along the way, we stopped to stretch our legs next to a banana plantation. Curious locals and kids stared at us, probably not used to seeing white tourists stopping at their farm. A man walked down the hill carrying a machete, right towards us. We gave each other quizzical looks; perhaps we weren’t welcome, but he stopped on the road side and sharpened the blade on the asphalt, before starting up the hill again. We got back into the car, reaching the Malawian border late afternoon.