Forests, Father Flamingo And Arusha National Park
Hullo! After ten days of intermittent to zero Wi-Fi connectivity we have a new MTN modem. We have just parked off in Livingstone, Zambia, at the Waterfront Campsite, where we have re-connected. Messages, emails and WhatsApps are flooding in from concerned friends and family. We are back, fully loaded. I am happy to report we are alive and well and ready to catch up.
Manuel, the guide at our campsite in Moshi, recommended visiting the Kibosho Catholic Church at the foot of Kilimanjaro. He promised it would be the highlight of our road trip and one we should not miss out on.
Moshi and Arusha are the gateway to the National Parks in Tanzania. Tourists fly or drive in from all over the world and then fan out to the many sites dotted around the volcanoes, mountains, rivers and parks.
The skies are abuzz with black kites and crows of all sizes, and small aeroplanes take off and land at the various airports. Like bees, they buzz in discharging passengers who, togged out in safari gear hop onto one of the thousands of safari vehicles that ferry their excited guests to lodges, hotels and campsites.
Millions of tourists visit these parts from July until the rainy season starts. In western Tanzania, we dodged scooters, bajajis and bicycles. In Arusha, the Toyota Land Cruiser safari vehicle with a sprinkling of the iconic Land Rover rules the roads. Like moths drawn to light, the allure is irresistible, and we all experience the romantic pull of an African safari as romanticised in books and movies like Out of Africa, I Dreamed of Africa and Gorillas in the Mist.
We were enveloped by lightly dripping, misty clouds, slipping and sliding on the wet clay roads. Under Kili’s veil, the church is surrounded and camouflaged by dense rainforests, rivers and waterfalls. Mosses,Tillandsias and lichen grow on any surface, and homes, fences, walls, rocks and posts are covered in shades of emerald green.
In 4x4 with the hubs locked, the Honey Badger crawled up the zigzagging slippery slopes. There were times I clung to my handrail and pulled my seatbelt ever tighter as the big wheels gripped their way up the foothills of Kilimanjaro.
At last, we rounded the last S bend, and a gaggle of schoolchildren were running towards us in all their joyful glory. Like a nursery of young gazelles, they ran arms and legs akimbo to welcome us. These elated children who have so much and yet are accustomed to awfully little. This scene reminds me of the African quote, “A bird that flies off the Earth and lands on an anthill is still on the ground.”
The handsome old stone church stood guarding over the school and sports field. We were eagerly accompanied to the Church and Father Joseph Isuu Komaro.
A small donation of $10 allowed me to enter the Church, take photographs and learn the history of the Church as told by my guide, Father Joseph.
We entered the sacristy, where I was formally introduced to “The Church of the Assumption of Our Lady, Kibosho, in the Diocese of Moshi,” he told me solemnly.
In hushed tones, he told me a little about the history of the Church. The Church was built by the German Catholic Church entirely of local stone. Under the instruction of German master builders, architects, draughtsmen, engineers and skilled stonemasons, local artisans were mentored and guided to cut, shape and lay stones using various specialised tools. The building commenced in 1893 and took many decades to complete.
Father Joseph, a spiritually sincere man of God, is passionate about his church, and I found his unwavering faith and trust in Jesus, and especially Mary, humbling. His knowledge of the stories told and depicted in the exquisite stained glass windows, icons and artefacts dotted around the naves, arches and walls of the church are according to the Gospels and are relatable to everyday life in a small parish at the foot of Kilimanjaro, nestled protectively under a banana plantation.
He was delighted to point out that all the artefacts, statues, clothes and vestments were sent by ship from Germany all those many decades ago and remain sacrosanct.
As a young boy, he attended services with his mother and later became an active choir member and a server (acolyte). He told me about his walk in faith, his intimate relationship and receiving Christ’s redemptive love and from a young age knew he would live a committed life witnessing for God, shaped by his personal experience of God’s Grace. After completing his education he attended the Arusha Catholic Seminary-Oldonyosambu Seminary.
Besides the schools, there’s a Catholic-based hospital and training college on the property.
After our extensive tour of the Church, we stepped out into the mists, lifting on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. We both turned to look up at the mountain, and it reminded me of the passage in the Psalms: “I lift my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” And the mountains.
Unlike many places we’ve visited in Tanzania where the muezzin proclaims the call to prayer and worship, I’m sure the church bells clang, chime, and peal. The tintinnabulations reverberating across the valleys, calling the faithful to service.
Father Joseph Isuu Komaro, thank you for taking the time, from your busy schedule, to accompany me on my tour of your magnificent church. Your devotion to your parishioners, Church, faith, greater community, and commitment exemplifies living a simple, altruistic life dedicated to heaven and earth.
While I was immersed spiritually, Butch was relaxing in the gardens while preparing himself for the return trip down the slippery slopes we’d traversed not too long ago.
And so we set off poli-poli (slowly-slowly) navigating the switchbacks, making way for pedestrians, motorbikes carrying up to three passengers at time, and all the other road users who are accustomed to the road conditions and fly past us, twisting this and that to avoid puddles and potholes like rabbits. The tortoise (us) wasn’t so sure.
The slaughtered pig hanging on a butcher’s hook had almost sold out.
Villages, suburbs and towns with charming and often unpronounceable names like Kirima, Uru Kusini, Moshi, Kia, Usa River, Liganga, Poli, Seela Sing’Isi, Akheri and Arusha hidden in banana plantations, tall trees or mountain folds “rushed” past my window. In Swahili, the written word is phonetic, which makes pronunciations simpler.
On display, colourful houses, exciting stalls and delectable fruit is sold all along the road. In dark doorways housewives gossiped at 11h00. Customers looking for new handcrafted furniture can browse from the comfort of their vehicles. I’m sure many sales have been inspired by the articles on display along the side of the road.
Our destination is Maji Ya Chai a small village at the entrance to Arusha National Park. A cooler, milder climate was not what we expected but that goes with mist and damp Butch reminded me. The vegetation thrived here. Tanzanians are very keen gardeners and every village, town and city has numerous nurseries, some lining the pavements for many kilometers.
Ahead of us, the old but imposing gate guarding the Arusha National Park. We had to turn left onto a bumpy, gravelly road before the sign Twiga Lodge Campsite.
Our campsite, on green lawns under massive trees, invited us to unpack our table and chairs and settle with a drink after our long day on the road. We were thrilled to see we would not be the only campers and couldn't wait to meet the owner of the big Overlander parked next to us.
Dieter, the camp manager, showed us all the ropes, but before we could settle, we had to introduce ourselves to our hosts, Erica and Paul Sweets.
The garden gate, festooned in Morning Glory creeper, invited us to enter the owner’s private domain. The guest lodge is nestled under hundred-year-old indigenous trees, sprawling lawns rolling down a slope where the main cottage’s paned windows twinkled golden in the late afternoon sunlight.
We stepped into an English country garden with a sprawling double-storey Edwardian farmstead with its eclectic mix of pilasters, beams, paned windows, deep dark verandas and claddings. The charming cottage at the bottom of the garden and outbuildings all mirroring the old-world style.
I couldn’t wait to explore and discover the thriving old-fashioned roses, dahlias, Zinnias, cosmos, and snapdragons intermingled with ferns, crotons and hibiscus in the rambling mixed borders. During the late afternoon, vervet monkeys swing in the avocado and mango trees, filling their bellies with the delicious seasonal offerings.
The dozens of indigenous trees and shrubs are a haven for hundreds of birds who roost and nest in the gardens, and we were able to identify Robin-Chat, Hoopoe, sunbirds and sugarbirds.
While Erica oversees the running of the administrations, guesthouse, gardens and her delightful shop, Paul tinkers on his Land Rovers, the fleet of yellow Land Rovers custom-built to ferry guests on safaris throughout East Africa is his passion.
With a fully operational workshop and service pit, Paul could weld and repair our bike rack, a relief. I was confident my bike’s tyres, always in the line of fire, would be nestled comfortably in the straightened holder in the future.
The sight of the Land Rovers, ranging from vintage to modern, was irresistible and a stark reminder that they were the original vehicles that conquered the African savannas, so reminiscent of the books I’d read as a young woman.
If memory serves, Wilbur Smith grew up on these Zambian/East African plains; I’m sure his father trundled about in a Land Rover, inspiring the novel Where The Lion’s Feed. (Banned in South Africa, my grandmother “smuggled” a copy into the country, which I read!)
There was no way Butch would get away with a refusal to indulge my romantic African odyssey by taking me on a safari in one of the yellow Landies. He agreed we could go and explore the Arusha National Park. Whoop-whoop. I was ecstatic.
On the deep, dark, cool veranda, we sipped sundowners with Paul and Erica, lazily watching birds as the sun set. One evening, Erica treated us to a scrumptious meal, a delicious Drunken Pork Casserole, the succulent cubes of pork slow braised in red wine, vegetables and herbs (similar to a Coq-a-vin), and a heavenly baked pudding for dessert. Nothing beats a home-cooked meal with inspiring company.
Among the guests was the other Overlander belonging to a retired doctor who had worked for Doctors Without Borders under exceptional circumstances in South Sudan. This extraordinary man had just completed a circumnavigation of Mount Kilimanjaro on his bicycle, and then, to top it all, he summited the mountain on foot. I had to hang my head; our exercise regime had dwindled to almost nothing since Kilwa, a month before.
On another occasion, while Paul was accompanying Herr Doktor on a safari to Serengeti, we enjoyed an evening on the veranda with Erica’s friend Badger, an American ex-attorney, who, she succintly told "I joined friends with an ulterior motive, who included me, unwillingly, in a Kili climb. Under duress, I agreed" Fate introduced her to her husband, their guide, on the trek where they met, fell in love and later married. He told us he'd just completed his 75th summit when we met him. It shows that sometimes, the universe has our future mapped for us.
The takeaway Pizzas Badger brought were glorious, and the balmy evening, while listening to the occasional hoot of the African Scops owl, and the melodious song of the Fiery-necked NIghtjar was spent discussing current affairs with Sarah, who is well informed and knowledgeable on many topical topics. Erica listened, but occasionally chipped in with interesting anecdotes about their numerous safaris.
In the company of these ex-pats, we learned about their lives, social and cultural challenges, love and foreign lands, and the ex-pats’ perspective was insightful. Every person we’ve met on this trip has an extraordinary story. We are privileged to be amidst such exceptional humans, who, for many reasons, have picked up sticks to explore, drift and experience the world.
Togged out in our finest khaki safari gear, we met on the gravel circular driveway early on the morning of our adventure. With packed lunches in picnic baskets, cool boxes filled with ice cubes, beers and Tangawizi Ginger beers, our cameras fully loaded, our binoculars clean and focused, we set off in the yellow Landy to explore the Arusha National Park.
The ever-amiable Dieter, our guide, hopped into the driver’s seat, Butch rode shotgun, and I bundled myself onto the back seat next to Kikois, our Macs in sacs and lenses.
I must confess the 500m drive up to the gate in the Landie was a lot smoother than the truck. Things were looking good.
While Butch and I stretched our legs amongst other guests doing likewise, Dieter handled the bureaucratic rigmaroles, and soon we were off to explore the volcano, winding our way up the steep slopes through sub-tropical rainforests, a light mist and muddy tracks. The weathered concrete elephant with it's trunk up was so realistic we both thought we'd spotted our first elephant.
Our first stop was the museum set on emerald green lawns, protective trees covered in strangling vines. A quick browse set the scene for the rest of the day as we saw what was in store for us.
Arusha National Park is Tanzania’s smallest but most beautiful northern National park. Mount Meru, a perfect volcanic cone with a crater occupied by wildlife, dominates the varied topography. We could identify waterbuck and buffalo grazing lazily below us from our viewpoint on the crater rim. The Park promises significant wildlife densities and is home to the world’s largest giraffe population. Cape buffalo, elephants, hippos, and zebra are commonly found in the Park.
The Meru Crater funnels the Jekukumia River; the peak of Mount Meru lies on its rim.
In the Ngurdoto crater, with its swamp-filled floor and lakes, we were treated to a pink-edged lake where greater and smaller Flamingoes flock to feed by the hundreds of thousands. The Big Momella Lake is fed by underground streams and measures depths of 10m to 31m. It supports microalgae, which feed the Greater Flamingoes. Lesser flamingoes are smaller and have pinker plumage with dark red bills. The third lake, Rishateni, has the highest concentrations of fluoride in the world. **
Erica’s mouthwatering packed picnic lunch was saved until we reached Small Momella Lake, where we joined other tourists to enjoy our lunch while drinking in the peaceful feeding of the lesser Flamingoes as they swept their beaks along the lake’s floor, sieving algae.
We couldn’t leave the Park without seeing the large tree and the waterfall, Dieter advised us. We agreed. We saw the oldest, most enormous Wild Ficus tree in the Park—the original Drive-Through, Tanzania style.
It was impressive, and I couldn’t resist taking photographs of all the vehicles passing through its arched opening while we were there.
The waterfall was a sight to see and a bonus sighting for me. We had missed all the suggested waterfalls on our trip. Waterfalls are always at the top of a hill, requiring a walk or hike. Skipping over slippery stepping stones and boulder hopping is not something Butch would attempt after his recent falls. I agreed.
It was mid-afternoon and time for us to turn and head home. Dieter warned us the going would be slow and traffic could be more congested as all the safari vehicles prepared to descend the mountain to return to various lodges and guesthouses. We didn’t mind a slow meander home; there was so much to see and enjoy.
The Land Rover went into a four-wheel drive, and we started our descent. Poli-poli. The going was good, and we didn’t encounter too many vehicles ahead of us. I oohed and aahed the landscape, not getting enough of the trees and shrubbery. We spotted some fat buffalo and colobus monkeys, and baboons preening on a nearby branch. Dieter spotted the only giraffe of the day well hidden amongst tall trees.
Dieter became quieter and more contemplative, his brow furrowed, glancing about his steering column, and then inched nearer to the embankment. Butch asked him whether all was well. No, he said he was worried about his steering. Not too long after that, he brought us safely to a halt. The front left tyre was wedged against the mountainside. Without preample Dieter was on his back on the ground examining the damage.
Butch and I quietly left the scene while the expert reached for his comprehensive toolbox. Soon, three other vehicles stopped to help, the drivers all accustomed to breakdowns in the bush. Under, over and in the engine, they went and delivered their verdict. The steering shaft was a gonner. I gather a pin had unlodged, which had to be replaced.
Some drivers opted to report our misadventure to the officials at the gate, some had sound advice, and some could give a helping hand. Anyone can perform miracles in the bush with a length of wire from the toolbox. All the MacGyvers can attest to that. Within an hour, we were back on the road, the steering wheel working like a well-oiled machine.
Butch and I were so impressed by the time, help, knowledge and expertise all these drivers, guides and colleagues gave Dieter, who never lost his cool.
It would be unfair to our Honey Badger if I didn’t mention that although our trip in the Land Rover was superb and fitted in with the picture I have of safari travel in East Africa, I did miss my big rig with its large picture windows; I appreciate my seat riding shotgun with Butch where I’m in control of my window with an unrestricted view.
While Butch was thrilled to be a passenger and enjoyed his photographic opportunities up front, I felt neglected in the back seat. The height we enjoy in the Honey Badger is unsurpassed when one is game viewing in tall grass, and high embankments never obstruct the truck.
That night, while sitting outside watching the sunset and the braai fire crackled, I raised my glass in appreciation of our big-fat-muddy-white-elephant Honey Badger. I love her more than ever.
While at Twiga Lodge and campsite, we walked, cycled and tried a short hike up Mount Meru. Unfortunately, we were on private property and didn’t want to trespass and would turn around. Seeing children is always a bonus and remind us of our Grandchildren.
We did have one good sighting of Mount Kilimanjaro from a high point in the garden. That was a bonus. The daybed overlooking the park-like garden was a favourite spot to enjoy our drinks after our cycling or hiking adventures or to chill out and see Mount Meru, a shy cousin who seldom shows her face through the clouds.
The local market provided all the required vegetables and fruit during our stay. I met another Elizabeth and her firstborn son and would support her whenever I could.
A browse in Erica’s shop was my last indulgence, where I rummaged in baskets and bowls and finally settled on two beautiful black beaded bracelets. They compliment my collection of bracelets perfectly.
Unfortunately, all good things have to end, and after our five-night stay, we decided to pack up and head off to Arusha.
** We had noticed that many people’s teeth were discoloured and subsequently learned that it was due to the high fluoride concentration in the water. Our family dentist often reminded my children that fluoride-enriched teeth were healthy, strong teeth that would stand the test of time. (All those fluoride tablets might account for the teeth-whitening craze that’s taken the world by storm.)
At first, I thought the discolourisation of many people’s teeth was due to chewing a leaf similar to the Betel nut people in India are fond of chewing.
With a heavy heart, I must tell you that I have lost all my Arusha National Park photographs. I might’ve deleted or mislaid my data card. I am gutted, but fortunately, Butch has kindly permitted me to use some of his excellent pictures. I remind myself that these unfortunate incidents cement experiences in one’s memory, and I will have to see their magnificence in my mind’s eye.
Wilbur Addison Smith was born on Jan. 9, 1933, in Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia (now Kabwe, Zambia). He was named for Wilbur Wright, the aviation pioneer. His father, Herbert, was a rancher who became a sheet metal worker.
Side Note: Butch and I love WIne Gums, and always buy Maynards. We've discovered these beauties. Haribo Wine Gums. Manufactured in Tanzania. They are delicious, tart, chewy and moreish. If you see them buy them.