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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Tanzania: The Roads

(This is the third installment about our self-drive safari to Tanzania. The next post will be about our first stop, Tarangire National Park.)

Before we left for Tanzania, well meaning friends and family warned us of the dangers we might face: Be careful of the animals! Did you get your shots? Do you have a safe place to store your stuff? And the ever present: are you bringing a gun? (I'll address these in other posts, but just let me say now that none of them were a concern.)

No one, however, warned us about the most terrifying thing that Tanzania threw at us: the roads.

My God.

This was our view for most of the trip.  The corrugation was so bad we had to strap everything down for fear it would vibrate right out (or off) of the car.
I will never, ever complain again about the condition of our roads here in the US. Take the worst corrugated gravel road you've ever driven, multiply it by six, throw in random potholes the size of refrigerators, narrow it down to one lane and put two way traffic on it, then heap it up in the middle so the car is at a 25 degree angle when moved to the side. Throw in deep sand, thorny bushes and/or weedy ditches of indeterminate depth on either side and you have a typical Tanzanian road. Oh, and I forgot the random rocky patches peppered with unmarked washed out sections that require delicate four wheel drive maneuvers to cross.

The narrow road around Ngorongoro Crater, with it's high crown, red dust, sandy edges and crazy safari drivers.
The main road between the Serengeti and Lake Natron.

What about pavement you say? We traveled on two paved roads in the two weeks we were gone, both main highways between major cities and parks. They were pretty decent roads, the surfaces smooth and fairly well marked (discounting the large potholes that occasionally cropped up.) You couldn't let your guard down for a minute though, as traffic in the northern part of Tanzania can include not just trucks and cars: motorcycles that for some inexplicable reason always drove in the breakdown lane; hand drawn carts; mini-van type buses that stopped here and there without warning; herds of cattle, sheep and goats (mostly) tended by Maasi; police check points that consisted of a policeman standing in the middle of the road and randomly waving vehicles over; huge semi trucks carting more than three times the amount of stuff they were rated for, the loads teetering frighteningly every time they hit a bump (this was sometimes addressed by having a guy ride on top holding onto the load as best he could, making us not only worry we'd have a pile of lumber falling on us but the poor lumber-holder as well.)

A typical scene on the main highway across northern Tanzania: Maasi driving cattle from one side to the other.

City driving was a whole other ball of wax. Take all the motorcycles, hand carts, cattle, trucks and mini-van buses and multiply those by three, then add in hundreds of pedestrians, dogs, larger city buses, those little three wheeled tuk tuks like you see in India, beggars and newspaper salesmen working the lines at the stoplights.

This is supposed to be a two lane road. Try telling that to the mini-buses that used the center divider as a passing lane.

Did I mention Tanzanian's drive on the left side of the road? That was another challenge for us.

Poor Mark was thrown into this whirlwind of traffic on the very first day, dealing with a new-to-him vehicle with right hand drive, working the unfamiliar gear shift with his left hand. It would have been nice to have a little practice run, but we had arrived a day late due to an airline cancellation, so we had to hit the ground running if we were to make our first stop by nightfall.

Here's a little taste of city driving:

And a small portion of not-so-bad dirt road driving (most of the roads were so rutted the camera wouldn't focus for all the joggling):


(It's important to note the video of the city driving was taken on our way back to return the car, so Mark had two weeks of experience at this point. We were too jet lagged and petrified to run the camera on the first day through. The dirt road video was taken in Lake Manyara National Park which had the best maintained roads of all the parks we visited. We tried to take some video in the other parks but the GoPro kept falling off it's mount on the windshield.) 

After a few harrowing days we finally got used to the roads but it was never a "let's jump in the car and take a drive" kind of place for us (it was more an "I need a drink after that drive" kind of place.) I think you'd have to be there at least a month before becoming really comfortable with the flow of things.

We are spoiled here in the US with our paved roads and well marked intersections. We met a guy originally from the UK now living in Tanzania who said you could almost fall asleep driving in the US. He's got a point; maybe it's TOO easy to drive here. Perhaps we need to throw in some wandering livestock and random potholes to keep people from doing the stupid things they do behind the wheel like texting, applying makeup and sipping lattes. I never had the nerve to do any of those things while in the car while we were there and I was the passenger.

It did get easier as time went on and any discomfort was balanced out by the scenery and wildlife, which ranged from wonderful to breathtaking to stunning throughout our trip. And I'd like to thank Dr. Forni, my dentist, for the excellent work he's done for me over the years; after two weeks of driving in Tanzania I didn't lose one filling.

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