• The Road That Should Not Be Taken

    Robert Frost wrote about taking “the road less traveled, and that has made all the difference.” So now let me tell you about the road you should never travel, from Kigoma to Geita, Tanzania.
    We (Tracy, Nico, and I) were set to leave on Sunday, September 5th. So naturally (when you factor in Africa time) we left at 6 AM on Monday, September 6th for our “5-6 hour trip.” Now I have driven a few of the best roads in the world like the Great Ocean Road in Australia, the Pacific Coast Highway in California, and the Blue Ridge Parkway in rural Virginia. The road from Kigoma to Geita will never be confused with any of these.

    We crammed five people into a Toyota Land Cruiser. There was a driver (from Geita), Nico (the sports director from Kigoma), me and Tracy (Coaches Across Continents coaches), plus a fifth person whose reason for being in the car remained a mystery until much later. It seemed apparent to Tracy and I that his sole function was to make us uncomfortable in the back by taking up much needed space.
    The road itself was tarmac for the first 10 km, but the Tanzanian government carefully placed speed bumps randomly on the road so that cars were forced to accelerate to maximum speed before jamming on the brakes just in time before the bumps. Clearly achieving a constant speed is not a priority when driving long distances. It seems clever in hindsight that this was to acclimate the drivers for the change of pace required over the next 8-9 hours when we drove on dirt roads. These “roads” were nothing more than very wide dirt tracks with gullies from water run-off and potholes made possibly by roaming elephants interspersed with clean, flat straightaways, again allowing for the driver to vary his speed at all times.
    On the sides of the road are constants streams of locals walking, bicycling, and driving mopeds in-between towns. It is forbidden in Tanzania to walk empty handed, so every pedestrian and bike was loaded down with large packages, bananas, bales of hay, sugar cane, etc. making each a sizable obstacle for our vehicle as we drove.
    Road rules are also suspended while on the dirt roads, so that we drove at times on the left-hand side (normal here in Tanzania), the right-hand side (making me feel at home in the USA), in the middle, and oftentimes diagonally across the road to keep the locals on their toes. With no road rules we approached speeds of 110 km/hour (about 70 mph) and on the odd times we failed to brake in time our vehicle was launched over bumps giving us all the temporary feeling of weightlessness until our heads hit the ceiling which brought us quickly back down to Earth.
    We night not have hit so many bumps if our driver was not engaged in animated conversation with Nico in the passenger seat.. Even though the conversation was in Swahili it was evident to Tracy and I that his speaking must be accompanied by wild hand and arm gestures as well as direct eye contact at all times which meant that our car had intermittent steering and rarely was pointed in the same direction as the road. Everything outside the vehicle was in danger of being struck at any moment.
    Fortunately you could see any other vehicles approaching for miles by the cloud of dust on the horizon. There were just enough cars and buses on the road to keep a steady cloud of dust kicked up for the entire journey, thus keeping our windows smartly rolled up and permitting us to bake in the backseat as the hot African sun beat down on us. Another benefit to the dust cloud is a new game I entitled “Bicycles in the Mist” instead of gorillas in the mist (located just up the road at Gombe National Park). For the 15 seconds after you passed a car visibility decreased to under ten feet but this did not deter the driver or force him to slow down. Instead we peered into the dust cloud trying to discern if we were about to hit any bikes, pedestrians, goats, chickens, or trees as we bounced merrily left and right down the roadway. We also got to play this game when our driver caught the vehicle in front of us – oftentimes a bus – and we sat within inches of their back bumper. Using only the force from Star Wars as we could not see, our driver arbitrarily chose a time to dart around the bus and pass. As we passed he was careful to turn on our windshield wipers, thus clearing our vision and giving us our first glimpse at the road ahead and allowing us to ascertain whether his decision to pass was prudent.
    Finally there were the animals. After living in this environment of dust clouds and hot African sun for so long the chickens and goats have become either suicidal or cavalier about their attitudes towards life, choosing to dart in front of each passing vehicle at the last possible second. Our driver did well overall only clipping one chicken on the entire day’s ride. He would have done well in the Dakar rally.
    As I mentioned before the 5th passenger was a mystery until we got seven hours into the trip. It was decided that seven hours in was a logical place to halt at a rest stop for an hour in order to drain the gas tan and to dismantle the fuel pump and filter to give it a thorough cleaning. Our fifth passenger, wearing khakis, dress shoes, and a nice button down dove enthusiastically under the Toyota and personally drained the ten plus gallons of gasoline, managing to spill only a few gallons on his outfit. When this task was done he supervised the fuel pump dis-assembly, washing the pump and his hands in a basin of the recently drained gasoline. With the Land Cruiser’s re-assembly an hour later we were thrilled that it started. In fact, it ran like a dream – but that might just be the gasoline fumes emanating from our friend the mechanic that now engulfed the inside of the land cruiser talking.
    Delirious from the gas fumes, cramped from almost nine hours inside a car, and starving from a failure to stop for food for any reason (I guess we didn’t want to be late to Geita), we finally arrived at our destination. For an idea of what you feel like after such a journey do the following: Sit in a sauna for nine hours. During these nine hours make sure to have a friend sprinkle you liberally with red dust and sand. You should be wedged into an uncomfortable chair with your knees pinned against the wall. Now place the chair on a vibrating floor. The electrician who wires the floor to vibrate should be either Homer Simpson or Tim the Tool Man Taylor. This MIGHT begin to give you an idea of the luxury we felt on the day.
    The adventures in Africa continue and in truth both Kigoma and Geita are both nice enough towns with many fine people inhabiting both. But if you have to get between the two I recommend reconsidering, for this is the road that should not be traveled.