Mama Hippy’s Long Bus Rides. Tanzania to Malawi
Moshi to Iringa and Mbyea to the Malawi border
Seven hours into the trip I sat on a red dirt track at the side of the road. The bus’s guts spilled across the pathway as the driver, call out mechanics and the crisp and cake hawker (who had hopped on the bus earlier), operated on the engine in vain.
We had limped through a small town at a snail’s pace before something metal in the bus’s bowels gave a final loud cronk and the vehicle came to a standstill. We halted by fertile green valley surrounded by ochre land and brown olive splotched mountains. Mud brick fired huts, roofed in straw gaping with holes, and vegetable plots of spinach green rowed plants dotted the scenery on the fiery blood orange ground. The residences were divided from each other by large tracts of blue plastic bag waving bush scrub.
“Africa is one dusty town after another, with some attractions in between” we were told by a volunteer worker before we departed for our first African bus journey from Moshi to Iringa in Tanzania.
To a certain extent she was right. But for me the big tourist attractions like Victoria Falls or the Serengeti – although stunning, are not the main events. What lies beyond the towns and their dust swirling, noise polluting traffic is. Tea plantations, children driving carts pulled by bullocks, bicycles piled high with goods, women in bright wraps balancing gravity defying loads on their heads whilst juggling bundled up babies on their backs. Street markets lined with plastic pots filled with home grown produce carefully arranged into pyramids of tomatoes, onions, and potatoes. Stalls bursting with stemmed boughs of bananas, ripe juice busting mangos and sweet crunchy apples. Local cafes selling Chipsi Mayo (omelette with chips in it), fried fish, chicken and rice. Sellers shoving cabbages, combs, juice, aloe soap, donuts, fish, roasted corn cobs, water and trinkets through the bus windows at every stop. Walking along streets lined with Jacaranda trees burgeoned with mauve blossoms. Smiles, conversations and laughter with complete strangers. A child in a buttercup dress stroking my arm, taking my hand and walking me through her village. Fresh bread made by village women.
African life – that is the main attraction.
However, it has to be said that after looking at swaying palm trees, listening to rustling banana leaves, finding a suitably private spot in a corn field and bonding with my fellow passengers over 7 long hot hours, the African way was wearing a little thin. After several attempts to repair the bus interspersed with the male passengers pushing the bus backwards down hill in order to jump start the engine, we were still stranded and the bus was at least a kilometre’s walk away.
The sunset and night fell, we bunked down and prepared for long night. Finally the company decided that the bus was beyond saving and 10 hours after breakdown a replacement turned up. Did the bus driver try to make up for lost time? No. We headed to the next stop break and at midnight I found myself eating chipsi mayo and knocking down a cup of ginger tea with relish. dinner!. We arrived in Iringa at 2 am in the morning and as the bus pulled in the previously deserted bus station filled up with cars and taxis. We snagged one, haggled half heartedly, roused the gateman at the hostel and fell into bed at 3 am.
Mbeya, Tanzania to the Malawi border
The travel book said that it was possible to get a big bus from Mbeya in Tanzania to the Malawi Border, not to be conned by the touts who would tell you that it was possible to go all the way to Mzuzu (inside Malawi) and to make sure that the company was not going to drop off 20 kilometres from the border so another bus or taxi was required. It also said the journey took 1 – 1.5 hours. How much more inaccurate it could had been I don’t know.
There were no big buses from Mbeya, just small mini buses that ran most of the day. The journey took over 4 hours to a town at least 20 kilometres away from the border where we changed buses. The buses were hot and packed to the hilt with people, produce and chickens. The final stop left us 2.5 kilometres short of Tanzanian immigration so we had to catch a motorbike taxi then walk the final .5. We set out at 7.30am, witnessed several fights amongst the bus touts one which ended up with one client being restrained from getting on the bus and nearly being shoved over and another tout being punched.
I arrived at the immigration point dripping with sweat, red faced, dirty and headscarf askew. I looked a mess. The officer took a long look at me before stamping my passport with an exit date.
“Mama Hippy” he said grinning. Ah well at least he didn’t say Grandmamma Hippy.
Luckily Malawi is a little more accepting of “ hippies” since president Banda’s days when there was a very strict dress codes for visitors . Anyone with hair longer than their collar line was not allowed in and any Lonely Plant Book found in luggage would be destroyed. So despite looking like a relic from the flower power era I passed into Malawi with no problem.