The last two hours of the journey were probably the hardest. My head was thumping from the lack of water and being so close, yet so far from our final destination of Kigoma was driving me mad. We’d both managed to remain pretty calm throughout this
nightmare journey but the fact our bus kept stopping for the smallest things, despite everything we’d been through, became too much to bare. As we pulled into the bus station I was in the same position I’d spent the last hour, with my head buried deep in my hands.
We hadn’t had the best of times in Mwanza, our relaxing hotel turned out not to have the free wifi it claimed on it’s website which coincided perfectly with us needing it more than ever. Our bank has two fraud detection sections and apparently we’d been flagged by both, many hours on the phone and two days later we finally had access to our own money again. That, along with a few other smaller problems meant we didn’t fall in love with Mwanza and were quite happy to move on and start again.
Had we known what was to come however, Mwanza would have probably seemed like a dream location.
We booked a bus ticket the day before with all the fuss you would expect of any bus station that has tourists passing through. We’d read about Golden Inter-City being the best company to travel with between Mwanza and Kigoma but it turns out they don’t operate that route any more. That meant going in blind with no research and we ended up booking with N.S.L who ran a ‘luxury express bus’ for 31,000 Tanzanian shillings ($18) that would take around 12 hours to reach Kigoma.
The next morning we left our hotel at 4:15 in order to be at the bus station for 4:30 as instructed, our bus was to leave at 5am giving us plenty of time to get our luggage sorted etc. Nyegezi Bus Station is about 10km out of town and quite an intimidating place in the dark, many long distance buses leave Mwanza from here at the same time, which makes for a lot of people in the same place at the same time. Luckily for us, someone who worked there must have seen our confused looks (or more likely our backpacks) and directed us to where our bus would usually leave.
Over the next half an hour we got moved along to a couple of different places and much to our relief found some other people travelling on the same bus. 5am came and went and our bus had still not shown up but with none of the other buses in the station having left yet it didn’t seem like much of a problem. We’d expected delays having read a lot about public transport in Tanzania and the need for a lot of patience. However, when 6am came and the first sight of daylight, all the other buses began to leave and that’s when we started to think that maybe something else was up.
Our bus turned up at 10:15, over 5 hours after it was meant to leave.
We watched the sun come up, all the other coaches leave, the local buses come and go and even the vendors clear their stalls and head home. Sticking out like a sore thumb sitting on our backpacks against a wall we had plenty of people come and ask us what we were doing, ‘We’re going to Kigoma’ (we began adding ‘hopefully’ to this after a couple of hours) to which they would all reply “No not today, the buses have all gone, you must go tomorrow”. We kept waiting with the others who bought a ticket for this not so luxury bus and eventually it decided to show up. I’m assuming in Tanzania luxury just means it still had four wheels and something resembling seats because this bus was anything but luxury, what happened to our original bus we’ll never know.
It didn’t matter though because by this point we were just happy to be on anything that could at least move in the vague direction of Kigoma. The idea of having to get up at 4am the next day to go through the whole bus station ordeal again wasn’t that appealing. However, had we known then what the rest of the journey would be like, we might well have waited until the following day.
This story isn’t just about a bus turning up late.
It might just be us but, after being over 5 hours behind schedule you’d think the bus and crew would be looking to make up some time or at least crack on with the journey and get some miles behind us. Apparently not, literally two minutes down the road from the bus station we stopped at a petrol station for half an hour. Filling up? Fair enough but no, it seemed they were just having a chat, a cigarette and maybe planning the route.
During this stop I began speaking to someone who said he felt sorry for us, apparently Tanzanians were all used to the delays on public transport but it must be hard for us to understand. It was during this conversation that he dropped the bomb shell that the roads are very unsafe and with the journey being so long it was unlikely we’d reach Kigoma that day, according to him we’d probably stop somewhere over night. Err what? There goes our hotel booking then.
I decided to keep that bit of news to myself for a while in case the bus somehow had a built in jet pack I hadn’t spotted and made good time. It quickly became apparent that wasn’t likely though as the bus stopped for every possible occasion, someone buying food, people getting on and off in the middle of nowhere, all very well but part of the supposed luxury of this bus was that it was direct.
During the afternoon we made steady progress and it felt like we were actually getting somewhere. That was until abound 5:30pm when we stopped to help jump-start a car. I could understand if this was someone stuck by the side of the road but it was at a car garage? It took over half an hour to realise we were unable to help before deciding to continue our journey. Not much further down the road we were stuck again, this time behind a lorry on a hill, it had come to a complete standstill and being a single lane dirt track we had no way to pass it until it eventually got going again.
By the time we’d had yet another stop for no apparent reason whatsoever it was night time and our driver was still flying along the road, with little to no light coming from his headlights. The idea of a stopover had annoyed me in the morning but by the time it came round I was actually grateful for it, the state of the bus and the roads plus the lack of headlights made the journey in the dark pretty terrifying and very dangerous.
Collisions are common on these roads and it’s very easy to see why with driving like this.
The driver obviously had a destination he was determined to reach as the bus pulled into a random town, turned down a few side streets and then parked up and turned it’s lights off. Ok, so what do we do now? Is there anywhere to stay? what time is the bus leaving again? All the staff had disappeared the minute the lights went out.
Thankfully the guy who had warned me about the stop over earlier had a friend in town and he agreed to walk us to a guesthouse nearby (after we grabbed him before he could disappear as well) otherwise we would have been sleeping on the bus overnight with a bag full of expensive electronics in Idontknowhere. After thanking our saviour a few hundred times we enjoyed a comfy bed for the night before headeding back to the bus at 6am for the final 4 or 5 hour journey to Kigoma.
I don’t know why we expected to leave on time, had we forgotten what had happened just the morning before?
We climbed back onto the bus to find most the passengers had spent the night on-board, including many with small children or babies. The rain all night hadn’t been kind to the bus either, water was leaking through the roof and windows so our rain coats became extra seat cushions. The bus of course didn’t leave on time and at one point we thought it might not be leaving at all with the engine continuously failing to start. At 7am we were back on the road to complete our journey.
Despite the regular stops that we’d become used to, the morning started off quite well and even included a couple of hours solid driving. However, it was obvious the heavy rain overnight had made the roads worse and eventually we had to stop as a number of vehicles took it in turns to cross a very large hole that had filled with water in the middle of the road.
I don’t know the unwritten rules of the road in Tanzania but it seemed like everytime we moved forward to begin going through, another bus would force it’s way across and we would have to reverse back again. This back and forth went on for a very painful 40 minutes before we eventually got through.
It wasn’t until we were half way up the hill that we spotted the tanker sideways across the road. A few seconds later we were stuck in the mud ourselves, the wheels were buried deep and no amount of revving the engine was getting us out of it. We waited and waited without a clue what was going on, our friend from the night before had not returned to the bus, perhaps he had the sense to go with a different company, but he was the only other English speaker who started the journey.
Eventually a digger came crawling down the hill and pulled us out of the mud and halfway up the hill to where the road improved. We didn’t stay on it for long though as the bus slipped sideways in the mud and we found ourselves half in a ditch. The digger yet again pulled us from the mud but once again it didn’t take long for us to get stuck again. This time the bus really fell into the ditch, we landed at 45 degress with bags and people falling against the windows as we slipped in the mud. Luckily we were barely moving when this happened so no one was seriously hurt. We were forced to jump from the buses main door which was now a few feet off the ground, much to the delight of the 100+ locals who has gathered to watch the drama.
That’s our bus in a ditch…
With a build up of vehicles on the hill it was another hour before we were on our way. Most of that time was spent standing with the other passengers by the side of the ‘road’ while one of the locals begged for money or food, we were glad it wasn’t only us who was approached but the Tanzanian passengers as well. However, the conversations about ‘Muzungo’ (white skin, tourist etc) could be heard all around and we got very used to that word on this journey and even began joking with our fellow passengers about it.
By this point we were miles behind schedule and it was painful to think that if we’d left Mwanza a day later we wouldn’t be far behind where we were then. What should have been the final stretch of our journey turned into what felt like the driver taking every opportunity to make us even later. We stopped by the side of a road for what we assumed was just another pick up, twenty minutes later we had a double bed and 4 huge sacks added to the bus which completely blocked the isles and doorway.
This was around the point that it all became a bit much, we’d let everything else go because we had no control over it and getting angry would be of no benefit. But, when it’s approaching the point where you’re almost 24 hours behind schedule and the bus is still constantly stopping, it becomes too hard to deal with. I’d spent the journey amazed by how calm the children had been, the babies were silent throughout. Relaxed parenting obviously worked wonders and the other passengers were quick to help out when the mothers needed a break. What was perhaps more impressive was the slightly older children who you’d expect to get bored or fed up, even they remained relaxed throughout. The only time we saw any of them get worked up was at the final hurdle…
It felt like the icing on the cake…
We stopped to let two trucks coming the other way pass, the first passed by fine but the second stopped right in front of us. It seemed something about the driver in the 1st truck had annoyed him and he had to take it up right there and then. Instead of passing us and then stopping he parked up right in front of us, got out and stormed over to the other truck, completely blocking the road ahead.
What the fuck are you doing? There is literally nothing else around us or anywhere else we can go and but you choose to stop right fucking there? It obviously wasn’t just me thinking this as some other passengers were standing up and shouting out the window at him as he began his argument with the other driver.
Then it was time to celebrate, we’d reached that glorious landmark that most people can only dream of. A whole 24 hours behind schedule!
It took well over half an hour before someone was able to drag that twat back to his lorry and send him on his way.
We finally pulled into Kigoma bus station and tried to get out of there as quickly as possible. Kirsty somehow still had the energy to negotiate with the taxi drivers (I would have just paid anything to get away from the bus) while I climbed, and I mean climbed, over the sacks and a bed to retrieve our soaking, muddy backpacks.
In the taxi to our hotel we realised we’d not really eaten or drunk anything over the last two days, it was all a bit of a daze. The next few hours were full of laughing fits, anger and despair.
The journey kicked the crap out of us and put a bit of a downer on our arrival in Kigoma, usually after a couple of days we’re able to look back at a journey and laugh about it and we’ll usually come to the conclusion that ‘it wasn’t that bad actually’ but right now we’re not even close to feeling like that. Kigoma is lovely and relaxed but that journey still lingers in the back of our mind, a day lost and our stress levels played with.
Gombe National Park, the only reason we came here, had better live up to the hype.
So, do you fancy a bus journey between Mwanza and Kigoma?