Road trip through hell to paradise – travelling through East Africa by bus. Part Four

The first crunch of my teeth was the worst and elicited a gagging reflex, which made the passengers nearby chuckle, but I was so hungry I swallowed and pushed the other half of the cricket into my mouth. To be honest, there wasn’t a real taste but I was aware of the wings and the legs brushing against my lips and I had to tug something thin and wispy from between my teeth. The old man smiled and nodded and started to shovel more into a black plastic bag. I put up my hands to stop him: I wasn’t sure I could face eating the things, but he smiled again, encouragingly and passed the bag to me. He didn’t want any money for the crickets but was grateful when I passed him a 1,000 TSH – less than 50p – and I rested the bag in my lap as he moved on to another customer at a window further down the bus. I could have done with something to drink, but no-one else appeared, so I put a hand into the bag, took out another cricket and popped it into my mouth, hoping to just swallow it and at least assuage some of the hunger pangs. That was a mistake, and I very nearly retched. The giant cricket filled my mouth and was impossible to ingest in a single swallow, so I bit rapidly and managed to get parts of it down, aware of the hard outside casing crunching under my teeth and sliding down my throat. Finishing it seemed to lessen the disgust and the next cricket was easier to eat, aided by biting off smaller pieces this time, taking it in small doses.
By the time the engine roared into life and the windscreen wipers screeched their reawakening, allowing a clearer view down the rain drenched main street, the bag was empty and my stomach complained less.
Small rivers of water spread web-like across the dirt road of the main shopping street of the town as we accelerated away and the road wound downward through a thick forest of sopping boughs and drooping leaves.
This had to be the end of the journey. The atmosphere in the bus became buoyant, and a party feeling engulfed the whole company to the extent that I could hear bubbles of chatter for the first time over the roar of the diesel engine.
It was approaching mid-day on December 25th 2014 and I could feel the journey coming to an end. We continued to drop and my ears popped at one point, though the view, which might have been fantastic in the occasional gap in the trees, was obliterated by the driving gusts of rain. The bus continued to bang through huge puddles of collected rainfall and again I felt negative thoughts worrying at my mind, hoping that at this late stage one of the puddles wasn’t a huge pot-hole that would wreck the wheel and stop us in our tracks to complete what had been a miserable journey.
The road flattened and we began making regular stops at small villages to allow people to get off. There were smiles all round and the sound of joviality as new friends said farewells then departed into the mist and rain. For the first time empty seats were beginning to appear, and I hoped my accompanying passenger would make a move to get a place of her own. It would be more difficult for me as I had my camera bag to negotiate as well and besides I was firmly jammed against the window. She seemed oblivious to any discomfort.
With the flatter terrain, the puddles were growing and the road glistened wetly with mud, though the driver hardly made any alteration to his speed and had started using his mobile phone. I took this as a further sign that we were nearing Kigoma and that he was informing the bus company of his imminent arrival.
12.30 and the stops for alighting passengers were happening almost every fifteen minutes now, so that the bus was about a third empty. The noise of the remaining passengers though was growing and I really felt the end was around the corner.
The bus slowed and for the first time in twelve hours we faced a vehicle coming the other way, other than people on bicycles. Another bus was heading along the road and both vehicles stopped to face one another – a stand-off 20 metres apart. There wasn’t room for both to drive on the main central section, and there hadn’t been any real lay-by or wider sections for the whole journey. One of the buses, if not both, was going to have to go into the side ditch to allow the other to pass. Another bus appeared, behind the first, and then a third. All had the same livery colourings, with “ADVENTURE” in bold letters across the windscreens and sides.
These African buses have a much higher clearance than European buses, to allow for the mud and rough terrain, with massive tyres – they are probably 3 or 4 times higher off the ground than what I was used to and I guessed they went through these situations regularly. All the drivers got out and met to discuss the way forward. They seemed oblivious to the rain, none of them wearing coats or hats or carrying umbrellas. They parted and returned to their own buses, apparently a decision made.
Our driver plopped into his seat and wiped the water from his face then began to edge the bus forward. The other buses edged towards us. I was intrigued. There wasn’t room to pass and no-one had any intention of reversing to find anywhere.
Then the first bus began to edge into the right ditch. Our bus stopped and waited, watching.
Despite the size of the bus and the tractor-like wheels, the bus began to slide sideways as soon as its left side touched the top of the ditch’s slope. I had a dreadful moment of believing it was about to tip over, but as it slid into the ditch and its left wheels hit the bottom of the bank it came to rest at a crazy angle. Using the bank as traction, the driver revved his engine and the bus edged forward towards us. I still didn’t think there was quite enough room and braced myself as our driver began to edge towards the ditch on our side of the road. We started to slide. I’ve experienced cars sliding on ice and mud, but to feel a huge coach slipping sideways, out of control, whilst tipping at a crazy angle is not pleasant. Needless to say the chatter had once again stopped behind me.
Our bus came to a rest and the full weight of Mistress Sleep-Easi came to press against me, squeezing me against the window.
The other bus somehow started to edge past, and inch by inch, its engine screaming as the tyres tried to grip in the mud, it slid by, just inches between the coach sides, so that the passengers of both coaches could have reached through and touched hands.
Our bus began to rev up, but we weren’t moving. The coach began to shake and rattle with the effort, but the wheels would not grip in the thick slimy mud. The driver went into reverse, to try to escape the clinging, grasping suck of the sludge, but we were stuck.
The first bus had gone and now the second was trying the same manoeuvre, while our bus continued to rev harder in both directions to no avail.
Hitting the bank with a sickening thud, the second bus now found itself in the muddy tracks of the first and with all the debris that had been thrown up as the first bus escaped the muck, it too became stuck and we sat side by side, both buses unable to move, engines trying desperately to get wheel traction both forward and backwards.
I sighed. Would this journey ever end? I wondered about asking how far it was, and whether it was worth walking the last miles, but the rain was teeming, so that the wipers struggled to keep a clear view ahead.
The drivers gave up and returned to their phones.
We sat for only half an hour – nothing in the great scheme of this journey – and then, miracle of miracles, ahead of us, appearing behind the third bus, came a road leveller. It was one of those machines, which resembled a huge disjointed insect, on massive wheels, almost the size of our bus, and a large articulation at the centre so that its two halves seemed to be able to move almost independently of each other. This had quickly been organised on Christmas Day, at lunch time, and seemed anything other than ordinary to everyone else. It first scraped the mud off the surface of the road behind the other buses, and then, almost effortlessly, though even it had some trouble, moved into the ditch, past the buses and the driver attached a chain to the front of our bus. Slowly we began to move with the insect-like leveller tugging, and our driver revving and spinning our wheels.
Before very long, we were past both buses, back up on the flat and being released from the road grader. Its driver kindly drove into the ditch again, to allow our bus to pass, and we were on our way.
Ten minutes later I saw my first road sign that mention my destination – “Kigoma 10 Km”. My spirits rose to a new height.
In no time we came off the muddy track and hit a metalled road – a sure sign of civilisation. Houses began to appear, factories, and then, in the distance the collection of a large number of buildings, and the town of Kigoma. Further beyond was the grey glint of Lake Tanganyika.
The journey was forgotten: it was early afternoon, and the bars and restaurants were open.
We pulled into the bus park and the piki piki’s (motorbike taxis) clamoured for my attention – they knew they could ask a bigger fare from the Mzungu. I chose one, asked for any guest house they could recommend, and we set off, my camera bag on my back and my clothes bag on my lap. The rain beginning to soak my jeans as we sped into town.
The guest house was basic: (10,000 Tsh – about £4 a night) but had a bed, television, shower and toilet, and a strong lock on the door.
I dumped my stuff, walked into the town centre, found a bar and ordered a beer and as I took my first sip, my telephone rang. It was Rhian and Trefor, my sister and brother, back in the UK with the words – “Hello? Merry Christmas!”


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