If you’re travelling from Saadani to The Tides, and are offered the chance to make the journey by road rather than by the short trip by air, grab it! It’s about a two-hour drive and you see a fascinating slice of Tanzanian life en route as you travel along the wide, dirt road.
Villages flash by, characterized by the shouts of the waving children, and the occasional – and generally less effusive – greeting from one of the adults. Much of life in these villages seems to be conducted by the roadside, with stands selling everything from fruit and vegetables to mobile phone accessories, all punctuated with wooden or mud-sided houses, communal wells and small bars.
Goats, ducks and chickens are much in evidence and – though much less frequent – domestic pets are also to be seen, with skinny, dusty cats and what appears to be a homogenized Tanzanian breed of beige short-haired dog. We spotted one canine variation – a tiny, Jack Russell-ish chap, trailing a broken rope lead, who huddled against the side of the road, scared and wide-eyed, as we passed. We gazed back in concern, but three relieved-looking children ran across the road and scooped him up with cries of delight, and he wagged his tail, so I would guess he had been found by his rightful owners.
As we bumped along in our open-sided vehicle, the Masai sitting behind us barely looked up as he spent most of the journey texting, but we were agog. Some of the villages were evidently fairly prosperous, their buildings bigger, smarter and with satellite dishes dotted around. The others were less so, with the general air of dishevelment that characterizes much of Tanzanian rural – and urban – life.
And the road users themselves were equally diverse: long-legged schoolchildren, often two or three to a bike, the safari vehicles and smart cars of other lodges, brightly-painted buses, small lorries (no vast articulated machines here!), plus mopeds or bicycles with their riders heavily laden with everything from mountains of fabric to piles of wood or vegetables. Health & Safety would have a field day if this was attempted in the UK, but here it is a staple of everyday life, and it works.
One fascinating element was the way the colour of the dirt roads changed, the palest gold (almost white) sand as we left Tent With A View darkening to deeper gold, then turning grey and next deep red as we headed a little inland, then back to golden sand again, as we made our way towards the coast, finally turning that distinct, pale, pale gold again.
Apparently Chinese construction firms want to tarmac many of these dirt roads, and that will change the face of this area in two ways. Firstly, the variation in colours of the road surface will disappear, literally hidden under the tarmac. More importantly, the roadside life will change, because tarmac roads bring speed, bigger vehicles, a different pace of life. I wonder how many cars whizzing by at 60+mph will stop to buy something from a roadside stand – and how many of those ducks, goats and dogs that wander across the road will learn a permanent lesson about road safety?
Sisal, sisal and more sisal
Perhaps the most abiding memory is of the fields of sisal. This is monoculture at its most startling, with acre after acre – mile after mile – of lush forest being cut down and turned into plantations. When you consider that these plants are almost certainly planted by hand, the regimentation of rows, as far as the eye can see, becomes even more remarkable. We were told that sisal is increasingly in demand from car manufacturers, as is fire-resistant, so ideal for seat linings etc. And it’s drought-resistant, so a crop is pretty much guaranteed, whatever the weather. And Tanzania is a poor country, so who am I to argue with what is providing employment there? I admit I found it unsettling to see such huge swathes of land dedicated to this crop, and I know there have been concerns about its long-term impact on soil fertility, but I don’t know enough to make a judgement for myself.
Relaxing at The Tides
The Tides is a little oasis of beauty and tranquility. The cottages are rendered, thatched and very nice indeed, hugely comfortable and elegant inside, with really, really smart bathrooms. I stepped out of my cottage, walked about 20 paces, and I was on a quintessential palm-fringed Indian Ocean beach.
Spending an hour sitting there, book in hand, one morning, I watched as life went past. Fishing dhows bobbed on the horizon, and every 20 minutes or so a moped would pop-pop its way along the sand. One went past with a basket on the back, spilling over with freshly-caught fish, its helmeted owner oblivious to the trail of seabirds who were following, taking full advantage of this unexpected bounty.
A stay at The Tides is a ‘proper’ beach holiday. There is a small but charming swimming pool, surrounded by fences awash with brightly-coloured flowers – just the place to sit and sip a drink in between splashing around in the water. And the ocean itself is warm and inviting. The food is very good indeed – all highly recommended – and nobody batted an eyelid when a small crab, who had clearly lost its way, scuttled around the dining area before finally working out the direction in which the beach lay.
And The Tides is well named. I woke at about 2am, the roaring and crashing of the ocean just meters from my door convincing me that I was about to be swept up in a tumult of saltwater. But a peep out of the door reassured me that all was well, and the rhythmic sound soon soothed me back to sleep.
After our brief but most enjoyable stay at The Tides it was time to head to Selous – and the start of our biggest safari adventures. The airstrip is 15 minutes from the property and, on taking off, the scale of the sisal industry in this area really becomes clear, the geometric patterns created by fields at angles to each other marking the landscape like ritual scarring.
We had a few stops to make – via Zanzibar and Dar – before the two of us and our lady pilot made the longer flight to Selous. Agricultural land below became less and less cultivated, and then the mountains appeared, with the huge rivers and vast plains of the Selous set amidst them.
Clearly this was going to be something special. We touched down on the landing strip as the sky was turning pink to herald sunset, to be greeted by an elephant; the first of my African safari, and a very good omen for what was to follow.