Route: From the Rusumo border post with Rwanda, south and east primarily via the B8 highway (more on this road later).
Travel Distance and Time: 1292 kms over four days, including two nights at the Utengule Coffee Lodge campsite.
Borders: You’ll find a detailed description of the Tanzania border crossing at Rusumo in the post on Rwanda – in short, both the Tanzanian immigration and customs offices were ultra-professional and efficient. One final note on the Rusumo one-stop border posts: there are full-service bank branches and ATMs located in both main buildings – USD, RWF, and TZS all available.
The exit at the Songwe border control post into Malawi was a little bit more complicated, but not by much. The Tanzanian customs and immigration are both housed in one building, located on your right-hand side as you enter no-man’s land. There is no traffic direction, so even if it looks like you’re headed against the majority of other vehicles, don’t worry about it. Pick a place to park and walk in. Immigration stamped us out in less than 5 minutes, and customs took a little bit longer to cancel our TIP, but not more than 15 minutes. There is no “gate receipt”, as required at some other borders, just drive up to the gate, and over the 200m bridge on the Songwe River to Malawi.
One important thing to note is that you will need 10,000 TZS to pay the Council Levy as you leave the village of Ipinda for the border post. The friendly guy at the gate has a hand-held receipt printer, and he is happy to direct you to an ATM just around the corner if you find yourself short on cash. The usual pushy touts, money changers, and runners will follow you around, but they are easily brushed aside for the most part. The process is simple enough that you do not need their services.
Roads: Roads in these parts of Tanzania were a decidedly mixed bag – some were the worst we experienced in all of east Africa, others were shockingly smooth, wide, and fast. In the middle ground were dirt and 4×4 tracks that were flat-out fun (see the lead image for reference).
The road south from the Rusumo border to Muzani on the B3 was a horror show. Broken down long-haul trucks littered all parts of the roadway, and potholes in the fractured asphalt (where it actually existed) were often larger than the Land Rover itself. It is very, very slow going – like, 20kph slow. Things did not improve much as we joined the B8 south toward Kasulu. This road is entirely obliterated, as it is undergoing significant reconstruction – bridges are missing, and the original route is off-limits, blocked with stones and dirt barriers. The temporary road that snakes back and forth across the old roadbed is tolerable, but plan on lots of extra time.
Beware the hulking commuter buses with “Insh’ Allah” windshield stickers barreling headlong down the one-lane, ferrying their huge payload of human beings, and with zero regard for road conditions or oncoming traffic. YOU are responsible for moving over if you meet them head-on around a curve.
From Kasulu to Mbeya, things improve considerably, including well-maintained and entertaining gravel roads through Katavi National Park, and gradually giving way to flawless tarmac nearly all the way to Mbeya.
Police Stops: On this trip, my one and only speeding violation for which I actually had to pay the fine happened in Tanzania (impressive, in a Defender, if I say so myself!). The picturesque road (B345) from Mbeya to the Songwe border winds along a gradual mountain pass, through tea plantations, and among palm trees and bustling small villages. The road is also not well-marked for speed zones, and I was pulled over for doing 80kph in a (unmarked?) 60kph zone, very close to the border community of Ipinda.
Note that the speed cameras are generally well-hidden and you will be flagged down for the violation well past the camera’s actual location. In this instance, I was stopped nearly 10kms down the road from the camera. Police had pulled me over earlier in the morning on the same highway closer to Mbeya for the same violation, but I was able to talk my way out of the fine. Not so the second time.
The Tanzanian police are well prepared: they will show you a photo of your car with the speed superimposed on the image from the speed camera, and they will print you a citation from an internet-connected mobile device. You can pay your fine on the spot, 30,000 TZS, in my case. Very efficient.
Over the prior 1,200 kms we encountered no other police stops of any real significance with the exception of an immigration check near the village of Kibondo on the B8 highway. We are always wary of these stops, because invariably the immigration officers are in civilian clothes, and we hate handing over our passports to anyone outside of a border post. Sometimes a color certified copy of the document will suffice, but it did not in this case. We were waved on without any drama.
Camping: We enjoyed three campsites during our stay in Tanzania – each wonderful in its own way.
The sprawling Kasulu Motel features traditional hotel rooms and cottages, and a wide-open bar and restaurant with plenty of outdoor seating. Unfortunately, the “camping” is simply a shaded space in the parking lot in front of the bar – not exactly private or quiet. But the Kasulu Motel is a sleepy sort of place, and we were the only tenants on New Year’s Day. The wifi signal is strong, and connection speeds are quite good; you will find the indifferently maintained ablutions behind the restaurant. The staff is extra friendly and helpful, and we discovered in the morning that breakfast was included in our 25,000 TZS/pp rate – a nice surprise!
The following night we stayed at Hippo Gardens in the village of Sitalike on the northern border of Katavi National Park. Studded with cottages flung across the hilly terrain that date back many, many decades, this property was likely once posh and comfortable. This is not the case now, as most of the infrastructure is crumbling and dust-covered, but the gracious proprietor is working hard to resurrect its former glory. Any shortcomings were made up by the amazing camping right on the banks of the Katavi River, and communing with the many hippos that splashed and grunted in the swift currents. We had access to one of the cottages for ablutions. Again, we were the only travelers at this campsite, and we would have liked to have stayed for a few more days.
Lastly, let us sing the praises of the Utengule Coffee Lodge. The headquarters of a coffee farm west of the large city of Mbeya, the lodge offers true luxury accommodations if you want to splurge, and a fantastic bar and restaurant with stunning views across the mountains. We camped on the old helipad just below the main lodge, and had the best showers of the entire journey (high pressure! hot water!), which were located near the squash courts (?). Originally, we wanted to camp just one night, but ended up staying for two, and enjoyed the swimming pool. It’s a little more expensive than other campsites, but the facilities make up for it – well worth the money. Oh, and the coffee is amazing. They will deliver it right down to the campsite in the morning.
- For the first time ever, Julie learned to drive a manual transmission vehicle – namely, Toto – on the backroads of Tanzania. She navigated some extremely muddy roads, deep puddles, and unpredictable village traffic without a hitch. She claims she needs more practice, I say she’s a natural. We met a teenager who was practicing his own newly acquired driving skills in the parking lot of the Kasulu Motel in the family Toyota. “We Try, Others Cry”, indeed. I think both of these new drivers will fare just fine.
- Travel carefully through the border community of Tunduma. As the primary transit point between Zambia and Tanzania, it is a deeply complex jumble of shops, livestock, pedestrians, semi-trucks, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, fuel stations, and general chaos – possibly the most chaotic city we have traveled through in Africa, including Addis Ababa. In nearly two years driving across many dangerous roads on this continent, it was here that we witnessed our first traffic fatality – a sobering and deeply upsetting experience.
General Comments: Tanzania was difficult to process in some ways. We drove so many kilometers in so few days, that much of it seemed like a blur. And, we only saw a tiny fraction of this massive country. We missed the big, famous national parks and other attractions – Kilimanjaro, Ngorogoro Crater, Serengeti, Zanzibar – too far from our route, and, frankly, too expensive on our budget.
But the experiences that did lodge in our memories will stick forever – the absolutely rocking children-only New Year’s Day party at the Kasulu Motel, local kids climbing all over the Land Rover for a closer look at the weird mzungu lifestyle, close encounters with hippos on the banks of the Katavi River, chowing down on roadside grilled chicken and corn, spotting an antelope (Lichtenstein’s Hartebeest?) and a bird (Ground Hornbill) we had never seen before, meeting or waving to so many friendly people in villages across the country. We can’t wait to go back.