Something of a dead end in terms of Tanzanian travel, Mtwara is the springboard for travellers crossing into neighbouring Mozambique. Supporting a population of 80,000, it is the largest town on the south coast, with a disjointed and unfocused layout that reflects an ambitious but as yet unfulfilled development plan initiated by the colonial government after World War II. The nominal town centre, set about 1km inland of the modern harbour, is a small, sleepy grid of roads framing tiny Aga Khan Park. A more convincing hub of commercial activity is the Chiko Ngola area, around the main market and bus station, 1km south of the town centre, while the beach and smarter residential area of Shangani lie about 2km to the north.
Mtwara is a pleasant enough town without offering much in the way of sightseeing. The market is worth a look, while the multi-storey Indian houses and shops in the town centre, most dating to the 1950s, are slowly acquiring an endearingly time-warped atmosphere. One worthwhile goal, depending on your interest in modern ecclesiastical art, is the Benedictine Church of St Paul, which lies in Majengo, ten minutes’ walk southeast of the market, and is elaborately decorated with paintings executed over a two-year period by the German priest Polycarp Uehlien.
At Shangani, to the north of the town centre, there is a good swimming beach surrounded by coral flats, the latter interesting for the rock pools that form on them and the wading birds that visit. A better beach, at Msangamkuu on the opposite side of the bay, can be reached inexpensively using the dhow-taxis that leave from a conspicuous launching site on the road to Shangani. There’s brilliant snorkelling at low tide, but beware of jellyfish and the rather evil sea urchins with long black spikes and a shiny orange eye.
HISTORY Prior to 1947, Mtwara was but a village compared with nearby Mikindani; indeed its one pre-World War II claim to posterity was as the location for the 1928 silent film The Blue Lagoon. After the war, the British administration relocated their regional administrative capital from Mikindani to Mtwara and started to develop its harbour as the main port to service a groundnut scheme that was expected to rejuvenate the economy of southeast Tanzania. Some 30 million pounds were spent creating the required infrastructure before it was realised that the local soil was unsuitable to grow groundnuts, and the area received insufficient rainfall anyway. This expensive failure caused more suffering than it ever alleviated, by coercing local farmers into replacing subsistence crops with groundnuts. And Mtwara’s costly harbour remains to this day something of a white elephant, though activity has picked up slightly in recent years thanks to increased trade through Mozambique.
GETTING THERE AND AWAY Mtwara Airport, 4km from the town centre, is serviced by regular Precision Air and Air Tanzania flights from Dar es Salaam, costing about US$140 one-way or US$220 return. Taxis are available to meet all incoming flights. Current flight details can be found on the website http://www.mikindani.com.
Several buses daily run between Dar es Salaam and Mtwara, leaving from the main bus station [560 B6] at around 05.30–06.30. The trip should take about eight to ten hours in the dry season but may take a bit longer during the rains. Several buses daily run between Mtwara, Masasi and Lindi. These leave when full, and take a few hours only.
WHERE TO STAY
A Southern Cross Hotel [560 C1] (9 rooms) Ø 023 233 3206; m 0786 678283. Rather confusingly signposted from town as the Msemo Hotel, this is easily the nicest place to stay in Mtwara, set on a rocky peninsula at the end of Shangani Beach about 2km from the town centre. In addition to stunning views across the bay, the hotel has a good restaurant serving grills & stews for around Tsh10,000, & large en-suite rooms with wood ceilings, terracotta tiled floors, king-size 4-poster bed with nets, TV, AC, hot water & private sea-facing balcony or lounge. US$50/60 sgl/dbl B&B.
A Caigo Inn Lodge [560 C6] Ø 023 233 4155. Situated near the bus station, this new lodge has smart en-suite rooms with AC, TV, fan, dbl bed with net, & hot water. US$15 dbl.
A Nalyana Lodge [560 D6] Also near the bus station, this has spacious & clean en-suite rooms with tiled floor, TV, fan, dbl bed with net, & hot water. US$10 dbl.
A Kwa Limo Hotel [560 B4] m 0712 329014. This small, reasonably central hotel lies a short distance from the main road towards Shangani. The open-air bar & restaurant is on the opposite side of the road. Adequate en-suite rooms with dbl bed, net, TV & fan. US$10 dbl.
A Bondeni Lodge [560 A6] Ø 023 233 3769. This small quiet lodge lies alongside the main road from Mikindani about 1km from the town centre. A pleasant garden bar serves chilled drinks & good meals, though the latter take some time to prepare. En-suite rooms with net, fan & TV are good value. US$8 dbl.
A Pro Rata Guesthouse [560 B4] Central & very clean, this small local hotel near the stadium is fair value & there’s a lively garden bar & restaurant in front of the hotel. US$5 (small bed) with net, fan & common shower.
WHERE TO EAT The best place to eat is the Southern Cross Hotel [560 C1], which charges around Tsh8,000–10,000 for a substantial main course. The Indian-run Shabu Restaurant [560 C4] in the old town centre serves simple Swahili and Indian dishes. Anisar Ice Cream Parlour [560 B5] at the market is the best place in town for ice creams, milkshakes and the like. Otherwise the choice is surprisingly limited; you might even think about catching a dala-dala to Mikindani and eating at one of the far nicer options there.
OTHER PRACTICALITIES There is no private forex bureau in Mtwara, but several banks will change US dollar travellers’ cheques and cash. The ATM at the National Bank of Commerce (NBC) [560 B5] accepts Visa and the one at the Exim Bank [560 B4] takes MasterCard.
The best internet café is on Uhuru St opposite the NBC [560 B5], but there are several others, most relatively cheap and surprisingly fast.
A feature of Mtwara are the old ship containers that have been converted to shops, many selling luxury items such as baked beans, chocolate, shampoo, Pringles and bug spray. Another good shop in the town centre is the Mini Market which sells most imported items, albeit at a price higher than any other shop in town. IkoIko, a booze warehouse at the top end of the straight road in this part of town, sells the cheapest spirits and wine in Mtwara and has a good choice. The Tingatinga stall at the Southern Cross Hotel [560 C1] sells good quality work. For day tours and other information, the best places are the Old Boma and eco2 in Mikindani.
EXCURSIONS FROM MTWARA
Msimbati Beach Guarding the open sea entrance to Mikindani Bay, idyllic Msimbati Beach stretches for miles between the Ras Msimbati and Ras Ruwura peninsulas, 25km east of Mtwara as the crow flies. It is a very beautiful spot, totally unspoilt and lined with broad palm trees, with a steep shelf and non-tidal reef that means swimming is good 24 hours a day, and a rare western orientation offering spectacular sunsets. The beach overlooks Mnazi Bay, part of Mnazi Bay–Rovuma Marine Park, a multi-use conservancy running from Mtwara to the Mozambique border. The park is an important turtle breeding site, and an extensive reef system offers great snorkelling and diving. The shallow bay is listed as an Important Bird Area, primarily for its large concentrations of crab plover and sand plover. For independent travellers, a few trucks head from Mtwara to Msimbati daily, taking about an hour in either direction, while diving and snorkelling excursions can be organised through eco2 in Mikindani.
Msimbati had its 15 minutes of fame when, on 31 December 1959, the eccentric expatriate Leslie Latham Moore, a World War I veteran who retired to Msimbati, announced unilateral secession from Tanganyika. Latham Moore appointed himself the Sultan of Msimbati, and even went as far as designing a flag for the independent state – vertical green, blue and red stripes, with a Union Jack in the top left corner. The authorities tolerated this unusual but fairly harmless state of affairs for a time, but eventually Latham Moore was arrested and the sultanate disbanded. The sultan’s modest palace still stands above the beach, now somewhat dilapidated and crawling with insects!
Lake Kitere Some 3km2 in extent, this lake lies on the Mambi River 20km east of the main road between Lindi and Mikindani. It’s a pretty spot, primarily of interest for its prolific pelicans and other waterbirds. To reach the lake, head northwest from Mikindani along the surfaced Lindi road for about 25km to Mpapura. Shortly after passing through Mpapura, take a turn-off to your left, and follow it for about 20km to Kitere village on the lakeshore. A limited amount of public transport runs to Kitere from Mpapura, but there is no accommodation.
Lake Chidya This remote 10km2 lake lies on the Mozambique border about 40km inland of the Rovuma River mouth. It supports large numbers of crocodile, hippo and waterfowl, and elephants are quite frequently seen in the area. Access is from the small town of Kitaya, site of a memorial dedicated to the crew of a Tanzanian plane shot down during a conflict with Mozambican guerrillas in the 1970s. To get there, follow the Newala road out of Mtwara for about 35km to Nanguruwe, then turn left and drive for another two hours to Kitaya, where you can hire a local boat to take you 5km downstream to the lake.
(c) 2012 Philip Briggs