Overland from the South Coast to the Southern Highlands

One of the most rugged, remote and little-used routes in Tanzania connects the south coast to the southern highlands and Lake Nyasa region via the towns of Masasi, Tunduru and Songea. You’d want at least two days to cover this route in a private vehicle, and should bank on three or four using public transport. Travel conditions are highly variable: an excellent surfaced road and numerous buses connects Lindi and Mtwara to Masasi, but things deteriorate quickly after that, both in terms of road surfaces and regularity and quality of public transport. Accommodation tends to be rather basic throughout.

Masasi Situated at the base of the Makonde Plateau, Masasi was founded as a Universities Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) refuge for freed slaves in 1875. Best known today as the birthplace of former president Benjamin Mkapa, it has since grown to be a rather bustling and prosperous small town, though its coastal nickname Kama Ulaya (‘Like Europe’) flatters to deceive. Sprawling untidily along one long main strip of asphalt, it is surrounded by a striking cluster of granite outcrops that tower to an elevation of 951m above the plains. If you want to explore these hills or nearly Makonde Plateau with a guide, talk to the Masasi Association of Geography and Antiquity office (Ø 023 251 0267) close to the Holiday Motel.

The surfaced 125km road that connects Masasi to Mnazi Moja on the main Lindi–Mtwara route is in good condition, and regular buses cover it in around three hours coming from Lindi or five hours from Mtwara. Masasi has more than its fair share of indifferent local guesthouses. The Holiday Motel (Ø 023 251 0108) diagonally opposite the bus station is as good as any, charging Tsh8,000 for an en-suite double with net, fan and TV; or you could try the nearby and somewhat smarter Masasi Inn (Ø 023 251 0055), which has en-suite rooms with AC, net, hot water and TV for Tsh30,000 and a decent restaurant serving Indian and continental dishes for Tsh4,000–8,000. There are plenty of local eateries to choose from.

Tunduru About 200km west of Masasi, Tunduru can be reached either by the daily bus (departs 09.00 and takes around eight hours) or 4×4 dala-dala, with the latter being faster and more reliable, especially after rain. It’s a rough sandy road through a thinly inhabited area, but at most villages you find hawkers selling water, chicken, cashew nuts etc. An old mining town, Tunduru enjoyed some notoriety in the late 1980s, when almost 50 people were killed by man-eating lions before they were shot. There are a few basic accommodation options, of which Naweka and Yakati guesthouses are worth a try.

Travel-wise, the 273km road from Tunduru to Songea is more of the same, serviced by one daily bus (seven to nine hours, departing 06.00; book in advance) and a few slightly faster 4×4 dala-dalas. The trip passes through many uninhabited areas, though some refreshments are available en route at Namtumbo.

Songea The main town on the Ngoni people (see comment below), Songea is a route focus of sorts, sitting at the three-way junction of the dirt road from Tunduru, a surfaced road to Makambako (on the Tanzam Highway between Iringa and Mbeya) and a rougher road down the Rift Valley escarpment to Mbamba Bay on Lake Nyasa. The town’s busy market and general state of good repair reflect its status as the fastest growing town in Tanzania and an important centre of gemstone trade (sapphires and rubies are both found here). Of historical interest is the Maji Maji Museum and Monument (ø 08.00–16.00 Mon–Fri) next to the tree where the German colonisers hanged several Ngoni chiefs involved in the Maji Maji rebellion in 1907.

For those with private transport, the best place to stay is the White House Hotel (Ø 025 260 0892), which lies 2km out of town along the Njombe Road, charges around Tsh15,000 for an en-suite double, and serves reasonable food. More central budget options include the Africa House Executive Lodge  (Ø 025 260 2921) and Yulander Holiday Lodge.

The uncomplicated onward option from Songea is the 300km surfaced road to Makambako, which takes three to four hours in a private vehicle, and a bit longer by bus (services include a daily Scandinavia Coach on to Dar es Salaam). The main urban punctuation along this road is Njombe, a quiet highland town with a surprisingly chaotic bus station and several overnight options including the pleasant Chani and Milimani motels, both with en-suite rooms, and the more basic Lutheran Centre Hostel.Alternatively, at Makambako, the junction town on the Tanzam Highway, the unexpectedly good Uplands Hotel(Ø 025 273 0201) and Jay Jay Highlands Hotel (Ø 026 273 0475; http://www.jayjay.highlandshotel.4t.com), both charge around US$12 for an en-suite double with hot water.

The more adventurous gateway out of Songea is the Lake Nyasa port of Mbamba Bay, a small port of clay-brick, thatched houses set on a pretty coconut-lined beach whose western orientation offers good sunsets. Mbamba Bay is connected to Itungi Port (near Kyela) on the western lakeshore by a thrice-weekly domestic ferry link. A rough but spectacular 170km road leads down the Rift Valley escarpment from Songea to Mbamba Bay via Mbinga. There are buses as far as Mbinga, but the last 65km between here and Mbamba Bay are covered by 4×4 dala-dalas only, and can be hair-raisingly slippery. The pick of the hotels in Mbamba Bay are the laboriously named Neema Beach Guest Garden Hotel Bar and Pharmacy and more succinct Nyasa View Lodge, both of which charge around US$10 for a double and have bar/restaurants.

(c) Philip Briggs 2012


One thought on “Overland from the South Coast to the Southern Highlands

  1. philipbriggs says:

    The Ngoni

    The Ngoni of Songea are an offshoot of the Nguni of South Africa. Originally known as the Ndwandwe, the proto-Ngoni, led by Chief Zwangendaba, crossed the Limpopo in the early 1820s to flee the warmongering associated with the creation of the Zulu Kingdom by the iconic King Shaka. The Ndwandwe, inspired by the military innovations and militancy that had served Shaka so well, cut a bloody swathe through present-day Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi, raiding local communities for cattle, crops and women until the plundered resources were depleted, before pushing on to Ufipa, to the east of Lake Tanganyika, in 1845.

    Zwangendaba died in 1848, leading to a heated secession battle that split the Ngoni into several factions. As a result, a large splinter group led by the former royal advisor Chief Mbonani fled in the direction of Lake Nyasa and settled there for several years. In the 1860s, the Ngoni expanded coastward, launching merciless attacks on smaller tribes who were then co-opted into the kingdom under the local leadership of trusted generals – the most famous of whom, incidentally, was Songea, whose camp lay about 2km from the modern town that bears his name.

    The Ngoni Empire peaked in influence during the 1880s, when it controlled most of the interior between the coast and Lake Nyasa. It had by this time forged a strong trade relationship with the Arab merchants of Kilwa and Mikindani; indeed it was brutal Ngoni slave raids that provided most of the human booty sold at these coastal ports. The indigenous tribes of the region – or at least those who had survived the slave raids – were fully integrated into the Ngoni Kingdom, and comprised the bulk of the royal army. Nevertheless, a rigid social distinction existed between ‘true’ Ngoni descendants of the Ndwandwe, and newer recruits, with all leadership roles reserved exclusively for the former.

    In 1897, the Germans established a military base at Gumbiro, 70km north of modern-day Songea. The Ngoni offered little initial resistance to the colonists, hoping to forge a similar trade relationship to the one they had enjoyed with the Arab merchants. However, Germany rapidly demonstrated that it would support only those Ngoni chiefs and generals who subordinated themselves to the colonial authorities. In September 1905, spurred by news of the Maji Maji Rebellion elsewhere in the territory, King Chabruma launched an unsuccessful attack on the Gumbiro garrison and razed the Benedictine Mission at Maposeni. Following this, the Ngoni army was soundly defeated by the Germans in a bloody battle.

    Not content with this decisive victory, the Germans launched a series of arbitrary punitive raids, razing crops, destroying homes and executing villagers at whim. Chabruma fled, to die in exile in Mozambique. Other chiefs and military leaders were hanged by the Germans, robbing the Ngoni of legitimate leadership from grassroots up. By the end of the decade, the Ngoni Kingdom, born of violence only 50 years earlier, was essentially an entity of the past – destroyed by a similarly ruthless but better armed conquering power.

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