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A Trek to Kilwa Kisiwani, Part I

Stuck. Again.

And yet, this time, the only nuance to our predicament was that our bus, ensnared by two feet of unrelenting Tanzanian mud impervious and unsympathetic to our ambitions of reaching the coast in anything resembling a reasonable timeframe, was clearly going nowhere. The good news (at least for our band of sweaty and fatigued travelers) was that our ever-intrepid driver, convinced that he could navigate the sludge that had, mere seconds before, swallowed its first automotive victim, succeeded in depositing our craft so close to our immobile neighbors that no other vehicle would even contemplate passing. By so effectively sealing the entire road—essentially cutting off passage between the entire northern and southern coast of the country—progress for anyone in the growing caravan of frustration would require our predicament to be dealt with first.

The road from Dar es Salaam to Kilwa Misoko, the sleepy coastal village providing access to the historic ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani, spans roughly 300 kilometers—of which 80 kilometers remain largely unpaved and unmaintained. Three hours after leaving Dar, we departed paved efficiency. The resulting path coils around the planned government road, a series of bumps, plunges, and lurches that we became convinced had been cosmically designed to challenge the constitution of our stomach. Encroaching branches lashed windows, forcing their closure until the heat and humidity became unbearable and wind trumped the occasional vegetative slap.

In the wet season, the road becomes even more formidable an adversary. Troughs turn to murky lakes harboring muddy jaws awaiting any unsuspecting or unprepared vehicle.

Such was the predicament we found ourselves in seven hours into the journey. A day that had begun full of ambition as we zipped along miles of tarmac, past sun-soaked rice fields and small villages nestled under the shade of banana trees and oil palms, had stalled—at least metaphorically. As our fearless driver continued hammering the accelerator with unrelenting zeal, my friend Toby and I joined our fellow bus ‘inmates' in disembarking to seek shady relief from a sun quickly approaching its zenith. Reaching the mouth of our trapped beast, I found our vessel ringed by the brown-grey gelatinous stew that impeded our progress. While many resigned themselves to a shoeless slog to safety, my long-jumping aspirations from a failed 7th grade track career were immediately called back into action. A mighty leap brought temporary liberation from our steel captor, but as momentum carried me forward, so too did my left foot—sans a stuck shoe. Struggling to regain balance on one leg, I became acutely aware of the humor of my situation, which was beginning to elicit laughter from those surrounding the bus. Two thumbs up and a sheepish Asante—Kiswahili for “thank you”—only succeeded in drawing further cachinnations.

By the time we found shade, my watch read 1:00. By the time our savior— in the form of a giant yellow tractor—arrived and wrestled us out, my watch read 3:30. Arrival at our destination took another two hours, but the enthusiasm of all was palpable. We had made it through, which was more than could be said for our trapped comrades who, despite being freed, would be dealing with a broken transmission for hours (if not days) to come.

Our destination made it all worthwhile. After depositing our belongings into rooms made from shipping containers, we left our pale, corrugated dwellings and followed a short road through town to a beach overlooking Kilwa Kisiwani. Cool sand and a gentle breeze greeted our arrival. Few beers have tasted as good…