Islands in the sun: The House of Wonders in Stone Town as seen from the ferry from Dar es Salaam. The Zanzibar Archipelago is a few hours by ferry from Dar es Salaam. Picture: 123RF/MAGDALENA PALUCHOWSKA
Islands in the sun: The House of Wonders in Stone Town as seen from the ferry from Dar es Salaam. The Zanzibar Archipelago is a few hours by ferry from Dar es Salaam. Picture: 123RF/MAGDALENA PALUCHOWSKA

“Karibu” — welcome — is said often in Tanzania, but our first few hours in the country made us feel anything but.

As it was a transport option endorsed by our hotel, we caught an Uber from the airport, crawling slowly towards the city through the steamy afternoon heat until we were flagged down by a ragtag bunch of officials.

Apparently, our driver’s plates didn’t match his licence paper. Twenty  minutes later, and with his negotiations still going nowhere, we left the vehicle. He admitted that the real reason was that we were white tourists they were hoping to make a buck off.

As the rain started to pour, we carried our bags a few blocks before hailing another Uber. Within seconds of getting inside the vehicle, another official had stopped the car.

He told us it wasn’t licensed to carry passengers, we had to find another one. We got out, cursing Uber and its greed in launching in a country where it hasn’t bothered to vet its drivers or ensure the smooth transit of its customers. Eventually we found an official taxi and proceeded smoothly to the Southern Sun hotel.

Arabesque touches: Piles of grains on display at a market in the city. Picture: SUPPLIED
Arabesque touches: Piles of grains on display at a market in the city. Picture: SUPPLIED

“Two rooms?” The manager on duty asked when we were checking in.

“No, just one.”

“Then two beds.”

I’m not sure if that was a question or a statement but I mumble a reluctant “yes” anyway. Homosexuality is still illegal in Tanzania and just two weeks before our visit, Dar es Salaam’s regional commissioner vowed to round up the city’s homosexuals and arrest them. The fact, too, that Angela Quintal, a SA former newspaper editor who now works with the Committee to Protect Journalists, had been briefly detained here recently was uppermost on my mind. I didn’t fancy getting a late-night visit from the police.

Later, after a swim in the hotel’s gorgeously large pool, we wandered along tree-lined streets to the Hyatt Regency The Kilimanjaro. I kept on stopping to admire the welter of tropical modernism on display — a midcentury feast of breeze blocks and lattices; smooth geometrics and clean lines.

The Kilimanjaro, built in 1965, continued the theme. Inside its warm-hued foyer were sleek armchairs, marble floors and a sexy spiral staircase.

We took the lift to Level 8, the rooftop bar. A DJ played profane hip-hop, surprising considering the Tanzanian authorities’ tendency to ban songs they consider immoral. Dusk was arriving: bruised clouds, fading sky, and steadily brightening city lights.

After 10 minutes of admiring the view, we managed to track down an elusive server. The menu he provided was short on explanations (what is Sex in the Jungle?) but big on misspellings.

The small crowd of casually dressed expats and glamorously attired locals grew as we guzzled Kilimanjaro beer.

We ordered delicious crunchy, spicy Mongolian lamb and a Malaysian-style seafood noodle curry from the Asian restaurant somewhere in the depths of the building.

Like magpies to silver, our eyes were drawn to the flashing coloured lights on a rooftop a few blocks away. We decided to investigate.

It is — like so many new buildings in this city  — a shiny, Chinese-built monstrosity. The lift smells of prison labour and cheap carpeting. We exit on the tenth floor, climbing another two staircases to reach the High Spirit. There could only have been five or six patrons in the vast place — lost between dance floors and the bar. After wasting 12,000 shillings (about R72) on two Jägermeister shots, we decide that perhaps it’s time to be grownups and return home.

While the Southern Sun is unashamedly a business chain hotel, its arabesque touches — alluding to Dar es Salaam’s Islamic heritage — add a dash of character. The rooms are immaculate and calming. Our third-floor digs had two double beds (which took up most of the room) — and sweeping views of a parking lot and office buildings.

The hotel is centrally located, close to embassies, government offices and corporate headquarters.

I’ve had better buffets (and less sullen service) but at least the setting for breakfast is pleasant. We sit outside on the balcony overlooking the pool and the adjoining Botanical Gardens, a ramshackle oasis. The morning is golden and dewy, a hint of burnt rubbish floating on the humid air.

Weekend to-do list

It’s a Saturday morning. We take a hotel transfer (which costs a staggering $25 for a 15-minute ride, so rather find a taxi instead) to the Slipway: a hotel and shopping precinct at the water’s edge.

Our dhow to Bongoyo takes a very pleasant half-an-hour. We are the first to arrive on the island, staking out a prime spot under a thatch “umbrella”. A man takes our lunch order from the simple, laminated menu — we choose braaied fish and octopus. We buy icy Serengeti beers and take these into the warm, clear water that laps against the powdery beach.

In the distance lies the mainland with its tower blocks; ahead of us, though, are dramatic cumulonimbus, skinny fishing boats, and the fuzz of another desert island floating on the horizon. After dozing, reading, and our tasty lunch, we strike out into the forest, strolling along a twisty, finicky coral path until we reach a mangrove encircled lagoon.

The day disappears faster than water melon juice through a straw: quickly it is time to get aboard the dhow. Back at The Slipway, we browse a shed stacked with curios, artworks and souvenirs — much of it pretty and charming, but it’s all interminably similar. We look inside a lovely little bookshop, A Novel Idea, and admire the simple, elegant locally made furniture in Domus Woodworks. The Green Room offers overpriced expat chic — a cheeseboard made with dhow wood, anyone?

As we take our seat at The Waterfront restaurant, golden light plays hide and seek with dramatic clouds. The food is delicious and, for Dar es Salaam, the service uncharacteristically friendly and efficient. We feast on lobster, tender sweet and spicy goat, and ugali (pap) served with a delicious coconut-infused anchovy, sautéed spinach and tomato stew.

The next day we walk from the Southern Sun to the nearby National Museum, a sumptuous albeit forlorn modernist building with cantilevered staircases. Exhibits, most of them tatty, chart the country’s history, from early humans to the present day. Outside is an array of vehicles, including two Rolls Royces, used by Tanzania’s first president, the socialist strongman Julius Nyerere. There’s also a moving memorial to the 1998 US embassy bombing by Al Qaeda.

After a swim in the hotel pool, it’s time for lunch. Leaving the embassy district behind, we reach Chefs Pride — a cafeteria of sorts filled with middle-class locals which has Swahili and Indian dishes — mostly centred around fish, chicken and mutton.

We eat fragrant, mildly spiced briyani and braaied pili pili chicken. On a stroll back through the quiet, humid streets we decide to take a detour to The Kilimanjaro hotel. We visit its tranquil, elegant spa for a very pleasant massage that leaves us ready to face the onslaught of the coming week.

If you don’t have the time, money or energy to travel to Zanzibar for a beach break before climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or embarking on your Serengeti safari, a couple of nights in Dar es Salaam is a rewarding alternative. Just don’t take Uber. And try not do anything that might get you arrested.

Matthews was a guest of Tsogo Sun.