Ground Zero for the tourists in Northern Tanzania is the town of Arusha. 99% of the travellers who pass through here will be here for the game parks. There are almost a hundred companies set up for you to explore these parks and after spending up to ten days in the bush Arusha becomes a beacon of civilisation surrounded by the wilds of Tanzania.
It’s actually closer to Nairobi in Kenya then it is to Dar es Salaam or the sleepy capital of Dodoma. You can take the bus up from Dar es Salaam in a ten hour journey. But more likely you will come from Nairobi and take the bumpy road down to the border at Namanga. Arusha is about another two hours from there. You can also fly for about $100 from Wilson airport in Nairobi or come in from Dar es Salaam or Zanzibar. The airport for Arusha is between it and Moshi and is fifty miles east of town. There is no public transport from the airport and taxis charge up to $50 into town.
It’s not quite true that Arusha is just a tourist town. All the volcanic soil around here is perfect for growing coffee, wheat, bananas, vegetables and most of the flowers exported to Europe. The whole town is overlooked by Mt Meru – a truly spectacular mountain which is a much more sheer climb then Kilimanjaro and it has to be said Arusha is a pleasant green well-laid out town with gardens and streams.
There is a centre which is a griddle of streets with the Makongoro Road at the top, and a set of paralell streets leading down to the Sokoine Road. There is a real scruffy African market in the centre. Most tourists stay in mega hotels on the outskirts and are picked up and dropped off by landrover/safari vehicle. The real Arusha is not seen by most tourists.
I tried out a hotel right on the Makongoro Road right in the centre of the action. I took a day out after getting back from the game parks to just kick back and explore Arusha. To be frank, the cities in East Africa are not the main attraction – you dont cross the ocean to visit Nairobi or Arusha. Arusha isnt a bad town – there are lots of services here to keep the tourists happy. I was in the African section and it was a real plunge into the continent –shoe vendors line the street, women with baskets pushed by, cars were parked half way up the pavement and gangs of men stood idly about chatting.
One morning I walked down to the Sokoine Road to run some errands. The streets leading down are rather tatty but no one pays you any attention and it was interesting watching Africa going about its business. The range of people here was extraordinary – Maasai warriors, teenagers, Indians with saris – I was agog at the Africans ability to socialise – they seemed to have friends on every corner.
On the Sokoine Road is huge Supermarket (PriceRight) and numerous webcafes. At the end of the Road is the "Clocktower" where hawkers for cheap safaris hang out. They also hang out at the bus station and will literally shadow any newcomers for their custom. If you haven’t got a safari booked then you will be targeted. Each tourist is a valuable commodity and the business can get very cut-throat.
There’s nothing to worry about in Arusha and if you wish to take time out to look at Africa away from the game parks and luxury lodges then this is as good a place as any.