I’m sitting outside our small cabin at the Fox Lodge, overlooking what can only be described as a perfect image from a movie. We are in Mufindi, which is in the southern highlands of Tanzania. We are 6,700 feet high, and the weather is cool compared to Dar. It is home to rolling hills and mountains, all verdant green, dotted with tea plantations, and small lakes. This lodge was started by an Englishman, Geoff Fox, who came to the area in 1959 to run tea estates for Unilever. The drive from Dar is a good 8 hours, and when you leave the paved road you assume that you are almost there. You assume wrongly. It is another 20 K over a rocky dirt road.
Hillary persuaded Alex, the deputy country director, that Bodie and I should join them on this trip. Alex is incredibly smart and insightful, but for some reason didn’t doubt the wisdom of two 10-hour drives with a two-year old.
The drive up from Dar crossed through the Mikumi National Park, and we saw gazelles, had to slow as an elephant crossed the road in front of our truck, and saw giraffes grazing from trees. Baboons lined the road, waiting for any trash that might be tossed. This should be reread – we drove on the highway and saw elephants, giraffes, baboons… absolutely incredible.
Ten hours later, like seeing an oasis emerge, we arrived at this amazing lodge with 7 little cabins. Beautifully manicured lawns dotted with extraordinary flowers wind between house-sized boulders to a stone lodge. A perfect croquet lawn was carved out of a hill, perfectly level, lawn clipped and immaculate, with the wickets set up and ready for people wearing their whites to play. We went into the lodge for wine, Bodie grabbed the bowl of freshly made popcorn, and we dined. One of the few times I can say that we dined versus ate and be certain of the difference. Delicious food overlooking horses grazing well below and cows off on the hillside and the sun setting over the tea fields. This little taste of colonialism was not a bad thing after the long trip.
Hillary and Alex left to go meet with a tea processor they work with and farmers. Bodie and I wandered up to the farm where we saw horses, ducks and a new baby sheep. Bodie got to bottle feed the sheep, which stood just shy of Bodie’s waist. The little sheep kept following Bodie, and Bodie kept baahing. Clearly there was a shared understanding of being dependent on others for food and too small to step over the puddles in the yard.
There is a balance of adventure I want to have with Bodie in tow. I want to explore new things, see things neither of us have seen before, yet know that I can return to safety quickly if I need to. The challenge is knowing where the boundary lies before crossing it. We went walking this morning based on a poorly hand-drawn map to a lake nearby. Everything now is framed as something Dora the Explorer would do. This means that it is always in three steps, that we dance and celebrate with each step, and then sing the “we did it” song afterwards. So this trip started by having to 1) pet the sheep 2) travel down the path 3) go to the lake. After the celebration of petting the sheep, we started down the path. I hadn’t built in what to do upon losing the path. So we improvised, yelling “path, where are you?” for a good 30 minutes. I was thinking that I might have crossed the line – lost in the remote highlands of Tanzania, singing Dora songs, and having no real idea where I was or where a path might be. We crashed through some brush onto a dirt road and traced it to a beautiful mountain lake with lily pads and blossoming red flowers. We were within the bounds.
Driving back through the tea fields, we saw people with woven baskets strapped on their backs, hand picking the tea. Tea can be mechanically picked, but the quality of good pickers finding the right leaves exceeds what a machine can do. The cost of labor here is cheap as well, making the choice for quality one that most tea estates opt for.
Unlike other crops that can be transported for processing, tea must be processed within 6 to 8 hours of being picked. So tea processing plants are set up in remote growing regions to be close to the fields. We stopped at the Mufindi Tea Company and saw vast troughs the size of croquet pitches (in deference to Geoff Fox) with large fans blowing warm air to dry tea. It is then put on conveyer belts to be macerated, fermented and processed. The factory is a combination of low and high-tech – people bagging vast trucks of tea by hand, and hanging sacks overhead flying hooks, and conveyer belts and machines chopping, fermenting and processing. Tea was invented in China thousands of years ago, and I noticed that all the machinery was also Chinese made.
On the way back, we stopped at the side of the road. Buckets of vegetables and fruits are piled for sale outside small shacks. Each bucket of onions, peppers, and tomatoes looks Whole Foods perfect, stacked to a perfect pyramid. Alex showed us that you need to get them to pour out the bucket and look in the middle as only the perfect ones end up on top, and the middle holds the old or damaged fruit. We came back with giant bags of onions, peppers and tomatoes.