02/18/2014 10:13 am ET Updated Apr 20, 2014

Safari Njema: How to Road Trip Through Tanzania

When I first visited Tanzania in 2010, I brought only a carry-on suitcase and a small backpack. I was intending to be there for just three weeks.

I didn't leave until 2012.

Tanzania has a way of reeling you in. It is at once so challenging and raw, yet at the same time comforting and nurturing. It is verdant and it is arid. It is ocean and it is mountain; it is highway and it is island. For me, a 26-year-old teacher at the time, it was unlike any place I'd been before. I was in the middle of a trip around the world; I had just finished traveling through Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, leaving Egypt only weeks before it exploded. I was in Tanzania for three weeks, and then I would move on to Vietnam.

I never made it to Vietnam.

It wasn't just the country I fell in love with, however. I met my husband there, a tall Tanzanian geography teacher, the descendant of a mighty Hehe chief. Falling in love in a new country changes everything. It makes the sun shine brighter and just for you. Suddenly the red dirt roads -- which reminded me so dearly of the orange clay in my native North Carolina -- seemed romantic; the short rain bursts in the afternoon were intimate; the skittering noise of salamanders on the tin roof became darling. Frank is the reason I stayed, why Tanzania became indelibly part of me. I birthed our first daughter there, producing the first Tanzanian-American in either of our families. During our time together in Tanzania -- before we moved to the United States -- we moved to Dar es Salaam, a coastal city far from where we began near rural, mountainous Iringa. We made monthly road trips back to Iringa, to visit Frank's family. It was an eight-hour trip westward, and during that time I became an expert on enjoying the ride. Safari, after all, is simply the Swahili word for journey.

Here is how you take a road trip in Tanzania:

You start in Dar es Salaam. When you step off the plane, you will be hit by equatorial, tropical heat, a heat that intensifies and becomes smoky-smelling as you enter the city. Spend a few days here. Eat at unmarked pubs in the city centre, where you will order beef mishkaki, smoked on a grill in front of you, and rice, kachumbari, the best roasted chicken of your life, and soda from a glass bottle (cold, if the electricity works that day). Take a dala dala (the city bus) or a bajaj rickshaw to the fish market or one of the downtown bookstores. When you need fresh air, take the ferry across part of the Indian Ocean to Kigamboni, where you will eat pilau and vitumbua. You will be excited to go on a road trip at this point, tired from the infamous Dar es Salaam traffic jams that congest the city. You will love the ocean but be ready for mountains, for elephants and banana trees.

You will truly know the trip has begun when the palm trees fade away. Suddenly, perhaps half an hour before you reach Chalinze, the tropical humidity leaves the air. You stop sweating. You watch Masai guide goats and cows along the side of the road, and watch the towns pass you by. You're surprised at how far the sprawl of Dar really goes.

Eventually you pass Chalinze by; you pass old men drinking tea by the road, by women selling ruby-red tomatoes and vibrant purple onions on makeshift stands, by boys shooting pool on a roadside pool table. You'll stop near Morogoro, cruising past where crowds of vendors vie for business, selling What's Up juice and bags of ground nuts, greasy packages of chicken and chips, and hardboiled eggs. You'll find a small shop, where you order beef soup and piles of chapatti, and you squeeze limes into your soup and thirstily down a soda.

It's time for Mikumi. Mikumi National Park is a treasure, a surprise, a reminder that you aren't home any more. As you drive down the highway towards Iringa, the highway takes you through a national park, which is only mentioned by casual "hatari" caution sides and the occasional speed bump. Suddenly, villages and small towns melt away, and it's only wide-open spaces, acacia and baobab trees. You have to pause to let a herd of elephants cross the road; you grow overwhelmed by zebra eating lunch by the side of the road, by giraffes stretching their necks for a snack, by hundreds of gazelles roaming. You've heard the Tanzanian government is considering closing down this highway, something to do with profits, but you hope they don't, you hope that every Tanzanian and traveler has the chance to drive through a national park full of elephants.

As you leave Mikumi, you can feel the pull towards Iringa. You're over halfway now, and an hour later you stop at the Comfort Hotel, a rest stop at the foothills of the mountains. Many people use this opportunity to bargain with vendors, to get cheap charcoal to take home or a basket of tomatoes. You will use this opportunity to use the bathroom, the first one you've found since your stop in Morogoro. In the shade of a mango tree, you watch busses pull in and out. You stop by one of the small shops selling food, and quickly eat some roasted chicken. You get a sleeve of shortbread cookies for the car, and continue on your way.

As you wind up the mountains, the flat lands have disappeared, and now it is lush, verdant, leafy. You see glimpses of the Ruaha River, winding through the wooded area below. Baboons sit by the side of the road, calmly watching you drive by, as if waiting for a bus; some baboons have babies clinging to their bellies, a sight so dear you must close your eyes, for just a moment. But the climb up the mountain to Iringa is some white-knuckle driving, a testament to gravity. You try not to peer into the sharp drop off the side of the road, where there is rarely any guardrail. Instead, you try to focus on the trees, on the sky.

Soon enough, you are there. Driving through more villages, passing traffic police dozing in bright white uniforms at checkpoints, past lanky dogs and laughing children and cornfields. You stop in Ipogolo first, at the feet of Iringa, pulling in behind the motorcycles and crowded daladalas at the bus stop. It's time for soup and chapatti again, this time at an unmarked restaurant where a bibi (grandmother) makes chicken soup and the best, flakiest chapatti in the country.

And then you drive up into Iringa town, up a steep, long road that winds around the mountain, past people walking up it carrying goods to sell or teenagers with schoolbooks. You'll find a hotel, and an internet café, and then you'll sit in the shade and plan your next step, as you watch Masai wander by in bright purple and red plaid, cars stirring up dust. Maybe you'll take a safari in Ruaha, or spend a few days here before returning to Dar, then Zanzibar, or Kilimanjaro. All are good choices. All are adventures, captivating, memorable. But through those adventures, the drive will cling to you, the experience of cruising through the heart of the country. There are many things I will never forget about Tanzania: the crow of roosters that woke me in Ipogolo, the bright red flame trees in Dar es Salaam, the ugali made by my mother-in-law, the feeling of falling in love walking on a red dirt road. All of that and more awaits you, awaits anyone who will be adventurous enough to seek it.

Go to Tanzania. It is waiting for you.