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Tea time in Tanzania's rolling hills. Estates exist in splendid isolation, while other pressures encroach on habitat

By Edward GirardetSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 27, 1986

Iringa, Tanzania

It was growing dark as we turned off the main highway onto a dirt track heading for the southern highlands beyond. En route from Dar es Salaam to Malawi, still a good day's journey ahead, we hoped to spend the night among the reputedly beautiful tea estates of the Mufindi plateau. Its rolling plantations -- privately operated by two British firms, Brooke Bond and Lonrho -- are considered to be among Tanzania's most successful hard currency generating enterprises.

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Only recently, Lonrho, once described by a former British prime minister as the ``unacceptable face of capitalism,'' was asked by Tanzania's socialist government to return and reinvest in the country's ailing economy. This request included the return to Lonrho of the tea estates previously nationalized under former President Julius Nyerere.

For the next three hours, however, we wandered aimlessly in the pitch-black night through a hilly labyrinth of tea fields, pine forests, and pockets of corn fields with only an occasional villager to point the way.

Our initial directions were vague enough: Find the Foxes, an English tea planting family who run the Brooke Bond Guest House and who live, we had been told, somewhere ``off the main road past Iringa.'' For a magnificent land of wide open spaces the size of Tanzania, such guidance didn't narrow things down much.

To make matters worse, the Land-Rover was barely limping along. (Overheating, we later discovered, had caused the engine block to crack and only two cylinders out of four were functioning.) Utterly lost, we debated rolling out the sleeping bags and waiting for morning's first light.

It was then that Jonas, a cheery Tanzanian managing one of the tea estates, happened along in his pickup. ``The Foxes?'' he exclaimed. ``Oh my, you're miles out of the way. You'd better follow me.'' Displaying the sort of unquestioning hospitality one encounters again and again among so many east Africans, he guided us 30 miles out of his way.

It was almost midnight when we finally reached the Fox family home. They greeted us, three visitors they had never before seen, as though our late-night arrival were the most natural thing in the world. ``I'm sorry I can't shake hands,'' said Vicky Fox, a bustling Devonshire woman, as she extended her elbow. ``I've just been pulling a calf. Nothing serious. It just needed a little help. But we'd better find you a bed, hadn't we?''

Six weeks later, we finally left the Iringa region. The difficulty of obtaining spare parts for the Land-Rover, a constant dilemma in Tanzania, had delayed our departure.

Nevertheless, it was a fortuitous breakdown. We met the most extraordinary kindness among the Tanzanian, European, and Asian population of the region, and it gave us the opportunity to explore parts of southwestern Tanzania.

At 6,500 feet, the Mufindi plateau is an exquisitely attractive region of mist-covered lakes and valleys, sprawling expanses of pine and eucalyptus, and thick belts of indigenous rain forest. With its constantly changing light and crisp smells, one is reminded at times of rural Maine, at times of southern California.

But then, of course, there is the tea. First established by German settlers during the early 20th century, initially as a coffee-growing area, then as a tea-growing district, the estates came into British hands during World War II when the Germans were interned. Now, there is only one German tea family left. The rest are British or Tanzanian.

Geoff Fox, who first came out as a young planter in 1957, six years prior to Tanzanian independence, is perpetually dressed in shorts and knee socks -- even during the highland winter chill when low temperatures can ``burn'' the tea red with frost. ``You're in the tropics now. So you might as well get used to it,'' he quipped as he strode with typical exuberance through the estate he manages, one of nine owned by Brooke Bond.

``Tea grows well in these parts because of the escarpment,'' Mr. Fox explained as he took us along a rain forest path toward the Mgololo Valley below. As with many settlers who have committed themselves to Tanzania, he speaks both with enthusiasm and tenderness about this country's countless attributes.