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

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.

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.

``The winds come up the escarpment bringing rain and mist which are good for the tea. For three months of the year, we have a quality better than that of Ceylon or Darjeeling. During the remaining periods, our yields are good but average.''

The real rains, however, come from the north toward the end of the year. For several weeks beforehand, a spectacular wall of dark clouds accompanied by a rolling symphony of thunder and lightning moves in a bit closer every day. Around the beginning of December, it finally bursts in an overwhelming torrent of water over the highlands.

Fox also runs the 3,000-acre company farm designed to ensure food sufficiency. By Tanzanian standards, the approximately 4,500 employees at Brooke Bond are better off than most rural Tanzanians.

Good tea ``pluckers'' can earn between $5 and $10 a day at the official rate, in addition to their basic salaries during the flush periods -- a fair sum in this part of the world. But in a nation marked by acute shortages due largely to failed government policy, the main benefit is that the company is able to provide for its own -- running its own stores, technical workshops, and hospital.

Though seemingly patronizing, agrees Brooke Bond Chairman Malcolm Keeley, ``it is this element of self-sufficiency that enables us to get good people to work for us.'' It also permits the company to keep operating when supplies are not available through normal channels.

Driving along the red-earth colored tracks that criss-cross the Mufindi estates is like venturing into a vast botanical garden. Numerous dammed irrigation lakes stocked with fish, attract many species of birds.

Much of the region is taken up by tea farms with new plantations still being cut out of the wilderness. But the planters, who are avid conservationists, have striven to retain a patchwork of rain forest with its giant ferns, wild orchids, and colorful array of butterflies. Tracts of eucalyptus to give the tea factories replenishable fuel without depleting the woodlands are also cultivated.

But, while Mufindi may exist in splendid isolation, human pressures are steadily encroaching on the environment elsewhere in this area.

``When I first came here, there was rain forest everywhere,'' said Fox. ``Now, apart from the tea estates and the forest reserves much of it has gone.''

Fifteen years ago, buffalo, antelope, and even elephant still roamed the base of the escarpment.

Today, all that remain are troupes of monkeys: vervet and blue sykes. There are bush babies (lemur-like creatures), wild pigs, and occasionally a lion or leopard.

The constant search for firewood or lumber is taking an enormous toll, even in designated forest reserves. The Greek tobacco farmers near Iringa, who for years simply cut wood for their drying furnaces without bothering to replant seedlings, now drive 30 or 40 miles in search of fuel.

``But that's changing now,'' noted a West German forestry specialist working on reforestation plans for the Iringa region. ``The scarcity of petrol and high costs are forcing them to consider other possibilities. The locals, too, are finding it hard to find firewood. Replanting and maintaining forests for fuel is the only cheap and realistic alternative.''

The other huge problem facing Tanzania is unrestrained burning. Previously, many farmers practiced shift cultivation which meant moving from place to place to plant their crops. Burning the bush was a convenient way of clearing new land. But then they moved on, and the soil was given a chance to recover.

But today, farmers are less mobile, and there is less land. Huge portions of Tanzania are purposely put to the torch every year. Combined with indiscriminate woodcutting, the humus is gradually being destroyed or eroded and the countryside is turning into desert.

Laws established during the British mandate against such burning still stand, but little is done to deter such practices. The great need, however, is for improved agricultural methods not more, or better policed, laws.

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