Thursday, December 13, 2007
Monday, November 26, 2007
Saturday, November 24, 2007
Friends Rebecca and Joe from DC were visiting Ghana this week.
As you can see, they came prepared...definitely prepared for Ghana. REI is great!
Small children waited patiently with baskets and aluminum bowls for the catch to be revealed.
Saturday, November 03, 2007
Part two of two (thank goodness, right). I'll try to wrap this sucker up shortly. Any of the included photos can be viewed in larger format by simply double-clicking on it.
The Land Cruiser and driver met us at camp at 6am to whisk us up and over the 8000' rim that creates the Ngorongoro Crater. 2300' below the crater rim is teeming with all sorts of critter life.
King and Queen of the crater (these were taken just after they mated - we captured that moment as well but thought it might not be an appropriate image for a G-rated (so far) blog)
Hyenas - it was fascinating to watch the other wildlife quietly move away as these guys approached. Earlier we had seen some hyenas finishing off the bloody remains of a zebra that obviously hadn't moved away in time.
The black dot in the center is (honest) the highly endangered black rhino. There are only 25 of them in Ngorongoro. We got a good view through the binocs...
We headed north to the land border crossing into Kenya at Namanga. Along the way, Sabrina's fuel supply line sprang a leak - no doubt a victim of rattling down washboard roads. Come to think of it, Sabrina did seem a bit sluggish up some of the hills. As SJD, Trevor and I pondered our fate, ate some popcorn and looked for shade, Scott and Fish scurried under and inside Sabrina taking it all in stride. Hakuna matata... Matters were under control before we could panic and grab the bikes to attempt a self rescue.
Onward up the road to the border crossing. Entry visas were obtained easily enough and we were allowed to proceed to the start of the day's ride.
We decided to take our own bikes on this trip. We had the option of renting bikes, but reasoned that 550Km on an unfamiliar bike would be a bit of a drag. So we have well traveled bikes.
The only modifications we made before the trip were to the tires. Actually, we replaced the tubes with Slime tubes - self-sealing ooze limits the number of thorm punctures. Also, we installed tire liners between the tire and tube. Same effect.
The rest of the bike remained in normal XC mode – rather Africa proof and simple.)
Fish and Scott made a simple but delicious picnic up on top of Solomon's Rock as we watched the stars take over the night sky.
Two local Maasai were hired to watch the camp as we slept, keeping hyenas at bay. They made a small fire and chit chatted softly until the morning. I assume the spears were for real.
Word had spread quickly that we were passing through the area and morning brought several Maasai men and women jewelry vendors out of the distant villages to visit our camp. They unrolled their blankets to display their handiwork for us to peruse, bargain and purchase. It is a shame that I'm not necessarily a big fan of the colorful bead bracelets and dangly earrings. What looks completely appropriate on the Maasai, seems a bit ludicrous on me. I made up my mind to buy something from every third person.
We met a Maasai man named Solomon who gave us a tour of his family compound on the opposite side of Solomon's rock. (Oh, now I get it.) He was very open and honest about the Maasai culture and practices. We asked whether they continued the practice of female circumcision and Solomon matter-of-factly said the government tries to stop it but they are not ready to give it up. Easier to understand customs such as how the males become warriors were explained as well.
Solomon's two wives and eight children live in the compound with two other family groups. I asked if they get along - the wives- and he replied, "yes" but was quick to move onto the next subject. He said his mother wants him to take a third wife but he's not so sure he's up for it.
This house that SJD is posed beside to provide some scale seemed to be fairly typical construction - branches tied together for structure; dung to cement things together; low, thatch roof. Solomon indicated that much of the family had relocated 5-10Km south (probably into Tanzania) to be closer to more reliable water sources. Once the rainy season resumes, the family and livestock will likely move back.
This is the local school. How did we miss it right there under the acacia tree when rode in the previous afternoon? Solomon introduced us to the teachers and students who were all on perfect behaviour. SJD and I were handed chalk and asked to teach the class for few minutes. We froze for a moment wondering just what we might say. Economics? I'm still juggling currency conversion rates. Construction? I could learn a lot here. Geography? I'm not even sure where I am let alone which other countries border Kenya besides Tanzania. Then it clicked.
The little boy drawing the giraffe was such a picture of concentration. He took several minutes to carefully draw a long neck and a box-like body and little ears. His classmates watched with delight and rewarded him with a big round of applause.
Of course more singing broke out. The children entertained us with several verses of "one little, two little, three little elephants" accompanied by clapping and percussion on the benches. Very cute.
After all this excitement we geared up for a short ride across the dry Lake Amboseli into a stiff head wind. But first we had to take turns riding each other's bikes.
We jumped back into the bus before entering Amboseli NP since carnivores and other tramplers and head butters were present in the area. Camp for the night was inside the confines of a rather flimsy electrified fence. There was plenty of evidence that elephants passed through regularly. Trampled fence poles and piles of dung here and there.
Another windy sunset, then dinner at the base on the north side of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Wildlife viewing is best in the morning hours before the heat of the day - although I would argue that the sun is pretty intense even at 9am. We packed up camp and headed out on a two hour self-driven loop through Amboseli NP. As required, we drove very slowly and stayed on the established track but apparently no one told a large male elephant that was SOP. He made some unhappy sounding noises as he approached the bus and seemed on the verge of poking a tusk through the window. We had no desire to upset so sneaked off as quietly as a bus can.
Once again we were lucky to have Kilimanjaro as a backdrop and soaked up the iconic scenes of wildlife seeming to pose for us in front of the mountain.
At our deserted lunch stop, we quickly attracted a crowd of children who seemed to materialize out of nowhere on their way home from school. They watched our every move ... before we left, we gave many a turn on the bike.
As we prepared to turn in for the night, we looked a bit anxiously at the gray clouds and wondered if we might need to put the rain fly over the tent. Robert assured us that it would not rain until November 14. A few hours later we were all scrambling in the moonlight and wind to get the rain flies over our tents before we were soaked by the rain....
We hit the road early knowing that a 77Km ride with 2000' of climbing awaited. Scott mentioned that this was a trucking route, although we saw maybe eight vehicles the entire day -- one of which came roaring and sliding down a hill at us; we wisely got off the road for a moment to let it pass. The term “highway” in these parts takes on a different meaning. More cattle, donkey and ostrich and zebra used the road than vehicles.
For whatever reason we made good time since finally, we we're able to take advantage of a tail wind. My rear tire developed a slow leak that didn't seem to seal properly until later in the ride. Considering how far we'd come already without any major mishaps, I was pretty pleased.
The home stretch and into Nairobi. We were not in any hurry to eat breakfast or break down camp, and in doing so got dumped on by a brief rain storm. It was just enough rain to make packing a mess, and cause us to rethink the final bike route. Scott thought the tracks might be a bit of a quagmire for the bikes and bus. I didn't really feel like dragging a filthy bike through a Nairobi hotel lobby either. The decision was made to stick to the paved road. Not the most exciting option in the end, although the Kenyan rural roads are in even worse condition than some of the roads in the remote corners of Ghana - and this is just 30Km outside of Nairobi -- so we had ample opportunity to practice bunny hopping potholes.
We loaded the bikes into Sabrina and drove the final few Km into the center of Nairobi to our final destination, the Heron Hotel. After all those nights sleeping on the ground, a real bed felt downright odd.
Following a farewell breakfast with our group, SJD and I headed into the city center on foot to wander, window shop, snack and relax. Nairobi is a big city with busy public parks, crowded sidewalks, proper storefronts, cafes and action - so much larger feeling than Accra and in some ways Washington, DC. During the daylight hours, it was pleasant and inviting. The National Museum was closed for renovation so no serious educating took place, but we visited the memorial at the site of the US Embassy bombing back in 1998 before heading back to the hotel for a quiet dinner.
We're back in Accra now with two dusty bikes to reassemble sitting in the middle of the foyer.
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Back on 10/11 we arrived in bustling Dar Es Salaam right around afternoon rush with two boxed bikes and three duffel bags. The pre-arranged transport to the beach villa was waiting outside the airport to scoop us up. A bit to our suprise, the transport was simply a compact Toyota Corolla. Let the adventure begin...
Waiting to join the ferry crossing.
With one bike box hanging precariously out of the trunk and the other across SJD's lap in the back seat we made our way across town to catch the ferry, and continued down to Kipepeo Beach Village a few Km south of Dar.
Kipepeo beach chalet
Safe and sound we moved into our chalet, napped and then hit the white sand beach.
No vicious Gulf of Guinea under-tow sucking us out to Zanzibar. Just crystal clear warm water. Colors were spectacular.
The next day, Friday, we hailed a taxi back into Dar simply to hit an ATM and say that we've been there. There wasn't much time really to do much exploring. Wasn't much going on either. Friday was the last day of Ramadan, so most streets were empty and shops closed. We headed back to Kipepeo to swim, reassemble bikes and eventually meet the rest of our biking group and guides.
Our biking group was quite small. In fact, SJD and I made up 2/3 of the paying customers. The third biker, a Brit, made up the other 1/3. The two guides, Scott and Fish (short for Falesha). Just five of us. Normally the entire group is twn or eleven. Knowing that mechanicals and accidents seem to multiply exponentially with larger groups, we felt a bit lucky to be a sleek an somewhat inconspicuous group. Fish and Scott explained a typical day, and what to expect along the way.
Bright and early Saturday morning with the bus loaded we left Dar behind to avoid simply battling traffic. Since I get to deal enough with horrible drivers in Accra, I was happy to sit back and take in the scenery for an hour or so. There would be plenty of riding in the days ahead.
(A few quick notes on units of measure.
Distances: They'll be measured in Km, instead of miles since 100km sounds further than 62.4 miles.
Elevation: Recorded in feet rather than meters for the same reason, and nobody really likes to multiply by 3 to get an approximate elevation in meters.
Time: Standard African time applies. Leave the watch in your pocket. A rooster will let you know that you need to wake up in one hour.)
Before lunch we pulled to the side of the road outside of Dar to start the day's riding segment - a mostly flat dirt road out to the seaside town of Bagamoyo. Spinning the legs felt good after being cramped in airlines, taxis and lounging on the beach. The ride was not all that long, 25km, but was quite hot and humid and provided a decent opportunity to make sure the bikes were operating properly. Although SJD and I have adapted somewhat to similar weather in Ghana, Trevor (the Brit), having come from a much more dreary and cooler UK seemed to struggle a bit in the tropical climate. He seemed to perk up a bit with a beer and sunscreen.
Later that afternoon we strolled into the dusty center of Bagamoyo to scope out two small local artists' galleries. I noted that many of the wood carvings I see available in Ghana look remarkably similar to those in Bagamoyo. Masks, animals, heads. I bought just one knowing that the opportunity to shop would come again later down the road.
Even though the town sees tourists now and again, I was still quite the novelty for this little one.
We departed Bagamoyo by bike for a much longer and hotter 65km stretch heading inland. Pretty quickly we were far from any major towns and safely away from any vehicles except bikes. Lots of people on the all too familiar Phoenix singlespeed - a.k.a. The Black Mambo -covering decent distances.
SJD bridges a gap on the Black mambo
A bit optimistic perhaps, Trevor thought he had spotted a giraffe far accross an open field. We all stopped briefly but realised he has spotted a parked yellow Caterpillar backhoe. Be patient. No animals today, except for a spooked baboon or two scampering away into the bush.
The ride segment headed mostly west and inland a few hours. Scott followed in the bus a few minutes back and picked us up before we reached the main north-south highway. We drove north an hour through enormous sisal plantations to our camp site in the junction town of Segura.
Noticeable, so far, compared to Ghana has been the lack of speeding privately owned cars, sputtering taxis and rickety over-loaded tro-tros . Ghana is full of them. Transport in TZ, so far, seems dominated by large buses and tractor-trailers. Not sure if we're just way far away from any towns, or just a indicator of some economic status best left to someone else to analyze. Whatever the case, it makes traveling seem a bit less death defying even if the habit of passing on blind curves and crests of hills was readily observed. Roads too - so far - seem to be pothole free, albeit narrow.
We've settled into a morning routine already of: wake up at 6am; pack tent and sleeping bags; eat breakfast; load bus; depart by 7:30 am. Small groups are nice.
While loading the bus, I heard a crash from the nearby junction. I walked around the front of the building but didn't see anything obvious, so went back to loading. A half-hour later as we were driving away, we saw the remnants of the mishap - overloaded tractor-trailer misjudged corner plowing into ditch and power pole. I spoke too soon apparently.
Fish drove steadily north towards the lush Usambara Mountains - apparently the highest population density outside of Dar Es Salaam. We followed a steep and winding mountain road up through the small towns of Lushoto and Soni. The hillsides are lush from the mountain streams and are heavily cultivated with vegetables I have not seen in several months. Fish did some quick window shopping for veggies in Soni - literally out the bus window -before pulling over to unload the bikes.
We rode a few more km up the road before hitting the jeep tracks, attracting a retinue of small children running alongside, and a stop at Irente's overlook. The last few hundred meters before the overlook included some steep pitches. SJD and Fish were cheered on by some old gents sitting near the track and sailed right to the top; I tried to put on a burst of power and snapped my chain...
We were all rewarded with great views at the top.
Everyone lines up to slap my hands.
We continued climbing and following ridge contours, and attracting a crowd of children whenever we stopped, before ending our 45km ride zipping a lengthy downhill into camp - a former colonial era farm now a campsite and lodge run by a German, Mr. Muller. Nice place. We enjoyed the cool mountain air at elevation 5200'.
No biking today. Instead, we met a local man named Francis who acted as tour guide and answer man. Francis is a retired elementary school teacher - taught for 35 years. Everyone knows Francis in these parts it seems, and he is quick to greet people as well as scold school kids who are late to class. He lead us on a brisk hike up the side of the hills through fruit and veggie crops to the Mkuzi primary school.
At Mkuzi, the students were rehearsing for an upcoming Parents' Day presentation, so formal class studying was being put aside. We were treated as special guests - greated by the entire teaching staff for a short Q&A session that we were not really prepared for. What did we learn?
- English is the dreaded subject (and even the english teacher seemed to have a pretty slim grasp of the language).
- 75% students pass primary school exams, but many can't afford to pay the fees to continue to secondary school when families must pick up half the cost, about $20.
- Children are taught about HIV/AIDS.
- Nine of the twelve teachers were women. None of us westerners considered this to be odd, until Francis pointed out that only relatively recently have women been given the opportunity to earn money outside of the house.
Afterwards, the students - all 400 of them sang and danced a few songs for us. Very cute. One of the teachers tried to teach SJD the moves. She gets an A for effort but just a C+ for full flow and rhythm.
SJD kinda has the hang of the hop, skip, wiggle, clap dance.
The hike though the village continued with stops here and there for Francis to purhase a single cigarette, or show us his house before arriving back at camp.
BEP and Trevor
SJD and I headed back out on our own looking for a nearby waterfall. Along the way a teen decided he would be our escort, guessing that anyone heading that direction must be going to the waterfall afterall. He never announced his intent or asked permission, but simply walked about ten steps in front of us for a good half hour. We paused before heading into the woods behind him, and then had to make it clear that we did not want him following us. He did anyways, and was joined by several smaller boys. They all just kept an eye on us from a distance when we stopped to rest on the boulder below the falls. Kind of creepy, but mostly just annoying. Sorry pal, no tip for you. He followed us back into town another half hour, but seemed content that we didn't offer a tip. Weird eh?
Ok, another GH:TZ observation is this. Kids in Ghana (and plenty adults) love to scream "obroni, obroni, obroni...give me X" at us until we think they might just pass out. It is so grating after a while. The swahili word for white man/european is "mizunga" and the children do call out but more often than not, they just shout out a cheery "jambo" (hello in swahili) with a big smile. A nice vibe. We quickly mastered jambo and a few other swahili words so we could return their cheery greetings.
Fish prepared camp fire charred veggies for dinner and chocolate cake cooked over the coals. Yum.
After breakfast of crepes with banana sauce, we loaded the bus and departed on a longish serpentine ride through the Usambara Mountains. So far the weather had cooperated, but just started to spit rain as we rolled out.
The rain continued on and off for most of the day. Once you're wet you're wet, and even if the sun comes out you'll still be wet, so you might as well just forget about it and enjoy the ride. So we did. More heart pumping climbs leading up to incredible views as well as a stop at a Benedictine Monastery with a beautiful garden in the midst of their orchard and farm. SD bought some of the local macadamia nuts. I certainly did not envision Africa looking like this.
We made quick business of the long descent out of Soni - dropping from elevation 5868' to 2019' in 21Km. A total of about 55 km on the bike for the day. Changed into dry clothes, ate lunch, and packed the bikes to drive north to Pangani River Camp.
The view of the gentle river was nice but was also home to some really vicious mosquitos who did not seem to find clothing or deet to be a barrier to biting. Soon after dinner we retreated to the tents.
Pangani River Camp at sunset
In the morning, we rode out of Pangani Camp heading north along rail road tracks some 40Km at a pretty good pace. Pretty flat, straight and not very interesting. We more or less skirted a mountain slope, but visually the scenery never changed much and one needed to be attentive to avoid slipping on off-camber bits or weird drainage gizmos. A passing train would have been interesting to see, but that didn't materialize. It was a good work out I guess.
Me along the RR
Ahead of schedule again, we loaded the bus (aka Sabrina) and headed north to camp at the ominously named Snake Pit Farm near Moshi for the night. I think the guides were probably thinking by now that this group is way too easy - up on time, efficient and more or less self reliant.
Moshi lies pretty much dead south of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and seems to be a base for many of the trekking companies. When skies are clear you can get a decent panorama view left to right. Skies cleared just before sundown.
Mt. Kilamanjaro in the monring sun
Sure looks like you could just walk up the side to the summit, doesn't it?
Before the sun totally dissappeared, SJD and I wandered through the dusty village looking for activity.
These children posed with their "cars".
The best activity can usually be found at the local beer vendor. We happended to be around when the delivery bike came by. That would be 60 bottles balanced on top. Crazy! Note the small rock placed in front of the front tire to keep the entire load from rolling away.
On to the big city of Arusha for a half day visit without any scheduled activities. We managed to ditch the touts and money changers that greeted us as soon as we stepped from the bus. (Yeah, easy target.) We simply wandered through the produce markets marveling at how orderly everything appeared compared to markets back in Accra. Picked up a few gifts and escaped the bustle in a cafe.
The afternoon ride started on the outskirts of Arusha heading west into Maasai territory to the rather touristy campsite. The camping area filled up quickly with large overland bus groups. The Snake Camp features several species of snakes (with clinical but still very frightening blurbs on how common and poisonous each could be), crocs, lizards and raptors - all behind glass, walls or cages thank you. After that little visit we were looking at sticks and rocks much more closely - looking for any movement or distinct patterns.
And smack dab accross the street from the Snake Camp - curio stalls. And we were drawn to them. Hmmm....more mask carvings and painting of Maasai guys in odd numbered groups. Mass produced someplace perhaps. I haven't seen anyone yet actually carving or painting.
Walking back to the camp we stopped into the small, but well done Maasai Cultural Center for a short but interesting tour. Perhaps more on the Maasai later.Day 8Back to the bikes early. The ride for the day covered at distance of 87km all on lightly traveled paved road. Easy enough although riding a bouncy mountain bike on pavement is not as much fun as cruising along on a proper road bike. Through one police checkpoint, we're into the rolling plains of the Maasai cattle grazing lands. The only other vehicles to pass the entire day seem to be the hired Land Rovers and Land Cruisers heading towards Serengeti NP or Ngorongoro Crater.
The Maasai red robes really contrast against the sandy terrain. For the first time, we started to hear less "jambo" (or "sopa," which is the Maasai greeting) and a bit more "give me X" as we passed. We were told to keep an eye out for giraffe grazing in the Acacia trees along the road, but were not lucky enough to see any.
With a tail wind and net elevation loss, we finished the 87km riding segment early into Mto wambu town. Busy place. Look out for all the bikes, peds and livestock.
Fish and Scott took the night off from preparing dinner to take us out instead to the oddly named, but very local Fiesta Complex. Sooo much food. Yet another variation of bananas, local bean dish, BBQ'd beef. Tasteee!
It was an early night to bed for the next day's jeep trip to the Ngorongoro Crater for critter viewing. The bikes have been working hard and needed a rest anyways.
The good stuff -- wild animals and stunning scenery-- follows in part II.