Thursday, December 13, 2007

N6 10.409 W0 05.012

Here we have two rides worth of GPS data overlayed on GoogleEarth. Both rides started from Aylos Bay Hotel - more or less at 1 o'clock on the image and proceed clockwise.
In red, Chris, SJD and I headed down some valley and up to a ridge top. Eventually we turned around since we were not certain which trails lead where.
In blue SJD and I did a 42 mile road and dirt road ride. Maps were accurate enough showing the intended route on lightly traveled paved switchback mountain roads, however we still missed one turn as indicated by the little spur on the left side. Luckly the topo maps indicated the power transmission lines running parallel to the road. It was enough information to tip us off we were indeed on the wrong track.
Back on track one valley over heading NE we were expecting some dirt road, but were a bit surprised when road surface deteriorated so badly about half-way in. Packed dirt gave way to sand washes and exposed rocks before reaching Akasambo.
Notice the yellow spot in the center of the image - land clearing fire. Lake Volta is a the top. The Akasambo Dam is just barely visible at the top of the blue loop where the lake gets skinny.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Tour d'Accra

So I overestimated the distance of the race by 266%. Nobody is perfect, and I'm a prime example.
Yesterday, with a fair bit of arm twisting by one of the Ghanaian cycling superstars, Randolph Mensah, I started the Tour d'Accra road race. When he showed up at our house on Saturday afternoon he didn't have all the details on the tip of his tongue. In fact, all he knew was the starting location (Teshie-Nungua police barrier) and approximate time - 8am Sunday morning. I thought I had him convinced that I was in no condition to race unknown distances. No, my target heart rate lately has been set on "recreation" not "decimation." Cleverly, he upped the ante by presenting two bright green sponsor t-shirts for me and the missus. Everyone asks about the missus - SJD. I had to accept.
Really, I did not want to race. The bike wasn't prepared. I didn't feel like waking up early.
Later that evening I was feeling a bit guilty. Here I am in Accra with a small fleet of bikes, parts and gear to spare. These guys bust their bee-hinds every race in the same duds, on beat up bikes, on terrible roads in scorching heat. No classes based on weight, age, ability or gender. Just show up and ride what you have. It is rough on the edges with just a hint of rules, but is pure racing in some sense. This time though we actually had to pin on numbers. The big time!
SJD, who has much better sense than I much of the time, told me that I really should race. She didn't go so far as to say that she would wake up at 6am to make coffee for me. Just nudged me out of bed. A free t-shirt and a nudge got me going. In fairness to SJD, she did drag herself out of bed by 10am to cheer us on passing Burma Camp.
I had just enough time to lube the chain, pump the tires up to pressure, and get all gussied up in City-Bikes/Metro Gutter wear before riding to the Teshie-Nungua - about 10 miles. It would be a perfect warm up...if the race were to begin on time.
Geez, that road between La and Teshie is in horrible condition. Potholes, dips, sand, crumbling edge rumble strips. I'm trying to think of a road in DC that might compare to it. Hmmm...
Things are running late again. About 90 minutes late. Given that many of the racers arrive by tro-tro, taxi or riding (like me) a little extra time is okay. After several introductions, a prayer and display of the prizes, the promoter goes over the course - in one of the local languages. I heard three laps, and mention of a few landmarks - Burma Camp, Achimota, Kaneshie, La. No doubt it seemed like a long race to me. I didn't really have any high expectations of finishing with the leaders. As these races go, once you're spit out the back from the pack, you tend to lose ground quickly.
Finally around 9:30am we're set loose behind a rolling enclosure police escort. Police, bikes, team cars. Add Sunday church traffic, goats, chickens, pedestrians, tro-tros and everything else Ghana into the mix. There is a lot to pay attention to. Early on I was content to sit mid-pack. The pace was pretty high at first, and the police were having a tough time clearing traffic. At one point we bunched up and instead of simply slowing, the lead riders overtook the police and weaved through a sandy shoulder between waiting tro-tros. Everyone followed including the team motorcycles. Talk about hairy.
The course eventually made its way onto roads with less congestion with the pace hovering at around 25mph. Seemed comfortable enough. I recognized the landmarks, but noted that we were headed farther and farther northwest of town before finally turning left on the Tema Motorway. The pack was split in two by a mid-pack crash. Two riders seemed to run out of road, or simply squeezed into a stopped car. Meanwhile the front of the pack seemed to accelerate, creating a gap. I was in the chase group now trying to bridge up to the lead. The police escort abandoned us and zoomed ahead. Traffic took over the roads, but a few volunteers were able to keep a few intersections clear while we passed. The 15 second gap steadily increased until we reached Kaneshie Market - notorious for traffic jams. We more or less had to give up the chase at that point.
At this point we had clocked 30 miles and were just now pointing back eastward towards Teshie. Two more laps of this? That is absurd! I rode out the lap with two other riders, eventually dropping one with a flat and the other to fatigue. Back at Teshie, I completed the first lap logging 47 miles. Do the math. Three times 47 equals 141 miles. I did this while stopping to purchase a water sachet. I have never ridden 141 miles, let alone raced that distance. The officials checked my number and I began the second lap. A few miles in, I decided I really could not face another 94 miles of Accra traffic and smog. I phoned SJD and told her my sob story and that I was coming home. She promised an ice cold smoothie would be waiting for me.
In the end I logged a decent 72 miles at 19.5mph average. Not bad, all things considered.
Today, I had to laugh reading the newspaper coverage of the race. In the end, Samuel Anim, of Accra won a TV and about $300 for first place. Randolph did not place, but was glad to see me out there. Total distance was stated as 53 miles. Apparently the course was one 47 mile lap, plus two 3 mile laps. Not 141 miles. Oops. Guess I mis-understood the pre-race instructions and didn't notice the course marshall telling me to turn right instead of left.
Oh well... Like I said, I'm not perfect.
The Ghanaians, for whatever reason, like to see me fizzle out and will likely invite me to the next race. The silly thing is is that I'll probably do it.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Tug of War - Ghana style

Happy Thanksgiving! Stay away from those nasty malls and read our blog instead. It doesn't cost a dime.

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!

They spent their time between Accra, Cape Coast and Volta Region walking in the canopy, taking in slave forts, stamping batik fabric, observing monkeys and buying beads. To wrap up their visit, we drove (we didn't make them to bike) past the small coastal fishing villages that dot the sandy road west of Ada on our way to the Songaw Lagoon Bird Santuary. A group of men, women and children were pulling a fishing net to shore, so we decided to stop long enough to watch and perhaps snap a photo or two if they didn't mind.

Well let me tell you they didn't even pause long enough to greet us, but asked us to get in line and start pulling. Perhaps he said, "Don't just stand there, fetch us some drinks." I guess it is that mid-western instinct kicking in that tells me hold open doors or push cars free from snow banks. Or perhaps we're just crazy. Whatever the case, we grabbed hold of the net, dug in our heels, and leaned backwards. Figured we'd have the net up on shore in no time with four extra bodies. Wrong!

See the other group beyond the beached fishing boat in the distance. That is the other end of the net. Twenty of us on each end. Out in the water, all sorts of fish...hopefully.

When enough of the net was far enough up onto shore, one of the older boys would anchor it to the nearest palm tree with a rope while the pullers headed down to the front of the line to repeat the process over, and over, and over.... We pulled for a good thirty minutes.

Small children waited patiently with baskets and aluminum bowls for the catch to be revealed.

The smallest of the children simply added ballast to the mamas who were tugging in unison. That is SJD in the center background.

Nobody seemed to notice or really mind that we jumped in. After thirty minutes we were soaked with sticky salt water, coated with sand and begining to sun burn.

The other mid-western instict - well timed rest breaks - seemed to be ignored here in Ghana.

Our hands and arms were so fatigued that we could barely thank them for letting us have the fun of lending a hand, before we had to let them finish what they started. We hadn't seen a single fish tangled in the net at that point. SJD was assured by one man that the catch today would be a good one though. If not they would try again.
Back in the lovely AC of the car, we gulped down a few cold drinks and continued west past more villages with people wrestling nets against a stubborn tide. At the end of the road we reached the lagoon but were too exhausted to set out for more exploring. Turned around and headed back to Ada - this time without stopping to take photos.

So we may not have actually caught any fish, but at least we worked off a few of those extra Thanksgiving dinner calories trying.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Tanzania to Kenya by bike - part two

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.

Day 9
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.

Wildebeest sparring

Hippos staying cool -- occasionally one would roll over to get the top side wet but that was as animated as they got .

Hippo tracks - when they decide to move, stay out of the way...

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)

Thompsons gazelle

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...

Safari dorks

Day 10
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.

Under here? Hmm...maybe up here?

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.

The ride, a relatively flat 30km meander, started as a washboard road but soon deteriorated into a sandy 4wd track winding through the scrub paralleling the international border by 1/2Km. Very likely we could have simply ridden the bikes across the border, but then we would have had some explainin' to do with immigration officials in Nairobi later in the week. Interestingly enough though, my GPS indicated that we had crossed the border a few times during the ride - wonder whether it is accurate.

(Bike set-up:
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.)

Riding off the gravel road instantly exposes your tires to all sorts of thorny grasses, bushes and trees. The sandy 4wd track eventually narrows down to a few Km of flat single track before reaching a rock outcropping named Solomon's Rock. At first I thought this was just a rest break before pushing on to the next village, so I goofed around a bit on the rock itself. It wasn't until the bus pulled up that I realized we were actually going to camp at the foot of the rock. This place is remote and exposed but incredibly beautiful as well. It is hard to imagine how it supports life and it seemed empty as we rode in but soon enough signs of life and appeared (including while SJD was taking her sun shower out in the open behind the bus...she thinks she covered up before the view got too racy). Winds kicked up as the sun sank towards the horizon making setting up tents a bit of an adventure. We thought we might inadvertently go paragliding.

Me riding up Solomon's Rock; Scott taking in the scene

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.

Day 11
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.

SJD taught arithmetic; I taught art

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.

A Fish on a bicycle!

Maasai guy on Fish's K2.

Midway across the lake bed, herds of wildebeest grazed nearby. Generally they seem pretty skittish around vehicles, but on bikes we gave them plenty of room and rolled past as a group. I was the only meat eater of the bunch.

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.

Day 12
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.

We exited Amboseli on the north side 4wd track leaving most animals behind and continuing on the bikes. This was grind of a ride. Slightly uphill, dusty, sandy and into a wind during the hottest part of the day. We did spot a few giraffe at close distance, but were too slow to grab the camera before they trotted off.

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.

By the time we rolled into camp for the night the winds had picked up once again and SJD and I resorted to strategically placed tethers to keep the tent from folding in the wind. Our host for the night was Robert, a 73 year old Maasai who was quite a character. With his limited english and lots of body language he regaled us with talks of being tossed into a tree by a rhino and attacked by a lion (he had the tooth mark on his leg to prove it) as a young man. His second wife, Beatrice, and several children also stopped by for greetings. In contrast to Robert, they exuded calmness. It made for a nice mix in that family.

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....

Day 13
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.

Camp seemed pretty posh after the last few nights in the remote and dusty plain -- it even had hot showers.

Day 14
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.

Day 15
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.
Many thanks go out to Escape Adventures guides Scott and Fish for always providing tasty meals, safe driving and a relaxed camp atmosphere. As well, asante sana to all the amazing Tanzanian and Kenyans we met along the way for showing us your country.
So...where to next?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Tanzania to Kenya by bike - part one

We're back from our supported bike and bus trip from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania to Nairobi, Kenya. What a fantastic way to see two countries up close and personal! Sure it was a bit of an unconventional way for westerners to get from A to B, but it was all worth a little discomfort and a bit of effort.

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.)

Day 1
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.

Day 2
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.

Sisal plantation

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.

Day 3
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.

I snapped this picture after repairing my snapped chain.

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'.

Day 4
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.

Day 5
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.

The Usambaras are chock full of paths connecting villages. We would have been happy to spend more time here exploring.

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

Day 6
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".

Beer run!

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.

Day 7
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.

Fish wheelin' and dealin' for jewelery with a Maasai mama during a rest stop.

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.

Maasai and SJD heading north

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.