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.


Anonymous said...

Wow and wow and tripple wow. You know something, Brian, I can even detect a double 007-like intrigue in the telling. What with the caged snakes and phantom giraffes! I have already booked my seat for the second installment. Ah, to be a season ticker holder at the BEP and SJD show!!!!
Kwasi Appiah

Nancy Trun said...

Hey Brian and Susan,

Wow! This looks like another spectacular trip. I can't wait to see/read the rest of it. I must say I'm living vicariously through your adventures. We're headed into a cold winter, so biking through the sunshine sounds great!

All is well in Pittsburgh (where I'm still living). I got tenure and bought a house so my adventures consist of how do I fix this, that, or the other thing.

Keep up the great stories!


Nancy Trun

Brian said...

Kwasi - Don't blow our cover man...you don't know how hard it is to order a proper martini in East Africa. Always stirred, never shaken... Arg! ;-)

Hops - good to hear you're doing well in the 'burgh. I do recall working on my rickety old house being quite an adventure at times. Funny what we miss, eh? Riding much?

Part two shortly. Must clean bikes first.

dietrich said...

Wow. Great story and pics. Thanks for sharing.

Mark said...

great account, Brian (and SJD if she is also writing). What a trip! Susan gets extra points for posing in front of that mud house to provide perspective. Also, I notice the lack of lycra -- not de rigeur for African bike touring?


Brian said...

Hi Dietrich and Mark,

SJD did contribute many photos as well as a few stories and edits here and there. Typos are still all my fault though.

Actually, I think the house was constructed mostly of cattle dung. The low door is a bit puzzling though. The Masai people were quite tall (relatively speaking...).

Yeah, baggies seemed appropriate for this trip more so than in Ghana.