Off the Beaten Track - A biking adventure in East Africa
Someone once said “its not the things in life you do that you come to regret but the things you don't do” So when the opportunity to visit Africa and in particular East Africa by bicycle came along I jumped on board. It was an Escape Adventures trip organised by John Etherington, a New Zealand dude with a wicked sense of humour. The trip cruises through Kenya from Nairobi taking back roads and trails into Tanzania and ends in Dar es Salaam . Apart from reading the ramblings in the Economist and watching the odd wildlife skit I was blissfully ignorant of Africa , but was sure it would be an adventure.
We had a back up vehicle named Turtle to carry the camping kit and food. Turtle and its trailer are probably the closest a vehicle has ever got to Swiss army knife status with its fold out kitchen, slide out pantry, pop up roof tent and hidden attachments to numerous to name. John was a motor mechanic in a past life, a useful trade for these remote trips. His sidekick Mandy was in charge of food and rode her trusty creaking Specialized FSR mountain bike. Tail end Charlie, Nash a local Kenyan, did the driving, interpreting and a bit of everything else. Lucy Ireland a London lass, Lynda Pedley and Glenn MacCrimmon a Canadian couple who have cycled most of the globe and myself made up the A team.
We left Nairobi taking the back roads through the gently rolling country to Amboseli National Park and our first breath taking view of Mt Kilimanjaro, its snow top just poking out of the clouds. The road surface was hard packed red dirt but we made the most of the local bike trails running parallel or short cutting the route. Giraffe, zebra and gazelle cruised across our path heading through the acacia forest and Masai villages we were encountering on the way. The local kids came running out of these villages to cheer us on, as if we were in a race.
At the edge of the Park we swap our bikes for the security of the 4WD and head out on safari with our cameras and binoculars at the ready. Its almost surreal watching herds of zebra, wildebeest, and elephant trundling around below the watchful eye of a hazy Mount Kilimanjaro . The hippos were doing what they do best, which involves mud and water. It was all too much to take in as we headed to camp for the night. We watched Kili clear of cloud as the sun set and the moon rose, as if on queue.
We left Amboseli National Park pleased to be back on our bikes. We rode the hard brown cracked earth that is the dry bed of Lake Amboseli . The mirage of water far ahead evaporated as we rode onwards. The bobbing heads of giraffe moved east above the heat haze on the peripheral edge of the lakebed towards the base of the mountains.
John has a knack for cultivation good relationships where ever he goes and our campsite below Ngararabuni rock's proved the point. We passed the rectangular shaped houses of the Masai village on the west side of this rock, the children were very excited to see us. We set up camp and were soon welcomed by our hosts and protectors.
We headed up onto the spine of the rock climbing to its summit for sundowners and an expansive view of the surrounding terrain. Below us goats were being herded into the protection of the village enclosed by a thorny acacia hedge. We could see groups of cattle and goats coming from far and wide. Their dusty progress illuminated in gold as the sun hovered hesitantly above the horizon. Sunset cast light upon the snow top of Killi and the last long shadows over the plains below.
We visited the adjacent village and were treated to a demonstration of the Masai matchbox, a spun stick of hardwood against a flat piece of softwood with dried goats dung as the initial fuel. Where there is smoke, there is fire, proved correct and in no time they had a blaze going. This proved a lot harder us to do with Glenn having the best technique.
With land and property a Masai man can have between one and four wives, they each build their own house out of a wooden frame and cow dung mixed with mud for the walls and roof. A fire inside provides cooking, repels insects and warms the cool nights. In the dry season they consume yoghurt made from cows blood and milk with the occasional BBQ goat thrown in. There is little spare water for drinking let alone washing.
A few of the men have acquired the black (Phoenix) Chinese and (Hero) Indian made bicycles and pedal the dusty tracks to the local villages, they look the part peddling around with their spears on the top tube and mates on the carrier. On a previous trip John had initially sold Mandy for 30 cows, but this offer was reduced when they found out about her post teenage status. We managed to sell Lucy for 15 cows but had to lie about her age.
We headed for the mountains winding our way through a variety of small settlements and a number of dusty mission posts with their attached schools. There was plenty of wildlife in this area, giraffe grazing the treetops and moving past the local herds of goats and cattle. The road became rough and sandy climbing up to a little town on the border of Kenya and Tanzania . A colourful café provided much needed refreshments before heading off down main street shopping. We bartered for purple skinned onions, bright red tomatoes, lady finger bananas and green peppers. The avocados were huge and proved delicious in our guacamole. We camped on soft lush green grass, enjoyed cold Kili Beer and South African red wine in the afternoon sun at our campsite.
We rolled across the border the next day and into Tanzania , a painless 30 minutes of officialdom where US dollars were extracted. A bit less English spoken was the only indicator that we had moved into another country. We encounter Masai youth with black and white facial paint herding their stock as we rode to the small town of Mto Wa Mbu at the base of the rift valley escapement. Massive trees of nesting cranes lined the road into town. We head to the market to soak up the colour and do some bartering where John picked up some new recycled tyre tread sandals after managing to trade his old ones in.
Before dawn we were off on safari to the Ngorongoro crater climbing up through shiny green rain forest caught in fluffy white cloud. The descent into the crater is steep and rough and as we emerged out of the mist into what would have been a lost world many centuries ago. To our west a soda lake of pink flamingos with herds of zebra and wildebeest making an early morning trek across the crater. We spotted Hippos going from mud hole to mud hole watched by a group of hyena. Time seems to compress as a female cheetah stalked a Thomson's gazelle, she accelerated and turns it before tripping it up. Her three large cubs come in for the final kill. This was exciting stuff and in contrast to the three lions we had observed earlier lazing in the sun. We finally saw a couple of rhino way off in the distance and a lone cheetah sunning itself. All to soon it was time to head back to our camp at Arusha.
We continued south below the ever-present peak of Kilimanjaro and into the Masai Steppe, a huge plain that stretches as far as the eye can see interrupted occasionally by the odd hill or depression. The huge trunk of the upside down Baobab tree with its leafless branches, dominate the savannah and can live for 1000 years. They look very much like they have been pulled out of the ground and stuck back in upside down.
Our ride took us beside a section of Tanzanian railway track that services the sisal industry. Disused water tanks and filler nozzles remain, not pressed onto service since steam trains plied this route. The sisal industry almost disappeared when synthetics became cheap but has managed a bit of a revival now natural fibres have become popular. We pass a series of old abandoned railway stations ten kilometres apart, the locals have moved in and were enjoying a siesta in the hot sun. Our destination the Pangani River camp delivers up a stunning sunset and a hot shower that evening, while monkeys jump between treetops above and crocs ply the river unseen.
We left the plains and climb into the Usambara Mountains biking on towards the old colonial town of Lushoto . German colonialists had built their homes in the European style in these beautiful cool mountains and amongst the local dwellings they looked somewhat out of place. The plains below stretched out endlessly and surrounding hillsides a patchwork of intensive cultivation with irrigation races crisscrossing these slopes.
The cloud was rolling in as we set up camp at Mullers Mountain Lodge. We enjoyed the warmth of a large campfire as the evening temperature dropped rapidly to single figures and we moved in closer to the fire. At 1400 meters this was to be expected. The next day we headed out walking through the village and up into the hills following local farm tracks to a high point and view across this rolling range of mountains we were in. The track down took us to the local school and the 400 pupils coming out to welcome us.
John had organised on the previous trip for local carpenters to build five school desks and Nash had been in charge of delivering them undetected. The kids soon spotted his familiar face and twigged to what was going on. Helping out the school in a practical way had become a project of Johns, one that was enthusiastically supported by people who had come on his many trips. Donations of stationary, balls, pens, chalk and money for desks had been put to good use. We were treated like honoured guests with the whole school turning out to sing and dance for us. A moving experience that sent tingles down the spine.
The next day we made full use of the network of tracks that permeate these mountains, riding single track between remote villages. It was a navigational challenge and John rose to the occasion. The ride turned in a few surprises the first one being how populated this area was. After lunch we rode up an old grass covered farm track to discover two groups of forestry workers pit sawing trees opposite each other in the valley. This was all by hand, one below and one above dragging a pit saw through the huge trunk.
Just around the next corner we ran into the Benedictine Monastery, the Fathers have been farming this piece of paradise for over half a century. We talked to Father Thomas who had come out from Switzerland in 1948. He explained how they were trying to lead by example showing the locals how to grow high value crops instead of maize. They had Quinine, coffee, macadamia nuts and a wide variety of grapes growing on the property along with cows for milk, cheese and butter. Their white wine proved to be not a bad drop and they also produce a cheeky red alter wine but we didn't indulge. We crammed our packs with bottles and nuts and headed onward and upward.
Following the ridge tops north it was time to descend and what a downhill it turned out to be. We discovered narrow gauge single track that proved both steep and gnarly. We were soon followed by local kids cheering us all the way. It felt like a world cup downhill race with Lucy enjoying her first gnarly single track and receiving the biggest cheer from the enthusiastic throng. The bottles of wine in our pack survived even after the odd tumble. The final 14-kilometre descent from the Usambara Mountains delivered us to a humid 30 degrees on the plains below. It was time to head for the sea.
A series of dirt back roads took us through sleepy coconut treed villages on our way to the historic town of Bagamoyo. An on-shore wind strengthened as we neared the coast but also kept us cool as we ploughed our way through the growing puddles of thick sand. Bagamoyo was once a major slave and trading route for East Africa sitting strategically on the Indian Ocean. Our shady beach camp retreat of white sand on this tropical coast greeted us. A seascape of sailboats streamed towards the beech from beyond the horizon as if an invasion from the movie Troy. They were the local fishermen bringing their catch to market and we were heading in their direction to get some for dinner.
We awoke the next morning to the call to prayer from the surrounding mosque and headed to the beach to watch the fisherman sail out as the sun rose. We biked through the old part of Bagamoyo, the buildings looking distinctly like those in Havana and headed down the coast to our final destination Dar es Salaam. Dar es Salaam is colourful vibrant and a fitting place to end the trip, it was founded in 1866 by the sultan of Zanzibar and its Arabic name means haven of peace. We finished on the beach just up the coast from town where the water is 28 degrees and just waiting to be swum in. It was sad to come to the end of such a good trip, to pack up and say goodbye to everyone and Africa. But all good things must come to an end so they can start again all over.
The myths of African travel
The myths of African travel abound, most are unfounded and like visiting any country of the world becoming informed and going prepared is the best strategy. The large animals are awe inspiring and rarely dangerous, if you use common sense. The local food is organic, fresh and much healthier than in many western countries. The water isn't contaminated by agricultural chemicals and pesticides and can easily be filtered or treated against bugs. Biting insects are localised and seasonal and thus can be avoided, or by using repellents, mosquito nets and usually just by simply covering up. It's not all hot either, with the cool dry season being the best time for biking. By sticking to back roads it is safer than many western countries. Good clean camping ground accommodation abounds and English is widely spoken.
John's idea was to show off the beauty of Africa in the best way possible, by bicycle. It adds a different dimension to travel, the smells, colours and feel of the wind that no vehicle can replicate.
The ride: Organised by John Etherington of Escape Adventures
The Flights: Emirates Airline has the best and most direct route from Australia/New Zealand (Downunder) and most of Europe , modern planes and excellent service especially when handling bicycles.
John can organise your airport pickup and accommodation in Nairobi , upgrades along the way when available and post ride trips to climb mountains, visit Zanzibar Island or whatever takes your fancy.