Date:     Sat, 16 Sep 2006


From:    “Michael Ayers” <>

Subject: Gondwana - Twists, Towering heights, & alternate Transports in Tanzania


Mambo Vipi Phreds,


Tanzania is a country that contains many of the most famous and iconic sights of East Africa, and was next on my route. However, with time off the bike needed to see some of those sights, as well as a little fiddling with my route, I actually rode for a surprisingly short distance there, given the size of the country and the number of days I spent there. As it turned out, that was probably a good thing.

Having been at peace since it’s independence from British occupation, and having received considerable income from tourism during that time, Tanzania’s facilities related to touring are comparatively good. Around and between the major cities and towns roads and services are good to excellent, while the rural areas are just slightly less “rough” than Kenya or Ethiopia. On the other hand, the most interesting places to visit, from my perspective at least, are scattered rather widely around the fairly large country, and with some of those being off-limits, or otherwise impractical, to bikes, planning a route was a bit of a challenge. In particular I had to skip the coastal areas once again, including the fascinating island of Zanzibar, which I would have loved to have seen.  That was especially disappointing as I would not have another chance to see the sea again until the very end of the stage. I would, however, find perhaps the next best thing before leaving the country. As with Kenya, most of the people speak Kiswahili, which has long been encouraged by the government as a way to unify the nation. Though once again many people speak English well.

The first day in the country should have been fairly easy, but turned out to be a bad day all around. I had only to travel the 150 km from the border to the town of Moshi, a town near the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, from where I would begin, the following day, an off-bike excursion to hike up to the summit of Africa’s tallest mountain.

Crossing the border was rather painless, as I was able to get my Tanzanian visa on arrival, just as with the other African countries I’ve entered.  Although, I did receive more misinformation, as a sign on the wall, which I confirmed with the immigration officer, clearly stated that the visa would allow two entries, which I later learned was not correct. In any case, despite some tough winds I was doing ok until I turned onto the “short-cut route” to Moshi which was another unsurfaced road. Staying on the main road would have been too long to reach Moshi in one day, and I needed to arrive that evening in order to start the Kili climb the next morning.

The road was not too bad and I was probably going to arrive on time until a fateful encounter. While passing through an area with only tiny villages and scattered dwellings, I came upon a group of five boys who appeared to be aged 7 to 10. Meeting children is one of the things I really enjoy on a trip like this and these seemed as excited as most to see me come by. As I neared, I slowed a little and extended my right hand to clap hands with the boys as I passed by, always a popular greeting.

Then inexplicably, as only little boys are prone to do, one of the smallest of them demonstrated that he had little grasp of the principles of physics, and in general possessed the mental prowess of a newborn wildebeest, when he grabbed on to the right-hand side of my handlebars. The result was predictable. My front wheel twisted around, and in an instant threw both of us to the ground. Just as I looked up, the four other boys had already scattered off in all directions and disappeared into the bushes. The sinister little fellow who caused the problem still had a hold of the bars and had been pulled down with me and now was lying on top of the bike. He stayed there just long enough for me to shout “You stupid idiot!!” (my motto from Stage 2) and then for me to see the look of surprise and fear in his eyes before he too jumped up and dashed away into the bushes.

Had I been in Asia at the time, the bike would have been destroyed and I would have been perfectly fine. However, I was in Africa and things were back to “normal.” The bike was fine, but upon impact my left wrist jammed hard. Probably not broken, but in a short time my hand had nevertheless swollen until it looked as if I was wearing a big puffy ski mitten.  Unfortunately, there was no other transport around and I still had to get to Moshi that night. Riding one-handed was made even more difficult by the fact that the road condition had began to deteriorate. With that in mind, and my brain being occupied with other thoughts at the time, when I came upon an unexpected fork in the road, I, without thinking, took the smoother-looking way. That, of course, was completely the wrong thing to do and after a while I turned up at the gate to Arusha National Park, well to the south of where I thought I was. The rangers wouldn’t let me enter, and I didn’t have time to turn around and rejoin the proper route as it was now late in the evening. Luckily, a few tourists from Germany had just finished a hike on nearby Mt. Meru and their guides were just about to take them back to Moshi. They graciously agreed to give me a ride to town, after a generous donation of course. When the driver suggested an amount, I didn’t even blink. Of course I also had to pay the $35 park entrance fee, even though I was only transiting through for about 30 minutes.  Eventually, I arrived in Moshi, but it was a painful and expensive way to get there. However, if I ever see that little boy again, well, I’m just going to.....

Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done to help that sort of injury except waiting, often a rather long time, for it to heal on its own. Consequently, my left hand would not be much use for anything for several weeks, and I was obviously concerned about being able to do the Kilimanjaro climb like that. However, I had come to far to have all of my plans messed up by a stupid incident like that, so I decided to go ahead anyway. Fortunately, Kili is not a technical climb, which is why, not being a mountain climber at all, I chose to do the trek in the first place. No ropes or special gear is required and the climb is basically a hike, albeit a very strenuous one, given the 5,900-m summit. In addition, all climbers must be accompanied by a local guide and all luggages and equipment is carried up by numerous super-human porters. Normally, I would feel guilty about having someone carry my gear for me, but under the circumstances I didn’t mind.

I was surprised at the number of people starting the climb that day, which was at least 50 in our group. That made me a bit concerned that the climb would feel more like a parade, but fortunately the climbers were split up into smaller groups, each with their own guides and porters. I was paired up with a nice man from Toronto, who was just slightly younger than me, just a few centimeters shorter, with a similar build and similar hair color, and also held similar opinions to me on many relevant topics of concern in the world today. Some of the porters commented that we must be brothers. Well, I do have many relatives in Canada, so perhaps not brothers, but you never know. For the two of us, there was one guide, an assistant guide, cook, waiter, and five porters, which seemed like a lot especially since tradition dictates that all of them receive a big tip at the end of the climb. I was also a bit amused by most of the other climbers, especially the Europeans, who all came exquisitely prepared with all of the latest hiking paraphernalia, undoubtedly all of which was reviewed and highly recommended by Backpacker Magazine. In contrast the porters all wore basic clothing, carried a load of up to 20 kg in big plastic sacks on top of their heads, and yet zoomed up the mountain at twice the rate as everyone else.  However, that posed a bit of a problem for me since I assumed that the porters would climb at the same pace as the rest of us and that I would have access to my gear on the way. That was not the case, and since the only bag I had available was my small handlebar bag, I never had the right clothing available when I needed it.

In spite of everything, the climb was underway. The first day was through the muddy lower level rainforest, and my hand was still quite painful which made for a rather unpleasant time. The next day the hand felt slightly better, and I somehow came up with a burst of energy and took off up the mountain, through the moorland zone filled with giant heathers and other eerie flora, at a pace which made me catch most of the porters, and caused me to receive a slight scolding from my guide. As a penance, that night some bad food took hold of my system and I had to leave the tent several times in the cold night to let nature run its course. Consequently, the next day I had little appetite and was completely out of energy, so there was no quick pace for me that day. The next day was mostly normal, and the best of the climb, as we passed through the high altitude zone where unique endemic plants called Lobelia and Giant Senecio grow. There are only a few high-altitude places in Africa where such plants grow, and seeing them was one of the main reasons I wanted to do the climb. The other was seeing the rapidly-receding glaciers at the summit of Kilimanjaro, and that opportunity came early the next morning.

For reasons that I neither completely understand nor agree with, the climb to the summit starts at midnight. So with only a few hours sleep and a minimal breakfast we set off for the top. I suppose that for me 15 months of cycling has paid off. For, though many people started earlier and were well up the mountain when we began, just by walking a comfortable pace, and not trying to be fast at all, I somehow managed to pass everyone and was first to reach the summit at 4:50 AM. At that time it was still quite dark, and bitterly cold, but it was nice to have finally made it. With just the light of the near-full Moon, I was still impressed by the size of the glaciers, which look rather small from the base, but are surprisingly large up close. And I finally did get to see Mt. Kenya, a few hundred kilometers away, yet still standing proud above the clouds. While it took nearly five days to go up, it was only a day and a half to descend, which I felt was almost as hard as the climb. In any case, the expedition was a fascinating experience and a success, despite me being only one-handed, and I was glad for that.

After a week off, it felt good to be back on the bike again, though my left hand was still swollen and not useful for anything, and its soreness took a bit of the fun out of the riding. As it turned out, there were only two easy half-days on good roads before my next long break, however.  The first of those was to the substantial town of Arusha, the headquarters of Tanzania’s tourist industry. Along the way I met the only other bike tourist I’ve seen in Africa so far, a nice young man from Japan named Fuyu (I think.)  He was only 4 days into a ride from Nairobi to Cape Town.  Perhaps I’ll run into him again later on. I then stopped in Arusha to take care of a few things and make final arrangements for a safari into Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater, and Serengeti National Parks. I needed to get to western Tanzania, and crossing those parks was the shortest way.  However, they are no-bike zones, and that necessitated another break, and a few expensive days bumping around in a stinky safari truck. It was worth it however, as the chance to see the real African ecosystem should not be missed. I chose to arrange my trip with the same guys who rescued me on the day I messed up my wrist, which I felt would be a bit of good karma.  At least it would simplify things a great deal since I had already described what I wanted to do the previous week. I had arranged to meet them the following day at lunchtime, where the road to the parks turns off the main highway. In reality, I should have ridden a bit further since the formerly dirt road to the park gates had been recently replaced by a beautiful new road, and I felt rather bad about skipping that. Once inside the parks, however, it was clear that cycling through would not have been a good experience. The tracks were dusty and bumpy, and there was only one small kiosk to get snacks at the Serengeti visitors center, not to mention the lions, hyenas, and other predators. Instead, we brought all the food we needed along, as well as a cook, and stayed at the developed campsites.  In short, the wildlife viewing was phenomenal, and I saw numerous examples of just about all of the interesting African species, often at very close range. An expensive affair, but well worth it.

Now after riding only two half-days out of the previous twelve, I should have been more than ready for some long rides. However, my bad hand was still distracting my enjoyment, so after one easy day’s ride, on a good road, I took another day off in the town of Mwanza, on the shore of Lake Victoria. Located on a small bay off of the lake, the view from Mwanza does not give a good idea of the true size of that body of water, one of the world’s largest lakes, but it is nevertheless impressive when seen from there. The town is the largest in western Tanzania, and seemed fairly wealthy, but surprisingly quiet and relaxed. Because of that I decided to stay an extra day. In spite of not riding much over the previous two weeks, I was rarely on my own, with pre-planned itineraries that needed to be followed. So it was just nice to have a couple of days to myself to relax.

After Mwanza, I needed to head west for a bit further before leaving the country for a while. Unfortunately, there was 240-km of more gravel roads to deal with before the pavement returned for the final 95 km. I wasn’t doing too bad on the first day, until I realized that I made another boneheaded wrong turn which added 56 km of useless distance to the route.  Because of that, a still-tight schedule to keep, and the pain that shot up my wrist with each large bump. I chose to skip the last bit of gravel and took a local bus to the place where the pavement returned. While faster, that was certainly not any more pleasant, as the driver had no intention of slowing down for any reason and with every large bump he sped over, I flew up into the air and bashed my head on the luggage rack above. I certainly expected to see the bike fly off the roof where it had been hastily lashed and bounce down to the dusty road, but somehow it stayed up there, though not without some minor damage. Finally, the last 95 km of quiet, smooth road through hilly and sparely populated terrain brought me to the Rwandan border. There, I left Tanzania for the next 10 days, but that story is one for the next post.

I had one more brief visit to Tanzania in store, however. Arriving back at the extreme western town of Kigoma, a frontier port on the shore of the great Lake Tanganyika, after being required to put out another $50 for second Tanzania visa, despite what I had been told earlier, I had just enough time to catch my last alternate transport for a while (I hope.) That was, namely, the M.V. Liemba, a ship built by the Germans and brought to the lake around the turn of the 20th century when they were the colonial occupier of the country. For eighty, or so, years it has been departing Kigoma carrying passengers and goods to the southern lake ports of Tanzania, and on to Zambia. It sails south only on Wednesdays, and catching the current sailing was what forced me to keep a sharp eye on the calendar recently. Fortunately, though running a little late, I made it just in time. It was the best way for me to continue south, as whatever roads there are in this region are long, lonely, and in poor shape. Besides, since I wouldn’t see much of the Ocean on this stage, this was the next best thing.

The Liemba is a classic African experience. Overcrowded, and overstuffed with cargo, most of which consists of giant sacks of dried fish, people sleep on just about any flat space available, though I sprung for the, just slightly more costly, cabin with a bunk. At the intermediate stops, there are no docks, and passengers arrive and depart on small wooden launches sent out from the villages. It’s noisy, slow, crowded, and chaotic, but the two-day trip gave me another chance to rest my slowly-improving wrist, and to finally catch up on writing my posts (a little harder to do with only one hand.) Furthermore, the lake is especially beautiful, long and narrow, surrounded by rugged mountains, and is incredibly deep thanks to its position on the Great Rift, it is a fitting end to the fascinating country of Tanzania. And one last case of alternate transport for me, nice, but a little humbling to think that to get through such a large country I only did a measly 425 kilometers of cycling. Blah!

From now on the rest of the Stage will be on an even tighter schedule, with a lot of long days. So here’s hoping for no more mishaps!







The Tour of Gondwana

May 02005 - Oct 02007