South from Mwanza the tarred road heads into central Tanzania. It’s not a popular destination for visitors as there are no immediate tourist attractions such as national parks, natural wonders, or places given much attention in a guidebook. A lot of Tanzania is like this, as is Africa for that matter, particularly when you see things from a saddle.
There is however one feature of central Tanzania that this two week tour was focused on. It’s the earth’s most significant visible feature from outer space. It’s also very visible, although perhaps less so, when flying over it between Mwanza and Dar-es-Salaam. This of course is Africa’s Great Rift Valley – the eastern branch of which cuts right through the country.
On a clear day from a plane it’s easy to see Mount Kilimanjaro and nearby Mount Meru to the north. The pilots rarely mention this, nor do they tell passengers when the plane is flying directly over dramatic escarpments, other extinct volcanoes as well as dazzling white soda lakes.
The two branches of Africa’s Great Rift Valley.
Logistically the tour had one hiccup: returning to Mwanza by bicycle was going to be problematic. The Serengeti National Park and Ngorogoro Conservation area cover a vast area of northern Tanzania, but are inaccessible by bicycle. This meant that unless I cycled back the way I came, which was south of the park and clearly not desirable, the only remaining option was to continue north into Kenya before dropping back into Tanzania. Time didn’t allow for this. And so somewhat reluctantly I decided that a bus from Arusha, Tanzania’s third largest town, would provide the easiest option to return to Mwanza.
In total I cycled just over 900km, with 150km or so on dirt tracks. I’ll let the photos and the captions tell the rest of the story.
No front panniers required for this tour. I packed a tent but didn’t use it. Tanzania is one of the easiest countries in Africa to find affordable accommodation. That said, packing a tent is a reassuring backup. Total load for this tour about 16-17kg.
June and July are typically dry in Tanzania. This means water sources are scarce. Long journeys, particularly in rural areas, are often necessary for both people and livestock. Bicycles strapped with jerry-cans are frequently used to transport water, which is far from clean. Drinking water in Tanzania is best bought in bottles, which is fortunately widely available.
Meat soup (beef/goat/chicken) is a popular breakfast in Tanzania, served with a bowl of lemon and chilli. Chapatis are always available and make a good accompaniment. Total cost about £0.80.
Menus in small roadside cafes are rare. On the second day after leaving Mwanza I found out what Makongoro is.
Makongoro are cow hooves served in a soup. A little too hearty for my liking, but evidently quite popular. I skipped the soup and stuck to chapatis and tea.
Well I had to stop and have a drink. There are lots of small villages along major roads in Tanzania. Most don’t appear on any map, but reassuringly bottled water and fizzy drinks (usually warm) are available.
Small mobile phone booths selling calling credit are very popular in Tanzania (there are no contracts here). It was the name of the shop that caught my attention here. Tanzanians have great problems in distinguishing L and R as they sound very similar.
On my second night out of Mwanza I stayed in the small town of Shinyanga. Curious to know what Heavy Tea was I decided to check-in here. The next morning I was served a boiled egg and a cup of black tea. Meat soup would have been much more preferable. Rooms in Guesthouses/lodges in most of Tanzania can be found for between £2-£10 per night.
Baobab trees provide the most scenic aspect of the semi-arid landscape between Mwanza and Singida. Unlike other trees in Tanzania and Africa, which are most often cut down and used for firewood, Baobabs are considered sacred. They are also providers of fruit, soap, rope, oil and various medicines. Some trees are large enough to be many hundreds of years old and each one seems to have its own special character.
The altitude ranges from 1100m-1400m above sea level in this part of Tanzania, so days can be hot and dry, but it’s never that hot. There is also none of the coastal humidity. There is however one problem: wind. I had been told that Singida and the area around it is windy all year round. As luck would have it I ended up with an awful headwind for two consecutive days.
Tanzania contains a lot of gemstones, but unfortunately I know very little about them. On one afternoon in a quiet village I was shown uncut rubies and another stone. None of them looked that impressive, but there could have been a small fortune sitting in this hand.
Apparently the uncut rubies came from the area shown on this map of Tanzania (approx 50km west of Singida), so if you happen to be passing through and know more than me, you now know where to go.
Heading north from Singida the landscape became more interesting as I cycled towards Mt Hanang (Tanzania’s 4th highest mountain – 3417m).
For most of the day the mountain-top was covered in clouds, but late afternoon I got a great view of this extinct volcano.
Climbing the Malbadow escarpment with Mt Hanang behind me (an ascent from 1500-2100m) provided the best scenery of the tour. This was a detour from the main road and although the climb itself was paved, the rest of the road northwards to Karatu was on a dusty track. This photo was one of the few I took with the Nikon D90 SLR. The rest were shot with the phone’s camera – poorer quality but far easier.
Enemy on the road! Speeding buses are bad enough on paved roads. On dirt tracks they seem to go no slower and leave clouds of dust in their wake. Flying stones are also a hazard so it’s always best to look away as they pass by.
Fortunately the dirt track was mostly free of speeding buses as I headed towards Karatu.
Food options tend to become more limited once dirt tracks replace tarmac. For breakfast one morning I was served a bowl of tripe soup. It qualifies as meat, but I wasn’t that desperate so made do with bananas and chapatis.
Although I never used the tent, it was a worthwhile decision to bring the multi-fuel stove as well as a single pot, frying pan and a coffee mug that contains its own plunger (great piece of equipment for making decent coffee). Food in Tanzania becomes monotonous quite quickly, particularly in the evening when options are limited to chips and grilled meat. With the multi-fuel stove I cooked-up pasta in my room on several evenings.
Meat is easy to buy in Tanzania, although the hygiene of places selling it is often questionable. At least when you buy your own meat you can make sure you get the cut you want, rather than lots of bone and fat, and also make sure you cook it well before eating! This 250g of beef (no idea which part of the cow) cost £0.50.
A cyclist’s favourite sign post. About to descend from 1500 metres to 1000 metres in 5-6km. The safari vehicle pictured to the right is a familiar sight on the road connecting Ngorogoro Conservation Area and Arusha. It came as quite a shock to see so many foreign faces behind the window of these vehicles.
It wasn’t the clearest of days, but the descent to Lake Manyara and the accompanying rift valley scenery was another highlight of the tour. Fortunately someone hanging around and trying to sell Masaai jewellery was kind enough to take my picture.
Masaai villages, or rather model masaai villages, line the road outside Lake Manyara National Park. I assume that as part of a safari package there is an option to stop off and visit one of these villages. Highly voyeuristic and unappealing if you ask me, but they seem to be popular. These young men had walked from one such village to greet me on the roadside. The tallest and oldest spoke reasonable English. ‘Lets chat on WhatsApp?’ he suggested as he spotted my smartphone before showing me his. No idea how he was charging it as these villages have no power supply.
An unexpected sight the day before arriving in Arusha. Most large animals in Africa are contained within National Parks, but National Parks have no fences. This lone Giraffe didn’t seem the least bothered by my presence a few metres away on he road as he/she munched away on some Acacia leaves.
Tanzania has about half a dozen beers, similarly priced at around £0.80 a bottle. Hard to choose a favourite, so I switch from one to the other every few months and prefer to drink from the bottle – beer stays colder that way. After 920km it felt good to arrive in Arusha and enjoy a few cold ones – truth is I’d been enjoying them on most evenings.
It took 9 days to cycle to Arusha and 12 uncomfortable hours on a speeding bus to return. I don’t travel frequently enough on such death-traps to know that the seats over the rear wheels are the worst to book (the only ones available to book the day before). Tanzanian road authorities ensure numerous speed bumps exist in every village en-route. This made the journey particularly unpleasant as the driver never slowed down sufficiently. My bicycle was directly below me, jammed miraculously into a tight space by some idiot who unsuccessfully attempted to solicit the equivalent of an extra seat fare out of me for transporting the bicycle. The passengers sat more or less in silence, until we reached the outskirts of Mwanza and they realised they were probably going to survive. I had more or less cycled the exact same way we returned, so the only point of interest was watching people run to the bus in an attempt to sell food and drink through the window whenever we entered a bus station.
All in all I was happy to arrive unscathed, and relieved to discover that other than some scuffed handlebar tape, my bicycle was intact too. If nothing else it was a reminder that buses in Africa are the worst forms of transport. Give me a train or a boat any day, but preferably a bicycle.