“I went out to Mount Kilimanjaro, which I thought was very beautiful, but there were a lot of people there”. (Ralph Fiennes)

One of those new Chinese roads provided my exit from Kenya. There are a lot of these in Africa. In fact there probably isn’t a country on the continent that hasn’t had some Sino-African road-building agreement signed. Well Africa needs better roads, and the Chinese do a good a job at providing them. I think you could travel most of the length of Africa if you wanted to on Chinese built roads, but dirt tracks are always more interesting.

The Chinese influence in Africa is an interesting one. It still amazes me that even in those small Congolese towns, which were surrounded by awful roads and hundreds of square kilometres of dense jungle, that there would be a Chinese shop run by Chinese people. I wondered at the time how these people got here. When, by what means and why did they come? I was surely as much of a stranger in this deep pocket of the World as the people whom the kids called ‘Ching-chong’ were, although some might have been there for decades. They would have been able to speak Lingala or Swahili, but I’m sure probably still ate rice with chopsticks everyday.

Well there were no Chinese on this 100km stretch of road connecting Emali with the border town of Loitokitok (not the easiest town name to pronounce), but their presence had left a mark on the children who still yelled out a ‘hee-hor’ and giggled as I rode past.

This road was in fact one of the smoothest and quietest stretches of tarmac I’ve been on for a very long time. Most of what traffic there was consisted of safari vehicles transporting sleeping tourists to one of two nearby National Parks – Amboseli or Tsavo West. As they sped by I’d get a glimpse of the white faces and try to guess at the nationality. I think I’ve seen more white faces behind the window of a moving vehicle in Kenya than I have in all other African countries combined. Well it’s high-season, which is another reason I avoided the coastal towns like Mombasa and Malindi.

To give those sleeping tourists credit the scenery was fairly monotonous. A flat arid expanse of thermarest-puncturing bush stretched out either side of this new road, the only colour being the occasional maasai herdsman staring vacantly at me as I contemplated stopping to ask and take a photo.

It was also windy, and I had forgotten how much I hate head-winds. The harder you push to combat them and hit double figures for speed (10km/hr) the stronger they come at you. I sought refuge for a night in a wooden hut on the outskirts of a dusty village inhabited by drunken maasai. The hut was in fact the chief’s office, and quite a change of scenery from that western furnished apartment with swimming pool complex in Nairobi. That really was a dose of luxury.

Chief's office

Into Tanzania

Tanzania welcomed me with a 90-day visa, (when I only asked for 60) and the reassurance that I would only pay $50 for it when the Kenyan immigration official on being stamped out said that British passport holders paid $100, of which I didn’t have.

That said my visa was disappointing. As I’m sure many other globe-trotting nomads do, I’m fond of sitting down every once in a while and thumbing through my passport at the interesting stamps and visas I’ve collected from seldom-visited countries and infrequently used borders. The Tanzanian immigration official merely gave me a smudged blue stamp including date, and a messy biro scribble next to it saying ‘Paid $50’. It was the same when I first came to Tanzania 11 years ago. ‘Don’t I get a sticker?’ I asked as he handed it back. ‘You should have gone to the embassy for one of those. Our machine is broken’.

Tanzanian visa

One of the reasons I crossed into Tanzania where I did was to see Mt Kilimanjaro up close. Africa’s highest mountain and one of the continent’s most iconic landmarks was right next to me. An awesome spectacle – at least it would have been if it wasn’t in the clouds.

I rode south from the border along a scenically undulating road to the town of Marangu, a popular starting point for those who’ve paid the $1000 or so for the 6-7 day climb. I wonder if this mountain rakes in more money per year from climbers than any other on the planet? People climb it year round, whereas Everest for example is only climbed in 3-4 months of the year, I think?

Well I couldn’t leave without seeing it, so decided to cycle around it. And just as I google-searched and found a website connected with cycling and the mountain I received a face-book message from the same author.

Elvis (yes that is his real name, he says) is possibly/probably the only black African cycle-tourer I’m likely to meet. Several years ago he contacted me from his home in Arusha, Tanzania and explained his plan to tour solo through Southern Africa, which is just what he did. Earlier this year he was involved as an organiser in the Tour d’ Afrique – a popular bike race/tour from Cairo to Cape Town.

Elvis the Tanzanian tourer

We met mid-way round the mountain, and rode together for a day. He plans another big trip, starting in Chile next year and finishing back in Tanzania (ChiletoKili.com I think?).

Kids on the chase

Looping around Kilimanjaro was a great idea. The clouds cleared for a few days to reveal the majesty of the 5895m peak, and the landscape and scenery was constantly changing from dry-arid savanna dotted with masaai villages to thick forested slopes. No surprise several companies organise tours around the mountain, although I saw very few tourists and no-one on a bicycle.

Below Kilimanjaro

Rough road descent

Northern side of Kilimanjaro

Maasai family

Maasai woman

Masaai sandles

Maasai boy

Masaai walking home

Evening wood collection

Young maasai girl

Girls near Kilimanjaro

Camera-shy kids

I left Elvis just before descending another 500m in altitude to Lake Chala. This tiny Crater Lake straddles the border between Tanzania and Kenya. It also came up in a google-search of cycling around Kilimanjaro, alongside another link to the story of a young English girl who’d been eaten by a crocodile here some 10 years ago. The owner said the crocs were no longer there now, but I decided to avoid taking a dip and instead watched the elephants grazing below on the plains that extend into Tsavo west National Park.

Lake Chala

An elephant was here

Bush camp

Leaving Kilimanjaro shrouded in clouds again I hit the highway south. I’m now typing this from the town of Same, which wins an award for having the slowest Internet connection in Africa. I had hoped to post this with photos, but when it took the best part of 30 minutes to open up my e-mail I gave up.

The town sits directly beneath the Pare mountains, which unless you’ve been to you’ll probably never have heard of.

One of those inviting white lines on the map that wiggles between the contours leads away from the highway here and says ‘follow me, no-one comes this way much and I’m off the beaten-track.’ Well this is far more appealing than sticking with the trucks to the coast. Assuming the tracks on the map do exist I can continue behind the Pare and Usambara mountains and find my way to the Indian Ocean north of the town of Tanga. I’m looking forward to hitting the coast again. Cameroon, Limbe and the Atlantic Ocean seem a long way away.

Alone on the highway