• Tanzania again: Mwanza-Muscat Part 2 July 10th, 2015

    Returning to Tanzania wasn’t in the original plan. This was, and remains, to ride north to Ethiopia and beyond. But the British Council, my former employer, needed an English teacher for a short-term contract in July. The job-spec sounded interesting. What would a 600km detour and 3 weeks off the road matter when I had no need to be any place at any particular time.

    So rather than continue north from Kisumu I rode south-east towards Kenya’s Rift Valley – a region of rolling green landscapes, tea-growing estates and welcome cool climates. Naturally this involved a bit of climbing, so it was a good job I’d consumed the 1kg of dates and 1kg of popcorn I had in my panniers when leaving Mwanza.

    Elevation profile: Kisumu-Kericho

    Actually the climb into Kenya’s Rift Valley wasn’t as bad as it looks here. This shows the elevation profile between Kisumu and Kericho – the former lying at an altitude of just under 1200m and the latter, 80km away, at around 2000m.

    I’ve started using this website to find the elevation profile between places. That’s when I can remember to look or have Internet access. Fortunately the strength of mobile Internet in Africa continues to develop faster than anything else here. Kenya, at least in towns, has excellent connection speeds. Worth noting that 2gb of data (including text messaging and about 60 minutes of call time) will cost around £6. That’s more than enough for over a week’s use of Internet on the road. It’s actually significantly cheaper than this in Tanzania.

    Tea plantation country.

    Robinson on the road

    The countryside was scenic, the towns mostly ugly. This came as no surprise. Small shanty-style tin-shacks and larger concrete structures – either abandoned or under construction, made no-where particularly pleasing to the eye when I stopped for something to eat or a place to stay. 

    But I enjoyed the surprise in peoples reactions and subsequent interaction at the roadside when stopping for a drink or stepping into a make-shift eatery. Most of these in Kenya are named ‘hotels’, but it’s simple food and tea on offer rather than accommodation. A lot more beans and chapatis consumed.

    Beans and chapati.

    Highway Hotel Menu

    Highway Hotel

    5 on a motorbike.

    Kiswahili is still widely spoken in Kenya, but it’s not heard as often as in Tanzania. Ethnic languages predominate here – the changing sounds of which are a good an indication of moving from one region to another. So eastwards from the Luo speakers around Lake Victoria it is Kalenjin that dominates the tea growing areas of Kericho and Bomet, before entering Masaai dominated territory that extends up to and across the border with Tanzania.

    Kenya_Ethnic_Map_Today

    Much of the landscape in the latter remains scarcely populated, largely consisting of expansive tracts of scrubland and spiky bush. Here cows and goats probably outnumber people. Massai-dominated towns are in fact as distinguishable by the colourful shawls worn by their long ear-lobed inhabitants as they are by the sight of butchers and the accompanying smell of roasted meat. Nyama Choma (roasted meat) seems to be a staple food in these parts of Kenya.

    Zone Butchery

    Kenyan butchers

    The truth is the meat is very good – far superior to what is served in Tanzania. I ordered 500g of roasted goat meat one evening from the restaurant of a hotel I stayed in (orders of 1kg or 1/2kg are the norm) and decided to do exactly the same the next night. It was some of the best meat I’ve had in Africa – affordable as well at less than £2.

    It might just be that I chose a good place to eat. The sight and smell of some of the butchers here are enough to turn one vegetarian. There are rumours that some nyama choma establishments in Kenya serve up donkey meat to unsuspecting customers. I wonder how that tastes.

    Nyama Choma

    The tarmac road was smooth and mostly quiet as I continued east, dropping in altitude and providing a wide sweeping view of Mt Suswa ahead of me.

    Looking east to Mt Susua

    This route was steering me directly towards Nairobi, which I had little desire nor need to enter for the second time.

    Invisible on google maps, but quite clearly demarcated on my paper map, was a track that appeared to totally bypass the capital. I feared it might be a busy short-cut, but soon realised once I saw the turn off just beyond the small town of Suswa, that it would be anything but. So I filled up my water bottles, bought some bananas, spaghetti, tomatoes and sukuma wiki (a green-leafed spinach type veg) and headed off into the bush planning to camp.

    Off the main road

    I had been looking forward to a night in the tent and had a wide expanse of land to choose from. Well that’s not strictly true. Surrounded by acacia trees and various other thorny foliage it made little sense to venture far from the track before pitching the tent.

    I think some people are under the impression that I spend most of my nights in this small green enclosure. I don’t. When adequate roofed accommodation is available for around £5 or less, which it often is in populated parts of East Africa, I don’t see much point in camping, unless I’m surrounded by some spectacular natural beauty, which usually isn’t the case if there are lots of people living in an area. Besides, wild camping isn’t particularly relaxing or safe if you are close to where people live, but trying to hide yourself. I’ve always found in this situation that it’s better to go and say hello and ask permission to camp. Invariably this often means pitching a tent somewhere like a school or church, or within someone’s compound. I’ve done this many times before in Africa.

    Anyhow, this kind of landscape, despite the mine-field of thorns, was one perfect for camping. I pitched the tent under a full moon and woke up with the tranquility of bird-song rather than a group of noisy children waiting outside for me.

    Camping in Masaai land

    Acacia Thorn

    Moth in my tent

    Fortunately the tyres remained puncture-free as I continued the following morning on a deteriorating but perfectly bikeable track in the direction of Ngong. It was hard to believe I was so close to Nairobi. My surroundings hadn’t felt more remote on this journey. Dirt tracks are always more memorable.

    Two wheels OK

    End of the road

    Back road to Ngong

    A steep climb

    Looking back over Masaai land

    Back on tarmac I joined the main road connecting Kenya with the Tanzanian border of Namanga. More Nyama Choma towns.

    By now I was able to greet people with a call of ‘Supa’ (the Masaai greeting for hello, which I probably mis-pronounced by just shouting ‘super’ at everyone – I think the correct pronunciation is ‘sopa’) from the saddle.

    Another Nyama Choma town

    I had music playing most of the time. When I first started touring I used to wear headphones to listen to music. Perhaps that was in the days before mini-speakers became so compact. Now I have a little blue-tooth speaker that sits in a small frame bag. It weighs almost nothing and emits a decent sound for its size. I just need to download some more music to play out of it.

    Music on the road

    Tanzanian immigration stamped me in for free when I returned. Bonus. Apparently a 90-day single-entry tourist visa, which I have, allows multiple entries back into the country for which the visa belongs to, assuming you are re-entering from Uganda and Kenya. This isn’t publicised, but is part of some East African Community agreement. Without knowing about it I can quite easily imagine many a traveller handing over a $50 bill for another visa. Hard to believe anyone in such an instance being told that it isn’t necessary to pay as their current visa remains valid.

    Namanga border between Kenya and Tanzania.

    The first thing I did after leaving Namanga and the trucks at the border is eat a potato omelette, more commonly known as chips mayai in Tanzania. It’s the national dish and designed for cyclists who want a low-cost high calorie meal. They don’t serve this in Kenya. They should. One usually has the option in places that dish out this African delicacy to order mishkaki (kebabs) – a woeful sized quantity of meat skewered onto one stick. It’s sensible to order at least several – they don’t cost much either.

    Chips Mayai: Tanzania's national dish

    It was massai land again on the road south to Arusha. Here the young shepherds bedecked in colourful finery seemed more interested to flag me down than they did in Kenya. It was always more than just a greeting of course. As I wrote in the previous post no-one ever asks you to stop in Africa just to say hello.

    101km to Arusha

    Evening shadow and Mt Longido

    Massai smile

    Masaai cyclist

    Masaai boys

    Massai feet

    Luxury awaited me in Arusha.I knew the hotel I was booked into and grinned widely as I ducked under the security barrier and rolled-up to the entrance. ‘You can’t park here’, said one of many uniformed guards as he took my camera and offered to take a picture.

    Arriving at The Arusha Hotel

    Ten minutes later I was stepping into a room that I would never be staying in were I paying for it. Lucky me. The only disappointment was the manager not agreeing to my suggestion of placing the bicycle on the balcony.

    Room in The Arusha Hotel

    The Arusha Hotel is one of east Africa’s oldest establishments, although nothing looks like it was here in 1884. Back then there would have been none of the groups of tourists that fill this place now. The car park if full of tour buses and safari vehicles. July is the start of the high season for trips to Serengeti, the Ngorogoro Crater and treks up Mount Kilimanjaro. Big business for people here. Arusha has dozens of forex bureaus. The moment I step out of the hotel I’m practically jumped upon by someone wishing to sell me something.

    I’m here for a few more weeks delivering an English language course to a group of ‘creative artists’. After that the journey continues.

    For those wishing to see the route I took from Kisumu-Arusha, scroll to the bottom of this page.

  • Rift Valley roads: Mwanza-Arusha August 29th, 2014

    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.

    Africa's Rift Valley

    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.

    Ready for the road

     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.

    Water hole in the dry season

    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.

    Goat soup and chapati

    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.

    Makongoro soup

    Menus in small roadside cafes are rare. On the second day after leaving Mwanza I found out what Makongoro is.

    Cow hoof soup

    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.

    Peter Shop

    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.

    Mr Riverpool mobile shop

    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.

    Accommodation in Shinyanga

    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.

    Leaving Shinyanga

    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.

    Uncut gemstones

    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.

    Ruby on the map

    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 towards Mt Hanang

    Heading north from Singida the landscape became more interesting as I cycled towards Mt Hanang (Tanzania’s 4th highest mountain – 3417m).

    Looking north to Mt Hanang

    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

    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

    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.

    High road to Karatu

    Fortunately the dirt track was mostly free of speeding buses as I headed towards Karatu.

    Tripe for breakfast!

    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.

    Self-catering for dinner

    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.

    250g of beef for £0.50

    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.

    Descent to Lake Manyara

    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.

    View over Lake Manyara

    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 encounter

    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.

    Giraffe on roadside

    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.

    Serengeti from the bottle

    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.

    Bus station food sellers

    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.

  • The Kilimanjaro Loop August 30th, 2011

    “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