• Here I go again: Mwanza-Muscat: Part 1 June 26th, 2015

    I hadn’t expected the tears. After 2 years I was wheeling the bike out of the gate for the final time. Leaving Mwanza. Leaving familiarity. Leaving friends and the comforts of having my own place and space. What a luxury that had been. I knew I would miss it, but it was time to move on.

     Tears at the gate

    It would have been easy to stay had my job contract been extended. Probably just as well it wasn’t. The work I was doing on paper had fizzled-out a long time ago. Whatever my employer in Dar-es-Salaam thought teacher trainers like myself were doing ‘up-country’ I have no idea.

    I had been posted to Mwanza to work in a Government Teacher Training College, but I soon came to the conclusion that no-one really did any work there. No wonder the country’s education system was in such a dire state. Tutors in the college rarely went to teach a class and once the novelty of my presence soon wore off I reached the conclusion that most people didn’t really care if I was there or not. It was just as well I liked living in Tanzania.

    From an outside perspective I was just a small fish in a foreign-funded aid project, employed as part of a poorly coordinated effort to improve the English language education system in a country where Kiswahili is very much the national language. It was always going to be a challenge. At the end of a two-year contract it was a more optimistic soul than me who said they had made a real impact or improvement in the education system.

    The Ministry of Education had happily signed-up to the project when the donor was ready to release funds. Well why wouldn’t they have done? African governments love outside assistance. British tax-payers money in this case.  

    I could continue for some while yet about the reasons for Tanzania’s failing education system and the enlightening insights gained from working on an aid project in Africa, but I shall return to the tears at the front gate. They didn’t last long. Well had no real reason to cry. Yes I was sad to be leaving, but also happy to be hitting the road again.

    Saying goodbye

    I always suspected when I finished my contract that I would just pedal off. It seemed like the simplest thing to do. One push on the pedals and you’re free-wheeling away – assuming you’re going downhill to begin with, which I was.

    Rolling out of Mwanza

    The road through and out of town was of course familiar. There are only two principal routes into and out of Mwanza. One leads south towards Shinyanga and the rest of Tanzania (the same road I cycled on a daily basis to college at one time) and the other east, rounding Lake Victoria’s Speke Gulf before it turns north in the direction of Kenya. It was the latter that I and two friends pedalled out on.

    The weather couldn’t have been better really. It had just rained and rain is almost always welcome in Africa, particularly in the dry season. The sky was overcast and the air refreshingly cool. I didn’t even apply sunscreen.

    For some years Ethiopia has been on my list of countries to visit, so when I first conceived the idea of a cycle tour at the end of my contract, this seemed like the most obvious place to pedal off towards. That remains the plan. But then I started reading about Somaliland (not Somalia) and how great Oman was to tour in winter. Mwanza-Muscat had a nice sounding ring to it, so there we are.

    Unlike the last several tours I have made in the past few years I don’t have a specific time-frame for this journey. It’s great to have that luxury again. The freedom to wake up somewhere and think yes, I will stay here another day, or look at a map and decide to take some circuitous and remote dirt road rather than rushing along a main route. That’s a great feeling.

    So I rolled out of Mwanza at a rather leisurely pace on that Sunday morning, my front panniers about 5kg heavier than they needed to be owing to various foodstuffs that weren’t a necessity to carry (1kg of dates, 2 large mangoes, 1 kg of popcorn, 500g of oats, 500ml of cooking oil, 500g of Tanzanian coffee and a can of redbull that had been left over at a small leaving party I’d thrown a few nights previously).

    I’d laid all the gear out the previous night on the floor of my sitting room, then put it into panniers and balanced them out the following morning. Well that didn’t didn’t take long. I’ve done it hundreds of times. Tool bag and spare front tyre below foodstuffs in one front pannier, cooking pots, stove, tupperware container (holding salt, pepper, chilli and curry powder, spork, lighter) and more foodstuff in the other front pannier. The rest finds a home in the rear panniers with the camping bag bungeed onto the top of the rack. Oh, and my handlebar bag that contains camera, passport, money and map. All in all about 34kg on a bike weighing 20kg. That’s not a light load, but if I wanted to lose several plus kgs, aside from the food, there are plenty of ways. Those jeans with the leather belt perhaps. I never used to tour with a pair of jeans, but then there are occasions, not camping in the bush, where it’s nice to get out of cycling gear.

    My kit laid bare

    Fully-loaded and ready

    I only got as far as the small town of Magu on that first day, just 65km. Rain fell heavily for a few hours so I took an early lunch stop with one of the friends who would later turn back, then waited for it to pass.

    Rain delays play

    Roadside eateries are common and easy to find in Tanzania. A bucket of water, like the one pictured above, acts as a hand-basin to wash your hands before and after a meal, which is very much the custom. How clean the water is inside the bucket who knows, but rather than look for a sign-post advertising somewhere to eat, a bucket like this is a better indication that food is nearby. In more simple establishments it will be cooked outside over a few charcoal braziers.

    Food on the road in much of Sub-Saharan Africa is a simple affair. Rice, beans, Ugali (cassava or maize stodge – see pics) meat (one of or a choice of chicken, beef, goat, fish) and some green-leafed veg pretty much sums up the majority of lunches. One can’t really go wrong with beans, which has the habit of producing some serious post-lunch sound effects from the area of my saddle. I always tell anyone who cycles with me that the most dangerous place to be on the road is right behind me.

    Fish and Rice

    Lunch in Lamadi

    Border nosh

    Fuel stop

    Lunch in Mbita

    Beef, Ugali and Sukuma wiki

    I knew the road as far as Bunda, having cycled it before in the opposite direction. Lake Victoria is never very far away, but mostly out of sight. It’s not a particularly scenic road – most flat ones aren’t, but following the rains the landscape is green and for a brief stretch the road forms the western boundary of the Serengeti National Park. Most large animals are probably sensible enough to stay further inside the park, but zebra, wildebeest, baboons and monkeys don’t seem particularly bothered by passing traffic.

    Edge of Serengeti National Park

    Beer carrier

    In Bunda I missed the opportunity to sleep in the JoyDick Hotel, having already checked-in to one of the many other affordable lodgings that were less amusingly named. Like food, accommodation in Tanzania is easy to find and most places have the added bonus of composing of a single storey. This means it’s easy to wheel the bike into the room rather than having to lug it up some stairs.

    Tanzanian Accommodation

    Guest house in Bunda

    North of Bunda I veered off on a dirt track towards the sleepy lakeside town of Musoma. At one time in the early 20th Century this was an important German garrison town, when Tanzania was part of Deutsch Ostafrika. Now its dusty grid-lined streets and faded shop-fronts display neglect. In Africa it’s much easier to build new again rather than maintain something that’s old.

    Balancing rocks

    Lake shore Musoma

    Downtown Musoma

    Goats in Musoma

    The lake at Musoma was a wonderful bright shade of green. Highly uninviting to go for a swim in. In actual fact during the 2 years I lived in Mwanza I only once went for a swim in the lake, and that was off a beach on the island of Ukerewe.

    Unlike Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika, where the water is blue, clear and clean, much of Lake Victoria is a murky mess. There are various reasons for this. One is the introduction of the infamous ‘Nile Perch’ by British Colonial officials in the 1950’s. While Lake Malawi and Tanganyika have hundreds of small cichlid fish that eat up bacteria and detritus, the Nile Perch, which grows to monster sizes, eats all these fish. Many businessmen and government officials see the fish as an economic boost (the fish is exported around the world), but it’s also the story of an environmental disaster.

    Aside from the uninviting colour of the lake for a swim, there is bilharzia to worry about, and the usual stories involving crocodiles and hippos.

    Uninvitingly green!

    Back on tarmac I continued towards the Kenyan border, the climb in altitude a reminder that I really didn’t need to be carrying 1kg of popcorn. Rocky outcrops flanked the roadside and the scenery improved.

    Kenyan cyclist

    At one point in the mid-day heat I spotted a small solid object slowly moving across the road in front of me. As I approached and got off the bike it stopped then disappeared into its shell. It wasn’t going to move until I did, but I was glad it had safely made it across the road. It’s not a common sight to see tortoises on the road in Africa. At least not in my experience. Dead snakes or dogs are much more familiar.

    Tortoise crossing

    At the Kenyan border I very nearly didn’t pay my $50 for a 90-day visa. Very nearly in the sense that I had been given my passport back and told to enjoy my stay in Kenya without having paid any money.

    ‘Is there anything else?’ I asked the pretty immigration clerk before preparing to walk out of the clean and newly built hall. ‘No that’s it’, came the slightly unsure reply. Well I could have reminded her there and then, but didn’t. I was 10 seconds from wheeling the bike through the barrier nearby and disappearing off before a security guard called me back.

    In Kenya’s first town, Migori, the bank wouldn’t change my Tanzanian shillings. I could have done this at the border nearby, but my neighbours in Mwanza had been scammed there recently in an identical fashion to one I recall at another African border. ‘No-one here wants that money’, said the corpulent bank manager who was more interested in knowing the value of my bicycle. ‘You can find a forex bureau in Kisumu’. So I changed some British Pounds and went in search of a Guest House and cold beer.

    Kenya's classic

    New beer - once only!

    Kisumu was where I was headed to, but I chose to ride back towards the lake from Migori. It was a scenic dirt track in stretches – green hillsides and views of the lake in places. Not much four-wheeled traffic, but often three or four people on a moto-taxi.

    Road to Magunga

    Rough road to Mbita

    Looking south to the Gwasi Hills

    Interacting with Kenyans in shops and roadside eateries is a lot easier than with many Tanzanians. Firstly people speak a lot more English, but more importantly there is a greater level of confidence about them. In Tanzania I could converse in simple Kiswahili, but there was often a reserved nature about people. Many would be surprised a mzungu could speak Kiswahili, so it was less common that they would initiate a conversation, while children would call ‘mzungu’ out from the roadside, but often runaway if I stopped or attempted to take a picture.

    The usual suspects.

    Local shop in rural Kenya

    The context here however is more or less often the same. Stories of poverty, the need for school fees etc etc. In one village where I wanted to confirm I was heading in the right direction an elderly man called me over. He was manning a small petrol pump. ‘What can you do for me’? he asked while I looked down at my paper map. I laughed, made sure I was on the right road, then pedalled off. It was a question I heard more than a few times.

    Well that’s nothing new. Cycle tour through Africa and rarely will there be a day when something isn’t asked of you by someone. I learnt a long time ago that it’s good practice not to stop when someone is waving you down or pretending they need water from your bottles when there is a water source nearby. Rather than just wanting a chat, which may well be the case, there will often be some other agenda that involves me providing financial help.

    Most Kenyans in this part of the country aren’t hesitant to tell you how much of a problem AIDS is. Western Kenya has some of the highest rates in Africa. When I asked people for the reasons they simply said it was due to poverty. It was usually me who suggested that the rates would be lower if people used condoms. Condoms are free here, so there is no excuse there.

    Another noticeable feature of rural Kenya is how many abandoned and boarded-up buildings there are at the roadside. Makeshift corrugated or wooden shacks are favoured over concrete structures – the kind of places that could be constructed in half a day with minimal cost. I’m not sure why I imagined Kenya to be more developed in this respect. Rural poverty is very evident.

    Local Barbershop

    Village sound system

    Boarded-up shops

    When I rejoined tarmac from the village of Mbita it was on that super-smooth texture that signals a sign of Chinese influence in recent years. I had cycled just under 600km from Mwanza and had less than 100km to reach Kisumu.

    East from Mbita

    Well that’s where I am now. Enjoying fast Internet and several days of rest in a room larger than some of the cell-like spaces I might spend a night. I haven’t actually camped yet. Possibly on the next stretch. From here I’m heading off in a totally different direction to Ethiopia. More about that in the next post. A map of the route I just took and an elevation chart can be viewed at the bottom of the Maps page.

    Room in Kisumu

  • Beers and braais on the Zambezi April 17th, 2012

    I saw elephants on the road out of Zimbabwe. They saw me too. First it was the back end of one, and metres later the front end of another. They were only 10-15 metres away, munching away where the edge of the bush met the roadside fire-break. I wouldn’t have seen them in a car, and it was only at the last second as I turned to make eye contact and receive a startled ear flap did I suddenly think “Shit”.

    Well I had been warned. There was plenty of fresh poop on the road and the folk from Vic Falls had told me to be vigilant.

    Seen from a distance and within the safety of a vehicle, elephants appear prehistorically majestic and peaceful. Up front without warning they are massive and scary.

    It was probably a good thing then that when I continued into Botswana and arrived at the gate of Chobe National Park the following morning, the security guard yelled at me to stop. The main road that connects Zimbabwe with Botswana and continues onto the Ngombe bridge border with Namibia some 70km later cuts through the northern stretch of this wildlife rich wilderness.

    At first I was a bit annoyed, and probably would have stayed that way had I seen nothing from the pick-up I was asked to load my bike into the back of. Instead I soon lost count of the number of elephants crossing the road, not just in their twos and threes, but herds of one or two dozen. Now that would have been scary alone on the bike. No lions mind you.

    And that was the end of Botswana. One night camping in the popular Chobe Safari Lodge and then several hours in the morning before I was receiving an exit stamp and entering Namibia. In total I cycled some 20km in Botswana.

    It will be considerably more here in Namibia. The World’s second least populated country (Mongolia is the first I think?) contains just over 2 million people and has a lot of long distances between places.

    I biked the first 70km in less than 3 hours. It was Saturday, I needed to change money and the banks close at midday. It didn’t make any difference “These notes are old”, said the Standard Chartered clerk holding up a moderately grubby $5 bill, “and we’re not buying small notes”. In Malawi they would have salivated at the sight of US$, be they big or small in denomination, clean or mildly grubby. Here in Namibia it seems not.

    Fortunately another foreign cyclist bought some off me in exchange for South African Rand (used here in Namibia as well as the Namibian $, which is tied to it).

    Shane and I have been in contact for some months now. In November last year he flew to Cape Town with his bicycle, and is cycling in a roughly opposite route direction from me back to the UK.

    “This town is about the most African feeling place I’ve been to”, was one of the first remarks he made about Katima Muillo, where we had agreed to meet. Well other than the sand encroaching on the roads, for me it felt like one of the most western. Large supermarkets, service stations with enormous forecourts and what appeared to be a lot of Chinese-run shops dominated this riverside town.

    What the town lacked in character though the campsite setting and company easily made up for. Shane had already been lazing on the banks of the Zambezi all week, and would spend another 4 nights there when I arrived.

    One thing I’ve missed cycling alone in Africa is a drinking partner – someone to share a cold beer with at the end of a day of cycling, and who enjoys the real atmosphere of Africa away from the western comforts of backpacker hostels and tourist lodges. Shane easily fitted the bill, and as he planned his route north into rural Zambia I pondered for more than a brief moment during those blissful several days of drinking and barbecuing what it would be like to turn back around and join him. Why not? Zimbabwe, with its prices and history of southern African influenced segregation has already given me a feeling for what I imagine aspects of life in Namibia and South Africa to be like. Or perhaps I’m just sad that his real adventure is just starting and mine is coming towards its end? I’ll be keenly following his progress as he slowly heads north.

    For me the road out of Katima Muillo led in one direction – west, a long, straight, flat and largely featureless ride of 500+km through the Caprivi Strip. Geographically this looks like an exciting part of the country – wedged as it is like a dagger between Botswana to the South and Angola to the north. On a level of mental stimulation when seen over 4 longish days from the saddle of a bike it’s hard-going. Highlights include a couple of elephant crossings, some beautiful cloud formations, wild camping made so easy by lack of people that I could almost have done it blind-folded, and a wonderful tailwind. Long may the latter continue throughout the rest of this country. I have 470km separating me from Oshikati to the west of here, and then it’s on into Himba country– land of the scantily dressed.

  • Your round mate: Christmas in Cameroon December 28th, 2010

    Another lung bursting climb took me out of Bamenda, but at least it was on a tarred road. I’m done with dirt tracks for the moment; there will be plenty more where I’m headed in the next few months.

    From above the town looked as attractive as it did from street level; a sprawling mass of single-storey tin roofs with no discernible landmark other than an ugly church on a hill. It is the landscape surrounding Bamenda that half-saves it, although at this time of year the visibility is impeded by an African fog, better known as the ‘harmattan’. I thought Cameroon was too far south from the Sahara to suffer from the dust-filled skies that cover much of west Africa during the dry season. Obviously not. Straight after the rainy season would be the best time to be travelling through Cameroon. I’m two months too late.

    Back on my own I was no longer looking over my shoulder to see where or where not Hiromu was. We ‘should’ meet again in Yaounde, unless his ‘schedule’ dictates that he has to leave the capital before I catch him up. We have a similar route plan from Cameroon onwards, so it makes sense that we move together, particularly along some of the troubled roads that lye ahead. It’s unlikely I’m going to bump into another cyclist in this neck of the jungle.

    It was Christmas eve and Cameroon was gearing up for Christmas. What does that mean? As far as I can tell a lot of preparation for one enormous drinking festival. Not that Cameroonians need any excuse to drink. Every other vehicle that seems to pass me by on the road is a truck filled with beer-crates.

    A good place to be at Christmas? Well yes and no. Should a thirsty cyclist need liquid refreshment at the end of the day from a punishing climb no problem at all. Just don’t expect it cold. Cameroonians will drink warm beer for breakfast quite happily. The problem is that with the ‘season of goodwill’ everyone would very much like you, the ‘white man’, to stop cycling, come take a drink and buy a beer for everyone present. “How about a drink for my boys?”, “You have something for us in one of the bags?” and so on. Beer is not expensive, but in an African context neither is it cheap – about $1 a bottle. I can’t quite figure out how so many Cameroonians can afford to drink so much.

    Almost every bar in every hamlet, village and town will have a boisterous drunkard determined to make you stop by frantically waving and yelling at you whilst clutching a bottle of warm beer in the other hand. And so you smile, wave, shout “next time” and keep pedalling until you find a discreet place that looks like you might drink a bottle of coke in peace or be able to ask the bar-man for a place to sleep for the night. This is how I spent the 24th, 25th and 26th of December. I felt like  a bit of a party-pooper, but it seemed to be the safest option. Quite a contrast from cycling through Morocco a year ago!

    On Christmas day itself the roads were blissfully empty. Between bars children dressed in their best greeted me with a ‘Joyeux Noel’, for somewhat confusingly I was now in French-speaking Cameroon, only to be heading back to the English speaking part. Having attended a Church congregation with their parents in the morning, who would then proceed to get blindly drunk, they were now going to their own party. This seemed to consist of an empty room rigged-up with a bad-sounding stereo system. Close by a make-shift photo studio would have been erected. This would consist of a background of several glossy pictures, perhaps showing a luxury house, a white beach with palm trees or a famous footballer or music artist.

    A worrying ‘clanging’ sound came from my bike on Christmas day as I descended a long steep hill from the town of Dschang. Had the frame suddenly cracked? No, my wheel rims were red hot from braking and a front spoke had broken. Not sure if this is the reason?

    Replacing a broken spoke, assuming one has the spare spoke and spoke key, is not difficult. The skill is tightening it to the correct level to ensure the wheel remains well-aligned, or ‘true’ as cycling terminology would say. It is something I’m a complete amateur at, which may explain why I’ve now had 3 broken spokes from my front wheel, although if you ask me it looks pretty ‘true’.

    Out of the mountains the temperature and humidity returned to what one would expect at this degree of latitude. Plantations of banana, pineapple, cocoa and sugar cane flanked the roadside, giving way to denser and larger vegetation behind. It was a taste of the jungle, which will be with me as I cross Central Africa.

    Pineapple man

    Somewhere within the muggy breathless sky lay Mt Cameroon. At 4095m in height this is by far the highest mountain in west Africa and should have dominated the skyline. Only by looking very hard could I trace its outline though, for it remained mostly invisible behind the clouds.

    I was heading back to the coast and the Anglophone town of Limbe, which in former times was known as Victoria, named by its 19th Century founder after someone famous. If ever there was an over-used name for African places and landmarks Victoria would be it.

    My host, who I’ve never met, but whose empty house I’m now staying in, recommended a detour here. In the yard are two large motorbikes, which he and a friend drove overland from the UK on. I think the plan had been to continue to South Africa, but they stopped short in Limbe, which doesn’t seem a bad place to put down for a while. I’d have liked to hear his story over a few beers. As New Year approaches I’m in bad need of a drinking partner who doesn’t assume the round is always on me.