• New visas: Mwanza-Muscat Part 3 August 10th, 2015

    A refrigerator box made an excellent container to transport my bicycle on a plane out of Tanzania. Cycling away would have been preferable, were it not for the fact that in order to go north, which is the direction I’m generally going, I’d be re-riding some of the roads I’d already covered. This rarely has much appeal, unless the roads are stupendously scenic, which they weren’t.

    Fortunately FastJet fly from Kilimanjaro Airport to Uganda and tickets cost all of £20. Well that’s before tax, after which the price quadruples. Even still, with an extra £20 for the bike and several quid for the gear the total price made it an affordable option. I also had good memories of cycling in Uganda.

    Bike in a fridge box

    My 3-week stay at the Arusha Hotel finished with me signing a bill I was very glad I didn’t have to pay. Goodbye full English breakfasts and 5-star luxury. Goodbye bus-loads of safari-clad tourists who always filled the hotel lobby every morning to be briefed by tour-operators about their impending trip to one of the nearby National Parks. None ever seemed to venture onto the streets of Arusha. Well that wasn’t in the itinerary, and being hassled by multi-lingual touts would only mire what were probably very expensive holidays.

    The hotel must have been making an absolute fortune from this lot. Had I cared more I would have told the Indian manager to invest in some better customer service. It’s a concept that remains mostly foreign in Tanzania, even when people pay western prices. Instead I gave one of the security guards the two pairs of trousers I’d bought to work in and pedalled off to a Warmshowers host. Thanks for the fridge box if you happen to be reading this Eric.

    My short teaching contract provided a welcome break, as well as a good opportunity to be back in the classroom interacting with Tanzanian students. If I could live a life of cycle-touring for several months then pick up a 2 or 3-week well-paid teaching contract in an interesting location I might just spend the rest of my life doing that.

    Ugandan immigration had little time for my reasoning that I didn’t need a visa when I arrived. I was in Uganda for a weekend in late May and paid $50 for a visa which I hoped would allow me free re-entry to the country within 90 days. Tanzania and Kenya at least follow this policy. So much for an East African Union making it easier for people to travel freely around the region.

    Painting of President Musuveni

    Uganda now in fact charges $100 instead of $50 (prices changed on July 1st) and I was going nowhere until I paid it.

    ‘Don’t worry.You will enjoy Uganda. There is plenty of food and good security’, said a portly immigration officer as he relieved me of a crisp bill and stamped my passport.

    Ugandan lunch

    As international airports go, Entebbe’s is an easy one to cycle away from, located as it is at the end of a peninsula jutting into Lake Victoria. The main road from here, well pretty much only road, heads to Kampala, just 35km away.


    I hadn’t planned such a long stay here, but then didn’t anticipate the obstacles and delay in acquiring a visa for South Sudan. Fortunately, Kampala, despite the crazy traffic and near death experiences every time one gets on the back of a boda-boda (a motorbike taxi) isn’t such a bad place to pass the time. People are friendly, they speak good English and there seems to be less of the immature ‘Mzungu’ calling that accompanies a stay in Tanzania. There also happens to be a great selection of bars and restaurants. An easy place for a single man to get trapped perhaps, as I’m sure many have…

    Downtown Kampala

    Boda Boda Drivers

    Beer with a view

    Kampala bus park

    Kampala bus park at sunset

    When I first conceived the idea for this current tour South Sudan had never been on the agenda, fraught as the country is with Civil War. A quick look at the FCO website will confirm that the 4-year old country isn’t the safest on the continent to visit right now. But I’ve never used the FCO website as a means to plan where I go, recognising that conflict in one part of a country doesn’t necessarily mean everywhere is actually as dangerous.

           South Sudan FCO travel advice

    A friend in Tanzania had worked in the country a few years back and started convincing me, or rather helped convince myself, that it would be a challenging and adventurous way to enter Ethiopia, which remains the plan.

    A visa for South Sudan isn’t easily obtainable, requiring a letter of invitation from within the country. Anticipating this to be a minor hurdle I decided to write my own invitation letter and forward it to my friend’s colleague in South Sudan, who could then sign it, which he did.

    The problem is self-written invitations don’t look so impressive without official letter-heads and stamps. My application was quickly rejected.

    I returned two days later with what I considered a formal invite, only to be told that I now needed a ‘Certificate of Incorporation’ in order to prove that the company who had invited me were officially registered. The letter could also not be addressed ‘To whom it may concern’ but the ‘Visa section’.

    By this point I was close to giving up, which wouldn’t have been a huge issue as I can just cross back into Kenya and enter Ethiopia that way.

    The certificate was soon emailed to me with the necessary letter changes. I returned once again. This time the Consular wasn’t in the office, but I was assured the visa would be processed, which indeed it was. Same day service as well (normally it takes 3 working days). Another $100.

    I have until September the 6th to enter the country. Well I assume that the 1-month duration of my visa is from the day I enter the country rather than the day the visa is issued. Such trivialities shouldn’t matter in Africa. I have northern Uganda to explore first.

    South Sudan Visa

  • On the shelves: Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook July 25th, 2015

    The latest edition of the wonderful ‘Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook is now available to buy. It’s a great resource for anyone planning a cycle tour, with plenty of practical information covering aspects such as what bike and equipment to take, as well as chapters focusing on regions and popular routes to cycle.

    I was very happy to have contributed to the chapter on Africa – updating the sections on cycling though East and Southern Africa as well as West and Central Africa. That’s a lot of countries. Some barely got a mention. Perhaps it’s time a guidebook dedicated to cycle-touring in Africa was put together. Hmm.

    Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook

    Unfortunately I won’t get to see a copy for a while. Next week I’m back on the road, although need to box my bike up first.

  • 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.


    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.

  • 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

  • Old roads and new: Mbeya-Mwanza. Part 1 February 26th, 2015

    The flights were booked well in advance. Mwanza-Dar-es-Salaam, then Dar-es-Salaam-Mbeya. Less than £90 in total, including the extra luggage allowance for the bike in a box.

    The tour had been on my mind for months – around about the same time I booked the flights I guess. Beyond a rough route, which would bring me back to Mwanza by bike, I had little specifically planned for what ended up being 7 weeks on the road.

    The Southern Highlands of Tanzania would be first up, an area of the country I’d yet to cycle through. Then I’d cross Lake Niassa to Malawi and ride north, possibly heading into Zambia and connecting with the ferry service across Lake Tanganyika to Kigoma in Western Tanzania. If there was time I’d revisit Burundi and Rwanda, dip into Uganda and then return to Tanzania. One thing I was sure I wouldn’t do, unless absolutely necessary, was subject my bicycle and bottom to the discomfort of an African bus.

    The journey wouldn’t be short of climbs given that most of my intended route would pass through the Rift Valley. In fact there were very few flat days on the tour, as evidenced by the elevation chart below. In total I rode just under 3200km, in 38 days, and accumulated 36,458m of altitude, according to my GPS unit.

    It was a great tour – both on and off the bike, riding a mixture of paved and unpaved roads and revisiting a few places I’d been before. I’ll do my best to share it here with pictures and descriptions over a series of blog posts.

    Climbing away from Mbeya.

    It’s a perfect day and a perfect road to roll out of Mbeya on. Starting at 1700m the air is cool and it’s uphill all day – 25km on smooth tarmac then 25km on a dirt track towards Kitulo National Park. I’m in relatively good fitness, but 20kg of luggage, plus water, feels like a serious work out.

    Service with a smile: Fruit and veg seller

    Buying local fruit and veg on the roadside has to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of cycling in Africa. People try to flog you an entire bucket of whatever is in season, unaware that carrying 5kg of carrots or tomatoes in your panniers isn’t sensible. And so you offer some small change and pick a handful, which is usually OK. I stopped to buy plums here, rare in Tanzania. Also nice to get service with a smile.

    Room for the night

    Room for the first night in a village called Kikondo. Pretty basic and pretty grim, but clean enough and at £1.80 per night I couldn’t really complain. It was the only Guest House in Kikondo (unsigned) – 10 tiny rooms or so behind a bar. I could have camped, but wimped out under dark skies. Kikondo is at about 2800m altitude so I asked the receptionist/bar girl to prepare some hot water for a shower. I turned in for the night early, happy the village’s limited power supply meant all was quiet by 10pm. Tanzania is one of Africa’s easiest countries to find cheap accommodation in. Naturally the choice, quality and price go with the size of the place.

    View over Kitulo National Park

    On the second day I entered Kitulo National Park. It’s one of Tanzania’s lesser known parks (no big animals here) and is mostly situated at over 2000m in altitude. Between Jan-Feb wild flowers cover many of the slopes, so I was a month or so early.

    Road to Makete

    Road through Kitulo National Park. Why does a Giraffe and Lion reside on my handlebars? No particular reason other than they were being sold off cheap on an online store when I was purchasing various other gear, and felt like pimping the bike up with some random mascots. Just a kid at heart really. Front light is also a new edition, wired up to the dynamo hub, although I rarely used it and found the placement right on the front of the rack to be too susceptible to the occasional knock. Will have to rethink that one.

    South from Kitale National Park

    Almost no traffic on this track heading to Makete in the Southern Highlands. I had read that December was the wet season, so was perhaps lucky that almost no rain fell during the first week. On some of the tracks, wet weather would have made the going very hard.

    Which way to go

    There were many tracks in the Southern Highlands and it wasn’t always obvious which one to take. I had download a GPS app on my phone, which showed hundreds of interconnecting tracks. I usually just followed my instinct and took whichever was going in the right direction.

    Hot chips and coke

    Food options were fairly limited in the Southern Highlands, but surrounded by fields of potatoes it wasn’t hard to find a plate of fresh chips. And coke, well coca-cola is never that hard to find in Africa.

    Shit road and steep gradients

    The scenery was superb, but the gradients on this track through the Southern Highlands were amongst the steepest I have ever cycled on (typically 12-18%+). Down one valley side and up another – all day. In the lowest gear I would usually cycle for a few hundred metres at 4-5km/hr, rest and drink water, then continue. Pushing the bike (about 45kg) on loose surfaces meant it was impossible to get any grip. Had there been rain such roads would have become very difficult to ride. This was the third day of riding on the tour and I managed 35km in about 6 hours, climbing 1200m. When I arrived mid-afternoon in the small village of Lupila I was told I had taken the short-cut, which probably meant the track people walk on.

    All up and down here!

    This photo was taken about 2 hours after the previous, and probably only about 10km later. You can see the road snaking around to the right of the picture. The reward for such a sweaty workout were the stunning views over the Livingstone Mountains.

    Leaning hut

    Nice to find some shady spots on this track to Lupira.

    View from Lupira

    The views around the remote mission station of Lupira were really quite dramatic. The road I should have arrived on cuts into the mountainside on the top right of this picture. This picture is looking north.

    Screen shot from Tanroads online maps

    Tanzania’s National Roads Authority (TANROADS) website has a surprisingly good database of maps detailing the network of roads in the country. I took a series of screenshots of the road network in the Southern Highlands on my phone, which turned out to be very useful and accurate as the names used here are those in existence. GPS devices and paper maps occasionally use inaccurate names. Lupila, which really felt like the middle of nowhere due to the difficulty in reaching it, doesn’t actually appear on most maps.

    South to Mlangali

    The weather and scenery continues to keep me happy as I head south from Lupira on day 4.

    View over the Southern Highlands

    Few people live in a region that’s probably one of the most fertile in the country. The population of Tanzania is growing rapidly, but it’s towns where people want to live – the same throughout most of Africa. Tanzania as a whole remains sparsely populated and in the areas where roads are poor and mobile network non existent, such as this one, that isn’t likely to change too quickly.

    Southern Highlands

    Looking westwards towards the Livingstone Mountains, the other side of which lies Lake Malawi.

    Road under construction

    Without much notice the road to Mlangali (day 4) suddenly came to an end at the bottom of a valley, where a small team of workers were constructing a bridge. With a little assistance I was able to push my bike across the other side and continue, something which reminded me of the simplicity of being on a bicycle.

    Road to Ludewa

    After several hard days since leaving Mbeya, the road, at least for a short distance, followed a valley floor as I continued south to the town of Ludewa. This photo was taken in the late afternoon and I soon realised that in such scenic surroundings with no sizeable villages or towns in cycling distance, it would make for a good place to camp

    First night in the new tent

    Always exciting to spend your first night in a new tent. This is the MSR Nook, a relatively new tent from the same manufacturer that makes the very popular, and excellent, Hubba Hubba, which I had used for many years previously. I still have the Hubba Hubba, but the rain-sheet has lost most of its waterproofness after 400+ nights in it. I expected this tour to be wet at times, which it wasn’t, and so felt it was time for a new tent. MSR have supported me before with their gear, but at the time of starting this journey the new MSR Hubba Hubba NX was out of stock. I was offered a good price on the Nook, which has a tunnel design and is more compact and slightly lighter than the Hubba Hubba, so decided to give it a go. I’ll write in more detail about it elsewhere, but this was a nice spot to pitch up in – surrounded by Miombo woodland and a backdrop of mountains on either side of the valley.

    Mountains around Ludewa

    Great mountain scenery and views of Ludewa District at about 2000m altitude here.

    Manda Bay

    At the end of a hot and dusty road on the shores of Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi) lies Manda Bay. After 5 hard days on the road it was great to swim here, although I soon missed the comparatively cool mountain air.

    Biography of David Livingstone

    I packed a few books with me for the tour, one of which being a biography of David Livingstone. Turns out the much feted hero of African exploration wasn’t such the saint many have held him up to be, ultimately failing in his endeavours to convert Africans to Christianity and in finding the source of the Nile. Having said that, his accomplishments in terms of how much of the continent he explored remain impressive, although no mention is made in the book of the Kipengere Moutain Range, which rise up from the north eastern shores of Lake Malawi and are commonly now called the Livingstone Mountains.

    Lakeshore Mission

    Livingstone may have failed in his direct objectives, but his legacy and that of other missionaries who followed in his wake have remained a strong influence in many parts of Africa. The population in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania are predominantly Christian and many old churches, such as this one pictured here a few kilometres south of Manda Bay, are a common sight. Remote and scenic places seem to be common denominators for the location of missions, although living next to Lake Malawi was never a very sensible decision for European missionaries. Malaria remains prevalent and it’s bloody hot.

    Ruhuhu River

    A short distance south from Manda Bay the Ruhusu River drains into Lake Malawi. There is no bridge so small boats transport passengers across. ‘Any crocs?’ I asked the young boy paddling me across. ‘Over there’, he points  to a bank of dense reeds upstream.

    Heading south beside Lake Niassa

    Heading south along the shores of Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi). The cool blueness of the lake and sky provided little relief to the relentless heat. This dirt track, highly scenic as it was, also followed the rule that no gradient is too steep.

    Smile for the selfie

    Never hard to find a smile in Tanzania, most of Africa for that matter. Villages are full of children. 45% of Tanzanians are under 15 years old, 65% under 24. The statistics, shocking as they sound, are easy to believe. This was taken in a village along the shores of the Lake where I stopped for a warm coke.

    New born baby with mother

    A gaggle of women standing on the road ahead caused me to stop. The excitement was for the new born baby – just 2 days old, swaddled in a blanket within his teenage mother’s arms. ‘Give a gift for the new born’ they all shouted. A handed over a small sum of money. There were then cheers and I asked for a picture, thinking as I took it that this would have made a better gift. But I was a long way from anywhere with electricity, let alone a photo printing shop.

    Mbamba Bay

    Arriving in Mbamba Bay. I first visited this quiet backwater 14 years ago when backpacking around east and southern Africa. Like other places I have revisited since, it hasn’t changed other than the appearance of several mobile telephone masts. There is still no electricity and the roads leading here remain unpaved. Places like this, far far away from the commercial capital Dar es Salaam, are mostly forgotten about.

    Lake transport in Mbamba Bay

    Mbamba bay is about as far south as one can go in Tanzania before crossing into Mozambique, which wasn’t the plan. Fourteen years ago I took a memorable boat from here, travelling north and docking at many of the Tanzanian lakeside villages through which I’d just cycled. This time I wanted to go directly across the lake to Nkhata Bay in Malawi, but there was no official schedule. I was in no particular rush to travel, but didn’t have endless time to wait for a ride. Fortunately it was only a few days before I met the owner of the large boat pictured here. Yes he would be going to Malawi, but not Nkhata Bay. Likoma Island was his destination, a Malawian Island close to the Mozambican mainland. It sounded like an adventure. We agreed a price (about £10) and I was told to return the following evening. I thought about asking if there were life vests onboard, but already knew what the answer would be.

  • Six Weeks in Southern Africa: Part 2 August 12th, 2014

    Stunning waterfalls beside the Sani pass

    The steep descent down the Sani Pass provides some of the most stunning natural scenery on the continent. Fortunately the skies were clear when I began the descent on Christmas Day morning, with plenty of waterfalls, wild flowers and mountain streams along the way.

    Waterfall on the Sani Pass Looking back up the Sani pass

    Happy cyclist

    Very happy to be going downhill! Some sections of the descent have gradients of 20%.

    Welcoming sign

    Back into South Africa. No wild camping here! A lot of South Africa’s land is fenced off to prevent unwanted intruders.

    Sugar cane fields Small roads en-route towards Durban. As I approached the coast the heat increased and sugar cane became a popular sight along the roadside.

    Camping at Ermelo Farmer's club

    ‘You will be more comfortable down there at the Farmers’ Club’, were the words said to me by a Petrol Station attendant as I sought permission for a place to pitch the tent for the night. ‘Your people are down there’, he went on, pointing me in the direction of the setting sun. And so I rolled up to a very quiet Ermelo Farmers Club, met the white-skinned caretaker (one of my people) who kindly let me pitch my tent above the Cricket pitch. Durban was 70km away and the coastal heat and abundant greenery meant mosquitoes were out in force!

    Remembering Mandela at Durban's beach front Durban beach front with a sand sculpture of Nelson Mandela who passed away a few weeks before. It was December 29th and the place was heaving. Unfortunately there was no other way to leave the city than cycle north on a very busy highway.

    Wild camp

    The plan had been to camp in the small coastal town of Ballito, but all campsites were full and despite my pleas to pitch-up behind the shower block, the owner turned me away in the dark. A complete asshole. I cycled 6km to a Police Station, assuming I could camp there, only to be turned away again (first time ever at a Police station). At about 10pm I ended up on the side of the main road hoping no-one would see me. I only enjoy wild camping when I feel safe. Here I didn’t. At 5.30am I was packed up after a quiet night and soon back on the road thinking that South Africa wasn’t the best place to be cycling at this time of year.

    Climbing to Eshowe The coastal roads were too busy and full of drunk drivers so I turned inland and headed into the hills of KwaZulu Natal. It was a good decision to make, although the heat and humidity made the climbing a real sweat.

    Wild camping in Kwazulu Natal A much better spot to wild camp. Kwazulu Natal was refreshingly free of fenced roadsides demarcating private property. For several days I rarely saw a white face as I pushed north through Zululand, pitching the tent one night between the towns of Melmouth and Ulundi.

    Clear blue skies through Zulu country Road to Ulundi. Beautiful blue skies and green lushness – also very hot and humid!

    Rural Kwazulu Natal Rural KwaZulu Natal. It was as wild as South Africa got.

    Road sign in Kwazulu Natal

     Perhaps it was the time of the year, but I came to the conclusion that South Africa has a drinking problem. This extends to the road, where smashed beer bottles and empty cans filled the hard-shoulder. It rarely made for a relaxed ride knowing that a drunk was driving almost every vehicle that went by. I wasn’t sure if this is what the sign here was warning against? If you are drunk you shouldn’t walk because you are more likely to get hit by someone driving who is also drunk. Would you be better getting drunk and then climbing into a vehicle driven by a drunk driver?

    Stoney break

    It was a very pleasant discovery to find that my favourite soft drink in Tanzania is very much available in South Africa. Only by cycling for hours in 35C heat would I consider drinking 1.1 litre of Ginger beer in one go. Blissful!

    Swaziland bank note After a week or so back in South Africa over Christmas and New Year I happily crossed into Swaziland, famous as much as anything else for King Mswati III, who has something like 50 wives. No wonder he looks so happy on the banks notes!

    Roadside shop in Swaziland

    All of Swaziland felt quiet and rural. I wished the country were bigger and that I had arrived earlier.

    Dead Mozambican viper in Swaziland

    On my first morning in Swaziland I spotted three fresh snake roadkills. This one here a Mozambican spitting cobra. I’ve lost count of how many dead snakes I’ve seen in Africa. Live ones are much harder to spot.

    Road kill: Mozambican spitting cobra Entrance to Hlane National Park

    Entrance to Hlane National Park. It’s always nervously exciting to cycle through a National Park in Africa. Most of them you can’t. The optimist in me assumes that if Lions, Elephants and other wild animals were a real threat then cyclists wouldn’t be allowed to cycle through the park. I’m not sure applying such logic in Africa is all that sensible….

    HIV awareness

    Swaziland has one of Africa’s highest recorded rates of HIV. Many bus stations are painted with educational murals such as these.

    Bus shelter art in Swaziland Swaziland bus shelter

    Sibebe: Swaziland's National beer

    Swaziland’s national beer. I think Lesotho’s Maluti edged this one out, but I was still very happy to find it being sold in 660ml bottles.

    Toll-gate on the N7 to Joburg

    Back into South Africa I decided to use the N7 highway to lead me towards Johannesburg. The road was surprisingly quiet for most of the journey, even if bicycles are prohibited (I think?). No-one said anything at the many toll booths I rolled through.

    Storm approaching

    Dark clouds had been following me all afternoon and there was nowhere to take shelter. I raced towards the town of Bethal, but moments after taking this photo the rain started. No wet-weather clothing was going to prevent a total soaking from the downpour that ensued.

    Identity crisis

    A curious sight. Bit of an identity crisis taking place here.

    Bike in a box

    Back in Johannesburg it wasn’t difficult to find a new bike box to package the bike for the flight back to Tanzania. As usual I removed the front wheel, handlebars, pedals, saddle, front rack, and deflated the tyres. Bubble-wrap or any plastic to prevent moving metal inside the box is always ideal. Fastjet charge $20 for sports luggage (which includes a bicycle) weighing up to 20kg. Great value, although with the weight of the box, a roll of duct tape and some string it meant I couldn’t put much more than the bicycle itself in the box. I think I got away with an additional few kg.

    Bike on the plane

    Another flight takes me from Dar es Salaam back to Mwanza. Somehow reassuring to see my bike box on the plane before I board.

  • Six weeks in Southern Africa: Part 1 July 8th, 2014

    In December 2013 I flew with my bike to Johannesburg. I had 6 weeks of leave and decided it was a good time to explore Lesotho, Swaziland, and see some more of South Africa.

    Ethiopia had been the original plan. I hadn’t cycled there before and it was high on my list of countries to visit on the continent, but flights to Addis Ababa, despite being closer to me in northern Tanzania, were significantly more expensive than the return fare offered by Fastjet, (East Africa’s new budget airline) from Dar-es-Salaam to Johannesburg.

    Aside from that, the weather promised to be significantly warmer in Southern Africa than when I cycled through the northern and western Cape in June 2012. I also realised that the British pound, then worth around 11 Rand, would now get me over 17 Rand. Bad luck for South Africans going on holiday to the UK….

    And so here is Part 1 of a much-delayed photo-blog of that tour – about 2250km altogether. All pictures here were taken with either my Nikon D90 or smartphone (Samsung S4).

    Looking down on Joburg city centre.

    Johannesburg was the starting and finishing point for the tour. Leaving the city by bicycle wasn’t as bad as I had expected, although it quickly became apparent that very few people cycle here. In terms of road safety South Africa is one of the most dangerous countries I have cycled through.

    Long flat road in Free  State

    The first few days south from Johannesburg take me through the Free State – a fairly flat monotonous expanse of agricultural land. The road is well-paved, but it’s a shame the hard shoulder isn’t.

    Campsite in Heilbron

    My first night on the road is spent at the municipal camp-site in the small town of Heilbron – 135km south from Johannesburg. For £1.50 I have the place to myself, a hot shower and a lovely view. This tent has been with me throughout Africa. It’s still strong,  but that rain-sheet is not nearly as water-proof as it once was!

    Free room for the night

    “I own a Guest House down the road. You’re welcome to a free bed for the night”. There aren’t many countries in the World where a random stranger would greet you on the roadside and make such an offer. South Africa is one of them. In the small town of Reitz I happily took up the offer and slept very comfortably in this room pictured above.

    Approaching Lesotho

    The landscape starts to provide a taste of what’s to come as I approach Lesotho (mountains in background). My bike was fully-loaded for this tour, but the panniers were half-full. Rear panniers alone would have sufficed, but I like to balance out the load and leave space for throwing in food. This was morning of day 4 out of Johannesburg.

    West from Clarens

     A short distance from where the picture above was taken. Quiet roads, blue skies – happy days.

    Campsite in Ficksburg

     Ficksburg is known for its Cherry Festival, but I’m 1 month too late and the municipal camp-site is more or less empty. I pitch the tent and pack it away the next morning without paying. The border with Lesotho is less than 1km away. Altitude is 1750m here and the temperature perfect.

    Map of Lesotho

    The map of Lesotho clearly shows it to be the Kingdom of Mountains. It’s hard to choose a route, but from the capital, Maseru, in the west I decide to cut straight across the country. Paper maps will always accompany me on my tours, despite having a GPS and a smartphone with google maps.

    Morning coffee

    A day of cycling should always start with coffee. Proper coffee. Before leaving Johannesburg I buy a cheap Espresso maker, which sits well on my Primus stove and fits perfectly into mug and cooking pot, as pictured below.

    Perfect fit.

    New country, new flag.Before leaving Maseru I’m able to find a small flag sticker of Lesotho to join the many other African ones on the bike.

    East from Maseru

     The landscape in Lesotho is never dull. Mountains loom on the horizon as I head east from Maseru.

    First day out of Maseru

    Fortunately the road is paved to begin with and traffic very light. Lesotho has some of the steepest climbs in Africa so it’s a good thing my bike isn’t too heavily loaded. This picture, like many others of me on the bike, is taken with camera on mini-tripod and set to self-timer mode, leaving me to free-wheel downhill, turn, then pedal back towards the camera while counting to 20, at which point I hopefully pass the spot upon which the camera was focused. The process would be much simpler with a cycling partner!

    God help me pass

    Most passes in Lesotho are between 2000-3000m in altitude. The summer months here are the best time to tour (day time temps  20-25C) unless cold weather cycling is your thing.

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    Sweat-breaking climbs were frequently rewarded with stunning vistas from the top. This is just before descending to Setibing, where I would camp on my first night out of Maseru.

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    Leaving Thabo Tseka

    The tarred road ends in the small town of Tsabo Tseka, giving the landscape a wilder feel as I continue east through stunning mountain scenery. Lesotho ranks as one of the most scenic countries I have cycled in Africa.

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    The long and winding road

    Slow gravel climb

    The road is more or less free of vehicles and surprisingly well-surfaced. The terrain is never flat and I’m happy to cover 70-80km on most days.

    Above the Malibo Matso River

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    Up in the mountains the weather could change quickly. It added to the wildness and made for some great changes of light in the sky.

    Shepherd boys

    I was rarely alone on the roads of Lesotho. The sight of a foreign cyclist slowly inching his way up 10%+ gradients provided plenty of excitement for roaming shepherd boys to leave their cattle and race to the road. Wrapped in weathered blankets it was never long before calls of ‘give me sweet’ and/or ‘give me money’ were heard. The demands were never aggressive and I usually had little energy to do more than just ignore or reply with a simple ‘yes’ to everything that was said, which usually created great confusion.

    Lush Lesotho

    Shepherd boys

    Shepherd in Lesotho

    Shepherd boy

    Village church.

    Under darkening skies and strong winds a village church makes a good place to rest during one night.

    Bed for the night

    Safe and dry. Once permission was sought from a village elder I slept comfortably knowing I wouldn’t wake up in a puddle of water the next morning. Village churches and schools make for good overnight camp spots in Africa.

    Lesotho's National beer

    Lesotho’s one and only national beer, Masuti, comes in sensibly-sized 660ml bottles.

    Road towards Sani The further I went into the country the more dramatic the landscape became. This is en-route to the Sani Pass, which marks the eastern border with South Africa.

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          There is little motorised traffic on the high roads in Lesotho.

    Lesotho in the rain

    Sani pass sign.

    The Sani Pass divides Lesotho from South Africa and marks one of the highest points in Southern Africa. The skies are kind to me on Christmas day morning as I receive my exit stamp from immigration and prepare for a steep but stunning descent back into South Africa.

    Descending the Sani PassDownhill all the way! A stunning view over South Africa’s Drakensburg mountains before a very steep descent back into South Africa. The tour still had some mileage in it yet.

    http://yellowzebrasafaris.com/destinations/botswana/ http://yellowzebrasafaris.com/destinations/botswana/

  • A short tour of Central Africa: Part 2 August 4th, 2013

    Here is the second photo instalment of my recent short cycle tour through Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. I’m back at work in Mwanza now, but planning an adventurous cycle tour in central Africa at the end of this year.

    Crossing from Rwanda into Burundi at the border post of Kayanza. The road was well paved, as were all the roads I cycled on in Burundi. 

     The first sign I passed in Burundi was an enormous billboard promoting a mobile phone company. Most people here live in homes without electricity, but mobile phone towers provide telephone coverage. The same is true throughout much of sub-saharan Africa. 

    The Akanyaru River divides Rwanda from Burundi, ensuring a descent towards and an inevitable climb away from the border. In such a rural location this enormous billboard seemed ridiculously out of place, although I’m sure everyone was happy to have mobile reception. 

    My first night in Burundi was spent camping beside a Police Station. When packing for this tour I was in two minds about whether bringing a tent was necessary, but having it proved valuable on two occasions. Darkness comes quickly in Africa, so rather than listen to local advice that a guest house wasn’t far away (a wildly inaccurate claim) I decided to stop in the first village. As expected there was an audience until Dave and I retired to our tents and said goodnight. In the morning we were up at sunrise and on the road soon after. My MSR Hubba Hubba tent is still going strong after 400+ nights of use. It’s a much more suitable tent in warm weather than the Hillberg that Dave uses.

    I never tire of stopping to appreciate the artistry and character found within some of the local Chinese and Indian bikes in Africa.

    Like Rwanda, Burundi has one of Africa’s highest population densities. There is almost always someone on the roadside. On day 2 in the country I passed a village bursting with colour and activity as a group of women were selling sweet potatoes.

    A group of young boys looked towards me nervously as I stopped to take a photo of the bananas and drums being sold at the roadside.

    Burundian cyclists are a fearless bunch. At any opportunity to save some energy and time they can be found clinging onto the backs of trucks heading into and out of Bujumbura. The main road out of Burundi’s capital ascends from 700m in altitude to over 2200m. Trucks often tow 4 cyclists or more, all of whom ride side-saddle, nonchalantly whizzing past at speeds of over 50km/h. 

    As if holding on to speeding trucks wasn’t dangerous enough, there were also instances of cyclists clinging onto minibuses and cars. 

    The descent towards Bujumbura is the most scenic and exhilarating I have experienced when entering an African capital.

    A number of cyclists carry passengers at over speeds of 60km/hr towards Bujumbura, a descent of around 30km.

    A clean bank note is a rare note in Burundi. Burundian Francs are some of the grubbiest notes issued in Africa. 

    South from Bujumbura a flat road follows the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Beer billboards are as common as those promoting mobile networks.

    Primus is Burundi’s most popular and cheapest bottled beer, but Dave and I agreed that Amstel was far superior.

    Lake Tanganyika is Africa’s longest and deepest lake, dropping to a depth of 1.5km. With waves crashing onto sandy beaches it’s sometimes easy to forget that this is over 1000km away from the sea. 

    I’m always amazed at the loads that are frequently transported by bicycle in Africa.

    Local restaurants are relatively easy to find in Burundi. Palm oil is frequently used in cooking beans and plantain and fresh milk is a popular drink at any time of the day. 

    Perhaps the best meal I had in Burundi was a very simple plate of fish and chips ($4) in the lakeside town of Nyanza Lac (the fish – Sangala was the local name, had probably been caught a few hours earlier). The influence of a Belgian history in Burundi is apparent from the fact that mayonnaise is always available.

    Away from Lake Tanganyika a steep climb awaits (14-15%) ascending from an altitude of 700m to about 1600m.

    A number of Burundians are able to speak Swahili, so I was able to converse in basic conversation with many people at the roadside.

    Tinted glasses seem to be popular in Burundi. When I asked a few people I was told that the lack of vitamins in the diet meant many people had bad eyesight and required glasses. Why tinted glasses I’m not sure. 

    Most of Burundi’s roads are surprisingly paved and blissfully free of traffic. There are also some screamingly steep descents. I clocked 76km/h on one road and Dave hit 84km/h on his fully loaded bike.

    There remains uncertainty as to where exactly the River Nile begins its course (some say Rwanda others Burundi). I doubt there is much information available at either. A broken sign post pointing up a dirt track showed the source to be 26km away from here.

    The condition of saddles probably explains why many people choose to ride their bicycle by sitting on the rear rack, particularly when descending hills. 

    Rambo once was, and still is, a popular figure in Africa. 

    The wall of a Guest House I stayed in one evening was painted with some interesting artwork. 

    Burundi doesn’t see many foreigners, particularly those travelling by bicycle. I found the people welcoming, curious and less demanding than other African countries where calls for money and gifts accompany many interactions.

    African bicycles usually come in just one size, but that doesn’t stop those not big enough trying to ride. 

    Brick kilns are a popular sight on the roadside in Burundi. 

    And how else are most bricks transported from the kiln to town? 

    It was pineapple season when I cycled through Burundi. One pineapple like these pictured cost around (£0.20). Fortunately I had sufficient space to carry at least a few whenever I stopped.  

    My Surly front rack has always been great for transporting fruit. 

    The scenery in Burundi never bored. 

    Like many African borders a river separates Burundi with Tanzania. The border town of Kobero is in the background here. In total I spent just over 1 week in Burundi. 

    Back in north western Tanzania it wasn’t long before the sight of plantain being carried by bicycle greeted me again.

    For the second time on the tour we needed to camp when the sun disappeared and local knowledge proved wildly inaccurate about distances to the next town with a Guest House. I didn’t pack my stove so relied on Dave’s multi-fuel to cook up some basic meals.

    Meat soup is a popular breakfast in Tanzania, but as Dave’s expression shows, a bowl of offal is not really that appetising. 

    Rural roads in Tanzania are mostly free of traffic, but there are some long distances between towns and the cycling can at times be dull. The blue tray strapped to the back of my camping bag is a Primus tray – a small souvenir from Burundi.

    The rock-strewn landscape around Mwanza makes for some good photo backdrops.

    A confident young boy approached me with a head balanced full of bananas. I bought a bunch before he happily posed for the camera.

    A short ferry journey across a southern inlet of Lake Victoria brought us back to Mwanza district.

    Onboard and nearing the end of the tour.

    Approaching Mwanza and what for the time-being is ‘home’. I’m fortunate to have this view on a daily basis as I cycle to work and back alongside the shores of Lake Victoria. Unfortunately there is too much traffic to make it a relaxing ride, and this is the only real scenic stretch. Mwanza is Tanzania’s second largest urban centre, so the tranquil scene pictured here is a little misleading. Nevertheless, it’s a pleasant enough place to be in Africa for a few years. I’m happy to be out on the bike daily – planning another tour and attempting to get back to writing the Big Africa Cycle book.

  • A short tour of Central Africa: Part 1 July 18th, 2013

    It was a shorter cycle tour than I would have liked, but three weeks provided plenty of time to traverse two of Africa’s smallest countries – Rwanda and Burundi. Both provided some of the most diverse terrain and well-paved roads I’ve cycled on in Africa.

    In 2011 I spent a week cycling through Rwanda, but this was my first visit to Burundi. Here are a selection of photos from western Tanzania and Rwanda. In the following post I will include those from Burundi. Most of these pictures were taken with my Nikon D90 and a fixed 35mm lens. For a number of on-the-road situations I found this to be a far easier and simpler lens to travel with than the bulk of a telephoto lens.

    A climb from Bukoba soon brought with it wide open views of the Katoke region of western Tanzania. Travelling with rear panniers and just 12-15kg made for faster progress up the hills.

    Single-speed Chinese and Indian bicycles loaded with plantain are a common sight in north western Tanzania. Loads of 100kg+ are transported to local markets. 

    The River Kagera acts as a border between Tanzania and Rwanda. It drains into Lake Victoria in Uganda, but the headwaters of this river begin in Burundi and form the source of the River Nile.

    Not all bicycles in Africa are the same. This hand-cranked tricycle is made to be used by the disabled, although this able-bodied young boy was using it to transport a jerry-can of water in eastern Rwanda. 

    Pineapples were in season and a good reason to stop when I saw them being sold on the roadside. My front rack always has space for a pineapple to be strapped onto. 

    Plantain in Rwanda is more commonly known as matoke. It’s a food staple in this part of Africa and can be eaten at any point during the day.

    In Kigali I arranged to meet up with Dave Conroy. In 2009 he quit his job in Canada and started cycling. He’s been in Africa for the past few years, slowly making his way north with no end goal in sight. We teamed up and cycled together through Rwanda, Burundi and back to Tanzania. 

    Finding a bar with a pool table is never that hard in urban Africa. Dave and I spent several nights out in Kigali. 

    Beer advertisements are common in Rwanda. Primus is Central Africa’s most famous beer and is brewed in Rwanda, Burundi, Congo (DRC) and the Republic of the Congo. Bottles are sensibly sized at 720ml and the beer is 5% in alcohol. It’s not Africa’s best beer, but at under a $1 a bottle I have no complaints. 

    Visiting Kigali’s Genocide Memorial Centre was a sober reminder of the country’s dark past. During a three month period in 1994 almost 1 million people were brutally killed. 

    African children are always happy to see their picture on the digital screen of a camera.We stopped at the roadside during a climb out of Kigali to find a group of the women selling bottles of Amarula containing  honey.

    Small cafes selling tea and food are easy to find in Rwanda. Tea is either black or more commonly milk tea.

    Rwanda has some excellent coffee, but it’s almost exclusively grown for an export market. This makes finding places to drink Rwandan coffee in Rwanda more challenging. The same is true in countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi. Fortunately in the town of Butare we were able to find an excellent cafe where local coffee is ground in front of you. I left with 1kg in my bags. 

    Using a 35mm fixed lens made taking pictures much faster and easier.

    The road  south from Butare towards the Burundian border becomes increasingly scenic. Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries on the continent. Almost all land is cultivated, but fertile enough to grow a wide range of crops. The result is a lush and scenic patchwork of tilled fields.

    Cycling in rural Africa always brings with it curiosity from school children. Despite the infrastructural development that has taken place in Rwanda within the last two decades, most villages still lack power. 

  • Ukrainians on Zanzibar February 25th, 2013

    A few days ago I met with two Ukrainians here on Zanzibar. Ruslan and Anna both began their bicycle journey in Addis Ababa and finished in Dar Es Salaam, although travelled independently for much of the way. I’ve met cyclists from many countries before, but never the Ukraine, so I decided to ask them some questions.

    1)   Is cycle touring popular in the Ukraine?

    Ruslan: ‘Not at all. I don’t know anyone from my country who is travelling by bicycle in places like Asia and Africa. I’m not a typical Ukrainian as I lived in China for some years. It is there that I became interested in cycle touring when I discovered the Crazy Guy on a Bike website.

    2) Hardest day of the journey?

    ‘Crossing the border from Ethiopia – Kenya. The sands started and I wasn’t prepared. There was no food and no water. It was very hot and not possible to ride for much of the way’.

    3) Biggest surprise of the journey?

     Discovering that Ethiopia was a really nice country for cycling, as well for people, food and culture. This was a complete surprise. I’d like to make another journey here. Yes there are some places with kids throwing stones, but if you keep your cool and don’t lose your temper it’s OK. This is a game for them.

     4) How far did you cycle?

    Ruslan: ‘About 2700km’.

    Anna: ‘600km, but my computer broke so I don’t know’.

     5) Where else have you cycle-toured and how does this trip compare with others?

    Anna: First trip.

    Ruslan: China, Vietnam, Phillipines, Kenya, Uganda, Spain.

    Ruslan: ‘ This trip was the most challenging and it was meant to be. The other trips were done in cooler weather. Few people cycle in the Omo valley of Ethiopia. I expected problems from some of the tribes and got some’.

     6)  How do you feel now that the journey is over?

    Ruslan: ‘I’m happy as in the middle of March I will start another journey cycling from Istanbul to Rome’.

    Anna: ‘I want to come back to Africa, but maybe not with the bicycle. There are many countries I want to visit. Nobody in the Ukraine comes here so I want to find a way to bring more people to Africa’.