• Over old ground: South from Dar es Salaam November 8th, 2011

    “When travelling alone one can behave childishly without fear of derision” (Devla Murphy)

    In reflection the bus journey was far more memorable than the cycling. On a November morning eleven years ago I travelled on what must surely have been the oldest bus pulling out of Dar es Salaam that day. The journey to Kilwa Masoko, some 350km to the south, took 2 days.

    The bus was in a far worse condition than the road, which was also a mess. That age-old vehicle broke down continually, got stuck in mud and required the passengers to push it out, and when it arrived half-way at the Rufiji river the chain-ferry had stopped service for the day. Passengers slept on the bus. I opted for the roof and got mauled by mosquitoes before the rain came down.

    In the daytime the roof was in fact the best place to sit. The sound of screaming babies below was only just audible and there was no smell – that  gut-wrenching infusion of bodies sweating, livestock defecation and sacks of dried fish baking in the heat.

    I think the memory remains vivid because it was my first ‘real’ African bus journey. Now buses make the journey to Kilwa in about 6 hours. There is a bridge over the Rufiji and the road is mostly paved.

    It took me four days to cycle it. I had planned on three but the heat and humidity defeated me. At the end of my first day out of Dar I counted drinking 9 litres of water on the road and a further 2 in the evening. All there was to show for it was a lame dribble before falling asleep in a fan-less room, that for 3000tsh (£1.20) is about as cheap as accommodation gets in Africa.

    For the most part the landscape was dull. One might call it a coastal road, but the Ocean was always out of sight and there were no real climbs to get a good vantage point of the surroundings. The bush was often burnt to a dust-coloured brown by the sun. In many places it had actually been set alight and burnt, leaving it black and lifeless. This burning is done to regenerate growth of new grass (I think?) when the short rains come in November. There never seems to be any control. Flames race towards the road in the wind and the sky rains down with ash. It is a practice done in much of Africa. The rainy season is always a more scenic time to be cycling Africa, despite the frustration and intrusion it can make to a day on the road.

    The long hot road south

    Not all the landscape was parched dry. Mango and cashew trees provided some colour. The former are laden with fruit and in several weeks time roadsides in Tanzania will be lined with stacks of them. Outside of the towns they will sell for 50 or 100 shillings (£0.04) in the height of the season and taste immeasurably better than what one might pay £2.00 or more for in a supermarket back home. Occasionally in Africa I have told people what  the Pineapple, Mango, Papaya or whatever tropical fruit it is I am buying on the roadside for a matter of pence would cost me back home, but this often seems to reinforce the chasm between my life and fortune and the people I’m buying from.

    A handful of cashew nuts, depending on quality, will also sell for anything between 100-500 shillings (£0.04-£0.20). Unlike mangoes they don’t just drop of the trees. One cashew nut grows from one cashew fruit and must be roasted in its shell before being carefully tapped to release the nut. I watched and helped with the process in The Gambia last year. Most cashew nuts are exported to India from here for processing.

    Cashew nuts for sale

    The east African coast is dotted with the ruins of forts and trading posts, which at one time saw the export of slaves, ivory and gold from its shores in exchange for textiles, jewellery and spices from Asia. In the 12th Century the small island of Kilwa Kisiwani was the largest city on the east African coast. Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I visited the first time I was here and decided I’d seen enough ruins in the past few months to warrant a return trip.

    Neighbouring Kilwa Kivinjie was equally as interesting. This was also an Arabic and later German administrative centre. What remains is a familiar display of crumbling coral-brick buildings that locals treat more like a rubbish dump. Preservation of historical buildings comes a long way down the list of priorities for most African people. In fact it isn’t a priority at all. Fishing dominates here. Hundreds of small wooden craft make their way out through the mangrove-shallows each day to return with what is a life-line for the majority of people here, and elsewhere along the coast.

    Islamic arches in Kilwa

    Back street in Kilwa Kivinjie

    Kilwa Kivinjie ruins

    Fishing boats in Kilwa Kivinjie

    Fish market in Kilwa Kivinjie

    Fish carriers

    Fish carrier

    Fried fish for sale

    Chapati time

    Young girl

    Local shop in Kilwa Kivinjie

    South from Kilwa the sea disappears from view for another 170km until one approaches the town of Lindi. Other than a few new banks and the ubiquitous Chinese motorbikes little has changed from when I was here last. I met two Slovenians on the way in and two French on the way out. Both were travelling on two-wheels, the former on a motorbike and the latter on bicycles. I stopped to chat with both, the cyclists naturally for longer.

    Lindi beach

    Jeremie and Claire have been on the road in Africa for just over a year, although the appearance of their bikes, the loads they were carrying and the sun-faded panniers made me think longer. Both were carrying Accordions and a didgeridoo (I don’t think they make light-weight versions for cyclists) – making music and recording sounds through Africa. We ate chapattis, rice and beans and washed it down with numerous cups of tea in a small mud-brick café at the roadside. Encounters like this are often the most enjoyable on the road, but they happen too rarely and you usually say goodbye too soon seeming as you’re travelling the opposite way. I told them to look out for Hiromu, who is also heading south from Dar shortly.

    Jeremy and Claire

    I assumed they had come from northern Mozambique, but had instead taken the road through southern Tanzania that connects with Lake Malawi. I travelled this way on very slow buses before, and don’t remember it to be as scenic as they said.

    Northern Mozambique, like the region of Tanzania they were coming from, is seldom visited by foreigners. I will be entering in the next day or two, the first border crossing over a river since I left CAR for the DRC. I’m not quite sure I’ll encounter the same level of adventure there as I did in the Congo, but a return to Portuguese-speaking Africa will make an interesting change.

    Locally made bicycles

  • Then and now: Tips for surviving Africa October 25th, 2011

    “There are two good reasons why cyclists should be wary of camping in Africa. In inhabited regions a bicycle is quite likely to be stolen; in uninhabited regions there is a remote possibility that the cyclist will be stolen – and consumed” (Devla Murphy)

    At first they wanted $2000 for the marijuana I was found with in my pocket. This was a bad dream surely. There I was sitting in the back seat of a car being driven around Dar es Salaam, whilst a man much bigger than me in the passenger seat said I would be going to prison for five years unless I paid. How could I have been so stupid to trust this guy on the street, now sitting next to me in the car and clearly a police informer?

    After what seemed like an eternity I was let out of the car god knows where and $50 worse off. I can’t remember if I walked or found a taxi to take me back to my hotel before locking myself away for the next 24 hours, desperately paranoid that everyone in the city knew what an idiot I’d been.

    Well this all happened 11 years ago when I first came to Africa. Back then I thought it was cool to smoke marijuana, and probably trusted far too many strangers. I was too young and hadn’t been on the continent long enough to earn my street-wise stripes.

    This time round Dar es Salaam doesn’t really faze me. It’s as dirty and unappealing as most of urban Africa. After staying for a night in a Guest House where half the rooms could only be locked from the inside (it only occurred to me later that if you’re renting the room for an hour or two you won’t need to lock and leave it) I moved closer to the city centre and checked into what I convinced myself to be a good value for money hotel. I woke one morning and found the bananas I’d placed beside my head the night before half-eaten and surrounded by rat droppings.

    It was only when I took a ferry across to the Kigomboni district and cycled a short distance along the coast did I realise that any sensible visitor to Dar es Salaam should stay in this beach-front area.

    Eleven years on from when I first came here, and almost two continuous years on the continent this time around, I’d like to think I’m a little wiser to deal with the challenges Africa throws at the solo traveller. And so I decided it would make for an interesting post to share some words of wisdom, in my experience, for surviving, saving some money and enjoying your African experience on two wheels. If you have others please share them.

    Police road-block


    1) If people you don’t know ask when you’re leaving a town be vague in your reply. When people know your movements ahead of time it means they can talk and plan ahead. When strangers ask me when I’m leaving a place I usually say I don’t know. When I do leave I do so without making announcements.

    2) Avoid walking alone at night, particularly in big cities – men with machetes might take a fancy to your belongings.

    3) Learn as much of the local language as possible, starting with numbers. When you know how to ask the price for something and understand the reply it will minimize the chances of being ripped off. This most often applies to buying food and finding accommodation.

    4) Always ask the price of food when there is no menu. If you don’t ask there is the possibility that you won’t pay what you should have done.

    5) If you camp in or close to a village seek permission from the local chief. It will rarely be a problem and you will have protection from an authority.

    6) Lie when asked about the price of your bike. Telling people the real value will only have them collapse in hysterics (only a fool would spend so much on a bicycle) before realising it is worth stealing.

    7) Understand that being a tourist is not an acceptable answer to police who demand to know ‘what your mission is’. Tourists don’t ride bicycles in places that tourists have never been to before. A teacher doing research is a good answer and in the CAR and DRC it is useful to have an ‘Ordre d’ Mission’ (an official looking letter that you typed yourself to say you are working on behalf of so and so and request permission to travel through such and such region).

    8) Understand that many Africans have no idea about distance or real time. ‘Not far’ and ‘not long’ are widely over-used and mis-quoted replies to questions about where there is a Guest House, village or water supply. Consult your map and ask as many people as possible before you come to your own conclusions.

    9) Get used to being called ‘foreigner’ in whatever language is being spoken. Yes it can be annoying, but showing frustration or anger can often make things worse.

    10) Keep your hands in your pockets when walking in busy areas (markets bus stops) and don’t allow people to block your way.

    11) When stopping to eat, look for places where you can park the bike and keep it in vision. If you need to leave the bike find a shopkeeper and ask them to watch it for a few minutes.

    12) Always place your hand on a bottle of beer before it is opened for you so you know that it is sufficiently cold. Many Africans prefer their beer warm and don’t appreciate that ice-cold beer is far better than slightly chilled. (yes it is important!)

    13) Avoid arriving in the dark, particularly in big cities. I always try to arrive in large cities by midday or early afternoon.

    14) Buy yourself a key-blocker. This ingenious device blocks the key-hole when you lock your room, and means no-one with a spare key can enter your room whilst you’re out and help themselves to your belongings, as happened to me several months ago.

    Key-hole blocker

    15) When officials (police, immigration) you are uncertain of ask to see your passport, show them whilst keeping one hand firmly gripped on it. If your passport disappears and you are asked for money to have it returned (as happened many times in CAR and DRC) it might be a long struggle (assuming you won’t pay) in getting it back.

    16) Know something about the English football Premiership to break the ice or distill the seriousness of a check-post encounter. Manchester United and Chelsea have the most supporters in Africa, followed by Arsenal and Liverpool. Manchester city are becoming more popular as well. If someone tells you you look like Wayne Rooney try not to be offended.

    17) If you’re cycling through the DRC, cigarettes make for great alternatives to officials who might ask for money. I haven’t smoked a cigarette in a long time, but bought some in the DRC for this reason.

    18) When using a boat to cross a river, lake or the sea, don’t always assume that discussing the price before you leave is advantageous. If you know what other locals pay (make an effort to find out before you arrive) and the captain or oarsman doesn’t tell you what you must pay to begin with (massively inflated for a foreigner with a bicycle) then just hop aboard and wait until you’re on the other side. Once you’re there pay what the locals pay plus a bit extra because of your bike. If the Captain asks for more tell him you know what everyone else is paying and stand your ground without getting angry.

    19) Patience and a sense of humour are key when dealing with African officialdom. If it’s a border or check-post with some kind of bribe expected, show that you have as much time to wait as the bored official who is looking for how he can solicit something from you. Never give in and pay.

    20) Separate your money and consider hiding your US dollars within your bicycle (handlebars in my case). The condition of US dollars and date of printing are important. Notes printed before 2006 with even the slightest tear won’t be accepted for changing in DRC.

    21) If you’re on a very long tour it gives you no advantage to brag about how far you’ve come and the kilometres you’ve cycled to people who inevitably ask. Firstly many Africans will not comprehend the scale of what you are doing or reason why you would want to do this, but they will understand that if you’re travelling for so long you must be a millionaire, which in comparative terms in some instances you are. Don’t provide information that will give the impression that you have more money than you probably do.

    22) Going to the toilet in the bush is often a far more pleasant experience than a squat-toilet behind a café.

    23) If your stomache isn’t feeling 100% right be cautious of your normal on-the-road flatulence. Soiling your padded cycling shorts soon attracts the attention of flies when you remove them and tie them to the outside of a pannier.

    24) Beware of buying sun-cream that doesn’t have a brand name and is suspiciously cheap. I recently bought some ‘made in Thailand’ factor 60, which after 3 hours in the midday sun left my chest with the worst sun-burn I have ever had.

    25) Be confident when cycling through busy urban areas. If there is a tight space for a vehicle to pass through next to you don’t make way for it, but move out to hog the road. If the driver beeps don’t make way until you consider it safe to do so. Foreigners on bicycles get more respect than local Africans sadly (or fortunately for you).

    26) Be slightly cautious of people with no noticeable problem trying to flag you down on an open and empty road. If you do stop and then smell alcohol on their breath, keep calm, smile, and pedal off.

    27) Accept that most Africans don’t understand the concept of queuing. Either stay patient until the rush has passed or join the madness.

    28) Understand that most African Police are much more willing to help you if you pay them. If you don’t and a guilty party pays them instead they will create a story to protect them.

    29) If you unintentionally find yourself with a guide who wishes to show you a hotel or escort you to buy food you may also be expected to pay him, otherwise he will ask commission from a hotel and you will pay more for a room.

    30) If you’re buying a girl drinks in a bar frequented by fellow foreigners who probably work in Africa make sure you check the price of cocktails. It might save yourself the embarrassment of discovering you can’t pay the bill.

  • Never die: The Bagamoyo boat October 11th, 2011

    It would have been simpler, needless to say a whole lot safer to leave Zanzibar on one of the regular high-speed ferries that shuttle back and forth to Dar es Salaam. The moment one approaches the port there is no shortage of commission-hungry touts waiting to escort you to one of many ticket offices. Here the ticket price will be quoted in US dollars (double or several times the local resident price) and you will be whisked away in air-conditioned comfort on a boat that maintains a schedule. Travel in places where there are lots of tourists is sometimes just too easy.

    Taking a dhow on the other hand is something foreigners generally only do at sunset – one of the listed ‘things to do’ in many guidebooks to the island I’m sure. Great if you’re romancing a girl on your holidays, less so if you’re not. Yet for centuries this is how everyone arrived on or departed from the island.

    Coming from the mainland most would have started their journey in Bagamoyo – at one time the capital of German East Africa, and before that a terminus for thousands of slaves who’d been marched eastwards out of Central Africa. Those that survived the journey dubbed the town ‘Bwagamoyo’ – meaning ‘crush your heart’. Here they awaited a sea voyage, first to nearby Zanzibar, and then across the Arabian Sea towards their final destination somewhere in the Gulf.

    It’s also where all those 19th Century explorers arrived on the continent and set off into the interior with their enormous entourage of porters. Stanley, Grant, Burton, Speke, and most famously David Livingstone all came here. For the latter it was where he would end his time in Africa – he arrived dead having been carried 1500 miles by his porters from Lake Bangweulu in Zambia.

    Bagamoyo has long since been replaced by Dar es Salaam, 70 km further south, as the centre of commercial activity along the Tanzanian coast, but it remains the shortest sea route between island and mainland (just 20 nautical miles), and that obviously favoured by boats which rely on sail power.

    Well it was a sail-powered boat to the mainland that I was interested in, but there was no ticket office advertising the journey. That is probably because there aren’t tickets for dhows plying the Zanzibar-Bagamoyo route on a daily basis. These are essentially cargo-boats, as they always have been, transporting anything from charcoal and cement, to tomatoes, salt, used-clothes and scrap metal. Passengers, if there any, sit on top. There is no time-table. Boats go when sufficiently loaded (very often overloaded) and the captain decides.

    Before leaving Zanzibar a large veiled woman at the immigration office made me write my own declaration – stating something to the effect that the captain of the boat would bear no responsibility for any eventuality on his boat. This was tempting fate. Moments before I’d stopped beside some graffiti that made me contemplate whether taking a dhow back to the mainland was a wise thing to do.  The graffiti read: Never die.

    Stone Town Graffiti

    The dhow that was to take me contained half a dozen or more freezers and refrigerators, plus a lot of old car tyres. Besides me there were 12 other people aboard: 10 crew, a man carrying several DVD players he said he was going to sell in Dar (how could these have possibly been cheaper on Zanzibar I have no idea) and a teenage boy who spent half of the 4-hour crossing vomiting over the side.

    Dhow port: Stone Town

    Before getting underway I lashed my bike with bungee cords up against the wooden mast at the front of the boat. It wasn’t going to move, but within minutes of clearing Stone Town, colliding with a partially submerged small tanker on the way, it was soaked. Very soon after so was I. But what I feared to be a boat too heavily-laden actually seemed to act in her favour. She rode over the 2-3 metre waves most of the time, but we were too close to what was a choppy sea and the southerly wind was strong enough (Force 5?) to ensure this would not be a dry journey. Had the dhow been empty however we would have rolled all over the place.

    Bike onboard

    It was dangerous journey in many respects, (there were no life jackets, I didn’t know the captain’s experience, the weather could have suddenly changed) but sitting at the stern with a jovial crew eager to hear my limited Swahili as I watched them steering this age-old vessel to shore was one of those journeys you don’t forget.

    Sleeping crew

    Dhow crewman

    I almost lost a pannier on arriving at Bagamoyo. The dhow ran aground several hundred metres from shore and we would need to take a small paddle boat to reach dry land. The problem was it was dark, and moving a bicycle with 6 bags when you are alone means you either leave things out of your sight for some minutes or you hope someone nearby will aid you. Well a mzungu in such a situation is usually always aided in Africa. Once I paid the Captain 10,000tsh ($6) for the journey (a sum that hadn’t been discussed before we left Zanzibar, but I knew was close to what a passenger should pay) I was lifting bike from one boat to another and being paddled towards the shore.

    Arriving alone in unfamiliar African towns in the dark is always best avoided. As I started to re-attach panniers to the bike – having had them carried by the boat porter as we waded through the shallows to the beach, (I carried my bike) I realised one of the front panniers was missing. I turned round and the boat porter had disappeared back into the darkness. Great.

    For the next 20 minutes I stood on the beach next to the crumbling remains of Bagamoyo’s old Customs Office assessing what my losses were. The pannier was still in the small paddle boat surely, but I couldn’t just leave my bike and bags and go back in search of it.

    Old Customs House: Bagamoyo

    The passenger carrying the DVD players came to the rescue. He spoke more English than I do Swahili. Guarding his ‘Simsung’ DVD players he disappeared back into the shallows and emerged triumphant with the missing bag. Hurrah. I had made it to Bagamoyo – body, bike and bags intact. Now I just had to find a place to watch the Rugby – not so easy in this part of the World.

    Bagamoyo beach

    Waiting women

    Dhows in Bagamoyo

    Fish fryer on Bagamoyo beach