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

    South from Mwanza the tarred road heads into central Tanzania. It’s not a popular destination for visitors as there are no immediate tourist attractions such as national parks, natural wonders, or places given much attention in a guidebook. A lot of Tanzania is like this, as is Africa for that matter, particularly when you see things from a saddle.

    There is however one feature of central Tanzania that this two week tour was focused on. It’s the earth’s most significant visible feature from outer space. It’s also very visible, although perhaps less so, when flying over it between Mwanza and Dar-es-Salaam. This of course is Africa’s Great Rift Valley – the eastern branch of which cuts right through the country.

    On a clear day from a plane it’s easy to see Mount Kilimanjaro and nearby Mount Meru to the north. The pilots rarely mention this, nor do they tell passengers when the plane is flying directly over dramatic escarpments, other extinct volcanoes as well as dazzling white soda lakes.

    Africa's Rift Valley

    The two branches of Africa’s Great Rift Valley.

    Logistically the tour had one hiccup: returning to Mwanza by bicycle was going to be problematic. The Serengeti National Park and Ngorogoro Conservation area cover a vast area of northern Tanzania, but are inaccessible by bicycle. This meant that unless I cycled back the way I came, which was south of the park and clearly not desirable, the only remaining option was to continue north into Kenya before dropping back into Tanzania. Time didn’t allow for this. And so somewhat reluctantly I decided that a bus from Arusha, Tanzania’s third largest town, would provide the easiest option to return to Mwanza.

    In total I cycled just over 900km, with 150km or so on dirt tracks. I’ll let the photos and the captions tell the rest of the story.

    Ready for the road

     No front panniers required for this tour. I packed a tent but didn’t use it. Tanzania is one of the easiest countries in Africa to find affordable accommodation. That said, packing a tent is a reassuring backup. Total load for this tour about 16-17kg.

    Water hole in the dry season

    June and July are typically dry in Tanzania. This means water sources are scarce. Long journeys, particularly in rural areas, are often necessary for both people and livestock. Bicycles strapped with jerry-cans are frequently used to transport water, which is far from clean. Drinking water in Tanzania is best bought in bottles, which is fortunately widely available.

    Goat soup and chapati

    Meat soup (beef/goat/chicken) is a popular breakfast in Tanzania, served with a bowl of lemon and chilli. Chapatis are always available and make a good accompaniment.  Total cost about £0.80.

    Makongoro soup

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

    Cow hoof soup

    Makongoro are cow hooves served in a soup. A little too hearty for my liking, but evidently quite popular. I skipped the soup and stuck to chapatis and tea.

    Peter Shop

    Well I had to stop and have a drink. There are lots of small villages along major roads in Tanzania. Most don’t appear on any map, but reassuringly bottled water and fizzy drinks (usually warm) are available.

    Mr Riverpool mobile shop

    Small mobile phone booths selling calling credit are very popular in Tanzania (there are no contracts here). It was the name of the shop that caught my attention here. Tanzanians have great problems in distinguishing L and R as they sound very similar.

    Accommodation in Shinyanga

    On my second night out of Mwanza I stayed in the small town of Shinyanga. Curious to know what Heavy Tea was I decided to check-in here. The next morning I was served a boiled egg and a cup of black tea. Meat soup would have been much more preferable. Rooms in Guesthouses/lodges in most of Tanzania can be found for between £2-£10 per night.

    Leaving Shinyanga

    Baobab trees provide the most scenic aspect of the semi-arid landscape between Mwanza and Singida. Unlike other trees in Tanzania and Africa, which are most often cut down and used for firewood, Baobabs are considered sacred. They are also providers of fruit, soap, rope, oil and various medicines. Some trees are large enough to be many hundreds of years old and each one seems to have its own special character.

     The altitude ranges from 1100m-1400m above sea level in this part of Tanzania, so days can be hot and dry, but it’s never that hot. There is also none of the coastal humidity. There is however one problem: wind. I had been told that Singida and the area around it is windy all year round. As luck would have it I ended up with an awful headwind for two consecutive days.

    Uncut gemstones

    Tanzania contains a lot of gemstones, but unfortunately I know very little about them. On one afternoon in a quiet village I was shown uncut rubies and another stone. None of them looked that impressive, but there could have been a small fortune sitting in this hand.

    Ruby on the map

    Apparently the uncut rubies came from the area shown on this map of Tanzania (approx 50km west of Singida), so if you happen to be passing through and know more than me, you now know where to go.

    Heading towards Mt Hanang

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

    Looking north to Mt Hanang

    For most of the day the mountain-top was covered in clouds, but late afternoon I got a great view of this extinct volcano.

    Climbing the Malbadow escarpment

    Climbing the Malbadow escarpment with Mt Hanang behind me (an ascent from 1500-2100m) provided the best scenery of the tour. This was a detour from the main road and although the climb itself was paved, the rest of the road northwards to Karatu was on a dusty track. This photo was one of the few I took with the Nikon D90 SLR. The rest were shot with the phone’s camera – poorer quality but far easier.

    Enemy on the road

    Enemy on the road! Speeding buses are bad enough on paved roads. On dirt tracks they seem to go no slower and leave clouds of dust in their wake. Flying stones are also a hazard so it’s always best to look away as they pass by.

    High road to Karatu

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

    Tripe for breakfast!

    Food options tend to become more limited once dirt tracks replace tarmac. For breakfast one morning I was served a bowl of tripe soup. It qualifies as meat, but I wasn’t that desperate so made do with bananas and chapatis.

    Self-catering for dinner

    Although I never used the tent, it was a worthwhile decision to bring the multi-fuel stove as well as a single pot, frying pan and a coffee mug that contains its own plunger (great piece of equipment for making decent coffee). Food in Tanzania becomes monotonous quite quickly, particularly in the evening when options are limited to chips and grilled meat. With the multi-fuel stove I cooked-up pasta in my room on several evenings.

    250g of beef for £0.50

    Meat is easy to buy in Tanzania, although the hygiene of places selling it is often questionable. At least when you buy your own meat you can make sure you get the cut you want, rather than lots of bone and fat, and also make sure you cook it well before eating! This 250g of  beef (no idea which part of the cow) cost £0.50.

    Descent to Lake Manyara

    A cyclist’s favourite sign post. About to descend from 1500 metres to 1000 metres in 5-6km. The safari vehicle pictured to the right is a familiar sight on the road connecting Ngorogoro Conservation Area and Arusha. It came as quite a shock to see so many foreign faces behind the window of these vehicles.

    View over Lake Manyara

    It wasn’t the clearest of days, but the descent to Lake Manyara and the accompanying rift valley scenery was another highlight of the tour. Fortunately someone hanging around and trying to sell Masaai jewellery was kind enough to take my picture.

    Masaai encounter

    Masaai villages, or rather model masaai villages, line the road outside Lake Manyara National Park. I assume that as part of a safari package there is an option to stop off and visit one of these villages. Highly voyeuristic and unappealing if you ask me, but they seem to be popular. These young men had walked from one such village to greet me on the roadside. The tallest and oldest spoke reasonable English. ‘Lets chat on WhatsApp?’ he suggested as he spotted my smartphone before showing me his. No idea how he was charging it as these villages have no power supply.

    Giraffe on roadside

    An unexpected sight the day before arriving in Arusha. Most large animals in Africa are contained within National Parks, but National Parks have no fences. This lone Giraffe didn’t seem the least bothered by my presence a few metres away on he road as he/she munched away on some Acacia leaves.

    Serengeti from the bottle

    Tanzania has about half a dozen beers, similarly priced at around £0.80 a bottle. Hard to choose a favourite, so I switch from one to the other every few months and prefer to drink from the bottle – beer stays colder that way. After 920km it felt good to arrive in Arusha and enjoy a few cold ones – truth is I’d been enjoying them on most evenings.

    Bus station food sellers

    It took 9 days to cycle to Arusha and 12 uncomfortable hours on a speeding bus to return. I don’t travel frequently enough on such death-traps to know that the seats over the rear wheels are the worst to book (the only ones available to book the day before). Tanzanian road authorities ensure numerous speed bumps exist in every village en-route. This made the journey particularly unpleasant as the driver never slowed down sufficiently. My bicycle was directly below me, jammed miraculously into a tight space by some idiot who unsuccessfully attempted to solicit the equivalent of an extra seat fare out of me for transporting the bicycle. The passengers sat more or less in silence, until we reached the outskirts of Mwanza and they realised they were probably going to survive. I had more or less cycled the exact same way we returned, so the only point of interest was watching people run to the bus in an attempt to sell food and drink through the window whenever we entered a bus station.

    All in all I was happy to arrive unscathed, and relieved to discover that other than some scuffed handlebar tape, my bicycle was intact too. If nothing else it was a reminder that buses in Africa are the worst forms of transport. Give me a train or a boat any day, but preferably a bicycle.

  • And the winner goes to… A year in reflection December 31st, 2010

    I started the year learning to surf in Morocco and I’m finishing it drinking a lot of beer in Cameroon. Between then I’ve crossed 14 countries in Africa and cycled about 12,000km, collecting more than a few stories along the way. Here is a review of some of the highlights, lowlights and other interesting observations from my year on the road. If there is a category you’d like to add please post a comment to let me know. Happy New year.

    Most atmospheric place: Harper, Liberia. A town full of war-ravaged buildings, surrounded by beautiful palm-fringed beaches.

    North from Harper

    Country I’d most like to return to: Nigeria. Forget the bad reputation, Nigeria is the India of Africa in my opinion. Big, overpopulated, ethnically rich, full of positive energy and immensely rewarding for those adventurous enough to explore it.

    Worst day of the year: March 13th. I was mugged by 5 men in Dakar, Senegal, who slashed my left wrist and left foot with a machete as I attempted and failed to prevent them taking off with my camera and day-sack. Just in case you’re wondering – the foot slash was minor and I was back on my feet walking fine within a week. The injury to my wrist was much more serious as 4 tendons were severed and required stitching together. There remains a slight stiffness, but no real discomfort. I probably ought to have done and ought to continue doing more physiotherapy as I don’t have the same degree of flexibility in my left wrist as I do in my right, but all things considered recovery has been good. No point in adding the category – ‘Place I’d least like to return to’.

    Machete wounds

    Most popular day of traffic to this website: The day I posted an account of the above. Almost 2500 hits, which goes to show bad news travels quickly.

    Worst roads: Leaving Nigeria and entering Cameroon. Steep, full of large rocks, deep gullies and impossible to cycle on.

    Most hassle at a border: Crossing from Guinea-Sierra Leone. Immigration told me the border was closed until the country decided on its new President. I’d have been there for months if that was true. I crossed without paying the bribe.

    Most beautiful women: Senegal and Ivory Coast. Pity my French is poor.

    Least ‘African’ feeling place: Abuja, Nigeria. Clean, well-paved roads and a sterile, but relaxing oasis from the ‘real’ Africa.

    Easiest place to get a beer: Cameroon, which might also be one of the World’s easiest place to get a beer, just don’t assume it will be cold.

    Hardest place to get a beer: Mauritania, unless you’re lucky enough to be staying with ex-pats who like drinking because there is very little else to do when you live in a city like Nouakchott.

    Best place to drink a beer: Overlooking Bakau fish market in The Gambia. Dozens of boats off-loading the day’s catch, which is then sorted and sold beneath you.

    Friendliest country to spend time in: Ghana, followed or possibly matched by Sierra Leone. Kindest, most (on the whole) non-aggressive and generally sincerest people in west Africa.

    Swamped

    Country with the best beaches: Sierra Leone. Unspoilt, palm-fringed and clean white sands.

    Beach in Sulima

    Most generous donation to Against Malaria Foundation: £1450 from American International School of Nouakchott, Mauritania. A great effort for a small school.

    Best ‘African’ food: Senegal and Ivory Coast: Fresh baguettes, good grilled fish/meat and a Francophone mentality that generally dictates ‘quality’ to be more important than quantity.

    Worst ‘African’ food: Sierra Leone and Liberia. The nation seems to survive on rice and cassava leaf with a bit of fish or unidentifiable bush meat thrown in if you’re lucky.

    Lunchtime

    Best ‘on the road’ refreshment/snack: Fresh coconuts along the coast in any country.

    Biggest disappointment: Finding that the jungles of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast have mostly been destroyed.

    Most frequently asked question: Are you not afraid of wild animals?

    Most colourfully dressed people: Togo and Benin. Everyone wears bright wax-cotton cloth.

    Best sleeping place: One of many nights out in the Sahara under the stars.

    Saharan star-gazing

    Worst sleeping place: In an abandoned building in the Sahara full of dry human excrement. I was trying to hide from the wind with little success.

    Desert camp

    Biggest relief: Finding my passport two days after leaving it in a room I stayed in within The Gambia.

    Most historically interesting/moving place: Slave Castles of Ghana, particularly at Cape Coast and Elmina. Shame on my ancestors and all other European powers in Africa.

    Never again: Slave depiction, Elmina

    Most used/valued piece of kit: My trustworthy Tilley hat

    Dune-scape

    Least used piece of kit: My Solar charger. I’m rarely away from a power source for long enough to warrant using it, although it’s lightweight and packs easily so I’m holding onto it just in case.

    Solar power

    Best new piece of kit: X-mini speaker. Sound beyond size as the logo says and it fits snugly between bottle cage and my handlebar bag. Nothing like a bit of Led Zeppelin blasting out on a tough road.

    Best books read: The Poisonwood Bible: Mary Kingsolver, French Lessons in west Africa: Peter Biddlecombe and The Grass is Singing: Doris Lessing.

    Most common on-the-road thought: Do I write a book when I finish this journey? There are a few stories/characters I don’t write about here.

  • Lung-bursters and drunkards: Walking into Cameroon December 23rd, 2010

    Crossing into Cameroon proved challenging. Aside from the fact that no-one could provide an accurate approximation of travelling time or distance to the border, the road was terrible – really terrible. When unpaved roads in tropical countries aren’t graded to level out the bumps and ensure surface water runs into ditches at the side, heavy rain soon destroys them. Crevasse-deep gullies form between football-sized rocks and the way ahead ends up looking more like a dry mountain river-bed than a road. Such has been the story for much of the past week.

    Walking into Cameroon

    River-bed road

    Climbing again

    1st gear all the way

    A small river at the bottom of a steep palm-forested valley provided the demarcation between Nigeria and Cameroon. This came 40km, or a day’s journey from Gembu, where my passport had been stamped out of Nigeria. Up until this point I’d just about been able to cope with the steep gradients and bone-numbing tracks without descending from the bike and pushing. Entering Cameroon was another matter.

    Nigeria/Cameroon frontier

    It is hard to believe any vehicle other than a tank or 4×4 wishing to break its suspension and chassis would chose to take the road to Nwa, the first large settlement in Cameroon with an immigration post. The fact that I had arrived here 2 days after my passport had been stamped out of Nigeria escaped the attention of the three officers sitting on the verandah and sharing a 5-litre jerry-can of palm wine.

    “Bonjour Monsieur. Bienvenue a Cameroun.” bellowed one as he raised his gourd and took a swig. I paused to catch my breath after another lung-bursting climb and wondered if I’d now crossed into Francophone Cameroon. “Is this the French-speaking part of Cameroon” I replied. “Ah you’re an Anglophone”chirped another. “No, this is north-west Cameroon and we speak English here. This other man is from Doula”.

    Feeling the bumps

    Painful

    Before arriving in Cameroon I had been a little confused as to where the boundaries between the English and French-speaking part of Cameroon lay. What was once a German-administered colony was later divided by Britain and France following WWI, although the majority of the country is Francophone.

    The French-speaking official finished his gourd of palm-wine, poured himself another then took it along with my passport inside his office. “Donnez moi 2000CFA. It is for my boss”. I wanted to ask what it was about Francophone officials in Africa that made them so much more demanding and less polite than their Anglophone counterparts. But it would have been lost on this drunk, just as the whole thing seemed to pass over Hiromu’s head that we were each being asked to pay a $4 bribe.

    I think being Japanese in Africa helps my cycling companion, although everyone assumes he is Chinese. Not only does Hiromu fail to pick up on the nuances of many a situation, atmosphere, tone, or meaning in the voices of people talking to him, but he comes from a country, which far from having an innocent past, has no history  of  wrong-doing from  on the African continent. People regard him much more an alien oddity than me, the white-man from England.

    We retrieved our passports without opening our wallets and continued into Nwa, which was having its market-day. There was nothing remarkable on sale; the usual wooden-stall or empty raffia-mat on the ground with a spread of cooking essentials: maggi stock cubes, sugar, small red onions, tinned tomato paste, re-cycled bottles filled with palm oil. More interesting was the fact that surrounding the market square were a number of small shops filled with people drinking palm-wine. Both men and women.

    I had read somewhere that more alcohol is consumed in Cameroon than any other Africa nation. The small town of Nwa and many others I passed in the days to follow would certainly live up to this theory. I don’t mean to exaggerate, having barely been in the country a week, but it’s hard to find a sober Cameroonian; half the population appears to be continually drunk.

    Lets take Jackson for example, who called himself the living ‘Michael Jackson’ and stumbled out of a lively bar on a Sunday afternoon to wave me down. We had now left behind the lung-bursting ascents and joined the grassfields, or ‘ring-road’ area of Cameroon, which is noted for its scenery. How the Lonely Planet can describe the section of road we were on as ‘decent’ I don’t know. Perhaps the author had also travelled the same road from Nigeria to Nwa and was being ‘relative’ in his/her description. It was comparably horrendous. Not horrendous of the 20% gradient and herculean boulder-type, but horrendous in that a 6” layer of powered dust provided a cushioning over the bumps. Not so bad if there is no traffic on the road. But it only takes one vehicle, of which there is an increasing number as you head south from the town of Ndu, to raise up a thick cloud of red-brown particles, which then slowly descend to fill and cover every surface around. The tea-plantations and slopes of eucalyptus trees would look a whole lot more scenic if they weren’t covered in this film of red-dust. And a touring cyclist could much more appreciate his mountainous surroundings if he weren’t blinking, rubbing his eyes and spitting out mouthfuls of the stuff every time a vehicle went past.

    Eating the dust

    “What you are seeing is a reflection of the roads in your country” is what I told Jackson, who  was laughing at my appearance and as merry as one could be before losing his legs. Why I was asking this drunkard for a safe place to sleep I’m not sure. A minute after propping up the bike at the top of yet another climb and waiting for slow-coach Hiromu, whose speed by 4pm in the day drops below walking-pace, I was entering a dark-filled room thick with the heady sweet smell of palm-wine. A fat woman was standing behind a table, on which an assortment of different sized bottles waited to be filled from a huge plastic jerry-can. “Try our delicious wine” shouted Jackson as he rocked back and forth from across the bar. So I did. And it was good. Fresh tasting and sweet. “How much to fill this 1-litre bottle?” I asked, returning with the spare from my front-rack. “One hundred francs” replied the fat woman. At £0.15 that’s about as cheap as alcohol gets I thought.

    When Hiromu showed up I’d already arranged to pitch our tents on the school grounds, which Jackson miraculously  managed to walk us to, before bidding us a good night and no doubt returning for more palm-wine.

    Travelling alongside someone who doesn’t enjoy a drink at the end of the day is a bit tiring at times. Hiromu belongs to that Japanese/Asian contingent whose face turns a worrying shade of purple after a few sips of alcohol on account of not being able to digest the stuff. Any excuse. I’m not sure alcohol would fit into Hiromu’s budget even if he were occasionally to imbibe anyhow. I thought I was a budget-traveller until I started cycling with Hiromu, who if he returns to Japan and takes back off on his bike, as I did from England, may realise that life is too short to bargain everything down to the lowest denomination of local currency.

    On another evening we met a chap called Felix. He introduced himself as an environmental officer, was dressed in shirt and trousers and had that professional look and manner of speaking that led me to believe he was a man who might help us. The sun was setting again through the harmattan haze and we wanted permission from an authority to camp next to the school or some other such open and neutral place.

    No, that is not permissible. It is not in our custom to allow a foreigner to do that. You will sleep in a room” ,said Felix in a tone of sincerity and authority. It wasn’t until we had sat down in a nearby bar and he ordered me a beer and Hiromu a coke that I realised Felix was drunk. I was annoyed with myself and apologised to Hiromu, who like me was also thinking of his stomache, where he could wash the film of dust from his body and lay his head to rest. Felix had done a good job of hiding his drunkenness through an ability to speak fluently and articulately. “Why do Cameroonians drink so much”? I asked. “Because we are suffering”. Fare enough I thought. Same reason many people drink the World over.

    Felix really had no idea where we would sleep. He was fifty years old and lived by himself in a shoe-box sized room. We found the school a few hours later and slept peacefully, returning into the village for breakfast the following morning (fufu and huckleberry leaf, which is much like spinach) to be joined by Felix. It was 8am and he was taking a 650ml bottle of Guinness, suggesting we join him as there was a big hill ahead and it would provide us with energy. We left him as he started his second bottle and the chop-shop started to fill with other regulars taking their morning beer.

    Followers

    A sign across the road saying ‘end of tarmac’, which to us read ‘start of tarmac’ as we were travelling the other way, came as a huge relief later in the day. Our clothes, bags and bikes were now caked in dust and I was looking forward to doing more than the 40-50km per day we’d been struggling to make since leaving Gembu. But the Cameroonian Ministry of road construction or whatever has an interesting approach to tarring the country’s roads. It does so in patches, so just as one gets used to rolling smoothly without the  bumps and dust the tarmac disappears again, returns several kilometres later then stops again. And so on.  One might call it a drunkards approach to road construction. I can just imagine the tarmac-crew finishing a stretch, then stopping for lunch and needing to drive 10km to the next town selling beer or palm wine, from which they will continue tarring in the afternoon, or much more likely the next day, week or month.

    Having slept in our tents every night since leaving Gembu we took a room in a Palace one evening. It is the first time I have ever slept in a Palace. This one belonged to the Lamido of Sagba, a Lamido being the name given to a Muslim chief in Cameroon. His Christian counterparts are called Fons. Being a Muslim it was a relief to speak with someone sober for once. One of his ‘errand-boys’ had found us in the village and suggested we could ask the Lamido to sleep in his Palace. To sleep in a Palace. Now who can say they have done that?

    The Lamido – ‘Elhadji Maouda:N.W.P Holder of night’, as his business card on which a picture of him sitting on a throne looking like Santa Claus with a white shawl round his neck and face read, showed us to our room. A healthy-looking horse lay grazing outside on a grass slope and I wondered as the Lamido opened the door to the room if I were looking in on its stable. But the ceiling would have been too low. On tip-toes my head touched the dusty wooden timbers. “Um…It’s perfect” I said as the errand boy Suleiman did a fine job of raising the inch-thick layer of dust from the floor by attempting to sweep it out with a palm-frond brush.

    The following day, yesterday, we climbed again then descended towards the town of Bamenda, where I write this from now. Hiromu took off on his bike this morning headed for Yaounde. It is some 450-500km away. I suggested he take a rest day like me, having travelled continuously for the last 14 days, but he has a package to collect that is being re-sent from Japan (it arrived in Yaounde a few weeks ago and was sent back). I too need to go to Yaounde for onward visa applications and a school talk I had originally thought I’d give before the close of term. Both can wait for the New Year – I’m off to enjoy my last taste of Anglophone Africa in west Africa on the coast at Limbe. I won’t make it for Christmas Day, but I doubt it will be hard to find someone to share a drink with along the way. Happy Christmas to you all.

    Towards Cameroon